On Looking Again

On Looking Again

Ruth E. Walker

At the end of every summer, I’m on the hunt. My prey? Bushes loaded with blackberries. Our Haliburton Highlands cottage property and the nearby road is thick with wild blackberry bushes and, depending on the year, they can offer a treasure trove of tartly sweet fruit.

Berries or no berries, those bushes are also loaded with thorns. Even the leaves of the blackberry bush are ready to tangle in your hair with a grip almost as powerful as super glue. But I persevere.

Why?

Blackberry jam.

I feel just like a pioneer as I gather those berries and the resulting jam is a delightful mix of sugary sweet and tangy tartness. I’ll admit that hunting for berries is not an easy task. The nasty thorns, for one thing. And the sneaky way blackberries can hide from even the most diligent picker.

Sneaky? Yes! This morning, I picked what I thought would mash down into 3 1/2 cups of crushed berries. I picked my bushes clean of ripe fruit so surely…nope. So I added my few blueberries and my last two strawberries. Surely now…nope, again.

I’d scoured those bushes and brought in what I could and it still wasn’t enough. Nonetheless, I know ripe blackberries can hide under leaves and deep inside the undergrowth. So I slipped back outside and…

Fresh eyes

A treasure trove waited for me. As I picked the berries I’d completely missed just two hours before, I thought about how editing is a lot like this. In two hours, the sun had shifted the shadows from early morning. The glistening ripe berries were there all along but in shadow.

Just like the typos and grammar glitches and dropped plot threads can elude me until I put the writing away for a while, the berries needed me to take a second look with fresh eyes.

It’s my pleasure to work with other writers as their editor and sometimes, their writing coach. While it may be easier to find typos, grammar glitches and dropped plot threads in others’ work, it is still important that I take a second look.

It’s not about me

For me, another look at a manuscript is a check for what I missed the first time. It’s also important that I consider my more substantive edits. Maybe I was tired and misunderstood the writer’s intent. Or more importantly, maybe I’m putting more of “me” into the edit.

It’s important to honour the writer’s voice, their style and their intent. If my coaching or edits put any of that off course, then I’m not doing my job.

As an editor and as a writing coach, I work on helping the writer discover their strengths and pay attention to any areas they need to develop. I might offer a suggested approach to a particular scene or ways to build on character development. The writer can take my suggestions and make them their own. Or freely reject the suggestion and take a different approach — one that fits their style and voice.

But when it is about me…

In my own creative work, that second look is vital. It’s especially effective when I’ve put some distance between my first draft and the drafts to follow. Just like those berries and the shifting light and shadows, I can completely miss a treasure trove in my own manuscript unless I give it time enough for my fresh eyes.

Strengthening your scenes

Strengthening your scenes

Gwynn Scheltema

Have you ever read a section in a novel and then skimmed or skipped pages to get to the next interesting bit? Have you ever got frustrated over having to plough through screeds of internal character soul searching before anything actually happens? How about being confused and frustrated about where the story is taking place or who the character is and only finding out pages later?

In my recent blog, “What is a scene” I examined what a scene was and its function in a story: namely it is a building block in your story that moves the story forward, actions and tension that result in a change of some kind, either in the growth of the characters/relationships or the course of the plot or both.

If you are including these elements and your scenes still feel flat or confusing, how can you up the energy? Ask yourself these questions:

Is this scene dramatic?

Image by Isa KARAKUS

I don’t mean: is there violent action or overwrought emotion happening? I’m talking “show don’t tell.” Make your reader a witness to what happens. Is the reader “hearing” the character actually speak the words in dialogue or merely being told that the character said them? Is the reader being told that a character is angry or actually witnessing the physical or verbal reaction of that character that shows the anger? Is the reader observing the setting through the eyes and emotional perspective of the character, or being given a dry listing of the stage set?

Is the setting right for the scene?

Important news delivered in place from which there is no retreat or where expression of emotion is difficult will add tension. A child being told they are adopted on the school bus. A wedding engagement broken off in a busy restaurant. Being followed at night versus in the day.

Sometimes just changing the weather helps. If a marriage proposal takes place on a cliff, a lovely sunny day makes things easy (and likely boring). What if there’s a high wind? (element of danger or resistance) Rain? (negative feelings). Even proximity to the edge of the cliff can change the feel of the scene and either heighten or play against the emotions being expressed.

Is this scene repetitive?

Image by prettysleepy1

Because we write novels over long periods of time, it’s easy to forget that we have already mentioned something earlier. Did the reader already witness a scene that showed the tense relationship between siblings? If so, is this new scene showing something different in the relationship, like an escalation or de-escalation of that sibling tension?

Is this scene in the right place in the novel?

