Jen’s Editing Tips – Why, Why, Why

The past few months, I’ve critiqued around 90 stories. During that time, I’ve noticed a common issue that has left me scratching my head all too often. It’s an issue every writer deals with, but not every writer knows to address until someone (a beta, an editor, a reader, etc.) points it out to them.

Jen's Editing Tips

“What’s the point of this story?”

“Your plot feels aimless.”

“Why is this happening?”

“Why is that happening?”

“Why? Why? WHY?”

As obvious as it is, stories need a purpose. Whether it’s something as grand as saving the world, or something subtler like self-discovery, every story needs something that drives it forward. A key motive that is the backbone of everything else. I like to call this the “Big Why.”

“Why am I writing this story?”

“Why does my protagonist exist?”

“Why will readers care?”

You should be asking yourself these vital questions while you write. No, you shouldn’t let them consume you to the point you can’t write anything at all. In fact, I’d recommend during your first draft (or two) you simply write and not worry about the Big Why. Let it develop as you go along. However, by the time you’re approaching your final draft(s), you should have a solid answer. If you can’t verbalize the main purpose of your story to a stranger (yes, I know we all hate the dreaded, “What’s your story about?” question) then you need to step back and think about it.

Once you’ve nailed down your Big Why, it’s time to support it. For example, you can say, “My story is about a girl with special powers who saves the world from an evil madman.” But, why? Why does this particular girl have to be the one who saves the world? Can’t someone else do it? And why does this evil madman want to take over the world? And why is he evil? And a madman?

As storytellers, we need to dig deeper with our motives. Saying, “I don’t know” or “Just because” won’t satisfy readers. Everything needs to have a reason, and those reasons need to be unique. Don’t say the girl has to save the world because she’s gifted (or, worse, because she’s “the chosen one”). Give her depth, obstacles, tragedy, hope–something that triggers her desire to rescue mankind. And don’t say the madman wants to conquer the world because he’s power hungry. Why does he want power? Why is he so hellbent on world domination? Again,  “I don’t know” and “Just because” won’t cut it. Give readers more. Help them understand so they’re able to connect to your story.

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Digging into the Big Why means digging into every aspect of your story. If you don’t have a viable explanation for each component, then you need to consider the reason for its existence.

Characters

Do you ever notice when a book gets adapted into a film, the film version sometimes (ahem, all the time) chops out secondary characters (and subplots)? Yeah, it annoys me too. But let’s think about why Hollywood does this: They have to condense a 400-page book into a two-hour film. That means they have to be picky and only use what matters. And what matters are the things that support the Big Why.

Although I hate seeing my favorite books butchered, I have to admit I like Hollywood’s general strategy from an editor’s standpoint. It’s brutal, but necessary. All of us (myself included) have to be willing to whittle our stories down to the essentials. Which means we have to examine all aspects, including our characters. As much as we want all of our imaginary friends and foes to stick around, sometimes–er, many times–it’s not in our story’s best interest. We have to put on our “Hollywood Caps” and start asking, “Why?”

“Why does this character exist?”

“Why do I need three sidekicks? Isn’t two plenty?”

“Why do I have two women with different names, but similar roles?”

Why, why, WHY? Just like The Big Why, we have to evaluate each character and figure out what the point of their existence is. If they’re not driving the plot forward, then give them a hug and part ways. Or take what you love about them and combine it with another (more valuable) character.

Plots

Just like with characters, not every plot line needs to stay in a story. In fact, the more plots you have, the foggier the Big Why can become. This isn’t to say multiple plots lines are bad. Not at all! Just look at “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Fall of Giants,” and “The Lunar Chronicles.” Each has multiple plots, but each of those plots matter. And, one way or another, they all contribute to the Big Why.

Unfortunately, many writers fall into the deep, dark Plot Pit. They keep inessential story lines that take readers away from the main focus and into a maze of, “Huh?” These include random tangents, excessive info dumps, and sentimental scenes nobody but the author understands. So, once again, as you’re editing, sit back and ask yourself why:

“Why does this plot exist?”

“Why is this scene relevant?”

“Why will this plot matter in the long run?”

Words, Words, Words

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I know we’re getting down to the nitty-gritty, but we must if we want our stories (and their Big Whys) to stand out. We can create the best plots and the best characters, but readers won’t be able to appreciate them if they get lost in translation. So, everyone grab their beloved red pen and start asking:

“Why do I need this paragraph? This sentence? This word?”

“Why did I use dialogue here?”

“Why not break up this paragraph and add more white space?”

Obviously this isn’t a step to take during your first couple of drafts (if you do, you won’t get anything done). But, when you begin to edit and polish your manuscript, go at it. Attack every page with your red pen. Slash the fat, rearrange words, and tighten things up until every aspect of your story reads loud and clear.

The more you ask, “Why?” about your story, the clearer its purpose will become. Just remember there’s a time and place for everything, and that includes asking this important question. Don’t let it bog you down every step of the way. Ask it when the time is right…Just make sure to ask it at some point.

Don’t forget, my editing website is up and running! If you’re looking for someone to help with your story, check out Jen’s Edits and Critiques.

For more tips, visit my Jen’s Editing Tips page!

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 Photo credits: giphy

Jen’s Editing Tips – Then, and then, and then

There’s a word out there many writers love to use, including myself. We like to insert it into a sentence and then sit back and smile. Then, without realizing it, we like to use it again three sentences later. Then again, then again, then again.

