Textual nightmares: or, some ways you can not suck at editing by learning from my mistakes

Writing novels is not my problem. My output has only improved in the last few years, and I’ve finally moved beyond the whining about not having time, or making every excuse in the world not to write stage. Those were big hurdles for me, and I’m proud of the accomplishment. I generally make my 1K goal every day, with a few exceptions, and I love telling the stories.

So what’s the problem, right?

Unfortunately, what’s resulted is lots of first drafts, and not completed novels. As a writer who fumbles around in the dark putting pieces together, this is truly problematic as editing, the next step in the process, just opens up all sorts of new and strange writing problems and therefore, inevitably, leads me toward a complete creative freeze.

I have approached editing three drastically different ways for the last three completed drafts. With The Aldersgate, I rewrote everything. I think I saved just over 3K of the original 100K book, and ended up somewhere around 150K (which is still too long). With Pilgrim of the Sky I did a direct edit, three times through; didn’t re-write, so much as restructured. This worked well, but burned me out, and literally left textual imprints on my retinas.

Then came Queen of None. I wrote this book in about five weeks, just after my sister’s cancer diagnoses. Read: therapy. After finishing the edits on Pilgrim I went right to it, and was disappointed by pretty much the entire book, or at least the chapters I’d managed to get through.

  • Mistake #1 – I should have re-read the entire thing, without editing (and trying not to think about editing) before I went about the deed. It would have given me access to the better parts of the book, and I would have been a better judge of the story overall, rather than each chapter in succession. Because parts of it are not good, or even worth keeping, and that completely overwhelmed me.
  • Mistake #2 – I should have thought harder about my narrative perspective. Hands down, Queen of None was the easiest book I’ve ever written. Hell, after the 8 POVs in The Aldersgate it was a cakewalk. But the awesome thing about multi-POV is that when you get tired of one voice, you just move right along. Not so with first-person. I have found myself loathing, admiring, despising, and loving Anna Pendragon. I chose first person because I wanted it to be her story. She’s Arthur’s sister, for goodness sakes, she deserves to tell it her way! I’m just not sure I knew what I was getting into at the time.
  • Mistake #3 – I also let so-called edited chapters out before I should have, sharing with some other writers. While this is a good thing–sharing, yes!–I was a little too enthusiastic, and rather than ask myself the harder questions and really shake up my edits, I ended up being overwhelmed by the feedback. Not that it was all bad; it was simply a bad move considering the shoddy framework that I’d already built around me.
  • Mistake #4 – I just let myself get the better of… uh, myself. Instead of rising to the challenge, I grumbled, I buckled, I put it away. I did not champion on, I did not do better; no, I folded. Now I’m standing in front of Queen of None again. It’s been up and down the last few days, but I’m still making slow progress.
  • Mistake #5 – You know when people say to work on something else if one particular work is giving you issues? Well, that’s well and good, unless you end up with seven unfinished short stories and three unfinished novels in various states of disrepair. There’s a point of utter saturation, where, in my case anyway, the brain is no longer capable of focusing on one thing and, therefore, giving it the attention it deserves. It’s a kind of mental multi-personality disorder, from a textual perspective anyway.

So… forging on. I’m going to make a list (haha, this is not my typical approach) and rate my projects in order, and spend some time really considering a) marketability b) reality and c) creative attachment. I’ve got to work on something I love, and it’s got to be worth my time. Maybe that sounds a little uninspired, but clearly my free-as-a-bird approach isn’t working. I need a little drill sergeant in my life.

I’ve been writing novel-length stuff since I was twelve, and I’ve got to say, I still feel like a total n00b.

Falling apart at the seems: learning to write what you mean

To be or not to be?
To be or not to be?

Writing can be a never-ending process. I mean, theoretically, one could edit and re-edit until the very end, and still not be happy with the result (just ask Walt Whitman). It’s the nature of the beast. Words are malleable, changeable; they have multi-meanings, connotation, irony. You spend too much time fretting about words, and no matter how many drafts you complete, you may never have it ready. The key is to not get overwhelmed, and to have an approach.

It’s always worth taking some time to weed out the big offenders, words that, if given too much leeway in the course of a novel can be absolutely poison to your description and intent in the plot. And in my humble opinion, there is no word so offending as the word seem.

I love words, and word meanings, so to get to the bottom of this stinky little word, let’s start with etymology. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word seem can be viewed as followed:

c.1200, from O.N. soema “to befit, conform to,” and soemr “fitting, seemly,” from P.Gmc. *som- (cf. O.E. som “agreement, reconciliation,” seman “to conciliate”), related to P.Gmc. *samon (see same).

