Categories
Style

Economy of Language 2: Vagueness

I talked about economy of language a few weeks ago and gave you some simple exercises. I went broad last time to help ease you into the subject. Let’s narrow things down a bit today and talk about vagueness.

For me, vagueness is easier to correct during the editing/revision phase. Don’t sweat too much if you’ve noticed any of these problems in your writing and you’re still in an early draft. Remember, macro to micro. Conquer the big, developmental problems first and work your way down to smaller issues like description and word choice. Vagueness is most likely a micro edit.

The material I’m covering today is a little more advanced than normal. Please leave a comment or contact me if you have any questions.

Why is vagueness a concern?

Vagueness hurts your economy of language for two reasons:

  1. You have to spend more time–and use more words–to explain your concept so your reader can understand it.
  2. Vague descriptions might not be necessary at all.

Explaining your concept

Vagueness can come from a few places. Often, the author doesn’t have a clear idea of where their story needs to go, or maybe they do have the concept down in their mind, but they struggle with getting it on the page. Sometimes authors struggle with describing things, especially groups of things, in clear and specific terms. Other times the author is trying to build suspense by hiding details so the reader can’t get a clear picture of what’s going on. I’ll talk about suspense another day, though. For today, I want to focus on using clear and specific language.

Necessary descriptions

There are lots of reasons why an author might have a hard time describing something: they’ve never seen what they’re trying to describe before, they haven’t mastered their character’s narrative voice, they’re not using different angles and senses in their description, or they don’t have a clear idea of their story’s direction. No matter the cause, the outcome tends to be the same–a vague, mushy block of text that doesn’t draw the reader into the scene or tell them anything they need to know.

I may not be able to identify what’s causing vagueness in your writing, but I can show you how to fix it.

Let’s start with a simple sentence: She saw a crowd gathered on one side of the street.

This sentence isn’t economical because there’s still a lot to explain. Who is she and who is the crowd? Why is it gathering, and why is this particular location important? What do they look like? Some might argue that the sentence is leading readers to a description of the crowd, but why waste words on that when you could just get to the point?

First, eliminate filters

A crowd gathered on one side of the street.

This goes for both first and limited third person POV. You hardly ever need filter phrases like “I saw, she heard, he felt.” If you’re doing it right, the reader should know it’s something the POV character is seeing, hearing, feeling, etc. without you having to tell them.

Next, give us more about the people.

There are different ways you can do this, so I’m going to give you a few examples. We might end up adding to the word count of the original sentence, or even expanding it into two or three sentences, but it’s still more economical this way if it saves us from needing paragraphs or pages of explanation. It depends on the context of your story. At any rate, try to use the most specific details you can to describe the people.

Okay: Men gathered on one side of the street.

Better: Miners, still in their work clothes with coal dust blackening their faces, gathered on one side of the street.

Best (?): Coal-blackened miners in coveralls and hard hats gathered on one side of the street.

“Best” is almost always up to personal taste. I think the nonessential adjective clause (the stuff between the commas) makes the “better” example too wordy, but it’s still stronger than our original sentence.

In any case, when you use more specific language in your book, you start to paint an actual picture for your readers. A crowd of people is pretty amorphous. It’s hard to know what to expect from that, and you want your readers to have expectations. That means they want to keep reading your story, because they want to see their expectations fulfilled or even exceeded. In this example, we started out with a gathering of randos and it meant next to nothing. Now we have a group of miners, getting together straight after work, and readers are probably wondering what’s up.

Finally, let’s look at that location

When you have a gathering crowd, people are most likely meeting in a specific place for a reason. Take advantage of that.

Coal-blackened miners in coveralls and hard hats blocked the entrance of the company store.

I feel like this is about as much detail as I can cram into this sentence without it becoming too much for the reader. However, it’s more specific than the original, and it leads the reader to what’s coming next.

It makes people ask “why.” If the miners are blocking the store, there’s probably some purpose behind their actions. Next, you need to show the reader how the POV character feels about the situation, and get on to why the miners are doing what they’re doing.

Vagueness hurts your writing because it doesn’t give your readers anything to care about. The updated sentence is longer than the original one, but it’s more economical because it has more substance. I don’t have to spend several more sentences elaborating on who, what, and where.

Which one of these sentences is more likely to lead you into a story?

She saw a crowd gathered on one side of the street or Coal-blackened miners in coveralls and hard hats blocked the entrance of the company store.

There might be a time and a place for the first example, but I believe the second example is more substantial and more interesting.

One last note about descriptions

Don’t be afraid to engage multiple senses or add dialogue into the mix. There are other things I could have done with the miners–like told you how many of them had gathered, or showed them wielding pickaxes and tools in a menacing way, or maybe indicated that they’re getting together to celebrate something.

But wait, there’s more…

Unfortunately, that will have to wait for next week. I don’t want to overwhelm you with too much information at once, and this feels like a good stopping point.

Try to practice some of these techniques in your writing, and see if these methods help you write more economically. If you have any questions or anything to add, please feel free to leave a comment below. You can use the contact form instead if you’re feeling shy. Finally, sign up for my mailing list if you’d like to be notified when I publish new posts. Thank you!

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My Novel Updates

May short story and novel updates

How is it already May?! I’m sorry, that’s insane. April flew by, but I did manage to get some writing done. I also got results on my Writers of the Future short story.

The Blog

I kicked off my economy of language series, which is something I’ve been working toward for a while now. I worry it might be a little dry, but I hope the posts help people learn how to identify and fix weak spots in their writing. There are two economy of language posts scheduled this month, and I have some more stashed in my drafts. I’m going to try mixing it up, though, so this doesn’t become the economy of language blog.

My other big goals are optimizing SEO on all my old posts, which I’ve really been slacking on, and also making it easy for visitors to pin posts on Pinterest. Which…I’ve also been slacking on. I’m not good at making pins.

