Sunday, May 27, 2012

Having My Own Work Edited, Part 4 of 4

Finally, I'll talk about specific edits that were made to the draft of "Fourth Wish" I sent Cliffhanger Books. Underlined parts show what changed.

Original: "the imps had attempted to put on five different plays since going to the human world"

Revision: "the imps had attempted to put on five different plays since returning from the human world"

Why the change? I wasn't sure at first, since the imps did in fact go to, and return from, the human world. But they spent just enough time there that I figure the editors wanted to make clear what time frame I really meant--the clock started ticking when they got back, not when they left. Honestly, I don't consider this edit worth making, but I also don't consider it worth arguing about. Part of taking a professional attitude towards writing is picking your battles carefully.

Original: "[Skragg] summoned a window into the human world. Specifically, Candace's home."

Revision: "[Skragg] summoned a window into Candace's home."

This one made me say "Duh." The only time shorter is worse than longer is if every word in the longer version adds something meaningful to the reading experience. The underlined part adds nothing because we know Candace's home is in the human world. There is no such thing as a neutral word or phrase that has no effect on the reader. Every word, phrase, and sentence either makes your story stronger or weaker.

Original dialogue: "So when she turned twenty-one I said, sure, I'll be a guardian, and I had the house inspected and did all the lawyer things..."

Revised dialogue: "So when she turned twenty-one I said, sure, I'll be a guardian. I had the house inspected and did all the lawyer things..."

Candace is under significant stress as she's talking. In my original, she's rambling with long run-on sentences. As usual, I spoke all the dialogue aloud and acted it out in the way I imagined Candace would say it before sending my story to the editors. I'd gotten locked into a way of seeing this scene. The simple edit Kevin and Karen came up with (this one was Karen's) changed my view of how Candace was saying her lines. Now when I act out her lines, I think her dialogue sounds more believable. Why? Because it takes me less effort to say it. I don't need to take such a long breath because her sentences are shorter.

So writers: try speaking your dialogue in more than one way before sending that story out! Try putting pauses in weird places, just to see if you stumble into a pattern that sounds better than your original. It really works.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Having My Own Work Edited, Part 3 of 4

Now that I've covered the high-level changes I made to a story I recently sold, I'll go into some of the embarrassing line edits the editors suggested or made. I say "embarrassing" because while some edits were of the "personal taste" variety (like suggesting two short paragraphs should be combined), others are better labeled as "Tarl, you should know better than to submit prose this clumsy."

Here are two writing faults that appeared several times in the story I submitted. 

First, I use "that" too often. Several times sentences such as "She knew that genies normally didn't..." got edited to "She knew genies normally didn't..." and I agree with 100% of those changes. Sometimes I think I have a "that" key on my keyboard and just enough obsessive compulsive disorder to feel great stress if I don't press it at least once a paragraph. I catch most of them in my own rewrites, but not all. 

Solution: From now on I'll use the search function to find every "that" in the whole document, and delete or rewrite the ones that serve no purpose. (There's one: "ones THAT serve no purpose." You might say that particular "that" is necessary, but I could have written, "and delete or rewrite the pointless ones," which I think is stronger. Even when "that" serves a real need, it's rarely the strongest way to say what you're trying to say.)

Second, my readers are having more trouble than I'd expect understanding who says what line of dialogue, especially when three or more people might be speaking. (And I write a lot of group interaction scenes.) 

Solution: Change my strategy from "avoid dialogue markers unless absolutely necessary" to:

1) When two characters are conversing, use some kind of marker at least every fourth line.

2) When three or more people are conversing, use some kind of marker every time it is not painfully obvious who is speaking.

No matter how many people are engaged in the following example of a conversation, do you really need a marker for the second line of dialogue?

J.D., Elliot, and Turk stood by as Dr. Cox asked Carla, "Dear GOD will you please stop making that noise?"

"What noise?"

Since the second line is in direct response to the first, and the first addressed a specific person, readers can assume the second speaker is the one being addressed by the first. 

Now consider this next example, which represents the kind of error I make all the time.

J.D., Elliot, and Turk stood by as Carla ran her fingernails down a blackboard. Dr. Cox asked, "Dear GOD what is that horrible noise?"

"What noise?"

In my mind, Carla's speaking the second line, but it's at least theoretically possible someone else said it. Maybe everyone else is pretending not to hear it for some reason and Turk said it. Anyway, since Dr. Cox's question was asked to the group as a whole, readers can't assume Carla's responding.

Next time, I wrap up this little series of posts with more embarrassing line edits.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Having My Own Work Edited, Part 2 of 4

"The Fourth Wish" is a short story that's part of a connected series of stories. It's the second one to get accepted for publication and the fourth one to be written. Now that a second one has been accepted, I believe enough in the idea's commercial potential to commit to writing the rest of them and trying to sell them as a novel-in-stories. However, I don't think I'll try to sell any of the other stories as self-contained pieces of fiction, and this post is about my reasoning.

