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The Best Book About Writing/Editing I've Ever Read

Hi again! I’ve been an inconsistent blogger over the last year, but quite honestly, I've needed every ounce of time I could muster to focus on revisions and re-writes for my current manuscript. It’s coming along! Thought I’d jump in here today to tell you about a great book I recently read called: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers  by Renni Browne and Dave King.

The process of strengthening my own writing is never-ending (even with a couple of books under my belt) and it’s amazing to me how many “aha” moments this awesome book gave me when it came to my work. Seriously, I think it is the most useful book about writing and editing fiction that I have ever read. Yes, ever. I’m planning to re-read parts of it every year until, well forever.

If you are someone who is currently editing fiction and want some insights into what the pros are looking for, I highly recommend picking this book up. In fact, I recommend buying it so that you always have it as a reference. I went through and underlined many powerful passages that have affected how I write and revise, and then I typed them all out so I'd have them in one place.  

I’ll do you a favour by posting some of my them below. If you like what you read, go buy the book!

Some cool quotes from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers:

 “You don’t want to give your readers information. You want to give them experiences.” – Page 16

“…resist the urge to explain.” - Page 16

“When you present your readers with already-arrived-at conclusions about your characters, you leave your readers with nothing to do, and passive readers are at best unengaged and at worst bored.” – Page 30

 “When your characters start talking solely for the sake of informing your readers, the exposition gets in the way of believable characterization.” – Page 32

 “It’s almost always more effective to stick with a single viewpoint character and let the other characters’ emotions come out through their dialogue and action.” – Page 57

 “The time spent on a relatively minor point can throw the scene out of proportion  . . . proportion problems probably arise from the same lack of confidence that leads beginning writers to describe emotions they’ve already shown.” – Page 68

“When you fill in all the details and leave nothing to your readers’ imaginations, you’re patronizing them.” – Page 68

“If the character you spend time on turns out to be insignificant or if you never follow up on the plot element you set up in such detail, readers are going to feel cheated.” – Page 73

“A warning: paying attention to your story doesn’t mean ruthlessly cutting everything that doesn’t immediately advance your plot . . . atmosphere is an important element, even if its impact on the plot is often subtle.” – Page 73

“There is always room for philosophical asides that reveal the narrator’s character; subplots that may resonate with the main plot, forays into odd corners of background that make the fictional world more three-dimensional.” – Page 74

“What interests you [about the writing] is very often what’s going to be of most interest to your readers.” – Page 75

Ly adverbs almost always catch the writer in an act of explaining dialogue—smuggling emotions into speaker attributions that belong in the dialogue itself.” – Page 87

“Don’t use speaker attributions as a way of slipping in explanations of your dialogue (“he growled,” “she snapped”) . . . your best bet is to use the verb said almost without exception.” –Page 88

 “The simplest way to make your dialogue less formal is to use more contractions.” – Page 101

“Good dialogue isn’t an exact transcription of the way people talk but is more an artifice, a literary device that mimics real speech. This means that even the best dialogue is by nature slightly formal.” – Page 106

“Reading a passage aloud can help you find the rhythm of your dialogue.” – Page 107

 “One of the great gifts of literature is that it allows for the expression of unexpressed thoughts: interior monologue.” – Page 117

“Never, ever use quotes with your interior monologue.” – Page 122

“It’s not a good idea to cast all of your interior monologue in italics.” – Page 127

 “At times, it’s necessary for a narrator to distinguish between what he or she is thinking in the narrative present and what he or she thought at the time of the story.” – Page 130

 “When you describe every bit of action down to the last detail, you give your readers a clear picture of what’s going on but also limit their imagination . . . describing your action too precisely can be as condescending as describing your characters’ emotions. Far better to give your readers some hints and then allow them to fill in the blanks for themselves.” – Page 147

“If you’ve just had two high-tension scenes in a row, let your readers relax a bit in the next one with some quiet conversation interspersed with pauses.” – Page 149

“The simple, purely mechanical change of paragraphing more frequently can make your writing much more engaging.” – Page 162

“When you want to create a more relaxed mood, or give your readers a chance to breath (or reflect), or simple lull them into complacency before you spring something on them, try paragraphing less frequently than usual.” – Page 165

“In formal dialogue, characters often string together four or five complete, well-formed sentences. In real life, few of us get that far without interruption. So break your dialogue up, write in more give-and-take between your characters.” –Page 167

