Archive for the ‘Editing Tips’ Category

A List as Literature

Friday, December 7th, 2012
story as list

Beaumont Hardy helps you navigate the short story landscape.

Here at Beaumont Hardy, we still think writers can learn a great deal from the submission guidelines of publications listed in places like Duotrope. In studying the submission guidelines of Words and Images, the literary magazine from the University of Southern Maine, we came upon an interesting genre writers might want to explore further. Words and Images is eager to read all types of prose, and among their interests, they mention “to-do lists.” We like the idea of a list that can function as a compelling piece of prose or even as a story, and we wonder how such a literary piece would function.

Someone suggested the following list, which hints at a larger story, perhaps even a mystery.

1. Clean windows

2. Get telescope out of attic

3. Check sighting device

4. Confirm Lefty’s schedule

5. Tell Shirley to take the kids to the movies

6. Borrow silencer from Vinnie

The problem is that a list of this type tends to feel heavy-handed in its attempt to convey plot. Perhaps a list functions better as a mere suggesting of an emotion or an experience. Consider the following list.

1. Wash beach towel

2. Put away sunscreen

3. Give umbrella and picnic basket to Goodwill

4. Delete photos from camera

5. Call Stacy re. girls’ night out

What do you think of a list as literature? How would you create a scintillating list? Please let us know. We’d love to hear from you.

Duotrope provides as invaluable service to writers, but it no longer survives on donations, as it once did. After January 1, 2013, writers can only use Duotrope’s helpful and extensive listings by subscribing to Duotrope. Please consider a subscription to Duotrope. We all benefit from the service it provides.

 

Learning from Submission Guidelines

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

jungleBeaumont Hardy is a huge fan of Duotrope and its extensive, detailed lists of print and online publications seeking author submissions. Besides acquainting authors with fine journals and magazines they might not otherwise find online or on the newsstand, Duotrope allows writers to focus their submissions on publishers that will be the best “fit” for their writing. Duotrope includes interviews with the editors of many of the publications on its lists; these interviews are extremely helpful to authors who might want to know more about a publication’s style and interests.

Here at Beaumont Hardy, I am also fascinated by the submission guidelines that accompany some of Duotrope’s listings. The guidelines are indispensable to authors who want to know whether their writing is suited to a particular publication. But the guidelines also serve as mini-lessons in writing–reminding writers what makes a story work or obliquely guiding them through a final revision. What follows are some of the many instructive guidelines I have found through Duotrope.

The submission guidelines section for Third Wednesday, a journal that publishes poetry and fiction, provides some useful tips about fiction writing in general. George Dila, the journal’s associate fiction editor, explains why stories that open with description can be problematic. He also expresses his dislike for dialogue at the start of a story. (Read Beaumont Hardy’s take on this dialogue controversy.) Mr. Dila also asks interesting questions about what drives a story’s plot, what keeps a reader’s interest and how writing style contributes to a story. He mentions stories that, to him, don’t “work,” and he mentions hackneyed ideas that editors see far too often. Even for writers who never plan to submit to Third Wednesday, these guidelines are extremely useful in conceiving or revising a story. George Dila’s suggestions are thought-provoking and very valuable.

Bourbon Penn is a journal of “the odd,” and its editors seek surreal, magical stories. But the Bourbon Penn guidelines are useful to writers of any kind of fiction. The editors want stories with honest, complex characters around which the entire story hangs. Based on these guidelines, writers can review their own stories, determining whether their characters have enough complexity and contradiction to breathe life into the story. The journal also seeks “mystery”–stories about which the reader will demand answers. Although not every story is mysterious, writers should always consider whether their stories create this same demand in their readers.

In its submission guidelines, Spilling Ink Review provides an entertaining and illuminating list of what they do not want to publish. This e-journal from Glasgow seeks well-written, original writing, and its list of “don’ts” is very instructive for writers. The editors mention plots that are less-than-successful and grammatical constructions that writers might want to rethink. Knowing what not to do can be incredibly helpful to a writer.

Even if writers never plan to submit to literary magazines with these kinds of detailed submission guidelines, I think there is a lot to be learned from the thoughts and suggestions of journal editors. Anyone contemplating a story or doing a final revision would be wise to listen to the opinions of the professionals at magazines like these.

Duotrope survives on user donations, so be sure to contribute when you use their listings.

