Editing, Or: The Long Slog of Writer’s Hell

Many, many, years ago I wrote a manuscript entitled “Black Days.” It is an occult detective novel, a subgenre that combines paranormal/fantasy tropes with classic detective mysteries.

I poured much time and effort into this book–refining it many times. I even asked a few close friends to be beta readers for me. They offered valuable insight and criticism–which is hard to come by.

I sent out query letters to literary agents who represent authors in this genre. I even attended a writer’s conference in New York in 2017, just to pitch my book to interested agents.

But none of that resulted in my book being considered. That’s not a huge surprise. You have better luck reaching Mars with Elon than you do landing a good agent and publishing a deal.

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So, what should I do with the is book? It is so worthy of publication that I should keep toiling at traditional publishing–and it never sees the light of day?

At this point, I figured it’s better to put it online, in some form, so that some people have a chance to read it. Why not? It’s just sitting in a drawer (or more accurately, sitting on a hard drive) being read by zero people.

In the coming months, my hope is to publish this manuscript as a serial book on this blog. No clever Amazon gimmicks. No e-book volumes. None of that. It’s going straight on this website, chapter by chapter, for all (or none) to read.

But before I do that, I have to return to a story I haven’t touched in years. Just because it’s going up on this site for free doesn’t mean it should be crap. I edited and re-edited it, but there are still rough edges needing to be smoothed.

I have considered hiring an editor from Reedsy, perhaps even a marketer. But, frankly, I don’t want to spend the cash. The folks on that site are worth the money, but if I am going the “nuclear route” to release this thing, then I might as well save some scratch.

So, coming soon to this website will be the first installment of Black Days. As soon as I get around to polishing up the manuscript.

“How to Write with Style,” Part 6

This post is part of a series called ‘The Writer’s Pool.’ I will be drawing from the wealth of knowledge from the world’s greatest writers to explore their advice, techniques, tools, and more.

We get to the next piece of advice from Vonnegut about writing with style, “Have guts to cut.” The author says, “Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”

This is a lot harder than it sounds. And at this point, might be a crushing revelation for some writers. We’ve been trying so hard to perfect our style. We might even think our prose glitters. But now, Kurt is telling us to cut anything that doesn’t “illuminate your subject.” Even sentences we think are really great.

Why does he say this? Because, once again, we are learning that true style is about being understood. And anything that gets in our way of that goal needs to be removed.

He gives us a good standard, though. Anything that doesn’t “illuminate” what you are writing about. What does that mean?

For a story, that means any line, sentence, paragraph, etc. that doesn’t help the reader understand what is going on. In the world of fantasy and Sci-fi, this is critical. Because many novice writers think they need pages and pages of unnecessary description.

It might be fun to detail to the reader just how the walls of the castle look. Or the smell of your spaceship infested with aliens. But is it moving the story along? Does it help the reader understand what is about to happen next?

If yes, then great! Keep it. But if you are being honest and you realize you are just indulging, then it needs to do.

We are no longer living in a time when readers have never seen a castle, or a lion, or a spaceship. Chances are, even those unique alien creatures you came up with look a lot like something they’ve seen on TV.

It might be a sad realization, but movies, TV, and the Internet have robbed us of a chance to impress readers will elaborate descriptions. Only keep the descriptions that help the reader “see” (or hear, smell, etc.) what they’ve never seen before. They’ve seen a sunset before, so keep that brief.

The same can be said of any passage that goes on longer than it needs to be. When I read Enders Game, I skipped over entire pages because Card rambled on and on about the characters’ emotional states and attitudes. I get it, already. Let’s get to where the children murder an entire civilization!

That doesn’t mean you’ll end up with this short, bare story void of all personality. It just means you have more room for the stuff that matters: the actual story. That might be a challenge for you. But if your goal is a story you want others to read and enjoy, it’s something you have to do.

“How to Write with Style,” Part 5

This post is part of a series called ‘The Writer’s Pool.’ I will be drawing from the wealth of knowledge from the world’s greatest writers to explore their advice, techniques, tools, and more.

One of the “tricks” to finding your own style of writing is to “keep it simple.” This is Vonnegut’s third point in his essay on style. He pointed out that both Shakespeare and James Joyce sometimes wrote sentences that were “childlike when their subjects were most profound.”

I think this is something many novice writers struggle with. We grew up reading works from Shakespeare, Dickens, and Joyce. And we just assume that “good” writing is profound and wordy. How can we impress a reader, unless we are “wowing” them with our amazing vocabulary? Not to mention these complex sentences that are just packed with language?

But, in the end, readers care more about what happens in your story, than how it sounds. That’s pretty much counter to everything we learned in English class. I don’t have to drag out those old statistics that say newspaper articles are written at a third-grade reading level to make my point. Simplicity of language is picking the very best words to communicate your ideas.

And, most of the time, that means using words that don’t require your reader to Google its definition.

Don’t believe me? Do this. Go to Goodreads or Amazon and find some random self-published story. Don’t even buy it. Just sample a page or two. Chances are, the insecure writer went too far in their descriptions and language. It’s unreadable. You won’t even care about the story (even if it’s a good one), because of how unnecessarily complicated it is.

