The Doctor Will See Your Novel Now

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

My doctor is a sharp young guy. He seems impressed that I’m a writer of fiction doctor-1299996_1280who manages to make a living that way. He once wistfully mentioned he would like one day to write a book.

I told him he should do it. Then I asked him if one day I could take out a gallbladder. He said, “Probably not.”

I guess the barriers to entry into the medical profession are a bit higher than it is for would-be scribes. Too bad. Just once I’d like to say to a surgical assistant, “Scalpel … Sponge … Junior Mint.”

In any event, I go in yearly to get checked, even if I feel in the pink. I talk to the doc, get my blood drawn, then wait for the reports. Every now and then he makes a suggestion and I try to follow it, unless it involves red meat.

Your novel needs a checkup, too. I like to schedule mine at around the 20k word mark. I’m not so far in that I can’t do some remedial work if necessary. There are some tests I like to run. Let me commend them to you.

Blood Test

Is your story’s lifeblood healthy? Here’s how you can tell: Your Lead is facing an issue of life and death –– physical, professional, or psychological. That raises the stakes to the highest level. That keeps the blood flowing and the reader reading. Even if you’re writing a comic novel, the characters have to believe the central question is of the utmost importance.

Heart Rate

Are you connected emotionally to the story? I don’t mean you have to end up like Joan Wilder finishing her book at the start of Romancing the Stone (for more on that, see Rob’s post from last Wednesday and especially P. J.’s comment.)

What it does mean is that you must have some connection to the characters that makes you, the author, care about what happens to them. If you haven’t got that, find it before you move on. Feel something before you write anything.

Character Endoscopy

Those little endoscopes (“viewing tubes”) enter your body via … through a … just take my word for it, in they go, to get a picture of what’s inside you.

You need something going on inside each main character, too, under the surface. We usually refer to this as motivation. Often that’s enough, but I like to know what’s behind it, what created it.

I don’t do extensive character biographies. Those never quite worked for me. But I do want to know a few key things, including a “wound” from a past trauma that haunts the character in the present (sometimes we call this “the ghost.”)

Joint Pain

Are your scenes working? They are the connections, the things that hold your story together. Having a dull scene is like having a knee go out on you. Everything stops. You can’t move forward.

Pain, the doc will tell you, is a good thing when it tells you Hey! You gotta take care of this, buddy!

And that’s what dull scenes are telling you.

Now, it’s true that you sometimes are too close to your story to know what’s dull. Often, it’s not until someone else looks at your manuscript that the pain is revealed to you.

I think it’s best if you know what to look for and fix it yourself, and soon.

First, do you have a feeling that a scene you wrote isn’t quite right? Go there and ask:

Do the characters in this scene have conflict, even if it’s subtle, with one another?

  • Is there anything surprising in the scene? Unexpected?
  • If the character is alone, is there some form of fear inside him? (From simple worry to outright terror?)
  • Does the scene drag on too long?

Second, if the scene still doesn’t work treat it like a tumor and cut it out.

Hearing Check

How does your dialogue sound?

If the characters sound too much alike, no good. Each character deserves a distinct voice.

If your dialogue is always in complete sentences, you’re missing the power of compression.

If your dialogue attributions (said, asked) are being propped up by adverbs (he said haltingly; she asked imploringly) you’re diluting, not adding to the emotion of the scene.

(I will modestly hype my book, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, because I believe dialogue is the fastest way to improve a manuscript.)

Eye Exam

Do your descriptions paint a vivid picture that pulls a reader into the story world? We are a visual culture, so you need to think and write cinematically. Like this:

The sun that brief December day shone weakly through the west-facing window of Garrett Kingsley’s office. It made a thin yellow oblong splash on his Persian carpet and gave up. (Robert B. Parker, Pale Kings and Princes)

Sol Stein counsels, “Have something visual on every page.” We’re weaving a dream, after all, and dreams are movies in the mind.

So what about you? Is your manuscript in pain? Where does it hurt? The medical staff of TKZ is here to help!