Submissions: No Reason to Fear

Monday, May 17th, 2010

Many as-yet-unpublished authors long to see their work in print but might never do so. Their problem is not a lack of writing ability, a lack of ideas or even a lack of a finished piece of writing. Instead, what stops them is a fear of the submission process itself. Writers list various reasons for their submissions fears, but at Beaumont Hardy, we want to reassure them that submission should be the least of their worries.

One submission fear that writers seem to share is that their work will face mockery and criticism from editors. This fear sometimes spreads to the writing process, and writers become self-conscious in the very act of creation. They imagine the sneering editors who will ultimately read their work, and they begin to write defensively, protecting themselves from the criticism they imagine editors might make.

Having worked at a literary agency, I always reassure writers that the professionals at the other end of the submission process have little time to criticize or make fun of the work they receive. The smallest literary agency can receive hundreds of unsolicited queries a week, the entire staff working constantly to keep the office from being inundated with manuscripts and letters. An agent or editor who must plow through dozens–or even hundreds–of author submissions per day has very little time to engage in mocking or criticism. In fact, individual authors often make very little impression on the harried editorial staff. While this fact is of concern to writers hoping to be noticed for publication, it should be reassuring to the authors who fear ridicule. Editors and agents have too little time and very little inclination for mockery.

Another related submission fear stems from the writers’ knowledge that complete strangers will be judging their work. Writers wonder if they should cater their work to these gatekeeping readers or whether these strangers will completely misunderstand their creative impulses. Some of my clients tell me that they are unable to submit their work when they know nothing about the person who will be reading it.

I argue that writing is universal and that its beauty lies in the fact that complete strangers can understand and appreciate the work of someone they have never met. Professional editors and agents can understand innovative and unusual writing and will recognize the creative impulses of writers they do not know. Writers, I believe, should write whatever moves them and trust that the most unknown of readers, editors and agents will be able to relate to what they have written.

Still other writers fear the rejection involved in submission. For most—perhaps, all—writers, some amount of rejection is practically guaranteed, but that should be no reason to avoid submission. In fact, the more a writer experiences rejection, the less painful it becomes and the more rewarding is an ultimate acceptance. And of course, the only rejection-free submission is no submission at all—the worst possible path to publication.

For better or worse, I tell writers that they can find safety in numbers when submitting their work. The sheer number of submissions makes it more difficult to get published. However, this sheer number guarantees a certain anonymity and safety to the process. Editors and agents read so many, many submissions that they are virtually unable to single any one out for mockery and derision. They rarely remember a particular author after reviewing his or her submission and hardly ever know when that author submits a new piece of writing after an initial rejection. Editors and agents read so many submissions that they have a deep understanding of good writing and good creative impulses and can be trusted to recognize solid work when they see it.

At Beaumont Hardy, I am happy to help any writer prepare his or her work for ultimate submission. The submission process is absolutely nothing to fear.

Starting Over

Monday, January 18th, 2010

Writing can be burdensome, especially when you find yourself halfway through penning a novel with meandering subplots and indistinguishable secondary characters or a piece of non-fiction that has lost all direction. The text seems to have gotten away from you, and you suspect that your work might be deeply and irremediably flawed. Working day after day on a writing project whose very essence feels unstable can be both unproductive and disheartening.

Writers whose work has become oppressive and unmanageable have two options. As I discussed in an earlier post, the first option is to plow ahead valiantly, writing what I call the “terrible rough draft–a manuscript notable mostly for its completeness but, perhaps, harboring several kernels of pure genius. The second option is almost exactly the opposite–to set the partial first draft aside and to start over. The second option, drastic though it may seem, can be remarkably liberating an can often prompt a burst of productivity.

Starting over doesn’t necessarily mean taking a match to an unwieldy first draft. Instead, it means slowly following the trajectory of that partial draft to find the moments when it goes astray–and the moments that actually work. The beauty of this starting-over process is that it allows you to begin with a somewhat clean slate but gives you the reassurance of a “safety net”–your partial first draft.

