Browsing Tag

revisions

Quick Edits: Passive to Active Verbs

Quick Edits, Writing

Quick Edits is a short feature where I give quick editing advice on how to handle common problems in fiction writing.

Changing a passive verb to an active verb is pretty easy. Have a look:

She was sitting on the barstool.

She sat on the barstool.

 
Drop the “is” or “was,” take the -ing verb, make it an -ed verb, and you’ve got an active sentence.

He was laughing at the clown’s antics.

He laughed at the clown’s antics.

 

Which one would you be laughing at?
My answer: Neither. I’d be running! 😉
(Photo from the documentary, Pennywise: The Story of It)

Advanced tip: Once you’ve made your passive sentence into an active sentence, you might consider revising it to use an even more vivid word. Usually when we’ve written a passive sentence (often without realizing it), we haven’t chosen the most interesting verb, so it’s worthwhile to reassess when you’re rewriting the passive to active verbs.

Happy writing!

 

 

Why and How to Limit Flashbacks in Your Fiction

Craft of Writing, Writing

What Are Flashbacks?

Flashbacks are breaks in the current story that are written in order to give the reader background information, something from the past, usually for what’s about to happen. Flashbacks are a legitimate storytelling tool — don’t let anyone tell you they’re not.

But like many tools in fiction writing (like adverbs, speech tags, etc), their use should be limited. The more background information you can insert into your stories without using flashbacks, the more skilled you are as a writer.

For me, I don’t consider a sentence or two to be a flashback. A flashback generally is a full blown scene, anywhere from a couple paragraph to pages. A flashback is turning your car around and driving back to the place, versus a quick glance in the sideview mirror.

Why Should You Limit Flashbacks?

The biggest reason to limit your use of flashbacks is because flashbacks pull your reader out of the story you’re telling.

Think about watching a movie with someone. Say it’s the second movie in a series. Would you find it distracting if your friend paused the movie every third scene to explain something from the first movie that he thinks would be good for you to know for this movie? It would probably get annoying after about half an hour. And, what might be worse, is you might be more interested in the stories your friend is telling you, rather than the story you’re watching.

When you use flashbacks, you’re essentially hitting the pause button on the story you’re trying to tell and you’re asking the reader to invest in a *different* story for a little while. Be sparse with this sort of request of your reader. Because the more often they’re distracted from the story you’re telling, the more likely they are not to feel invested enough to return to it.

How Do You Limit Your Use of Flashbacks?

When thinking about flashbacks, there are three things you should consider particularly.

Is it necessary?

Does the reader actually need information that you’re conveying in the flashback? Sometimes flashback scenes are ways for the author to convey things that the reader will already have inferred. Sometimes flashback scenes are included simply because the author wrote it and feels like it should be in there.

Think about what your key pieces of information being conveyed are. And then think about whether your reader actually needs them.

Must it be conveyed at this place in the story and in this way?

When I’m editing, it’s not uncommon for me to see a three or four page flashback where there’s only a single piece of information that’s important. That piece of information could have simply been dropped into the current story line in a sentence or two rather than yanking the reader into a flashback. Again, assess what the key pieces of information you’re trying to convey are and think about where else in the story you might weave them in, instead.

Sometimes, the flashback is important but the placement isn’t ideal. Consider your entire story; is there a better place for this flashback?

Is it?

Are you starting a new scene and rehashing everything that happened since the last scene?

If you’re telling the reader about everything that happened since the previous scene, there’s no reason not to start it from the the end of the previous scene, rather than some time later, then flashing back to what happened in the interval. This bouncing around in time can be confusing for your reader and it’s unnecessary. If you’ve decided that what’s happened between the previous scene and this scene is important enough to be on the page, then it doesn’t make any sense for it to be a flashback rather than simply part of the current story line.

The exception is if the actions between the scenes can be done in a sentence or two (which isn’t, by our definition here, a flashback anyway).

As a note before I sign off: one type of writing where you should especially avoid flashbacks is short stories. Most of the time, there just isn’t enough space in the story to support flashbacks. It ends up being a waste of precious words when you already have a limit as you do for a short story. Of course, it can be done, but as a general rule, it shouldn’t, unless you know you can do it very, very well.