Short Story Updates

Results for Writers of the Future Quarter 1 arrived on April 23, just a few minutes before midnight, and you can read more about that here. I don’t expect to see results for Quarter 2 until July.

The story I’m working on for Quarter 3 is coming along. It needs critiques and some revision, but the deadline is June 30, so I have plenty of time.

Quarter 3 might be the last time I enter the contest for a while. My first entry was in Quarter 4 of 2020, so I’ll have a year of entries by the time Q4 2021 rolls around. Writing short stories has gone from being a fun occasional break to a mental drain that keeps me from working on my novel, and I can’t justify it anymore. If I happen to write something that I think will work for Writers of the Future, I’ll enter it. If I don’t, I’m not going to worry about it. I need to focus on other goals.

It hasn’t been a waste, though

I never would have found David Farland’s website without Writers of the Future. His courses, and the free WotF workshop, opened my eyes to a lot of things I didn’t learn in school. I feel like I’m writing on an entirely new level now, and it’s all because of this contest.

Finally, what’s up with that novel?

Now that my last WotF short story (for now) is down to just revisions, I’m planning on putting a lot of energy into my second draft. I still have a long way to go, but that’s okay. I’ll get there.

Other odds and ends

I’m juggling a lot in my personal life at the moment. Most of it will resolve with time, but waiting stresses me out. I’m definitely a member of the instant gratification generation.

I don’t want to go into a lot of detail here, because I prefer keeping that stuff separate from my writing, but I thought I should mention it in case there’s an interruption in service. If I disappear for a bit, I’m probably busy with doctor’s appointments.

That’s all for today, folks!

Please check back next week for a post about vagueness. It’s another entry in my economy of language series, and I know you don’t want to miss that. Feel free to subscribe to my mailing list if you’d like to receive updates about new blog posts.

As always, don’t be afraid to leave a comment below if you have any questions or anything you’d like to say. Thanks!

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Contests

Reflections on an Honorable Mention

If you follow me at all on social media, you probably already know that I received the results from my Quarter 1 Writers of the Future entry on April 23. I got an honorable mention!

So what does that mean?

An HM is a step up from a rejection, and I’ll get a nice certificate in the mail. Honorable mentions, and silver honorable mentions, are the judges’ way of saying, “This was pretty good, but you’re not quite there yet. Try again next time.” It is okay to revise and resubmit rejected stories or those that place in either honorable mention category.

Semi-finalists and finalists get a critique. Those authors can’t re-submit their stories to the contest because they have an unfair advantage, but they can try other markets. Some finalists do get published in the anthology, though.

I feel like I’ve learned a lot about the process

This was my second WotF entry. I liked the story a lot, but it did have some problems. I’ve learned a lot about the contest and what the judges like through forum posts, the WotF online workshop, and the Super Writers Bundle courses. Unfortunately, I did all that after I wrote and submitted this story. Let’s learn from my mistakes.

I can’t go into great detail right now because I might decide to revise and resubmit someday, and I’d be disqualified if any of the judges were able to link the story with my blog. I can still give you some general ideas, though.

It was too long

The rules allow stories up to 17,000 words, but shorter is better. Early readers thought my 10,000 word story was a novel at first. I had too many characters and scenes.

I should have gone with a different ending

Some stories just aren’t meant to have a happily ever after. There was too much stacked against the protagonist, and the ending was convoluted. Additionally, because the story was so busy, the ending felt rushed and tacked on. I knew it was a problem before I submitted the story. I just couldn’t quite figure out why it was a problem until it was too late.

Beyond that, I don’t know

It’s possible my story was too similar to another entry, or something about it bothered the judges for personal or more subjective reasons. Those things happen all the time. There isn’t a whole lot you can do about that, though, so it’s not worth getting flustered over.

It wasn’t all bad

Somebody out there is probably wondering why I bothered submitting at all when I knew my story had problems. And the answer to that is something I say all the time–writing is subjective. Just because I think there’s a problem doesn’t mean the judges will. Rejection is a given in writing, and you can’t let a fear of getting rejected stop you from ever submitting anything. Or, to put it another way, you miss 100% of the chances you don’t take.

Even though my story had issues, it also had quite a few things going for it. I got some really good feedback, and I felt pretty confident about several of its major components. I know I had a great protagonist–several of my critiques compared her to Katniss Everdeen, and I consider that a massive compliment.

The world building was intriguing, and I got some interesting comments on that. The plot was decent except for the ending. It was too much for a short story, but the readers who critiqued it thought it was engaging.

All in all, I can’t complain about an honorable mention

I’m going to try to do better next time, of course, but I don’t feel bad about my results. I’m on the fence about whether to rework this story as a short or expand on it and turn it into a novella. Right now I lean more toward novella, because I think it will be a good promotional tie-in for my novel, but we all know I change my plans about as often as I change my underwear.

You probably didn’t need to know that.

Anyway. My Q2 story is in, and I don’t expect results back from that until June or so. I’m predicting another HM or SHM, but we’ll see. The story I’m writing for Q3 is more or less finished, but I need to toss one of the middle scenes and write something new. It just doesn’t take the story where it needs to go.

Did you enter the contest?

Feel free to share your results in the comments if you’d like! I’d love to know about your experience. I’d also love to know if you’re thinking about entering sometime in the future.

Next week is the first Wednesday in May, so I’ll see you then with another monthly progress update. You can subscribe for reminders if you’d like to know when new blog post publish.

Categories
Style

Three simple ways to improve your economy of language

Economy of language is something I’ve been wanting to share with you all for a while. I thought it would be better to build up to it, though, because it can be complicated if you haven’t spent a lot of time studying the mechanics of writing. I feel like I’ve finally reached a place where I can explain this concept clearly and provide examples or answer questions if anyone needs help.