Most people now write their novels on computers, but a hard copy of your imperfect first draft is very useful in the starting-over process. Not only does a hard copy allow for efficient side-by-side comparisons of your first and subsequent drafts, but it can also give you great psychological comfort. Thumbing through the pages of an imperfect first draft and crossing out mediocre passages can feel very productive and satisfying. Working from a hard copy also reminds you that your original first draft still exists. Knowing that you could always return to the original draft might make you feel more uninhibited about making drastic changes to it. (Of course, you can always refer to the electronic version of your first draft when starting over on it. Flipping back and forth between electronic versions of a manuscript can have its own emotional rewards.)

The starting-over process is straightforward. The opening of the manuscript is often fairly adequate and can usually remain unchanged. (The perceived problems usually start later in the piece.) You can feel fairly confident of the first sentence. Leave it in place, and continue through the opening paragraphs. Because you have written part of the manuscript already, you will have a good idea of the overall trajectory. In the starting-over phase, you can make sure that the opening paragraph truly moves the piece in the direction you want it to go. You can often head off many of the problems that manifest themselves in the first draft by reconsidering the opening of the piece.

As you proceed through the early parts of the manuscript, take none of your writing for granted. Just because a character or subplot exists in the first draft, it need not remain in any subsequent versions. Similarly, internal divisions and sub-arguments in a non-fiction piece need not remain in a new draft. Consider all aspects of your manuscript expendable, and honestly determine whether they contribute to the overall effect you hope to achieve.

You will often find a clear moment when your piece diverges from the ideal and begins to lose momentum or direction. At that point, you might very clearly see the “fork in the road” that pulls your work away from its true trajectory. Feel free to excise those directional missteps.

You will sometimes encounter first-draft passages that you like but that you suspect might create problems later in the manuscript. Bracket those portions of the manuscript (either electronically or in hard copy), and leave them out of your starting-over draft. You might later find that they fit perfectly into another part of the piece or that they lead in a profitable new direction that the original first draft might not have elucidated. The starting-over process provides your first draft with the “breathing room” that allows for these kinds of textual reconfigurations.

Starting over on a manuscript will often give you the satisfying feeling of cobbling together only the best parts of your first draft while simultaneously allowing you to clarify and rethink your original ideas. The process is the complete opposite of forging ahead until you write a terrible first draft, but it’s a refreshing option if you feel that your writing has begun to stagnate. Starting over can reinvigorate your writing and help you rediscover your authorly purpose.

At Beaumont Hardy, I’m happy to help any author with a terrible rough draft, a starting-over draft or any other piece of writing.

Learning from the Rough Draft

Saturday, September 12th, 2009

In my last posting, I wrote about the beauty of a complete rough draft, even a mediocre one. My advice to writers was that they forge ahead with a rough draft, no matter how shaky its start, because a finished rough draft can be a wellspring of good ideas.

The Writers Community blog recently explored a similar idea, recommending automatic writing to those with trouble getting started on a writing project. Sometimes maligned as a parlor trick or a Surrealist gimmick, automatic writing taps into a writer’s subconscious, bypassing the writer’s inner critic. The Writers Community posting recommends “put[ting] pen to paper without thinking about it at all,” which allows a writer to produce a completely uncensored piece of stream-of-consciousness writing.

Whichever way writers go about putting pen to paper—through some form of automatic writing or through the sheer will to produce a completed work—a finished rough draft should be the ultimate goal.

The following is the unedited opening paragraph of the first draft of a short story. The author completed the entire draft, but I have posted only this one paragraph. Following the paragraph is the same paragraph with my own thoughts and comments, in brackets, italicized and underlined. My comments illustrate the thought process of an author revising a rough draft and indicate the good ideas that can come of writing a draft straight through, from beginning to end, without stopping.

In writing the first draft, this author has ignored her inner critic, putting all fleeting thoughts to paper and rejecting nothing. In one place, the author has potentially rejected a sentence, indicating this rejection with a strikethrough. When writing a rough draft, using a strikethrough is a better idea than using the delete button or scribbling something out until it’s illegible. Upon revision, a rejected word or sentence can turn out to be the right one. Merely striking through it will keep it visible—and “accessible”—during the revision process. This rough draft author has also written several notes for later reflection, a habit I recommend (See each “NOTE TO SELF.”). Instead of stopping to revise in the middle of writing, the author makes a note to consider at the revision stage.

The original paragraph reads as follows.