How about you? Do you struggle with too many flashbacks or not knowing whether to include one or not? Comment below!

 

 

 

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How to Create an Amazing Critique Group: Ramp Up Your Writing

Writing

Critique groups can be a big leg-up for authors as far as polishing their work before either sending it out on submission or self-publishing it. If you haven’t found a critique group that works for you, consider creating one. I’ve got a few things to keep in mind when creating or looking for a critique group that might help you with getting some compatible folks in your group.

Critique Group or Beta Readers?

Some people don’t realize there is a difference between a critique partner and a beta reader. The main difference is writing.

Critique partners are other writers.

Betas are readers.

It’s worthwhile to have both reviewing your story. They will bring different things to the table.

Writers should bring more of the professional view — how to improve craft issues, such as writing dialogue or description. Readers will bring a more general, consumer-focused view — such as whether the story is interesting, where they lose interest, if the characters are engaging.

Knowing what you’re looking for will help you decide which to utilize at each point in your writing process. I wrote a post a while back about things to think about when picking beta readers.

Find Writers

The first step to finding or creating a critique group is to figure out where the writers are. Meetup is a decent place to find local writers. There might already be critique groups or just general writing support groups. You can find other writers to talk to there about creating your own group.

You can also look for writing organizations in your area. Go to Google and search “writing organizations” <your city>. Attend some of their meetings, schmooze with other authors, and find folks you mesh with (more on that below!).

Also check out the national organizations for genres — RWA, SFWA, MWA, HWA, etc. They often have local or regional chapters where writers congregate.

Finally, you can find a lot of critique services online. Groups like Critters and Critique Circle have been around for years and have established a good base of writers who critique each other.

Choose Your Partners

Sometimes writers who are looking for ongoing critique partners assume that the criteria for choosing should be something like “writes in my genre” or “reads in my genre.” And while this can be helpful, there’s actually a more accurate thing to gauge whether someone will be a useful critique partner. That thing is: do we have similar writing goals?

Someone who is writing only for themselves or their family will not be as helpful a critique partner for someone who is aspiring to become published professionally. If everyone in the critique group is on a similar path, then the comments and suggestions they give will be aimed more at getting your work up to snuff for publication.

© Ben White; used w/permission

This doesn’t mean that someone who is just writing for themselves or family can’t give good contributions, of course. But we’re talking about getting the most bang for your buck. And in this case, you’re going to get better feedback from someone who is on a path parallel to your own.

Something else to consider is which time zones you’re each in. Obviously, if you’ve got local writers in your group, that’s not an issue. But if you find folks online that you mesh with, goals-wise, then time zone becomes important. It’s not easy to get together for meetings with someone who’s 8 hours different in time. Someone will be getting up really early or staying up really late.

And finally, also think about work ethic. Does your potential partner write regularly? Are they focused on their writing as a career or business? This goes back to finding someone who has a similar outlook. If you’re putting out 25 pages in a week and they’re only doing 5 (or vice versa), then there’s going to be a work mis-match.

Discuss & Organize

Will you have your critique sessions in person or online? Or maybe on the phone?
When you get together, will you be getting together for a writing session or to critique each other’s work?
If critique, will you have critiqued the work beforehand and discuss in person, or will the work be read there at the session, then discussed?

These are things to think about when organizing your sessions. Set the rules as the leader or have an open discussion and set the rules as a group. However it’s accomplished, everyone should be on the same page as to expectations, so that all feel included and feel as if they’re both giving and getting something of value from the group.

Act

Once you’ve got your group going, everyone should be consistent with their work. Certainly, life happens and some weeks will be more or less productive than others. But consistency is about showing up — both literally and figuratively. Agreeing to be in a critique group is a commitment. Everyone should honor that commitment.

Give to the sessions what you want to get from the sessions. It’s the old adage of “you reap what you sow.” All members of the critique group should put in the amount of effort they’re looking to receive.

Having a critique group can be a great support for any writer. Hopefully, this post has given some insights into how to find those members of your tribe! 🙂

Do you have a critique group? How did it get together? What challenges have you faced with your group? What are the strong points of having a group?

