Writing Into The Dark

Okay. I expect some typer’s tension from this touchy topic. Plotters gonna hate. Pansters gonna say, “Yay!” And page-by-page cyclers with outline notes gonna go, “Meh. Nothin’ new. Was doin’ this all the time.” Writing into the dark, that is.

What’s writing into the dark? No, it’s not sitting in a room with the lights off and blindly searching for the keys. It’s a writing method that’s been around a long, long time and it involves going beyond seat-of-your-pants production.

That’s right. No outline. No vision. Just as I’m doing right now with pure exploration. Sure, I’ve done my research for this piece and have some crib notes of key points. I can’t imagine writing anything without some knowledge of what the post, essay, short story, novella, novel, or tome is going to be about. At least anything logical, that is.

Back up a sec, Garry, and explain plotting, pantsing, and page-by-paging for the newbies.

Plotting writers make detailed outlines of their work before they start. It’s like making blueprints for a house, and they rigidly follow those plans to a successful conclusion. Sure, there are a few change orders along the way, as there always are in house building. But for the most part, the end is always envisioned before breaking ground and starting construction.

Panster writers literally build by the seat of their pants. They also want a house built, but they love the freedom of working without permits or even drawings, except maybe on napkins. They dig a metaphoric hole, fill it with words, and fly at it—one word at a time until they hit “The End”. For some, pansting works. For others, it doesn’t.

Page-by page cycling? That was a new term to me. It’s outlining as you go, or cycling back to correct mistakes every page or so. It was news to me until I got introduced to Dean Wesley Smith (DWS) and read his book Writing Into The Dark. Or was it?

Two things aligned at the same time to get me going on “writing into the dark”. One was from Harvey Stanbrough who’s a regular commenter here at the Kill Zone. Harvey is a prolific writer, to say the least, and he PM’d me to say, “Check out Writing Into The Dark.” Harvey also told me to check out Heinlein’s Rules for Writing, which I did, and that’s material enough for a whole other post. At the same time, I was video chatting with my good friend and UK indie writer, Rachel Amphlett. Rachel also recommended I read Writing Into The Dark as it’s become her novel-writing method.

Writing Into The Dark opens with Dean Wesley Smith saying this:

He spoke to me, and Dean kept me hooked in the book until the end. What I got out of Writing Into The Dark is realizing I’ve evolved or morphed over time from a plotter to a pantster to a page-by-page drafter who’s learned to speed things up through a process Dean Smith calls “cycling”. I have to say I’ve found my stride, and I’m very comfortable drafting an entire book by outlining as I go.

Before drilling into what page-by-page, cycling, and outlining-as-you-go entails, I want to deal with a very important part of the dark writing method. Dean goes into a bit of brain science and how it applies to plotters and pansters. Plotters generally apply the critical part of their thinking process. They want to know exactly what route they’re taking in driving through the story. Pansters apply creative brain function. They thrive on allowing creativity to flow by putting the creative side first but still allow the critical brain to keep watch. Critical brains stifle creative brains every time.

Dark writers say “Fu*k it. Critical brain stay home. Me ’n ole creativity here are goin’ for a ride and hang on to yer hat maggot, ’cause this is gonna take yer breath away!”

In Dean Smith’s writing method, he goes hard and fast with only short glimpses in the work mirror. He writes a page or two at a time (page-by-page), then quickly looks back, fixes whatever, and moves on. This he calls cycling through the manuscript. Write a page or two, cycle back, fix or edit, and do it again. Throughout his page-cycle rhythm, Dean keeps a notepad at his side where he jots down ideas and story points. This is his idea of an outline.

Besides reading Writing Into The Dark, I watched a video presentation Dean gave to a writers conference about his process. I also read an insightful interview with him, and I’ll snip some conversation from them. I feel Dean Wesley Smith is a master of dark writing technique (He’s written hundreds upon hundreds of books and pieces) so I’ll let him have a few words right here on the Kill Zone stage.

“Writing fast, writing a lot, and keeping on submitting changed the way I look at writing,” Dean says. “It changed my mindset. It taught me to trust my instincts and trust my voice. I left my voice in my stories because I didn’t rewrite everything into dullness. Rewriting kills your voice and your natural ability to tell a story.”

Dean goes on to say, “I hated the idea of writing sloppy, so when I realized something needed to be fixed, I went right back and fixed it. I developed the habit of cycling back every few hundred words and doing minor revisions, all the while keeping a handwritten outline of points beside me. But when I get to the end of the story, I leave it alone.”

Here is some advice from Dean Smith for emerging writers. “Focus on the story and moving ahead. Write more. Learn. Have fun. Keep learning and experimenting. Stop making it so serious. This is entertainment, so entertain yourself and have fun.”