Harold had become proficient at diagnosing his family and friends online. He knew all the websites that were useful for diagnosing people, and he knew what was wrong with everyone he knew. That was how Harold had decided to call off his wedding to Sophie. (NOTE TO SELF: Marie?) Harold had thought that he and Marie were an ideal couple, and he thought that he was really happy with her. Everyone told him that Sophie was ideally suited to him. But then, he discovered DiagnoseOthers.com and realized that Sophie (NOTE TO SELF: Sophie or Marie?) was either obsessive-compulsive or psychopathic—one or the other; he wasn’t sure: repetitive behavior—check (Marie had that. Didn’t she watch Nightmare on Elm Street over and over?); obsessive behavior—check (Marie had that, too. Wasn’t she always washing her hands with that expensive soap?); and wait a minute—Nightmare on Elm Street—she loved serial killers: psychopath—check. (NOTE TO SELF: Keep all of these sentences? Is this too many examples? Too over-the-top?) So Harold determined that Marie had some problems. His family was upset when they learned that he and Marie were through. But then, Harold looked them up and realized they had classic dissociative identity disorder. (NOTE TO SELF: Is dissociative identity disorder the right one for the family to have?) That explained everything.

The paragraph with my thoughts and comments is as follows.

Harold had become proficient at diagnosing his family and friends online. [This opening sentence works. The reader will wonder why Harold needs to diagnose others and whether his diagnoses will lead to some sort of trouble.] He knew all the websites that were useful for diagnosing people, and he knew what was wrong with everyone he knew. [“All the websites that were useful for diagnosing people” is needlessly wordy. Consider replacing it with, “the most useful diagnostic websites” or “the most useful psychological websites?” Consider cutting the second half of the sentence (beginning with “and he knew…”)? The first sentence already makes clear that Harold is diagnosing everyone he knows, so the idea in the second half of the sentence is superfluous.] That was how Harold had decided to call off his wedding to Marie. [To what does “that” refer? Consider changing the opening of the sentence to “Online diagnosis was what led Harold to call off…” "Marie" has won out over "Sophie" as the name of Harold's former fiancée.] Harold had thought that he and Marie were an ideal couple, and he thought that he was really happy with her. [This sentence is, in fact, a good one and can go from “strikethrough” format back to “normal.”] Everyone told him that Marie was ideally suited to him. [This sentence is unnecessary.] But then, he discovered DiagnoseOthers.com and realized that Marie was either obsessive-compulsive or psychopathic—one or the other; he wasn’t sure: repetitive behavior—check (Marie had that. Didn’t she watch Nightmare on Elm Street over and over?); obsessive behavior—check (Marie had that, too. Wasn’t she always washing her hands with that expensive soap?); and wait a minute—Nightmare on Elm Street—she loved serial killers: psychopath—check. [These three sentences, which seemed over-the-top during the writing process, actually work here. However, for the sake of clarity, the punctuation may need work.] So Harold determined that Marie had some problems. [This sentence is unnecessary.] His family was upset when they learned that he and Marie were through. But then, Harold looked them up and realized they had classic dissociative identity disorder. [Dissociative identity disorder is not the right disorder for the family. Find another one that works for them.] That explained everything.

Please send me your thoughts and comments about this paragraph. I would love to hear from you.

The Beauty of a Terrible Rough Draft

Monday, August 31st, 2009

Many aspiring writers know that they have something meaningful to say and an original way to say it. Their problem isn’t ability or talent or interest. Their problem is getting started—putting something on the blank paper in front of them. What keeps the paper blank is often the daunting prospect of a poor first draft. Writers worry that a terrible draft will set them off in the wrong direction, or, conversely, they believe that only a perfect rough draft will ensure writing success. I argue that writers shouldn’t fear creating a terrible rough draft. In fact, a terrible rough draft can be a source of many interesting ideas.

Paradoxically, the most helpful part of the writing process isn’t writing at all; it’s editing a rough draft. During this early edit, a story begins to take shape and the argument to fully manifest itself. Characters reveal their three dimensions, and their true motivations become clear. A writer can sense the full sweep of a piece and analyze its details.

A rough draft, then, contains within it many of the good ideas that a writer will develop into a final piece. It also contains the bad ideas that a writer will remove. A sprawling, meandering rough draft—one in which the plot abruptly changes halfway through or characters appear and disappear inexplicably—can provide a writer with the most ideas to develop and with the best sense of what works and what doesn’t. A rough draft that goes in several directions at once and seems to have no overarching trajectory can often contain more hidden literary gems that a pristine, tightly controlled first draft. Thus, the goal of the aspiring writer should be to create a rough draft—any rough draft, terrible though it may be.