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Tricks & Tips for Catching All Those Little Typos in Your Own Work

handy, clickable e-resource

by Jodie Renner, fiction editor & author of writing guides

Whether you’re writing a blog post, a magazine article, a short story, an assignment, or a book, it’s important to go over your work several times to make sure it’s polished and flows well. No matter what your you’re writing, you’re your credibility will be eroded if readers find mispelled misspelled words, misused words, missing or extra words, or other typos. And  a recent study published in Huffington Post points to a close correlation between accuracy of writing and income from writing — a no-brainer.

I’ve presented workshops and written several articles (here’s a good one) on tips for approaching the whole editing and revising process, starting with macro issues like logistics, characterisation, plot, and pacing, and working your way through awkward phrasing and wordiness down to micro errors like spelling and punctuation. In fact, I’ll be presenting a workshop called “Revise for Success,” a step-by-step approach to revising your novel, at Steven James’ writers conference, Troubleshooting Your Novel, in Nashville on January 17.

For a whole book on how to nail this critical process to create a novel that shines, check out James Scott Bell’s excellent Revision & Self-Editing for Publication. Writers also find my Fire up Your Fiction very helpful.

For today, my topic is on that final step, after you’ve resolved all big-picture content problems and even most style issues, such as slow pacing, awkward sentence structure, or overly wordy phrasing. My tips today are on the final “proofreading” step, how to ferret out those tiny little gremlins that escape your notice when you’re concentrating on content and even style issues.

When we read our own work, we’re so familiar with what we want to say that we fill in words that aren’t actually on the page, and skip over slightly misspelled words that still pass spellcheck, or little words that shouldn’t be there. Of course, getting detail-oriented, eagle-eyed nerdy friends who are great at spelling to read it carefully is a great option, if you know of some. If not, or in addition to that, I’m providing some tips for fooling your brain into thinking it hasn’t read this story before.

As someone trained to see errors, I find them everywhere – on signs and menus, in blog posts and articles, on website copy, and in published books. As an example, here’s the description of a workshop that appeared on a conference website a while back, which I’ve shortened and disguised a bit. Can you spot the 9-10 errors in this description? (Just for fun, I’ve added a few more errors.)

Copy with little typos: One of the most important ways to connect with your audience an attract new readers is through author interviews and public readings. How can you master the the confidence and skills to successfully preform in front of an audience? There are a few time tested trick to perform you work well for an audience. This workshop will discuss techniques for speaking in pubic and will also cover using social media sites lie YouTube to to host audio versions of your work.

 Errors fixed in blue: One of the most important ways to connect with your audience and attract new readers is through author interviews and public readings. How can you master the confidence and skills to successfully perform in front of an audience? There are a few timetested tricks for performing your work well for an audience. This workshop will discuss techniques for speaking in public and will also cover using social media sites like YouTube to host audio versions of your work.

And I just happen to be judging short stories in the thriller genre for Writer’s Digest’s Popular Fiction 2014 contest, where I was given 147 short stories and asked to choose only 10 of those to go on to the next level. Since I have to reject 137 of these stories, I have to be pretty ruthless, and any that aren’t polished won’t make the cut. Typos or spelling errors on the first page are an automatic no. As are long boring descriptions, a confusing opening, cardboard characters, lack of tension or intrigue, tedious repetitions, and switches in verb tense.

Here are some tips for fooling your brain into thinking your story is something new, something you need to read critically and revise ruthlessly before it reaches the demanding eyes of a literary agent, acquiring editor, contest judge, or picky reviewer.

1. Set it aside for a while. First, if you can, put your article, blog post, or short story away for a day or two before revising and editing it, and your book manuscript away for a few weeks or even a month, if possible, so you can come back to it with fresh eyes and a bit of emotional distance. If you’re on a tight deadline, start at #2.

2. Start with Word’s spell-check and check those squiggly red and blue lines under words. Don’t rely on Spellcheck, though, as it misses a lot (like the well-known gaffe above, “pubic” for “public”), and often suggests changes that make something correct incorrect. For example, in the Agent Dallas thriller manuscript I’m editing for L.J. Sellers, The Trap, MS Word suggests that “I like your thinking” (as in “I like how you think”) should be “I like you’re thinking.” And it often suggests the wrong its/it’s, and misses all kinds of typos in manuscripts I edit, like “crowed” for “crowded,” “father” for “farther,” “county” for “country,” and “manger” or “manager.” So definitely don’t trust spell-check blindly.

