Category Archives: Writing and Writers

How to Cut Without Cutting Your Heart Out

Are you reading K. M. Weiland’s Helping Writers Become Authors blog? Of course you are. Silly question.

There’s an especially nummy treat in a recent edition — The Elephant in the Room: Are You Ignoring Your Story Revision Instincts?  by Alythia Brown of Publishing Tips for the Restless Writer, which you are also reading, right? Of course you are.

The whole article is incredibly useful — I would sub-sub title it “How To Get Yourself To Just Shut Up Already!” But that’s me — Ms. Brown is far more gracious than I.

The gist is that you already know what to cut. You do. You just don’t want to listen to that nagging little voice that says things like “This belongs in a different book.” Or “Dude, I thought you gave up writing while under the influence of Jane Austen.” Or: “This does not sound like any character in this story, not even the dog.” (Hey, don’t snark — I’m editing something now that tells the most affecting parts of the story from a horse’s perspective. I’ll post the usual news flash when I’m done because you WILL want to read it. But I digress.)

In short, you are too in love to cut. So don’t! says Ms. Brown.

Instead, create a Misfits folder and nestle your lovelies in there. Not necessarily because they really are the shining rays of genius you believe them to be — promise, upon further reflection you will realize that many of them are not! But the Misfits folder gives you permission to cut with a machete by reframing your mission: you’re not cutting. You’re rescuing, re-homing, paying the proper respect to your pet paras by removing them from the riff raff that obviously don’t see their worth. Hmmph!

I try to do this with my own writing. I do. It’s hard. Scrivener is an excellent tool for this sort of thing as it allows you to structure your text into movable chapters. (The Outline view in Word does essentially the same thing, but keeps all the text in one place so you can still use Find and other editing tools. But no one likes using Word except me, I know. Lonely, lonely…)

I find the Misfits approach especially useful when I’m working with writers as an editor, and most useful of all when I’m working with writers as a coach. It can be incredibly nerve wracking to hand your work over for someone else to do heaven knows what to it. It’s also nerve wracking to hear someone blithely say, “let’s see what happens if you cut…” NO! MY BABIES!! With the Misfits approach, I can pat your hand and hum “Everything’s All Right” from Jesus Christ Superstar because your babies aren’t being cast into the cold, cold digital ether, they’ll be safe and sound right over… here.

BUT!

(And here’s where I earn that “Handy Tips! You Love Those!” tag.)

BUT! While your manuscript is still in edit, be very very very careful to treat your Misfits as the special snowflakes they are. When you realize that you want a Misfit back, particularly if you want only part of a Misfit back, MOVE the desirable text out of your Misfits folder and back into your live manuscript. Do NOT COPY and PASTE.

You will hate this. You will feel, in the moment, that having two — or three or four or eleventy-squillion — copies of your Misfits couldn’t possibly hurt. Backups are good, right?

Not in this case, bubbeleh. Here’s why:

When you cut a chunk of text during the writing process, chances are excellent that you will edit the surrounding text at some point, right? Yes. And if you copy a piece of that cut text and paste it back into your original, you’re probably going to edit that too, right? Yes. And so on.

Words don’t work alone. The ideas, sensations, colors, indefinable overtones you’re trying to get across depend heavily on all the little decisions you make about word choice, sequencing, perspective, balance, all things that can change drastically depending on context. The more you edit and change and copy and paste and edit and pull threads and modify tone and copy and paste and whatnot, the harder it will be to recognize the bits and pieces of your Misfits you have put back into play.

So, let’s say you like a character’s physical description, but it just doesn’t work where it is, so you put it in the Misfits folder. And let’s say that description included “piercing blue eyes that see into your very soul” (which it shouldn’t because that’s crap, but let’s roll with it). And let’s further say that when you need to describe another character, you completely ignore my advice (silly you) and you COPY that description and PASTE it back into your live manuscript, leaving the original in the folder. Still with me?

OK, so now you have two copies of the “piercing eyes” description, one in Misfits and one in play. You need to edit the one in play because this character actually has piercing green eyes that see into your very soul. And brown hair instead of blonde. And an overbite. And smells of prunes. So you mess with things until they fit. And you go about your business.

