Learning from the Rough Draft

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

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.]

Editing an Application Autobiography

August 16th, 2009

Colleges and graduate schools often require brief autobiographical statements from their applicants. Although an autobiography seems a straightforward subject, many applicants find personal statements more difficult than any other essay. Applicants often have trouble refining the content of their autobiographies and establishing an appropriate focus. A narrow focus is usually the key to the most successful application autobiographies.

The following is the unedited version of a one-paragraph response to an application question that reads, “Write a brief (200 words maximum) statement describing the life experiences that you believe prepared you for this Master’s program.

Below the unedited version is my edited version of the same text. (For this particular job, I also did some rewriting of the text. ) My editorial comments are at the bottom of the post.

I believe that three life experiences prepared me for the Master’s program, and I will describe each in turn. I was born in China to American parents, and I know what it’s like to be straddling two different cultures. In China, I looked different from most other people, but I sounded the way everyone else did. I spoke fluent Chinese–and still do. In America, I fit in with my Caucasian appearance, but I feel different. I see events and situations from the perspective of the Asian culture in which I was born and raised and where I lived until university. My second life experience was that my cousin was born with a severe learning disability that made it impossible for him to go to a regular school. His parents hired tutors, but he did better when family members helped him themselves. His parents were both busy, so when I became old enough, I took over the responsibility of tutoring him. I became very interested in childhood learning and teaching methods for the disabled. I got a great deal of early practice in teaching, and I feel that this practice would be useful in the Master’s program. My third important life experience was that I helped to edit an educational textbook when I had just graduated from secondary school in China. My parents knew someone who worked at the university, and I was hired as a summertime research assistant before I went off to university myself. The book is still in print today, and it was about the effect of social context in early childhood development. I believe these three experiences make me a good candidate for the Master’s program.

After editing, the autobiography reads as follows:

I am confident that I can succeed in the Master’s program. Three separate experiences have taught me to appreciate the complexity of living in two different cultures, to understand the reality of education for those with learning disabilities, and to know the importance of the academic study of education. I was born in China to American parents, and I have straddled two different cultures my entire life.  In China, I looked different from most other people, but I spoke fluent Chinese and sounded like everyone else. In the United States, my appearance is unremarkable, but I often see events and situations from an Asian perspective. I still speak fluent Chinese and have learned to appreciate my bicultural sensibility. My educational experience had a certain duality as well, because I was a student as well as a teacher during much of my youth. My cousin was born with a severe learning disability that made it impossible for him to attend a regular school. He needed the help of tutors but worked best when a member of his family tutored him. When I became old enough, I took over the responsibility of tutoring my cousin. I became very interested in childhood learning and teaching methods for the disabled. This hands-on practice developed my ability to think creatively and spontaneously about teaching. I learned a great deal more about the academic aspects of teaching when I helped edit an educational textbook during the summer after I graduated from secondary school in China. I was particularly interested in the subject of the textbook–an analysis of the effect of social context on early childhood development, and I enjoyed working with the professor who wrote it. The book is still in print today and is very important in its field. Because of my cross-cultural background, my teaching experience with learning disability and my work in academic publishing, I believe I am a strong candidate for the Master’s degree.

Below is the piece 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.)