3. Use my two quick, clickable e-resources to verify spelling and word choices: QUICK CLICKS: SPELLING LIST – Commonly Misspelled Words at Your Fingertips, and QUICK CLICKS: WORD USAGE – Precise Word Choices at Your Fingertips. Click on the titles to check them out. These handy resources will save you tons of time looking up words in the dictionary, and every word is verified as correct.

4. Do a search (“Find”) for words you know how to spell but tend to spell wrong when you’re in a hurry, especially ones spell-check won’t flag, like “you” for “your,” or “your” for “you’re,” “there” for “they’re” or “their,” etc.

Then choose some of the following strategies, which are also excellent for picking up on clunky sentences and awkward phrasing. 

~ Increase the size of the type to 150% or 160%, by clicking on the + sign at the bottom right of the document.

~ Change the font to one that looks quite different to fool your eyes and brain into thinking this is new material you’ve never read (or thought of) before, so you need to pay close attention.

Try Comic Sansor Franklin Gothic Book or Book Antiqua.

~ Format it to book size, like 6″ x 9″, change the font to something nice, like Georgiaor Cambria, change it to single-spaced,  format it to two-column landscape, so it looks like an open book, then print it up and read it in a different location, somewhere you don’t write, preferably out of your home.

~ Send it to your Kindle or other e-reader and read it in a different location, preferably not at home.

~ In a print version, place a ruler or piece of paper under the line you’re reading to keep from skipping ahead. Or keep your finger under each word as you read.

~ Read it out loud. Wherever you stumble, your readers will, too. This will also help with punctuation. If you pause briefly, put in a comma. If you pause for longer, put in a period. (Best to avoid or minimize semicolons in fiction, and keep them right out of casual dialogue. And reserve exclamation marks for when someone is screaming or yelling, shocked, or in pain.)

~ Read the whole thing backwards or upside down (!). I’ve heard these suggestions, but haven’t actually done this myself, and probably won’t.

~ Get your computer to read it aloud to you, while you follow along. Newer versions of Word offer this, and Macs do, too. In Word 2010, for example, here’s how you enable text-to-speech: First, add “Speak” to the Quick Access Toolbar. Along the very top above “File,” the line that starts with W for word, at the far right is a down arrow. Click that. It will say “Customize Quick Access Toolbar.” Click “More Commands.” In the “Choose Commands” from the list, select “All Commands.” Scroll down to the “Speak” command, select it, and then click “Add.” Click “OK.” When you want to use the text-to-speech command, you’ll use the icon on the Quick Access Toolbar, which looks like a speech bubble on a cartoon. To hear some text read aloud, highlight the paragraph or chapter you want to hear aloud, then click the Speak icon on the toolbar.

Follow along the text while listening to the text being read aloud. Stop it whenever you need to add or delete a word, or fix awkward phrasing.

~ If you’re self-publishing, get a sample book printed by CreateSpace (or IngramSpark) and read it somewhere else in your home, in a room where you don’t work, or better yet, away from your home, like in a coffee shop, a park, or the beach. I read one of mine in book form, pen in hand, on vacation in Puerto Vallarta, while stretched out in a chaise longue under one of those grass huts, and I caught all kinds of repetitions, sentences that didn’t flow as well as they could, were too wordy, or generally needed polishing, etc., as well as the odd typo.

You could also try Perfectit software, which I just recently heard about and haven’t tried, since I don’t feel I need it. Here’s their website: http://www.intelligentediting.com/standardversion.aspx. It’s not free.

Writers – do you have any other strategies to add for catching all those little typos lurking in your manuscript? Let us know what works for you in the comments below.

