One True Sentence

Hemingway in Paris (1924) Image in Public Domain

Hemingway in Paris (1924) Image is in the Public Domain

Earlier this year, I went on a 1920’s Paris kick and read Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, The Paris Wife, The Sun Also Rises, and A Moveable Feast. I had read The Sun Also Rises before, but I had never read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. To my surprise, I enjoyed getting a glimpse into Hemingway’s creative mind and learning a little about his writing process.

The following is a quote I pulled from the book that I have come back to often. I love how he talks about writing and the looming stress of writer’s block and how he pushes through it day after day. I hope you enjoy.
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“It was wonderful to walk down the long flight of stairs knowing that I’d had good luck working. I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.

“But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say.”

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How I Edit Different Writing Styles

proofing

One question people often have about editing is how I deal with different writing styles.

An author’s writing style can also be referred to as the author’s “voice.” If you read enough books by the same author, you might start to recognize a general flow of the writing. That is the author’s voice coming through. It’s their personal writing style, use of words, and phrasing that makes each author unique.

As an editor, it’s extremely important that I maintain the author’s original voice and tone. I never want an author to feel like their book is not their own.

That said, while I’m editing I usually have a lot of suggestions for rephrasing. Sometimes it’s an individual sentence that needs to be rewritten because it’s incomplete or incorrect. Sometimes it’s an entire introduction or scene that’s missing a vital component or just doesn’t sound quite right.

In my experience working with hundreds of authors on both fiction and nonfiction books and articles, I’ve found that it’s much easier to show what I am suggesting rather than to try to explain it.

So, what I normally do is summarize my suggestion and then say something like this: “Here’s an example of how you could rephrase. Feel free to rework this using your own author voice.” [Then I provide a rewrite in my own words]

By doing this, I can rewrite the part I feel needs to be rewritten BUT I give the author the option to rewrite my words into something that sounds like he or she wrote it in the first place. Usually what ends up happening is the author will use my basic example but maybe switch a few words around or revise just slightly. Or, they take the basic idea of the rewrite and write a new scene/section on their own. My point gets across and the revision is made, but the author doesn’t feel as though I’ve completely taken over and changed their book.

Only in rare cases was the author not able to understand what I was suggesting by looking at a rewritten example, and I’ve never had an author complain that I was trying to take over their book with my own writing.

Question: As an author, have you had an editor use this kind of tactic when suggesting an edit? As an editor, what is your preferred method for showing authors the edit you are suggesting?

 

The Internet’s Effect on Writing and Publishing

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Hello, grammar fiends! Long time, no talk. It’s been a crazy summer filled with vacations and work and editing and all sorts of things that equal me being absent from this place for many months. I’m hoping to get back into the swing of regular posting, and I appreciate you all sticking with me!

A few weeks ago, I read the book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. Anyone else read that one? It touched on many topics that I, as an editor and general reader of things, found chilling and fascinating all at once. One of the things Carr discussed in the book is how our use of the internet and in general the technology of computers has changed the way we view our words. Here’s what he says:

“The provisional nature of digital text promises to influence writing styles. A printed book is a finished object. The finality of the act of publishing has long instilled in the best and most conscientious writers and editors a desire, even an anxiety, to perfect the works they produce… Electronic text is impermanent. In the digital marketplace, revision can go on indefinitely.” (p. 107)
And then there’s this:

“Our indulgence in the pleasures of informality and immediacy has led to a narrowing of expressiveness and a loss of eloquence.” (p. 108)

Agree or disagree? I think you’d have to be crazy not to agree with his sentiment that we’re losing our eloquence and care for the written word with the advance of texting, instant messages, and online self-publishing. That includes blogging too, because anyone can have a blog, and some are quite terrible. We don’t feel the need to take the care to edit and revise before we hit “publish” because we know that we can always go back and revise our work. But is that to the detriment of our “expressiveness and eloquence,” as Carr states?

I think so, at least a little bit.