Would it help to move a scene closer to the beginning or end? Perhaps if the reader knew that a character hated her father early in the novel, her negative reactions to other male characters would seem more natural. Finding out early in internal dialogue that Amy really loves Jimmy despite her actions to the contrary might deflate the tension. If the reader believes like Jimmy that she hates him, the later realization and revelation of her love for him would be a more dramatic moment.

Can I up the stakes or make things harder?

Can you inject extra complications, or greater emotional or physical strain? Anything you can do to make things more difficult for your character helps. They don’t have to be big things. Rushing up a hill rather than on flat ground; running out of time; car trouble; interruptions…

Is this scene important?

If it’s important, slow it down. Our natural tendency as tension mounts is to go faster and faster, but the opposite maxim applies to good pacing in scenes. If your action is over too quickly the readers don’t get to enjoy the excitement. If the moment is high tension, give readers all the details, all the reactions, all the choreography.

Did I “Get in late and leave early.”?

I don’t know where I heard it, but I use this advice all the time to examine my scenes. Excessive internal thought, long description or exposition, or purposeless action or dialogue is a killer of tension at the start of a scene. It’s what one of my writing mentors refers to as “throat clearing”. Get to the action as soon as you can.

Image by Frauke Flohr

Consider this: The scene begins with a groom stuck in traffic. His cell phone is dead and he’s getting more angry with the taxi driver who moves him slowly though the traffic so that they finally arrive at the church just as his tear-stained bride is leaving on the arm of her father. —OR —The scene begins as a taxi screams into the church parking lot with the groom just as the tear-stained bride is leaving on the arm of her father.

And the same for leaving early. When a tense action scene has finished, don’t deflate the whole thing with a page of internal analysis or angst from the character. Yes, we do want to know how the character is affected and what they are going to do next, but use that page turning tension to start the next scene.

You might even consider ending mid –action. Now there’s a page turner. Or perhaps end with a character epiphany, or a promise of further revelation, a discovery or a threat. As they say about so many things: “Leave them wanting more.”

Last Word

Tighter, richer and more textured scenes make for a tighter, richer more textured novel. Examining individual scenes and making them as strong as you can is worth the effort.

What is a scene?

What is a scene?

Gwynn Scheltema

I was with a group of accomplished writers last night, discussing emotional shifts in scenes. Part way through, one of the group said, “I understand all this, but my problem is, I can’t get my head around what a scene is in the first place.”

Of course, we all offered up our version of “what a scene is”, but they were somewhat vague definitions and all different. I know for my part, I had to really think to put what I know instinctively into words. Hence this post.

Basic definitions

A dictionary definition describes a scene as “a sequence of continuous action in a play, movie, opera, or book. Synonyms: section, segment, part, clip, sequence”, but when faced with dividing up pages of fiction, that doesn’t really help.

In the film and video world, a scene is generally defined as “the action in a single location and continuous time.” Again, in fiction, that leaves questions. Is a run of internal thought a scene? What if the location changes during a single action? What if the whole book takes place in one location or in one single time unit?

Expanded definitions

Scenes are capsules in which compelling characters undertake significant actions in a vivid and memorable way that allows the events to feel as if they are happening in real time. (Make a Scene by Jordan E. Rosenfeld.)

A scene is a sequence where a character or characters engage in some sort of action and/or dialogue. Scenes should have a beginning, middle and end (a mini-story arc), and should focus around a definite point of tension that moves the story forward. (Teach Yourself How to Write a Blockbuster by Lee Weatherly and Helen Corner )

A scene is a unit of story in which something changes. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and at the end something is different than it was at the beginning. It may be a character or a situation, or just our understanding of a character or a situation, but whatever it is, it’s changed when the scene is over. (What’s a Scene (And What’s A Chapter?), Timothy Hallinan)

Never mind the definitions

All of these definitions make good points, and there’s likely no perfect definition that works for every circumstance. It’s largely instinctive, so if it feels to you like a scene, treat it that way.

I think the easiest way to decide if a scene is a scene is to know that every scene must have purpose. Every scene should do these two things:

  • move the story forward—the reader learns new things about the character or the plot events or both.
  • affect dramatic tension —something must change: events escalate, or relationships grow or emotions become heightened or diffused.
Image by Sasin Tipchai

Scenes are building blocks. Most often, they involve an action undertaken by the characters. The reader watches the action unfold “in real time” like watching a movie. They hear what the characters say, they witness the movements they make; they see the setting; and— they learn something new about the plot or the characters. Action and reaction.

A simple description of a setting is not a scene— but a character moving through and noticing that setting in a way that triggers a memory that we then witness as back story played out before us is a scene.

A summary history of a fantasy world is not a scene— but a character discussing that history with another character in dialogue is a scene.