A little background

I didn’t take creative writing in college. I was broke and desperate to graduate with as little debt as possible, so my elective courses were few and far between. All of the writing courses I took were journalism or whatever core English or literature my major required.

Somebody out there is thinking that’s not very creative or conducive to writing novels, and they’re right–in a sense. However, journalism teaches economy of language, and that’s a feather every writer needs in their cap. As I mentioned back in my post about writing with style, some readers will never notice how economical or how beautiful your writing is. However, I feel like economy of language is still worth learning even if it may not be something you use very often. It teaches you how to make the most of your words, and how to communicate clearly with your audience.

What is economy of language?

In journalism, (at least back when I was in school, I don’t know if it’s changed) each story is allotted so much space–called column inches–in the newspaper. The more important the story, the more inches it’s allowed. Good journalists learn how to budget their words so they can keep a story as short as possible without losing the most important elements.

Economy of language is that skill. It’s how you retain nuance and emotional impact, and lose dead weight. Fewer words sometimes leads to greater clarity. Reducing empty words in a novel might give you enough room to deepen your characterization or expand your story’s conflicts.

Even though indie writers aren’t bound by a traditional publisher’s word count regulations, they still need to write engaging prose. Eliminating filler words and phrases can help readers stay engaged because there’s less material to read through before they get to the good stuff.

I’m sharing a few simple tools today, and I’ll expand on these–with more examples–soon. This process is part of my editing routine, by the way. I’d never finish a story if I tried keeping all of these details in mind as I write. So don’t stress if you’re not ready to tackle everything yet. Give it time and believe in yourself.

These are a few of my favorite tricks

Lean into active voice

I talked about this last week, so I won’t go into too much detail today. Passive voice is a tool and sometimes it’s the best choice for a sentence. However, novice writers tend to overuse this tool. I’ve done critiques for people who had entire pages of nothing but passive voice, it made their stories drag. Passive sentences and expressions can increase your word count without adding significant depth to your writing. Try this exercise and see how much your story might change with a few small tweaks:

  • Pick a short scene in your story and run a word count.
  • Identify your passive sentences. Highlight them so they stand out. If you need help with this, try pasting the scene into an editing app like Hemingway.
  • Rewrite a few passive sentences and make them active. Use your best judgment to decide which sentences to rewrite and which ones to leave.
  • Next, look for passive expressions. Apps usually won’t catch these. Search your scene for words like is, am, are, was, were, or been. If any of them are attached to a verb ending in -ing, you probably have a passive expression on your hands.
  • Replace verbs like “was walking” with “walked.” You don’t have to replace all of your passive expressions (aka past progressives) with active expressions, but try to do a few.
  • Run another word count. How much did it change?

Small changes add up over the course of a novel. Let’s say you eliminated 100 words from your scene with this exercise, and your novel has 70 scenes. If you’re able to do the same thing in every scene, you might cut as many as 7,000 words! What could you do with that much extra room in your story? Create a new subplot, give a secondary character a little boost, add nuance to your descriptions and worldbuilding? You have a lot of options.

In addition to improving your economy of language, active voice tends to sound stronger to your audience. It sometimes removes filters between your reader and your characters, and brings the reader closer to the story.

Replace weak adverbs with stronger words

Adverbs aren’t evil and I’m not saying you should never use them, but overuse of adverbs can hurt your writing.

Many adverbs are neutral descriptors that don’t add to your story’s atmosphere or tone. Every word counts when you’re building an emotional scene. Here’s another simple exercise for you:

Use the same scene as before. You don’t have to change every adverb, but try to reduce your usage by about half.

  • Search for “very.” You can either delete it or replace it with something more appropriate. Instead of “very tired,” your character might be “exhausted” or “drained.” Instead of “very happy,” your character is “elated” or “overjoyed.
  • Do the same thing for “really,” “only,” and “just.”
  • (optional) Look for other adverbs–words that typically end in -ly–and decide whether they serve a meaningful purpose or if they’re taking up space. Delete or replace as needed.
  • Run another word count. How much did it change? Remember, small changes add up over the length of a novel.

Replacing simple adverbs with more complex adjectives or descriptive phrases like similes and metaphors can help inject depth and meaning into your story. I sometimes use the simple forms as placeholders in early drafts, but I tend to replace most of them later.

Dialogue tags

I’ve talked about dialogue tags before, and a lot of that applies today. If you haven’t read that post, please check it out.

I would delete most adverbs attached to a dialogue tag. There’s almost always a stronger word. “He said softly” could be “he murmured” or “he whispered.” Sometimes adverbs in tags are redundant. “She shouted loudly” is a waste–your readers know shouting is loud, so you don’t need to modify it.

If you have a tag alongside an action beat, try dropping the tag. This might improve your story’s pace, too, because it’s one less piece of information your reader has to absorb before they get to what happens next. Here’s an example:

With tag: “Blah blah blah,” John said as he holstered his gun. “Let’s go.”
Without tag: “Blah blah blah.” John holstered his gun. “Let’s go.”

It’s a small change, but it makes a difference, doesn’t it? Here’s your exercise.

Go through your dialogue tags in the same scene you’ve been working on. Using your best judgment, replace some dialogue tags with action beats and consider replacing adverbs if you have any in your tags. Check your word count again.

How many words did you cut?

There is a time and place for almost everything. Passive voice is a necessary part of the English language. Sometimes adverbs are the perfect words. Dialogue tags help your reader keep up with your characters. Practicing economic writing will help make your writing stronger, but it’s okay to be wordy when the situation calls for it. You’ll figure out what’s best for your story as you go.

I gave you simple examples today, just to help you get a feel for economy of language. There are more advanced techniques, which I’ll talk about in upcoming posts, but I think it’s best to start with an easy introduction and build up to the harder material. Feel free to subscribe to my mailing list if you’d like to know when new posts go live.

