Tag Archives: editing

Writing Wednesday: Killing Your Darlings

Last week, after a string of awful nights, I decided to write a children’s story. The fun I had writing this little story did not make up for the exhaustion and aggravations of the previous week, but it helped. As I rhymed my way through verses about dogs, roosters, mosquitoes and various other midnight misadventures I even found myself laughing.

My 2nd favorite line was the one about wishing all the roosters would die, but my absolute favorite line of the whole piece came at the end of the stanza about mosquitoes.

It’s 4, and Mama Bear wakes in the dark
She hears a buzz, the mosquito trademark
Little legs brush her cheek like lace
She swipes, misses, and hits her own face
She lies in bed, she begins to count sheep
One, two, eight hundred… [beep beep beep beep]

As I wrote this last line I was thinking about the sorts of things that I feel tempted to say every time I’m woken up by one of those little winged demons in the middle of the night.

I intended the “beep beep beep beep” to be a stand-in for language that is, uh, slightly salty. I found the image of Mama Bear unable to get back to sleep and lying there swearing at the mosquitoes was enormously, therapeutically, funny.

Except… no one else got it (at least, not that I know of). Everyone I’ve asked said they thought those beeps were an alarm clock.

Don’t you hate it when your favorite line just doesn’t work outside your head???

Samuel Johnson is reputed to have said, “Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”

I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I know I have been guilty (and probably will be again) of working entirely too hard to keep lines and scenes that I like even when they do not serve the overall story well. I have also been known to be petulant and resistant when told that lines and phrases I particularly like are not communicating what I want them to say.

I often need a lot of time and distance (more than I generally like to allow) to work up the dispassionate editorial eye that tells me when I need to “kill a darling”. I’m slowly getting better at this, but I’m not sure it’ll ever come easily.

As for my children’s story… I don’t quite know what to do. I could change the last line of that mosquito stanza to [beep &*$ @(*! beep] or the more elegant [bleep bleep bleep bleep] which may better convey my original intent. Or I could leave it alone and accept the fact that my genie has purposed for good (or, at least, clean) what I purposed for evil (or, at least, naughty).

What do you think I should do about the kids story? And how do you figure out when you need to “kill a darling”. How difficult do you find that?

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Surprise endings and a fish foot massage (A Writing Wednesday post)

Yes, that is a picture of Mike in Cambodia, reading my manuscript while fish nibble at his feet. That was more than a year ago, and if you’d told me then I’d still be fine tuning this book 13 months later I may just have jumped into the pond and let the fish have me.

Sometimes it’s a good thing that we don’t fully realize in advance just how much work is in store for us when we follow our passions.

On Sunday Mike hung with Baby Bear while I wrestled with the ending of my memoir. This has to be at least the tenth time I’ve gone through this manuscript in the last two years. I thought that this final read-through before I sent it off for copy-editing would take me about half the time that it actually did – surprise!

And that’s not the only surprise I’ve had in the last two weeks.

I had thought that the draft was very tight, but I trimmed more than a thousand words from it in this final go around. Surprise!

I had thought I was 100% happy with flow, but I ended up having to do more intensive editing on two chapters – one struck me as too long, the other as too dense. Surprise!

I had thought my ending was excellent, but when I got to the end of this final edit I was plagued with the nagging feeling that I hadn’t quite nailed it. Surprise!

This last one perhaps shouldn’t have been a surprise. After all, when I hired an editor nine months ago to give me some unbiased feedback on the book, this was one of the things she mentioned.

“I felt a little let down by the ending,” she told me. “Just those last few lines… they’re not as strong as they could be.”

At the time this was one of the few pieces of feedback she gave me that I discounted. I did think it through carefully, but decided she was wrong. Now, nine months later, I’ve decided that she was right after all. It seems that I am not the world’s fastest processor. (This is another thing that shouldn’t surprise me, but still regularly does).

I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong with the previous ending for a couple of days, not until I was trying to explain it to Mike one evening.

“It’s just… it’s just… it’s just that it’s cute, I finally finished. “And a bit glib.”