I know there’s a lot of truth in Dean’s words because dark writing is working for me. I outlined the ever-living sh*t out of my first novel. It was planned like the D-Day Invasion of Normandy. Slowly—over time—I loosened up a bit. But things changed, big time, when I spent two years writing cranking commercial web content for my slave-driving daughter’s online writing business.

That meat grinder doesn’t allow for much outlining. Not if you’re going to make money, that is. It’s research, write, proof, ship, and do it all over with a new topic that you’re really not all that hyped-up on. I wrote about everything from gastroenterology to bruxism to naturopathy treatments for foul-smelling vaginal secretions on a health & wellness site — to stainless steel vat technology in the hipster cottage brew industry.

Trust me. You want to get through this stuff as fast and with as little or no pain as possible. To survive and pay the bills, I got wired on dark writing. And I brought it with me when I went back to novels. Because you’re my friends, I’m going to show you my current writing method which is almost as dark as my subject matter and soul.

I’m working through a based-on-true crime series and releasing a new product every two months. Average lengths are about 52K words, and when I’m on a roll I write 900 to 1,000 words per hour. On a good day, when I’m not sidetracked by squirrels or severely hung over, I get-in about 3,500 words. So the calculator computes I draft a new book in about 15 writing days or 55 writing hours.

I don’t pre-outline anymore. I do exactly as Dean Wesley Smith does, and I didn’t know was it was called until Rachel and Harvey told me to read his book. Whadda ya know? Dean and I have something in common.

My outline emerges as I write chapter by chapter. I know where the story goes and how it ends because I lived in or around these crimes that I’m currently writing on. You gotta cut me some slack on internally knowing this series, but I’ll do the same on the next, which I plan to do in upcoming City Of Danger. What I do is keep a running log, or flow chart, on 11×17 paper. I’ll post the images so I don’t have to do any more describing than necessary. It’s the old picture being worth a thousand words thing.

See how my outline-as-I-go has evolved? I didn’t post pics of my first two in the series, In The Attic and Under The Ground. I didn’t use one for Attic, and I’ve lost the one for Ground. When I look at the progression through From The Shadows, Beside The Road, On The Floor, Between The Bikers, Beyond The Limits, and to my nearly-finished WIP At The Cabin, I see my method slightly changing. Hopefully, improving. I’ll let you know if it ever gets perfected, but don’t hold your breath.

You’re probably wondering what all those blurry swiggles and stimbols are. I outline-as-I-go from left to right and enter the chapter (scene) number, the date and time locaters, main plot points, the chapter word count (in red), and the overall story word count (in red) as it progresses scene by scene. That’s it. That’s how I keep track of a book’s gestation. The rest is mostly in my creative side except for research downloads and general hand-noted points similar to an editor’s style sheet.

I used to do second-day editing where I’d go back over the previous day’s works, but I gave that up for what I figured out is cycling, as Dean Smith calls it. Once I get to the end, I run it through Grammarly and clean it up. Then it’s off to my proofreader who does a remarkable job of finding issues, even teeny-tiny mistakes. Oh, BTW, I write each chapter/scene on a separate Word.doc and assemble them into one full manuscript as I do the Grammarly edit.

That’s it. I’m not saying my way of writing into the dark is right or wrong. It’s just an option I thought I should share. You do what works for you, but make sure you do one thing right. That’s to keep on writing and putting it out there, just as Heinlein’s rules prescribe.

It’s your turn, Kill Zoners. Am I out to lunch with this reckless behavior? Have you tried dark writing? Tell us in the comments what your style is, and your outlining experiences are.

——

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective—an old murder cop—who went on to another career as a coroner handling forensic death investigations. Now, Garry’s returned from the bowels of the morgue and arose as an internationally bestselling crime writer. True story & he’s sticking to it.

Garry is also an indie publisher currently finishing a 12-part, based-on-true-crime series detailing investigations he was involved in. Garry Rodgers runs a popular blog site at DyingWords.net and messes around on Twitter. When not writing into the dark, Garry spends time putting around the saltwater near his home on Vancouver Island in British Columbia on Canada’s Covid free infested southwest coast.

Smart Edit – An Overview

Smart Edit: An Overview
Terry Odell

Smart EditLast time, I mentioned I used a program/app called Smart Edit to fine tune my manuscripts. I said I’d go into more detail if there was interest, and frankly, I’m in editing mode on the new book, and don’t have the brain cells to spare to come up with a different topic.

**Note. I am simply sharing my opinions and how I use the program. I get zilch from the company for my posts.

Those of us who don’t have an unlimited budget rely on the “tricks” and for me, Smart Edit helps tighten the manuscript, and finds things my eyes have missed.