Jen's Editing Tips

And then, after we’ve put the finishing touches on our work, we send it off to our beta readers to critique. Then, after waiting on pins and needles, we get their feedback and discover we’ve used and abused this most beloved word. So, we then grab a red pen and start crossing it out.

Cross, cross, cross!

With each deletion, our adoration for this word cools, colder then colder. Then, before we know it, we realize the word is nothing more than a crutch. A filler. A fluff word that acts like a catalyst for action and movement, but then turns out to be a hinderance in disguise. So, we then decide to avoid the word unless it’s absolutely necessary.

But then, and only then.

And Then

Like the word “as,” many writers tend to overuse the word “then.” Who can blame them? It’s a great word! Unfortunately, when we repeat it again and again, we risk a handful of problems:

Fluff, fluff, fluff

In a way, “then” is like “that.” At least 50% of the time, we don’t need it. It’s a fluff word we insert on instinct, not necessity. We also tend to add words around “then” to help us transition into the rest of a scene; fluff words that lead to over-explained actions, cluttered sentences, and stilted tones.

To show you what I mean, here’s an example from my action-adventure, “La Jolla.”

With “then”:

Cole pried himself free and then struggled on. He had to get to Finn.

But then, before he could reach his brother, the bridge heaved, like a briny belch had blown out of the waters below. Cole cried out and then his knees buckled. Cal Poly made a mad grab for him, but then missed.

Right then, Finn’s shrill voice cut through the metallic booms and wails. “Cole!”

Then the tracks collapsed.

Then the train plummeted.

Without “then”: 

Cole pried himself free and struggled on. He had to get to Finn.

The bridge heaved, like a briny belch had blown out of the waters below. Cole’s knees buckled. Cal Poly made a mad grab for him and missed.

“Cole!” Finn’s shrill voice cut through the metallic booms and wails.

The tracks collapsed.

The train plummeted.

Laundry List 

The more we use “then,” the more our stories resemble a laundry list of actions. Mr. Character did this, then this, then this, then this

After a while, our stories start to sound like a broken record. And we all know what happens when a reader gets bored or annoyed by a story’s repetitive rhythm…Yep! They stop reading.

Here’s another example to illustrate what I’m talking about.

With “then”:

And then gravity’s force lifted Cole off the ground and then smashed him into the ceiling. Purses, cameras, and then even backpacks whipped past him.

“Grab my hand!”

Cole then looked down.

Finn raised his arm and then strained to reach him. Their fingers brushed once, twice—and then Finn lunged and grabbed Cole’s wrist. Right then, as he yanked Cole down, the train plunged into the water. The impact tore Cole out of Finn’s white-knuckled grip and then catapulted him into the rear window face first.

And then, for a breathless moment, he stared through the spider-webbed cracks spreading across the glass, down into a deep, black chasm.

Without “then”: 

Gravity’s force lifted Cole off the ground and smashed him into the ceiling. Purses, cameras, and backpacks whipped past him.

“Grab my hand!”

Cole looked down.

Finn strained to reach him. Their fingers brushed once, twice—Finn lunged and grabbed his wrist. As he yanked Cole down, the train plunged into the water. The impact tore Cole out of Finn’s white-knuckled grip and catapulted him into the rear window face first. He stared through the spider-webbed cracks spreading across the glass, down into a deep, black chasm.

Spoon-Feed 

Then this happened, Ms. Reader. Then this. And then this–Are you following along, Ms. Reader? Am I being clear enough? Because then this happened. And then this…

Readers are smart. They do not need to be taken by the hand and guided from point A, to point B, to point C, etc. So, be brave and trust your audience’s intelligence by transitioning scenes in simpler, more creative ways than “then.”

Here’s one more example from “La Jolla” to show you what I’m talking about:

With “then”: 

Then Cole rolled over. With the train vertical, everybody, including Finn, hung above him. Then he sat up and blinked. All around him, a symphony of sobbing pleas, splintering glass, and grinding metal deafened his ears. Then he took a deep breath and struggled to his feet. Then he reached up and unbuckled Finn. “You okay, buddy?” He lifted him down and then set him on the ground.

Finn nodded.

“Good, cause we gotta go.” Then he kneeled down and struck the damaged window with his elbow. Then again and again.

Nothing.

Then, out of nowhere, Cal Poly appeared. “Watch out!” She peered over the top of her seat with a five-pound dumbbell. Then Cole blinked. He thought about asking her how she’d found it, but then decided it didn’t matter. People packed the weirdest stuff. Then he took hold of Finn’s arm and shoved him back, out of the way.

And then Cal Poly dropped it.

Without “then”: 

Cole rolled over. With the train vertical, everybody, including Finn, hung above him. A symphony of sobbing pleas, splintering glass, and grinding metal deafened his ears. He struggled to his feet and unbuckled Finn. “You okay, buddy?” He lifted him down.

Finn nodded.

“Good, cause we gotta go.” He struck the damaged window with his elbow.

Nothing.

“Watch out!” Cal Poly peered over the top of her seat with a five-pound dumbbell. He didn’t ask her where or how she’d found it. People packed the weirdest stuff. He shoved Finn back.

She dropped it.