Do you keep economy of language in mind as you’re writing or editing? You’re welcome to leave a comment with your thoughts. If you liked this post, please use those social media buttons to share it with your friends. Thanks!

Categories
Style

Active vs Passive Voice

I’m back with another old school writing rule–active voice vs passive voice. Most of the time, when someone is talking about your “voice” in writing, they mean your narrative voice. Every once in a while, they’re referring to the way the subject, object, and verbs in your sentences interact with one another, and that’s what I want to discuss today.

Active vs passive verb usage is something I had a hard time learning. English teachers really seemed to prefer passive. Journalism teachers, on the other hand, hate it to almost a bad writing rules degree. Over the course of your writing career, someone somewhere will probably tell you to never write in passive voice.

That person is wrong. Active and passive voice are both necessary parts of English. Also, once you understand them, you can utilize them to their fullest and it will make a difference in your writing. Let’s get to work!

First, what’s the difference between active voice and passive?

Both active and passive voice involve the action happening in a sentence. Active sentences emphasize the person who performs an action. Passive sentences emphasize either the action itself, or the object that is being acted upon.

How about an example?

Active: James threw the ball.
Passive: The ball was thrown by James.

You almost always want to go active in simple sentences like this. The passive version is awkward, and overusing this kind of phrasing puts readers off. It also puffs up your word count without adding anything substantial to your story.

One last note: A lot of the free passive sentence checkers online are not accurate. I tested my example sentences on a few of them, and they tend to mark a sentence as active unless it contains “by” or “to be.” However, there are cases when a sentence’s voice is a little ambiguous, and I’ll talk about that in just a bit.

Next, let’s look at examples when active voice is better.

You can use active voice to cut down on infinitives and verbs like “was” and “were,” which will reduce your word count more than you’d think.

Sometimes passive sentences are just awkward.

Active: I ate the pie.
Passive: The pie was eaten by me.

That one is obvious, right?

Active: Email me if you have any questions.
Passive: If there are questions, I can be reached by email.

This isn’t as bad as the first example, but I feel like the active version is more direct.

Watch out for infinitive phrases.

Infinitives involve “to be + a past participle verb,” as you’ll see in the next example. Sometimes you need them. Sometimes they’re clunky and you can get rid of them.

Passive with infinitive: Dinner is ready to be eaten.
Active: Dinner is ready.

I’d avoid the infinitive in most circumstances because I don’t feel like it carries any special significance. It might work if you’re trying to show a character’s particular accent or something along those lines, though.

Okay, now let’s see some examples of when to use passive voice

When you want to emphasize the object in the sentence.

Passive: The defendant was sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary.
Active: The judge sentenced the defendant to two years in the state penitentiary.

I could go either way on this example. It really depends on which version goes best with the rest of the paragraph, and whether you want to put the emphasis on the defendant or the judge.

When the subject is unknown or irrelevant.

Passive: My bicycle was stolen.
Active: Thieves stole my bicycle.

I think you’d want to put the emphasis on the bicycle rather than the unknown thieves, so passive voice works better. It’s also a little redundant to say “thieves stole” anything because who else would it be? The act of stealing automatically makes someone a thief, so you usually don’t need to point that out.

When you want to be vague.

Passive: Tests were failed.
Active: Half of the class failed their tests.

I’m not a fan of vagueness as a general rule. A lot of writers rely on vagueness to create tension or suspense, but there are more effective ways to do that. In any case, passive voice works well when you’re trying to be vague.

If you’re writing a formal paper.

That’s more than I want to get into today, since this blog is geared more toward writing fiction, but I thought I’d throw it up here as an FYI. You might need to utilize passive voice in your stories if your characters are students, scientists, or if they work in a profession where formal writing is preferred. Check the Purdue OWL if you need detailed information about writing (or imitating) formal papers.

Here’s a weird either/or situation

Sometimes you need to look at the context of a sentence before you make a final judgment call. If it’s something short and simple, active is usually better. But there might be a time when you need to rely on the passive voice for the rest of the paragraph to flow like it should.

Passive: The rabbit was chased by the dog.
Active 1: The dog chased the rabbit.
Active 2: The rabbit ran from the dog.

In the first two sentences, the dog is the subject–it’s performing the action, chasing. If you want emphasis on the dog, you should probably just go with the Active 1 example. However, if you want emphasis to be on the rabbit, you have a couple of options. You can go with the passive voice. Or you can rewrite the sentence so the rabbit is the subject, like I did for Active 2.

It’s hard to say which is better in this case. It depends on what else is happening in your story. I prefer the active voice, but you might decide that doesn’t work for you and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Finally, here is something I need to research a little more

Remember when I said my journalism teachers hated passive voice? Well, I haven’t been able to confirm whether an editor at a publishing company would react the same way. At any rate, here’s a little something my old profs couldn’t stand–passive expressions (these are also known as past progressives, by the way).

You can have a passive expression in a sentence without the entire sentence being passive.

Passive expression: I was walking to the store.
Active expression: I walked to the store.

A passive expression occurs when you pair a verb with a form of “be” (am, is, was, were, are, or been).

I checked the passive expression sentence in Grammarly and Hemingway, and neither of them flagged it as passive. Any of my journalism teachers would have marked it, though. I don’t know how an editor at a publishing company would react to a passive expression, so I can’t tell you whether it’s something you should worry about.

I’ll eventually remove or rewrite most of the passive expressions in my story. There’s a time and a place for them, but I usually write with a word count goal in mind. Adding those extra “be” forms to my verbs isn’t always economical. Word count may not be a concern if you’re self-publishing, but it’s something you should keep in mind if you want to go the traditional route because publishers have word count limits that vary from one genre to another.