I have the ‘inside Word’ add on, so I can work right in the manuscript, but there’s also a copy-and-paste version. One thing I like about the ‘inside Word’ version is everything is previewed in context, so if it’s fine as is, you can skip to the next. If you want to make changes, you click on that result and it’ll take you right to that passage in the manuscript.

The program (sorry, but to me, an ‘app’ is something like Angry Birds, so that’s the term I’m going to use) runs checks on a variety of potential pitfalls. The obvious is “repeated words” which, despite my having my own checklist of crutch words, always finds new ones. There’s also “repeated phrases.”

Beyond that are searches for misused words, redundancies, risqué words, clichés, adverbs, proper nouns (good for finding those places where you’ve written “Helper” instead of “Hepler” for your protagonist), and looking back at Elaine’s post last week, speaker tags.

One thing to understand. SmartEdit doesn’t edit. It points out things you, as the author, are in control of, and every decision is yours to make. It’s not perfect, but I’ve found it’s a good starting point.

Here are some examples (You should be able to enlarge them by clicking.)
In addition to overused words and phrases, here are some of the other searches it will perform

Smart EditAnd some of my results:
This was a search for adverbs.

Smart Edit Adverb search
And for cliches
Smart Edit Another search that can be helpful is dialogue tags, although this is one where the program isn’t as accurate. It’s flagged words as tags that aren’t written as such. Again, the user is responsible for checking. (This was taken from a 3500 word short story run, which is why the overall counts are low. It does go back to Elaine’s post about using said, which is my go-to dialogue tag.)

Smart EditThe program doesn’t correct your grammar. I know people use other programs for that, although I don’t usually have trouble with grammar, so I’m more interested in streamlining and clarity. I beta tested a grammar program once, and it didn’t get anything right.

I’m paying an editor, you say. Why can’t I let her find and fix these? I could, but most editors charge by the hour. I know of one who charges by the word. If I can spend those hours taking care of a lot of these excesses, it saves time—and what can be significant money.There are other editing programs out there, but I’ve found SmartEdit works best for me. While I have a list of my words to destroy, somehow, new once crop up in each manuscript, and having this program find the sneaky ones I wouldn’t have thought to look for helps.

Do you use any automated programs for editing? How have they worked for you?



Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Watch for her upcoming release, Deadly Options, due out in late February.

Mixed Up Words

Mixed Up Words
Terry Odell

Judging from some recent posts, it’s looking like we all need a break from what’s happening around us. I thought I’d follow in the footsteps of Debbie’s mondegreens, Elaine’s eggcorns, and and JSB’s bloopers with a little more fun with words—although I’m sure they weren’t fun for the authors who made the mistakes.

These errors are from the spectrum of publishing—from indie to major publishing house authors. Whether or not some of these were typos on the part of the author and missed in editing, or whether the author didn’t know the correct word doesn’t really matter. However, given editorial passes these days are often far fewer than in the past, it behooves the author to get as much right as possible, and not hope an editor will find and fix errors. Sometimes it’s the little things that get overlooked, such as a NYT best-selling author having “That to” instead of “That, too.” (and there are different house style for the comma, but that’s not the error.)

Below are examples. Spellcheck wouldn’t have flagged any of them. Do you recognize these vocabulary errors? I’m sure you do. Why didn’t the editors?

  1. Rowdy little hoard
  2. His jacket was pealed back
  3. The car pealed away from the curb
  4. He’s cooling his heals in the lockup
  5. A single star shown brighter than any other
  6. The plain of his abdomen
  7. Ran her fingers down his chest toward his naval
  8. The bullet had come to rest against the seventh vertebrae
  9. Emerged like a breach birth
  10. “You saved his life today. He’ll probably give you an accommodation or something.”
  11. “The state trooper gave the children law enforcement’s universal anecdote: orange juice and candy bars.”
  12. He was injured trying to diffuse the bomb.
  13. She poured over the pages of the book.
  14. She peddled her bike down the sidewalk
  15. He waited with baited breath.
  16. He knocked on the door jam before entering the room.

And, one I didn’t learn until a reader (not my editor) pointed it out: discrete vs discreet.

What errors have you found in recent reading? The floor is yours.


Heather's ChaseMy new Mystery Romance, Heather’s Chase, is now available at most e-book channels. and in print from Amazon.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

What’s Up?

What’s Up?

by Terry Odell

What's Up

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

I’ve been going through my manuscript, getting it ready to send to my editor. I’ve run checks on overused words and phrases using a program called SmartEdit—which, as always, finds a new one every time. This time it was “about.” But there’s another word I check for.

My high school Latin teacher used to share his opinions on unnecessary words and redundancies. Saying “From its earliest beginnings to it final completion” pushed his buttons. He complained that the word “up” was overused, and often unnecessary. Why say ‘face up to a situation’? To which class clown Leon replied, “So what’s the guy robbing a bank supposed to do? Walk up to the teller and say “This is a stick?”