So, how do we prevent ourselves from overusing “then”? Well, here are a few strategies I have found helpful:

  1. Read your story out loud. You’ll be amazed how many repetitive words and phrases you hear when you do this.
  2. Ask someone to read your story to you. That way you can close your eyes and listen to it without being distracted by how it looks on screen/paper.
  3. Use the “Find” option and search for “then.” Remove as many as you can.
  4. Replace “then” with a ridiculous word like “hiccup.” See if you need to keep it. Chances are, you don’t.

So, there you go! I hope you’re able to take this editing tip and apply it to your work. Heaven knows I have to every time I sit down to write.

Don’t forget, my editing website is up and running! If you’re looking for someone to help with your story, check out Jen’s Edits and Critiques.

For more tips, visit my Jen’s Editing Tips page!

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 Photo credits: giphy

Jen’s Editing Tips – How To Punctuate Dialogue Tags

During the past month, I’ve critiqued over 80 short stories.

…Yeah, I’m a little tired.

But, I’m also excited to share some new editing tips based on common errors, bad habits, and other hiccups I stumbled upon while evaluating those 80-plus stories.Jen's Editing Tips

“So, which tip should I start with?” Jen asked her good friend, Ms. Red Pen.

Ms. Red Pen shrugged. “I don’t know. What was the biggest problem you noticed while critiquing all those stories?”

“Hands down, dialogue punctuation,” Jen said and shuddered at the memory. “I saw commas where there should’ve been periods, and periods where there should’ve been commas. Missing quotation marks. Uppercased words that should’ve been lowercased, and lowercased words that should’ve been uppercased. The list goes on and on.”

“Yikes!” Miss Red Pen exclaimed. “But, well,” she sighed, “it makes sense. Dialogue punctuation can be really tough.”

Jen nodded. “I know. But, once you get it, it’s easy.”

Dialogue Tags

As complicated and intimidating as dialogue punctuation can seem, it’s not. I promise. All you have to do is remember these basic rules of thumb:

If Dialogue Is Spoken

If a character says, asks, yells, whispers, or speaks in any way, then you should use a comma and lowercase your pronoun. Question marks and exclamation points are okay, too. For example:

Hey, I’m talking to you!” Bill said.

I know, I heard you,” Amy responded.

Then why won’t you look at me? Why?” he asked. 

Because I’m afraid if I do, I’ll hurt you,” she hissed. 

If Dialogue Is Followed By An Action

If a character smiles, scowls, walks, sprints, or acts  in any other way, then you should use a period and uppercase your pronoun. Obviously, question marks and exclamation points are okay, too. For example:

Hey, I’m talking to you!” Bill slammed his hand against the dining room table.

I know, I heard you.” Amy glared at the silverware next to her untouched plate of food.

Then why won’t you look at me? Why?” His voice crackled with fury.

Because, I’m afraid if I do, I’ll hurt you.” Her fingers curled around her knife.

If An Ongoing Sentence Is Interrupted By A Dialogue Tag

If you insert a tag within a sentence, then use a comma to pause the dialogue (inside the quotations marks), and then use another comma to resume the dialogue (outside the quotation marks). Also, be sure to lowercase the first word of the connecting sentence (unless it’s a proper noun, of course). For example:

Hey,” Bill slammed his hand down on the dining table, “I’m talking to you.”

I know,” Amy responded, “I heard you.”

Then,” his voice crackled with fury, “why won’t you look at me? Why?”

Because,” her fingers curled around her knife, “I’m afraid if I do, I’ll hurt you.”

If Two Sentences Are Separated By A Dialogue Tag

If you insert a tag between two separate sentences (spoken by the same character, obviously), then use periods instead of commas, and uppercase the first word of the second sentence. For example:

Hey!” Bill slammed his hand down on the dining table. “I’m talking to you.”

I know.” Amy glared at the silverware next to her untouched dinner. I heard you.”

Then why won’t you look at me?” he asked. “Why?”

Because.” She took a deep breath and curled her fingers around her knife. “I’m afraid if I do, I’ll hurt you.”

So, there you go. Those are the basics of dialogue punctuation. Yes, there are others I could go into (ellipses, em dashes, etc.), but to avoid overwhelming you, I’ll save those for a future post. If you are overwhelmed, it’s okay. Really! It took me ages to feel comfortable with dialogue punctuation.

One thing that always helps me simplify matters is to ask myself one question:

“Is my character speaking or acting their words?”

Once that’s determined, it’s easy to figure out which direction to take the dialogue punctuation:

Spoken = Comma, lowercased pronoun

Acted = Period, uppercased pronoun

If you’re still struggling, then I urge you to read. Read, read, read! And while you’re reading, study how authors punctuate their dialogue. That’s how I learned best when I didn’t know how to handle this annoying, but essential aspect of writing.

And, of course, write. Write, write, write. The more you write, the more you’ll grasp its technicalities and nuances.

Don’t forget, my editing website is up and running! If you’re looking for someone to help with your story, check out Jen’s Edits and Critiques.

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Jen’s Editing Tips – Beta Reader Etiquette 101

Most of us know how important beta readers are. They’re the ones who catch major flaws, cliches, loopholes, and other problems in our work before the rest of the world sees it. That’s why it’s so important we treat them with the respect and courtesy they deserve.

Jen's Editing Tips

Respecting beta readers seems like an obvious thing, right? Well, not to everyone. Unfortunately. Although most don’t mean to do it (and most don’t even know they’re doing it), many writers offend, snub, and/or annoy their beta readers.