“Brief scenes or even brief chapters can add to your story’s tension, and longer chapters can give it a more leisurely feel.” – Page 171

“When you try to accomplish the same effect twice, the weaker attempt is likely to undermine the power of the stronger one.” – Page 178

 “If you use these constructions often, you weaken your writing:

          “Pulling off her gloves, she turned to face him.” (ing construction)

          “As she pulled off her gloves, she turned to face him.” (as construction)

         – Page 193


“When you use two words, a weak verb and an adverb, to do the work of one strong verb, you dilute your writing and rob it of its potential power.” – Page 198


“A simple departure from conventional comma usage can also lend a modern, sophisticated touch to your fiction—especially your dialogue. All you have to do is string together short sentences with commas instead of separating them with periods.” – Page 199


“There are the stylistic devices that make a writer look insecure, the most notable offenders being exclamation points and italics… they should be reserved for moments when a character is physically shouting or experiencing the mental equivalent.” – Page 200


“There’s another stylistic device whose overuse will brand you as an amateur: flowery, poetic figures of speech, much beloved by beginning writers and used very sparingly by the pros. (i.e. “His eyes were a dark, dark blue, stolen jewels in a setting of bone).” - Page 202

         

 “When it comes to handling sex scenes . . . the subtler stylistic approach will nearly always be the more professional looking choice . . . if you leave the physical details to your readers’ imaginations, they are likely to be far more engaged than if you spell it all out.” – Page 204

“What is true of sexual detail is also true of profanity . . . . profanity has been so overused in past years that nowadays it’s more a sign of a small vocabulary.”
– Page 206

 “A strong, distinctive, authoritative writing voice is something most fiction writers want—and something no editor or teacher can impact . . . voice is, however, something you can bring out of yourself. The trick is to not concentrate on it.” – Page 218

Everything I know about writing, I learned from watching Coronation Street



I’ve been watching Coronation Street on CBC for the last twelve years or so. I’ve turned it on every weekday without fail since the year 2000. I think that Coronation Street and its Canadian fans have been misunderstood. Yes, we are addicted, but we are not crazy. For one, watching the show is relaxing and familiar and a good way to unwind, but I’ve also learned some great lessons about writing from Britain’s longest running TV show (no, really!).

It’s true that yes, the show does veer somewhat over the top at times, but the writers on Corrie know what they’re doing. They continue to impress me with their solid plot development, realistic dialogue and energetic pacing. These strengths take a while to appreciate fully.  You can’t just watch part of an episode and stop because it seems boring, or you can’t understand their accents. (Trust me, you start to totally make sense of those accents within a couple weeks of watching the show. You’ll even be able to pick out the different dialects and you might even find yourself using some of their British aphorisms in your own speech—e.g. “I want nought to do with it! “I’m knackered” or “Cheers mate”).


I’ve heard of people criticizing the writing on the show as being simple, predictable or unexciting. Not true. As a writer myself I can tell you—there is some subtle genius going on in this program. Here are some of the top writing lessons I learned from watching my daily episode of Coronation Street:

  1. Characters need to have dimension. For example, they might start out as a mild-mannered school-teacher who loves to read, but they could be quietly harbouring the urge to have a secret affair with a student and later go on to kidnap the student and hide her in an attic for five weeks, then end up murdering three people pretty much by accident. That kind of dimension.
  2. Never make anything stay too good for too long. A smooth-sailing life is boring to watch or read about. No one wants to follow the lives of characters who are happy, in love or deliriously giddy about their situations. If you ever see someone on Coronation Street exhibiting these symptoms, stay tuned, because something really, really bad is about to happen to them.
  3. Build tension slowly for the best effect. The plot in Coronation Street develops very, very slowly. Storylines are left simmering over many episodes to the point where you can’t stand it anymore. When the resolution finally happens, you usually can’t imagine it having gone any differently.
  4. Interesting things must happen for a story to stay captivating. Yes, it is true that an abnormally high number of the people living on Coronation Street have been on trial for murder, and a great many weddings have been ruined by a shocking revelation, but why not? For someone to want to watch (or read) a story, there must be intriguing situations (and since the show has been on for 50 years, it’s natural that a few of these ideas have been recycled).
  5. There must be climax moments to the story. The climaxes on Coronation Street are extremely fulfilling, usually because they have been building for many weeks (one of the characteristics of the show that make it so addictive). And every so often, you will get a jaw-dropping episode that stands as the climax of the decade—most recently, the tram crash of 2011. These are the moments when the silent power of this show is brought directly into the light for one glorious moment of celebration.