Leon’s wit notwithstanding, up is a word I run checks on, because it seems to slip off the fingertips without conscious thought—over 300 times in this manuscript—and often can be dispensed with.  Here’s an essay we used to use when we were training tutors for the Adult Literacy League in Orlando. I thought I’d share it today.

What’s Up With Up?

“We’ve got a two-letter word we use constantly that may have more meanings than any other. The word is up.

“It is easy to understand up, meaning toward the sky or toward the top of a list. But when we waken, why do we wake up? At a meeting, why does a topic come up? And why are participants said to speak up? Why are officers up for election? And why is it up to the secretary to write up a report?

“The little word is really not needed, but we use it anyway. We brighten up a room, light up a cigar, polish up the silver, lock up the house and fix up the old car.

“At other times, it has special meanings. People stir up trouble, line up for tickets, work up an appetite, think up excuses and get tied up in traffic.

“To be dressed is one thing, but to be dressed up is special. It may be confusing, but a drain must be opened up because it is stopped up.

“We open up a store in the morning, and close it up in the evening. We seem to be all mixed up about up.

“In order to be up on the proper use of up, look up the word in the dictionary. In one desk-sized dictionary, up takes up half a column; and the listed definitions add up to about 40.

“If you are up to it, you might try building up a list of the many ways in which up is used. It may take up a lot of your time, but if you don’t give up, you may wind up with a thousand.”

Frank S. Endicott

Do you have any crutch words that appear on the page all too frequently?

When, Where, Why, and How To Use Block Quotes and Ellipses

By SUE COLETTA

An interesting discussion arose while working on copy edits for Pretty Evil New England. The conversation dealt with using block quotes—when, where, why, and how I used them in the (nonfiction) manuscript.

If at all possible, I tend to use quoted material as dialogue to create scenes. But there were times where I chose to block quote the text instead. For example, if the quote was mainly backstory and not part of the actual scene but still important for the reader to understand, then I used block quotes. You’ll see what I mean in one of the examples below.

Block quotes can’t be avoided at times. They can even enhance the scene, thereby adding to the overall reading experience. In fiction, two examples of where to use block quotes would be a diary entry or a note/letter/message. Please excuse my using one of my thrillers; it’s easier than searching through a gazillion books on my Kindle.

In Silent Mayhem, the antagonist and hero communicate through an Onion site (untraceable) on the deep web. Because these messages are neither dialogue, nor narrative, using block quotes set them apart.

Example:

Dearest Cautious Cat,

If we shut our eyes to dangers beyond our comprehension, we become powerless to fight. My offer still stands. Should you choose not to accept it, remember this . . .

When it’s your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes, they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.

Hugs & kisses,
Mr. M

Block quotes also break up the text and enhance white space. We’ve discussed white space many times on TKZ. For more on why white space is a good thing, check out this post or this one.

BLOCK QUOTES IN WORD

To include block quotes in Word, highlight the text and right click. This screen will pop up…
Choose “paragraph” and this screen will pop up…

Reset your left margin to .5 and click OK. Leave the right margin alone.

Quick note about margins.

A good rule of thumb for block quotes is to not indent the first paragraph. If your passage contains more than one paragraph, check with the publisher. Most supply a style guide. For instance, my thriller publisher keeps all paragraphs justified. My true crime publisher prefers that the first paragraph be justified and subsequent paragraphs be indented.

To do that, the easiest thing is to click “Special” then “first line” (as indicated in pic below) and set it to .25. Then simply backspace to erase the indent on the first paragraph.

If you’re self-publishing, then obviously it’s your call on whether to indent or not to indent subsequent paragraphs.

BLOGGING BLOCK QUOTE

Bloggers who include passages from a resource, whether that be a book or wording from a reputable source, use block quotes to signal the reader that the passage is a direct quote (most commonly, all justified margins). You could style the post in Word, then copy/paste, but sometimes the style doesn’t paste over. Simple fix. Highlight the text and click this symbol…
And that’s it. Easy peasy, right?

ELLIPSIS

An ellipsis consists of either three or four dots. A single dot is called an ellipsis point. Some writers may find using ellipses a little tricky, but once you know the definitions of where, why, and how to use them, determining the right ellipses is fairly straightforward.

According to the Chicago Manual of Style, never use ellipses at the beginning or end of a block quote. CMOS also recommends using equal spacing between dots. Some style guides say to use three equally spaced periods rather than creating an ellipsis in Word, which you can do by pressing CTRL + ALT + Period. Always go by the style guide furnished by the publisher (or editor, if self-publishing).