A strong scene is one that has drama (action witnessed; movement and/or dialogue- internal or external); emotion (character reaction that reveals character development), and a sense of time and place (feels real and keeps the reader grounded.)

Image by Wokandapix

How long a scene is, or whether it involves only dialogue or only physical action is irrelevant. My test is to ask myself these things:

  • Does this segment have a purpose? If I removed it would the story be lacking?
  • Does this segment have energy (show don’t tell) or will the reader skip over it?
  • Does the dramatic tension change in some way over the course of the scene?

Last Word

This post just skims the surface, but it’s a start. Explore these links to learn more.

Rebuilding Your (Porch) Novel

Rebuilding Your (Porch) Novel

Ruth E. Walker

Sometimes what happens in our lives has a weird way of being reflected in our writing journeys. It’s a bit like the universe has a sense of humour. And sometimes, we get to laugh. Or at least smile.

At the end of winter at the cottage, it was lovely to see the deep snowdrifts finally melt. Of course, there were also lots of cold snaps, so that the melt was often stopped in its tracks. That included on the roof of our screened porch. Melt freeze. Melt freeze. Melt freeze. We were unable to get up to the cottage for a couple of weeks to check for ice. The ice dam formed. And then the April rain came.

Soon enough, it was raining inside the screened porch. A dozen buckets could barely keep up.

So my husband and I got on top of the roof, for hours scraping off the ice build up. Finally, all the ice was cleared off.

Sifting through a mess

But the damage was done. Not only did we have to replace the roof but some walls, insulation and flooring had to be ripped out. Then, time to shore up the foundation. Add new load-bearing beams.  

Given some moments to rest between ripping out and building back up, I had some time to reflect. It is, I thought, a lot like editing.

Which is what I am doing with my novel in progress. The story explores some turning points in my character’s childhood, teen years and his life as a young man. As the novel is based on an old Breton fairy tale, I wrote earlier drafts all in chronological fashion. Once upon a time…to…They lived happily (ahem) ever after.

But I’ve come to realize the novel isn’t quite working in that structure.

Renovate buildings…or books

So I’m ripping out walls (chapters.) Re-positioning the roof (plot.) Shoring up the foundation (thematic elements.)  And adding load-bearing beams (character development.)

But, like the repairs to our screened porch, I’m making discoveries as I go.

If you have to re-position the screened room roof, you need to consider the roof line of the main (original) building. So, as I’m playing with the plot, I wonder how far I can deviate from the original fairy tale.

Pretty far as it turns out. Just like the screened porch’s roof revision.

Advantages to major repairs

The porch’s new roof line meant walls needed to be built higher. So why not add regular windows instead of the nailed-in screens if we’re doing that? And how about a patio door to bring in more light? And let’s insulate under the floor instead of just the walls. A 3-season room takes on new life for all four seasons.

So as I work with my novel’s plot, I’m bringing in new characters, new scenes, new possibilities to raise the stakes for my character. I’m picking the pockets of other old fairy tales, travelling the world of fable and fabrication to discover ways to enrich the story. Taking a page from the braided essay format, I’m tossing aside chronological structure and weaving together childhood, teen years and adult life.

Will it work? Well, I hope so. But even if I end up back with the chronological beginning-to-end structure, I have far more to work with than when I finished the original draft.

It’s a whole new look.  And I think I’m moving in.

Workshop News

If you want to see Ruth’s Haliburton cottage porch reno in progress, come to her all-day workshop Saturday June 15. Create Compelling Characters will offer writers a series of hands-on exercises and inspiring explorations of character in fiction, memoir and nonfiction. Nestled among the pines, overlooking the lazy river, it’s a location that holds inspiration and the echoes of writers who’ve written their novels in The Rustic.

Oops! Big Mistake

Oops! Big Mistake

Gwynn Scheltema

Last week several Facebook posts about author Naomi Wolf’s interview on BBC had my writer’s heart missing a beat and a whirl of thoughts spinning through my head: OMG! How awful for her. I’m so relieved it wasn’t me. How could that happen? How come no one caught it?

I’m not going to do a post-mortem on what Naomi did or didn’t do. You can read the myriad of articles about it on the Net. What I wanted to draw attention to was what chilled my spine even more than the thought that it could be me—the paragraph in the attached article where Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the book’s publisher in the U.S., told the New York Times that while it

“employs professional editors, copyeditors and proofreaders for each book project, we rely ultimately on authors for the integrity of their research and fact-checking.”

The reality is, Naomi’s nightmare could easily happen to any one of us.

I believe, however, that not all errors are created equal and understanding why we make errors helps us minimize them.

Sloppiness

I have a hard time calling lack of research, lack of fact checking, lack of all levels of editing “an error”, except in terms perhaps of judgement. Every writer (and publisher) should strive to present as perfect an error-free manuscript as possible.

