Trick from the Editor’s Hat: A List of Crutch Words

You spend hours, days, even weeks editing. You're struggling to get through it — but don't give up. Writing a story is easy; shaping it into something worth reading is where the true talent of the writer lies.

Here is just one of the many tricks that I employ when editing both my own and clients' writing.

CREATE A SPREADSHEET OF CRUTCH WORDS

While writing, we often have a list of words that we'll fall back on when we can't think of another word to write. Sometimes, we don't even realise that we're doing it. It's not until our critique partners, beta readers, or editors point it out to us that we see the repetitive word glaring at us.

"How could I have missed that? It's as obvious as the nose on my face."

Well, it's quite easy to miss things when you don't know that they're a problem. However, the solution is surprisingly simple.

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Punctuation marks

Cooking with Commas

There are many different things that can drive an editor batty. Punctuation just happens to among them. There is much confusion about punctuation. Often writers get them confused. Hell, even editors have been known to get a little muddled.

Today, I wanted to address the importance of the comma.

I will grant you that there is a significant about of debate over the usage of commas, particularly the Oxford comma (whether we should or shouldn’t use it). It probably doesn’t help that the Oxford comma has now won a legal court case.

However, many editors will agree that commas seem to be disappearing from text, partly because of the increasing usage of smartphones and social media. This, folks, is not a good thing. I will grant you that when writing a hurried tweet, the comma can consume precious character counts. However, one little comma can change the entire meaning of a sentence.

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The Synopsis for Editing and Writing

Those who are heading down the road toward traditional publication will be familiar with a beast known as a synopsis. Many agents and publishers require that you submit a 1/2-page synopsis with your submission materials. The chore of writing a synopsis that length is a frightening task. Many writers have been known to run away from it, screaming. So, when I mention that writers should write synopses as an editing tool, it’s not surprising that many look at me like I’m crazy.

In a querying synopsis, you include only the main plot thread, ignoring ALL subplots. The only characters named are your protagonist, antagonist, and often a love interest; everyone else is irrelevant. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s completely disheartening to see this complex masterpiece whittled down to a few short paragraphs, but for the querying synopsis, that’s what you need to do.

However, for editing purposes, that short, main-plot-only synopsis is useless. You need to create an entirely different beast.

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Sawn Book

Length matters but story matters more.

Every writers that is serious about publishing, particularly those attempting the traditional publication path, will know that agents and editors put a lot of weight on word counts. The acceptable limits vary depending on the age category and genre of the book.

(By the way, Young Adult is NOT a genre. It’s an age category. And Fiction is NOT a genre either. You can find more information about the various age categories here. More information about the main genre classifications can be found here.)

It’s incredibly important to have a good understanding of the average word counts for the type of story that you are writing, but it’s just as important to understand word counts are not an excuse for poor story telling.

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We can tell you haven’t edited your book.

There are many out there now self-publishing. They’re decisions to head down this path have come about for a variety of reasons and there is nothing wrong with it. There have been many successful writers who have self-published, just as there has been many writers who have been traditionally published that bombed.

In some cases, writers elect to push for self-publishing because it’s the fastest way to get your book out there. For time-sensitive, non-fiction books, this is likely the path you’ll take. However, there is a HUGE difference between (1) producing a quality product that was self-published and (2) self-publishing because you want it out there.

In a previous post, I spoke about rushing the process. One flavor of the rush-the-process beast is the publish-without-editing variant.  Read More

Trick from the Editor’s Hat: Apps that Read Aloud

You spend hours/days/weeks editing and you’re struggling to get through it. Here is just one of the many tricks one could when editing.

Use an app to read your story to you

Many will happily agree that hearing a passage will trigger different editing skills than reading a passage. When we read a passage, our brains often fill in the missing words or correct the awkward sentence so it reads as we think it should, but it’s not what it says. As mentioned in a previous post, reading a passage aloud allows you to register unnatural dialogue, awkward phrases and many other things that could have been missed.

Let’s face reality: not everyone is comfortable with reading things aloud to themselves, but there is a solution. There are apps out there that will read a story to you.

If you are on a Mac system, the app for this is already built-in. Programs like Scrivener have incorporated the Mac text-to-speech features into its operations. Some of the voices are extremely unemotional and computerized, but a few of them aren’t. It might take some trial-and-error to find the voice that works for you, but at least the option is there.

