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Archive for editing

How long should your memoir be?

Authors ask me if their memoir is long enough. Actually, they usually ask if it’s the right length. How long should your memoir be? There’s a wide range of answers, and one of them is the right answer for you. The skill you will need from an editor of your memoir is knowing which length is best.

It’s not enough to say it depends, when I hear the question of how long should your memoir be. I usually ask questions like how much time does your story cover? Years, or months, or weeks? Some memoirs, only a few, can cover a handful of days. The shorter the time span, the more likely it is you have a good sense of how long your memoir should be.

You want to locate the turning point in the story. It might be after your wife died and you found your path onto schooling, leading to an advanced degree. In one book where I’ve helped out, that degree showed the author had healed his pain over the troubled marriage. Memoirs demand focus for writers, to keep readers engaged. That’s one reason they run best at about 65-75,000 words.

Make the story fit

It can be a real challenge to get a story that you’ve lived all your life to fit into a container of that size. Jeanette Walls has a memoir, The Glass Castle, that memoirists everywhere like to reference. Yes, it’s been a movie, it’s that popular. It’s super-long at 100,000 words. And Wild has been an astounding success at 130,000 words. Again, movie-worthy, and it’s important to note that the finished screenplay was about 150 pages. They winnowed on Cheryl Strayed’s winnowing. But Joan Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking, about losing her husband and her daughter in the same year, in just 50,000 words.

Glass Castle runs from the author’s little girlhood to her entry into college. Wild covers just the weeks of a long trek across the Pacific Crest Trail, plus many flashbacks into the author’s girlhood and addictions. The Year of Magical Thinking covers a year. Each of these stories has a container in time. Without a container, the meaning of the book drifts. Everything we live through is vital and searing to us. It has less potential for such sharp meaning to our readers, though. We pick our storytelling spots and work on making them sparkle.

A subset or a slice of life

As a development editor, I tell my authors we may look at a manuscript and come to a decision that it’s going to need a refocus, a winnowing of the many stories into a one subset of a life. That’s memoir’s mission: to help both the author and readers see how one chunk of a life changed things for the better.

No matter who you talk with about editing, everyone should be recommending Beth Kephart’s memoir book Handling the Truth and the one by Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir. Refer to them in that order; Karr has a more poetic approach. They both have memoir reading lists for your reference. Since you want to get published, rather than publish yourself, you’ll be in the race with books that follow those books’ guidelines. Knowing what else has been commercially successful is important.

Memoir editing can be a big journey. Sometimes there’s that moment when your editor says, after reading your pages, “How about more on that topic?” Memoir demands emotionally difficult material, usually, when you’re asked to add something. The hardest stories can come out last. My father’s suicide was the portion of my memoir Stealing Home that my editor asked me to write.

You’ve spent many years living and remembering your story. Giving it the best chance it can get will be worthwhile. It will also give your writing a better chance of a publishing contract.

Write well. And remember what to do with commas and conjunctions

I often see manuscripts and drafts that are relentless about using a comma whenever the word “And” or “But” starts a sentence. English teachers must have drilled this into us. Comma use right after but or and start a sentence is simply incorrect.

From The Editor’s Blog, these examples are incorrect usage.

X But, not because of the answers I gave.

X Or, she would have to do it alone.

X For, it was a mistake right from the start.

X And, my brother needed me.

But, and, or — these are among the conjunctions we know as FANBOYS. They include the conjunctions for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. It’s completely accepted to  use them to begin sentences, but that makes them connectors — and that means the clauses that follow them must refer to the sentence or phrase that precedes them.

You don’t need to make a pit-stop with a comma when you’re using a but or an and to start a sentence. Just get on with the connecting.

Photo by Chris King on Unsplash

Put proofreading into books after copyedits

Ah proofreading, the finish carpentry of editing. Many authors who create their own books think they can skip it, leaving the proofreading work to a copy editor.

Pro publishers do not do it this way.

These are the kinds of things I never thought I’d care about while I was traffic director at Graphics Express in Austin in 1984. Inside that typesetting shop, though, we had a dedicated proofreader who read every bit of type that was set. The mission was, and always is, to find typos.

I have a funny story about proofreading. In a bit of maximum irony, it comes from a writing coach. In a PDF handout, the coach writes this…

“Wikipedia says copy editing is ‘the process of reviewing and correcting written material to improve accuracy, readability, and fitness for its purpose, and to ensure that it is free of error, omission, inconsistency, and repetition.’ ”

Then she adds, “There is a great deal of overlap between this kind editing and proofreading. It would be unusual for a writer to have both a copyedit and a proofread of the same manuscript.”