WHERE AND WHY TO USE ELLIPSES

There are many reasons why you might want to use an ellipsis. An ellipsis can indicate omitted words within the middle of a quote, or faltering dialogue, or an unfinished sentence or thought where the speaker’s words trail off.

For faltering dialogue, you have two choices, depending on your style guide.

Style #1: Equally spaced dots with one space before and after ellipsis.
Style #2: Unspaced dots with one space before and after ellipsis.

Example #1 (uses three periods): “I . . . I . . . would never break the law.”
Example #2 (uses ellipsis created with Word shortcut): “I … I … would never break the law.”

For words that trail off, insert punctuation at end of ellipses. If the dialogue continues to another sentence, leave a space.

Example #1: “Why would he . . .? I mean, I can’t believe he got caught with that bimbo.”
Alternate style (Word shortcut): “Why would he …? I mean, I can’t believe he got caught with that bimbo.”

Example #2: “My weight? I’m about one hundred and . . . So, how ’bout them Bears. Did you watch the game?”

Alternate style (Word shortcut): “My weight? I’m about one hundred and … So, how ’bout them Bears. Did you watch the game?”

THREE DOTS VERSE FOUR

Here’s where some writers may find ellipses a little tricky.

Sometimes we need to omit words from the end of one sentence but still continue the quoted passage. This type of ellipsis is called a terminal ellipsis. In this instance, the CMOS recommends using four dots, or periods. The fourth dot indicates the period at the end of the sentence that we haven’t quoted in its entirety. By including that fourth dot it lets the reader know that the quotation borrows from more than one sentence of the original text.

Example from Pretty Evil New England:

Then I made up my mind to kill Mrs. Gordon. Poor thing, she was grieving herself to death over her sickly child. So life wasn’t worth living anyway. I was sorry, though, for the poor, unfortunate child, Genevieve. I love the little one very much. . . . I thought with Mrs. Gordon out of the way I could be a mother to her child and get [her husband] Harry Gordon to marry me.

Notice how I didn’t omit any necessary words? That’s key. We have a responsibility to other writers—in this case, the female serial killer—to not mislead the reader by leaving out words that change the meaning of the quote.

Three most important takeaways for ellipses in dialogue.

  • Avoid ellipses overload—too many can diminish their impact.
  • Reserve ellipses for middle and end of dialogue. If the character fumbles around to spit out their first word, use a body cue or other description instead.
  • Maintain consistent ellipses spacing throughout the manuscript.

Now, like most things in writing, there are exceptions to these rules. Always follow the publisher or editor’s recommendations. If you don’t have any recommendations to follow, feel free to use this post as a guide.

For discussion: Do you use block quotes in your writing? If so, why did you choose to do that? Care to share one of the exceptions to any of these guidelines?

Work Day, Sick Day

sick day

Stock photo via GoDaddy

The Thanksgiving Plague finally got me. I hadn’t had so much as a sniffle for six months. Several of my family members were sick in the days surrounding Thanksgiving–my daughter’s fiancé only came out from his room to give the 17 assembled guests a wave at the end of the feast. Fortunately, I didn’t get sick until Monday, after everyone was gone.

I don’t always work when I’m sick, but I always work when I have a deadline. In some ways, I like to write or edit when I’m ill because the illness keeps me in one place–bed, if I can manage it. As an HDW (Highly Distractible Writer, which I just made up), anything that keeps me seated for long periods of time is A Good Thing. I don’t care if it’s the kind of thing that demands two boxes of tissues and a box of Sucrets. (Do they even make Sucrets anymore? I loved those things.)

I edited for eleven hours today. I know that because I tracked it on Office Time which even keeps track of the time you’re away from your keyboard for your counting convenience. On a normal editing day, I get in about six or seven hours, with a bit of web surfing, dog walking, and errand-running at their edges. It’s amazing what a person can get done when they just toss the dogs outside and remind them to do their business, and fling ten bucks at their son so he can bring home pizza for those who can eat.

Today my protag opined about how much she likes to spend the occasional day reading in bed. Doesn’t that sound lovely? Maybe it was transferred wishful thinking on my part because, you know, deadline.

Do you write through the flu or migraines or colds or even broken body parts? Or are you sensible and take good care of yourself by putting all your mental and physical energy into getting better?

The Edit Has Landed

(photo via GoDaddy stock)

 

The edit has landed. I repeat: The edit has landed. This is not a drill.

This refrain runs through my head every time I get an initial editorial letter from my editor after I’ve sold a manuscript. For the uninitiated, the editorial letter contains detailed comments and suggestions for changes the editor would like to see in the next version of a contracted manuscript.

On Sunday evening, the editorial letter for One Last Secret, my next suspense novel, arrived in my inbox.