Besides publishing numerous blog posts, her popular Editor’s Guides to Writing Compelling Fiction, the award-winning Fire up Your Fiction and Writing a Killer Thriller and the upcoming Captivate Your Readers, as well as her handy, clickable e-resources, Quick Clicks: Word Usage and Quick Clicks: Spelling List, Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor. Find Jodie on Facebookand Twitter, and sign up for her occasional newsletter here. Author website: JodieRenner.com.
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Gerunds Be Gone

Nancy J. Cohen

What’s wrong with this sentence: “Shutting off the ignition, she threw her keys into her purse and emerged into the bright sunshine.”

How can you throw your keys into a purse when you are using them to shut off the ignition?

This type of “ing” phrase is called a gerund. I never knew what it was until a critique partner pointed out that I was using them liberally. And I hate to say it, but this was several years into my published works. Even now, I’m not sure this is the correct grammatical term.

I learned my lesson, and as I’m now going through my backlist mystery titles making updates and tightening sentence structure, I am finding more phrasing like the one above.

Beware these illogical phrases in your own work. Here are some examples:

NO: Flinging the door wide, she stepped inside the darkened interior.
YES: She flung the door wide and stepped inside the darkened interior.

NO: Taking a sip of orange juice, she put her glass down and opened the newspaper.
YES: After taking a sip of orange juice, she put her glass down and opened the newspaper.

NO: Racing down the street, she came to a halt when the light turned red.
YES: She raced down the street, coming to a halt when the light turned red.

NO: Shaking the lady’s hand, she stepped back to admire her cobalt dress.
YES: After exchanging a handshake, she stepped back to admire the other woman’s cobalt dress.

It’s okay to use an “ing” phrase in thoughts. For example, you can say, “Wishing she could change the events of the past few hours, she sped down the road.

What is your grammatical Achilles Heel?

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Avoiding Info Dumps

Nancy J. Cohen

An info dump is when you drop a significant amount of information on the hapless reader. This can take various forms. As my editor’s recent comments indicate, even I am not immune to this fault. So what different formats might this problem take? Check these out:

Overzealous Research

You love your research, and you can’t help sharing it with readers. Here are two examples from my current WIP. The first paragraph is the original. The second one is the revised version.

Example One:

“The company built houses and rented them to the miners and their families. Single men would have shared a place together, eight to twelve of them in one dwelling. The homes were shotgun style. You could see in through the front door straight back to the rear. Since the miners worked twelve hour shifts, they weren’t all home at the same time. The rent was taken out of their paychecks.”


“The company built houses and rented them to the miners and their families. Single men often shared a place together. Since they worked twelve hour shifts, they weren’t all home at the same time.”

P1020994  P1030005

Example Two:

“The Colorado River Compact of 1922 divided the waters of the Colorado River between seven states and Mexico. Getting it to the farther regions of our state proved difficult. Thus was born the Central Arizona Project Canal, or CAP as we call it. This required pipelines and tunnels to move the water. That can be costly, which is why our cities obtain most of their water supply from underground aquifers. Groundwater is our cheapest and most available resource.”


“The Colorado River Compact of 1922 divided the resource between several states. The Central Arizona Project Canal, or CAP as we call it, uses pipelines to move the water to the far reaches of our state. That can be costly, which is why many of our cities obtain their water supply from underground aquifers. Groundwater is our cheapest and most available resource.”

P1020905 (600x800)

Laundry List

Any kind of list runs the risk of being tedious. Here’s a litany of symptoms you might get after being bitten by a rattlesnake:


“You’d have intense burning pain at the site followed by swelling, discoloration of the skin, and hemorrhage. Your blood pressure would drop, accompanied by an increased heart rate as well as nausea and vomiting.”

As this passage wasn’t necessary to my plot, I took it out. Be wary of any list that goes on too long. Here’s another example:

He counted on his fingers all the things he’d have to do: get a haircut, buy a new dress shirt, make a reservation, call for the limo and be sure to stop by a flower shop on the way to Angie’s house.

Do we really need to know all this, or could we say, He ran down his mental to-do list and glanced at his watch with a wince. Could he accomplish everything in one hour flat?