To help you maintain solid working relationships with your beta readers, here are some basic etiquette tips to consider:

Say Thank You

Duh, right? Well, believe it or not, there are writers who forget to thank their beta readers. They’ll email them a story, wait and wait, and then dig into the feedback the second it returns. And they’ll completely forget to say, “Thank you!”

This. Is. Not. Acceptable.

No matter what a beta tells you about your story, you need to thank them for taking the time to read and evaluate it. Because they took the time to read and evaluate it. They didn’t have to, but they did.

A great way to prevent this major faux pas is to thank a beta before you read their feedback. That way, you won’t get distracted and forget.

Tactfully Reject

Asking someone to be a beta reader is sort of like asking them out on a date. You won’t know until you sit down and review their feedback if there’s chemistry between you.

Sometimes there is. Sometimes there isn’t.

If there isn’t, that’s okay. Thank them for taking the time to read your story and then–quietly–set their feedback aside. You don’t need to use it. You also don’t need to ask that person to read your work again. In fact, unless a beta asks to stay involved (usually a friend or family member), it’s rude to request additional input from them.

Which leads to the next tip…

Don’t Waste a Beta Reader’s Time

Rejecting a beta reader’s feedback is perfectly okay.

Rejecting a beta reader’s feedback and then sending them another draft to review is not.

Beta readers have busy lives just like the rest of us. Jobs, families, chores, projects, etc. Why would you ask them to read multiple drafts of the same story if you’re not going to heed their advice? It’s a waste of their time and, let’s face it, inconsiderate.

So, before you send someone a draft, ask yourself, “Will I use this person’s feedback?” If the answer is “no” (or even a shaky “maybe”), then be kind and leave them alone.

Keep Track of Betas

Some writers like to only use one beta reader. Some writers like to use many. It all depends on your personal preference and goals.

For those of you who like to use multiple beta readers, it can be hard to keep track of each one. Lines get crossed. Emails get lost. Names get mixed up.

That’s why it’s a good idea to keep a spreadsheet (or some kind of list) to remind yourself who’s who and what’s what (story sent, feedback received, thank you sent, etc.) If you do that, then you’ll have a much better chance of keeping everything straight. And you’ll have a far less chance of offending someone.

Don’t Badger

“Can you read my eleventh draft?”

“Do you think I should change my character’s hair color from red to blond?”

“Should his name be Bob or Bobby?”

“Would this sentence sound better if I wrote it like this?”

“What about this sentence?”

“And this one?”

Poke, poke, poke! If you badger your beta readers with too many questions or requests, they’re going to get annoyed. Really annoyed. So annoyed, they might stop helping you. Let’s remember, beta readers have lives, too. And, if they’re writers, then they probably have their own projects to agonize over. So, be careful. Don’t drown them in questions and countless drafts. Be wise and pick your “battles.”

Bottom line: Whether it’s another writer, a friend, or a family member, you need to treat your beta readers with the respect and courtesy they deserve. After all, most of them are helping you out of the goodness of their hearts.

So, what about you? What are some of your beta reader etiquette tips?

Don’t forget, my editing website is up and running! If you’re looking for someone to help with your story, check out Jen’s Edits and Critiques.

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Jen’s Editing Tips – Slow…Down

Most of us have big dreams of walking into a bookstore and seeing our beautiful, gorgeous, wonderful novel on a shelf. Or, better yet, seeing a complete stranger reading it in public…But, there’s something about this big dream we all need to understand.

Jen's Editing TipsIt.

Takes.

Forrrrrrever.

To.

Achieve.

Yes, I know most of you understand this. In fact, I’m sure many of you have experienced it. Writing a novel takes months, if not years. And getting it published can take even longer.

However, with the rise of self-publishing, as well as society’s increasing need for instant gratification, I fear some writers are losing patience with the process. Or, perhaps, some writers simply don’t understand it. That’s why today I’d like to share a simple, yet vital tip with you:

Slow.

Down!

I know that hurts to hear, but if you want to produce a strong, entertaining, and thoroughly developed story, then you need to stop rushing to the finish line. You need to sloooow down and remind yourself quality isn’t free. It costs time.

A.

Lot.

Of.

Time.

The more you rush through the process, the more issues you’ll face: Shallow plots. Flat characters. Contradictions. Cliches. Stiff dialogue. Redundancies…The list goes on and on. I’ve seen these issues in projects I’ve edited, and I’ve seen them in published books I’ve read. When a writer sprints through the process, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

So, to help you from making this major faux pas, I’d like to offer a general approach to writing a novel. Is this the only approach out there? No, of course not. But it’s definitely a tried and true method that ensures a story receives the proper amount of attention it deserves before it gets sent out into the world.

Step 1: Write First Draft 

This is my personal take on first drafts: They are 100% private and nobody should read them except you. Think of it like this: You’re the lone survivor of the apocalypse and you’re really bored, so you decide to strip down to your birthday suit and go dancing in the streets. Hey, why not? Nobody’s around to see or judge you.

If you approach your first draft with this mentality, I promise you won’t feel like there’s an invisible audience watching and judging you. You can charge into the unknown and write fearlessly.

Step 2: Take a Break…Or Not

Some writers will say you have to take a break after you finish your first draft. I say it’s up to you. If you’re burned out and exhausted, then yes, give yourself a much deserved hiatus from your story. A week, two weeks, a month…Then get back to work.