Girl in Shades - The Audiobook!



I recently had the pleasure/bizarre experience of listening to (some of) my first novel, Girl in Shades, read on audiobook. I had been looking forward to this experience ever since I heard the news that my book was going to be released this way, and even had the chance to correspond with the voice-over actress who would be reading it - Marieve Herington (www.marieve.ca).

So first of all, Marieve didn't dissapoint. I am thrilled by the attention she put into reading my book aloud for hours (10 hours, 41 min to be exact, with who knows how many more for outtakes). She was bang-on with the characters and tone and I'm honoured that she made that out of what I wrote.

But I have to say, listening to your own words read aloud, is not unlike listening to your own voice, or watching yourself on video (two things I never do). As I started to listen, I
felt a little bit uncomfortable, like my private, intimate thoughts were being put out for everyone to hear. The words also sounded somehow foreign to me, even though I had memorized each one. This meant that I was given the chance to experience the story I wrote from a totally different angle—giving me a fresh new perspective on my own work (i.e. “geez, this scene is pretty sad,” or “that really is kind of funny!”). However, the act of listening to it also left me teetering between being proud of my work, and being totally embarrassed by it. I found myself hanging on each word, still self-editing, and afraid that the next sentence would reveal a blatant change that was missed (it is after all, hard to ignore these things when heard out loud, that’s why I try to read out everything I write at some point).


I’ve always envied playwrights and their ability to watch their words come alive on the stage. At the same time, I now have insight into how cringe-worthy it might be to actually hear those words coming alive. That said, I’m still so grateful to have had the chance to hear my book in this form. Although, as the author of the words, it seems to be a bit less stressful to connect with readers through the quiet, safe space of the written page ; ).


If you’d like to hear for yourself, you can download the audiobook to your device here: http://www.amazon.com/Girl-in-Shades/dp/B00AME0W66.

Indie Lit Night



I took a three-hour trip out to Waterloo earlier this week (only 1.4 hours on the way home!), to read at the Indie Lit Night presented by Words Worth Books. This fabulous bookstore brought together some of the most fabulous independent publishers in Canada (Coach House Books, ECW Press, House of Anansi & BookThug), for a truly fabulous night. How wonderful it was to read with such a diverse group of authors brought in from these presses. I love that small presses are still bringing truly original and inspired books into the literary arena. I still marvel at how different and unique varying writers' work can be, at the ways that we each express our creativity. And it was also great to meet up with an old friend who was reading as well--Angela Szczepaniak has a fascinating book of conceptual fiction out called The QWERTY Institute. Other readers included: Matthew Henderson, Matthew Tierney, Spencer Gordon, Sarah Pinder, Richard Crouse, Stacey Madden and Pasha Malla. 

Read this for more on the night: 

http://www.theimprint.ca/article/2428-indie-lit-fights-back-at-starlight

Ontario Blog Squad Meet Up--And Me!

This past weekend, I had the honour of being asked to join the 2nd Annual Ontario Blog Squad Meet Up – a gathering of Ontario book bloggers. It was wonderful to be around people who love books so much that they write as many as five reviews every week. Just for the joy of it! My time with the bloggers showed me the power that books still have. It was a celebration of the benefits that reading can bring and an affirmation on the continued relevancy of the written word.

It seems to me that book bloggers and book authors are dealing with a similar craving to write and read. We have to do it to truly live, and for that reason, I felt right at home amongst their sea of excited faces. It was great to sit down and hear their stories and interests. Book bloggers really are on the side of the author, and this is evident in the respectful and thoughtful reviews that they write. It was a wonderful experience to be able to thank them in person for that.


Here's a pic of me talking with a group of bloggers at lunch (I absolutely loved how their eyes lit up when they found a new book they wanted to read! Books are magic!)

Today's the day!

So today is the official release day of my new book In The Body. I feel like this day at least deserves a blog post to commemorate it. I did start this book a decade ago. I did use these stories as a way to get through the everyday trials of life, to express what was going on in my head, to deal with my own fears. It's now time to share these stories with the world. Will people like them? Will they think they are weird or overly quirky? Who knows. Does it matter? No. All that matters is that I wrote them. They are what they are. I'm happy with the stories I've told. They are a part of me and that's all I have to offer.

