Tag Archives: editing

THE FICTION WRITING HANDBOOK, my Disruptive Writing Guide FREE today only!

My different, iconoclastic craft manual, The Fiction Writing Handbook: The Professional Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules, is FREE on Kindle until midnight today, Saturday September 14.

With a foreword by Janice Hardy, this book directly challenges and questions all the accumulated writing rules and dogma that rattle around the internet echo chamber and are endlessly parroted by writing blogs, teachers, and books. 

Most of the so-called writing rules are flat-out wrong, and a great many others — Show, don’t tell and open with action, to take just two — are deeply misleading and poorly-understood. Check out the reviews and grab your copy now!


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Self-Editing: The Inconvenient Truth

A few days ago, I found myself reassuring an author on Twitter. The author had shown someone their final novel draft, which they’d gone through countless times, and the reader found a number of mistakes in just the first ten pages.

This isn’t in the least unusual. And although there’s currently a rash of books and blog posts on how to self-edit, the reality is that you’re not — unless you’re already a seasoned pro, and even then — going to catch the majority of issues with your own work. It’s impossible.

I’m not talking about typos here, or even commonly confused words (discreet for discrete, effect for affect, etc.), missing quotation marks, and the like, all of which will slip past spellcheck and most authors’ revision passes. No, the dangers lie in far more significant errors such as plot holes, continuity glitches, confusing passages of insufficiently-tagged dialogue, impossible actions, viewpoint slips, mangled syntax, and so much more. (More here on what good copyeditors look for and how they go about it.)

The two main reasons self-editing doesn’t really work are that the author is so familiar with their own manuscript they can’t read it slowly enough, and (worse) they understand their own creation so well that they’re not going to see the holes and missing links that will prevent the reader from fully understanding or following it.

Looking back over dozens of manuscripts I’ve copyedited in the last several years, I find the following rough metrics emerging (based on 80,000-100,000-word novels):


WRITING LEVEL Mistakes/corrections (average) Comments, editorial (average)
Newer writers 2,000-3,500 200-300
Intermediate 800-1,500 50-150
Advanced/Pro* 200-1,000 30-50


Sobering numbers? They should be.

Now, bear in mind that the mistakes/corrections listed in my table above will include a large number (up to 50%?) of quite minor issues, such as punctuation, paragraphing, indents, etc. Still, punctuation errors can change the meaning of a sentence; and although most readers are somewhat forgiving if the story is engaging, if the text has repeated errors, they’ll likely ding the author in a review, or put the book aside for good. With between one and three thousand new books published every day in the US alone (yes, you read that right) and millions of books for sale on Amazon alone, the competition for the reader’s time and money is beyond ferocious. And although good editing/copyediting doesn’t come cheap,** the author who publishes a book without having a professional go over it is taking a big risk.

As for the editorial comments column in the table above, those usually constitute actionable items or issues – plot holes, say, or something not believable, or worse — serious enough to require flagging for the author. Things that need fixing, or at least consideration.

Some authors may also be a little wary of copyeditors, because they see the process as inherently adversarial (“red pencil syndrome”), or because they’re concerned about having their style altered. These aren’t unreasonable concerns: as an author myself, one of my guiding principles is to respect the author’s style and intention and make every effort to hew as close to their original text as possible when making corrections or suggesting changes.

Perfect examples of this are sentence fragments and even comma splices: while most copyeditors will unhesitatingly treat each instance as a transgression, I try to determine if they’re intentional stylistic choices; if there’s no significant grammatical issue, the author gets the benefit of the doubt. And many authors have thanked me for respecting their style choices.

Secondly, I try (if it’s not an obvious case) to give the author an insight into the reasoning behind my strikeouts and, at the risk of seeming overly didactic, to supply any applicable rule behind errors I see repeated, in the hope this may help the author in future.

It’s true that good beta readers, if you’re fortunate to have some, will catch quite a few things. But even the best readers aren’t going to spend twenty minutes recasting an awkward paragraph (it’s very rare to find a manuscript that doesn’t have many), check your facts, scrutinize capitalization use, address incorrect punctuation, monitor for consistency, and so on. It’s unlikely they know their style manuals inside out, or have the broad array of general knowledge a good copyeditor should. Given they’re doing this as a favour to the author, they’re unlikely to give a ms. the close and careful scrutiny and the time a copyeditor will.

Finally, copyediting is not critique. If your betas are writers, there’s also a good chance some of them may have their own ideas of how your story should go, and that’s not always a good thing. Copyediting is a necessary and valuable step in preparing a manuscript for publication, and an investment in both the current work and the author’s career, whether they’re indie publishing or going the traditional route.

Are you interested in having your work copyedited? Please check out my services here, or drop me a line.