Of course, the frustrated writer who has yet to scribble down a single sentence might find infuriating the suggestion that he or she somehow leap from a blank page to a complete manuscript. Asking a writer to fill not just one blank page, but many, can seem ridiculous. However, I argue that a rough draft is about sheer page number, and not about quality. The rough-draft writer should set a goal length and start writing.

Writing for length only forces the writer to include every idea that comes to mind—even the most seemingly ridiculous. Ideas that seem foolish during the rough-draft stage often prove to be brilliant. In the best case, a writer might have a general idea of plot or topic—the story of a girl who learns to sail, a tale of sibling rivalry or an article about mushrooms. However, a writer with no topic or no idea will usually find that a topic or idea emerges in the writing. The main idea is just to keep writing until reaching the desired length.

A few guidelines can help the rough-draft writer.

  1. Writing about the writing process can sometimes generate good ideas. For example, a sentence like, “I want to write about a boy who invents a machine that allows him to experience life as a strawberry.” might lead to a real storyline and plot. Or “I’m trying to explain how I felt when I won the marathon but lost my job.” might help a theme coalesce.
  2. However, writers should refrain from writing too much about how badly the writing process is going. Limit the number of sentences that read something like, “I can’t write. This is awful. Nobody will ever read this.” Write more about the writing than the writer.
  3. Try not to fall into the trap of The Shining, where the novel Jack Nicholson’s character has written turns out to be one endlessly repeated sentence with varying margins and line spacing. Repeating, “This is a rough draft.” will not lead to a productive rough draft, terrible or otherwise.
  4. Do not edit before the first draft is complete. No matter how badly the writing is going, refrain from going back to rework the text. Editing a partial draft is a pitfall for many writers who refine the partial so much that they never finish the draft. If you become aware of some problem before you have finished the rough draft, make a note to yourself. This note will be valuable during the revision. (Write something like, “Brenda should actually learn about the accident after she meets Noah, not before.” or “Should this story take place in the Bahamas, not in New York City?”) Remember that the unlikeliest of ideas might later be the most fruitful. Keep them all in the rough draft, because you never know what might prove to be good, upon the first edit.
  5. Try to write without rereading what you have written until you finish the rough draft. Although you might feel as though you’re writing in the dark and you might forget some of what you wrote earlier, you will be unencumbered by earlier infelicities and missteps. On your most creative days, you can write freely, without brooding about problems at the beginning of your manuscript. Every writing session will feel like a new day.
  6. Praise yourself for each addition you make to the length of your manuscript. The longer it gets, the closer you are to having a first draft to edit.
  7. Try to write your first draft in the most bare-bones way possible. Forget about outlines, writing courses, colored pens, lucky writing charms, prompts and all other writing aids. Just write.
  8. Do not give up, even if the plot stops making sense or the argument begins to drag. The point is to reach a specific word or page limit. As you write, think about patching up problems “on the fly,” without going back to edit. Make notes to yourself if you think of something you will want to rework during the edit. (See #3.) Don’t worry if the story changes significantly as you write (the nurse main character suddenly works better as a wrestler, the unmarried main character has actually been married all along). Make the change—however dramatic—and reconcile the differences in the editing process, after you finish the first draft.

Once you have a rough draft to consider, you have something to do—a piece of writing to shape and rework and perfect. The missteps that make a first draft terrible are actually paths to its potential greatness.

[Check out my next three blog postings for examples of terrible rough drafts with great potential.]

Show. Don’t Tell.

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

waterWriters who work with editors often receive the same admonition: “Show; don’t tell,” and the editors are usually correct that more “showing” would be a good idea. However, many authors have confessed to me that they cannot quite see the difference between “showing” and “telling.” In other words, they can’t tell when their “telling” has overpowered their “showing,” and they would like concrete examples of both “showing” and “telling.”

In general, it’s far more interesting to learn about a character or situation through action or dialogue, rather than through straight narration. In much the same way that we would rather see a dramatic event for ourselves than hear someone else retell it, a reader would rather “see” events unfolding, rather than just “hear” about them through narration.

The following is an unedited piece of fiction that could use more “showing.” Below the unedited version is my edit of the same text. My editorial comments are at the bottom of this post.