I’m going to gloss over the agonizing hour or so I spent actually analyzing my letter. Imagine cheers or tears or cringing or reallys?! or ack–how did that get through? or yays! It’s a private moment that you are already familiar with if you’ve workshopped your own writing, or have had editors or truthful friends comment on it.

There’s a fine line when it comes to accepting or rejecting an editor’s suggestions. Ego can get in the way. Unless we’re collaborating with another writer, our stories have incubated in our own heads for months or years. Perhaps the initial drafts have been read by friends or spouses, etc, but they’re still essentially ours. It can be hard to let go, to be willing to let the manuscript change. But while an editor is also a reader, and often a fan, they are not just any reader/friend offering suggestions. They’re professionals who have a financial interest in seeing that the story appeals to a large number of readers.

An editor or reader is attracted to a novel or story as a result of the writer’s ability to successfully communicate a vision of the story that exists in the writer’s head.

But as we know, no two visions of a story are even close to identical. The best writing speaks loudly to people for myriad reasons, and tugs at the chords deeply anchored to our souls. And no two souls are alike. It’s a huge compliment for a writer to have a reader say a writer’s work resonates with them, whether it’s something as simple as a character with whom they identify, or a whole new world into which they can escape for an afternoon  and beyond.

An editor is an agent of the re-visioning process. (I’ve probably mentioned re-visioning before as a concept mentioned by Joyce Carol Oates.) In a re-vision, the vision of the story becomes something totally new for the writer. This new vision will change with each new addition or deletion or deepening of the story. It can be brought about with mechanical precision by making sure the story has all the necessary beats, or meets and even enhances the conventions of the genre. Or it will change when the writer combines characters, kicks the hero(ine) into higher gear, or tweaks the emotional impact of a scene. It’s a birth process that goes on and on until both the editor and the writer agree that their mutual visions meet on the page and are compatible enough to be presented to the world. They’re both happy. (Or they run out of time!)

For me it’s both wrenching and exciting to work with an editor. In theory—and it’s a theory I extoll frequently—I want to write and edit in service of the story. I write toward that Platonic ideal that exists for every story. The ideal we can only ever express as a shadow. But I want to at least make it a shadow that lives and makes other people see it as an ideal thing in their heads. It should have no visible seams, no dull moments, no unnecessary details, clear ideas, smart dialogue, and compelling images. In other words, as close to an ideal as possible.

Occasionally though, the old ego wants to dig in its heels when the suggestions come. My story! it cries. Mine! Mine! Mine! It begs me to leave it alone. Very occasionally there are story elements that I feel are integral and necessary to the story, and I try to negotiate their continued existence. Now that I think about it, the very few times that has happened, various editors have been very supportive. But I generally keep my ego in check. It really is all about the story. And a good editor knows how to balance the writer’s need for respect/story integrity with her own need to make the story more appealing to the marketing department and readers.

Not everyone likes the revision process. As I said, it’s both wrenchingly difficult and exciting for me at the same time. Change is hard, and changing our stories can be particularly tough because edits often feel like judgments. I just keep telling myself that an edited story is something shiny and brand new in the world. A new creation. And who doesn’t like the feeling of having created something new?

 

How do you approach the editing process—whether suggestions are from reader friends or paid editors? Do you love it, hate it, or see it as just one more step to be endured?

Or tell us about an editor you’ve loved working with…

How Not to Treat a Writer (and a Bonus Guide on Building Good Anthologies)

Let me tell you a story.

On December 19th, I received an email through my website contact link suggesting that I might submit a story to an upcoming anthology of “dark and speculative fiction.” Okay, I thought. Sounds like me. Reprints were okay (if the work was requested, and it appeared that mine had been), and there was actually money involved. The stated theme of the anthology was vague and used the phrase “we may be looking for…” But I’m always game for submitting work, and women’s sexuality was one of the mentioned subjects. Okay, I thought. That sounds like me, too. Knowing that the publisher was a legit literary fiction house, I clicked through to the open call for submissions page.

I don’t want to embarrass anyone in this story, so I’m not going to get specific about all of the submission details. The story I had in mind was one I had published in Patricia Abbott’s Discount Noir, and I had long thought of expanding it. I was pretty sure it fit the women’s sexuality/female protagonist bill. Except: The deadline was to be December 30th. Yes, twelve days after I received the email, and only eighteen days after the date on the submission page.

Twelve days! It’s madness to think anyone but a few very motivated writers could put out a finished 2-5K word story in that brief amount of time. Still, I had the story on hand and was thinking of adding only a thousand words or so. As I said, I’m game. Christmas got busy, and I put it on the back burner. After a very relaxing holiday, I worked on it on the 29th and 30th. I’ll confess that I submitted it after midnight on the 30th, but it was still the 30th in Alaska, so I figured I was good. And, if not, no big deal. It was a fun exercise to work on the story.

