Those Blue Pencil Blues

What’s that about a blue pencil? It’s the traditional implement of editors, dating from the days of paper manuscripts. Yes, I’m dealing with editing today—your editing.

That’s right. You must edit your own work before submitting it. Attack it with all the dispassionate, ruthless vigor you can. Hack, cut, and tweak until you fashion it into a story that makes you proud. Only that will make it publishable.

I’ve discussed editing before, but have learned more since then. I read the book Getting the Words Right, 39 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Theodore A. Rees Cheney, and recommend it as a great rulebook for editing. The folks at The Write Life blogged about 25 tips for editing, then put those tips into a handy checklist form.

That checklist contains many items that aren’t problems for me and left out things that are, and that got me thinking how editing is an individual thing. Each of us has our own quirky flaws and our own strengths. Any checklist I develop must be different from yours. And also ever-changing, as we discover new things to beware of.

Moreover, the ordering of items in that online checklist bothered me. I sought a checklist that started with the big, story-shaping editing aspect, and proceeded to the fine-tuning parts of editing.

Anita Mumm wrote a post describing the four different phases of editing. Developmental Editing refers to the big stuff, including whole sections and scenes, overall style and tone, major characters, plot arcs, etc. Line Editing is all about tackling the paragraphs and sentences, improving their structure and flow, making the work more readable. Copy Editing focuses on punctuation, grammar, and word use. Proofreading is the last check for anything missed in previous edits, and works best when you read your story aloud.

Here’s my editing checklist, provided as a starter for you to modify, altering and tuning it to your needs. I’ve divided it into the four types of editing, and it contains items I’ve found useful for my short stories. Each phase of editing works best when some time has elapsed since you wrote your first draft, ideally weeks or even months. That provides the right emotional distance for a critical editing job.

Developmental Editing

  • Choose the best voice for telling the story (first-person or third, close or omniscient)
  • Choose the best POV character
  • Endure main characters are appealing, relatable, 3-dimensional, not stereotyped
  • Ensure each main character has a motivation, a goal, an external or internal conflict, and an epiphany
  • Ensure secondary characters are necessary, and still secondary. Should one be promoted to lead?
  • Ensure scenes are in the best order for telling the story
  • Cut unnecessary sections or scenes
  • Ensure each section is about one thing
  • Maintain a single tone and style
  • Fill plot holes
  • Fix story threads that go nowhere
  • Pace the action and create tension where appropriate

Line Editing

  • Craft an irresistible hook
  • Make sure sentences vary in length and structure
  • Ensure each word in a sentence has a purpose
  • Phrase things positively
  • Chose simple words, the precise words needed
  • Use strong verbs in place of was/is/has/be/etc.
  • Phrase sentences in active voice
  • Introduce each scene to orient the reader to characters and setting
  • Put the reader in the scene by reaching all five senses
  • Sprinkle setting descriptions throughout scenes, with the right details
  • In each scene, ensure all the dialoguing characters want something
  • Let the reader know what the POV character is feeling and thinking
  • Ensure characters react to what other characters say and do
  • Use appropriate and distinct character dialogue, but don’t overdue accents
  • Don’t shy away from “said,” but have characters do things while talking
  • Find new ways to word your favorite, overused words and phrases
  • Delete or twist clichés
  • End each section with a cliff-hangar
  • Transition logically and smoothly between paragraphs and sections
  • Use, but don’t overuse, repetition for emphasis

Copy Editing

  • Use “that” and “which” appropriately
  • Delete “that” when you can
  • Use commas and periods correctly in dialogue
  • Make each adverb earn its place
  • Select the correct word (further/farther, continuous/continual, nauseous/nauseated, etc.)
  • Find and correct the misspellings the spell-checker missed

Proofreading

  • Read the story out loud
  • Correct anything that trips you up, throws you out of the story, or sounds odd

Feel free to steal my list and modify it to suit you. Delete things that aren’t problems for you. Add items that your critique group and other editors have commented on in your work. Now you know the one with the cure for those low-down blue pencil blues; it’s—

Poseidon’s Scribe

P&E Readers Poll Results

The folks at Critters.org have announced the final results of the Preditors & Editors Readers Poll for the most popular fiction of 2016.

My story, “After the Martianstied for third (with two other stories) out of thirty-nine entries in the Science Fiction short story category. That’s wonderful! The story earned a Top Ten Finisher emblem, and it ended up in the top eight percent of the entries.

Thanks to everyone who voted for my story.

The anthology In a Cat’s Eye (in which my story “The Cats of Nerio-3” appears) didn’t do as well, placing seventeenth out of sixty in the Anthology category. Still, that’s in the top third of many, many entries. Thanks also to those who cast a vote for that anthology.

