This picture is one of my favorite stretches of road, a little country drive that winds its way along train tracks and a river. Peaceful, relaxing, and a great distraction from day-to-day drama–until it rains hard and the road washes away. The right side of the road is continually needing to be rebuilt and resurfaced.
It’s a good metaphor for life and a great one for editing fiction. I’ve been sitting on a “finished” novel for about two months now, in the revising process, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to step back and quit editing. It seems like with every read I find a part of the story that’s bumpy, or there’s a plot hole, or a big section that’s completely washed out from something I rewrote in another place.
Which begs a question–how do you know when it’s polished enough? And how do you get there?
I’m not the only person who’s ever asked that question–in fact, a Google search hits up several bloggers offering their own bit of advice. Author Carolyn Jess Cooke likens it to that scene in Forest Gump where he takes the football and runs with it. She talks about finishing when it pleases overall.
In the writing forums I’ve participated in, this question comes up a lot, and the answer is usually the same. You don’t ever truly finish editing. At some point, you have to just let go and go for it. Right now, I run my chapters through Editminion, which gives me a good overview of weak writing, prepositions and such. Then I exchange critiques with partners, and they usually pick out the big plot issues. I do a little revision and send the chapter on to my freelance editor. I make most of the changes she suggests, and do a final read using the following techniques.
1. Create a Wordle of each chapter. Wordles are AMAZING! The only negative is they’re a public document. The way a Wordle works is to analyze each word in an excerpt of text and size the words in accordance to frequency. For example, here’s a screenshot of my Wordle for the first chapter in my WIP. You can tell it’s a Christian Fiction because of the size of the word church, for example. Part of the scene happens in the church. But some other words that stood out to me–phone, eyes, shoulder, face–how many of those could be overused?
2. Search for commonly overused words with Microsoft Word’s Find feature. This article has a great list. My bad habits are back, going, reach, look, saw, eyes, etc. Lots of repetitive words.
3. Search for “ly” with the Find feature. Most of the time, these can be cut. I’ve never found an adverb I can’t write around, although I do sometimes use them in my writing. I aim for about one per every 1000 words, which comes to about two or three per chapter (YA).
4. Read through to find places to add sensory details. Can readers smell your setting? If there’s food, have you described it in a way to make their mouths water?
5. Do a line-by-line read-through for show/don’t tell. Can readers pick up the emotion in each scene? Did I just say anger washed across a character’s face, or did I describe what that looked like?
But I still don’t feel “finished.” Novel, under construction. Somebody’s going to have to take this thing away from me 🙂
What are your strategies? How do you know when you’re finished editing?
I wish I had started out as a writer first, then a teacher. I think my first few years would have been much better. Writers tend to notice things about people that others don’t.
That said, I’m thankful for the time I’ve spent trying to sell curriculum to resistant young people every day, because I think it makes me a much better writer. Here are five things I’ve learned:
1. Teens respond better to active, engaging material than passive.
In the classroom, this translates to hands-on activities and interactive models, such as the potato gun above–one of my all-time favorite projects from some of my favorite students*. In writing, this means drawing them into the action and letting them experience it as the character. They don’t want to just stand by and let you tell them a story. They want to think, feel, taste, smell, touch, fear, rejoice, and be.
2. Teens thrive on relationships.
They want to have them, hear about them, talk about them, dissect them–it’s a challenge sometimes as a teacher to get them to stop thinking about relationships long enough to teach them something. You might think I’m only talking about romantic relationships, but it’s more than that. They thrive on building strong relationships with the adults in their lives, even the elderly. They are interested in watching how two teachers interact with each other, or how a mother interacts with her baby.
That’s why I feel like it’s important to consider the relationship dynamic between ALL characters, not just the main ones, and adding in a few details to show appropriate behaviors between people. Maybe someone holds the door open and someone else thanks them. Perhaps an older couple is walking by in front of them, holding hands. Sadly, a lot of kids do not have good role models to imitate. In Christian fiction, especially, we need to keep that in mind.