So on Sunday I sat down with a cup of tea and my iPod and the laptop and stayed there for the several hours it took to eke out the 183 words that make for a different and better ending, a much better ending. The last chapter of the book is set on the day before my wedding, and two of the sentences in that ending state:

I want Mike to be beside me whatever form home might take for me in the future. I am convinced that a white picket fence with him would be better than bumping down a dirt road without him, and that traveling a dirt road together would beat out a white picket fence that’s mine alone.

After Mike read the new ending he came into the kitchen and wrapped his arms around me.

“Aw,” he said into the top of my head. “Do you really mean that? That a dirt road with me is better than a more comfortable, stable home without me?”

I thought briefly of the special little (frustrating) adventures that this particular dirt road has held during the last few weeks, and then I laughed.

“I meant it the day before our wedding,” I said.

Mickey Spillane once said: “The first chapter sells the book. The last chapter sells the next book.” Do you agree? And do you struggle more with endings or beginnings in your writing?

Landmines, literal and metaphorical (Writing Wednesday)

On Monday I took Baby Bear on an outing to the UXO museum (unexploded ordinance), because it’s never too early in life to learn about cluster bombs. (Or because I was desperate to get out of the house and the UXO museum is just a five-minute walk away).

Dominic wasn’t all that impacted by the cluster bombs, he was far more concerned with the fact that I handed him over to the woman who was standing guard over the empty, one-room exhibit, and looking at him longingly. I figured that anyone who had to talk about landmines all day deserved a baby snuggle. Dominic wasn’t sure that he agreed.

More about the UXO museum later, but today’s Wednesday. Wednesday is for writing. Except… I’ve spent much of the last ten days poring over Book Baby with a fine-tooth-comb (for what is at least the tenth time) before I send it off for copy-editing. There’s not much you can do to make that process interesting to read about.

I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.
Oscar Wilde

Writing is a fairly lonely business unless you invite people in to watch you do it, which is often distracting and then have to ask them to leave.
Marc Lawrence

So for this week’s writing Wednesday I’m sending you over to GlimmerTrain’s website to check out Janis Hubschman’s list of ten craft techniques that have been most helpful to her on her own writing journey. The post is called Steal This List and I think it’s worth stealing (or at least saving so that you can refer to it when you hit a landmine in your own story).

To close, a conversation Mike and I had over the dinner table after my outing to the UXO museum.

Mike: “What did you think?”

Me: “I was surprised to learn that the number of landmine accidents in Laos is on the decline – from about one a day, to one every two or three days.”

Mike: “Yeah, but, still…”

Me: “I know. Can you imagine? I mean, how much would it impact our lives to lose a limb, or worse, in a landmine accident? And we’re not even technically dependent on our limbs to make money for our families.”

Mike: “If you lost an arm in a landmine accident it would slow down your writing … (pause) … which would impact our family income not at all.”

Luckily for Mike, I thought this was not only true but also funny.

Come back later this week to read about the UXO museum, or maybe joy. I haven’t decided yet. Thanks for dropping by.

A Big Decision: Writing Wednesday

Last Wednesday, I wrote about how some editors wanted me to turn my memoir into a novel. It seems that I first wrote a novel that reads like a memoir (more than once my hands came away red has been mistaken for my personal story, which has led to some awkward encounters with lovely old ladies who have patted me on the shoulder and told me that they’ve been praying for me as I recover from all that trauma). Now, instead, I’ve written a memoir that reads like a novel.

I decided not to fictionalize the memoir, which left me with two options. I could either wait – shelve this book and hope that it would get picked up by a publisher later – or I could self-publish it.

I’ve decided (drum roll, please)… to self-publish.

Despite the strident call to self-publishing arms and tales of riches and fame that are being peddled by folks like Joe Konrath and friends, I have no illusions that I’m incredibly likely to attain either riches or fame by self-publishing this book. That’s not why I want to self-publish.

I want to self-publish because I have spent three years working on this book, it’s important to me, I think it’s good, and I want to see it out there in the big wide world and move on to other projects.