I received the acknowledgement immediately. All was well. Then, later that same day, the 31st, I received a polite form rejection email.

There’s nothing like receiving a rejection for a story on New Year’s Eve. It was disappointing, as all rejections are. I had a lot of confidence in the story, so it was a little surprising. I went through six stages of story rejection grief, and enjoyed the seventh (an extra glass of wine), and decided the story would be a good addition to the ebook short story collection I want to do later this year.

But, wait! Less than an hour later, I received an email that I had been sent the wrong form email. They actually meant to send the one telling me they were considering the story and would get back to me in a month. They were sorry for the confusion, they said.

Ha! Ha! said I. And forgot about it the very next day.

This past Monday, nine days later, I received my response. They “love” the story, but “have since decided on a theme” that this story doesn’t quite fit. Oh, by the way, maybe I have another one that would suit their newly chosen theme? They only need it by January 16th.

*sigh*

There are so many possible responses. But the one that immediately comes to mind is a less lovely version of WTH? (That’s not the one I sent.)

My work has been in quite a few anthologies the past few decades, and I’ve edited five and published two of those myself. Yet I have never been involved in such an unprofessional exchange.

Publishing isn’t, “Hey, kids! Let’s put out a book!” Well, it can be, but the process needs to stay professional. And it would seem to me that a primary tenet of professionalism would be: Try not to alienate prospective writers.

Here’s a handy list for creating an anthology:

  • Define your theme. Make it broad, or make it narrow. Be flexible enough to push the boundaries a bit if you need to. The narrower your focus, the smaller your natural audience will be.
  • Put together a budget. Will you pay the writers in cash or copies or both?
  • Get a few writers on board that you know well so that if you will be going to a publisher, you have committed work from writers they recognize.
  • Write a proposal whether you will be shopping it to publishers or not. It will give you good guidelines against which you can measure submissions.
  • Find a publisher or, if you’re game and have some knowledge of publishing, put it out there yourself. How will it be distributed? Through regular distributors? Online vendors?
  • Decide if you want all original work or reprints or both.
  • Plot out a schedule backwards from your desired pub date. Give yourself three-four months before the actual pub date to assemble, edit, copyedit, and format the stories. Writers often miss deadlines. Build in an extra month for dawdlers or disaster. Allow writers three to six months for writing. It might as well be three because 90% of them will write the story in the last available month.
  • Scheduling six to nine months to put the whole thing together is reasonable. This is variable of course. Using all reprints may be faster—but often the writer will need to get permissions from another, larger publisher. And the larger they are, the slower they are. (It took seven weeks to get permission from one publisher for a Surreal South anthology, and we almost had to drop the story.)
  • Establish who will be the contact for all authors. Who will do the mailings and keep track of the files?
  • NOW open submissions for your slush pile, and give folks a few months to come up with stories and write them. If you have a solid core of committed writers, you have a head start. If you give everyone three months to write and submit, you’ll have plenty of time to read and choose.
  • Acknowledge submissions.
  • Get someone working on the cover art.
  • Draw up a contract. Do you want exclusive, or non-exclusive rights?
  • Choose the stories. Have a couple runners-up in case some submissions get pulled.
  • In the name of all that’s holy, send the appropriate rejection and acceptance emails to all of the writers.
  • Assemble the manuscript. Make sure all the rights are covered.
  • Plan advertising (or work with marketing dept.)
  • Write cover copy.
  • Have someone write an introduction that teases the theme and mentions all the accepted stories by name.
  • Make any necessary edits and okay them with the writers.
  • Copyedit the stories, send the manuscripts back to the writers for approval. Give them a deadline for getting back to you.
  • Get a blurb or two if you can. Put galleys up on NetGalley, etc. to encourage reviews.
  • Format, print, distribute.

NOTE: This is not a hard and fast schedule for every anthology. Big ones will take longer. Working with inexperienced writers will take longer. If you’re doing an ebook anthology of reprints or one that is very small, you may be able to do all this stuff in a few weeks.

Lisa Morton, Carolyn Haines, and I all wrote our stories for Haunted Holidays: Three Short Tales of Terror and had the book out in paper and ebook on multiple platforms in three months.

 

The point is, take your time. Think it through at the beginning of the project. Be friendly but professional in your communications with your writers. Admit it if you screw up, but don’t set yourself up for failure by setting unrealistic expectations for yourself and everyone else involved.

As a writer, what’s the worst submission experience you’ve ever had?

Have you ever put together and anthology? How did it go?

 

Laura Benedict is the author of the Bliss House trilogy of novels. She blogs daily at her website. Visit her on Twitter, too.