The man might have been envious of her, she couldn’t tell. He kept making snide comments to her as they ate, and he acted restless and uncomfortable. Jeannine always thought that envy had to be reserved for members of the same group—only young girls could envy young girls, only middle aged men could envy middle aged men. But she was a young girl, and he was a middle aged man. And he was envious. That was perfectly clear from everything he had said to her.

Earlier in the evening, Mrs. Hastings had served a spectacular coq a vin, and everyone had been very impressed. Mrs. Hastings claimed that she had worked all day on it, and she probably had. The man looked envious. He had eaten quietly, with his head down and his eyes on his plate. The conversation was stilted.

Now that it was time for dessert, the man had become more lively. He told Mrs. Hastings funny stories, and he made several pithy comments. However, he was not more friendly to Jeannine. Instead, he seemed to have become more surly than he had been earlier in the evening. He asked Jeannine various questions, and she felt that she answered them unsatisfactorily every time. He grew more angry.

At last, the man set down his tea cup and looked across the table directly at Jeannine. She waited for him to say something, resting her fork quietly on her plate. The creme brulee had been delicious. The man glared at Jeannine and asked her if she would rather be happy, wealthy or lucky?

Jeannine was unsure what her response ought to be. She looked around the table, but everyone else seemed to be looking at their plates. She asked the man why she would ever have to choose between the three.

The man asked her to just answer the question. He was insistent.

Jeannine started to laugh but realized that the man was waiting for her response. She said she supposed she would rather be lucky.

“You’re wrong!” the man shouted triumphantly. He repeated that her answer had been wrong.

“Coffee, anyone?” Mrs. Hastings asked quickly.

Jeannine started to say that she hadn’t even really understood the question.

The man told her that she was wrong, because she was supposed to want to be happy. “I asked my own daughter that question, and she said ‘happy.’ She has her priorities straight.” The man looked piercingly at Jeannine.

Jeannine argued that ‘lucky’ was subjective. She said that if someone thought it was lucky to be happy, then that person probably would be happy.

“No, that’s the wrong answer.” The man looked around the table in satisfaction, as if he had just confirmed some long-held theory.

After editing, the story reads something like this:

The man might have been envious of her. She couldn’t tell. He kept giving her evil looks as they ate, and he seemed restless and uncomfortable. Jeannine always thought that envy had to be reserved for members of the same group—only young girls could envy young girls, only middle-aged men could envy middle-aged men. But she was a young girl, and he was a middle-aged man. And he was envious. That much was clear.

Earlier in the evening, Mrs. Hastings had served a spectacular coq au vin, and everyone had been very impressed. Mrs. Hastings claimed that she had worked all day on it, and she probably had. The man looked envious. He had eaten quietly, with his head down and his eyes on his plate. The conversation was stilted.

Now that it was time for dessert, the man had become more lively. However, he was not more friendly to Jeannine. Instead, he seemed to have become more surly than he had been earlier in the evening. He asked Jeannine various questions, and she felt that she answered them unsatisfactorily every time. He grew more angry.

At last, the man set down his tea cup and looked across the table directly at Jeannine. She waited for him to say something, resting her fork quietly on her plate. The crème brûlée had been delicious. The man glared at Jeannine and said, “Would you rather be happy, wealthy or lucky?”

Jeannine was unsure what her response ought to be. She looked around the table, but everyone else seemed to be looking at their plates. She said, “Why would I ever have to choose?”

The man said, “Just answer the question—happy, wealthy or lucky?” He was insistent.

Jeannine started to laugh but realized that the man was waiting for her response. “I guess lucky,” she said. “I guess, because…”

“You’re wrong!” the man shouted triumphantly. “That’s the wrong answer!”

“Coffee, anyone?” Mrs. Hastings asked quickly.

“But I didn’t even understand the question, and why wouldn’t…?” Jeannine started.

“It’s wrong, because you’re supposed to want to be happy. I asked my own daughter that question, and she said ‘happy.’ She has her priorities straight.” The man looked piercingly at Jeannine.

“But ‘lucky’ is subjective. If you think it’s lucky to be happy, and you consider yourself lucky, you probably are happy,” Jeannine said.

“No, that’s the wrong answer.” The man looked around the table in satisfaction, as if he had just confirmed some long-held theory.