I believe that three life experiences prepared me for am confident that I can succeed in the Master’s program, and I will describe each in turn. [Rather than restate the question, it’s better to start with a strong statement about your good fit with the program itself.] Three separate experiences have taught me to appreciate the complexity of living in two different cultures, to understand the reality of education for those with learning disabilities, and to know the importance of the academic study of education. [This sentence summarizes the three life experiences you will mention and gives the reader a quick overview of the essay.] I was born in China to American parents, and I haveknow what it’s like to be straddlinged two different cultures my entire life. [I eliminated some of the unnecessary words in this sentence.] In China, I looked different from most other people, but I spoke fluent Chinese and sounded like the way everyone else did. I spoke fluent Chinese–and still do. In America the United States, [I like the parallelism of “In China” and “In the United States.” I changed “America” to “the United States,” because “America” can include Central and South America as well.] my appearance is unremarkable I fit in with my Caucasian appearance, but I often feel different. I see events and situations from the perspective of the an Asian perspective culture in which I was born and raised and where I lived until university. I still speak fluent Chinese and have learned to appreciate my bicultural sensibility. My educational experience had a certain duality as well, because I was a student as well as a teacher during much of my youth. [I use the previous two sentences to summarize your first life experience and to preview the second.] My second life experience was that my cousin was born with a severe learning disability that made it impossible for him to go to attend a regular school. Heis parents hired needed the help of tutors, but he did worked betterst when a member of his family members helped tutored him themselves. They were both busy, so wWhen I became old enough, I took over the responsibility of tutoring him my cousin. I became very interested in childhood learning and teaching methods for the disabled. I got a great deal of early practice in teaching, and I feel that this practice would be useful in the Master’s program This hands-on practice developed my ability to think creatively and spontaneously about teaching. I learned a great deal more about the academic aspects of teaching when My third important life experience was that I helped to edit an educational textbook during the summer after when I had just graduated from secondary school in China. I was particularly interested in the subject of the textbook–an analysis of the effect of social context on early childhood development, and I enjoyed working with the professor who wrote it. The book is still in print today and is very important in its field. My parents knew someone who worked at the university, and I was hired as a summertime research assistant before I went off to university myself. The book is still in print today, and it was about the effect of social context in early childhood development. I believe these three experiences make me a good candidate for the Master’s program. Because of my cross-cultural background, my teaching experience with learning disability and my work in academic publishing, I believe I am a strong candidate for the Master’s degree.

Please feel free to send me your comments about this edit. I would love to hear from you.

Learning from Hint Fiction

August 11th, 2009

Although Robert Swartwood’s new hint fiction anthology (W.W. Norton, 2010) is a compelling enough reason to write hint fiction, publication is not the only reason to write in this intriguing new genre. Crafting a successful piece of hint fiction is, in itself, an excellent writing exercise. By its very nature, hint fiction demands that its author select each word carefully and understand the pacing and timing inherent in a small collection of sentences.

Swartwood, who coined the term, defines “hint fiction” as a work of 25 words or less that suggests a larger story without telling it outright. Thus, as Swartwood says, a piece of hint fiction implies conflict and its potential outcome but does not have a traditional beginning, middle and end. Under Swartwood’s definition, hint fiction must have a title, which conveniently allows the author to convey more meaning outside the 25-word limit.

The following is an unedited piece of hint fiction. Below the unedited version is my edit of the same text. My editorial comments are at the bottom of this post.

JURY DUTY

The women in the corner say that they think he looks innocent. I haven’t said anything, because I know how dangerous he really can be.

After editing, the piece reads as follows:

JURY DUTY

The woman in purple says, “He’s innocent. His eyes look innocent.” I don’t say anything, because I saw him that morning with the knife.

Below is the piece 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.)

[This story is an effective piece of hint fiction, as it suggests a larger plot without telling it directly. A few changes in word choice can make better use of the 25-word limit and convey the suggested story more pointedly and dramatically.] The women in the cornerwoman in purple [Perhaps one woman would be just as effective as more than one. “In the corner” could normally be an effective descriptor, but with so few words available to convey the storyline, it seems that you could say something that more effectively differentiates the women from the male defendant about whom they are speaking.] says, that they think he looks innocent “He’s innocent. His eyes look innocent. [Dialogue is interesting here, and repeating the word “innocent” emphasizes the woman’s assessment. The repetition also serves to highlight the narrator’s own secret knowledge.] I haven’t said don’t say anything, [The past participle—“haven’t said”—introduces a confusing time element. It isn’t necessary for the narrator to indicate a time different from the one in which the woman is speaking.], because I know what he’s really like saw him that morning with the knife. [In a longer piece, “I know what he’s really like” could introduce a more in detailed discussion of the defendant’s true nature. However, this very short piece benefits from more precision.]