Sculpting That Manuscript

Terry Odell

When we first moved to Colorado, we rented a tiny studio apartment while looking for a permanent home. One evening, our landlords invited us up for a glass of wine and some conversation. She is a sculptor who works primarily in stone. She mentioned it was interesting we were both artists.

Frankly, I’d never considered myself an artist, but we discussed our creative processes. There’s an old saying that in order to carve a block of stone into an elephant, you simply chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant. In writing, you keep adding until you get the elephant.

If writing were like sculpting, it would mean being able to change what comes next, but not what came before. Scary. Really scary. When the sculptor asked how I created a book, what my preparation process was, did I outline the plot, or develop the characters, I answered that I knew very little when I first started writing.

She said she worked the same way. She might have a very simple sketch—no more than a line drawing, when she started, and a vague idea of the finished product—but the actual sculpture was dictated by the stone. She starts working and lets the stone show her the way.

That sounds very much like my own writing style. I joked about how my characters were always surprising me, and that the discovery was as much fun as the final product. On that, we were in total agreement.

But imagine if you started writing your book and couldn’t go back to fix things. Once you chip away that piece of marble, it’s gone and you can’t reattach it to the sculpture. I don’t think there is such a thing as a ‘first draft’ for her. Some artists might make models first, using a different, “less valuable” kind of medium, but she likes to get right to it.

I remember going to a RWA chapter meeting, and as we shared where we were with our writing since the last meeting, one woman said, “I’m on Chapter 30 and have only 5 chapters left to go.” I was flabbergasted. How did she know what was going to go into each chapter, and that much in advance? How did she know her book was going to be 35 chapters long? A recent book ended up going on for about 4 chapters more after I thought I was writing the final chapter. And my editor asked me to expand even more. Glad I wasn’t a sculptor!

But when you do finally reach the end, if you’re like me, your book is full of “extra stuff”. It’s time to play sculptor and chisel away the words, paragraphs, scenes that aren’t helping your book look like the elephant it’s supposed to be. My first attempt at writing a novel came in at 143,000 words. The agents and editors I spoke with said 100,000 was the absolute top limit they’d even look at for a debut author.

Time to cut. You start with the jack hammer, removing any scenes that aren’t moving the story forward (even though they’re probably your favorites). “Does it advance the plot?” becomes your mantra. This is where you’re probably letting everyone know how much research you did. What constellations are visible in the night sky at 10 PM in Salem, Oregon? What’s the story behind Orion? What are the landmarks visible from the passenger seat while driving north on I-25 between Denver and Cripple Creek? What kind of cattle are grazing in the pastureland? How many coal trains chug by each day, carrying how much coal? Ask yourself two questions. 1: Does the reader need to know this. 2: Does the reader need to know this now? That 143,000 word book, Finding Sarah, was published at about 85K.

Finding Sarah

Another question to ask is “Does it come back?” In my book, Deadly Secrets, I had a scene where my heroine comes into her diner and tells the cop hero that she thinks someone’s in her upstairs apartment. The cop tells her to get down behind the counter. There’s mention of a pistol kept near the register. However, we never actually see the gun, other than a few thoughts about who it belongs to, and that almost everyone in the small Colorado town probably has one. Since the gun was never needed and never showed up again … SNIP. “Get behind the counter” is all that’s needed. Readers, especially mystery readers, don’t like a parade of red flags that have no place in the story.

Deadly Secrets

After you’ve tossed those big chunks of stone, you can get out the chisel and look at your narrative. Have you told what you’ve already shown? Trust your readers—they’ll get it. Are you repeating yourself even when you’re showing?

Once you’ve got the story essentials, you can get out the little grinders and brushes to get rid of those sneaky crutch words—the ones that creep into your manuscript when you close your file. (A handy writer’s tool for this is Smart Edit, which will find overused words you never saw coming.) Check for ‘filler’ words. Just, really, well, very, some (and all its variations). When we speak, we use ‘filler words’ to give our brain time to think. Most of the time, they’re not needed on the page and merely slow the read.

Once you’ve got your elephant cleaned and polished, it’s time to get it out there on exhibit, whether to an agent, editor, or beta reader.

What’s your writing style? I’m an ‘edit as I go’ writer, but even then, I have to go back and get rid of everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.

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Thanks so much to Nancy for inviting me to be a guest at The Kill Zone. I’m thrilled to be here.
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TerryOdellFrom childhood, Terry Odell wanted to “fix” stories so the characters would behave properly. Once she began writing, she found this wasn’t always possible, as evidenced when the mystery she intended to write turned into a romance, despite the fact that she’d never read one. Odell prefers to think of her books as “Mysteries With Relationships.” She writes the Blackthorne, Inc. series, the Pine Hills Police series, and the Mapleton Mystery series. You can find her high (that’s altitude, of course—she lives at 9100 feet!) in the Colorado Rockies—or at her website.