The problem comes three weeks later, after a lot of writing and rewriting and Misfit hacking, when you need to describe yet another character. You look in your misfits folder and see your “piercing eyes” description. You still like it, and you know you’ve used some part of it, but you seem to remember changing it so much it’s probably unrecognizable. You decide you’ll COPY and PASTE it again, and change it until it’s unrecognizable again, and go about your business again…

And that, my friends, is how you end up with five characters who have piercing eyes that see into your very soul. I am not making this up — this is an example from an actual manuscript that I actually edited. (To be fair, not all of the piercing eyes saw into your very soul, but there were definitely five piercings.)

“BUT,” you cry, “if I move my Misfit back into my live manuscript, and then edit it, my original Misfit is gone from me never to return! How can you live with yourself, you heartless brute?!”

There are any number of solutions to this psychological hit. Maybe you create an “Original Misfits DO NOT USE” folder. That way you can go and bask in their glory whenever you want. Or maybe you strike through anything from your Misfits folder that you’ve put back into play. That way you’ll know that you can use the “shining tresses” part, but the “piercing eyes/very soul” bit is done and done.

Whatever solution you choose, my point is this: If your goal is a sharp manuscript with as few reader snags as possible, MOVE your Misfits.

 

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Filed under Handy Tips! You love those!, Writing and Writers

How to Avoid that “Refreshing Cola-flavored Carbonated Beverage!”

I’m proofing a novel (GOOD one, too!) in which the author wants to use a brand name. I had a feeling no one would mind, but i did a little search and came across a nice collection of articles on the legalities of writing: Rights of Writers, written by Attorney Jeff Fowler. The article I needed today has the admirable title “Can I mention brand name products in my fiction?” (certainly more useful than my own title, above!). And the good news is that yes, Max can indeed share a companionable meal of Top Ramen with her kitten, Keds.

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Most Common Mistakes: Animate Body Parts – Helping Writers Become Authors

“What do we get out of this exchange, other than Elle’s stubborn resistance to having a catfish chew on her arm?”

OK, if the title didn’t, THAT little gem has to get you — how do you not click immediately to read the excerpt that inspired a glorious sentence like that? You don’t. I mean, you do. Click, that is…

Oh, just click already; it’s K. M. Weiland, how do you go wrong there?!

(You don’t!)

via Most Common Mistakes: Animate Body Parts – Helping Writers Become Authors.

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Filed under Handy Tips! You love those!, Nerd Candy, Wordy Awesomeness of the Day, Writing and Writers

“It Writes the Words or It Gets the Hose” -OR- Why Kristin Lamb is Awesome

So, you know Kristin Lamb? I was just looking at…

No? No, seriously? Kristin Lamb? #MyWANA? http://www.warriorwriters.wordpress.com?