I’m going to tell you there’s a typo in the coach’s advice, and let you have a little sport in finding it. Hint: it’s only two letters long and is a missing word.

Just to be thorough, that coach’s advice from that PDF uses two different styles of copyedit. The Chicago Manual of Style recognizes only the verb without a space between copy and edit. So copyedit, not copy edit.

And the person doing the work? They can be a copy editor, or a copyeditor, according to the Third Edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary and the British Oxford Dictionary of English. (These are the flesh and bone of Apple’s Dictionary app.)

So clearly, any advice that you don’t need to get an MS both a copyedit and a proofread depends on who’s doing the proofing. It’s safe to assume the coach had her writing copyedited. Not so much for the proofreading.

With all credit to the Chicago Manual of Style, here’s what the CMOS says about proofreading:

“Proofreading here … applies to the review of the manuscript after it has been converted to a format for publication but before it is published. Usually, this format consists of the typeset and paginated pages of a book or journal article (referred to as proofs or proof and read either on paper or as PDF) or the full text of a book or journal article intended for publication in one or more electronic formats other than PDF.”

Go the extra step and get your book looking professional. Even if its only format will be digital. Pro advice: have proofreading follow your copyediting. Try to get two pros here — or if you love your copy editor, give the copy a week or two to rest before that person gives you a proofread.

Image by Lorenzo Cafaro from Pixabay

Open your wheelhouse: submit your requests

You might have been fortunate enough to have an agent request pages for your book. You may have taken a lot of time to make them better first. For example, if you’re writing crime fiction (a mystery) you may say

1. My book is too long today
2. I don’t want my mystery to be obvious.

Also

3. My plot is intricate, so I’m wary of severing the links throughout.

Those are all related. Your book is probably running as long as it does so it will contain everything to keep the plot bolted together. The complexity of the plot makes a mystery deeper, for example. If it’s longer for any other reason, it becomes a bit easier to cut. If it was a piece of seasoned beef, it might be overseasoned with characterization or scenes that run long.

That effect of “goes on too long” is a matter of taste and talent. Even when you’re writing well, you don’t get as many extra pages as you think. You get more pages, but you have to keep readers turning those pages.

If you want to be double sure that your plot is durable, you will need a second check. That’s a set of outside eyes. I’m talking development editing, not copy editing or line editing.

Letting your story loose into the world is the solution to these problems.

“I want a book that holds together and keeps the reader wondering what’s going to happen.” That’s noble. It can be a road sign toward complexity, of course, depending on how many subjects are in play. Your book should have a primary story mission, and that mission had better fulfill the protagonist’s desire.

Just because a book’s structure has come together over years of work, like it does for most of us, doesn’t mean it can’t get streamlined. I think here about the rivets in the planes that Howard Hughes built for competition. Always streamlining. He set records, his accomplishments you can see in The Aviator.

I once edited a book from 140,000 words to 75,000. The author went too deep in many passages and her protagonist was inside internal monologue at great length.

I edited my novel Viral Times down from 144,000 to 98,000 words. To do this, I discovered Scrivener and used it to identify what was in the book and what could go. It helped that I’d already worked 30 years as a copyeditor. Cutting isn’t easy, but it feels good after you face it down. At some point every creator has to have some compassion for readers who, frankly, would like to get to the next book, either in the series or from another author. Savoring a big novel is a delicious thing, of course.

It also helped that I performed in and watched many hours of theatre — where the dramatic arc includes nothing but scenes, and they each must have good work to do to serve the narrative.
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How to give readers a break with chapters

Photo by Justine Camacho on Unsplash

“I like big chapters, long ones,” said just about nobody who reads books. Readers need rests, like the rest stops on a 100-mile century bike ride. I did one of those rides a couple of times. Never ride the century, we’d say. Just ride to the next rest stop.

Books can be centuries, with historical fiction running above 100,000 words and even more. Unless you’ve got extraordinary break points within a chapter, though, readers need rest.  Locations shift, and times of the week, month, or year advance. Even a POV shift or just a focus on a new character’s activities calls up chapter possibilities.

Creating chapter breaks gives your skills of transition a way to shine. When a reader picks a book back up, they can restart easiest at the chapter break. Good, obvious section breaks will do the same kind of job.

The biggest chapters I ever read in a book were All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, the Pulitzer Prize winner. I got to the end of each of them (maybe 10 in all, for a 80,000-word book) gasping for a break. You’re always going to want to make 20,000 words represent four chapters of a book. It serves a story well to break it into episodes. If not, let’s hear your reasons for leaving it as one chunk.

