Filler Words, Grammar Nerds and Fun with Line Edits

(This article also appears on the QueryTracker Blog this week)
As the saying goes, I don’t necessarily like writing as much as I like having written something. The editing phase should be easier, right? After all, you’ve just written a whole book. You dreamed up characters, gave them dialogue, threw in some plot twists and probably did it all while holding down a full-time job. So editing, in theory, sounds less time consuming, maybe a bit tedious, but not hard.

Au Contraire. Exit out of your spell checker and come sit a spell. Let’s talk editing strategies. I like to think of editing as sort of a food pyramid (before USDA went to the whole My Plate thing, which I don’t get). At the bottom of the pyramid are these basics:

Start with spelling and punctation. Have handy your CMS or whatever style manual you use. Don’t trust your computer. The programs can be wrong, and they definitely won’t fix your homophones. So if you typed “brake” instead of “break,” you will have to catch it by hand. Other things to look for on this level of editing include getting your capitalizations and commas correct in your dialogue. While you’re already looking at your dialogue, scan the dialogue tags to make sure you haven’t used overwrought phrasing like “terrifyingly shrieked” when a simple “yelled” will do. “Said” is always a safe bet because characters can’t shrug or snort words.

Moving up the pyramid are high-end items, such as, is high-end hyphenated? Is it anyone or anybody? Is that participle dangling? Now is the time to weed out phrasing like “Barreling into the room, I thought he looked like a tiger ready to pounce,” when what you mean to say is that he was barreling into the room, not you. This is the time to look for one of my downfalls: the “flying eyes.” I can’t stop writing characters whose eyes fly open, or dart around the room, which obviously, they can’t do.

Next stop on your way to the top is elimination of filler words. Your Find and Replace function will assist you weeding out useless words like just, then, about, almost. Make your own list of filler words, and words or phrases you tend to overuse. For me, my characters roll their eyes and shrug constantly. By using find and replace, I can either substitute a different gesture or delete it entirely. Look for other useless phrases like, “I could see.” We know you could see it because you’re telling us. Just saw “I saw” or better yet, just describe what is being seen. As the earlier QT blog on adverbs mentioned, searching for “ly” words will help you weed out excessive adverbs.

Scan the page for repeated names and words. If your main character is “Joe,” it stands to reason his name will appear often. But have you started nine paragraphs in a row with his name? Did you use the same word multiple times in a single paragraph? Here is where you fix it. Despite my best efforts at writing the best first draft I can, I still find words repeated in close proximity to each other. That’s why it’s a draft.

Watch those gerunds. This is another of my first draft frequent offenders. I often have draft sentences such as “Raising her glass, she thought of her absent friends.” These predicating “ing” clauses make editors twitchy and, when oft repeated, really make your writing come across as uninspired and amateurish. Find and Replace is your friend here. The sentences can easily be polished and tweaked.

Now were are getting past the nuts and buts and into content. Here is where you make sure you haven’t gone from Tuesday to Wednesday and then back to Monday over the course of a few chapters, or called a character Kate and then called her Karen. If a character had a beloved pet in chapter one, did it disappear for the rest of the book?

Themes, plot, and clues and backstory. If revenge is the driving force of your story, it should be woven in throughout the story. If your villain is revealed at the end to be a master counterfeiter, is there some small hint of this earlier or did you just drop it in, deus ex machine? Is your backstory spewed out in a multipage information dump, and if so, can you take bits and pieces and spread it out with a mixture of dialogue, flashbacks, action, and narrative? Is there a massive plot hole about how a character could possibly have known a piece of information? Do characters disappear for large chunks of time and then re appear for no apparent reason, or worse, never get mentioned again?

Next up: How is your pacing? Do your action or high conflict chapters pack a punch, only to be followed by pages of mundane dialogue and no conflict? Identify where your story sags and be merciless cutting out the parts that don’t work. Conflict should be present on every page, even if it’s internal.