Windows now have these systems built-in too, however, they don’t seem to be as developed as the Mac versions. Saying that, there’s nothing stopping you from downloading an app or using an on-line one.

You could convert your manuscript to a format suitable for an eBook reader and use the text-to-speech functions on that. My Kindle provides me with a male and female voice options. (Both of them make me laugh when they attempt to read some of the unconventional character names.)

There are also text-to-speech apps available for Andoid and iOS.

If you can force yourself past the laughing fit that will likely ensue when that computerized Stephen Hawking voice starts reading your erotic sex scene, this could provide another way to pick up those editing blunders that you might have missed otherwise.

(Now I think I’ll go hunt out those hot and steamy scenes to throw through a text-to-speech program. I could use a good laugh.)

See other Tips and Tricks from the Editor.

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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2017

NaNoWriMo is over. Let the editing begin.

November is over, everywhere around the world. Congratulations to all who have met the 50,000 word target, but an even bigger congratulations to all those who actually wrote that story that was whizzing around in your heads. But with NaNoWriMo over, now is the time to think about the next steps in your writing journey.

The first thing you need to do is ask yourself the following question: have you finished that first draft in its entirety? Have you actually typed those coveted words of The End?

If the answer is no, then stop reading this post right now. Get your butt over to your manuscript and carry on writing. I mean it. This post will be here when you’re finished. Come back when you actually have a full manuscript to work with.

Now for those of you who have a completed first draft, before you do anything else, I want you to celebrate. You have written a full manuscript. That’s a massive feat and you deserve a pat on the back — just don’t break your arm in the process, because you’ll need it for what comes next. Now begins the long and laborious road of editing.

I say long and laborious because writing that first draft is actually the easy part, even if you struggled to get it out. Editing is hard. It’s during the editing process that the true talents of a writer shines through.

There are many out there who believe that editing involves looking at spelling, grammar and punctuation, however, editing is so much more than that. The type of editing your manuscript requires will depend entirely on what stage your manuscript is at.

Editing falls into four main categories: critique, developmental, line and copy-edit. Each stage is necessary to the development of a manuscript. In a previous post, I delved into the Who and When of Editing, however, I’ve recently discovered that understanding the Who is not enough. It’s the What that seems to elude most writers.

For those who have just completed their NaNoWriMo first drafts, you will now be entering into a combination of the critique and developmental editing phases. You will be looking at your story with that critical eye, getting ready to make the difficult decisions.

Does your plot follow a semi-logical progression of events? Do the plot twists make sense, or do they blindside the reader? Could you hint at events along the way?

It’s the plot of a story that will first grab the attention of any reader. Your characters are going on this journey and the reader wants to go with them. That plot needs to be solid and believable.

But readers don’t continue reading because of a plot. They continue reading because of the characters. They’ve become attached and they want to know if Jimmy is going to kiss the girl, or if Heath is going to dive off that cliff to his death. As such, you will also need to look at your characters with the same critical eye.

Do your characters behave in ways that make sense? Do they have identifiable traits that make them individuals? Is that character really the right character for this story?

That last question is actually a hard one to ask, but it’s vital. You may have written this little girl in your story, complete with the fun game of tag, however, that character might be better suited as a teenager, grumpy and hormonal. In some cases, that side character that you wanted to use in other stories really has no benefit to the current story — they’re just a distraction. However, until you take the time to look at your story critically, you won’t be able to truly answer the hard questions.

Then you need to look at the narrative voice. How much show do you use? Do you share every detail of backstory you can, bogging down the reader in unnecessary facts? Have you shared enough? Do you set the scene and play with the actions? Is the scene told from the perspective of the right character?

And what about first person vs third person? Or past tense vs present tense?

file5951239550691There are so many questions and each manuscript will be accompanied by a different set. There are no right or wrong answers, but to make the best decision for your story, you need to remove the emotionally-attached writer’s hat and put on that detached editor’s hat. It’s not easy. It will likely be the most difficult thing that any writer will face. But the rewards… The satisfaction…

The only real way to be able to make this mental transition from writing to editing is to give yourself distance. After each phase of a manuscript’s life, be it drafting or an editorial pass, you need to put that manuscript into that metaphorical drawer and do something else. If the mood strikes, write another story. Or perhaps it’s time to read that book that you were wanting to read. It doesn’t really matter what you do, as long as you force yourself to back away from your manuscript. The longer that manuscript is in that metaphorical drawer, the greater the distance that you give yourself, making it that much easier to make those hard decisions.