That said, errors do happen even when we’ve been as careful as we can.

Technical Errors

The most obvious and most frequent errors are what you might call technical errors: typos, format errors, omissions. Despite numerous pairs of eyes, and excellent proofreaders they can still happen—and do.

Some can be funny: In Ruth’s book Living Underground, she noticed that the room she was describing had scones (not sconces) on either side of the fireplace.

Some are embarrassing, like the project I worked on at the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities that went through at least 4 levels of proofing, but when it went to the Minister’s office for final approval, someone there pointed out that we had spelled university wrong in the artwork that was repeated throughout!

And some typos, as we well know, can change the meaning of what we write, as my favourite example here shows:

Research errors

In this modern communication age, it is easy to rely on the most popular pages on the internet for research. The golden rule of research, however, is to get as close to source and prime documents as possible. By all means begin your research on the net, but sooner or later, try to use source documents, experts, diaries, photos etc. And understand that Google doesn’t list results based on authenticity and truth. Learn how to choose reliable sites.

Entrenched Errors

Much like the lyrics we sing incorrectly believing all the while that they are correct, we all have other “quirks” that surface every now and then. For years I wrote that one thing “jived” perfectly with another. It should, of course, have been “jibed”, but my mind had a mental picture of two people dancing a fast intricate dance and “jive” made perfect sense to me.

Similarly, memory plays a cruel joke here. We “remember” the “facts” so clearly that when someone with the shared experience corrects us, we are genuinely astounded (and usually highly defensive). My family have always talked of a certain great-grandmother Emma Thomas. One of my hobbies is genealogy and in my documented research, it turns out she was Emma Williamson. (I still don’t think they believe me.)

Entrenched misunderstandings also come from cultural teachings: the same opinions or viewpoints passed down through generations until they become “fact.” I hardly need remind you of the age-old green and orange feud in Ireland or more recently the historical events that have come to light through increased interest in the Indigenous view of our country.

Dangerous Senses Errors

This phrase comes from C. S. Lewis’ book Studies in Words:

“The dominant sense of any word lies uppermost in our minds. Wherever we meet the word, our natural impulse will be to give it that sense. When this operation results in nonsense, of course, we see our mistake and try over again. But if it makes tolerable sense, our tendency is to go merrily on. We are often deceived. In an old author the word may mean something different. I call such senses dangerous senses because they lure us into misreadings.”

This is the kind of error that Naomi Wolf fell victim to. In her book Outrages she refers to dozens of men being executed for sodomy in Victorian London. She based this on research that showed that men accused of sodomy (a capital offense) had been given a sentence of “death recorded”.

Interviewer Matthew Sweet pointed out that beginning in 1823, a sentence of “death recorded” meant that the judge was abstaining from voicing a sentence of capital punishment in cases where he anticipated a royal pardon would have been be forthcoming if a proper death sentence were issued. So in short, “death recorded” meant “pardoned” (the opposite of what Naomi believed.)

Many on social media have been quick to ask why she didn’t look up “death recorded”. But be honest now—would you have? This is a perfect example of what C.S. Lewis was talking about. She was researching individuals accused of a capital offense. The sentence written in the records said “death recorded”. The dominant sense of those words is that “a notation of a death was made”. I think I would have made the same assumption Naomi did.

Last Word

So how can you prevent, or at least minimize these different kinds of errors? Be aware. Understand where and why errors arise, and look for next week’s blog for practical suggestions.

A Happy Dance for Writers

A Happy Dance for Writers

To win an award is such a fantastic affirmation for writers. I know. I’ve won a few and can confirm that validation kept me energized for weeks. I’ll never forget the exhilaration of first place in a national magazine with my first-ever submission.

My kids had to darn near peel me off the ceiling.

So whenever I hear of a colleague or friend winning an award, I do “the happy dance” in my heart, post congratulations online and try to attend any celebration that honours that win.

But when I’ve had something to do with that reason for celebration, then some of those wins are a bit more special.

The Joy of Editing

As an editor, I’ve loved discovering the stories of others writers in unpublished form. It’s been a privilege to move into the creative process of another writer. Their trust is precious to me and forms the foundation of our working relationship.

And it is wonderful when I can do the happy dance for them: when they are ready to submit or to publish. When they have a launch. And when they win awards.

Just last week, I got to do the happy dance for Pauline Kiely, author of No Poverty Between the Sheets. Pauline had previously published her family memoir but asked me to work with her on a new edition.

That new edition was entered in the 2019 Independent Publisher Book Awards. Known as the IPPY Awards, they were launched in 1996 to “bring increased recognition to the deserving but often unsung titles published by independent authors and publishers.”