Dialogue

Here’s a snatch of conversation between my sleuth, Marla the hairdresser, and her husband, Detective Dalton Vail:

“I’m going to talk to our next-door neighbor, who happens to be the Homeowners’ Association president,” Dalton told her. “Wait here with Brianna. Since my daughter is a teenager, she won’t understand the argument you and I had yesterday with the guy.”

“Yes, isn’t it something how he made a racist remark?” Marla replied.

“I thought it was kind of Cherry, the association treasurer, to defend you.”

This dialogue could have come from Hanging by a Hair, my latest Bad Hair Day mystery. But why would I have Marla and Dalton talking about something they both already know? This is a fault of new writers who want to get information across. It’s not the way to go, folks. Show, don’t tell. In other words, show us the scene and let it unfold in front of us. Don’t have two characters hack it to death later when they both know what happened. Now if one of these participants were to tell a friend what went down, that would be acceptable.

HangingbyaHair

No doubt you’ve run across info dumps in your readings. Can you think of any examples or other forms this problem might take?

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12 Essential Steps from Story Idea to Publish-Ready Novel

 Jodie Renner, editor & author @JodieRennerEd

If you want your novel, novella, or short story to intrigue readers and garner great reviews, use these 12 steps to guide you along at each phase of the process:

1. Brainstorm possibilities – or just start writing. Make a story map/diagram to decide who (protagonist, antagonist, supporting characters), what (main problem), where (physical setting), and when (past, present future, season). Or just start writing and see where it takes you — but be warned that this “pantser” method (writing by the seat of your pants) will require more editing, cutting, rearranging, revising, (and probably swearing, hair-pulling, and rewriting) later.

2. Write with wild abandon while your muse is flowing. Don’t stop to edit or rethink or revise anything. Just write, write, write! Don’t show it to anyone and don’t ask for advice. Just try to write uncensored until you get all or most of the first draft of your story down. If you get blocked or discouraged, put your writing aside for a bit and go to step 3.

3. Run out of steam? Take a break and hone your skills. Read some highly regarded, reader-friendly craft-of-writing books. Here’s a list of recommended resources for fiction writers. And maybe attend a few writing workshops or conferences (here’s a list of writers conferences in 2015), or join a critique group. Also, read blog posts on effective writing techniques. Check out our resource library here at The Kill Zone (down the right sidebar), as well as blogs like Writer Unboxed, Janice Hardy’s Fiction University (formerly The Other Side of the Story),  K. M. Weiland’s Helping Writers Become Authors, Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi’s Writers Helping Writers (formerly The Bookshelf Muse),  Elizabeth Craig’s Mystery Writing is Murder,  Joanna Penn’s The Creative Penn, John Yeoman’s The Wicked Writing Blog, and more. (Add your own suggestions in the comments below this post.)

Captivate_full_w_decal4. First revision. Go back to your story and look for possible ways to strengthen your characterization, plot, pacing, point of view, and narration, based on your reading of the various techniques that make up a bestselling novel today. Also, check for continuity, logistics, and time sequencing. Does your basic premise make sense? If the problem/dilemma your whole novel is based on is easily solved, you’ve got work to do! Go through the whole story and revise as you go. Always save the original copies, in case you want to go back and incorporate paragraphs or scenes from them.

5. Distance yourself. Put your story aside for a few weeks and concentrate on other things. Then you’ll have the distance to approach it with fresh eyes, as a reader.

6. Now go through it as a reader. Change the font and print it up. Or send it to your e-reader or tablet. Then be sure to read it in a different location from where you wrote it. With pen in hand, mark it all up.

7. Second revision. Now go back and make the changes you noted while reading.

8. Send it to beta readers, 3-6 volunteers — savvy, avid readers who enjoy your genre. Give them specific questions, like: Were you able to warm up with and start bonding with the main character early on? If not, why not? Do you think the writing style suits the genre? If not, why not? Are there areas where you were confused? What specifically confused you? Are there areas or details that didn’t make sense to you? Why not? Are there any points where your attention lagged, where you felt like putting the book down or skipping ahead?  Check out my list of 15 questions for your beta readers – and to focus your own revisions.