For those working on their NaNoWriMo novels, that first draft needs to be rewritten into a second or third draft. The skeleton that you constructed during November now needs the muscles and connecting tissue. It needs blood.

When you have rewritten that precious story, it will be time to let another set of eyes see it. Those eyes need to belong to another writer, not your family or friends. You loved ones want you to be happy, so they will lie to you instead of giving you the bitter truths that are vital for shaping your manuscript. Hopefully, during November, or at other times, you’ve managed to build of list of writing buddies that you can lean on, swap chapters with. However, don’t just send it to anyone who puts their hand up. Be selective. Remember that your manuscript is still an early draft. You want to use someone who will look at your writing for the story and characters, not for the punctuation and grammar (that comes later — much later).

While you’re waiting for the comments, you’ll be working on something else. (Remember that need to distance yourself from a manuscript.) When you get the comments back, you’ll need to look at them critically, which is not always easy to do; this manuscript is still your baby, no matter how much distance you give yourself. This is something I wrote about some time back, about how to find value in the harshest of critiques. Then it’s back to the rewrites and the hard questions. You’ll send your story to different sets of eyes, and the whole process starts again.

Then you start the line-editing phase, if you haven’t already done so. This is when you look critically at the language and the words. You start delving into the grammar, but on a rudimentary level.

You have a series of carefully chosen phrases, but do those words flow off the tongue, or were you trying to be so cleaver that you get tongue-tied? Can you restructure a sentence to make it stronger, invoking more of an emotional response from the reader? Is that sentence even necessary?

All the while, you are getting different people to read your story, perhaps a professional editor or two. With each set of eyes, you are getting that much closer to a polished product.

Copy-editing, looking at the spelling, grammar and punctuation, is the last thing you do. It’s like putting that skin on your manuscript. For those who are self-publishing, typesetting and cover design are putting on the makeup.

But with all of this comes a question that many have asked me: how do you know when you’re actually ready for publication and/or submission? Remember that distance. How long has that manuscript been sitting in that drawer? If you take that manuscript out, blow off the cobwebs and read it through… if nothing is screaming out at you saying “change me,” then you know it’s ready. You’ve taken that manuscript as far as you possibly can.

Writing a book can be a long journey. That month spent writing the first draft was just the first step. But like all journeys, you’ll never get there unless you start walking. And like the child taking their first steps, eventually you’ll be able to run, then you’ll be able to jump and leap, climbing that steep rocky mountain. Not to sound cheesy, however, I believe that a certain rock star, who shall remain nameless, said that it’s all about the climb.

(Now I’ve done it… That song is going to be stuck in my head for days on end… DOH!)

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If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it on Facebook, Twitter or Google+ below. You can read other posts like it here.

© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2016

Time to Add Zombies to Your Manuscript

We are midway through the month and many writers are pushing themselves toward their NaNoWriMo or CampNaNoWriMo goals. It might be just to write the 50,000 words to become a winner. Or maybe they're pushing themselves that much further to complete a full first draft within the span of one month. Regardless, it is roughly about this time of the month when many writers start to lose steam and they feel that their stories are running flat.

Time to add zombies.

It's an old saying, one that relates to how some writers deal with that age old problem called writer's block. Some writers will take the phrase literally and add flesh-eating monsters into their manuscript. Why not? This is NaNo. Anything can happen in our manuscripts. However, those monsters only suit certain genres and only a fraction of the stories in those genres at that.

No... The phrase "just add zombies" means much more than that.

If you are struggling to push your story forward, moving the characters into the next scene — if your feeling that your story is starting to drag — that's a sign that you have lost the tension of the story. It's time to change it up.

Adding plot zombies is about putting your characters into the worst scenario that you could possibly think of and letting things fall where they may. For a romance, that situation might be the kiss that shouldn't have happened and the girlfriend that walked in on it. For a thriller, it might be the bad guy has just escaped those bounds that you were so sure were tight as anything and now has a gun pressed to your temple. For a crime story, perhaps they found another dead body. And for that space opera, the ship has sprung a leak and if they don't find a way to seal it, all the air will be vented out into space — oh, and the gravity plating has just gone off-line.