These stories are about the world's last wish-granting genie and his human master, Candace. In this world a bond between genie and master is for life and the master gets one wish every ten years. Candace has her first wish at age six (that story is already published). "The Fourth Wish" is set 30 years later.

You see the problem. While the first story requires no background because the characters are new, "The Fourth Wish" carries ideas into it from the previous ones. Candace's prior wishes matter, because one of them has a substantial effect on her current life. Yet nothing would have killed this story faster than a flashback explaining the previous stories. So what could I do?

My answer was to pretend, to the greatest extent possible, that there are no other stories. When I couldn't avoid some bit of background, I presented it in a way that develops a central character. 

Specifically, the genie hates being enslaved to a human, and the rules say he can be free of her if she wishes for something greedy enough—some kind of wish that would ruin her life if granted. In this internal monologue, we see how her refusal to abuse his power drives him crazy:

She’d wasted her first wish on ice cream. Her second was for help deciding what college to go to. Her third was for “enough” money. What kind of human wished for “enough” money? When was she going to get stupid like the rest of her kind? If he had to be chained to her for another fifty or sixty years…

In my view, the keys to this monologue are (1) it's in character for the genie to complain to himself, (2) it's short, and most importantly, (3) it appears at a point in the story where readers ought to be wondering what Candace's prior wishes were. So I'm not boring the readers with information I want them to know, I'm telling them information that (I hope) they want to know. 

Still, I don't go on for long paragraphs, and I do not employ a flashback. I say it in as few words as I can, then get on with the story.

Finally, to make "The Fourth Wish" stand alone, I eliminated some critical facts about my fictional world and changed another. The change relates to the creatures called "imps." For Cliffhanger Books, I made the imps male instead of saying they're magical creatures that don't have, or require, gender. And I don't discuss why the genie calls himself the last wish-granting genie. Were there others? What happened to them? And why does the last genie live on a desolate plain with only three annoying imps for company? The novel-in-stories answers all of these questions. The stand-alone story treats them as facts, not questions: He's the last, he lives on a flat plain, and three imps live there too. And to make it possible to ignore those questions, I changed their answers. The "real" answers have implications that can't be ignored.

That's why I don't think I'll try to sell more of these stories by themselves. I have to abandon too much material to make them work independently.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Having My Own Work Edited, Part 1 of 4

I recently sold a story called "The Fourth Wish" to a paranormal romance anthology being published by Cliffhanger Books. I don't know much about paranormal romance. In fact, as much as the editors liked my story, my ignorance of the genre caused some problems, and they've asked me to change a few story elements to better fit what readers expect from such stories.

I have no problem making those kinds of changes. Why? Because even though the money I make from occasional short story sales is negligible, I pride myself on a professional attitude. My personal opinion of what "professional attitude" for writing means can be summed up in this pair of phrases: 

Amateurs write for themselves. Professionals write for the people who pay them.

If you're serious about having your work published by others, sold by others, and marketed by others, then I think you need to be serious about letting others have some say over what you write. I'm friends with a couple of people whose primary source of income is freelance writing. Do you know what those people write for a living? Whatever their paying audience tells them to, that's what.

Oh, they can reject assignments that go against their ethics or religion or something. They're freelance writers, not minions of some evil overlord. But if these people were asked to write 2,500 words about litter on the Atlantic City boardwalk in exchange for their going rate, they'd do it, even if they aren't all that personally interested in boardwalk litter. And if the editor read a draft and said "This is great, but can you focus more on the north end of the boardwalk?", they'd rewrite the article. They wouldn't go off on some bombastic tirade about artistic integrity.

Now some people say writing fiction is like any other artist creating any other art: the artists have to follow their muses, the crowd be damned. That's fine, if you honestly don't care whether anyone ever sees your work. Me, I'd like people to read my stories. Otherwise I'd never send them to magazines. I'd just hide my stories under my bed and go around calling myself a writer, and I'd cough in embarrassment any time someone asked where they could read anything I'd written.

Because I want others to read my stories, I will accept help from people who know my intended audience better than I do. Kevin from Cliffhanger told me even though it was perfectly in character for my sarcastic genie to use the word "retard," Cliffhanger's audience wouldn't like it. So, I changed the wording. Karen from Cliffhanger told me my story worked fine as it was, but her readers would want the female in the romance to appear sooner. So, I started revisions that introduced her in the first sentence.

"The Fourth Wish" is part of a series of connected stories that I intend to sell as a novel when it's ready, and I might reverse a couple of Kevin's and Karen's suggested changes when that time comes. But for Cliffhanger Books, I'm trusting my editors and following their guidance because they know my audience better than I do, and because I want that audience to read my story and like it.

Next time: the challenge of taking a story that's part of a larger tale and making it stand on its own.