9. Third revision. Read through the feedback from your beta readers and strongly consider revising any parts that confused or bored them. Any areas of confusion or other issues mentioned by two or more of your readers should be red flags for you. Revise based on their suggestions.

10. Professional Edit. Now seek out a reputable freelance fiction editor who reads and edits your genre. Be sure to check over their website very carefully and contact some of the people listed as clients or under reviews or testimonials. And get a sample edit of at least 5 pages of your story – not someone else’s.

11. Final revisions based on the edit. Read your story out loud or use text-to-speech software to have it read aloud to you. This will help you pick up on any awkward phrasing or anywhere that the flow is less than smooth. If you bumble over a sentence or have to read it again, revise it for easier flow. (Do this at any stage of your story.)

Also, either before the professional edit or after, try changing the double-spacing to single-spacing and the size to 6” x 9” (e-reader size) and sending your story to your Kindle or other e-reader. Then read it on there, as a reader rather than a writer, but with a notebook beside you. See what jumps out at you that should be changed.

12. Get a final proofread of it, if you can afford this step, or perhaps you’ve made arrangements for your copyeditor to do another, final pass to go over your revisions, looking for any new errors that may have cropped up as a result of the revisions. (I edit in sections, and each section goes back and forth with the author at least 2 or 3 times.)

Now your story should be ready to send to agents and acquiring editors or to publish yourself. Good luck with it! Hope it enthralls readers and takes off running!

Do you have any essential steps to add or emphasize? What about more great blogs to help writers hone their skills? We always value your input!

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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An Editor’s List of Novel Shortcomings

@jamesscottbell


One of the great bon-mots of popular cultural history occurred during the 1974 Academy Awards ceremony. David Niven was at the podium when a “streaker” (an inexplicable fad at the time was someone getting completely naked and running through a public forum) jogged across the stage.
The unflappable Niven calmly waited for the laughter to die down, and then remarked in his impeccable English accent, “Isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings.”
Thankfully, the streaking fad is kaput. But there are other places where shortcomings are wont to appear.
Some time ago veteran editor Alan Rinzler posted on Writer Unboxed about “issues” writers today are facing. While the post itself was solid, I was more intrigued by one of his comments. Rinzler was asked a question in the combox by none other than super agent Donald Maass. Don wanted to know what the #1 shortcoming Rinzler, as a developmental editor, saw in manuscripts. Rinzler’s answer was:

I see disorganized stories of excessive complexity… intrusive narrative voices that come between the reader and the story by inserting ongoing commentary, explanation, and interpretation…a failure to research and do the homework necessary to come up with something truly original and not reinvent the wheel… two-dimensional stereotype characterization…dialogue that all sounds like the same person.

I like this list. Let’s take a look at each item:

1. Disorganized stories of excessive complexity
I once picked up a bit of screenwriting wisdom that applies here. The best movies (and novels) consist of simple plots about complex characters. That is, while the plot may contain mystery and twists (and should), it is, at its core, a basic story with understandable motives. The real meat and originality comes from putting truly complex characters into those stories. The secret to originality can be found in the limitless interior landscape of human beings.
2. Intrusive narrative voices
Learning how to handle exposition, especially when to leave it out entirely, is one of the most important and early craft challenges. So get to it. Revision & Self-Editing for Publication has a whole section on this, but here’s one tip: place exposition seamlessly into confrontational dialogue. Instead of: Frank never wanted to have a baby. Not until he was a success as a writer. But Marilyn thought his quest was foolish. After all, it had been five years since he left his job at AIG. Marilyn dearly wanted him to try to get his job back.
“You never wanted a baby, Frank.”
“Shut up about that.”
“All because of your stupid writing obsession!”
“I’m not obsessed!”
“Oh really? What do you call five years of typing and no money to show for it?”
“Practice!”
“Well, practice time is over. Tomorrow you’re going to beg AIG to take you back.”
3. A failure to research  . . . to come up with something truly original
Rinzler is talking about the concept stage here, which is foundational. Hard work on fresh concepts will pay off. And remember, freshness isn’t just a matter of something “unfamiliar.” All plot situations have been done. It’s how you dress them up and freshen them that makes the difference. Remember Die Hard? After it became a hit, we had Die Hard on a ship (Under Siege) and on a mountain (Cliffhanger)and so on. Take a standard rom-com about a writer struggling with writer’s block and set it in Elizabethan England and you get Shakespeare in Love. Heck, take an old dystopian cult plot like Deathrace 2000 and put it among kids and bingo, you’ve got The Hunger Games. 
4. Two-dimensional characters
We all know that flat characters are a drag on an otherwise nice plot idea. Such a waste! As Lajos Egri put it in his classic, Creative Writing: “Living, vibrating human beings are still the secret and magic formula of great and enduring writing.”
My favorite book on characterization is Dynamic Characters by my former colleague at Writer’s Digest, Nancy Kress.
5. Dialogue that all sounds like the same person
Ah! One of my sweet spots. In my workshops I always say the fastest way to improve a manuscript is via dialogue. It’s also the fastest way to get an agent or editor to reject you, or readers to give you a yawn. When they see good, crisp dialogue, differentiated via character, it pops. It gives them confidence they’re dealing with someone who knows the craft.
The place to start, then, is by making sure every character in your cast is unique. I use a “voice journal” for each, a free-form document of the character just yakking at me, until I truly “hear” them in a singular fashion.
So there you have it. Five vital areas where shortcomings might be a problem. The streaking guy at the Oscars couldn’t do anything about his own vital area, but you as a writer can.

Anything you’d like to add to the list?
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Indie Authors – Should You Revise & Republish Some of Your Earlier Books?

Jodie_June 26, '14_7371_low res_centredBy Jodie Renner, editor & author  @JodieRennerEd

I  often get contacted for editing by authors who have previously published a few novels, either on their own or through a small publisher with limited resources for editing. Their earlier works, while promising, were prematurely released and sales are slow, with few or mostly negative reviews.

These authors were often unaware at the time of any weaknesses in their books and just wanted to get them out there, perhaps on time for Christmas sales or for some other self-imposed time deadline. Many of these early works really needed an edit on some level: a major developmental edit for help with premise, plot, & structure; a content edit to address plot holes, inconsistencies, character motivations, point of view, etc.; a stylistic edit to address slow pacing, convoluted phrasing, too many author intrusions (backstory, info dumps, too much neutral description, telling instead of showing); or just a good clean-up of grammar and flow.

If those authors are serious about building a career as a respected novelist, leaving those books out there in the shape they’re in will only harm their reputation. And if they’re just out as eBooks on Amazon, it’s pretty easy to take them down and upload a revised, more polished version. I’ve done it several times with both of my books – quick and painless, really. Amazon doesn’t seem to care how many times I revise and re-upload the same title – I love the freedom! If you know basic formatting (here’s a how-to article on formatting your manuscript), you can make the changes pretty quickly and get the e-book back up.

Here’s an example of an email, typical of many I’ve received:

“Jodie, I have now read both of your books and your articles on point of view. Fantastic material. All of your comments and recommendations now make sense. With that foundation, I realize what an amateur job my first novel was. Maybe someday we can revisit and do major surgery or a lobotomy on [title of book].”

James Scott Bell has spoken here on TKZ about the need for “a long tail” – a backlist of other attractive titles by you that readers can choose from if they happen on one of your books for the first time and enjoy it. That’s the way to keep the royalties rolling in over the long term.

But of course this means all your titles need to be strong, of high quality. What if your earlier books are nowhere near the quality of recent ones? What if your worst, most amateurish production is the first one of your books someone reads? Do you think they’ll look for any more by you? Worse, they could write a nasty review saying they won’t waste their time with any more of your books. So you could also think of the “long tail” as a chain connecting readers to you. You don’t want any weak links to break that chain!

I’ve confidentially advised some authors, either my clients or not, to get one or more of their backlist titles cleaned up. Some agree and are grateful for the feedback, and others don’t seem to care, or even respond negatively. I don’t get that. If they’re getting bad reviews on Amazon for an early work and a professional editor suggests it would be a good idea to get it edited, why would they leave it up as it is? (And I’m not soliciting editing work here – I get way more requests for editing than I can handle.)