It took me months to make this decision, but now that it’s made I’m excited. Self-publishing is brand new territory for me. To do it even halfway well I’ll have to learn a lot about cover design, marketing, publicity, independently copy-editing the text, etc. I’ll also have to give my website and my blog a makeover. All of this will teach me new things, and despite the fact that the to-do list I’ve been putting together is half a mile long, many of these things are medium-sized projects that I can tackle during baby nap time. I’ve already come up with an idea I love for a free spin-off e-book, and decided that I want to use some of any profits that I do earn from self-publishing to support a charity here in Laos that’s close to my heart.

More on all of that later.

For now, I’ll close with another writing-related quote that makes me laugh. And, tell me, if you’ve self-published a book or an e-guide recently, what’s one lesson you learned along the way?

 “Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.”
Jules Renard

Writing Wednesday: On editing and rewrites

It’s 8:30am. My child has been lying in his crib, smiling and gurgling at the ceiling for the last ten minutes. Now he’s gazing at me across the room while his eyes drift shut. I lovelovelove these parental moments.

Huh. Now trying to think of parental moment from the last two days that I have loveloveloved that did not involve a content child safely contained in bed while I was on my laptop. You know, one where I was actually interacting with him.

I’ll have to get back to you on that, because I’m not here today to write about him. Nor am I here to write about me – though let me pause for a minute and say thank you for the caring comments and emails sparked by yesterday’s blog. Someone whose phone number I don’t recognize even sent me a lovely text saying “thinking of you”.

(At least, it’s lovely if that came from someone I know. Otherwise it’s sort of creepy. For the time being I’m choosing to assume that it came from someone I know. How’s that for glass half full and not being unduly paranoid? Yeah.)

On a more serious note, I do not think I’m immune to post-natal depression (no woman is) but I also don’t think things are quite that dire yet. The weekend felt pretty awful but things have brightened up a bit since then. I will keep you posted.

Now, on to writing about writing, cuz it’s Wednesday.  Let’s talk editing.

Michael Crichton is reported to have said, “Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”

The official number of times I rewrote my latest book is three, but that doesn’t take into account all the false starts I had before I even managed to pull the first draft together.

I finished that first draft in November 2009, the day before Mike got back from a month long consultancy in Indonesia. Pretty much the minute he got home I thrust the manuscript into his hands. In retrospect, perhaps I should have waited until he was out of the jet lag zone before demanding feedback. Or perhaps I just don’t take feedback well from my nearest and dearest on my first drafts.

Mike gave me lots of useful feedback, including telling me that he didn’t have a great deal of empathy for the main character (me) because I hadn’t made myself vulnerable enough and taken him on an emotional journey.

“You come across as an interesting person,” he said. “But that is not enough to command my attention for a whole book and make me wonder, intrigued, what you’re going to do next. You need more depth. You need to take me on an emotional journey.”

I believe my graceful response to this feedback was, “You want a journey? Well you can just get back on a plane to Indonesia then.”

He was, however, right. And during the next two years and two drafts I worked hard to identify a clearer story arc, strengthen my themes, and take people on a journey. In other words, I worked to tell a story instead of just letting people in on a 70,000 word, occasionally humorous, occasionally moving, monologue.

Feedback from other people was invaluable in helping me think through these rewrites. Before attempting a third draft I farmed the book out to about ten friends and sifted through their commentary. Then I took it to the next level and had two professionals look at it (thank you Joslyne Decker and Amy Lyles Wilson – check out their websites if you’re interested in writing workshops or editorial services).

All of these external eyes helped me spot things I just couldn’t see on my own. They not only said nice things about my work (always good to hear when you’re so sick of your own book you’re in danger of starting to believe the whole thing is just a terrible waste of everyone’s time). They also pointed out where I was losing or boring the reader, indulging in narrative tangents, and where they were left wanting more or less.

It’s always a delicate balance, I find, to be open enough to editorial feedback to benefit from it without being so open that you feel compelled to rewrite your work to suit the tastes and whims of everyone who comments on it. I didn’t act on all of the comments and recommendations I received but every one of them made me think deeply, and there’s no greater gift to an author than being challenged to see their manuscript through fresh eyes.