Voice. Ah, Voice. What do agents and editors mean when they say, “Voice”? My take is that it is the narrator’s unique way of telling the story. John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee had a bohemian philosopher’s way of describing his adventures. Holden Caulfield practically leaps off the page with his disdain for phonies. Ginny in A Thousand Acres is both resigned and defiant. Whatever your storytelling style is, keep it consistent. Darkly funny is great. Don’t let your edits turn your darkly funny story into a faux literary tome.

Finally, time to fire up the printer. I really recommend doing this instead of relying on your computer because a book in hand is a different reading experience. You can read it all and make casual notes, or comb through it with a ruler, or both. But having the printed word in hand should reveal only minor issues, since you’ve already eliminated plot, pacing, and grammar issues.

I now use the Chicago Manual of Style, Merriam Webster Dictionary, and occasionally Strunk and White when I do this pyramid editing. Don’t hold me to editorial perfection on this blog because I am dashing it out at the last minute (sorry, Patrick) and it’s likely got a few errors. Keep in mind that this article is geared toward those who are doing their own editing and not relying on a content or copy editor. Getting your manuscript in the best shape possible will help set you apart from the crowd.

And mind those gerunds.

Happy Birthday, Star Trek

If there is one television show that really defined my childhood, it had to be Star Trek the original series. Note that I say the original series because in my world, Klingons are not on the bridge, there is no such thing as a ship’s counselor and the Captain does not sip tea.

As Star Trek turns fifty this year (like me!) I decided to make a list of some of my favorite episodes. It was hard to whittle the list to ten, but, in no particular order, I managed to come up with:

The Menagerie I and II: I love how these episodes incorporated the unaired pilot with Captain Pike and the original crew. It’s an interesting insight into the “progressive” sixties that the network cut the role of Pike’s second in command, played by Majel Barrett, because test audiences thought she was too pushy. Majel ended up as Nurse Chapel, the voice of the computer, and Mrs. Roddenberry, so I’d say it worked out well enough.

Spectre of the Gun: The Enterprise crew gets to re enact the OK Corral… as the losing  side. Great stuff, even with a modest set budget.

Let That be Your Last Battlefield: Many Star Trek episodes were metaphors for modern issues, sometime thinly disguised and sometimes less than deft in their execution. But this one, in which superficial physical differences were perceived by opposing sides as fundamental character distinctions, was brilliant.

A Piece of the Action: If I straight up had to choose one episode, this would probably be it. Kirk and Spock navigate an alien culture that has modeled itself on the gangtsers of the 1920’s. I  totally understand all the rules of fizzbin.

Shore Leave: Unbeknownst to the crew, a  well-intended pleasure planet is reading their minds to help create a Fantasy Island type experience. McCoy’s white rabbit and Kirk’s vengeance on his Star Fleet bully was epic. I would love to see this Kirk/Finnegan rivalry in the current reboot of the series.

Trouble with Tribbles: Klingons, furry creatures, interstellar political intrigue. A classic by anyone’s standards.

Mirror Mirror: Doppelgangers, Spock with  beard and Uhura has a knife in a thigh holster.

I Mudd. I love the humor in this episode, and especially Kirk’s revenge by stranding Mudd on a panel full of androids… of his nagging mother.

The Conscience of the King: Shakespeare, murder, revenge. Perfection.

Patterns of Force: This was a powerful visual episode in which a Star Fleet observer’s “well intended” manipulations of a society result in a Nazi-like regime that Kirk joins a resistance to overthrow.

Runners Up include the The Corbomite Maneuver, which is crafty Kirk at his best, The Gamesters of Triskelion, which has all the classic Trek elements, campy music, fight scenes, scantily clad aliens and those shock collars, and The Galileo Seven, Spock’s moment to shine as leader of a stranded shuttle, who has to battle for his own crew’s respect as much as battling the largely unseen aliens outside.

Ok, Trek fans, what are your favorite episodes/series? I’m always up for Trek talk. Live Long and Prosper, ya’ll.

 

Summer Winds Down

Not that you’d know it from the Florida heat, but summer is over, school is underway, and 2016 is lurching toward the final quarter. I say lurching because this year has so far been mostly pauses and stops with very few forward progressions. Whoever coined the term “submission hell” was so very right. Nothing happens quickly in publishing and my elation at being agented and on submission has settled into a hurry up and wait pattern interrupted  by  random rejections for a short stories I’d actually forgotten about.

