Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Chapter One

It takes courage to return to something we've written awhile back and edit it objectively. Believe me, a lot will be revealed, if you've learned anything about writing in the interim. Every single time I look at my early writing, every - single - time, I find something wrong.

I'm not just being picky. It's like Anne Lamott said—and I'm paraphrasing—at some point, you have to let go. “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor," she wrote. But to my mind, ever contrary, the problem is that we aren't perfectionistic enough! We don't take a hard look at our writing to find its imperfections, and that is all it takes to get a manuscript rejected over and over.

So what do you look for? Ugh - that's the 20-point quiz question. Does it flow? Is it consistent? Is the plot well developed? Is the spelling correct? Should I have worn pajamas while I wrote it?

There is only so much you can do, and sometimes you have to trust your gut. But try not to trust it too much until you've learned as much as you can and subjected your work to the sharp eyes of a writing group or editor.

Here are some considerations:

1. Read it out loud. You will find more errors, more repetition and more unfinished sentences that way. It's even better if you read it aloud to an audience (however captive) because you'll be more alert to the problems.

2. Do a word search for over-used words. The first time you come to a word that goes "clink" in your mind as you read it, do a search and find out how often you've used it. Cut out common words like grinned, chatted, cried, great, happy, good, beautiful, sometimes, get, and want, for instance. You can even Google "over-used words," but I prefer to find them in my text and search for repetition. The result is a shocker.

3. Spell "cheque." Microsoft Word has a great spell check program, but you can't ignore it. Double-check every word that is highlighted, to see if it's being used correctly or not. It goes without saying that you can't trust spell check to find words that spell in a variety of ways; you have to know what you're doing. Make a list of words you commonly mistake: affect/effect; lie/lay; toward/towards; til/until/till;  who/which and that. They're all monsters, but there are rules for them. A good grammar book is a must!

4. Don't preach. Oh, Lord, it's so easy to slip into the moralistic tone of an author. A suggestion of truth is far stronger, and more authentic, than all the lecturing you can insert. Wipe out your Voice-of-the-All-Knowing tone and be honest with your readers.

5. Be real. Respect your villains, humanize your heroes. Life isn't all black and white, neither should your characters be that way (who is a better villain—Captain Hook or Count Dracula?).

6. Get trim. Seek out all those space-taking pretty or ugly adverbs and adjectives. Are they really needed? Are they trite? Have you used the same word 100 times? Cut those suckers out, or find a word that truly works. Writing is not about putting down the first word that comes to mind—at least not beyond the first draft. When you go back to edit, be more demanding of yourself.

7. Chaper One. Do you know how to write a chapter? If not, read up on it or take a course. They have natural beginnings, middles and ends. They are best kept simple, not muddled with various scenes and characters. Cut the clutter, tell the story, move on. Every chapter should advance the main story in some way. If it doesn't, examine it for its relevance to the book. It may just turn out to be one of those "babies" we're supposed to kill, not hang on to.

8. The POV Monster. This one shows up in many stories. Who is telling the story in this chapter? Does he or she have the ability to know what's going on, or are you, as the writer, slipping out of their character and inserting information to which he/she has no access? Are you slip-sliding from one Point of View to another, showing the inner thoughts of someone who isn't really present in the telling? Point of view is a twisty thing, and you'll need to study it in order to get it right.

9. Tense issue. Reading aloud will also reveal tense switches. I don't mean changes that increase or decrease blood pressure in the reader. I mean changes in the present, past, future and all conditional senses of those words. It's amazingly easy to make this mistake, and sometimes it's hard to fix. Keep the time frame strongly in mind while writing and check as you go along. Are you keeping time, or not?

In the interest of brevity, one final suggestion: Do an online search on this phrase—"how to self-edit your manuscript." With so many people self-publishing these days, there are a variety of checklists out there. Read through them, note your most important issues, and do your homework.

Suggested sources for more information:
Karen E. Gordon, "Torn Wings and Faux Pas"
Lynne Truss, "Eats, Shoots & Leaves"
Lederer & Dowis, "SLeeping Dogs Don't Lay"
Patricia T. O'Conner, "Woe is I"
C. Edward Good, "Whose Grammar Book is This Anyway?"
Alice LaPlante, "The Making of a Story"
Browne & Renni, "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers"

Ann Connery Frantz has a background in journalism and is a freelance writer/editor, specializing in author profiles and new books. Her "Read It and Reap" column for book clubs runs in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette on the last Sunday each month. She is a co-founder of the Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative.

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