I came across someone recently who self-publishd a book on Amazon. She told me that she didn’t even get an editor to read it over before she put it online, because she could just take it down and upload it again if she found errors that needed changing. On one hand, it’s great that we do have the technology available to fix those pesky errors we always find after we publish something. But on the other hand, this is making us lazy! It’s making us care less about getting it right the first time. It’s making us not see editing as an important part of the publishing process.

Carr does not really offer a solution to this problem. Ultimately, I think it’s up to us to change. We need to be aware of the tendency to hit “publish” too fast when maybe it needs up one more read-through. We need to use our words wisely and not just rely on the “edit” button to fix what we should have gotten right the first time.

What do you think? Do you agree that our technology is negatively impacting publishing? Do we not take enough care with our words the first time because of the ability to edit them later?

The Power of an Abstract

confusion

In my day job, I edit a scholarly journal. Potential authors submit an article for consideration. I read it, and it is also anonymously reviewed by members of my editorial board. Then I write back to the author with a recommendation for or against publication, along with comments about the article and specific suggestions for revision.

Along with every submission, I ask an author to write and submit to me a two- to four-sentence abstract. A thesis statement, in essence, of their article.

Today I want to briefly discuss why having an abstract can be helpful to both your editor and you!

The concept of an abstract works best when used for a nonfiction work. For fiction, instead of an abstract you will likely create a plot outline. Both serve the same purpose: to either solidify your structure and the points you intend to make in your writing OR show where what you thought you were saying doesn’t line up with what you are actually saying.

I often find that the abstract serves the function of the latter more often than it does that of the former. This is where we really see the power in the abstract, because it points out a weakness in the book that even the most argumentative author can’t argue with.

After I read an article or a book, I like to be able to reference the author’s abstract in my notes. Let’s say Author A wrote a book about Topic X. But then I take a look at his abstract and see that he really wanted to talk about Topic Y. When I make my edits, I can reference the abstract and say something like, “You wrote in your abstract that this article/book was about Y. But really what you wrote about is X.”

This is, in my experience, one of the best ways to show an author where they need revision, and it’s one of the best ways for an author to see that they need revision.

The reason I limit the abstract to no more than four sentences is so an author has to sit down and clearly and concisely write out their book or article summary. Think about it like your elevator pitch: you only have 15 seconds to sell your story to someone on an elevator. What are you going to tell them?

Now consider what would happen if you told them one thing, and then they read your book only to find it was about something else! That would not be good. This is why writing an abstract can be a huge benefit to your writing so you can make sure that what you want to say lines up with what you actually say.

So, what I’m suggesting to all the editors out there is to try having authors writing abstracts when they submit their work.
And to all the writers: try writing an abstract. Even if you don’t show it to an editor, you can use it to help you in your own writing to make sure that what you intend to get across is actually coming across.

Have you ever written an abstract before? Do you think this writing tool could be helpful?
Have you ever had an experience where what you wanted to write was different from what you actually wrote?

An Historic or A Historic?

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An historic OR A historic?

I always thought it was AN historic until one day my teacher friend texted me to ask if it was AN one-hour class or A one-hours class. I knew it was “a,” but I wanted to be able to explain why, so I of course referenced my to-go grammar queen, Grammar Girl, to see what she had to say. That is how I ended up reading about the use of AN vs. A, and my grammar nerd mind was blown.

I assumed Grammar Girl would back me up on my use of AN before an “h” word like historic. Alas, she did not, and it was a slap in the face of everything I thought I once knew. According to this post, Grammar Girl says:

Some Americans argue that it should be an historic, but I come down firmly on the side that says it should be a historic event.”

She also referenced this post as one that agrees with her position. I decided to poll my office on the subject, and I found that most held my original understanding that it was “an historic event.” Quoting from Grammar Girl again:

The rule is that you use “a” before words that start with a consonant sound and “an” before words that start with a vowel sound.

So it would be A historic event, because the “h” sounds like a consonant.