English is weird. Do what works for you.

In my experience, active voice is better most of the time, but you can’t–and shouldn’t–avoid passive voice. It’s a tool, and you can learn how to use it to your advantage. I tried to keep things as simple as I could today, but I know grammar lessons don’t come naturally to some people. However, some of these basic rules can have a big impact on your writing.

If you just can’t get active vs passive down, try not to sweat it too much. You can ask a critique partner or editor to help you identify sentences that sound awkward. Some people find reading out loud helps them find errors on their own.

I have some upcoming posts that expand upon more of the finer points of writing style, so please subscribe (on the right for desktop, at the bottom for mobile) if you’re interested in receiving updates. Feel free to leave a comment down below if you have any questions or concerns. And, as always, use those social media buttons to share this with your writer friends! Thanks a bunch! I’ll see you next week.

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My Novel Updates

April Writing Update

It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, so here’s another writing update for you! I put more of my time into blogging and short stories than I did into my novel last month. I want to do better in April, but I’m crashing and burning at the moment. Real life stuff is taking a lot of my time, and some health issues are flaring up, so I might have to take a break.

Luckily I have plenty of blog posts on deck, so you may not even notice if I have to duck out for a week or two. Anyway. Let’s talk about the good things, shall we?

The Blog

I have some really detailed posts scheduled for April. A lot of them are related to style, especially economy of language. They’re more challenging than anything I’ve ever posted before. I’m a little worried that people will get bored or just not understand what I’m trying to say, but I think it’s good information. I hope you’ll be back for those.

Another important blog tidbit, although maybe more on my end than yours, is that I really need to find a new host. My current contract expires in June, and I probably won’t move until closer to that time, but I thought I should say something in case there’s a small interruption in service.

Finally–I saved the best for last–I have a mailing list now!

You can subscribe and get notified about new posts. I won’t send you spam or sell your email or any of that. At the moment, I’ll send weekly emails when I publish new blog posts. I’m playing with ideas like discounts for subscribers on books when I publish something, or maybe special articles or even short stories that will only be available via subscription, but I’m not quite there yet. Desktop users can sign up with the form at the bottom of the sidebar on the right side of the screen. If you’re viewing this on mobile, it’s at the very bottom of the page, just above the footer.

Unfortunately, the confirmation email will go straight to your spam folder. Check there if you don’t see anything in your inbox. I’m trying to figure out why that keeps happening, but I haven’t found a way to stop it yet. I may have to make some changes.

Short Stories

Ughhhh….I spent so much time working on short stories in March. It makes me nervous when a Writers of the Future deadline approaches and I don’t have anything ready. I landed on a solid idea halfway through March, after bouncing ideas around since Quarter 2 started in January, and I just didn’t have time to get it finished. The rough draft hits all of the right spots–there’s action, tension, aliens, conflict, you name it. I don’t want to submit it before I’m sure it’s ready, though. There are still some developmental issues I need to address.

I submitted something from my archives to the contest. It felt a little bit like cheating, since I didn’t write a new story, but I guess it’s better than nothing. I’ll submit the alien story for Quarter 3. They haven’t announced results for Quarter 1 yet, but I’ll be surprised if I don’t hear anything by the first of May.

The Novel

I’m a few chapters into my second draft, and just trying to put all the pieces where they need to go. Things aren’t going as fast as I’d like because I’ve been letting the short stories and blog distract me. I need to focus more.

Other Projects

I finished Writers of the Future’s free writing workshop, which is phenomenal. They offer great advice, even if you’re not writing fantasy or sci-fi.

I’m still working my way through the Super Writers’ Bundle, and I really hope I finish it before my license expires. I’ve learned so much, and I really think this course is why my alien story is coming out so well.

I’m also trying to learn more about self-publishing. I know quite a bit about the traditional world because it’s what I was taught in school. Back then, there weren’t as many legitimate self-publishing options as there are today, so I feel like I have a big knowledge gap. I have projects that would fare better in the self-pub world, for various reasons, and I want to go into that with my eyes wide open.

That’s all for this writing update, y’all!

I hope enjoyed my little writing update and I really hope you’ll be back later this month for some of the more advanced posts I have scheduled. It’s a lot of material, and some of it might be a little challenging, but I hope it’ll help you improve your writing.

Categories
Publishing

Finding Freelance Editors

I keep seeing posts in writing groups where people say things like, “I don’t want an editor. They’re going to change my work and then it won’t be mine anymore.” I’m sorry, but that’s not what good editors do. A good editor shows you how to make your work more accessible to others. It’s still your work. They point out errors and weak spots, and they’ll ask you questions to help you determine whether readers are interpreting your writing the way you want them to. This whole process is designed to make your writing stronger and teach you how to be a better writer. Unfortunately, there are bad editors out there, too. Today I want to show you a few ways you can find a good freelance editor, and hopefully avoid the bad ones.

It’s easy for someone who has no qualifications at all to claim they’re a professional editor. I have seen SO many people post warnings about freelance editors who charged hundreds or even thousands of dollars to edit novels and then just ran the whole thing through Grammarly. I’ve also seen a few complaints about editors who took the writer’s deposit and ghosted. Obviously you don’t want to work with anybody like that.

So. Let’s talk about how you can avoid hiring bad freelance editors– shmeditors, if you will.

First, assess your needs

The whole point of editing is to make your work the very best it can be. Of course, everything about writing is subjective. If you show a story to twenty editors, you’re going to get twenty different opinions. There might be some overlap here and there, but maybe not as much as you’d think. We all interpret things a little differently.

Editing is a process that will vary from writer to writer and also from book to book. However, some elements of it will always be the same, and you can use those to vet potential editors.

Here are a few questions you can ask yourself if you’re having a hard time figuring things out.