 

 

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Memories of My Very First Story Critique or Suck It Up, Buttercup

What I've Learned

I’ve been writing for a pretty long time. I’ve been editing for a long time too. And, truth be told, I edit way more than I write. (Yes, I’m outing myself to you, dear reader!) It tends to pay a lot quicker 😉 My editing style was influenced in a lot of ways by story critique that I’ve been exposed to over the years.

I am a graduate of Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction MFA program. I won’t go into how awesome it is here (but contact me if you want to know; I’ll totally talk your ear off!), except to say that it is the single best thing I did for my writing.

It was also the hardest.

Giving your work over for a story critique is possibly the most difficult thing a writer can do, on an emotional level. It’s even harder than the blood, sweat, and tears that go into the manuscript itself. Writing a story isn’t easy. Getting feedback on the story can be even harder.

But it’s necessary. Because we, as authors, can’t look at our work with an objective eye — at least, not without a lot of time in between the writing and the revision. And even then, I’m not entirely sure we’re very objective. Getting the feedback of other authors, particularly, can be incredibly useful. So I believe all authors should find good people to give them story critiques.

When I started at SHU, I’d never had a real critique before. I’d had some really nice comments on writing websites, but never a story critique from someone I felt knew what they were talking about. I must have had some raw talent to get in, because lord knows I didn’t know a dang thing about the best practices of writing. I’d never hung out with real writers before. I was both excited and terrified to my bones.

The set up: critique sessions at SHU are something like a roundtable. Whomever’s story is being critiqued doesn’t get to say anything at all until the end, when s/he can finally address any questions or comments that others have put forth. It’s generally a group of 6 to 10 people, including one of the program’s writing mentors as facilitator. Each person takes a turn talking about their impressions of the manuscript (which is usually around 10 pages long), both good and bad, with the facilitator going last. We generally did 2-3 critiques per session.

My very first story critique was in a larger group of about ten people (at least, in my head it seems like a large group!). I volunteered to have mine done first, because — well, let’s rip that bandage right off, shall we?

So, yeah, terrified.

My submission was a short story (that most people were unanimous about it needing to be a novel, which I eventually turned it into) about twin girls who learn that they’re guardians of Pandora’s Box. Everyone had both good and bad things to say, which is pretty normal, as I learned over time. The facilitator for that story critique session happened to be the woman who would be my first mentor in the program, Leslie Davis Guccione. At that time, though, I hadn’t even met her yet. (She turned out to be a lovely woman and wonderful mentor!)

Leslie’s really big on active verbs. I, on the other hand, was pretty clueless about active verbs. (Like I said, raw talent rather than any actual knowledge.) Leslie started by telling me that she agreed with those who were saying it read like the opening of a novel rather than a short story. She also said how much she liked it. She pointed out strengths right away. And then she schooled me about active verbs versus passive verbs.

If you don’t know, passive verbs are any that are “to be” verbs. So “was,” “were,” “been,” etc. Apparently enamored of these sorts of verbs, I had a lot in my ms. Seriously, a lot. When she passed me my hard copy (Leslie, at that time, only did hard copy edits), she’d taken the time to highlight all the instances of passive verbs in the first two pages. Thanks, Leslie! 😉

My first two pages were as yellow as a fluffy chick. There was so much yellow, you might have thought the page itself was yellow. I had no less than 15 — fifteen! — instances of “was” and “were” on each page. Almost every single line. Sometimes twice!

So that’s how I learned about passive verbs.

But here’s the thing — seeing all that yellow made me really aware of the use of passive verbs. So after that, as I wrote, I recognized when I went to type “was” or “were” and I checked myself. Could I find a better way to phrase this so the verb is more active? And, almost always, a better verb was there, just below the surface.

That critique session, all by itself, made me a better writer. It taught me how to create more vivid sentences, more accurate descriptions. Leslie’s tough love about passive verbs stuck. Thanks, for real, Leslie!

Maybe someday I’ll tell you how Leslie failed me on my initial thesis submission for messing up “further” and “farther” continuously (which I also never do anymore!).

Have you participated in critique sessions? Gotten a story critique? How was it for you? Did you learn things? What was your biggest take away? Tell me about it in the comments!

Stay awesome!

 

 

Unless attributed otherwise, all images are CC0 licensed.

