Wed 30 Jun 2010
It’s been a terrifically trying six months of ups and downs. I’ve gained a new son, who is healthy and happy, and beautiful. I lost my mom to cancer; I lost a nephew to something far more insidious, and my youngest sister is now in what the doctors call a persistent vegetative state. Indeed, it sucks. I had my debut novel published (audio in the works), and unsuccessfully swore off short fiction. I’ve finished edits on a second viable novel manuscript, and have nearly drafted a brand new novel that seems to have some interesting things seeded through out. Between the insomnia, hospitals and bedside vigils I’ve been creatively drained (which means only one novel drafted this year, boo!), but had a lot of time to kill. So I lined edited — gosh did I line edit.
I consider myself more of a storyteller than an author. I do have a deep passion for the written word, of course, but to my one-track mind, story and character trumps all. Like many authors, I find myself fevered in composition, lost in my mind’s eye, and the subsequent results are often riddled with typos and language so profoundly abused it should probably seek a restraining order against me. These are not your typical typos, I can easily sneak them by least three beta readers and two editors. Unfortunately, the readers always catch them once the material has gone to print.
I’ve gotten a bit better by utilizing a few techniques and tools. What follows is a few techniques. (Check that tools link if you are interested in some of the free software I use.) These tricks are probably old hat to a lot writers, and this is mainly aimed at the beginning writer still developing his or her writing habits. Most were lifted from other sources over the years.
So let’s have at it:
• First and foremost … Is it a complete story? Do you have a set up, an inciting incident, conflict, climax and some kind of dénouement? If not, fix all that first. I think it was Stephen King who said, “You can’t polish a turd.” Fair and true. A bad story with clunky writing will probably fair much better than beautiful writing with no story behind it. The shorter the story, the more critical it is to get the structure right. Flash fiction is unforgiving in this regard.
• Change the font type to something you don’t really care for, but is readable. Try a couple of bumps up or down on the size. Larger is probably better for most people, given the size of monitors these days. Try changing the background to light gray, or light yellow or off white. Something that isn’t hard on your eyes, but you are not used to. The idea is get your brain reset and to look at the prose in a new way. Don’t worry, you can change it all back when your done.
• Turn on your spelling and grammar check, add names or words that it doesn’t know to the custom dictionary. Examine every single one of those squiggles and decide if it is a legitimate complaint. Take it with a grain of salt though, MS Word is over zealous and often flat out wrong. The goal here is to get some the obvious stuff cleaned up.
• Read from the bottom up. Start with the last sentence and read through. Look for rhythm at the sentence level. Now is a good time to look for comma splices, homonym problems, word choice. I think it’s a good idea to keep it small at this stage of the edits. In theory, at least, this keeps you from getting too absorbed into the story. It won’t always work of course. For longer works, like novellas and novels, I often randomly jump around. The problem is that you don’t end up with full coverage of the manuscript unless you follow some kind of pattern.
• Now you’ve done it backwards, read through forwards, this time read it out loud. Look for cohesiveness and structure at the paragraph level. Make sure thoughts run together in a coherent and readable way. Of course continue to patch up any new errors you find. Once you’ve done this at least once …
• Put it away for a week, or even two. Yep, this is the hardest part. I know, I know, it’s been handed straight down from the heavens on a ray of sunshine directly to you, and you alone, and you just cannot wait to get it subbed. Wait! Really, it will still the same story in two weeks, and I’ll bet there is still some smoothing to do. Once you’ve waited the allotted time, go through the process again. For this round, I suggest you turn on the “unprintable characters”. You know, the mode that shows the paragraph marks, and spaces, tabs, etc. This can really help slow you down if you have a tendency to start scanning through the text; try it, you’ll see what I mean. Perhaps you’ll find new stuff to fix, or it could be you feel like it’s a waste of time. If so, try reading backwards on the paragraph level.
• Rest it again, another week is best, but a couple of days might be enough.
• Find a beta reader, or, if that’s not possible or time efficient, try Text to Speech. Most operating systems come with built-in software these days. I know it’s ugly, sounds like crap, and you wouldn’t make your dog listen to it … well, those endearing qualities are exactly that makes it effective. You have to listen carefully to understand, and when words are missing, or sentences are patched together with the wrong punctuation you will notice.
On the subject of beta readers: I suggest two types of beta readers, if you can find them. One who is good with story and structure, and one who is good with grammar and punctuation. For this sort of thing, the grammar/punctuation type is clearly what you want. Grammar and punctuation feedback is often right or wrong, but if it doesn’t sound right or doesn’t work for you, then disregard it. Remember you can have meaningful prose with bad line editing, but you can’t really line edit without the prose. Shoot for high quality in both, but keep in mind who is the master, and who is the slave.
By now you’re probably sick of the story, good. It’s nearly time to rest it again. Yep, it really probably should be done.
Okay, okay, read it one more time before you send it out into the world. (I’ve had some people tell me they like to print out a draft and mark it all up with a real live red pen. I don’t do this, because it seems a waste to me, both in paper, ink and time. But it’s possible this could be effective for you. Why not give it a try?)
All done, now just sit back an wait for the fame, glory and piles of cash. I’m still waiting, but perhaps you’ll have better luck than me.
Bosley Gravel has just finished final edits Bound, an epic novel of love, violence and human potential, set partially in the African Serengeti. His novel The Movieis out in paperback at all fine on-line retailers. Look for his collection of intertwined short stories July 2nd, Americana: The Last Gleaming with Shadowfire Press. And, though he doesn’t quite believe it it, Tintamarre-ruckus-bedlam-pother-and-brawl, Behave!, a fairytale about lesbian witches will appear at The Fabulist, sometime soon. He continues to draft his latest novel American Woman and is darn near done.