Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Final Edits

My sister is writing a novel, a debut effort. She hopes to be done with the first draft sometime this summer. She told me she loves watching her story unfold on the page and loves having the characters do surprising things. She belongs to a writer’s group that sounds like a perfect blend of writers who are serious and who take each other’s work seriously. I have fantasies of the two of us being published authors. But she and I both know she’s got a long haul before her book is ready to send out.

 (My multi-talented sister is an artist--this is one of her paintings, set in the area I used as a model for Jarrett Creek)

In anticipation of being done with her first draft, she asked me if during the editing process I find that I have to take out and add whole chapters. I told her that although I may not have to take out whole chapters, I often have to take out or rearrange big chunks. In fact, I’ve never known an author who didn’t. By the time you finish a first draft, you have redundancies, story lines that petered out, loose ends, characters who need to be reined in or pumped up, and a whole lot of terrible grammar.

I often have problems with the end, having to add scenes or even chapters. I think, like a horse going home to the barn, I start galloping toward the end and begin to summarize. Later, when I read what I’ve written, I realize that what was in my head hasn’t necessarily made it onto the page.

I’m now almost done with the third edit, and I think I’m coming down to the wire. The major glitches have been addressed, the arc of the story and the chapters completed, the loose ends tidied, the character arcs resolved, the story lines finalized. Or have they? I always find that when I go back over a manuscript “one more time”, I still have tidying to do. There will be a character I left hanging, or a story line that didn’t quite resolve. One more pass turns into two, three, five more passes. And then I’m done.

But wait! There’s one more pass. I call it the “golden words” pass. I have to find out many times I have used the golden words that I love: “About, just, almost, somehow, seems….” That one last pass is vital. Golden words are often placeholders for the thing you are really trying to say, or are used as lazy adjectives. “She was just fine” not only reads as well if you say, “She was fine,” but is actually stronger. Placeholder words slow down the action and make prose sound hesitant.

I promised my agent I’d have the manuscript to her this week so I can get it to my editor by June 1. So now…one more edit.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Writer's group critiques

I was thrilled to hear that my writer’s group loved Samuel #6. But of course what that means is that they loved it in general. In specific they had many comments and suggestions. The good part was that the comments and suggestions were along the line that I had already figured needed to be done.

When you get critiques you have a few possibilities:

1) Everyone will love it and have nothing but glowing comments. Dream on! Has this ever happened in the history of writer’s groups? I can just hear Laura Lippman’s critique:  Jeez, Baltimore, Baltimore, Baltimore. Can’t  you ever write about anything else? Or how about Michael Connelly: Bosch is such a downer. I mean couldn’t the guy ever have a cheerful moment? How about Rhys Bowen: Georgie, get a job, for heaven’s sake! Always with the impoverished royalty bit.

I don’t care how brilliant a writer is, there are always going to be people who want their writing to be different. You have to be on the lookout for people who don’t like your voice, your topic, your setting, and so on and not be swayed from your intentions.. A really good member of a critique group will read a piece at face value, trying to put aside personal prejudices and to help the writer improve based on what she is trying to achieve.

2) Everyone will hate it and send you out the door and tell you never to return. Admit it: that’s what most writers are afraid of. But just like #1, that’s very unlikely. No one in the group may wholeheartedly like everything about what you’ve written, but most people will find something that appeals. One person may love the setting, another loves the plot, another the voice. And sometimes you will get a reader who truly loves what you’ve done. Yes, treasure that person, but remember, he isn’t the reader you will learn from. You learn from the reader who gets what you are trying to achieve and who gives you advice that will both support you and help you move toward your goal.

3) People will be divided down the middle. It used to drive me crazy when half my writer’s group would love what I had written and half would tear it to pieces. I didn’t want to ignore the critics, but I also didn’t want to throw out what I had written. I knew deep down that there was some good and some bad in my work, but how was I to know the difference?

The answer lies in listening carefully. Don’t just hear what you are afraid a critic is saying. And don’t just hear what you hoped a reader would appreciate. Listen to the actual words. Write down what people say. If necessary, ask them to clarify. And then let the work sit for a day or two.

And then trust your instinct. You may not want to admit that you knew all along that something needed another look, but you know deep down. You have that, “darn it, I thought that would slip by” moment. If you let it slip, you are doing yourself and the person who worked hard to help you a disservice. That’s why you are in a writer’s group, after all.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

To Group or Not?

                                                                           Should I jump in?

Not everyone wants to get advice from a writer’s group, and not every writer’s group works well for every writer. But if you do decide to pass your work by some other writers, there are things you need to consider.

Writer’s groups come in all shapes and sizes. They have various numbers of members, meet at different intervals, and critique any number of pages. In some groups everyone submits a certain number of pages for each meeting. In others one person submits a substantial chunk. I personally prefer to submit a whole novel, or at least a big chunk because I want to know how a novel is working overall for readers. But I know others who prefer to work in 20-page increments, revising one scene or chapter until they feel good about it before they move on. It’s important when you decide you want to join a writer’s group that you choose one that has a structure that supports the way you work.

It’s especially critical that you join a group whose members respect each other. I’ve heard horror stories about group members who try to rewrite people’s books, who give nasty critiques, who argue when people try to provide honest critiques, and who don’t manage to read others’ work while expecting other members to spend time on theirs. You have to be able to trust that the members of the group have your interest in mind as well as their own, and that they can give and take honest criticism. It’s just as crucial to get real, honest feedback as it is not to get overly critical feedback. A reader should give both positive and constructive comments. It does the writer no good to only hear only bad news—it crushes the spirit and makes it hard to approach the manuscript editing with enthusiasm. But it also does no good to only hear how wonderful a piece of writing is. You don’t join a group just to get strokes.

I happen to belong to a group of four writers, and I’m the only crime writer in the group. The reason it works for me is that the others have respect for the kind of work I do, and even if they aren’t mystery readers, they understand the genre and critique my work according to my intention, not just for their reading preferences. I learn a lot not only from their critiques, but also from what they write and from the critiques they get.

At one time I belonged to a group of all crime writers and I really enjoyed reading their work and getting their feedback. Unfortunately the group stopped being the best fit for me. When we formed the group, the process was that we each submit an entire manuscript, which meant with six writers, one writer’s turn only came around every six months. It worked fine when we were all unpublished and did have not have deadlines, but once people started writing under contract, it was impossible to wait several months for feedback. That group still gets together on occasion to catch up with each other. It didn’t disband because of bad feelings, but because it stopped meeting everyone’s needs.

Because I have a June 1 deadline, I had my critique last week. It was very satisfying because what I heard was that the book works well overall and that it needed some editing. There were no surprises in terms of what needed to be done, and I’m already ripping through it beefing up the parts that weren’t up to par.

Next week I’ll talk about that “beefing up” process.