2 Amazing Books Teach You How to Self-Edit Your Story

Craft of Writing

What I’m Listening To: “That’s Amore!” by Dean Martin — I’m feeling old school today 😉

Something Cool: I just signed up for TSA Pre-Check. I’ll let you know how it goes when I travel on it for the first time! Pre-publication edit: I was approved for this in 3 days! I’m not sure what that says for my dangerousness. o.O

~~

I hate doing revisions.

That might seem a pretty bold statement for someone who edits for a living.

When I was in my MFA program at Seton Hill University, the thing I always dreaded was doing my own revisions. I loved helping my fellow students improve their work. But my own stuff? Hated it.

Because I dislike it so much, I spent a lot of time reading different ways to approach self-editing. Now, a thing I’ve learned about myself recently is that, for myself, I can work the hell out of a system. Seriously, I can take a system (a self-editing system or really any other) and make it work for whatever situation I need it for. I just can’t make one up from scratch. So I took bits and pieces from a bunch of different places and worked them together, which ended up with me Frankensteining my own system.

And I think that’s the way most writers need to do it. Figure out the bits that work for you and work the hell out of them.

There have been two books, among many, that have stood out as the most helpful for me.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King

I first discovered this one during my grad program. It was one of the recommended books listed in the Writing Popular Fiction handbook. It’s also the one that I consistently encourage the authors who work with me to get. It is an invaluable resource.

Pros

  • It explains, in detail, why things work or don’t work and why they’re the gold standard (or not).
  • It’s been around for a very long time and both the authors know their stuff.
  • It’s easy to find information between the Table of Contents and the detailed Index.

Cons

  • It’s a little bit dry by today’s standards.

Even with the dryness, this is still my #1 go-to for self-editing help.

This book was really the one that explained so much to me about why good writing is good writing. It has dedicated chapters on voice, internal monologue, show and tell (because that’s something we’re all familiar with!), dialogue mechanics and lots of other stuff. There’s so much good info packed between these covers!

Revision & Self-Editing by James Scott Bell

This is a book in the Write Great Fiction series put out by Writer’s Digest Books. This one is an easier read, because it’s broken up into smaller bits with sidebars and other visual breaks that make it feel easier on the eye. And the information here is just as valuable as SEFW. There’s a bit of overlap between the two books, of course, but this also covers its own ground as well.

Pros

  • It’s an easy read with a lot of visually interesting asides.
  • It’s written in the first person, in a very conversational style, so it’s as if the author is speaking directly to you.
  • It’s a great book to read even before you get to self-editing, like while you’re working on your first draft.

Cons

  • None really.

One of the cool things about this book is that it covers a lot of general writing topics that writers struggle with, such as middles (you know, that part of the book where you want to throw your manuscript into the fire?), point of view, exposition, as well as the standards like show and tell.

I found that the first third or so of the book is very useful before you even write your first draft. There are sections on characters, theme, descriptions, dialogue, etc. This part of the book covers most aspects of what you need to know to get things pretty clean on that initial draft, which, of course, makes the revisions easier!

Both books summarize their chapters and provide exercises to practice what you’ve learned. And both books should be on your shelf! 🙂

Do you own Self Editing for Fiction Writers or Revision & Self-Editing? What do you think of them?


 

 

 

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How to Cope With a Substantial Story Critique

Writing

What I’m Listening To: The space heater on the floor under my desk. It’s a chilly day today! Maybe it’s because I’m talking about story critique today? 😉

Something Cool: I’m putting together an accountability program for authors! If you need help with motivation to write, stay tuned. Details coming!

~~

Okay, so you’ve gotten your manuscript back from your editor or critique partner and now you want to curl up with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and cry into your Chunky Monkey.

Go ahead and do that. Wallow if you need to wallow. Getting critiqued is hard. It can hurt. And that’s okay. You can be sad about all that red ink (font) for a little while. But give yourself a time limit. And once you hit the end of that limit, pull yourself up by your inkwells and get to work.

I’ve been a pro editor since 2008. I’ve contracted with a couple publishing companies and I do freelance fiction editing. I’m a hard editor, but a good one. My authors all say that my first pass on a manuscript is the hardest and that’s true. It’s because I hit everything that I see on that first pass, whether it’s a misplaced comma or a plot hole.

Every…single…thing.