3. Teens are smarter about life than we think.
I’ve critiqued a lot of aspiring YA writers, and one of my pet peeves is how they sometimes try to explain every little thing. It’s like they think teen readers won’t know the meaning of words or understand the history behind an event. Believe it or not, teens are usually pretty up-to-date on current events and fairly knowlegeable about history. After all, they get three years to study it in high school. I’ve had some great intellectual discussions with students about surprising topics over the years.
They also have experienced more than we might believe–pain, loss, joy. In fact, many of them could teach us a few things about coping.
We have to be careful to not make characters too naive. In a recent discussion with a group of young readers, we talked about the Princess Diaries and how frustrated they were with Anne Hathaway’s character being inept at so many things. While most of them liked the movie, they didn’t find her character relatable. Their average/awkward is a lot different from the way Princess Mia was painted.
If we’re not careful, we could write characters that might come across as an insult to today’s savvy teen readers.
4. Teens have short attention spans.
It’s been my experience that teens lose focus after about 10-15 minutes. In my classroom, I have to find creative ways to throw in hooks every so often to pull them back in. And honestly, I think that’s true for a lot of adults, too. I’ve seen a lot of students take books back to the library before finishing them. Instead of being a story they couldn’t put down, it was something easily dismissed. At the very least, a writer should put a hook at the end of every chapter. You’re not going to keep them turning pages with a bunch of info dumps, either. They’ll just flip through and skip pages to look for the next action scene.
5. Teens are brutally honest.
One thing I love about working with high school students is that you never have to worry about what they’re thinking. If they love an assignment, they’ll tell you. If they hate it, you’ll know. So, hard as it may be to handle their blunt feedback, if you’re going to write YA, you might consider having a couple of teens read your story before submitting, and REALLY listen to their advice.
*Photo used with permission.
The Bernie Madoff story has always fascinated me. How could one man orchestrate something that ruined the lives of so many? How could he sleep at night, knowing all of his gain was because of their loss?
Recently, I read this article from the Wall Street Journal, telling how some of the victims have done over the last five years: on.wsj.com/1gWvNJN
I think about all those people who were in retirement, thinking they were set for the rest of their lives and suddenly losing everything. Some have adjusted to a simpler life, but others have been destroyed trying to rebuild their financial lives from ground zero. I can’t imagine that kind of loss. Someday I want to write a fiction story about a character who goes through something similar.
Instances of loss are all around us. Homes burn to the ground or are demolished by tornadoes. Children, mothers and fathers are lost to freak accidents. Loving spouses bury their longtime mates. We sometimes bury ourselves in our sorrows, taking comfort in the fact that Christ understands them and sympathizes with our pain.
And yet the Bible is so clear that God wants us to be a people full of joy, not of devastation.
Someone once told me you can’t worry and be joyful at the same time. I know Matthew 6 tells us we aren’t supposed to worry, but financial stability is always on my mind. Even as a tenured teacher, I worry a lot about keeping my job as the tides in educational leadership continue to change. And I worry about costly illnesses. These days, with the changes in our health insurance policies, it seems like any of us could be just a few rough medical bills away from financial ruin.
But then, I remember Habakkuk 3:17-18.
Though the fig tree may not blossom, Nor fruit be on the vines; Though the labor of the olive may fail, And the fields yield no food; Though the flock may be cut off from the fold, And there be no herd in the stalls— Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.
How many times (a day) do I forget that my purpose is His purpose, and that my life is a vapor? I was not put on this Earth to maintain financial stability, but rather to spread His good news to as many people as I can. Good news–joyful news. We have a Savior. He is risen! We can have eternal life through Him!
The temptation to mope through life and bemoan our circumstance is an ever-present thorn in today’s society. We have to be like Paul in Philippians 3:7–counting all things loss for Christ, and remember Mark 8:36, that if we gain the world, yet lose our soul, it’s all in vain.
Today in my professional development training, my principal ended with this quote from Jim Collins:
Good is the enemy of great.