*The very cleanest manuscript I ever saw was from a longtime professional who’d written dozens of novels and short stories. In the whole 80k words, I only made thirty corrections and eight comments. One of these, however, was a doozy: at the pinnacle of the climax, the hero gets the chance to draw his pistol, saving the day. Unfortunately, he already had both hands full, a catch for which my client was very grateful indeed.

**Copyediting an average length novel takes anywhere from thirty to forty hours and up, depending on how much work is required. It’s intense, high-focus, and highly skilled work, and a good copyeditor is worth every penny they charge.


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Gardner, We’ll Miss You.

Gardner Dozois in June 2006. Photo by Ellen Levy Finch reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

GARDNER DOZOIS, a giant of modern science fiction, left the building this week.

Others have written at length about his enormous accomplishments as an editor, so I’ll keep my comments on that brief. Dozois was a key player — perhaps the key player — in shaping today’s science fiction (SF) and especially in elevating the quality of writing in the field. He was also a very accomplished author himself, and though his oeuvre is small, I highly recommend seeking him out.

I had the fortune to know Gardner a little personally. He was our week four instructor at the Clarion West intensive SF boot camp I attended in 2002. Beyond his quick laugh and trademark ribald humour — he was just delightfully goofy — two things impressed me deeply about him. First, his intelligence. Gardner was brilliant, but in a modest and low-key way. There’s a saying: “Mediocrity knows nothing but itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius.” This man listened and watched as others spoke in a way very few people do, weighing each word said in a way that made a very strong impression on me.

The second thing which impressed me about him was his fairness and equanimity. As longtime editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and editor of scores of top anthologies, his criterion was always simply the writing. Whether he personally liked an author or not – and I know he published some individuals he didn’t — had nothing to do with his selections. For him, it was, as it should be, always and only about the work.

In the sixteen years since Clarion West, I had some occasional correspondence with Gardner, and he was always kind, helpful, and honest, especially when I began to publish my own novella anthology series, the Panverse series (Panverse One, Two, and Three). A fan of the novella form himself, he read and reviewed each volume in the series with his usual fairness and humour, encouraging me and, on one occasion, making me crack up as I read his review of one story.

It’s hard to imagine a life better lived than this man’s. Quite apart from providing readers with so much wonderful fiction to enjoy, Gardner discovered and nurtured literally hundreds of new authors, transforming the field of science fiction in the process.

Finally, since I know at least some of you reading this are writers, I’ll leave you with two words of Gardner’s, which are probably the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave me: “Be audacious.”

Rest in peace, Gardner. You’ll be missed.

You can read more about this remarkable man at his Wikipedia page, and find the scores of excellent anthologies Gardner edited through his Amazon page: I own a shelf full and that barely scratches the surface. If you’ve never read truly great science fiction, give some of these a try. For a sampling of Gardner’s own remarkable body of body of work, this ebook contains several of his very best stories, ranging from the humorous to the truly moving. I can’t recommend his fiction highly enough.

Finally, one of his best short stories, “Morning Child” is available to read free online at Lightspeed Magazine.

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Breathe! The Copyeditor Has Your Back

One of the things a good copyeditor will do, beyond dealing with infelicities of grammar, syntax, style, composition, and general meaning, is cover your back. And I mean totally cover it.

In my experience, what most indie authors require is actually a combination of line, copy, and general editing*, not least because the cost of the numerous editing passes a big publishing house would do (general/developmental edit, line edit, copyedit) can add up to several thousand dollars, a prohibitive sum for the vast majority of indies.

When I’m copyediting a manuscript for a client, I’m in a watchful mode, consciously noting and monitoring a broad swath of detail and information. The characters’ physical characteristics, the revealed details of their backstories, geographical locations, dates and times events take place, even character names—all these are prone to inconsistency and slippage over the course of a long work and revisions, and it’s the copyeditor’s job to spot these errors and fix them. But that’s just the beginning.

A copyeditor takes little for granted. If, say, I find a reference to a company called Datavision in the text, my first instinct is to wonder if it might not be styled DataVision, or Data Vision, and I’ll google it right away to see if a correction is needed. If I’m working on a science fiction novel and the author states that the universe is 13.8 billion years old, I’ll check that this figure is current and correct—science and tech are especially tricky, since our knowledge is increasing at such a rate that “facts” are constantly changing.

Or let’s say the author has used a Latin or French phrase, like non plus ultra (nothing beyond compare, as far as you can go) or cherchez la femme (look for the woman). A good copyeditor will, if not familiar with it, check both the spelling and the meaning of the phrase to ensure the author has used it correctly. German words like schadenfreude (taking pleasure in others’ misfortune) are especially hazardous. It’s terribly easy to make mistakes in this area.

