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.

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!

 

The Long and Winding Road to Publication and Back

In the summer of 2012, I packed off my daughter for her first summer camp- an entire month away from home at a traditional summer camp where the kids went on canoe trips, swam in the lake every day and participated in the annual “color war.” During the time she was away, I resolved to finally write that book I’d been talking about for years. Over the course of my life, I’d resolved at different times to write a book. Sometimes I aimed for a straight up thriller, or sometimes a horror tale, but that particular summer, I resolved to write a book for kids. Specifically, I wanted to write a book about kids away at summer camp who have to save the world. And not cotillion kids, or kids at boarding school, or chosen ones- I wanted to write about kids who lived in a trailer park, who didn’t have iPhones and who used the public library for internet.  My goal was to write a book my daughter would enjoy, and heck, maybe I could even get it published.

Three months later I had Coriander Jones Saves the World.  Actually, I had a first draft of CJ but little did I realize the importance of putting the book away and then coming back for multiple rounds of edits. By then, my compulsive nature had lead me to many hours of researching publishing, agents, and how to query. Even with all that information, I still managed to make every rookie mistake the good folks at QueryTracker warn us about.  If only I had discovered the forum sooner!

Genre? Who really cares if it’s MG or YA? Um, everyone. Fantasy? Adventure? Magical realism? What’s the difference? Lots, as it turns out. Even with all my mistakes, I still had a few nibbles, and even a few offers from small presses. Their contract terms were so one sided I didn’t bother to negotiate. A mistake? Maybe. Should I have followed up on the R&R from an agent? Maybe. But long about then I had decided that my personal goal of writing a book was enough and I could publish it myself. And then I decided to close out a partial request from a small press with a nudge so I could cross it off my list, and the editor immediately responded that yes, she had received the partial and could I send the rest. And then she asked what part of Florida I was from, and noticing my maiden name, asked if I knew an old high school friend of hers, who, as it turns out, is my cousin. Best of all, she love Coriander and her friends. She got what i was going for with the characters and the story. And I knew that going this route was not significantly different than self publishing as far as distribution. But the book was published. It even received some very flattering reviews and a few small awards, but as expected, sales were in the basement.

By then, I had kept writing, hopefully improving my craft, had made friends on Querytracker and  Twitter and felt like I was ready to not only write CJ II but also that quirky thriller I’d been thinking about for, literally, decades. So armed with Gator Bait, I dipped my toes in the query trenches again. This time, I struck gold when Gina Panettieri saw past the flaws and gave me a chance to make revisions. With those, she took me on as a client and GB is currently on submission. Along with, I might add, CJ, which I had mentioned to Gina, she asked to see, and decided it might have a second chance. So it’s on submission as well, with the second book done, edited, and ready to get in the queue. My small press is going in a different direction with their projects and they wished me well and gladly negotiated with me to return my rights early.

The odds are definitely against a previously published book like Coriander Jones, especially in a tight market like YA. But everything from here is gravy. I like my trailer park girl. Of everything I’ve written so far, her voice spills out the easiest. I may end up toting the series around to indie bookstores and craft fairs, but honestly, I wrote a book I liked, and my kid liked it too. Recently, a little girl that had been given a copy of the book very shyly asked me if I could please hurry up and finish the second one. It’s not a starred review in Booklist, but it’ll do.

On a side note, my own daughter hated summer camp and came home early. Go figure.

Check out the “Which Character Are You” quiz on http://corianderjones.com