But you would say AN honor, because the “h” makes a vowel sound, similar to “ah.”

This also explains why you say A one-hour class, because the “o” in one sounds like the consonant w, as in won. (Which is what I told my teacher friend. At least one problem was solved that day.)

But you would say AN only child, because the “o” in only sounds like the vowel o.

So, in conclusion, after getting sucked down the grammatical rabbit hole, I think I may have changed my position on the matter of a vs. an. Nothing will ever be the same again, I think.

So let’s discuss. What do YOU think? Have you, like me, always thought it was AN historical? Do you agree or disagree with Grammar Girl?
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P.S. For those of you who noticed, I apologize for not posting last week. It was crazy at work, and I completely forgot it was Thursday until it was Friday, and then I figured I might as well just wait until next week to post something.

A Study in Best-Selling First Sentences (part 2)

Snoopy, it was a dark and stormy night

As I thought about what I wanted to write about in today’s post, I remembered a post I wrote almost a year ago: “A Study of Best-Selling First Sentences.”

In that post, I listed a number of popular books from the NYT best seller list along with their first sentence (or two), and then I suggested three things those sentences had in common that make for a great opening line(s). I thought it might be interesting to take a look at more books to see if what I wrote last year still fits for 2014.

Here were the 3 similarities: 

1. A character introduction // 2. Visual description // 3. A sense of movement

I won’t go into those in this post. I will instead refer you to the original.

The following books are taken from the current list of New York Times Fiction Best Sellers (both paper and hardback) for the week of May 25-June 8, 2014.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

“Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.”

 

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

“When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.”

Field of Prey by John Sandford

“The fifth woman was a blond waitress who enhanced her income by staying late to do kitchen cleanup at Auntie’s, a diner in Faribault, a small city on Interstate 35 south of the Twin Cities.”

The Longest Ride by Nicholas Sparks

“I sometimes think to myself that I’m the last of my kind.”

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

“First the colors. Then the humans. That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try.”
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What do you see in these lines?
Do you see a character introduction? How about visual description? Movement?

I think all these lines have at least two traits. Not every opening line will have all three, but I think we have a good place to start when we’re thinking about how we begin our stories.

Do you notice any similarities in opening lines of the books you read?

3 Tips for Accepting Critique

critique

Today I want to talk briefly about critique.

As writers, critique is part of what we do. Instead of avoiding it or dreading it, I believe we can learn to embrace it. It’s not always going to be pleasant, but after having edited hundreds of books and worked with as many authors, I strongly believe that the ability to ask for and accept constructive critique is one of if not the mark of a good writer.

I’ve talked in the past about how to critique, but now we’ll discuss accepting critique. I obviously cannot speak for anyone else, but here are three things that I think are important to keep in mind when you are preparing to receive a critique of your writing:

1. Have an Open Mind

If you aren’t entering the critiquing process with an open mind, then what’s the point of even asking someone for a critique in the first place? Anything they say to you will be automatically dismissed, and you will have wasted both your time and theirs. Being open to the possibility of revision will allow you to, at the very least, consider an alternative view even if you ultimately decide not to take it (see #3).

2. Don’t Take it Personally

This one is hard.

After all, this is your baby. The product of uncounted hours staring at a blinking cursor when you could have been watching Bones on Netflix or baking an apple pie from scratch. But the thing is, the person offering critique is only trying to help you. This is, of course, assuming you’ve chosen a worthy critique partner or beta reader.

If that’s the case, then this person is not out to hurt you intentionally. They are not out to destroy your self-esteem or writing career. They truly want you to succeed, and they want your writing to find success; and so you must understand that this is not personal. If you feel like it might get personal, maybe that’s a sign you should find a new reviewer (i.e., not your mom).