However, if you’re in a groove and can’t fathom stopping, then don’t. Take advantage of your creative high and leap into your second draft.

Step 3: The Real Work Begins

Draft one can be tough, but it’s nothing compared to what happens next:

Draft two.

I hate to burst your bubble, but it’s time to stop dancing and put your clothes back on. An unexpected group of survivors have arrived at the end of the street and they’re glancing your way. No, they’re not ready to walk over and introduce themselves yet, but they’re thinking about it.

So, you better boogie on home, roll up your sleeves, and start shaping your first draft into something presentable for other people’s eyes.

Step 4: Take a Break!

Perhaps you didn’t feel the need to take a break after you finished your first draft, but now you need to. You can’t  approach your third draft until you’ve put some distance between yourself and your beloved story.

If you’re really wild and crazy, you might consider sending your second draft to your first reader(s). I like to send mine to my mom. She’s trustworthy, honest, and objective. She’s also aware this is an early draft and I’m only looking for big picture-type feedback.

Or, if you’re doubting your story at this stage, you might consider sending the first chapter to an editor to critique. They can give you a knee-jerk reaction to your plot and characters, and help you decide if it’s worth pursuing. Many editors, including myself, offer such a service for a very affordable price (usually in the $25 range).

Of course, if you’re not ready for anyone to read your manuscript yet, that’s totally fine. Tuck it away and ignore it for a couple of weeks.

Step 5: Question Time

As you begin working on your third draft, ask yourself tough questions like:

“Has this story been told before?”

“Am I starting the story too early? Too late?”

“Are my characters interesting and likable? Or are they yawn-worthy, annoying caricatures audiences will reject after a couple of chapters?”

“Do I have too much backstory, especially in the early chapters? Am I prone to info dumps?”

By this stage, you better be showered and dressed, and your house better be clean, because the other survivors of the apocalypse have arrived at your front door. And they’re prepared to bombard you with questions. So, be as objective as possible. Hunt for all the flaws, loopholes, and cliches in your manuscript. Show no mercy!

Step 6: Beta Readers

By now, you’ve worked through at least three drafts and you’ve hunted down the majority of your story’s problems. Now it’s time to hand it over to your beta readers.

Yes, you need beta readers. Sure, you may include friends and family members (I always send mine to at least a few), but you must include other writers, book nerds, or, if need be, editors. Send it to people who have the ability to be objective, honest, and helpful.

While your betas are reading your manuscript, take another break. Do not keep writing. Clear your head so when feedback starts rolling in, you’re able to absorb it without getting defensive or upset. Because, yes, your betas will find problems. And, yes, it will hurt. And, yes, you’ll survive (you made it through the apocalypse, remember?).

Step 7: Critique the Critiques

Once all of your betas have returned their feedback, it’s time to evaluate it and find out what the general consensus is.

If it’s positive, great! Do a happy dance (ahem, fully clothed), and then sit down and critique your betas’ notes. Take the time to absorb each one and determine which are useful and which are dismissive…Yes, you heard me. You don’t need to use all of the feedback you receive. Please, don’t use all of it. If you do, you’ll have an odd smorgasbord of opinions that’ll hinder your story, rather than help it.

If the overall feedback from your betas is on the negative side, then it’s time to make some tough decisions. I’ve been here, so trust me when I say, you’ll be okay. It’s better to find out now if your story isn’t working than hear it six months down the road from agents or others in the business. If you find yourself in this position, you need to consider:

  1. Doing a complete overhaul of the manuscript. This basically means ripping it up and going back to step one…I’ve personally done this more times than I can count.
  2. Shelving it and working on a new project. As unthinkable as this might seem, it can be the best decision to make. Setting aside a story gives you the space, time, and clarity you need to re-approach it in the future.
  3. Hiring an editor. If you’re not ready to start over or shelve your manuscript, then you might want to hire an editor…But, fair warning, development/content editors are a hefty investment.

Step 8: Revise and Refine

Now that your betas have given you the thumbs up, it’s time to sit down and revise–again. Take all the feedback you’ve received to seal your plot holes, adjust your sentence structures, deepen your characters, etc. Fix any and all problems and strive to make your manuscript the best it can be.

Once you’ve finished, you might want to send it back to your beta readers (either the same group as before or new ones). Find out if your updated version fixed things. If it didn’t, revise–again.

Step 9: Time to be Ruthless

This is when you look out your front window and see hundreds of survivors lining up and down the same road you once danced naked in. They’ve come to meet you…and judge you.

So, guess what? You better take the time to judge every sentence, every paragraph, and every aspect of your book before they do. Stop thinking of it as your precious baby and start thinking of it as a polished product. Be brutal. Be unapologetic. Cut what needs to be cut. Tighten what needs to be tightened. Analyze every character, every piece of dialogue, every chapter break, every twist and turn…EVERYTHING!

If you feel like you need to, hire a copy editor to help you polish things up (ex: sentence structures, grammar, word usage, pacing, etc.).

Once you’ve finished this draft, you should feel confident enough to open your front door and launch copies at those judgmental survivors intruding upon your turf.

Step 10: Release It 

Yep, you’ve made it! You’ve done everything you can to prepare your manuscript for the world. Whether that’s sending it to agents or getting it self-published, you should feel proud of yourself and proud of the story you’ve worked so hard on!