Firearms present notorious problems for writers, many of whom have little or no firsthand knowledge of them. I’ve come across more than one hero flicking the safety catch off a revolver…but revolvers don’t come with safeties. Whenever a gun is used in a story, details need checking. Is that brand made in that caliber? How many rounds does the standard magazine fit? And so on. As to the actual use of firearms in fiction, it’s the copyeditor’s business to know and alert the writer that anyone who isn’t an experienced shooter is very unlikely to hit a person at more than fifteen yards with a pistol, especially a snubnose or a large caliber model with heavy recoil.

It helps if the copyeditor has a good memory and a large store of general knowledge. Just recently, I was going through a manuscript where the author invoked the European terrorist group of the 1970s and 1980s, naming them the Red Brigade. Fortunately, I was around then, and know that they styled themselves, and were known as, the Red Brigades (plural). A small error, but these add up.

Then there are the logical and physical errors and impossibilities. If the author has a terrorist at Dulles airport notice “a group of heavily-armed cops in the distance, maybe a thousand feet away,” the copyeditor should be thinking, wow, that’s a fifth of a mile…and go googling for maps of Dulles airport to see if there really are sightlines that long, as well as adding an inline comment for the author. In another recent manuscript I worked on, the author has a fellow chopping a line of cocaine on the railing of a ship at sea, which is a great way to prevent any actual drug use: better to find a more sheltered spot well out of the wind.

Sex presents a lot of fun for the copyeditor, and fortunately, most writers have a sense of humor when it comes to edits on the subject. I once had to point out to an author that the words vibrator and dildo aren’t interchangeable, the two devices being functionally different in significant ways. No, please don’t ask.

In summary, a good copyeditor working with indies usually does a lot more than check grammar, syntax, and punctuation. Though some of the above falls into the grey area between copyediting, line editing and developmental or substantive editing, it’s my belief that the copyeditor’s job is to protect the writer from every possible circumstance that may cause embarrassment, criticism, scathing reviews, or ridicule. No editor or proofreader is perfect: we all miss things. But the manuscript needs to leave the copyeditor’s hands in a condition such that even if errors remain, they are so minor that no harm will come to the author’s sales or reputation.

So go on, create awesome fiction and don’t worry about taking risks. The copyeditor has your back.

Have you worked with a copyeditor? What was your experience like? 

*I call this the “single edit solution.” Details of my editing services can be found here

Note: This post was originally published as part of the Indie Author Series at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University, 8/11/2016


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Affordable Editing for Indie Authors

As indie publishing1 matures, the need for new editing approaches has become apparent, with some freelance editors changing their protocols to accommodate indie authors looking for affordable editing and copyediting.

In traditional publishing, the standard process has always involved several steps, with the ms. (manuscript) being returned to the author for revision and corrections between steps; this is one reason a trad pubbed book takes between a year and two from acceptance to release. These stages are typically:

Edit (general); line edit; copyedit; proofread. There may even be a major developmental edit before the general edit.

Since each of these steps requires a careful and complete read of the ms. as well as annotation, the traditional process quickly becomes expensive: a simple line- or copyedit on a novel will easily take forty to fifty hours or more. It’s therefore obvious that the traditional sequence of editing tasks, costing upwards of $5,000 at a minimum, will be beyond the means of all but a very few indie authors and small presses.

And yet, most indie authors of even moderate experience are aware that the success of their book may well depend on it being properly edited and proofread: the days of just completing a novel and uploading it to Amazon full of errors and inconsistencies are (thankfully) long gone. For those who still do it, their book is likely to get poor reviews, if it gets any, and sink like a stone.

Before discussing solutions, let’s make sure we define our terms, because there’s a lot of confusion on what the various stages of editing are:

  • General Editing. Will address macro issues of the draft ms. like plot and character arcs, poor plot logic, passages and scenes that aren’t working well, stylistic issues, etc.  Sometimes referred to as substantive or developmental editing, a general edit is similar to a critique in that it reviews the ms. as a whole; this edit provides the author very specific and detailed insights to the problems identified.
  • Line Editing. A more detailed and intensive edit whose aim is to improve the flow, pacing, polish, and overall readability of the work. Line editing addresses, among much else, dialogue, style, grammar, tense, and syntax issues, often reworking sentences paragraphs that need improvement.
  • Copyediting: The pre-final pass through a ms., copyediting looks at the fine detail, including punctuation, consistency, capitalization, formatting, and anything missed at the line editing stage. The copyeditor is also responsible for fact-checking.
  • Proofreading: strictly limited to checking spelling, punctuation, capitalization, grammar, verb tense, and consistency in formatting. Proofreading is usually the final step before a document goes to print.

That’s the process in traditional publishing, and it’s still the way things are done in the big houses, although they’re starting to cut corners for new and even some midlist authors whose books aren’t expected to become big hits.