But if you're suffering from writer's block, perhaps the issue really isn't your story. Maybe you're just trying to hard. Some writers will have plotted out every single inch of their novel. (If you've done this, you plotters know exactly who you are.) You may have found that you are trudging along quite happily, then the path is suddenly blocked and your characters are refusing to take the left fork in the road like you had planned. You keep forcing them that way, but they keep rebelling. The words are just not flowing like they once did. Did you ever stop to think that the path down the right fork is actually the more interesting one?

This is where the pantser has the advantage over the plotter. The characters want to take the right fork, so the pantser lets them and is just along for the ride. Meanwhile, the plotter is still trying to force their characters down the left fork.

gull-talk_annotated_rightvsleftPlotters, give yourself permission to deviate from your original plot. You never know what might happen.

However, pantsers suffer from writer's block too. The true blood pantser will just wait for inspiration to strike. They have no idea what they're going to write until they sit down and start writing. But sometimes inspiration completely eludes them. They don't even know where to start. (At least the plotters have a start point and an end point.)

The biggest advice I can give to anyone in this situation is to find a new place to write. Grab your notebook, or your laptop, and head out to the park, the beach, the local library, the nearest coffee shop... Maybe even the art gallery or the museum. It doesn't matter where you head, just as long as it's somewhere new. Watch the people going by. Watch the snail attempt to get across the sidewalk before it gets squished. These new environments just might be the inspiration you need.

(True story: One year, I was watching a sparrow as it soared through the air, only to be joined by another sparrow. Spring time. Mating season. My fingers suddenly started typing this whole scene where my main character shape-shifted into a bird and soared through the skies. Inspiration can come from anywhere.)

There are some other tricks that you can play to get yourself out of this writing slump. Maybe you need to turn your attention to another project. You may have had your heart set on writing a particular project, but if your mind is just not into it at that moment, then the writing will be forced and you will hate every inch of it. Writing is meant to be enjoyable. If one project is not doing it for you, open another. Writers often have multiple projects on the go. I, myself, have near on 20 different manuscripts that I'm working on, all in various stages of development.

Chip Challenge: Get some poker chips and write numbers on them. Place them in a bag by your favourite writing device. Every time you sit down to write, pull out a chip. That’s your session target.

Chip Challenge: Get some poker chips and write numbers on them. Place them in a bag by your favorite writing device. Every time you sit down to write, pull out a chip. That’s your session target.

Then again, maybe you are too focused on the big picture that you need to give yourself smaller goals. Even though with CampNaNoWriMo you can choose your own goals (word counts or hours), NaNoWriMo imposes a minimum 50,000-word-count limit. That can be a scary number, especially when you're in a writing slump. What you need to do is break that number up. Last year, I wrote about how you can use the chip challenge, where you have a small bag of poker chips, each with a different number on it. When you sit down to write, pull one out of the bag and that's your target.

Or maybe you're one of those that needs to sprint. Set yourself a timer and just go for it. Take a break, then do it again and see if you can get further than you did last time.

There are many different tactics to concur this common problem. Just remember that you're not alone. Remember that there is a big community out there of writers, all of us at different stages within our careers, but all of us there to support one another.

Perhaps you can share one of your favorite methods for getting the creative juices flowing in the comments below.

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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2016

Developing the habit of writing…

Right now, writers from around the world have pledged themselves to either the NaNoWriMo or CampNaNoWriMo challenge.  They’ve signed their lives away, at least for remainder of the month, determined to write 50,000 words within the span of 30 days. (For CampNaNoWriMo, they have elected to work toward something much smaller.) 50,000 words may sound like a lot, but it really isn’t. In many cases, it’s not even a full novel. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was 76,944 words.

So, 50,000 words in 30 days… For some, it can seem like a scary number, but it’s only 1,667 words a day. But this is where things can start to go awry.

There are many who see the prestige of writing 50,000 words in one month and will take it to the insane level of writing 50,000 words in one day. No joke. Within my home region of Christchurch, New Zealand, there are those who do this every year. Granted, they tend to be the university students heading into exams just as NaNo starts — they wanted to get NaNo out of the way so they could focus on their studies. Perfectly valid idea in my mind, however, I believe that people who are fixated on the word count are missing the point behind NaNaWriMo and CampNaNoWriMo entirely.