Now, I’m sure some of you went through those steps and thought, “No way. I’m not doing all of that.” That’s fine. Perhaps you have a different tried and true method? Like I said, mine isn’t the only one out there.

But, I know–I know–there are writers who are simply impatient and don’t want to bother with these time-consuming, yet vital steps. They want to jump from step one, to step four, to step ten in the blink of an eye.

You can’t expect to produce a quality story if you’re not taking the time to write it. It’s as simple as that.

At the very least, before you deem your manuscript worthy of being read by the entire world, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. “How many drafts have I written?”…If it’s less than three, STOP! You’re not ready.
  2. “Have my beta readers given their stamp of approval?”…If you don’t know what a beta reader is, STOP! You’re not ready. Or, if you replied, “My best friend read it and he/she loved it!”, STOP! You’re not ready.
  3. “Have I been as ruthless and objective with my final draft as possible?” If you shied away from that statement, STOP! You’re not ready.

Bottom line:

Slow.

Down!

Don’t forget, my editing website is up and running. If you’re looking for someone to help with your story, check out Jen’s Edits and Critiques.

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Jen’s Editing Tips – Cut the S–Hit Delete

A couple of weeks ago, I received feedback for my first round entry in the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge (NYCM). 

Jen's Editing TipsWhile my critique from the judges focused on a couple of minor plot hiccups, many of the other competitors received this comment:

“The best advice I can give you is to always strive to keep your writing as tight as you can get it. Cut out as many unnecessary words as you can and when you think you can’t cut any more, start over. Always try to paint a picture with your words.”

This comment spurred a conversation on the competition’s forum. Many writers, including myself, discussed strategies for eliminating the fluff from our work to make it as tight and vivid as possible.

It-is-my-ambition-to-say-in-ten-sentences-what-othToday, I’d like to share some of those strategies with you. It’s important to know how to cut the s–hit the delete button and remove unnecessary words from your work. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing flash fiction or a novel. Tight, concise sentences will make your story stronger.

So, here we go! Here are my top five tips for cutting the fat from your work!

1. Stop Telling, Start Showing

Was. Should. Could. Felt. Heard. Saw. Thought. Noticed…

Cut, cut, cut!

Not only do these telling words eat up space, but they keep your audience at arm’s length. Instead of inviting readers into your story and experiencing it firsthand, you make them stand back and observe it from afar.

Let’s take a look at an example from “La Jolla,” my first round entry in this year’s NYCM Flash Fiction Challenge.

Telling:

The rumbling was growing louder, and the vibrations became harder. Cole heard a chilling screech tear through the train. It was followed by a metallic groan and cracking glass. The train was speeding over a bridge when it lurched sideways. Cole went staggering into an old man. He felt him grab his arm in a hand that was trembling and shivering uncontrollably. “We’re gonna die!”

Total words: 65

Showing: 

The rumbling grew louder, the vibrations harder. A chilling screech tore through the train, followed by a metallic groan and cracking glass. The train sped over a bridge and lurched sideways. Cole staggered into an old man. He grabbed Cole’s arm. “We’re gonna die!”

Total Words: 44

By removing the telling language, I chopped over 20 words and I thrust my readers into the story. They went from being an observer to a participant.

2. Go on a Which Hunt (“Which” and “That”)

My business communications professor at CSU loved to mark my papers in red pen. She crossed out half of my words, circled the other half, and alway–always–scrawled this note at the bottom: “Go on a which hunt, Jenna!”

At the time, I despised my professor’s red pen and “which hunt” comment. Now, I’m thankful for it. To this day, I can’t use “which” or “that” without asking myself, “Is this absolutely necessary?” Most of the time, it’s not. “Which” and “that” tend to be empty, fluff words. Worse, they often lead us to over-explain things.

Let me show you what I mean with another example from “La Jolla”:

With “Which” and “That”:

Finn strained to reach Cole, which was near impossible. Their fingers brushed once, twice—Finn lunged and grabbed his wrist, which was trembling from fear and panic. As he yanked Cole down, the train plunged into water that was the color of steel. The impact tore Cole out of Finn’s grip, which was so tight, his knuckles were white, and catapulted him into the rear window face first. Cole stared through spider-webbed cracks that spread across the glass, down into a deep, black chasm that never seemed to end.

Total Words: 89

Without:

Finn strained to reach Cole. Their fingers brushed once, twice—Finn lunged and grabbed his wrist. As he yanked Cole down, the train plunged into the water. The impact tore Cole out of Finn’s white-knuckled grip and catapulted him into the rear window face first. Cole stared through the spider-webbed cracks spreading across the glass, down into a deep, black chasm

Total Words: 61

See the difference? By cutting out “which” and “that”, I eliminated almost 30 words. Plus, I removed extra details the reader didn’t need to know. They could imagine the scene without them.

3. Skip Dialogue Tags

This is my policy about dialogue tags: If you don’t need it, don’t use it.

Nothing against tags, but they’re often unnecessary. If a reader knows who’s speaking, then why clarify it? And if you can insert an action (smile, glare, hair flip, run, jump, etc.) instead of a “said” or “asked,” then why don’t you? It’ll paint your scene brighter and bring your characters to life better.

Let’s use an example from my short story, “The Ark,” to illustrate what I mean.

With tags:

Her mom squeezed a dollop of sanitizer onto her palm and asked, “How’s Cal? You two still dating?”