As a freelancer, I’ve worked to come up with a solution that offers the best possible value for the indie author on a tight budget. My goal here is to catch and correct as much as possible on a single pass through the ms. as well as providing some remedy for new errors that might be introduced (it happens) when the author implements some of the suggested fixes turned up by my edit.

I call this one-pass edit the Single Edit Solution, and it comprises full copyediting plus selective line editing as well as some limited general editing/developmental guidance where needed; examples of this would be a character behaving inconsistently, logical errors, flat scenes, continuity issues, etc.  In the case of novels, I include a provision for post-edit checking of up to 2,000 words of rewritten material at no additional cost. This last is aimed at solving the problem of new errors being introduced post-edit.

If you’re interested in knowing more, simply drop me a line at dariowriter (at-sign) gmail (dot) com. You can find my rates here, as well as references from current clients.

“I’m delighted at each opportunity to work with Dario Ciriello, who vastly improves my story and writing with every editing pass. He works with warmth and compassion to boot, supporting me as a writer and a person as we puzzle out thorny writing issues that would otherwise be demoralizing to tackle on my own. Dario has edited three of my novels so far, and I look forward to a long-term working relationship together.”

William Hertling, author of the highly-acclaimed 2016 tech thriller “Kill Process” and the hit “Avogadro Corp.” series of SF/tech thrillers.   http://www.williamhertling.com


1 For this purposes of this article, I’m using the term “indie” to include self-published authors

Check out my guest post, “Breathe! The Copyeditor has your Back” at Fiction University


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Questioning Critique

It’s been said that a writer fluctuates between believing they’re the best writer in the world and the worst writer in the world—and in some cases, that they hold both views at the same time.

The point is well-made. When the creative faculty is fully engaged and the characters on the page writhe and pulse with life, the writer is in heaven; but when the inbuilt editor that any good writer possesses kicks in, or the work runs aground on any of a myriad possible shoals, the writer is convinced his work is crap.

Writers work in isolation. They’re very close to their work. And a piece of fiction is a dynamic, interdependent, sometimes fantastically complex web of forces and relationships. It’s therefore vital, as the work approaches its final completion, for the writer to get outside feedback.

Over the last dozen years I’ve participated in or mentored several critique groups, as well as founding one (“Written in Blood”) several of whose members are now widely published and have even won major awards. I firmly believe in the now standard writer’s group critique process.


And yet I’ve begun to see its limitations. Bear with me as I approach my point obliquely.

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about my dislike of the way the publishing industry, steered as it is by suits and the pressing imperatives of the market, is increasingly adopting the Hollywood approach, where everyone gets input on the final result. I personally know of several authors whose book was turned down by a publisher because the marketing department had issues with it (sometimes just because it didn’t fit a clear category) despite the fact that the editorial team were unanimous in approving and wanting to acquire it.

My point is that when we try to second-guess, we can always, always find issues; and in addressing those issues, we end up making so many changes that we can suck all the life and uniqueness out of a work. Today, a book is first critiqued, often multiple times, before going to the author’s agent, who often initiates a whole new round of revisions; and then the same occurs at the publishing house. This in my view is the major reaason why so many genre books today seem generic, formulaic, and about as exciting as the kind of art that hangs in bank lobbies and Comfort Inn rooms.

I’m beginning to think that the word “critique” itself is problematic (the etymology goes back to the Greek word, krites, a judge) and tends to slant the process towards fault-finding; “evaluation” may ultimately be closer to what a writer needs, but I’m probably splitting hairs.

Change as You Grow

Let me be clear: I do believe writers should seek critique and feedback*, and am not for one instant devaluing the formal writers’ critique group. But as we grow as writers, we need to be really sure that the type and direction of critique we’re receiving is keeping pace with our skills, and that our beta readers “get” our work and our intent. Writers need to be very aware that it’s easy to critique anything to death. Tangents and irrelevancies creep in as the well-meaning critiquer casts around to address anything which may raise a question. In this fishing process, things may be caught which materially and subtly contribute to the flavour and uniqueness of the story; and in their doubt, the writer, once alerted, removes or alters the item, and in the process diminishes the final work, bringing it closer to the ordinary.

As an example of this, imagine a Gothic, claustrophobic tale set in a remote castle. In the process of critique, one or more readers may feel that they want to know more about the world outside. What’s going on there? Why doesn’t anyone in the castle go down to the village for supplies? Where do they get their water? And so on. These questions may be fair and even relevant, but there’s every danger that an insecure writer, in attempting to address them to please some theoretical contingent of readers, begins to put in sentences or scenes or infodumps which degrade the atmosphere of isolation and claustrophobia and consequently lessen the power of the work.