In his book Good to Great, Collins asserts that we don’t have many great schools, newspapers, government agencies, churches… because we have so many good ones. It’s about complacency, or not holding ourselves to even higher standards. We’re content to let good be good enough.
We might make the same argument for books. I know of many self-published authors who put themselves on a deadline to finish their novels. They’ve written good books with minor errors that don’t sell, then had to rewrite and republish later to fix the embarrassing mistakes.
Our conversation today was regarding PGES, a new method for evaluating teachers, which has drawn both praise and criticism from many. Personally, I like it, although It’s never easy to take a look in the mirror and realize we have room to grow. Sometimes, with the constant criticism from many angles, it’s easy for a teacher to start feeling as though no one thinks they’re good enough. I think that’s true for writers, too. But at the same time, sometimes we get so much praise that we start to think ourselves better than we actually are.
Actually, someone else gave us a charge to pursue greatness long before Jim Collins walked the earth.
The Bible clearly teaches that we must use our gifts and talents to God’s glory. No question, to strive to be Christlike is a strive to perfection, and an acknowledgement that we are all far from perfect. Writing Christian fiction is a ministry, is it not? So then, would publishing mediocrity be to the glory of God? We have to humble ourselves, keep going back to the drawing board, revising until we’ve given our best.
Romans 12:3 comes to mind–such a simple verse, and yet so hard to follow.
For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.
We should always accept that there’s room for improvement.
It amazes me when I critique someone’s first draft and they want to argue against common sense, industry-standard editing advice. They believe, mistakenly, that their work doesn’t need to be improved, often presenting it more for the pat on the back than the honest critique. Gone are the days of dotting every “i” and crossing every “t.”
We can carry things too far and drive ourselves into perfectionism, but sometimes I think we all need to take a little more pride in our work. Myself included.
This post is continuing with the theme of finding redeeming traits that might make characters based on Bible villains more three-dimensional.
Of all the villains in the Bible, Jezebel is one of the most fascinating. Even among those who aren’t avid Bible readers, mention of her name conjures images of wickedness and seduction.
Her name appears in the Bible twenty times, although one refers to the Jezebel of Revelation 2:20. This Jezebel, though also a seductress, does not have quite the wicked reputation as the Old Testament queen.
When Jehu conspires to kill Joram after being annointed king of Israel, Joram asks if he’s coming in peace. Jehu answers, “What peace, as long as the harlotries and witchcraft of your mother are so many?” (II Kings 9)
Unlike Cain, to whom the Lord gave leniency, Jezebel was sentenced to death by her own servants and eaten by dogs.
I love these Old Testament stories, with all their twists, turns, and gore. But to write a Jezebel–how can she possibly have any redeeming qualities?
At first, I considered the possibility that perhaps she didn’t WANT to marry Ahab, and she might have been at least somewhat obedient there. Yet I Kings 21:25 says:
But there was no one like Ahab who sold himself to do wickedness in the sight of the Lord, because Jezebel his wife stirred him up.
It’s hard to picture her not enjoying being a powerful queen, manipulative and murderous. This verse has the same feel to it as Adam’s blame in Genesis–the woman made me do it!
So, admittedly, these might be a stretch, but here goes–
- She was zealous in her idolatry. In how many other instances would a woman marry a king and not be expected to adopt his faith? Especially in Bible times where women wouldn’t have had the freedoms we relish in today.
- She was effective in her evangelism. In I Kings 16:31-32, we see that Ahab not only fell into worshipping Baal, but he also built altars to worship in Samaria, which he surely knew was an atrocity to God. In this, I picture her as perhaps a smooth talker–the seductress side of her winning him over. And perhaps, that alone would be a redeeming enough quality for a Jezebel-type character, charismatic enough that readers are swept into the seduction.
- She accepted her death with dignity. Although there was no dignity in being eaten by the dogs, Jezebel did face her fate head on. Unlike the warden in The Shawshank Redemption, who ended his life in the final moment before the authorities came for him, Jezebel put on makeup and adorned her head, and waited for Jehu. She even asked him, as Ahab had, if he came in peace, knowing full well the answer.