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

Interesting New Market for Short, Short Fiction

August 4th, 2009

Writers of the shortest of short fiction have an interesting new market for their brief works. In a recent blog, writer Robert Swartwood solicits submissions for a new W.W. Norton anthology of hint fiction.

Shorter and more mysterious than the traditional 1,000-words-or-less flash fiction, hint fiction has a maximum word length of 25. Unlike flash fiction, hint fiction merely suggests a larger story, rather than telling it outright. However, a piece of hint fiction still manages to encompass the overarching idea of a complete story.

Read Robert Swartwood’s blog for details about the online submission process and for helpful—and enviable—examples of hint fiction. The submission deadline is August 31, 2009.

Your Autobiography—Where to Begin, What to Include

August 3rd, 2009

Many of my clients at Beaumont Hardy need help editing their autobiographies or autobiographical statements. At one time or another, almost everyone needs to compose an autobiography of some length—as an application essay for a school or a job, as part of a master’s thesis or dissertation, or as a potential nonfiction book project. These autobiographies can present many challenges.

In general, I recommend that writers think of their own autobiographies as stories, sifting through facts and details until a coherent “storyline” emerges. This “storyline” will often indicate a good starting point for the autobiography and will suggest which details are worth including (or eliminating). I also suggest that writers think of themselves as characters in their autobiographies, presenting details and events in such a way that they emerge three-dimensionally and realistically. The most successful autobiographies have about them a sense of the universal—some theme or idea that speaks to all readers. A writer who discovers and highlights this universality will usually create a very readable autobiography.

These general rules usually work, but autobiographical writing often requires the guidance of an outside editor. Because writers of autobiographies are, by definition, very close to their subject matter, an editor can help them choose details and descriptions that will most effectively present their own stories. I have helped many authors resolve the most common autobiographical dilemmas to produce concise, compelling autobiographies and autobiographical statements.

The first dilemma in writing an autobiography is to determine its scope. The contents of an autobiography are limited only by one’s lifespan. Thus, an autobiography could conceivably begin at the writer’s birth and exhaustively detail every moment until the writer’s last breath. Because only the writer’s mother and closest friends would enjoy such detail, at Beaumont Hardy I step in to cut away extraneous material to reveal only the most salient parts of a life.

Another dilemma of autobiography-writing is knowing how to present the information. Depending on the purpose of the autobiography, a writer might want to highlight some details that would be irrelevant in another autobiographical context. For instance, the focus of a short autobiography for a dissertation might be very different from that of an autobiographical job application essay. At Beaumont Hardy, I have helped many authors tailor their autobiographical statements to suit their particular purposes and audiences.

Writing a book-length autobiography is the most complex autobiographical dilemma, as the issues of scope and presentation become particularly important. Paring down a life to one paragraph or one essay is difficult, but shaping that life into an interesting book can be most difficult of all. I have guided many authors in refining the pacing and focus of their long autobiographies.

Feel free to e-mail me about your particular autobiography-editing needs. I can help you with content, editing and focus.

Descriptive Paragraph #2

July 31st, 2009

Visitors to beaumonthardy.com often want to learn about writing more interesting and effective descriptive paragraphs. As any writer knows, descriptive paragraphs are important in both fiction and nonfiction, and a well-crafted paragraph can make the difference between mediocre and outstanding writing. Although writing coaches often suggest that the best descriptive paragraphs appeal to each of the five senses, I believe that successful description need not adhere to a sensory checklist.

The following is an unedited descriptive paragraph about a place. Below the unedited version is my edit of the same text. My editorial comments are at the bottom of this post.