Even more of a minefield is the advice frequently given in critique about adverbs, flashbacks, show don’t tell, etc.; while all the standard writing advice is founded on solid principles, it takes true maturity to understand its limits; and likewise to know how and when to break the rules.

The Point of Critique

The point of critique isn’t to make the story or book attain some theoretical ideal of perfection (ideals which are usually based on writerly dogma and oversimplified writing “rules” than anything else); the point is to end up with a publishable piece of fiction which readers will enjoy and which communicates the creator’s vision in as unalloyed a form as possible. The mature writer needs to have the self-confidence and feel sufficiently secure to say, “no: enough”.

Perhaps this is why most pro authors, or even those who are multiply published, seem to move on from formal critique groups and instead pass their manuscripts on to a very small, handpicked circle of other mature authors for beta reading, people who they know will “get” exactly what they’re striving for, and what the reader wants, rather than taking more of a scattergun approach to finding fault in the manuscript. The line may be a fine one, but it is, in my experience, very real.

To my mind, the best beta readers and editors will understand the distinction between on the one hand fully respecting the author’s intent, direction, vision, and style, and on the other, obsessing over some cookie-cutter notion of what the market wants and what constitutes good writing. The focus needs to be on two things only: what the writer intends, and what matters to readers. Nothing else.

And that’s all it ever was about.

What do you think?

Related Post: The Invisible Economy of Middle Earth, and Why Readers Don’t Care


*In fact, I offer manuscript evaluation/critique and copyediting services for writers—see main menu bar above


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The Taliban Guide to Better Prose

I know a lot of writers.

Now, most of these writers blog. And, worse, most of them also Tweet and link to other writers’ blog posts with some frequency.

As a result, I see an interminable stream of post titles like, “Zap Adverbs for Kick-Ass Prose!”, “Thirteen More Ways to Kill Exposition,” “Plot like a Hollywood Screenwriter,” “Write for the Market,” “The Seven Types of Subplot,” and so on, a nightmare cornucopia of deranged dogma and rabid rules almost guaranteed to paralyze any new and impressionable writer.

Oh, please. What about, “The Seven Types of Idiot Advice,” “The Wisdom of the Cookie-Cutter,” and “How Dare You Think for Yourself?!” Now those are posts I’d like to see.

So let’s talk babies and bathwater.

Writing, like any other craft, has some rules. And as we know, it’s wise to learn and internalize these before breaking them. But it’s also critical to know the limitations of rules and when to break them. In the same way that a good doctor who sees someone having a heart attack in the street will help them without worrying that they might be sued if the person dies, so a good writer will always interpret most rules as guidelines rather than holy writ. The problem for most beginning and intermediate writers is knowing where the lines are, where exceptions may be made, and—hardest of all—attaining the correct distance to be able to look at their own work with some degree of objectivity.

Let’s address the last first. As well as having a good group of beta readers, I strongly recommend letting a draft cool for at least a month between revision passes—and by cool, I mean don’t look at it, and try not to even think about it. In the meantime, work on a short story, outline your next novel, do research, whatever. This is the single best way to get some distance from your work.

Some rules—a very few—should probably should be treated as inviolable. These include:

  • Don’t switch viewpoints in mid-scene (unless you’re in omniscient)
  • Don’t resort to a deus ex machina at the climax to save your protagonist
  • Don’t bore the reader with lectures, trivial dialogue, or lengthy, excessive description
  • Always deal fairly with the reader and deliver on your promise to them

Pretty much everything else is negotiable.

Take adverbs, for instance. Although it’s true that adverbs can flag vagueness and weaken prose, they exist for a reason. Consider the phrase, “She mostly agreed with him;” this might appear as internal dialogue in a character’s head, and what it means is very clear—that she was in general but not complete agreement. The adverb here (mostly) conveys the meaning with economy and minimum fuss, and any attempt to eliminate it will likely involve a good deal more wordage and burden our prose. Should we eradicate it because some prose Mufti has issued a fatwa? Of course not. This whole foofarraw about adverbs began as good, rule-of-thumb advice and, after endless parroting, has become a mindless mantra (let’s blame Hemingway, as we can for so much else).

Likewise with exposition, the cure is often worse than the disease. The key with exposition is to make sure it’s both interesting and well-timed. Nobody wants a lecture; on the other hand, if the author’s concern over infodumping borders—as many do—on the obsessive, readers will find themselves dissatisfied, even disoriented. I’ve closed and never reopened many a story, including some by well-known authors, because of this. When a reader needs to know something, let them know it. Often the information can be slipped in deftly, but sometimes it’s just more expeditious to tell—yes, tell—the reader what they need to know rather than stand on our heads trying to slip it in under the radar. If the desire for the information is there, the reader will welcome it. Voice can do miracles here, turning an indigestible lump of exposition into a delightful side-trip the reader will be happy to go along with.