But fall has always been my favorite time of year, and submission hell or no, I’m gong to enjoy it. I did get a bit of good news that “A Home for Kayla” is a finalist in the Florida Writers Association RPLA competition.  One more step for Mutt Nation!

Hope you have some great summer memories and happy fall, everyone.

 

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The Great Unknown: Trying a Different Genre

Under my Kim English moniker, I write family friendly, totally PG books for kids and teens. In real life, I am a devotee of all books spooky and creepy and will never turn down an opportunity for a dark thriller. While my offbeat thriller for adults (under a different pen name TBA) continues its slog through the submission process (shout out to my fabulous agent Gina Panettieri) I’ve also started dabbling in short stories, and in particular, horror/noir.

It’s s strange sensation to leave your writing comfort zone and hone a whole different skill set. Maybe it’s a mistake to try different genres, and I’ve read many people, much more experienced and qualified than me, who caution against cross-genre writing, especially as an unestablished author. I understand the notion that it’s a good idea to master one genre before tackling seven different ones, and I accept that a certain amount of branding goes into marketing your name with your genre. But unless I’m setting the publishing world on fire in kid lit (spoiler alert: I’m not), then who is going to gripe if I write a few short stories that are meant to keep you up at night, double checking the locks?

To that end, I posted my first horror short story on Wattpad (my user name is KimQuill). “The Dread” made a few long lists and a couple of short lists, but ultimately didn’t find a home, so I gave it one. I found that writing short stories (in any genre) has helped me improve my overall writing tremendously.  I’m also outlining the third and last book in the Coriander Jones series, will be putting out another picture book in a couple of months, and, depending on how submission goes, I see some thrillers in the future, maybe even a cozy. Oh, did I mention that steampunk novel that I am dying to start?

Maybe it’s just a bit of attention deficit (SQUIRREL!)  but for me, life is too short to forgo the enjoyment of learning something new. Unless I become the next big thing in a genre, I’m not going to sweat dabbling a bit and dreaming a lot about what I might try next. The best thing about writing is that you can sit down and make up whatever you want. If people like it, great. If you get paid for it, even better.

The cover for “The Dread”  is below. Pop over to Wattpad if you have an account (and you should- there is some great stuff) and let me know what you think. Have a great weekend, everyone!dread!

 

Everyone Should Have a Fun Aunt

Everyone should have a fun aunt. The kind of aunt who lets you eat ice cream for breakfast because, hey, hasn’t everyone wanted to eat ice cream for breakfast at some point? The kind of aunt who lives on the beach and zips around town in a cool car and knows exactly what to say to soothe your adolescent angst. The kind of aunt who knew it was cool to work out before Jane Fonda made it fashionable. The kind of aunt who never forgets your birthday and teaches you that fitting in is highly overrated.

Everyone should have a cool aunt. The kind of aunt who has Sippie Wallace and Katy Perry on their playlist. The kind of aunt who lets you sneak a swear word into the conversation from time to time. The kind of aunt who says, “I’ve been where you are” but waits to be asked for advice. The aunt that picks you up at the bus stop and scares off the eighth grade bully just by pulling down her sunglasses and saying, “Don’t you have somewhere to be?”

Everyone should have a crazy aunt. Your crazy aunt may show up to your school play wearing a tutu and aviator goggles, but she’ll always show up. Your crazy aunt should tell you elaborate bed time stories that are entirely up  but which she insists are true. Your crazy aunt will tell you it’s okay to ditch class to go the movies once in a while and she also believes in the tooth fairy and Santa Claus because she’s met them. Your crazy aunt always has bubblegum in her purse and sometimes turns a corner a wee bit fast just in case she’s being followed.

I’ve been lucky enough to have all three of these aunts. They have all since passed away, but I try to pick up the mantle when I can for my own extended family. Whether you are the fun aunt, the cool aunt, or the crazy aunt, remember that your influence will be felt and remembered decades after you are gone. And I still totally believe in Santa Claus.