As to what’s inside that chunk, it’s more of a matter of how well does the material serve the main mission of the main character. We need color and context. Making choices is important, I and I like a willingness to cut things out. Just because something is interesting doesn’t automatically win it a place in the finished story. As a novelist, you can make me trust you when you cut something out and make the leap. “Two weeks later, she had different ideas about that.” Just skip over time, for example.

I’m reminded of the line in the movie Wonder Boys about the main character, award-winning novelist Grady Tripp. He’s had a real problem finishing his second book. One of his students discovers the 2,600-page manuscript draft and reads it (somehow). She says, “Professor, you taught us that making art means making choices. And with the details in here, the geneology of the horses of the characters, for example — it doesn’t look like you’ve made any choices.”

I hate making choices and need outside eyes to help. We all do. Grady Tripp never had anybody read his book while he made it. Then a windstorm boiled up and threw all of his pages into a riverside breeze. He had to start over. Wonder Boys is a great book and a great movie. Make your book great and find the points where the story can rest. Not everybody has time to binge.

Ten Key Scenes get your book on the road

Writers dry up and falter all the time in their quest to create.  One great process to keep words flowing into the big file is to have an outline at hand. It’s like your writing to-do list. Saying the word outline makes some writers roll their eyes and sigh. Creating by the seat of your pants is one way to put 50,000 words into a file. Making it into a story will keep you coming back to the months-long task.

Dreaming up 10 Key Scenes gives the pantsers and the plotters a middle ground to make that to-do list. You imagine the 10 turning points for your novel, each represented as a scene. Write the scene and all of the juicy narrative you want to lead in and fall away from it. Space them out so you’re getting one key scene written in rough draft every 3 days. Start with any scene you want, but get them all mapped out before hand with dead-simple summary. Something like “Anna gets arrested at the march.”

The Ten-Scene method is from the great guidebook The Writer’s Little Helper. The swell graphic shows off how to set up the sequence. Five of the ten are essentials and you can do those first. James V. Smith says “every novel I’ve ever written, ever read, or ever heard about can be deconstructed into ten scenes. Plan the central story line of your novel to go ten scenes or fewer.”

NaNoWriMo, the November writing contest-collective, was started by Chris Baty, who wrote a guidebook for the process called No Plot, No Problem. He’s not completely incorrect with his advice for those 30 days, because characters are the soul of plot. You can fill up that big file with a lot of character writing.

Putting those heroes and villains of your story into action in scenes shapes them to make them real. We all start with gusto in November, but about Day Six we wonder if our story is worth all the time at the keyboard or in the pages of our notebooks. The Ten Scenes are lighthouses to steer the boat of your story toward. Make yours, and then get to work on sailing the course to a rough draft.

Making sentences great again

Francine Prose wrote a fine book about writing, Reading Like a Writer, which includes a chapter on Sentences. (Chapters are titled with names such as Words, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Gesture, Dialogue, and more.) In her book, she celebrates the sentence and crafting wonderful ones.

To talk about sentences is to have a conversation about something far more meaningful and personal to most authors than the questions they’re most often asked, such as: Do you have a work schedule? Do you use a computer? Where do you get your ideas? Where can you cook up a sentence like the one below?

Prose show this example above of what a writer can do while the writer ignores the advice of writing craft books. Not just any writer, but Virginia Woolf, writing in her essay, On Being Ill. Not just any sentence, but one 181 words long, which appears at the opening of the essay. (It’s shown above). More important than the size is the way she’s made it clear. “It’s not the sentence’s gigantism, but rather its lucidity that makes it so worth studying and breaking down into its component parts,” Prose writes.

Making a good sentence is the bones of good writing. Prose writes, regarding the revision of sentences

Writers need to ask themselves

  • Is this the best word I can find?

  • Is my meaning clear?

  • Can a word or phrase be cut without sacrificing something essential?

  • Perhaps the most important question is, “Is this grammatical?”

A novelist friend compares the rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage to a sort of old fashioned etiquette. He says that writing is like inviting someone to your house. The writer is the host, the reader’s the guest, and you, the writer, follow the etiquette — because you want your readers to be more comfortable, especially if you’re planning to serve them something they might not be expecting.

Prose adds that she revisits Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style from time to time. But most craft books like this instruct a writer what not to do. Learning grammar from reading is a way to enter a new league of writing, once the fundamentals of grammar are in your dugout. Literature shows us what kind of great sentences are possible to write.