Below is the text with my editing marks. My comments to the author are in brackets and italicized. The portions I cut appear with a strike-through, and the portions I added are underlined. (In a normal Word document with “Track Changes,” my editing marks are in red, and my comments are in their own separate section, not inserted into the text.):

The man might have been envious of her,. Sshe couldn’t tell. He kept giving her evil looks making snide comments to her as they ate, [It would be better to give an example of a snide comment than merely to say that the man was making these kinds of comments. The biggest part of "showing" is to include a character's actual words, in dialogue. Did the man make any particular comments you could quote here? If not, I've added "giving her evil looks," which does not require an example in dialogue.] and he seemedacted [Normally, I resist the use of the word "seem," but if you say that the man is acting in a certain way, it might be better to give actual examples of what he is doing. Are there any examples of his restlessness and discomfort that you could include?] restless and uncomfortable. Jeannine always thought that envy had to be reserved for members of the same group—only young girls could envy young girls, only middle-aged men could envy middle-aged men. But she was a young girl, and he was a middle-aged man. And he was envious. That much was clearwas perfectly clear from everything he had said to her. [Because the reader has not seen a specific example of what the man has actually said, I think this shorter sentence is sufficient.]

Earlier in the evening, Mrs. Hastings had served a spectacular coq au vin, and everyone had been very impressed. Mrs. Hastings claimed that she had worked all day on it, and she probably had. [This sentence is interesting, but what does it really mean? Is there some reason to question Mrs. Hastings's claim about her dish? Why question her if she is probably telling the truth? In other words, why do you use the word "claimed?"] The man looked envious. He had eaten quietly, with his head down and his eyes on his plate. The conversation was stilted. [Although you do not give specific examples of the stilted conversation, this short sentence works well here. "Telling," as opposed to "showing" is a good idea here, because you want to keep the story moving.]

Now that it was time for dessert, the man had become more lively. He told Mrs. Hastings funny stories, and he made several pithy comments. [I cut these two sentences, because I think they require a dialogue example. Can you mention some specific funny or pithy comments the man makes?] However, he was not more friendly to Jeannine. Instead, he seemed to have become more surly than he had been earlier in the evening. He asked Jeannine various questions, and she felt that she answered them unsatisfactorily every time. He grew more angry.

At last, the man set down his tea cup and looked across the table directly at Jeannine. She waited for him to say something, resting her fork quietly on her plate. The crèeme brûuee had been delicious. [I like the way you inject this seemingly irrelevant sentence into the action here. It seems a real thought that Jeannine would have at this moment.] The man glared at Jeannine and asked her if she would said, “Would you rather be happy, wealthy or lucky? [This is an important moment in the story, and I think you need to use the man's exact words. If you merely paraphrase his words, the action is less precise, and the reader might not understand the importance of this question.]

Jeannine was unsure what her response ought to be. She looked around the table, but everyone else seemed to be looking at their plates. She said, “Why asked the man why she would I ever have to choose?” between the three. [Once again, I think the character's direct words make the action more immediate for the reader.]

The man asked her to said, “Jjust answer the question–happy, wealthy or lucky?”. [I restated the question for more emphasis and to be sure the reader knows exactly what the man is asking.] He was insistent.

Jeannine started to laugh but realized that the man was waiting for her response. She said she supposed she would rather be lucky. “I guess lucky,” she said. “I guess, because…” [I added this last sentence to emphasize Jeannine's uncertainty and the man's impatience.]

“You’re wrong!” the man shouted triumphantly. He repeated that her answer had been wrong. “That’s the wrong answer!” [Directly quoting the man's repetition emphasizes his unreasonableness and makes the action more precise for the reader.]

“Coffee, anyone?” Mrs. Hastings asked quickly. [I like the interruption this question provides. It's very believable in a dinner-party context.]

Jeannine started to say that she hadn’t even really understood the question. “But I didn’t even understand the question, and why wouldn’t…?” [I added this sentence, although you might want to reword it. I just mean to indicate that showing Jeannine's lack of understanding, through dialogue, is more precise than just telling the reader about it.]

The man told her that she was wrong, because she was supposed to want to be happy. “It’s wrong, because you’re supposed to want to be happy. I asked my own daughter that question, and she said ‘happy.’ She has her priorities straight.” The man looked piercingly at Jeannine. [Once again, I think the action is more vivid for the reader if you directly quote the characters. This man, in particular, reveals very strong emotions, and his direct words can convey that emotion powerfully.]