P.S. I recently had the chance to speak about the book at the Toronto Word on The Street festival. What a great day. I especially liked when it started pouring rain in the middle of my panel and dozens of people were attracted under our tent to try and keep dry. Connect with potential readers any way you can, right? Here's a
photo of me reading at the event.




You Crack Open the Box And....



I recently had the pleasure of experiencing the moment when you open a box and see, for the first time, a shiny new book that you wrote (and believe me folks, this is one beautiful book, thank you ECW Press!). My son Noah took this photo of me holding a copy of IN THE BODY for the first time. Then we had this conversation:

 

“It took your mom ten years to write this book!” I told him.

“Wow, why so long?”

“Well, I wrote it slowly over time. There’s one story in there called Birthday Boy that I wrote when you were a tiny baby, because I loved you so much.“

“What did the Birthday Boy do?”

“Hmmm, well, it’s a story for adults. You can read it when you grow up.”

“Okay. Can I play on the ipad?”

“Yeah, sure.”

 

And as fast as it blew in, my momentous moment of satisfaction was over. But it was most definitely worth the ten years of "work".

Colorado

Like many, I am all-together horrified by the recent shooting in Colorado, and devastated for all the families of the victims. Events like this make me question whether there is any logic in the human experience. Why on earth would people, innocent people, who are just sitting and watching a movie, have to be subjected to the most horrific of acts and many of them (including an innocent 6-year-old girl *tear*), lose their lives when they were doing absolutely nothing wrong. It makes no sense. It’s scary, it’s awful and it makes me seriously question the mental state of the world.

At the same time, I’m shocked by the people online who are instantly damning the accused shooter to the fiery pits of hell. I really feel like the good that can come out of a tragedy like this, is that it provokes us to look at the bigger picture of things, to put things into perspective, to understand each other better. That includes James Holmes. When I watched this young man in court yesterday, I was struck down by an additional wave of sadness. What happened to turn this ambitious kid, promising young med student, into a mass killer? I think we can all agree that something went wrong here. There has to be mental illness, because what he did is not at all a sane thing to do, not something that a balanced person would even think about trying to get away with. Something has changed in him, and it’s not my place to speculate on what that was.


But I can’t help but to be saddened by the thought of a kid, slipping into mental illness without anyone noticing or caring. I’m overcome with emotion by the idea of a mother being woken up in the night to be told that her son (that baby she once cradled, the boy she nurtured) has committed a sickening act and is now despised and damned by an entire country. To me, these tragic stories should be added to the list of tragic stories coming out of this. In my view, there is always  more going on in any given situation than we realize. We all have our list of circumstances that have gone into making us who we are.


It’s easy to say, “Give him the death penalty and we’ll all feel better about this.” That’s the easy way to think, but it doesn’t make me feel any better about the senseless tragedy that has occurred. Maybe I’m weird, but all I keep thinking is that as crazy as it seems, and despite all the evil acts that exist in the world, the fact remains that we are all one. All of us are from the same place whether we like it or not. And it’s only when we realize that fully, when we let go of our pre-conditioned ways of reacting to things, that any changes will come to our human consciousness.

Letting Go...Again.

I have a little bit of a problem with hanging on too tightly to things in life. You know, stuff like plans, perfection, and as it turns out, books I’ve written. Seems like I was just here, but I am about to release yet another of my book babies into the world. In the Body (a book of 12 short stories and a novella) will be available on October 1st from ECW Press. It has taken me a long time to reach this point. I’ve pondered and written these stories over the course of many years. I’ve made countless rounds of revisions based on the feedback of my editors. I’ve done my final read-through of the Advanced Reading Copy and given my final round of edits. Now, I am preparing to let go…or trying to.


Considering my last book only came out last fall, it may look like I had to rush to get this second one into the world. The truth is that the gestation for this book has been even longer than what I had for Girl in Shades. That’s right, some of these stories were written as long as ten years ago. Wow.  I was only 26 years old at that time, I had no kids and in many ways, had no clue about where my “grown up” life would take me. My final read-through of the book brought me through many of those old emotions. In some cases, it brought me nose-to-nose with who I was when these older stories were written, and that was, I admit, a little bit uncomfortable at times.