Now, I’m a genre writer. And although I make every reasonable effort to write well and polish both story and prose over several revisions, my primary goal is to entertain the reader. I don’t give a damn what the Literary establishment thinks, or, for that matter, what my more rule-obsessed peers think: my goal is to deliver a story that hooks the reader and keeps them turning pages, leaving them with a feeling of having taken a great ride when they finish the book. That’s all that counts. And anyone who believes that exposition and adverbs are going to kill a book needs a reality check.

The truth is that most readers are not writers, agents or editors. They’re not prose wonks. They aren’t swayed by technical mastery or compliance with the latest fashion taught in the prose madrassas. Nor do they care whether a book neatly fits into a genre, category, or reader demographic. Readers want a story, pure and simple. If you don’t believe that, then I guess J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, Dan Simmons, Robert James Waller, Dean Koontz, Dan Brown, and Isaac Asimov were all just flashes in the pan. Because although some of these are terrific writers and others arguably mediocre, all of them have and do flout one or more of the ‘rules,’ flagrantly and often.

In conclusion, I think part of being a professional in any field is to always question received wisdom. Yes, you certainly should learn the protocols and conventions; but slavish adherence to other people’s dogma and assumptions not only limits your range, it also buys into what I believe is an unhealthy mindset. What’s important is to tell your story in the way that best serves the reader.

In the end, the way you choose to interpret the barrage of writerly imperatives coming at you from every corner of the blogosphere is your own business. For myself, I’ve taken to laughing at most of it.


Filed under Writing

Perfect and Good Enough

My mother used to often quote a saying that was drummed into her (those were the days!) at school:

Good, better best;

May you never rest

Until your good is better,

And your better best.


It’s hard not to see the good in this mantra. And as a driven perfectionist for most of my life, I’m pretty much on board. But the very phrasing of the statement also carries the strong echo of a traditional curse, and advice like this should probably come with a caution, such as author CJ Cherryh’s dictum that, “no rule should be followed off a cliff.”

Before I embarked on my prior career as a decorative artist—sometime before the Elves left Middle-Earth—I used to be a regular housepainter. Because of my own perfectionist tendencies, I quickly gravitated to the high end of the market, which both suited my nature and brought me a better clientele (and income). But whenever I was asked to work in a more bohemian or rustic home, or a friend’s house, I ran into difficulties. I didn’t know how to back off on the perfectionism, where to stop. It hadn’t taken me very long to learn how to do a perfect painting job, but it took me several years longer to recognize the distinction between Perfect and Good Enough.

When you have the aptitude, knowledge, craft, and, above all, patience to do first-rate work, you fall into a trap of sorts. Because not everyone lives in a mansion, and not every job needs to be perfect—it needs to be appropriate. If you detail the hell out of an old car, every ding and imperfection will jump out; likewise, most ER visitors don’t need MRIs and genetic sequencing, they need antibiotics and stitches and plaster casts. More often than not, Good Enough or Appropriate trumps Perfect.

Now, we shouldn’t take this as an excuse for poor work and cutting corners. The guiding principle is what’s appropriate, bringing to bear precisely the right technology and use of resources to get the job done. Overshooting the mark might please your ego, but that’s about as far as it goes.

I believe this is also the case with writing. As I read more writing blogs stuffed with yet more rules and dogma and telling us to obsess over perfection, I also note the beginnings of a reaction, as some of the smarter bloggers caution against blind adherence to The Rules, against over-revising to the point where our work loses energy, and (most importantly) about valuing technique over storytelling.

I’ve ranted elsewhere on this blog about the tendency in this very tough publishing climate for writers to get so wrapped around the axle over the conventional wisdom—diagram-perfect, braided plot arcs; textbook character change; scenes rigidly structured by formula; ruthless elimination of adverbs; the premeditated targeting of fiction to a particular genre or market demographic; and much more. I think there’s a place for all that, and I know writers who, God help them, do it all. And though I don’t have nearly the craft others do, I’m capable of some fine prose styling, always have been. But for years I mistook perfectly-turned prose for good writing, and it isn’t. Nor, I believe, is it generally appropriate. Good writing mostly consists of making people care about your characters and taking them on a ride that they’ll enjoy and feel better for having taken.

I don’t believe every book should have the same structure as every other book in its genre or category. I’m not interested in writing Richard III or being a Shakespeare. I am interested in improving my craft at every level. But as someone self-taught in my previous career as a decorative painter, I’ve learned that adherence to rules and conventional wisdom, although a good basic principle, leads inevitably to either cookie-cutter imitation work or perfected coldness when taken too far. Technical perfection, though it has its place, is ultimately of less value than originality and heart.