3. Realize that You Don’t Have to Take Their Suggestions

In most cases, you will not be forced to take a critiquer’s suggestions. If your book comes back with a suggestion to remove a certain scene or phase out a character or use a different point of view but YOU feel strongly that it should stay in, then keep it! Your critique partner/beta reader/editor isn’t always going to make a suggestion you want to follow, and realizing that you don’t have to should take some weight off your shoulders. Now, obviously this isn’t an excuse for not changing anything. Remember to keep an open mind (see #1).

But let’s say you have a favorite scene–one you think is hilarious and well written–and the reviewer came back and said he or she didn’t like the scene. That doesn’t mean you have to cut it, but maybe you should consider revising. Maybe the point isn’t coming across how you intended, isn’t reading in their head how it reads in your head. Or, it could be that reviewer just didn’t get it, and it’s fine how it is.

Asking for critique doesn’t mean you will be forced into changing something you don’t want to change. But if you are keeping an open mind, it may be a good opportunity to rework a good scene into one that’s great.

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I know there are more tips and tricks for critique, but those are a few that I’ve found to be helpful, both as one who has received critique and one who has given it. Now I’d like to hear from you!

How do you learn to embrace critique? 

 

A Writing Tip from John Green

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Right now I’m reading John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. I’m almost finished, in fact. His books are pretty quick reads. Anyway, I came across the following line from chapter fourteen that struck me, and I wanted to share (no spoilers):

“On the flight home, twenty thousand feet above clouds that were ten thousand feet above the ground, Gus said, ‘I used to think it would be fun to live on a cloud.'”

John Green could have written: “On the flight home, thirty thousand feet above the ground, …”

That would have been the easier, more standard way to go. In fact, I’ve seen that line before. But he didn’t, and I think this is a perfect example of an author’s voice and creativity shining through in a simple way that says a lot. Since the character Gus goes on to mention the clouds, it makes sense that Green would highlight the clouds in his opening sentence of description. And yet, he still is able to mention how high the plane is in the sky and let readers know what stage of the flight we’re at: cruising altitude.

I don’t really have much else to say about this. Mostly I just wanted to share an example that recently stood out to me of a creative way to write a fairly simple line. The next time you start to write a line of description, take a second look and see if there’s another way to phrase it. You might come up with something that surprises you.

Happy writing!

Melodrama [Part 2 of 2]: 5 Tips for Cutting

 

Nell poster

Last week I shared 6 ways to spot melodrama in your writing. This week we are going to talk about some tips for cutting melodrama. First, here’s a quick refresher of the definition:

Melodrama [noun]:
drama in which many exciting events happen and the characters have very strong or exaggerated emotions
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The kindest thing you can do for your writing—and your readers—is to cut the heart right out of your melodramatic passages using these techniques:

  • Check the emotional intensity: Your first order of business is to go through your scenes looking specifically at the emotional content. Are people fist-fighting and launching soap-opera style accusations at each other? Are lovers a little too profuse in their expressions? Are your characters saying too much about their feelings rather than demonstrating them? Try to take the temperature of the emotional content of a scene. If it feels too hot, bring it down.
  • Rework dialogue: Go over your dialogue with a fine-tooth comb and read it aloud until it sounds like things people might actually say to each other. Read it to someone else or have someone else read it to you. This is one of the best ways to check dialogue. It can still be stylized, but it should sound believable, and it should not make your readers want to gag.
  • Smooth out character behavior: Take the diva or the preening prince out of your characters. Get to know who they really are so that their behavior stems from true motivations is not just empty behavior. Characters should act within their framework and should not be exaggerated.
  • Ground gestures in reality: In similar fashion, your characters can be bold and passionate, but think twice about having them do things that are too implausible or over the top. Readers will not be able to relate to your characters if they find their actions unbelievable.
  • Equalize characters: Try not to make one character so much larger than life that he or she seems out of proportion to the others. Villains often get very colorful in first drafts, since villainy is so much fun to write. But if your bad guy outshines your good guy in his speech and behavior, the scene will feel off kilter, and the reader will become confused about which character to pledge allegiance to.

What do you think?
These are obviously not the only places to cut melodrama. Can you think of any others?