The pools were hot and steamy, and the jungle loomed darkly around them. There were actually two separate pools, separated from each other by a narrow stone walkway that looked dark and damp in the moonlight. There were dim lights in the pools, which made the swimmers look like shadows in the water. Little drifts of steam wafted above the surface of the water, which seemed to gently lap against the stone walls of the pool. The air felt warm and damp, and it seemed held in place by the black jungle surrounding them. Cora could feel a thrill of danger as she removed her towel and stepped into the hot and steamy water with the jungle all around.

After editing, the descriptive paragraph reads as follows:

The two pools were hot and steamy, and the jungle loomed darkly around them.  The narrow stone walkway separating the pools looked damp in the moonlight, and the dim pool lights made the swimmers look like shadows in the water. Little drifts of steam wafted above the surface of the water, which gently lapped against the stone walls of the pools. The air felt warm and damp, held in place as it was by the black jungle surrounding them. Cora felt a thrill of danger as she removed her towel and stepped into the steamy water.

Below is the paragraph 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 two pools were hot and steamy, and the jungle loomed darkly around them. [I added “two” so that I could simplify the sentence that follows.] There were actually two separate pools, separated from each other by a The narrow stone walkway separating the polls that looked dark and damp in the moonlight., [The imagery in this sentence is good, but it gets lost among too many words. I’ve pared down the sentence. In general, I think it’s best to avoid beginning a sentence—especially a descriptive one—with “There were.” In this sentence and the one that follows, I’ve altered the sentences so that they begin more actively and colorfully.] and tThere were dim pool lights in the pools, which made the swimmers look like shadows in the water. [I eliminated “in the pools” to get rid of the repetition of “in the.”] Little drifts of steam wafted above the surface of the water, which seemed to gently lapped against the stone walls of the pool. [“Seemed to” weakens the description. In this case, the water probably does, in fact, lap against the walls of the pools, right?] The air felt warm and damp, and it seemed held in place  as it was by the black jungle surrounding them. Cora could feel felt a thrill of danger as she removed her towel and stepped into the hot and steamy water with the jungle all around. [This is a good, solid description. Eliminating a few extraneous words helps it read more powerfully.]

Let me know what you think of this edit. I would love to hear from you.

Do You Really Need a Freelance Editor?

July 15th, 2009

glass2I say “yes,” and here’s why.

Writers often tell themselves that hiring a freelance editor is a needless expense. Most editors charge between $20 and $30 per hour, and editing can take several hours. Many writers think they ought to be able to edit their own work and feel that they are undeserving of publication if they need the help of an outside editor. Writers also know that publishing houses edit–for free–the work they acquire for publication. These writers prefer the free editing an in-house editor provides over the pre-acquisition expense of a freelance editor. Still other writers argue that their friends and family read their work and give them editing help at no charge.

These arguments are valid in some cases, but most writers really can benefit from the help of a freelancer.

Self-editing is certainly a valuable skill and one that all writers should develop. However, self-editing is not always enough. Writers often describe the feeling of being “too close” to a manuscript—reading it over and over so many times that they lose their objectivity. Once a writer reaches this point, he or she can easily skim over errors that an outside reader would spot. Plot choices and content might also make sense only to the writer; an outside editor can find logical inconsistencies that the writer can no longer see. There is a limit to the efficacy of self-editing, and a good freelance editor can step in when a writer reaches this limit.

The argument that publishers provide free in-house editing fails to take into account the cutthroat nature of book publishing. An unsolicited manuscript rarely reaches the free-editing stage. For the most part, editorial assistants are the ones who read unsolicited manuscripts, and they look for every reason to reject a manuscript. Only a select few manuscripts ever reach the eyes of the acquisitions editor. Thus, a writer counting on the free editing of an acquisitions editor might never move past the gatekeeping editorial assistants. Because rejections are so likely at the gatekeeping stage, I argue that writers should present their cleanest, best-edited manuscripts when making unsolicited submissions. A freelance editor is an invaluable aid at this stage of the submission process.