So I was thrilled when Pauline let me know that her book won the Silver Medal in the Canada East Best Regional Non-Fiction category! And so grateful that she let me know how much she appreciated my work.


Thank you Ruth Walker your edits made this book a winner
!

Pauline Kiely on Facebook
Terry Fallis

Few award options are available for independently published books. A notable exception is the prestigious Leacock Medal for Humour, where jurists accept entries of self-published books by Canadian authors. Author Terry Fallis sent the last 10 copies of his independently published first novel The Best Laid Plans to win the 2008 medal, well deserved accolades and so much future success.

Make it Award-worthy

There are many other self-published books in the world that deserve success like Pauline and Terry have enjoyed. But just like the world of traditional publishing, few great books win awards.

Nonetheless, books that haven’t been put together in a professional package — self or traditional — are far less likely to win readers, let alone awards. From the cover to the last page, you don’t want your book to be full of errors or amateur missteps.

If you’re fortunate, you may have excellent book designers, copy editors and proofreaders in your circle of family, friends and colleagues. But chances are you don’t. So avoid playing with chance.

Unless you are skilled as an editor, hire one to help you polish the text. Should you choose to go the traditional publishing route, agents and acquisition editors expect professional standards in all submitted material.

If you opt to publish independently, you want readers to stay firmly immersed in your story. Just think for a minute about how little it takes to kick you out of something you’re reading: a typo, a logic glitch or a complicated and confusing scene.

Finding an Editor

Editors Canada has over 400 editors listed online. Most independent publishing/printing services have a list of freelance editors you can hire. And traditional publishers employ staff and freelance editors.

No matter where you find your editor, make sure it is someone who understands your book’s purpose. It is a tender relationship — one that balances collaboration with principles. But when it is the right editor for your book, you’ll find no greater champion, dedicated to taking your book to the best possible form.

No manuscript is perfect. But the right editor can help you come close enough to smell the binding.

The Last Word

Writescape offers both coaching and editing for writers at all stages of the process. It’s been our pleasure to see writers achieve their goals for their books and their careers. Some of our authors:

Sylv Chiang, author of the CrossUps series middle grade novels with Annick Press.

Fred Kennedy, author of Huareo, Story of a Jamaican Cacique

Janet Stobie, author of To Begin Again and Elizabeth Gets Her Wings

Felicity Sidnell Reid, author of Alone, A Winter in the Woods

Moving on…grammatically speaking

Moving on…grammatically speaking

Gwynn Scheltema

According to the Global English Monitor, as of January 1, 2019, the English language boasts 1,052,010 words. Apparently, we can thank The Bard for 1700 of those: addiction, assassination, bedazzle, cold-blooded, fashionable and managerare among them. And every 98 minutes another word is added. That’s almost 15 words a day! English is anything but static.

When I was working in communications for the provincial government, we regularly had meetings to discuss what was new and what had gone out of style in accepted grammar and usage. Sometimes, it got quite heated in those meetings, which just proves how strongly professional communicators feel about word usage. A lot of the discussion was around acceptable word choice, like persons with disabilities vs. disabled persons, or First Nations vs. Aboriginal.

But grammar, formatting and punctuation also made it onto the agenda. When proportional spacing became the norm on word processing programs, the double space after a period became a single space (standard now in all ms submissions). When emails were the new thing on the block, we had to refer to them as e-mail messages. Later we dropped the second word and they became e-mails. Still later, we dropped the hyphen and adopted the word email.

So when does a rule start or stop?

For the English language, there is no one body that decides. Our language is a living entity, changing over time. That’s what makes it so rich. While I firmly believe in “correct grammar” for clarity, I accept that sooner or later rules I hold sacred may indeed change. And that’s okay. It’s all a matter of common usage.

The grammar “rule” that I notice most lately is the changing use of the default pronoun.

The old default pronoun

The rule I learned was to use “he/his/him” as a default pronoun when talking in general terms, as in: “A journalist should always guard his sources.”

I like to believe that writers today know the importance of and support a less gender-based, less sexist approach to our language. So it makes sense to stop using “he” as the default pronoun. The question then becomes: what do we replace it with?

Substituting “she/her” is equally sexist. Flipping between “he” and “she” in the same piece of work would be altogether confusing.  “He/she” is cumbersome. “It” loses the human connection. “One” is acceptable, but sounds like an old-fashioned lecture.

Some people prefer to use gender-neutral pronouns created specifically for the purpose, such as ze, sie, hir, co, and ey, but I haven’t seen much evidence of their use.

The new default pronoun

More and more each day “they/them/their” is emerging as the new default even in singular situations: “A journalist should not reveal their sources.”