Of course, we have to ask ourselves what kind of writers we want to be. I say, advance on all fronts. I believe we develop our skills best by writing, not by obsessing. Keep the focus on the story and the characters.  A lot of tools—classic scene structure, textbook plot and character arcs, and so on—are in my opinion much more valuable as occasional diagnostic instruments than as rigid frameworks essential to our story. Adverbs, like any other part of the language, are a tool.

So learn the rules first; and once you do, question everything.  If you simply  use the right tools and deploy the appropriate level of craft to get the job done, all will be well.


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From First Draft to Final Polish

As I enjoy the very last pass through my novel, I’m struck by how different in its specifics each revision is. Of course, writers vary enormously in their technique and approach. Still, I think we can make some general observations.

Here’s what happens—at least, for me—between the first, rough draft and the final revision pass.

The first revision, (which I strongly believe is best left until at the very least a month after the first draft is completed, since I need to get distance from the work), is for most of us actually a partial rewrite, involving sometimes substantial work on characters, plot, and pacing. I expect to move, transpose, add or toss out whole scenes; new subplots may be introduced; information and backstory management will probably need work. In SFF, add issues of worldbuilding and infodumping. In the worst cases, or if the draft was written at breakneck speed (which is why I don’t do NaNoWriMo), this revision may amount to a complete teardown.

In my own work, I usually find I need to add wordage at this stage, mostly in the form of description and ‘stage directions,’ which I tend to skimp on in my first draft; I may need to amp up conflict, too, as well as introduce some foreshadowing. I fix inconsistencies such as abruptly morphing character names and physical details. And then there’ll be factual errors.

The second revision pass will hopefully be easier and more limited in scope. During this stage, I typically find myself refining character motivation and behaviour; replacing camera-eye narration with more subjective character judgment (yet another aspect of show v. tell); and tweaking dialogue so that it’s more distinct and true to character, trying to make it snap and crackle.

This is a good time to strengthen my theme, by which I mean asking myself what the book or story is really about, and making sure that I reinforce this wherever possible within the context of believable character and action. I also find myself noticing words and gestures I tend to overuse (the dreaded, ‘he/she nodded/smiled/sighed,’ etc.).

On my final revision, I’m getting really granular and looking at the fine detail: essentially, I’m copyediting, looking to smooth every bump and buff out the most minor defects. This polishing pass isn’t about what the story is and how it unfolds, but rather about how I present it to the reader in a way that’s efficient, engaging, and pleasurable.

By now I should have a really clear vision of who my characters are and what my story is about. I’m still tinkering with dialogue, ensuring that’s it’s as crisp as can be, and watching for redundant, leftover words from earlier revisions, as well as malapropisms and the like.

But most of all, I’m looking to make the prose really sing (within reason— where I once used to think a sublimely lyrical prose style was everything, I now care a great deal more about telling a really good story, because I think that’s actually what readers want. It’s what I want when I read).

What do I mean by making the prose sing? Well, since by this stage I’ve (hopefully) eliminated scene-level structural issues with regard to pacing and plot, I’m now looking at structural issues in the prose itself at both paragraph and sentence level. As I read, I’m looking to see if my paragraphs are properly structured and sequenced in relation to their neighbours as well as internally, within the paragraph itself (a subject which merits a post of its own).

Next, is the syntax working? Do I repeat words? Can I improve on word choice, strengthen verbs, punch up a metaphor, slip in some symbolism? Have I committed unconscious rhymes, or clunky sequences of sentences that all begin with the subject (‘He did this. It was Monday. He did that. She said this. The cat grinned.’)? Are there words or even sentences I can cut? Are there filtering words (direct speech such as ‘felt’, ‘seemed’, ‘thought’, etc., often accompanied by supporting adjectives) that can be lost and replaced with the stronger, deeper perception of free indirect speech either literal or metaphorical (e.g., replace, ‘he felt very tired’ with, ‘he was exhausted,’ or, ‘he could sleep for a month)?

Finally, as I work my way through the story, I’m looking for slips and inconsistencies in both voice and tone.

Voice needs to work at every level: dialogue, internal thought (free indirect speech), and narrative (in character viewpoint). It needs to be true and consistent to each character. Skill at handling voice is critical to making readers care about a character, as well as keeping them engaged during breaks in the action.

Tone is a slippery thing, best defined as the overall effect, quality, or mood of a work of fiction, the sum result of theme, voice, prose, and much else. A dark theme approached in a sober voice may yield a Tragedy; but a humorous, upbeat voice will change the tone and transform it into Black Comedy. The point here is to understand what tone you’re trying to achieve and not break the effect with false notes or drastic changes. Start as you mean to continue.

And now? I’m done. After this final revision all that should remain is light copyediting and close proofreading (best left to others), and the work is ready to go out and earn its keep in the world!

What’s your experience with rewrites and revisions? Is your approach comparable or different?