“Don’t,” Becca snapped.  

“What?” her mom asked. 

Becca glowered at her and said, “Don’t act like everything’s fine.”

“I’m not,” her mom exclaimed. 

“Because things will never be fine again,” she hissed. 

“I know. But, please, honey,” her mom said, raising imploring hands, “let’s move on…”

Total Words: 64

Without tags:

Her mom squeezed a dollop of sanitizer onto her palm. “How’s Cal? You two still dating?”

“Don’t.” 

“What?”

Becca glowered at her. “Don’t act like everything’s fine.”

“I’m not.”

“Because things will never be fine again.”

“I know. But, please, honey. Let’s move on…”

Total Words: 44

Of course it’s okay to use dialogue tags. But, before you do, ask yourself if you really need them. Or, better yet, see if you can replace them with an action. You’ll save yourself words and make your story more evocative.

4. Beta Readers

Two weeks ago, I wrote my second round story for the NYCM Flash Fiction Challenge. Besides being a total emotional drain, “Kleine Mäuse” was a mental drain too. I had to chop over 700 words from my first draft to meet the competition’s strict 1K limit. For hours, I narrowed the plot, condensed my sentences, and deleted any and all fluff.

I succeeded in eliminating 500 words…But I had 200 more to go, and I didn’t know where to cut.

So, blurry eyed and mentally zapped, I turned to my beta readers. I emailed them my story and begged them to help me find those final 200 words without hurting the plot or characters. Gradually, their suggestions trickled in: “Delete this.” “Reword this.” “Do you need this?”

My story drained from 1,200 words to 1,160… 1,120… 1,070… 1,035… 1,012…994. Victory! With the help of my betas, I got my story under the 1K requirement. I also made it stronger by removing redundancies, weak sentences, and other things that dulled my story’s edge.

So, even if you’re not in a contest with a strict word count limit, I strongly suggest you rely on beta readers to help you chop unnecessary words. I assure you, you might think your work is as tight as it can get, but it’s not. Let someone with a fresh pair of eyes and a clear head help you see what you cannot.

5. Read Out Loud

Personally, my favorite editing trick is to read my work out loud. Not just once, but multiple times. And not just to myself, but to someone else. Or, better yet, to have someone else read it to me.

It’s amazing how many flaws you catch when you hear your work read out loud. Repetitive words, clunky sentences, stilted transitions, useless dialogue tags…The list goes on and on. So, if none of my other tips have helped you, then heed this one. It will do wonders for your stories!

It-is-my-ambition-to-say-in-ten-sentences-what-othHopefully you’ll be able to use one or all of these strategies to cut the you-know-what from your work and take it to the next level.

Don’t forget, my editing website is up and running. If you’re looking for someone to help with your story, check out Jen’s Edits and Critiques.

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Jen’s Editing Tips – Delete “Ing”s, Chopping Them Out For Good

A few weeks ago, I discussed a simple word that can ruin a story if overused. Today, I’d like to discuss a similar topic.

Jen's Editing TipsJust like the word “as,” this thing can wreak havoc on your writing, heaping on unnecessary problems if overused. In the past, I made this mistake too, babbling on and on. But, with a lot of hard work, I broke the habit, shattering it with sharper, clearer sentences. Today, I hope to help you break the habit too by showing you how to refrain from tacking on extra thoughts at the end of your sentences, carrying on for no good reason.

Some of you have might’ve already caught on to what I’m doing here, formulating my sentences in a way to show you what I’m talking about. In fact, you’re probably rolling your eyes at me, shaking your head, and praying I stop soon. But, sorry, I can’t stop doing this, extending my sentences to prove a point. I must keep going until everyone picks up on the clues I’m dropping, placing them right before their eyes.

Speaking of eyes, my own are starting to hurt, burning from the horridness of this sample. And it is horrid, carrying on the way I am, stringing my words together, connecting them so you can see for yourself how overdoing this thing can damage a story, killing it slowly, but surely.

To be perfectly blunt, I don’t understand why writers overuse this method to transition their sentences, forcing audiences to keep reading instead of adding a period and starting a new sentence, giving them a break, making their lives easier, and remembering they’re only human and their eyeballs can only take so much before they well up and overflow, streaming with tears and silently wondering if this sentence will ever end, or if will it keep going and going, racing to infinity and skyrocketing to a level of ridiculousness that makes me want to cackle with glee at my ability to use this subtle, but destructive weapon to blast clarity and cohesion to smithereens and annoy the you-know-what out you amazing weirdos who are still somehow reading this gibberish, squeezing your fists and thinking, “If this girl doesn’t stop, I’m going to scream and throttle her, silencing her for good!”

Okay, okay. I might’ve overdone it on that last bit. 😉 But, hopefully, you were able to follow along and pick up on today’s topic.

maxresdefaultJust like the word “as,” “ing” transitions can hurt your story. The more you use them, the more problems occur: Redundancy. Wordiness. Confusion. Over-explaining. Telling, not showing…The list goes on and on.

For now, I’ll focus on the three main issues:

Never-Ending, Ending Never! 

Let’s get the most obvious out of the way first, shall we? As you probably noticed in my example above, “ing” transitions tend to drag sentences on and on and on…and on. They extend sentences beyond the point of clarity and comfort, cause repetition, and have the potential to suck all of the drama and tension out of a scene.