Also, there’s this. Think back to your favorite book in the world. How much do you remember the artful language it used? Be honest, you probably remember very little. But you certainly remember the story, i.e.: what happened. Do you love Harry Potter because of how complex and marvelous the language was or because you cared about what happened to the boy who lived?

This is one of the rules that can be painful, if you’re not willing to be honest with yourself. But it is very freeing. The pressure to sound impressive is gone. Just say what you mean, using the simplest language possible.

You might even find you’ve removed a major burden that was slowing you down.

I AM HADES: Outline finished, time to write

If you thought outlining a story was hard, just wait. I decided to try my hand at outlining my latest project, instead of jumping in headfirst. I found that many of the problems I encounter writing the story don’t go away, just because you make an outline first.

I’ve always seen outlining as “cheating;” trying to get the answers before the test. And, in a way,  it is. At least for some writers. I think some writers think outlining will get them out of that icky work of actually coming up with ideas. But the same problem persists: trying to figure out what happens next.

But what can be said for outlining is that it makes getting over that hurdle a little bit easier. It’s like writing your book in miniature, a sketch of a sketch (a thumbnail, if you will). And because you’re not wading through 10,000+ words at that point, trying to make sense of it all, you can forge through the tough parts faster.

Because forge you must. The secret to getting over those blocks is to give up whatever preconceived notion you had about your story and just come up with something. It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t even have to make sense. You just have to put down what happens next. Even if it’s far from perfect.

Yeah, you can do that by simply writing your story. But the advantage of an outline is that you can quickly survey your story and decide where it should go next, in a way you can’t without one.

Doesn’t make the writing any easier. It’s not a magic formula. It might just be a mental trick. But anything that gets you through the middle of your book, to the end, it’s worth trying.

I finished the outline for I AM HADES. It’s far from perfect. Truthfully, the actual story outline is far from what it will eventually be. Chances are, I will change quite a bit about the story, by the time everything’s said and done (I don’t even have the characters’ names, for crying out loud). But that’s not the point.

Who even expected an early draft to be the final work? The same can be said about an outline. It just has to be there, like a weak light guiding your way. You’ll find your own path, if you keep walking. But, man, that light helps out a lot.

I’m not sure what it will be like writing this story, with an outline. Maybe it’s a breeze. Maybe it won’t matter. Maybe I’ll end up facing the same problems I always face. We’ll find out.

“How to Write With Style,” Part 4

This post is part of a series called ‘The Writer’s Pool.’ I will be drawing from the wealth of knowledge from the world’s greatest writers to explore their advice, techniques, tools, and more.

Vonnegut wrote that the first key to writing with style is to find a subject you care about. I think it’s worth spending time exploring this. How many writers write books for which they have no passion?

If you spend any time searching for writing tips online, you end up finding those kinds of articles. The ones that are trying to get you to game the system. Find a topic that is “selling.” Or better yet, find a topic that could sell, but nobody is writing about it. Good luck with that.

(I read an article about selling big on Amazon. He never talked about actually writing the book–he even claimed you can just hire someone to do that for you. Talk about the scum of the earth.)

The pervading wisdom, among those who care about selling above all, is to write something that will make you money. Heck, if that is your real goal, why bother writing at all? If you only care about making money, go find a way to earn passive income so you never have to work again.

(Trust me, there are plenty of those kinds of articles online, too.)

I’m not saying you shouldn’t want your book to be published. You should have a goal to finish your manuscript, improve it, and get it out there into the world. You’re writing for others to read it, yes? Then of course you need to have that in the back of your mind.

But if that is your primary goal, I don’t think you’ll stick it out long enough to finish a book. Yes, there are people out there who can churn out books on genres they have zero interest in. They are only looking at the bottom line, treating the entire process like an assembly line.

Are you willing to do that to sell something? Artists don’t really tick that way. Sure, we want money. And we should have a goal of producing something that people want to read and pay for the pleasure of doing so.

But you can’t make that your priority. You need to write about something you’re passionate about, otherwise, you’ll just quit.

Trust me, writing a book is not an easy task. You probably know lots of people who want to write a novel, but never have. They just say they need the “time.” Yeah, because it takes plenty of time to produce a book. Days, months, even years. Are you willing to sink that much time into something you are not excited about?

Let the publishing industry eat its own tail trying to chase trends. You, instead, must go write something people will care about. That’s something entirely different.

People will flock to read or watch something trendy. But they’ll forget it just as quickly. If you want your work to endure. If you want people talking about it, thinking about it, even arguing about it—then you need to care about it first.

After all, if you don’t care about it why should anyone else?

That’s what’s called writing “authentically.” And it’s harder than it sounds. Sure, you might love science fiction books. You might even have an intriguing idea for one. But can you cut through all the noise in your head to write own that’s authentically you?

Meaning, one that is coming from an authentic place within your heart and mind?

That, my friend, takes work. It has more to do than just outlining chapters and plot. It goes beyond all those tip articles you found. It takes real honesty about yourself and what you are writing.

I’m not talking psychology, there. I’m simply saying you need to write in such a way that your true ideas, unfiltered by fear, come out on the page. That takes time, work, and a willingness to revise.

Vonnegut understood this, but he was smart enough to say it in fewer words than me.