  • Do you have a complete draft of your story? If not, you might want to finish it before spending money on an editor. If you’re really stuck, you might check out this post about writer’s block, or look for a critique partner.
  • Have you tried to proofread or edit on your own? You’d be surprised how many mistakes you’ll catch if you set your draft aside for a couple of weeks and come back to it with fresh eyes. Do this before moving on to a critique partner, beta reader, or professional editor.
  • What do you feel is the weakest thing about your book? What is the strongest? These questions might help you figure out what type of editor you need. If you think your plot is solid, but you want help polishing up your style, you probably want a line editor. If you’re struggling with plot issues, you might need developmental edits. I have more information about types of editors below, so keep on scrolling if you need help in that area.

As a general rule, I try to make sure my draft is as good as I can get it on my own before I present it to anyone else. It’s a waste of time to give a critique partner or editor something that’s full of errors I could have fixed on my own. A lot of editors work either by the word or by the hour, so time might very well equal money if you’re paying them to correct mistakes when you could have done that yourself.

Looking for freelance editors

You can find freelance editors all over the place. I recommend starting with the Editorial Freelancers Association because they offer a lot of resources for both editors and writers. However, if you’re not comfortable with that, you can hop into a writing group on Facebook or put up a tweet. You’ll get dozens, if not hundreds, of responses. You can also try places like Fiverr, Upwork, or Reedsy. (You can contact me, too, but I may not be available.)

Finding editors is not a problem. Vetting editors is a whole different story, though.

Read everything first

Most freelance editors have some kind of platform, whether it’s a personal website, a Facebook page, or a profile on a gig site like Fiverr. Take the time to read whatever they have there so you have an idea of what to expect before you contact them.

They’ll probably have credentials of some kind on their site, too. I don’t care too much about where a potential editor went to school. A lot of courses just don’t offer basic English grammar anymore, so people don’t learn it unless they seek it out on their own. So I take any diplomas or certificates with a grain of salt. It’s nice if an editor has one, but I’m more interested in the work they’ve done. It’s even better if if I’ve read books they’ve worked on, or if I know authors they’ve worked with.

I’m also picky about editors’ online posts to their professional accounts. If I go to an editor’s website or social media account where they advertise their editing service, and I see a lot of errors, I will look elsewhere. I’m not talking about the occasional typo or possible autocorrect mistake–those happen to everyone and they’re hard to catch if you’re in a hurry. I mean consistent, repeat problems. Being casual about spelling and grammar on a personal page is fine, and I won’t hold that against them, but I feel like it’s a little unprofessional on a business page. It’s a bad first impression.

Ask for a sample

In fact, consider it a red flag if an editor doesn’t offer this. Basically, you’ll send them a small sample of your novel–maybe five pages–and they’ll go over it either for free or for a reduced rate. This is so you can see how well you’ll work together, and it also helps the editor decide whether they want to work with you. Sometimes people just aren’t a good fit for each other. It happens. Try not to take it personally if an editor suggests you try someone else.

Developmental editors might ask to preview a larger excerpt, or even the entire manuscript, if they like your first sample. Developmental edits cover the big picture elements in your story, and a few pages might not be enough for an editor to fully assess your work. Get references first if you’re nervous about sending your entire draft to someone without having a contract in place.

What I like to see in a sample edit:
  • Tracked changes Ideally an editor won’t make any changes to your work without some way for you to accept them.
  • Comments Rather than making big changes to your work, the editor should mark sections and tell you what they would like to see instead and why.
  • Strong points marked as well as weak points If there’s something they really like, or they think works really well, they should mention that, too.

Be wary of an editor who rewrites massive chunks of your work for you without your permission. Ideally, the editor should tell you what doesn’t work and why it doesn’t work, and leave you to make any revisions on your own. Small corrections like spelling, grammar, or punctuation errors are fine, but they should still be tracked so you’re aware the editor altered your work.

Some writers may want the editor to rewrite everything

It’s fine if that’s what you prefer, but I think that makes it even more important to check them out thoroughly and make sure you trust them before giving them free rein over your work. So get a sample, get references, read some of their other work if you can.

I feel uncomfortable about letting a freelance editor rewrite my story for me. It wouldn’t be mine anymore at that point. I think I’d have to consider them a co-author, and give them appropriate credit. However, I can’t speak for everyone. If a writer feels like they need that kind of help, they should absolutely go for it.

Get references

Ask potential editors for references. If you’re lucky, they’ll have a list of published clients on their website and you can take a glace at their clients’ work and see how you feel about it.

If you have a writer friend whose work is always expertly polished, ask them about their editor. It’s possible that editor will work with you, too.

Don’t pay 100% up front

Most editors have a pay schedule, and it varies somewhat from person to person. Generally you put down some kind of deposit when you submit your story to them, and then pay the rest either in installments or prior to delivery of the finished document.

A deposit is reasonable, but I’d be concerned about an editor who insists on a full payment up front. What happens if they don’t finish the job?

Most editing is probably non-refundable

Read contracts before you agree to anything, and get a sample first. Don’t sign on with a freelance editor unless you’re confident in their ability. You probably won’t have much recourse if you’re dissatisfied after the fact, so make sure you ask lots of questions and inform your editor about any concerns you have up front. Also, be sure to save all communications you have with your editor, just in case you need to refer back to them later.

Sometimes the writer is the problem

I’m not trying to be mean here, but we can’t put all of the blame on the editors. Sometimes novice writers don’t do their research and don’t know what they’re getting into.

What kind of edits do you need?