Friends and family are wonderful, supportive readers, but they are not necessarily the most critical. Unless friends and family members are very familiar with the publishing industry, they can rarely make the kinds of editing suggestions that a well-informed editor will make. And of course, friends and family put their relationships with the writer before their literary comments, as they should. An objective outside editor is in the best position to make the kinds of comments most helpful to an author, because the editor and author have a strictly professional relationship.

Although a freelance editor can, at first, seem a daunting expense, a freelance editor can also be your best ally in the battle for publication.

Write to me, and let me know what you think.

Writing Prompts: Using Them In the Introduction

July 6th, 2009

sunsetWriting instructors—and some clever websites—often provide prompts to motivate writers in need of a creative push. Although stories generated by writing prompts can read like exactly what they are (a story that must include the words “pig,” “rocket” and “deed of restrictions,” for example), they can also be excellent pieces of writing. When used creatively, writing prompts can lead to interesting, original stories.

Arguably, some of the most successful prompt-generated writing happens when the author uses the prompt as a trigger for his or her own ideas—ideas that are unrelated to the prompts themselves. Writers who take a moment to free associate based on the prompt often write something that is unconnected to the original prompt but that is filled with meaning for the author. Taking full ownership of the prompt can make the difference between a mere writing exercise and a well-crafted piece of writing.

One way to break free of the writing-exercise feel of a prompt is to use the prompt, or prompts, at the beginning of a story, in its introductory material. A prompt can, thus, motivate an author in the opening of a story without forcing the author to develop a plot that connects, for example, a penguin, a clown and a cigar.

The following is the unedited opening of a story based on three prompts—chicken, quilt and fake mustache. Below the unedited version is my edit of the text. My editorial comments are at the bottom of this post.

It was my turn to make dinner, and I was mad about that fact. I didn’t feel like cooking at all. All I really wanted to do was plop down on the couch and watch TV. I remembered the frozen dinners I had bought earlier that week, on special at the grocery store—two for one. I pulled them quickly out of the freezer and put them on the counter. We’d be having chicken again.

Bruce was wrapped in my grandmother’s old quilt, sleeping and snoring in front of the TV. I plopped down next to him and flipped away from the wrestling program he had been watching on the TV. I found a made for TV romance movie starring a washed up actress who seemed to have developed a facial tick since the last time I had seen her. Her love interest was a scared looking cowboy. The actor playing him looked terrified of his own horse. Or maybe he was terrified his obviously fake mustache would fall off.

Bruce groaned in his sleep, and I turned down the volume somewhat. Suddenly, Bruce was wide awake and gawking at me. I felt startled and looked away from the TV. “What?,” I asked in a frightened voice.

“I have something to tell you,” he said.

“What is it?” I asked softly.

“You know that convenience store I was telling you about?” he asked nervously.

I nodded. Bruce slowly unwrapped the quilt from around his body, revealing several stacks of twenty-dollar bills on his lap.

The final edited opening reads as follows:

It was my turn to make dinner, and I didn’t feel like cooking. All I really wanted to do was watch TV. I remembered the frozen dinners I had bought earlier that week, on special at the grocery store. I pulled them out of the freezer and put them on the counter. We’d be having chicken again.

Bruce was wrapped in my grandmother’s old quilt, snoring in front of the TV. I plopped down next to him and flipped away from the wrestling program he had been watching. I found a made-for-TV romance starring a washed-up actress who seemed to have developed a facial tic since the last time I had seen her. Her love interest was a cowboy. The actor playing him looked terrified of his own horse. Or maybe he was terrified his obviously fake mustache would fall off.

Bruce groaned in his sleep, and I turned down the volume. Suddenly, he was wide awake and staring at me. “What?” I asked.

“I have something to tell you,” he said. “You know that convenience store I was telling you about?”

I nodded. Bruce slowly unwrapped the quilt from around his body, revealing several stacks of twenty-dollar bills on his lap.