There you have it. Redeeming qualities of Jezebel. On to the next villain!
I think somewhere deep within all of us is a quest for greatness. We want to be recognized, honored, and patted on the back for our accomplishments. Part of wanting to be published surely relates to that. After all, I’ve worked SO hard on this masterpiece. So many hours that could have been sleep, so many rewrites and revisions. Someone should really give me some appreciation, right? It’s so hard to keep that attitude in check.
And yet I read verses like Proverbs 3:34, and feel an immediate twinge of guilt for ever entertaining such thoughts.
Surely he scorns the scornful, but gives grace to the humble.
Now I wouldn’t call myself scornful. And I definitely want His grace. But as I approach the moment where I start sending my work out for scrutiny, I’m sure the temptation for scornfulness will come with the rejection that’s sure to follow.
After all, haven’t all the “greats” suffered rejection?
This led me to ponder what I truly want from publishing. I can’t deny the surge of excitement that would come from seeing my name in print, from walking into Barnes and Noble and finding my name on the shelf.
But then, I consider the what if–suppose rejection doesn’t follow. How can I keep myself humble?
Rabindranath Tagore, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913, said this:
We come nearest to the great when we are great in humility.
And to be great in humility comes from purposing to be like Christ.
Maybe I just worry about silly things. The answer always comes back to living a Christ-centered life.
So, with that in mind, of course we can be both great and humble, in Him.
Confession. I have not yet read The Fault in Our Stars. I’m sure it’s a lovely book. Everyone I know is talking about it. And I haven’t read it for the same reason that I’ve never made it all the way through A Walk to Remember, and The Notebook. My chest constricts just thinking about it. Tears well up in my eyes and I start wandering the room for chocolate. I’m not a fan of sappy.
I know, I know. So many good books I’ve missed out on because I don’t like to face that raw emotion.
Then there’s my temper. I teach teenagers. I’m paid not to lose my temper. And with that, I’ve learned to let things roll off my shoulders. It takes a lot to make me mad these days, which makes it really hard to write a dramatic scene in a novel.
Yet, I’m working on a scene where I need to vamp it up. And I’m stuck. I guess I’m going to have to grab some tissues and force myself to read a few of those sappy books.
Joe Bunting, founder of The Write Practice, wrote this article on writing about raw emotion. His first thought was to draw inspiration from music. That, I can do. I can actually listen to songs that evoke that sort of emotion as I write. I’ve never been a playlist writer, but I know that writers are. Bunting suggests using repetition and restraint to convey the emotion. I like the thoughts, but I felt like the article could have given a few more examples. So I Googled on.
Nevermind that when I searched (when should a character let emotion go) and found Elsa, or (when should a character break down) and found Twilight.
But finally, I came across this little gem: Character Rants and Breakdowns–Let ’em Rip by Beth Hill. I realized how much of the problem is me–holding back my own emotions, so I hold back the emotions of my characters. Writing and reading is an escape. Catharsis is acceptable on the written page, and it will lead readers to compassion for my characters.
This reminds me of Romans 12:15, one of my favorite verses on compassion.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.
It’s exactly what readers want to do. Now, to push my sleeves up and make them feel that scene.
Someone told me when I started this writing process that I could never hope to be rich at writing unless I spent a lot of money. I don’t think that’s necessarily true, nor do I expect to become filthy rich. I do think, however, that it’s necessary to spend money on how-to books. Unfortunately, that can be a shot in the dark. Here are a few books that I think every fiction writer needs.
1. On Writing by Stephen King. It’s Stephen King. ’nuff said.
2. The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman. I feel like I’m cheating when I use this book.
3. The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman
4. Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy. Yes, it’s a “For Dummies” book, but Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method is kind of cool. It’s a great way to organize your thoughts.
5. Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King
6. Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Dr. Linda Edelstein
Know of any others?