Before you hire an editor, take a moment to figure out what kind of editing your book needs. Here are the kinds of editors you’re most likely to come across:

  • Developmental editors: These editors help you with the macro parts of your story. That is, plot and structure, character development, and things of that nature.
  • Line editors: A line editor helps you with your story’s style. They’re going to help make your work shine, but it’s mainly on a micro level.
  • Copy editors: While a line editor will help you with a story’s style, a copy editor helps with its mechanics. They look for spelling and grammar errors, and they might also check for things like continuity and consistency. Some line editors also do copy editing as part of their process.
  • Proofreaders: They also check for spelling, grammar, and consistency. Generally the proofreader is the last person to go over a story, just to catch anything the author or other editors might have missed.

There are freelance editors out there who do it all, from developmental down to copy edit. If you need that kind of service, feel free to use it. (My specialty is line editing, if you were wondering. I can do line and copy edits together, but developmental edits just aren’t my strong suit.)

Don’t assume edits equal acceptance

Most freelance editors don’t directly work for publishing companies or literary agents. Publishing is a highly subjective and selective business, and a freelance editor can’t guarantee their help will land you a spot with this agent or that publisher.

I know it’s not fun to spend a lot of money on an editor just to get rejected afterward, but that’s how it can be in the traditional world.

If you’re self-publishing, you can’t assume edits will equal sales.

However, a solid edit will probably mean better reviews (or at least fewer bad reviews), which might help you gain sales in the future.

You don’t have to accept every suggestion the editor makes

At the end of the day, you’re the one writing the story. Editors can mark it up however they want, but you don’t have to use any of their advice if you don’t like it. If you’re on the fence about whether to take specific suggestions, you might ask them to explain their opinions in more detail.

Here’s hoping you only meet good freelance editors

Have you ever worked with a freelance editor before? Feel free to share your experience in a comment. Also, use those social media buttons to share this with your writer friends. Let’s get the word out so fewer people fall prey to bad editors. Thanks, everyone!

I know that was a lot, but I hope it saves someone from getting scammed. Watch out for shmeditors, folks.

Image credit: Nordwood Themes

Categories
Publishing

True or False: Self-published Books

I want to play a game.

No, not that kind of game.

Today, I want to talk about some of the things I’ve seen posted and written online about self-published books and authors. Some of them are pretty gross, and I just wanted to take a minute and clear up some confusion. So let’s get started.

If indie books were any good, a traditional publisher would accept them.

False. Not to mention rude. Traditional publishers are very, very picky about what they accept. It’s a difficult industry to break into, and it’s highly subjective.

Also, some authors don’t understand what they’re getting into before they get pretty far into the process. There are indie authors who initially accepted book deals from traditional publishers and then backed out of their contracts to self-publish instead because they wanted more control over their work.

Self-published books are low quality

It depends. If the author does their homework and is careful about formatting and so on, you probably won’t be able to tell the difference between a self-published book and a traditionally published book.

I have a copy of The Frozen Flame (not an affiliate link) by Sionna Trenz and it’s a great looking book. I haven’t finished reading it yet, so I don’t feel comfortable talking about the content until I do, but the physical copy of the book itself is very nice. Nobody would know just from looking at it that it didn’t come from a major traditional publishing company.

Self-publishing is hard

Mostly true? Everyone has their own threshold of what’s easy vs what’s hard, but it is true that more work falls on authors who self-publish. Publishing is not just an art, it’s also a business. Indie authors are responsible for sourcing out editors, cover designs, formatting their books, doing all of their marketing, creating ad campaigns, and so on. They also have to watch out for scammers if they choose to hire editors or designers to help them with this process. (I have an upcoming post about hiring editors, so keep an eye out for that).

Traditionally published authors often don’t get a choice in their covers. The publishing company helps with editing and proofreading, formatting, and some of the marketing. However, it’s still a business and there’s still more to it than just writing a book and handing it off to the publisher.

If you self-publish a book, you can’t traditionally publish it later

Mostly true, but there have been some exceptions. Generally those exceptions are mega bestsellers. Think Fifty Shades of Grey big.

You can’t buy self-published books in a brick and mortar bookstore

False. I mean, there will be some indie books that you won’t be able to find in a brick and mortar store, or at the library, but it is possible to distribute self-published books to stores. I’m not going to get off topic and go into those details today, but you can look here and here if you want to know more about that.

Game over!

I’ll probably revisit this topic when I have more self-publishing myths to bust (or confirm), but I think I’ve covered enough for one day. What do you think? Feel free to share your own myths in the comments below!

Image Credit: Content Pixie

Related posts: Legit self-publishing options

Categories
Style

Writing With Style

Today I want to talk about style. Not pantser vs plotter style, but something closer to (and maybe expanding upon) Elements of Style style. Isn’t English fun? Let’s talk about this kind of style and why it may or may not matter to you.

Let’s see if I can make this clearer than mud

Your story’s style basically boils down to the last layer of polish you put on your drafts before you’re ready to call them finished. It’s things like sentence structure, word choice, the amount of detail you put into your description, and a whole lot of other little things.

I’m working on posts to explain how to tackle different angles of your style, but for now it might be easiest to think of it from a painter’s point of view.

Some writers are like Picasso. Their work gives us a complete picture, but it’s a little blocky. Maybe the pieces aren’t quite where some of us would put them, but that doesn’t mean those authors are not telling beautiful stories.

Other writers are more like Michelangelo. Their work is detailed and lush. The words flow and feel lifelike. Every piece falls exactly into place. It’s rich and enchanting, but sometimes it’s just too much. It can be too wordy. Purple prose might be a problem. Or they might get so caught up in the details that they lose track of the story.

What’s your style?

I think it’s best to find a middle ground. Use simple language for the most part, but be prepared to pull out all the stops when you get to important or emotional scenes.

Finding that middle ground might mean different things for different authors. For me it means putting more visual details into my stories to elevate my readers’ experience. Other writers might need to work on issues like economy of language, grammar issues, vagueness, word choice, atmosphere, sensory description, narration, and a number of other things. I’ll get more specific about these topics in other posts, so please subscribe if you want updates, or check back from time to time.