Here is the story opening with my editing marks visible. 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.):

It was my turn to make dinner, and I was mad about that fact. [Linking this sentence to the next conveys the narrator’s feelings about making dinner.]  I didn’t feel like cooking at all. [“At all” doesn’t add to the meaning of the sentence.] All I really wanted to do was plop down on the couch and watch TV. [I cut “plop down on the couch” for two reasons. First, “plop down…,” as an expression, tends to feel clichéd. Cutting it keeps your writing fresh. Second, you later talk about plopping down. I didn’t think you should use this same term twice within two paragraphs.] I remembered the frozen dinners I had bought earlier that week, on special at the grocery store—two for one. [The detail about the special tends to pull the reader away from the story, so I suggest cutting it.] I pulled them quickly out of the freezer and put them on the counter. We’d be having chicken again.

Bruce was wrapped in my grandmother’s old quilt, sleeping and snoring [“Snoring” sufficiently conveys the idea of sleeping.] in front of the TV. I plopped down next to him and flipped away from the wrestling program he had been watching on the TV. I found a madeforTV romance movie starring a washedup actress who seemed to have developed a facial tick since the last time I had seen her. Her love interest was a scared looking cowboy. [I recommend cutting “scared-looking.” The cowboy isn’t scared-looking, but the actor playing him is. Your idea will be clearer if you don’t mention the actor’s frightened looks until the next sentence.] The actor playing him looked terrified of his own horse. Or maybe he was terrified his obviously fake mustache would fall off.

Bruce groaned in his sleep, and I turned down the volume somewhat. Suddenly, Bruce he was wide awake and gawking staring at me. [“Gawking” feels like too strong a word here. Wouldn’t Bruce merely be staring?] I felt startled and looked away from the TV. [The fact that Bruce is wide awake and staring at the narrator is sufficient to indicate to the reader that she is startled.] “What?,” I asked in a frightened voice.

“I have something to tell you,” he said. “You know that convenience store I was telling you about?”

“What is it?” I asked softly. [Although the narrator may have asked this question, it’s unnecessary to the dialogue.]

“You know that convenience store I was telling you about?” he asked nervously.

I nodded. Bruce slowly unwrapped the quilt from around his body, revealing several stacks of twenty-dollar bills on his lap.

[Please send me 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.]

Emotion: How Much is Too Much?

June 17th, 2009

When describing a scene of extreme anguish or emotion, many writers want to convey every nuance of feeling directly to the reader. This attempt at literal emotional transcription can sometimes result in an overabundance of adverbs and adjectives—wordiness, in general. Often, the best way to convey extreme emotion is to under-describe it, taking the old “less-is-more” adage to heart.

The following is an unedited piece of text that tends to shroud the emotion in unnecessary wording. Below the unedited version is my edit of the same text. My editorial comments are at the bottom of this post.

“I never wanted to marry you,” Maurice said blandly, buttering his toast as though he hadn’t dropped an earth-shattering bomb on me, destroying everything I once held dear in my life.

“What?” I said quietly, not really sure how to react. This was the worst comment anyone had ever made to me, and I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry or tear my hair out in desperation. The room seemed to get smaller, and I had trouble filling my lungs with air. I felt like I was on the verge of fainting, but I also felt like a surge of electricity had shot through me and like I was suddenly bursting with rage or shock. I wanted to throw dishes at Maurice or sit quietly and sob.

“You heard me,” he said—arrogantly, I thought. “Never once did I really want to marry you.” He folded his napkin meticulously and put it neatly by his plate, lining up his fork as well.

I thought he must be joking. I looked around frantically for a calendar, thinking it must be April Fool’s Day. My head was spinning, and I wasn’t able to focus.

“So why did you—marry me?” I asked foolishly. I couldn’t think of anything more logical to say.

Maurice stood up from the table, quietly smoothing the hair over his temples. He always worried that his hair stuck out around his ears. He really was vain, I thought to myself. I felt my insides go cold and then hot, and I thought I would be sick. We had been married for eleven years, and I had thought we were blissfully happy—well, not blissfully, but happy.