Now before you get your knickers in a knot over it, using “they” in this way is nothing new. It appears in Old English from 600 years ago. Here’s a line from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, ca. 1400:

And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame,
They wol come up […]”

And if you are interested in the history of the singular “they” through history right from 1375, read this post from the OED website.

I do admit, using a plural pronoun for a singular is something that I still have to get used to, but I see its value, and as imperfect a solution as it may be, it’s the only viable one we have right now.

Is singular “they” really acceptable?

In business situations here in Canada, The AP Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style are generally the go-to authorities. Here is what they have to say:

AP Stylebook (2017 edition)

“They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and/or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy.”

For example, to avoid the specificity of an individual’s gender, this use of their is acceptable: “The employee believed their position was in jeopardy.”

Chicago (17th edition)

 “While this usage [they, them, their, and themselves] is accepted in those spheres [speech and informal writing], it is only lately showing signs of gaining acceptance in formal writing, where Chicago recommends avoiding its use. When referring specifically to a person who does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun, however, they and its forms are often preferred.”

What’s a writer to do?

My first inclination is to structure your sentence so you don’t need to make the choice. Make the whole sentence plural: “A journalist should protect their sources” becomes “Journalists should protect their sources.”

That said, if it is more respectful to do so, use “they” as a singular pronoun. Make sure you match your verbs correctly though: “They are visiting.” Not “They is visiting.”

For business writing, follow your accepted style guide.

For fiction, you have control, but consider your audience and genre. Strive for unobtrusive choices and good flow, and of course, consistency.

Last word

Above all, be aware and don’t fight grammatical change just because you don’t like it or you learned something a different way. Remember, our language lives and breathes and changes all the time. Contractions (don’t; isn’t; can’t; shouldn’t) were once considered uncouth, but now we all use them.

And remember, we can thank writers for opening up the English language to new rules and new words. From Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene I: “Where is our usual manager of mirth? What revels are in hand? Is there no play to ease the anguish of a torturing hour?”

Thanks, Will.

Ready for Intense Critique

Ready for Intense Critique

Ruth E. Walker

Every two weeks, Gwynn and I head to a small meeting room to join with several other writers. We have the same goal for our meeting: to give/receive in-depth critiques.

We call our group Critical MS (CMS). It’s a fun word play on “critiquing” and “manuscript”, but also on the scientific term that refers to the point at which a chain reaction starts in a nuclear explosion. Business has adopted this term too, for the point when a business starts to take off and be successful. We like to think that with the help of the group, our novels will reach that take-off-and-succeed point, too.

But, it’s not for the faint of heart – if you need to only hear lovely things about your writing, CMS (or any similarly intense group) is not for you.

The process

Manuscript excerpts are submitted by email at least one week in advance. A large submission (40 pgs, double-spaced) gets the whole two-hour meeting. Smaller submissions split the meeting time (we keep our critique focus to two pieces maximum each session.) One person maintains the list of who is “up” for the next two or three meetings and members are responsible to make sure submissions are sent on time, ready or not.

Each submission gets remarkable written comments from all the members – edits and comments to take home to review. Even if you can’t make it to the meeting, comments are expected to be emailed, so a serious commitment is definitely needed. But the true gold of CMS is the lively and diverse group discussion about the submission that happens during the meeting.

Frankly, my CMS colleagues have saved my writerly ass many times.

I can’t thank them enough.

The results

Discoveries are made. Plot holes and thematic possibilities debated. Character arcs and structure are dissected, along with murky or confusing settings. POV shifts. Tense shifts. Time shifts. Smoking guns that need resolution… 

CMS members have a range of professional expertise and resources, and they bring all that to the table. We generally don’t do “fixes” but suggestions can be mused upon – and the writer takes notes and speaks only occasionally (if clarification is needed.) It is gruelling and exhilarating because it validates you as a writer.

There’s an added bonus. Analyzing another writer’s work adds to your understanding of the writing process, of the craft, of the basic nitty-gritty of getting words on the page that will matter to readers.

Plus, listening to what others noticed that I didn’t, or had the opposite view to mine — setting, POV, character trait or plot point — well, that’s a real learning opportunity. Maybe they’re right. Maybe not. But it makes me reconsider my notes and my view.

Ultimately, the writer with work on the table has to go home, sift through the marked manuscripts and their meeting notes. They decide what to do with all that input. But again, that’s the true work of the writer: editing choices.

Accountability

Perhaps the greatest bonus for all members is our goal-setting program. It isn’t enough for one or two members to prepare their work to share with the group. Nope. We ALL get to state measurable goals for the next two weeks. Goals are noted and at the end of each meeting, we announce if we’ve met the last two weeks’ goals.

Goal met: applause. Goal not met: $2.00 fine.