Learning what’s new in style through an ACES webinar

On Thursday July 28 the American Copy Editor Society is holding a 1-hour seminar on What’s New in Style. I’m an ACES member, ever since I passed through the organization’s Advanced Copy Editing Bootcamp at SMU last year. I brought a journalism degree and publications experience to the Society membership.

ACES is different from other organizations you’ll see in the world of arts and letters. You can hold a spot in the Editorial Freelancer’s Association. The EFA is a group that has a focus wider than editing. The Independent Book Publishing Association (IBPA) gathers a wide range of skills and experience to get books into the world. The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLI) is focused on authors, but it also includes a services partner membership. ALLI screens partner members before admitting them.

Only ACES is focused on copy editing. That’s why I became a member; my experience in editing professionally began in 1980, when I joined the staff of the Daily Texan as a copy editor. ACES membership runs from book publishers, to website content consultants, to daily newspapers, and monthly magazines. It will be fun to see what the ACES crew has to share about 2018 styles. Members can register for the July 28 webinar at the ACES website.

You’ll always want to hire a copy editor before submitting a book for publication. But knowing what the current styles are in English keeps your writing focused on the story. You see what’s taking place more clearly when you’re writing cleaner and more concisely.

Search and replace barrier words for POV power

Some easy writing advice to follow, offered all the time, is show instead of tell. But it takes careful work to remove showing at the same time you remove barrier words from your writing. Barrier words are ones that make a story less vivid and make the writer more obvious.

You don’t want the latter to happen. We tell stories, but we don’t want our readers to focus on us as storytellers. (Write memoirs or essays if you want to be seen while you tell the story.) Fiction has several key elements, and few of them give writers a reason to show themselves telling. Not even in first person.

Make a list of these barrier words and post it close at hand:

  • saw
  • looked
  • watched
  • noticed
  • smelled
  • heard
  • touched
  • felt
  • knew
  • realized
  • thought
  • remembered
  • reminded
  • decided
  • seemed
  • imagined

You rarely need these in fiction’s narrative writing. (In dialogue you can do almost anything—but the dialogue still has to propel the plot, or reinforce character traits, or make extra conflict. Reflection, as with these barrier words, is not a great mission for dialogue. At the hardest end of the barrier word-cutting, thought and decided can be erased by first-person limited point of view.

He thought he could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.

becomes

He could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.

At the easiest,

Randolph saw the wagon sink in the mud

becomes

The wagon sank in the mud. We should know it’s Randolph doing the watching.

Let a reader observe the action itself in the writing. Visuals rarely need watched and saw. Sensations like smell (one of my favorites) should be unique or pungent enough to stand without the verb smelled. The fuzzy one is felt: it’s almost useful while you describe a texture. But the stubble on his chin felt rough can easily become The stubble on his chin was rough.

Go through and check your writing during revision. After awhile, you won’t write even first drafts using these barrier words.

Showing spunk about making sentences

Out on the Writer’s Digest Web site, Bonnie Trenga has posted an article on grammar that boils down the writing of a good sentence to four commandments. She starts with shall nots and shalls.

1. You shall not write passively.
2. You shall not overuse weak verbs like “to be” and “to have.”
3. You shall not fluff.
4. You shall make every word necessary.

They are so fundamental that we need to know them like our own faces in order to cast them off. See, breaking rules is part of writing, too. You’re working inside rules like these four to be polite, so readers don’t struggle to enjoy your writing.

An antidote to Strunk and White’s Elements of Style

A list of rules, though, can become a rutted road for a reader. You might have this experience if you watch TV on the reality channels and see one episode after another of house flipping shows. The hopeful but innocent flipper introduced. The stern advice from the host. The headstrong ignoring of said advice. The cheerful praise of finished flip work from Realtors, followed by grim assessments from the buyers during the open house.

Read enough such formula and you begin to long for something that tastes different. Learning how to differ is the advice you can read more about in Spunk and Bite, a good antidote for the writer who’s lashed to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.

Write something that follows these four commandments without fail. Then rewrite it so it bends, or even breaks one of the rules. See if you can create something unexpected but understandable. Know the rules, but break them when you can.

Oh, one more bit of advice: Set any intentions or guides like these in positive statements. The brain can only process affirmative statements. It throws away the word “not” or “don’t.” So,

1. Write in the active voice.
2. Select strong verbs to limit your use of “to be” and “to have.”
3. Choose the best word, the one understood easily and most accurate.
4. And yes, “You shall make every word necessary.”