Jeannine argued that ‘lucky’ was subjective. She said that if someone thought it was lucky to be happy, then that person probably would be happy. “But ‘lucky’ is subjective. If you think it’s lucky to be happy, and you consider yourself lucky, you probably are happy,” Jeannine said. [Once again, I use the character's direct words, in order to "show" the reader more.]

“No, that’s the wrong answer.” The man looked around the table in satisfaction, as if he had just confirmed some long-held theory.

[Please post your comments about this Sample Edit. To submit your own work for a free edit--and inclusion in a posting on this blog--please write to me at jane@beaumonthardy.com.]

Writing a Rough Draft: In Praise of Absence

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

One of the first problems with trying to write is learning how to stay out of your own way. As a writer, of course, you must come up with ideas, formulate them into sentences and paragraphs, and commit them to some kind of written form. For these parts of the process, the creative and imaginative part of your writerly self must be entirely present. However, other parts of your writing self—the inner critic and the inner literary historian—should absent themselves during the early stages of writing a rough draft.

The editor in you constantly works to censor, perfect, and refine, often before any of these activities is even possible—before you have written a single word. Thus, you might find yourself rejecting certain topics or story ideas before you have even formulated a sentence. You might tell yourself that “nobody will want to read about antelopes” or “ a story about lemonade would be really boring.” Or you might have written a couple of sentences but be unable to write any more because of a driving need to perfect those two sentences. You shift words around, consult a thesaurus to replace one word with another and ultimately decide that the whole endeavor is useless. Your inner editor is working very effectively, but that editor should not even be a part of the process yet.

You might also feel the oppressive weight of literary history before you even begin to write. “Shakespeare has said it all far better than I could,” you might think. Or “I’ll never write another Gatsby.” Or “I’m sure Virginia Woolf never came up with an idea this dumb.” While all of those thoughts might ultimately be true, now is not the time to be having them. You can talk yourself out of any rough draft by dwelling too much upon literary giants and their masterful works. Although good writers should always be good readers and should know what others before them have written, once you begin your rough draft, you should try to forget what you once knew of literature. Ignore the gilt-edged tomes sitting smugly in your bookcase, and turn away from the leering busts and portraits of great past authors. Only in this way can your own work thrive. The disheartening comparisons can come at the revision stage, not now.

There are several practical ways to banish your inner editor and literary historian while you hammer out a workable rough draft.

One is to set aside a certain number of pages—either in hard copy or on a computer—that you must fill within a certain amount of time. For example, you might tell yourself to write four pages in half an hour and force yourself to do exactly that, without stopping to see if you like what you have written, if you ought to change a word, or if Hemingway would approve. This kind of single-minded page-filling is the idea behind NaNoWriMo, a writing project that encourages writers to dash out a 50,000-word novel in one month.

Another way to sidestep your inner critic is to write without ever allowing yourself to reread what you have written until you have finished your rough draft. As you forge relentlessly ahead in your draft, you forget what you’ve written and are unable to draw any conclusions about its merit or relevance to the literary canon. Even if you take a break, refrain from looking back when you next take up your writing. You may soon feel as though you’re writing in a vacuum, where the words come and go too quickly for you to have to evaluate them. There is a kind of freedom in this kind of writing, because you never feel the weight of the words you just wrote.

A third way to evade a less-than-helpful inner editing voice is to write while you’re otherwise engaged in another activity. Jerry Cleaver of The Writers’ Loft, a wildly popular Chicago writer’s workshop, suggests this very idea to his students. He recommends writing while watching television or listening to the radio. Part of your mind is on your writing, but the other part is on the television program or radio broadcast. Your inner critic is stymied by the distraction, and you can do a surprising amount of writing without self-analysis.

All of these methods can help you write a preliminary rough draft, which is an incredible first step in the writing process. Once you have a piece of text in front of you on paper or on the screen, you can begin to think about editing or revising. You might not like all of what you have written, but when you write without the burden of criticism, some part of your writing will usually feel worthwhile enough to pursue. Your main goal in producing a possible rough draft is to distance yourself as much as possible from the censorious parts of your writing self and to allow your creative self complete freedom.