Sometimes, we are brilliant and no cash goes to our goal-tender/treasurer. However, it might be interesting to note that our money pot has grown over time so that it once helped support a financially needy student to attend arts camp and recently assisted a far-north school with some needed supplies.

What can I say? We may not always achieve our goals but we do share the wealth of our procrastination. Seriously, the act of setting a goal is, for some of us, priceless. Not that anyone is brow-beaten for not achieving the goal. We all know that life happens. But there is something affirming about others listening to what we hope to achieve, ready to celebrate when we do or commiserate when we don’t.

Toes in the water first

I’ve belonged to other writing groups/circles before CMS and it was wonderful to give and receive feedback and comments – often carefully broached to avoid bruised egos and more loose in structure. I learned from them and became a better writer because of them. But the time came for a greater intensity.

When you are ready, like I was, to receive critiques on the level of a publisher or professional editor, you need to seek out the next level of your feedback process. It is not easy. And you need to commit to offer careful and thoughtful critiques to your colleagues. But it is an important step to let go of the ego and move deeper into the craft of writing.

So. Where are you on the feedback continuum? Is it time to dip your toes in or are you ready to ramp up your level of critique? If you don’t know the answer, maybe it’s time to give the question greater attention.

Last word

Looking for feedback on your writing?

Sign up for Spring Thaw, Writescape’s all-inclusive writers’ retreat April 26. Participants receive written feedback on their work from two professional editors, Gwynn Scheltema and Ruth E. Walker. That feedback is followed with a one-on-one private consultation with either Gwynn or Ruth, and they’re both available for ongoing consultations during the retreat.

Choose from the 3-day or 5-day options. Workshops, group sessions, full resort amenities and fine dining at Elmhirst’s Resort. Stay in your private bedroom in cozy lakeside cottages. For more than 10 years, it’s been a true escape to write…with Writescape.

Editor or Writing Coach?

Editor or Writing Coach?

Ruth E. Walker

It’s been my pleasure to serve as an editor on non-fiction, memoir and novel manuscripts. I’ve offered up my copyediting and proofreading skills to writers wanting a clean manuscript. Some of these manuscripts have gone on to become successful self-published books. And a few have gone on to agents or publishers, finding a home in traditional publishing.

Of course, no writer is perfect (even you, Ms. Atwood) and all books have benefitted from a good editor. However, some writers look for an editor for their manuscript when what they really need is a writing coach.

Whenever I’m asked to quote for an edit, I read an excerpt first. I’m looking for narrative skill (is this a story or a series of knocked-together events?) and a focus on craft (is there active narration, strong character development, solid plot and theme, a structure that fits the genre OR is it flat in several important areas of craft?) I’m also looking to see if my strengths are a good fit with the editing the writer needs. If not, I’ll suggest where the writer might look for editing support.

But if I see the necessary work on a manuscript as significant, I don’t give an editing quote. Instead I suggest the writer works with a writing coach and offer my services. I will still use my editorial skills but there is a big difference to how I apply them.

What is a writing coach?

A writing coach has a focus on your development as a writer. More than offering editorial advice and copyediting skills, a writing coach recognizes important areas that need developing and will work with you to improve them. It’s important to help you understand why something isn’t working well. Just as importantly, a writing coach will try to help you hold onto and use that understanding in your work. In my case, I’m like a cheerleader every time my clients apply what they’ve learned to their manuscript.

Serving as a kind of mentor, a coach spends time talking with you about your project, your intended audience and your overall goals as a writer. Consider a writing coach to be like an athletic trainer, someone who helps the writer focus on the skills needed with the desired goal as a constant beacon. A writing coach keeps you accountable and, even better, can help you approach the page with excitement and energy.

A writing coach is not your friend; instead, the coach is there to encourage and support your journey and to be clear about the steps needed to be successful. You should expect to see examples or suggestions that help your writing develop. If after a couple of sessions, you don’t feel good about the process or your progress, than it’s likely that writing coach is not for you.

Coaching is far more “organic” than editing. For example, I’ve recently worked with a writer on Point of View (POV). Once that writer gained a deeper understanding, I knew it was time for her to experiment with different approaches. My intention is to help her make decisions about writing a novel from one POV,  various POVs or as third-person narration with a limited POV.  Ultimately, it is her decision. But it’s a decision she’ll make with a clear focus on the kind of story she wants to tell and the best narration to achieve that.

Writing Coach on your shoulder

I’m far more interested in seeing the writer’s skill develop than in fixing a manuscript to “okay” level. If the story doesn’t resonate and the characters are flat stereotypes, readers won’t engage even if there are no typos and the grammar is perfect.