These days, we use seem everywhere. “It seemed like a good idea.” “She seemed happy.” “You seem to know what you’re doing.” The reason? Seem simply indicates likeness, sameness–giving an action or a thought or an object the appearance of something, without actually saying that it is. It’s a hesitant word, one that immediately pushes the reader from the writer’s intent and says, “HEY! If it seems, it might not be. Not really. I mean, why else would I say seem?”

The problem with seem is that it becomes a major crutch. Writers of all walks use it because it’s an easy way out. If it seemed wrong, you don’t have to say why. The word seem does all the work for you. And there’s nowhere as unnecessary for this word than in description. Readers rely on writers to be sure of what they’re describing; you’re asking them into your world, after all. Why beat around the bush? Did it seem like a mountain, or was it a mountain? If it really is just a mountain, and there’s nothing seeming about it, just say, “It was a vast mountain, the ridges knobbed and black against the night sky, like some great beast preparing to rise from the earth.” It reads significantly better than, “It seemed to be a vast mountain…” Instead of using seem one can then utilize a simile! And isn’t that more fun?

I’d say nine out of ten times, the seem in my descriptions are entirely unnecessary. They’re distracting and wishy-washy. Occasionally, however, seem does have its place, especially under the conditions that the particular description is beyond, well, description. No where is this as effective as in horror, SF/F, because so much really is otherworldly, and it only seems like things the reader would know. I think of Keats and his Lamia:

So rainbow-sided, touch’d with miseries,
She seem’d, at once, some penanced lady elf,
Some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self.

Keats, using the word seem here, indicates the absolute impossibility of description. She is three things, simultaneously, and therefore cannot simply be one thing. She is a penanced lady elf, a demon’s mistress, and/or the demon’s self. She is terrifying and otherworldly and beyond compare.

Another place seem can be important is in dialogue. Personally, I say seem a great deal. Hesitant conversations often use the word seem, as well as those from guilty parties: “Everything seemed fine!” It’s much less incriminating than, “Everything was fine!” Characters and people alike don’t like being blamed. Nor are we comfortable speaking in absolutes, and if your characters are always stating the obvious and are never hesitant, well, it might come off a little cardboard.

That said, pick your seems. Go through your finished draft and seriously: find all seems. Measure each one. Is it getting the point across, or is just making you waver on the edge of something? Is it hiding a truth? Is it just taking up space, or is it actually adding to the sense of the novel itself?

To illustrate, here are a few examples from my recent WIP comb-through.

The Bad:

“Do you mind if I sit on your shoulder? I’d feel a bit better. You seem unseemly tall from this particular vantage point.”

– I get special points for this one for the sheer horror of using seem and unseemly in the SAME SENTENCE.

To call it an elevator seemed to insult the mechanical work of art, for it was so elegant.

– Did it seem an insult? No, it was an insult! Come on, Barron, stop sitting on the fence.

The carriage car hissed, and rolled ahead smoothly, building up speed. Heat seemed to emanate from a vent in front of them, but in spite of it, Maddie shivered.

– This one is particularly offensive. Either it emanated heat, or it didn’t. If it didn’t actually emanate heat, then my protagonist is having sensory hallucinations.

The Good:

She kept expecting sunlight to turn the horizon brighter, but it never seemed to come. Every now and again, she thought she caught a glimpse of brighter gray at the horizon, but it only vanished again, as if a trick of her eyes.

– Maddie isn’t sure what she’s seeing. It seems like it will never come, but she keeps expecting it.

“Huh, seems to work,” she said. “At least… I can’t tell you where I’m going, but I know where not to go. If that makes sense.”

– Maddie is surprised, here. What she has been instructed to do works, at least for a moment. So seem works, and it’s very much how she talks. It’s casual, and character-driven.

I had lots and lots and lots of seems, in spite of the fact that I knew I already hated them. When you’re writing with your head down, those first few drafts sometimes have more to do with character and plot than the nuances of language.  It can also be tempting to replace the word seem with its cousins in crime: imagine, appear, looked like. Don’t. Too much of that is like poking holes in a perfectly good roof. The leaks are not worth the trouble, and you run the risk of watering everything down.

Thankfully with computers, we can literally go in and remove these words, one by one, fairly easily. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for writers in the age of type and longhand, poring over drafts and rewriting again and again to get it right. We have the advantage, and therefore no excuses, for seeming and not being.

So how about you? Any tips/tricks/word irks to share?

“Seems? I hate that word,” said Sylvan. “Is it–or isn’t it–whatever it is you think it is.” The last “it is” was purely the fault of the drink. – From The Aldersgate

Confidence vs. Arrogance – The Writer’s Temperament

Anything in any way beautiful derives its beauty from itself and asks nothing beyond itself. Praise is no part of it, for nothing is made worse or better by praise.– Marcus Aurelius

Because your own strength is unequal to the task, do not assume that it is beyond the powers of man; but if anything is within the powers and province of man, believe that it is within your own compass also. – Marcus Aurelius

Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it. – The Buddha

While thinking about confidence in writing, and trying to practice it with a little more gusto (and convincingly!) I’ve also been thinking about the abundance of confidence: arrogance. And I don’t mean simple bravado or bombast–I mean the kind of confidence that perverts the idea entirely and becomes a well of selfishness.