You readers did me a great honor by voting. Now I need to get busy, working to ensure the best fiction of 2017 gets written by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

5 Rules for Writing Humor Right

You may think it’s difficult to write funny stories, but the truth is it’s excruciatingly agonizing. Also, if you endure all that pain and get the humor wrong, readers will laugh at you (and your mismatched clothes and uncombed hair) rather than at your story.

Since humorous writing is so tough to get right, why don’t we forget the whole thing? For one, if we can manage to tell a funny story, readers like it. An amusing tale lifts them from the gloomy tedium of their dreary lives, the poor things. Think of it as a public service, kind of a ‘clown-author saves the world’ idea.

I know, I know. I hear you saying, “But, Steve, I write serious fiction. I don’t need to know how to write humor.” Okay, surf elsewhere if you want. But you really should spice up your “serious fiction” with occasional bursts of frivolity, if only to break up the interminable stretches of seriousity.

For those still reading this, I’m about to reveal my five simple rules for writing humor. Well, they’re not that simple, and aren’t actually rules, but at least they do total up to five. To develop them, I scoured the Internet (and it needed a good scouring). Then I spent literally lots of minutes searching for good advice on writing humor. I found that good advice from Brian A. Klems, Joe Bunting, Annie Binns, and Joe Bunting again. While blindfolded, I then chose only the choicest rules, right up until I got tired. After five. Here they are:

1. Maintain the elephant of surprise. Take common sayings or clichés and tie them in knots. Go in directions the reader doesn’t expect.

B. Dare to ask why pants come in pairs. Start with the ordinary, the mundane, the familiar, and the everyday, then find some weird aspect about it all. Look at it from a bizarre angle. Drive your reader to that vantage and invite her to look, too. (Note, “Hey, Babe, let me drive you to my bizarre-angled vantage to look at my weird aspect” is not a recommended pick-up line. Ever. It’s a metaphor.)

III. It’s still legal to discriminate against words. Choose words carefully. Unearth a thesaurus and examine its guts. Select specific words, not general ones. Seek words that sound humorous when juxtaposed. (I think the word ‘juxtaposed’ is kinda funny all by itself.)

Four. It’s a story, not a routine. When a comedian performs a stand-up routine, he feels free to change topics several times. You can’t do that. Your story must hang together as an integral whole, not consist of disconnected jokes. I blogged once about how some movies do that well and some do it poorly.

7. No, sorry—5. Wait for it… Structure your sentences so the last words have the most impact. Ideally, the joke is in the very last word. Develop a comedic sense of timing so that you’re not rushing to get to that ending punch. Let your sentences roll along, lulling the reader, and then swing your sledgehammer. (Metaphor again.)

If you study those five rules carefully, I can guarantee that…well, that you’ve studied them carefully. You’re going to need a lot of practice to actually write funny stories, and so will—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Last Chance, the Final Day to Vote

You meant to vote in the Preditors & Editors Readers Poll, you really did. But time slipped away and you kinda forgot.

Wait! It’s not too late! There is still time to vote, if you do it now. You can vote for my stories, or you can vote for those of another author. It doesn’t matter. Just vote!

Of course, I’d be grateful if you’d cast a vote for my story “After the Martians” in the Science Fiction Short Story category, and for the anthology In a Cat’s Eye, in the Anthology category. My story “The Cats of Nerio-3” appears in that delightful anthology.

According to the latest vote count, “After the Martians” is fifth out of thirty-seven, and In a Cat’s Eye is tied for  thirteenth out of sixty. Let’s vote them each up to number one!

Since you’re almost out of time, click on any of the links or pictures in this post and vote. If it seems confusing, see the more explanatory instructions here.

You can stop reading this post, because this is not the time for reading. This is the time to vote for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Should You Enter Writing Contests?

You’ve heard there are writing contests out there. Wouldn’t it be great to win one? Should you devote time, energy, and possibly some money, to enter one or more of them? Let’s explore these questions.

What’s in it for you?

If you win, you get whatever prize the contest offers, generally a monetary prize. Some contests publish the winning entries. Also, there’s the prestige of being a contest winner. You’re “an award-winning author.” You can cite that contest among your achievements. When you submit stories for publication, you can mention in your cover letter that one of your tales won the XYZ Writing Contest.

Some contests offer second and third prizes that carry their own prestige too.

If you lose the contest, you also lose the entry fee you paid, if any. You may also experience a brief moment of disappointment, dejection, etc. This should be brief; you shouldn’t have your heart set on winning a contest. Losing should prompt no more than a fleeting twinge of sadness before you move on with life.

How do contests work?