Does it matter?

Style is one of those picky things. It’s so subtle that some people don’t notice it at all. With some readers, it’s going to go right over their heads. They’re focused on what happens in the story, and they don’t care how beautiful the author’s words are. Other readers will struggle to stay interested in a book that isn’t highly polished.

I’m in the second group, if you were wondering. I can get so sucked into somebody’s elegant turn of phrase that I may not notice plot holes or inconsistencies the first time I read something.

Whether it matters probably comes down to how you want to publish.

Let’s go back to our Picasso and Michelangelo metaphor.

In the (roughly) six months since I subscribed to Kindle Unlimited, the majority of indie books I’ve seen are Picassos. Whereas the books I’ve read from traditional publishers tend to be Michelangelos. It’s not 100 percent on either side–there are Michelangelo indie books as well as traditional Picassos, and plenty of books published either way fall somewhere in the middle–but this seems to be the case most of the time.

A book with less flashy style is not necessarily bad.

Picasso’s art is amazing; he helped launch an entire movement in the art world, remember? As long as the author has found their audience, and the book resonates with that audience, that’s really all that matters. Market accordingly and you should be fine.

However, I suspect Picasso-esque books are less likely to find a niche in the traditional world because agents and editors are taught to look for Michelangelo stories. If they do accept a Picasso, they’re probably going to want the author to make some pretty heavy revisions. Making those revisions will be up to the author, of course, but they might lose their contract if they refuse. Traditional publishing is a tough gig. Unfairly so at times.

I’ll revisit style soon, so please check back

I hope today’s post made sense. This is an introduction to a series of posts about different pieces of the big style picture, so it’s possible things will fall into place in a few weeks if I wasn’t quite clear enough today. Feel free to leave a comment or contact me if you have questions, though. As always, you can use those social media buttons down below to share this with your writer friends. Thanks!

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Image Credit: Annie Spratt

Categories
My Novel Updates

How I’m organizing my second draft

A few weeks ago, I talked a little bit about my drafting process and my goals for each draft. Today, I want to get more into the actual mechanics of my second draft.

I’m not a planner, but…

Once I get out of the first draft, some organization is inevitable. I’ve touched on macro edits before, and that’s basically what a second draft is–a massive macro edit. I like to go into these with a strategy, although the specific strategy is different for every book because it’s tailored to what the book needs.

As far as this novel is concerned, I’m content with most of my setting details. What’s left can wait for another draft. Right now I’m concentrating on working a new character into the existing plot. I also need to trim my word count down, so I’m looking for things I can cut.

Most novels contain more than one story, or at least more than one conflict your characters have to navigate to satisfying conclusions. Coming up with my second draft strategy involves tracing those storylines and making sure they have all the parts they need to work effectively.

I’m making some major changes

One of those changes was switching to a new writing software. I tried QuollWriter for a while and, although it had its good points, it wasn’t quite right for me. I was a little salty about trying Scrivener, but I decided to give it a go anyway, and now I’m hooked.

Scrivener is where it’s at when you need help organizing a novel. It’s got everything. You can keep character profiles, setting notes, and other references right there. It makes it very easy to organize scenes and chapters. It’ll even help you create an outline for your story as you go. There are loads and loads of options, which you can access if you need or ignore if you don’t. Also, they don’t require a credit card or email address for their free trial. You just download, install, and go. It’s hard to get more convenient than that.

I imported my entire rough draft into Scrivener as a reference, and I have my writing screen split so both the rough draft and the second draft are visible at once. It makes it SO easy because I can refer to my rough draft without having to switch between applications.

I’m making changes to my draft, too, of course

In fact, I’m making so many changes that my second draft is practically another rough draft. A lot of this is due to the new character, but I also have some info dumps and some scenes that just drag.

There’s a lot to do, and I have a list of things I’m trying to keep up with. These are the things I’m looking for:

Inciting incidents

How did the character end up in this situation? Usually you want an inciting incident to be big enough that the reader recognizes it as an issue, but small enough that you can escalate it and build tension as you go.

Your novel will probably have one major inciting incident that introduces the main conflict or plot, but it will have minor ones for each minor conflict or subplot as well. Generally speaking, when I’m talking about the inciting incident, I mean the major one; but for organization purposes, I need to consider all of the minor ones as well.

Try/Fail Cycles

You’ll probably have three or four of these per conflict. Again, start small and escalate as the story goes. Your final try/fail cycle is your novel’s climax.

Basically, a character realizes there’s a problem. They try to solve the problem and fail. Then they do a little research, maybe bring other characters into the situation, and then try to solve the problem again. They fail again. Repeat and continue to raise the stakes until the character is giving this problem everything they’ve got, and they stand to lose everything if they fail the final time.

Some characters who enter the story at different points in time may not see the earlier parts of this cycle, so their inciting incident will be where they’re dragged into this conflict.

Climax

Yes, this is another try/fail, but it’s the big one. I want to keep track of this because it has a massive impact on the story.

Resolution

How does each conflict end? Some of them will wrap up in a nice little bow, happily ever after. Others won’t end the way the character wants them to end, but the character will realize it’s for the best. A few will end in tragedy. You might even leave a few conflicts with open or ambiguous endings, but make it clear to readers that the character saw the conflict through to this point. They shouldn’t just disappear.

It’s important to keep track of resolutions so you don’t leave readers hanging.

I hope the second draft goes faster than the first

I’m a few thousand words in, and I think it’s going well so far. I’ve made some big changes. How do you set up your second draft? Do you take time to map it out, or do you just jump right in? Do you even bother with a second draft?

I hope I’ve given you some information you can work with. If you’re confused about any of this, please leave me a comment and I’ll try to clarify things for you. Feel free to use those social media buttons to share this post if you thought it was helpful. Thanks!