Believing in yourself is one thing, but you must be able to be your own critic if you’re going to be a successful writer. And by and large, arrogant writers do not fall into this category. I have met a few. Instead of accepting comment and criticism, they rise against it in argument, trying to dissuade the critic that they are wrong. Instead of change a single word of what they’ve written, they insist it is holy, perfect as it is.

You’d think that these people don’t get published, but arrogance is a strange chemical in the well of personality. Arrogant men often attract women, and arrogant writers can often find (other arrogant, perhaps) agents. They can be successful. And maybe they’re arrogant from the beginning… but we do all start somewhere.

Where does arrogance come from, anyway? It seems so utterly foreign to me. No, I’m not the world’s most humble person. I do think my writing’s worth a read. I clearly care enough to put together two websites. But the concept that I’m the best there is, or beyond improvement, or whatever is just… plain weird to me. But I’ve seen it! Even in new and unpublished writers. It boggles the mind.

I think a huge part of finding any modicum of success in writing is being part of a writing community. Slowly and surely I’m becoming part of one, myself. And in order to do that you have to be willing to go out on a limb and work with other writers, read their work, and be an active member of the community. Whether that’s online or offline, it doesn’t matter. As beginning writers we have a habit of spinning our wheels, because the writing and publishing industries are really difficult to navigate alone.  I’ve learned more in the last year about such things by simply being engaged in other writers’ processes. I never knew how the process worked; I mean, I’d read about it, researched it, but had never seen it in practice.

When I worked at Big Bookstore Conglomerate in grad school,  I often trolled the aisles of the SF/F sections. At first it made me feel extremely overwhelmed at all the titles, rather clueless to how you get from a text file to the shiny-spined editions in front of me. Then I started reading more of them, started critiquing them. I began to realize that publication is possible; it’s about timing, about hard work. But that was the approach I took.

I think other fledgling writers respond differently. Arrogance is one defense mechanism, i.e.: “I write better than that. I’m doing something completely new and different and groundbreaking, and publishers will bend over backward for me.” The other? The hedgehog response: “I’m going to curl up into a ball and go away. I’m never going to do this, no one cares, and nothing I’ve written is remotely original.”

You’ve got to find a balance. Be confident, but not arrogant. Be humble, but not spineless. If you love what you do, nothing should stop you. If you need to be a better writer (most people do… myself included), practice. Read. Immerse yourself in film and music that inspires you, and work at it. Publication doesn’t magically happen to anyone. Audiences don’t grow up out of nowhere.

The big problem with Arrogance and Passivity is that each inspire non-action, and non-action means you’ll likely fail. Success comes to most people through action… really as simple as that. Especially in a publishing industry and economy as this, new writers really ought to consider such temperaments…

Just sayin’.

Giving GoogleDocs a second chance.

My husband has always been a huge supporter of using GoogleDocs, and I have always been skeptic. There’s something about writing in your own program and having everything just where you like it. I’m possessive, I admit.

I tried writing in GoogleDocs a few times, and was always put off by myriad formatting issues. I can tolerate lots of clunkiness in the way of a word processor, but if it can’t do a handful of things I toss it out entirely.

Well, I’ve been contemplating novel storage, and as a backup, I’ve been importing stuff into GoogleDocs. Then I decided to give it another try, just to see.

And I must say I’m impressed. Not only is it significantly cleaner than it used to be, but it also allows for a full-screen version, getting rid of just about all other distractions. Granted it’s not as distraction canceling as Scrivener’s full screen mode, but it’s a huge improvement, and actually makes writing on it feasible for me.

I don’t think it’ll entirely replace my current writing program, especially when it comes to editing large works and outlining, but it’s certainly viable for day-to-day writing. Kinda neat.

Anyone out there love/hate/meh GoogleDocs?

A quick word from our sponsors.

Well, hello there.

A quick first post. This is my new home on the web, intended to be a little more free-form than my other blog, which of course you can find over at The Aldersgate Cycle.

What will you find here? Well, first and foremost this is a blog about writing. Secondly, it’s about being a geek. Thirdly, it’s about being a mom. So you might find quasi-feminist rants about the latest Pages interface design. Or Renaissance recipes. Or D&D discussions on how to balance family and gaming. Or quips of poetry or… well, you get the idea I daresay.

If you’ve enjoyed my stuff at the AGC, stick around. If you’ve just stumbled upon me, well–stick around, too!