Nonetheless, I still make any necessary standard edits such as typos, grammar or textual errors. And I’ll comment on areas to develop: glitches in logic, lack of character development or a plot gone awry. But as a coach, I want my clients to understand what can strengthen their narrative skills. And I want them to apply that new understanding in subsequent work.

While I can’t let go of the editor, as a coach I want to support a writer to develop their storytelling techniques. When writers explore areas of craft that will enrich what they’re trying to share in their work, they reveal abilities they didn’t know they had.

Did you know?

Coaches for writing are also found in business. Clear written communication can be struggle for some people in the corporate world and with the speed of social media, one wrong word can create a huge backlash.

For another take on the role of a writing coach, take a look at author Ryan G. Van Cleave’s post on The Writer online.

Editng…Editing Angst

Editng…Editing Angst

Ruth E. Walker

Have you ever picked up a book, started to read it and stopped? Maybe you put it down, never to pick it up again. Perhaps the subject matter didn’t fit your taste. Maybe the author’s style didn’t speak to you.

Or just maybe you asked yourself, who edited this?

That’s a question that should not be on any reader’s mind. Editors are behind-the-scenes workers. They ask the author questions, offer guidance, note big issues of plot and character, and point out logic, syntax, grammar and spelling errors before that manuscript heads to the printer. They appreciate a quiet acknowledgement in the back.

When something’s missing

A book that hasn’t been edited often shows some of the following: Spelling errors. Logic glitches. Flat characters. Vague references. Passive text. No forward progression. Lack of plot arc. Unnecessary repetition. Stilted dialogue. Lack of action. Lack of transitions…

Any combination—indeed, even if it’s just one of these errors repeated—will kick readers out of the story. If it’s just an error here or there, the kick out is temporary. But readers are not too forgiving and when those editing misses pile up, a reader will abandon the book.

I’ve seen issues even with a traditionally published book, but most often, it’s the self-published books that show a need for editing. Those unsold books end up in boxes in a writer’s basement, or dumped on bargain sales tables. I wish more writers would factor in the cost of editing when they budget to self-publish. So why don’t they?

Five reasons to not hire an editor:

  1. I have family and dear friends who can help me edit my book.
    • That’s great, except none of them are professional editors but “they all read a lot and they love me.” And that means they might notice some things that need work. Or not. Hopefully, they capture everything that needs editing and they agree on everything that needs work.
  2. My printing company provided editing services—they proofread it all.
    • Be careful. Proofreading is not editing; it’s a focus on the final manuscript just before printing. It finds errors with spelling, grammar, syntax, word usage and consistency. Proofreading does not consider pacing, character development, thematic issues and figurative language, plot arcs, subplot(s), effective description, setting clarity, etc. Proofreading will not suggest that your book begins in the middle of chapter 4 and all that comes before is either unnecessary or better placed elsewhere. Proofreading will not ask you questions that help you discover that your main character has almost no motivation. Proofreading is necessary, but only one piece of the editing process.
  3. I love my book and I don’t want to change anything.
    • You are one in a million and should have no trouble making it to all the best-seller lists.
  4. Having an editor scares me. How do they know what I’m trying to accomplish? What if they tell me my book is awful?
    • No editor should scare a writer; if so, that editor is not for you. You’re not looking for a dear friend (see #1) to help you polish your manuscript. You need a professional with whom you feel comfortable enough to trust with your work. So shop around. Ask others about editors they’ve hired to work with. Are there testimonials on the website? Get quotes. Ask questions: Have you edited science fiction before? Have you worked on non-fiction? Do you offer consultation to discuss suggested edits? Do I have to pay in advance? Can I spread out my payments? Ask the questions that are important to you and see what the answers are.
  5. I can’t afford an editor
    • Hire a good editor, and you hire a professional who is objective about your book. Someone who wants you to have good sales. Someone who is motivated to help your book be the best it can be. You’ve invested untold hours in crafting your story. You’re already paying to have it bound with an attractive cover, printed and delivered to your door. You will be spending money and a huge investment of time to promote the book. In an already crammed marketplace, do you want to have a reader pick up your book, scan the first couple of pages and then put it back down?

Even Margaret Atwood appreciates an editor

I work as an editor and have done so for many years. While I’m no Margaret Atwood, I’ve been edited by others and appreciate all their work on my magazine articles, poetry and short stories. But I am immensely grateful to my editor, George Down, for his work on my novel Living Underground. George asked questions. George caught errors. And most importantly, George didn’t shape my novel into George’s book. He helped me see what needed attention and let me craft my baby into its best possible shape.

I blogged about the role of the editor a couple of years ago. Editors Frances Peck and Sherry Hinman offered some great advice in that blog. And I wrote about George and The Book Band in another blog. I continue to follow these editors’ advice and celebrate what they taught me about editing.