Even if it’s multiple instances of the same issue. I do this for a couple reasons. First, because it makes later edits a complete breeze. And second, if we, as writers, keep doing something over and over again it’s because we can’t see that we’re making the mistake. Having to fix it eleventy billion times makes us see it, and so in the future, when we’re writing so that we don’t make the mistake in the first place. (I learned that first-hand from a mentor in my MFA program!) This also makes both our jobs easier for story critique of future work.

So with these terrible, fiery edits (I promise, I’m also nice in my edits 😉 ), I give new-to-me authors some advice on how to handle the manuscript. Keep in mind that the following assumes the story critique is done with Track Changes.

Three steps to working through your story critique

1. Get your Ben & Jerry’s and your spoon. Sit down at the computer and read all of the story critique comments in the ms. Go through all of them without making any changes. You might want tissues and something soft to throw. You’ll get angry; you’ll get sad; you’ll laugh; you’ll yell at the screen. Most of all, you should make sure you’re eating your Chunky Monkey (or preferred flavor) as you go. Ice cream has been proven to help deal with emotional edits. (via the Institute of Venessa nods)

2. Now, put your Ben and Jerry’s back in the freezer (or in the garbage can, if you’re more like me) and jump into the meat of things. The first thing you’re going to do is go through the story critique and fix all the easy stuff. Review and accept (if applicable) the punctuation changes and the pronoun recommendations, the quick-fix suggestions, etc. If it will take you a minute or less, fix it during this pass. Make sure you delete the comment(s) associated with the changes you make. Consider it like checking off a to do list!

3. Once you’ve got those things done, your ms should look a lot less scary. You will likely have
fewer notes, but the work will be more in depth now. These will be things like plot holes, story inconsistencies, characterization issues. These will be a lot easier to deal with when you don’t have a bunch of minor changes all around them. You’ll have a clearer view of how you need to make changes.

Once you’re done with the three steps, make sure you do another full read of the ms. Though you may want to set it aside for a week or so to allow yourself some distance before you read through it.

Something to keep in mind: Just because the editor suggests a change, doesn’t mean you have to make it. It’s your book, after all. But do look at the suggestion objectively and not through the lens of, “But this is my *baby* and that idea couldn’t possibly ever work for my baby!” Because no matter what you might think, that statement is wrong. 🙂

If the idea really doesn’t work for your story, that’s one thing. But just make sure you’re not so emotionally involved with your story that a suggestion for change becomes an insult to your soul mate.

How about you? Have you had a rough edit? A difficult story critique?How did you cope and work through the suggestions? Chime in below!

Stay awesome! :)

 

 

 

Unless attributed otherwise, all images are CC0 licensed.

5 Things to Think About When Picking Beta Readers

Writing

What I’m Listening To: “I Bring Me” from the TV show Star (this is one of my favorite songs, currently)