Say you wanted to set up a writing contest yourself. How would you do it? You’d make sure you had prize money (or whatever type of prize you were going to offer) available. You’d advertise your contest, specifying the rules about how to enter, genre(s), submission guidelines, submission fees, any other restrictions, etc.

You’d assemble a panel of judges, people with demonstrated writing skills or other literary credentials, people you trust, who are willing to wade through numerous submissions. Realize these are people, not angels. They have biases, pet peeves, favorite styles, etc.

You have to decide whether to charge a fee for submissions. If your prize money comes from a giant pile o’ cash you have sitting around, you might not need to charge for entry. However, you might consider charging a fee (1) if there is no giant pile o’ cash, (2) if you can’t seem to lure the judges you want without paying them something, or (3) if you anticipate a tsunami-type volume of entries and need a way to limit them.

(There’s one other, less high-minded, reason you might charge a fee. If your motivation is not so much about finding and promoting undiscovered writers, but is more about swindling gullible rubes, you’d definitely require a fee for submissions and disguise your contest as legitimate.)

Lastly, you’d set up some way to have the judges review the submissions and render a judgement. You could set up some sort of voting mechanism; you could have stages of reviews where not all the first stage judges read every submission but only a subset. You could structure it in any of several ways.

That’s what you’d do if you were setting up your own writing contest, right? That’s pretty much how it happens.

How do you win?

Yeah…about that. If I knew a precise, never-fail method for winning contests, I wouldn’t be wasting time writing blog posts. Let’s restate that question as “How do you increase your odds of winning?”

Mathematically, if every submission had an equal chance, your odds would be one out of the number of entries. Like a well-run lottery, someone’s going to win, and it might be you.

However, the submissions don’t all have an equal chance, and you want to make yours rise above the rest. (In a scam contest run mainly to exploit vulnerable writers, you need to be a friend or relative of the main judge.)

For a legitimate contest, the way to increase your odds of winning is to (1) strictly observe all the contest rules for entering, and (2) follow all the same rules of story writing as you would if you were submitting to an editor for publication. Regarding (2), those story-writing rules consist of all the same advice I’ve been giving for years in this blog: strong and endearing main characters, high-stakes conflict, vivid setting, logical and well-paced plot, distinctive style and voice, etc.

Should you enter?

Obviously, it’s a question that depends on (1) whether you think a particular contest might be a scam, (2) whether there’s an entry fee, and if so, whether you’re willing to pay it, and (3) whether you have a story that meets the contest’s rules, and other factors specific to the situation. You’ll have to answer this one yourself.

One more thing…

Oh, yeah, while you’ve got contests on your mind, don’t forget to vote for my story “After the Martians” and the book In a Cat’s Eye in the Preditors & Editors poll, in the Science Fiction Short Story and Anthology categories, respectively. The voting period closes on January 14th. See the instructions in last week’s blog post.

Whether you enter a contest or not, at least you’ll make your choice armed with a complete knowledge of the opinions of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

It’s 2017; What’s Your Favorite Story from 2016?

<Clink!> ~kazoo blast~ Happy New Year! Yes, the ol’ Earth made it one more time around its elliptical orbit to a particular, and arbitrary, point. Let’s party!

I know a productive way you could begin 2017. You could click over to the Critters Writers Workshop site and vote in their annual Preditors & Editors Poll for your favorite books published during 2016.

The poll includes a variety of categories. Although it’s not a scientific poll, winning it gives the fortunate author some bragging rights, and even making it to the top ten is an honor.

You could (ahem) even vote for two of my stories. One of them, After the Martians,” is in the Science Fiction & Fantasy Short Story category. In the Anthologies category, the book In a Cat’s Eye contains my story “The Cats of Nerio-3.” The links in this paragraph and the book cover images open a new tab taking you straight to the correct poll category to vote.

To vote, click the button beside your favorite story’s (or anthology’s) title, then enter your name and e-mail address, then scroll to the bottom where you’ll see the image of a book’s cover (not mine). Type the author’s name of that book in the box to prove you’re not a spam robot. You’ll receive an e-mail to confirm your vote; just click the link in the e-mail and you’re done. Please vote before January 14, when they close the polling.

Recently, In a Cat’s Eye received a five-star review on Amazon by Katherine A. Lashley. She singled out “The Cats of Nerio-3” as one of her favorites in the book, saying it “does an amazing job in exploring the future of humans, artificial intelligence, and cats.” Thank you very much, Katherine!

If you haven’t read “After the Martians” or In a Cat’s Eye, you can still vote for them in the Preditors & Editors poll, but I also recommend reading them. Whether you vote for my stories or those written by others, I thank you for supporting authors. We value any scrap of appreciation thrown our way. Take it from—

                                                  Poseidon’s Scribe