While the folks at NaNoWriMo have set a word count goal to win the challenge, the true challenge is to create a habit of writing.

The idea behind NaNoWriMo and CampNaNoWriMo is to write a little bit each day. If you have time to write more in one sitting, that’s fantastic. However, just a little bit everyday adds up. Some days, you’ll be on a streak, unable to stop, the fingers flying across the keyboard or the pen across the paper. Other days, you’ll be lucky if you manage a single paragraph. Whether it’s a good or bad writing day doesn’t matter. The fact that you sat down and wrote something is what counts.

For some people, finding the time to actually write is the biggest challenge. Most of us are on the constant go, hardly knowing which way to turn. The best advice that I could give any writer is to carry a notebook and writing implement everywhere you go. If you are one of those that hates notebooks, then carry your phone with a dicta-phone app.  Don’t force yourself into this thought that to write you need to be sitting down at a computer. This couldn’t be any further from the truth.

When I starting writing fiction on a regular basis, there was no way that a computer was going to see my precious mental release. I spent day in and day out programming, staring at print outs and data graphs. I wasn’t going to fight with a computer for something that was meant to be a pleasure. So, I wrote the first draft of my first novel entirely by hand. I wrote while I was on the bus travelling between the university and my house. I wrote while my husband was watching TV. I wrote while I was eating my breakfast or lunch. I wrote in bed at night, just before I fell asleep and dreamed of the next scene in the story. For a full year, I wrote my fictional works in small notebooks, stealing the precious writing time from wherever I could.

Instead of scrolling through the social media feeds on your phone while savoring that cup of coffee, write down a paragraph or two in that notebook that you carry around.

Events like NaNoWriMo and CampNaNoWriMo are meant to force you to think about writing, forcing yourself to find the time to dedicate to it, but what about when it’s over? According to psychologists, it takes anywhere between 21 to 66 days to form a habit. Instead of spending the month focused on word count targets, use this month to develop a habit of writing that you’ll be able to carry on with come next month, and possibly for the rest of your life.

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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2016

To Oxford Comma or Not?

Before one can make the decision about whether they should use an Oxford comma or not, one must first understand what the Oxford comma is.

Consider a list with at least three different items: apples, oranges and bananas. If one was to use an Oxford comma, then the list would look like apples, oranges, and bananas. Notice the use of the comma before the and. However, you won’t always find a comma before the and. If the list has only two items, that list of apples and oranges wouldn’t use a comma.

Confusing, right?

Arguments about whether one should use an Oxford comma have been around for years. So many industry professionals have differing views. Even university academics in English literature can’t agree. So what is the writer who just wants to write their stories supposed to do?

The answer is easy: pick an option and stick to it.

Here’s the deal. If you are heading down the traditional publication road, whether or not you use an Oxford comma won’t be grounds for rejection. An agent might have their view, but the publishing house that buys your book will have their own guidelines regarding the matter. They’re the publisher and they make the final decision. The copy-editor on the project will make all the changes required based on the publisher’s chosen style guide.

If you are self-publishing, then the decision falls to you as the writer. You will need to discuss with your copy-editor what you would like to happen. It doesn’t matter whether the copy-editor likes them or not; if you don’t want them used, then don’t use them. If you leave the decision to your copy-editor, which many writers publishing their first books might do, then you still need to have this discussion with your editor. You need to know what style guide they used and what decisions were made regarding punctuation, like the Oxford comma.

Now, I can hear a few of you saying that you don’t really care. Well, you should. It’s your name on those books and those books form part of your brand. Consistency is the key, starting with your narrative voice and through to your covers. Even the simple, insignificant punctuation is part of that brand. What you do in one book, you need to do in all your books.

You may start your publication career using one copy-editor, but for a variety of reason, later books might employ a different copy-editor. For the sake of consistency, you need to know what your first editor did to your book so you can provide proper instructions to the new editor.

And for those writers who are working on collaborative projects, you need to talk to your co-writers. It needs to be a joint decision, whatever that decision might be.

It’s so complicated, I know, but it all adds to the end reader experience.

So should a writer use the Oxford comma? In the end, it really doesn’t matter. Just be consistent.

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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2016