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On Editing

I spent last weekend at BayCon, the annual Science Fiction convention in Santa Clara, CA. Though I get on well enough with most people, I’m not terribly social around strangers; consequently, I tend to skirt the edge of conventions, hanging out with the few people I know and only going to those panels that really interest me. So beyond the two panels and the workshop I participated in, I enjoyed two pleasant dinners in the company of friends, checked out the Dealers’ Room and Art Show, and—this will make most SF con-goers think me barking mad—enjoyed the hotel’s lavishly-appointed Fitness Room not once, but twice.

I had the fortune to be on a great panel titled, ‘Editors, Agents and other Endangered Species.’ As the name suggests, the panel was about the bloody revolution in the publishing industry catalyzed by new technology in general and Amazon in particular. The core issue on most of the panelists’ minds was that of plummeting quality and standards in a field where the gatekeepers (Agents, Editors) and filtering systems (Copy Editors, Proofreaders) are swiftly being swept aside in the flood of self-publishing. (See also my April 1st post on this subject).

The one thing everyone on the panel and several audience members all agreed on is that authors, even professionals, must be edited. And as award-nominated Editor Marty Halpern pointed out to the audience, although in some instances a single editor may perform each aspect of the process, editing is by no means a simple, unitary operation, but something that operates (with some overlap) at three distinct levels, viz:

  • Developmental Editing (aka substantive, comprehensive, or structural editing) concerns itself with the overall organization and coherence of the work, from macro structural and story issues such as plot and character arcs, chapter and scene organization, logic and factual accuracy, etc., all the way to paragraph and even line edits. This is traditionally the province of the editor at the publishing house, though many agents like to involve themselves in this process prior to sending the manuscript out in order to give it the best possible chance in the market.
  • Copy Editing is the process by which issues of grammar and syntax, style, usage, etc., get flagged; this mid-level operation can be quite subjective in places and ideally requires give and take on behalf of both the author and their editor at the publishing house. Copy Editors may be in-house or freelance.
  • Proofreading, which once used to be a separate profession and process, is more often today carried out—if at all—by the Copy Editor; this step focuses strictly on the micro level of the text, addressing word usage issues (e.g., which/that, who/whom/ effect/affect), verb tense, grammar, capitalization, typos, punctuation, numeral usage (i.e., forty-five/45) etc.

Reading the above, it should quickly become obvious that the process of editing a manuscript  involves a very substantial amount of work and some very diverse skill sets. A good Developmental Editor, for example, must not only possess a strong understanding of story and the narrative process, but also a peculiarly well-informed and widely-read mind, essential if factual blunders are to be avoided; these people are awesome at trivia games. A Copy Editor, if they are worth their hire, should have a rock-solid grasp of the language and its rules, as well as a writer’s sensitivity to style. And a Proofreader, in addition to being a spelling ace, needs the rare ability and attention to detail to read at a slow, methodical enough pace to screen each individual word and its component letters, which is by no means the way most of us read. (It’s especially important to understand that nobody, nobody, can efficiently proofread their own writing, except perhaps by the brain-melting expedient of working through the text backwards, one word at a time).

And we haven’t even talked about formatting yet, the requirements of which vary substantially for print and digital publication.

To conclude, then, good writing is not enough—not nearly enough. For the self-published author to rise above the sea of Indie ordure out there at Amazon or Smashwords, it’s absolutely vital that their work be in some way edited. The process isn’t prohibitively expensive, but it’s not cheap, either;  a very rough ballpark figure—don’t hold me to it—for a freelance do-it-all Editor would probably start around a cent or 1.5 cents a word, which works out to $800 – $1,200 for an 80k-word novel (expect to pay substantially more in the case of a particularly rough ms., or where a good deal of developmental editing is required). Money well spent? You bet: good editing will literally make or break your book!

If you can afford and do decide to hire an Editor (and it is a tax write-off for an author), my advice would be to first of all do your research and identify at least three possible candidates. Don’t be shy of asking whom they’ve edited, and even of following up with those authors and finding out what their experience with the Editor was; the Editor may well (I would!) ask to see a representative sample of the ms. before quoting you a rate. And do be very, very suspicious of anyone whose rate is more than maybe 25% below the others—you usually get what you pay for in life (or, as we say in England, “you pay nuts, you get monkeys”).

Finally, if you can’t afford a professional Editor, at the very least ask your writing group or other, experienced writer friends to help you with these tasks, and offer to do the same for them. The more effort you put into every stage of the essential editing process, the better your finished work will be, and the likelier to get noticed and receive that all-important word-of-mouth that is, ultimately, what really sells books.

And, yeah, I’d bet money that this very blog post suffers from some issues a good Editor would smooth out.

Like my semi-arbitrary decision to capitalize the word, ‘Editor’.

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