Over to you: What do you find particularly helpful when you’re trying to take a first draft to the next level? What’s your editing process like?

 “The real contest is always between what you’ve done and what you’re capable of doing. You measure yourself against yourself and nobody else.”
~ Geoffrey Gaberino ~

Want to read more about editing, particularly in the context of self-publishing? Check out the following articles over on Writer Unboxed:

Rewriting, third drafts, feedback, and elevator pitches (in summary)

I decided to give myself the day off consulting work today and tackle the last chapter of the memoir rewrite instead.

73,276 words later I have a full third (or, uh, tenth or thereabouts) draft! I still don’t have a good title, but never mind. The marketing team came up with my hands came away red for my first novel and I loved it. Titles don’t seem to be my forte, and I’m hoping someone out there will be similarly inspired for this book.

That assumes, of course, that this book ever goes to print.

I’ve been reading a lot of writing blogs lately and one thing is for sure, everything is changing fast in the publishing industry with the rise of e-books and the rapid growth of self-publishing. I think I’d still like to go the traditional publishing route if I can get a contract that feels right, but that is by no means a given. It is perhaps even less likely now than it would have been even five years ago.

But that challenge is in the future. For now, I need to run this version past Mike, and then family and a few of the friends who populate the pages, before sending it to my agent. There’s a long way to go yet in this process of figuring out whether this book will ever find a home.

In my efforts to get this book as agent-ready as I could during the last four months I tried something new, hiring a professional to act as an external editor (thanks Amy Lyles Wilson!). It was a useful investment. Amy provided several key pieces of feedback, including that my opening wasn’t as strong as it could be (those all-important first few paragraphs needed to get to some action quicker). I should, she said, consider looking for a cleaner way into the story.

Most importantly, I think, she also recommended that I reconsider my use of letters between Mike and I. Given that some of this memoir tracks the development of Mike’s and my long distance relationship, I was faced with the challenge of how to write about this when we had no communication except via email before we met for the first time in Australia. In the second draft of this book I tackled this problem by crafting entire chapters composed of nothing but our emails.

These letters, Amy essentially told me, contained too many details that were mainly meaningful to Mike and I. They were too long, and it became too hard to track the thread of our story as well as the other themes through these chapters. Some of the issues we discussed in the letters were conversations worth having, but I needed to figure out how to have them in another way.

This feedback wasn’t as surprising or demoralizing as it might have been had I not previously given the manuscript to about ten good friends to read before it went to Amy. Opinion among the friends had been divided on the letters. About 40% of people loved them and 60% told me that they got bogged down or felt too much like voyeurs while reading them. Even before Amy mentioned the letters as an issue I was resigned to the fact that I’d need to re-craft those middle chapters.

It’s not fun pulling something apart  and redrafting yet again, but this is the seesaw process of editing. In the first draft I think I had too little of Mike’s voice in the story. In the second draft I inserted too much. Hopefully this third draft, like the little bear’s porridge, will be just right.

Another useful piece of advice Amy (and several others – thanks Joslyne in particular) gave me was to craft an elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is a summary of your story that could be delivered during the length of an elevator ride. The main benefit of this exercise, I do believe, is not to hone your pitch so that should you corner an unsuspecting editor in an elevator you can badger them. No, I found it valuable mostly because it forced me to think through how to distill the essence of the book in a way that conveys its themes and also piques interest.

So here’s what I’ve come up with so far as an elevator pitch. This, like everything else, is subject to future editing but it’s a good place to start. And, for me, starting is more than half the battle.

This is the story of an old-fashioned courtship made possible by modern technology – the tale of two people separated by the Pacific Ocean who build a long distance relationship entirely via email. Along the way the narrator – a global nomad who has spent her life as the transient resident of eight different countries – must confront troubling questions about where home really is and what it means to commit to a person, a place, or a career.

Writers, what are some of the lessons you’ve learned while rewriting your own work? Are you working on something now? If you have an elevator pitch, share it in the comments!