Something Cool: Claritin. Because little gremlins in the air are making my head explode. Ugh.

~~~

By the time we’re done with a project, we, as writers, are probably way too close to it to evaluate it effectively. We already know the story and the characters, even what didn’t make it onto the page. When we read, we don’t always see what’s missing, because for us, it’s there in our heads. So it’s important to get fresh eyes onto our work. Here are some things to think about when gearing up to use beta readers.

1. Beta readers are different from critique partners.

Critique partners are other writers who critique your work, usually as you write it; and then you critique theirs in return. Beta readers are often (but not always) readers rather than writers. And beta readers serve a different function than critique partners. The goal is to make sure the piece works as a fully formed story. So your beta readers should receive the entire thing at once, not in bits and pieces. You will want, in many instances, overall impressions of the story, opinions on continuity and story/character arcs. You can’t get good, useful information on this if your beta readers are reading as you write.

2. Wait until after you’ve revised your entire manuscript

This goes hand in hand with #1. You want your ms to be as close to a final product as possible. Will it be a final product? No, of course not. But you want to have fixed everything that you see in the story already. If you don’t, then you’re wasting your beta readers’ time and effort on things you already know need to be fixed. This isn’t a good use of beta readers, because if they’re commenting on things you already know need to be fixed, then there are other things that they might be missing that you don’t see.

3. Who you choose as a beta reader is more important than you think

Once people know you’re writing a novel (or other type of story), they will probably ask you if they can read it. Don’t let everyone who does this become a beta reader. If you write romance and someone mainly reads in the military science fiction genre, they’re not going to give you much feedback that will be helpful. Same if someone reads romance and you write horror or high fantasy or thrillers. You want beta readers who read within the genre you’re writing or have a specialty that relates to something in your book. Perhaps you have a character who is former military; then you might choose a beta reader who has military experience.

Those who read in your genre or have expertise in a topic in your book will give you the most useful feedback.

4. Quality is always better than quantity

We all want everyone to read our stuff. But in the beta phase, having a few qualified beta readers is always going to be better than have a
dozen random beta readers. I always suggest 2-4 focused beta readers. Having more than four sets of comments on your work is overwhelming. This can lead to being unmotivated, because there seems to be so much to do, to fix. Also in play is #3: generally, if you have a lot of people beta reading, unless you’re in some sort of group relating to your genre and pulled beta readers from there, the chances of there being several ineffective beta readers in the group are high. You want focus, efficiency, and usefulness.

5. Figure out what you want to know beforehand

As noted earlier, most beta readers are likely readers and not writers.
They may not have ever beta read for an author before. Giving guidance on things you’re looking for is very helpful. Give them 2-3 questions before they begin that are things you want them to pay attention to. Perhaps it’s your story arc, or the believability of your characters. Perhaps you’d like input on your dialogue or description writing. And keep in mind that you can ask different things of different readers, too, based on their skills or background or reading genre preferences. Giving your beta readers this sort of guidance will help them to give you useful feedback on your story.

So there are five things to think about when choosing and using beta readers. Do you have other considerations? How do you pick beta readers for your work? Comment below!

Tool Time Tuesday: The Writing & Revision Tracker Spreadsheet

Tool Time Tuesday

Every other Tuesday, we talk about the different tools available for writers to make life easier (theoretically 😉 ).

Today’s Tool: Jamie Raintree’s Writing & Revision Tracker Spreadsheet

Platform: Your favorite spreadsheet program

Cost: $8 — and SO worth it!

 

What it does: Allows you to track your daily writing on multiple projects, both new writing and revisions.

 

This stuff is amazeballs, no joke. Jamie’s spreadsheet allows you to set up to 8 different projects and create both overall and monthly goals for each (the monthly goals is new for 2017!).

Click for larger image

There are 12 monthly pages (obvs) and on each page, you have a calendar that shows you how many total words you’ve written each day on all projects, based on the chart you use on the lower half of the page. In the Writing column, you input the number of words you’ve written each day on that project. In the Revision column, you put the number of pages revised. I suppose you could do words, but that’s really hard to assess in revisions, so pages make much more sense. Then these are all totaled up across projects for the daily/weekly totals above.

In the top right quadrant of the monthly sheets, you get graphs showing your progress toward your monthly goal, color coded for each project.

The very last page is the Year End sheet, which shows you all your monthly totals, as well as the yearly total and the percentage complete based on the goal you set. You have this for both your writing and your revisions.

Click to enlarge

If you’re like me and you find motivation in visual signs of progress, this is the spreadsheet for you! It’s not always easy to see how far you are when you’re writing. But this tool really lets you see how great you’re doing (or where you need a bit more work 😉 )!

This sheet is always open on my desktop and I can’t recommend it enough!

Where to get it: You can find it at Jamie Raintree’s blog! She even has a video showing all the cool stuff it does. Tell her Venessa sent you 😉

When you do get it, let me know what you think about it in the comments!

Do you have a writing tool that you absolutely can’t live without? Drop a line to me down below and tell me about it!

 

Stay awesome!

 

 

 

Photos courtesy of Jamie Raintree.

5 Reasons to Shatter the Editing-While-Writing Addiction

Writing

When I first started writing, for serious, I had a horrible, horrible habit. An addiction, really. When I would sit down to write, I would read over some amount of the previous work (sometimes all of it) and I would start tweaking and changing things. I’d spend a lot of time fixing wording and rearranging sentences. But not a lot of time actually writing.

Eventually, I’d get bored or something else would catch my attention and I’d start something new. Only to do it all again when I reached the middle-ish of that story.

Sound familiar? Continue Reading