Some indie authors tell me they can’t afford to get their early books edited. I say you can’t afford not to, as those books are or could start dragging your reputation down and significantly reduce potential income. At the very least, If you’ve already (or since then) honed your fiction-writing skills by reading some great craft-of-writing books and/or attending writers’ workshops, here are three resources I recommend specifically for tips on revising fiction: James Scott Bell’s excellent Revision & Self-Editing, Elizabeth Lyon’s Manuscript Makeover, Jessica Page Morrell’s Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us, and my Style That Sizzles & Pacing for Power. All have very useful, concrete tips, with examples, for taking your fiction up a level or two and making your story more compelling. And if you’re struggling with making your first page zing, check out some of the great first-page critiques here on TKZ (links on side column). Then, after you’ve used the advice to revise your early book(s) yourself, be sure to follow it up with a low-cost or free final proofread for typos, grammar, and punctuation.

If the process of going back and revising a whole book feels overwhelming, here’s a great step-by-step plan of action for revision and self-editing. If you don’t have the time or inclination to do that right now, consider pulling any prematurely published early books out of circulation and resubmitting them later when you’ve had time to get them cleaned up or do it yourself. Don’t leave amateurish books out there where they can start collecting critical reviews and tarnish your name as a talented author. Or, if your muse just took a vacation on your WIP, take a break and use the time to revise an earlier novel.

Here’s what A.D. Starrling said in a recent comment (Oct. 22) here on TKZ:

“I have done a revised edition of Book 1 while simultaneously writing Book 3 (I know, one should really STOP rewriting once the darn thing is published, but the feedback for Book 2 was so good, I just had to bring Book 1 up to that level!).”

So my advice, as a freelance professional in the business of helping authors turn good stories into stellar ones that garner great reviews, is to take the time to make sure that at least the weakest links in the chain of your backlist are brought up to your current standards. Of course, I’m mainly talking about eBooks and self-published books here, which are so much easier to revise and republish.

Writers – what do you think? What if one of your early titles received a bunch of negative reviews on Amazon? Would you consider taking it down and revising it, then getting it edited by a professional, then republishing? Then you could always consider changing the title so you can lose the old, negative reviews.

What do the rest of you think of this?

See James Scott Bell’s excellent related post here on TKZ yesterday: Facing Down the Harsh Realities of Publishing.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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When is “Dark” too dark?

Nancy J. Cohen

One of the words I’ve been repeating in my works lately has been “dark”. You know, the man swung his dark gaze her way. He wore a dark suit. He had his dark hair brushed back over a wide forehead. Shadows darkened in a corner as he gave her a dark scowl.

Ouch.

This can be considered lazy writing, except I hadn’t even been aware of this fault until I ran one of the self-edit programs described in my personal blog at http://bit.ly/12iU9nZ. I embarked on a search and find mission to replace as many of these weak terms as possible.

Let’s start with clothes. Face it, men wear dark suits. To get a better idea of colors, I accessed this website: http://lawyerist.com/suit-colors-for-the-clueless/. Ah, now it became clear which colors are popular for men and suited to business. My descriptions of dark suits changed to black, charcoal, slate or navy. That’s a lot better than “dark”, isn’t it?

charcoal blazer

If you want to get even more particular, go online to a department store site like Macys.com and put in the search feature “suits, “blazers”, or “sportcoats” and you’ll get a wide variety of colors.

navy blazer

What about the character who has dark hair? Is it black or dark brown? Check this reference:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_hair_color. Instead of black hair, give your character raven, ebony, or onyx hair. Varying the descriptions adds spice to your story.

Jen4

Also watch out for redundancies like dark shadows & dark scowl. Both of these work well without the “dark” element.

Despite its ambiguity, this word is popular for movies. Witness Batman’s The Dark Knight; Thor: The Dark World; and Star Trek into Darkness.

The filmmakers can get away with it, but as a writer, you cannot. What other ambiguous words like this might you want to change?

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