It’s strange to put yourself back in a stage of insecurity, of unknowing, and re-live it again. I think for this reason, I am more comfortable with the newer stories in the book; they feel more in line with how I think now, who I am. However, I feel so incredibly lucky to have the chance to see all these stories—a virtual time capsule of my life so far—together in one printed book. I’ve spent so much time with them each one-on-one, over many, many years, and together, they have become something else entirely.


So now comes the time when I will let my little stories into world for any one to read and comment upon. This, I have learned, is the most difficult part about writing—it is such an intimate thing to hand over your inner-most-thoughts to strangers—but it also a great opportunity to practice my ability to "just let it all go". I have no control over who will connect with these stories, and who won’t. All I know is that these quirky characters seemed to want me to write about them. And I did. I wrote about them, I dreamt about them, I obsessed about them, and for the most part, it was lovely.


And now, as I let them go, I can shift my attention back to other things. I can enjoy spending time with my kids, and get on with writing my next book. I can do this all while knowing that the stories that have held my attention since 2002, have been completed. That I have expressed what I wanted to express with them, and now they are free. They are free and I am free from them.   

Writers, Read This!

I've been pretty busy lately with work on my next book (which is at the proof read stage, yay!), but I wanted to take a moment to share a great new title that all writers should read.  

There are a lot of books out there that tell you how to write and where to submit your work for publication. There are not a lot of books that give writers insights into how to make sense of the writing life. Work Book by Steven Heighton should be on the shelf of all writers hoping to survive the strange process of letting their work out into the world. 

I loved this book for a number of reasons:

1. It is like a meditation book especially for those who write. Awesome.

2. It helped to put things in perspective, i.e. how to open yourself up to the process of creativity and at the same time being able to handle people actually reading your work.

3. It is unlike any other book on writing that I have ever read.

Here are some sample quotes from the book to show you what I mean...


On the lost art of boredom:


“We have to remember how to invite and receive the words and insights we can’t force to mind. We have to relearn how to muse, drowse and stare into blankness, adrift, dormant, even bored, especially now when our various screens are always present—firewalls between us and the reality of dreams.”


On criticism:


“To listen to critics, pro or con, and take their words to heart is to subcontract your self-esteem to strangers.”


“Aggrieved writer-critics suffer from an understandable illusion: that if they can identify real flaws in the work of another writer, they must be inherently better, smarter, either in what they’ve written already or in what they will surely write someday.”


“There are few critics whose harshest opinions would be tempered, or even reversed, in the wake of their own large-scale success.”


“The writing life’s cruelest irony: the creation of good fiction and poetry requires a life lived with existentially open pores, while handling the public side of a career requires thick skin, a closed carapace.” (*love this one!)


On the writing life:


“The writing life, like life in general, has a sacramental and a secretarial side. As years pass and debts and duties accrue, the secretarial, clerical mode spreads like a lymphoma and starts to squeeze life from the sacramental, creative side.”


“Cast a spell and small flaws don’t matter.”


“Every moment spent in full attention is a moment spent in eternity.”

Recent Comments

  1. Allison on The Best Book About Writing/Editing I've Ever Read
    1/25/2014
  2. Robin Spano on The Best Book About Writing/Editing I've Ever Read
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  3. Deb Mohr on Girl in Shades - The Audiobook!
    1/2/2013
  4. Deb Mohr on Ontario Blog Squad Meet Up--And Me!
    11/15/2012
  5. Deb Mohr on Today's the day!
    10/1/2012
  6. Deb on Letting Go...Again.
    4/15/2012
  7. Allison Baggio on Writers, Read This!
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Recent Posts

  1. The Best Book About Writing/Editing I've Ever Read
    Thursday, January 23, 2014
  2. Everything I know about writing, I learned from watching Coronation Street
    Thursday, January 24, 2013
  3. Girl in Shades - The Audiobook!
    Wednesday, January 02, 2013
  4. Indie Lit Night
    Saturday, November 17, 2012
  5. Ontario Blog Squad Meet Up--And Me!
    Monday, November 05, 2012
  6. Today's the day!
    Tuesday, October 02, 2012
  7. You Crack Open the Box And....
    Tuesday, August 28, 2012
  8. Colorado
    Tuesday, July 24, 2012
  9. Letting Go...Again.
    Sunday, April 15, 2012
  10. Writers, Read This!
    Saturday, March 10, 2012

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