One way to avoid this? Read your work out loud. Yes, you heard me. Out loud! If you run out of breath while reciting a sentence, then chances are you need to chop out an “ing”, or two…or three.

Let’s test the method with an example from my horror, “Why?:

With “ing”:

“Yeah, see!” Gracie cried, pointing triumphantly at the orange flare that once again sparked in the distance, shimmering brighter than the sun and lighting up the foggy skies to a glittering canvas of doom. It was followed this time by a deep, resonating boom that rippled through the water and up along the beach, quivering through the sand pebbles, startling a flock of seagulls, and silencing the crowds, chattering and laughing only a few seconds before. Everybody froze, including the squealing children playing with their shovels and buckets, as well as the aloof teenagers acting like they didn’t care about anything and listening to music. The children stopped playing and the teenagers yanked the buds out of their ears, focusing on the horizon with everyone else, watching as the light grew brighter and brighter, casting its eerie glow on the choppy waves and illuminating the gray skies, humming with the buzz of impending disaster. 

Without “ing”: 

“Yeah, see!” Gracie pointed triumphantly at the orange flare that once again sparked in the distance. This time, it was followed by a deep, resonating boom that rippled through the water and up along the beach. Everybody froze. Even the children stopped playing and the teenagers yanked the buds out of their ears. In unison, the crowd turned and stared out at the choppy waves and foggy skies.

As you can see, I was able to convey the same scene in half the amount of words simply by chopping out my “ing” transitions.

Unnecessary Information

Writer: “I’m not sure if the reader will completely get this sentence, so I’m going to add an ‘ing’ transition to give them extra details, saving them from possible confusion and helping them see the picture I’m trying to paint.”

Reader: “Okay, I get it! Sheesh, why doesn’t the writer trust me?”

Seriously, trust your readers. They’re smart. They don’t need to be told every single thing, and they definitely don’t need “ing” transitions to help them understand something already mentioned or implied.

Let me show you what I mean with another example from my horror, “Why?”

With ing:

The rumbling grew louder and louder, deafening Gracie’s ears, and the orange flares grew closer and closer, blinding her. Small, black shapes appeared through the fog, shocking and unexpected. At first, Gracie thought they were birds soaring over the water, flying towards her and everyone else. Then she realized they weren’t flying. They were falling, plummeting into the ocean with silent splashes and disappearing into the deep blue, vanishing from sight.

Why does the reader need to know the rumbling deafened Gracie’s ears? Or the orange flares blinded her? Or the sight of black shapes in the sky shocked her? Those reactions are implied. I don’t need to spell them out for the reader.

Without “ing”:

The rumbling grew louder and louder. The orange flares grew closer and closer. Small, black shapes appeared through the fog. At first, Gracie thought they were birds flying over the water. Then she realized they weren’t flying. They were falling into the ocean with silent splashes.

Every time you use an “ing” transition, ask yourself, “Why I am writing this?” If the answer is, “Because I don’t trust the reader.”, then hold back. Leave the extra information out and see if your beta readers, critique partners, and/or editor(s) miss it. Chances are, they won’t.

And if they do, big deal. It’s better to add information than subtract it.

Bueller?…Bueller?

Bueller?…Bueller?

Monotony?…Monotony?

I’ve said it once (or twice), and I’ll say it again (and again): A story is like a song, and readers listen to it closely. If they’re unable to groove to its beat, then they’ll probably find something else to jam to.

When you overuse “ing” transitions, you basically hit the repeat button and play the same song, over and over. And that means your story has a monotonous sound. Even if the length of your sentences change, or you insert plenty of white space, you won’t be able to escape the redundant rhythm you’ve created with your excessive “ing”‘s.

Let’s do one last example from “Why?”:

With “ing” 

“It’s a plane,” she whispered, trembling at the terrible realization. “Oh my god…Phil!” Her shrill scream echoed through the humid air, shattering the trance that had been cast upon the beach, jolting the crowd back to life. Everyone began moving, bolting for safety. Mothers grabbed their kids, screaming and crying. Surfers clutched their beloved boards, holding them over their heads and using them like shields. Lifeguards jumped from their lofty towers, blowing their whistles and waving for people to run for safety. Everyone fled, scurrying away from the destructive onslaught of debris hurling towards them.

Without “ing”

“It’s a plane. Oh my god…Phil!” Her shrill scream echoed through the humid air and shattered the trance that had been cast upon the beach. The crowd jolted back to life and ran for cover. Mothers grabbed their kids, surfers clutched their boards, and lifeguards jumped from their towers. Everybody fled from the destructive onslaught of debris hurling towards them.

The more “ing” transitions you have, the louder they become. And the louder they become, the more your readers will notice them. And the more readers notice them, the more redundant and monotonous your story sounds. So, find them and ask yourself, “Is this helping my story’s beat?” If not, delete it.

In fact, delete all “ing” transitions from your work if they aren’t necessary. And, yes, “ing” transitions can be necessary. Sometimes longer sentences are beautiful and wonderful. Sometimes additional details are needed for clarity’s sake. And sometimes a story’s rhythm demands it. But not every time.

So, hunt down your “ing” transitions and ask yourself, “Do I need this?”

If you don’t, chop it!

I hope you found this editing tip useful! Don’t forget, my editing website is up and running. If you’re looking for someone to help with your story, check out Jen’s Edits and Critiques.

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