“I thought we were happy,” I said, knowing how hollow those words must sound and feeling my throat close over them as I uttered them.

“Maybe you were,” he said chillingly. “I have to go to work,” he added, advancing toward the door as though it were any other day.

After editing, the passage reads as follows:

“I never wanted to marry you,” Maurice said blandly, buttering his toast.

“What?” I was not really sure how to react. The room seemed to get smaller, and I had trouble filling my lungs with air.

“You heard me,” he said. “Never once did I really want to marry you.” He folded his napkin and put it by his plate, lining up his fork as well.

I thought he must be joking. “So why did you—marry me?” I asked foolishly.

Maurice stood up from the table, quietly smoothing the hair over his temples. He always worried that his hair stuck out around his ears.

“I thought we were happy,” I said, knowing how hollow those words must sound and feeling my throat close over them as I uttered them.

“Maybe you were,” he said. “I have to go to work,” he added, as though it were any other day.

Here is the passage with my editing marks visible. 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.)

“I never wanted to marry you,” Maurice said blandly, buttering his toast as though he hadn’t dropped an earth-shattering bomb on me, destroying everything I once held dear in my life. [The word “blandly” and Maurice’s act of buttering his toast sufficiently indicate that he is acting as though nothing has happened. The reader will understand that his comment is earth-shattering without the narrator having to mention this fact.]

“What?” I said quietly, was not really sure how to react. [Could the narrator say something other than “What”? If she made a slightly more irrelevant comment, you could show the reader her uncertainty. I eliminated “said” to avoid repeating it.] This was the worst comment anyone had ever made to me, and I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry or tear my hair out in desperation. The room seemed to get smaller, and I had trouble filling my lungs with air. I felt like I was on the verge of fainting, but I also felt like a surge of electricity had shot through me and like I was suddenly bursting with rage or shock. I wanted to throw dishes at Maurice or sit quietly and sob. [Your descriptions of this moment are very vivid, but using fewer of them gives the moment more impact. The sentence about the room getting smaller seems to encompass the ideas of the others and very graphically demonstrates the narrator’s emotion.]

“You heard me,” he said—arrogantly, I thought. [The adverb is unnecessary. Maurice’s spare language sufficiently indicates his arrogance and emotional distance. In addition, the narrator seems too upset to be able to assess Maurice’s true emotions.] “Never once did I really want to marry you.” He folded his napkin meticulously and put it neatly by his plate, lining up his fork as well. [The adverbs are colorful, but your pared-down words convey Maurice’s cold emotion very well.]

I thought he must be joking. I looked around frantically for a calendar, thinking it must be April Fool’s Day. My head was spinning, and I wasn’t able to focus. [Would the narrator really look for a calendar at this moment? Saying “I thought he must be joking” in the next sentence is sufficient, I think, to convey her sense of unreality.]

I thought he must be joking. “So why did you—marry me?” I asked foolishly. I couldn’t think of anything more logical to say. [“Foolishly” is sufficient to show that the narrator wishes she could think of something better to say.]

Maurice stood up from the table, quietly smoothing the hair over his temples. He always worried that his hair stuck out around his ears. He really was vain, I thought to myself. I felt my insides go cold and then hot, and I thought I would be sick. We had been married for eleven years, and I had thought we were blissfully happy—well, not blissfully, but happy. [“He really was vain” is not particularly necessary. The reader will see Maurice’s vanity when he stands smoothing his hair at this moment of great crisis.]

“I thought we were happy,” I said, knowing how hollow those words must sound and feeling my throat close over them as I uttered them.

“Maybe you were,” he said chillingly. [“Chillingly” feels unnecessary. Maurice’s unfeeling sentence is enough to convey this idea.] “I have to go to work,” he added, advancing toward the door as though it were any other day.

[Please send me 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.]