Oh, honey, you gotta get out more. Or stay in more. Or something.

~~~

Anyway, I was just  looking at a recent post, “Ten ways for an ADD writer to be… OOH! SHINY!… Productive.” Now, first of all, this is a great post. GREAT post. Something for everyone (at least everyone who doesn’t have iron clad focus, which is most of us to one degree or another.)  My favorite tip is her “Swiss Cheese Approach,” which is the same general idea as “Knock a Hole In It” — everything looks easier after you hack some chunks out of it. The really important point is this: once you have a solid sense of all the parts of a project, you do not have to start at the beginning. Unless you’re in construction — in which case yes, please, start with the foundation. But otherwise, if the very first part holds no appeal, by all means, knock a hole somewhere else. 

Then, somewhat by the way as a sort of We Are Not Alone inspiration, Kristin Lamb wrote:

“It writes the words or it gets the hose.”

OH MY GOD. See, this probably seemed like just a quippety quip to her, something the muses flang her way in a moment of schmabulosity, but you don’t understand.

This is a line from “The Silence of the Lambs”. It is said to a character named Catherine Martin (played by Brooke Smith).

Catherine Martin is my HERO.

Now, the movie is not for everyone — what with the kidnapping and murder and eating of body parts with fava beans and a nice chianti — but Catherine Martin is, and here’s why:

In a nutshell, Catherine Martin is every straight-up awesome friend you have, driving back to her apartment complex one night, singing along to Tom Petty: “Oh yeah, all right, take it easy baby, make it last (make it last all night), she was an American girl…”.

She is, in fact, an American girl. Thus, when she arrives home, she is a) helpful enough and b) strong enough to take one end of the couch for the guy with the full arm cast who is trying (and failing) to heft it into his truck.

But she is an American girl. So if the bad guy is clever enough to get her into his truck and slam the door and take her to his spooky-a$$ lair and drop her down a dry well, he ought to be clever enough to know that you really shouldn’t kidnap an American girl and drop her down a dry well because she will lure your fluffy little one-stomp dog down there and she will kill it if you don’t let her out.

Oughtn’t he? He ought.

Catherine Martin is why “it writes the words or it gets the hose” is so brilliant as a motivator. Because when Catherine Martin hears those infuriating words (which, in the film, are actually “it uses the lotion or it gets the hose” but that’s a whole other story) she does not cringe or cower. (Much.) For the most part, she’s just mad as hell. And she’s using all that anger as fuel while she plots her escape. Which involves a healthy dose of revenge, because guess what?

She keeps the bad guy’s dog.

Damn!

So “it writes the words or it gets the hose” works for me. Not because of the hose. Because screw you, that’s why.

Oh, and, P.S.?

I’m keeping the novel.

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A Copy Editor’s Advice to Writers: Don’t write things that don’t mean anything!

UPDATE! In case you’d like to hear the gem of a corporate anthem mentioned in this essay, here ’tis —

Our Mission is Success” — Global Technology, Deutsche Bank.

“to attain a successful outcome”
“to get the results you want”
“will result in a positive outcome”
“for the best possible resolution”
“to obtain the best result possible”
“to help you achieve your goals”

Don’t write these things. Seriously, don’t. I’m just going to have to rewrite them for you.

These phrases are examples of what’s called “filler” — strings of words that sound good but don’t actually mean anything.

And how do we know they’re filler?

Story Time!

Once upon a time, I worked for a corporate investment bank in Manhattan’s financial district. This was on the upswing of the tech bubble, a time of great optimism when it seemed like the money would just keep rolling in forever. Companies were competing for talent and generally making fools of themselves, so when somebody piped up with, “Hey, why don’t we commission a corporate anthem!” nobody said, “That is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.”

So lots of companies had anthems, and larger ones had anthems for each department. I worked in the Global Technology department, and our very own anthem was called “Our Mission is Success”.

“Our Mission is Success” was thoroughly awful. And largely unsingable, mainly because of the choking sobs of laughter that followed brilliant lyrics like:

Global Technology
is no easy game to play
a new challenge, anyway
for all of us, each and every day

Not only was it just a dreadful song in general, but my bank had recently been bought by a massive German bank (yes, that one), and it was pretty clear that the song was an export. The pronunciation was actually quite charming, but further detracted from the anthem-i-ness by seeming to reinforce our newly precarious position:

Ghlobal Technolochee
iss no eassy game to play
a new challench anyway
for all of uz, each and efry day

But the central failure of “Our Mission is Success”? The basic premise was flawed. My husband’s response was… well, his FIRST response was, “HOly God, what the hell is this?” But his second response was the quote: “‘One cannot pursue success; success must ensue.'” Which means: success cannot be your mission, because success is not an action.

“What did you do today, honey?”
“I succeeded!”

One can succeed at an action, but saying “I succeeded!” is about as useful as saying, “I threw!” You threw… what? A ball? Your back out? Up?

Not only is success not an action, it is not an option. When naming an action, the success of that action is implied:

“What did you do today, honey?”
“I edited a website for a law firm.”

We can assume that the editing was successful — or at least completed — because if it hadn’t been, I would have said something like,

“I attempted to edit a website for a law firm, but…”
“I was supposed to perform heart surgery, except…”
“I wanted to go to the gym, really…”

If you had successfully gone to the gym, you would have said simply, “I went to the gym.” (But you didn’t go to the gym, did you? I know, neither did I.)

So let’s consider the following:

“We are equipped to handle tough litigation or amicable negotiations to obtain the best result possible for you.”

First let’s clear out the brush: “We are equipped to handle” means “we can.” And “obtain the best possible result” means “succeed.”

If we parse the meaning, we get something like:

“We (can) (successfully) litigate or negotiate for you.”

But success is implied, right? So strip that out and we have:

“We can litigate or negotiate for you.”

OK! NOW we’re getting somewhere. THIS was the point of the sentence all along — this firm is prepared to litigate OR to negotiate, whichever makes more sense. When we figure out what we’re trying to say, the saying becomes much more straightforward. And when we strip things down to the studs, we’re almost forced to say something more useful:

“At Lockjaw, Chubby and Fey, we negotiate when we can and litigate when we must.”

OR maybe this:

“The attorneys at Lockjaw, Chubby and Fey are known as skilled negotiators. However, if negotiations fail, we are not afraid to take your case to court.”

OR possibly,

“Lockjaw, Chubby and Fey will negotiate or litigate, whichever will get us the most money… YOU! I’m sorry, I meant you — whichever will get you the most money.”

(But surely not.)

If you don’t like those and have thought of a better one, use yours, by all means!

The point is this: if you’re having a hard time figuring out how to say it, take a step back and think about exactly what you’re trying to say. Rephrase things in the simplest terms possible, then strip out whatever is obvious, trite, mere formulaic filler. When you’ve gotten down to the one idea you really must get across, you’ll have a much easier time figuring out how to pitch it.

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Filed under DfW Holds Forth!, Tragic Biz-Speak, Writing and Writers

An article about publishing articles written the way articles should be written. Or something.

“Skeuomorphism is traditionally attached to design decisions. We bring the mechanical camera shutter sound to digital cameras because it feels good. We render paper page flips in our digital reading applications because it’s familiar.”

via Subcompact Publishing — by Craig Mod.

Read that over again.

OK, let me tell you two things about that short paragraph.

First, it does not come after a definition of “skeuomorphism”. It’s slung into the middle of the article without even a how-d’ye-do.

Second, it’s better than any dictionary definition.

Third… OK, I guess it’s three things.

Third, the mental exercise you’ve just gone through, figuring out what a ridiculous-looking word like “skeuomorphism” might mean based on what at first looks like zero evidence? And then feels like “more than ample” evidence? And then reveals itself as that elusively elegant “just barely enough” evidence that I’d kill to have written myself? Yeah, you have to do that for the whole article. Genius.

This is not the “tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em — tell ’em — tell ’em what you told ’em” essay we all learned to write in high school. This is something else entirely.

I used to tutor at the Northeastern University Writing Canter, one of my many duties as a graduate slave. I particularly liked this one, because I got to work with many EFL (English as a Foreign Language) students and learn how other languages arrange themselves. One student I worked with was Japanese, and was having trouble with the blunt, ham-fisted American thesis structure.

In Japanese writing, she told me, elegant prose does not just BLAH the main point right off the bat. Elegant writing speaks around the topic, leading the reader to a very satisfying “aha!” moment at the conclusion. And you’ve gotta admit — readers are far less likely to say “so what?” to a point they’ve seemingly arrived at themselves.

That’s what Craig Mod is doing here — leading us through examples that contribute to but do not entirely define the topic. Its up to us to build the thing as we go along.

Give yourself a treat — set aside some time to read this slowly, and truly appreciate the writing skill involved.

Oh — also you might be interested in the information about compact publishing. I guess.

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Omnivoracious: Unnecessary Words, Blah Words, and Just Plain Wrong Words

Excellent advice from Excellent writer Susan J. Morris:

“There are some things you want to be invisible, like panty lines, pet hair (that’s taken up residence on your shirt), and pimples. And there are other things you definitely don’t want invisible, like doors, fast-moving cars, and your pants. One of the jobs of a writer is to successfully sort things into those two camps, and assign words accordingly. Otherwise, you end up with plenty of panty lines, pet hair, and pimples, but no pants, as you slam into an invisible door, fall, and are painfully but not fatally run over by . . . something. Look, it had tires, if the tracks on your shirt are any indication, but after that, you really have no idea.”

via Omnivoracious: Unnecessary Words, Blah Words, and Just Plain Wrong Words.

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