Saturday, March 1, 2014

Between the Bindings with Gregor Xane

Almost every author that I have asked to be a part of Between the Bindings has argued with me and Gregor was no exception.  They are all so sure that they are the most unqualified person to be giving advice (have you noticed how they all begin in the same sort of way, acting as if they are the last one who should be telling anyone anything?) so I thought I'd take a moment to say what I said to him last night.  

I may not be an author, but I am a writer.  I am currently working on a novel and also a set of short stories having to do with the adventures of two animals that are very close to the  hearts of my family.  Every single one of the authors that have participated in BtB have been helpful to me (and others - the emails I receive are awesome) in some way.  I would rather get advice from someone who is working his/her arse off to follow their dreams, who is learning every day, who is making mistakes, who is a real every day human - then get advice from someone who hasn't had to work as hard.  To me, the best advice comes from these people - and I am proud of the fact that I get to be the one sharing it with my readers.

So, Gregor - I'd take your advice over lots of other people's - and having read what you wrote, I was right when I said that I was sure  you would do an amazing job because you did just that.

So, without further ado - Gregor Xane :) ...

 FinishYour Book: 11 Painful Steps!

How is it that I'm qualified to give anyone writing advice?  I'm not.  At least I don't feel like I am.  I've only got a short story and a novella out there in the world.  I'm hardly a world-weary pro with a huge backlist to point to.  So, the below advice might be most useful to those who haven't ever really finished anything.  I was one of those writers not too long ago.

Step 1: Just write the fucking story (emphasis on story)

Just write it.  Don't talk to your friends about it.  Don't let your spouse read chapters as you go.  Don't worry about the little fiddly bits like commas and spelling and adverbs.  You can fix all that shit later.  Just write the story down.  When it's all done, and you've got a stack of papers piled high on your desk, or a Word document that takes forever to scroll through, lock it away for four to six weeks and work on something else.  This something else can be a short story or that sexy puppet show script you've been thinking about.  The idea is to get so involved with something else that you almost forget about the book you've just written.  You want distance from the thing in order to make the revisions and editing easier to manage.

Step 2: Read it and weep (you've spent a long, long time birthing something ugly and broken into the world)

After you've let the manuscript sit for a while, set aside a day to read through the whole thing (if possible).  Keep a notepad (and tissues) handy to take notes on anything you notice as you go along.  Try to focus on the story as a whole.  Take notes on the macro level issues like plot holes, unnecessary scenes, and extraneous characters.  There will be big problems and you will cry.  But you'll likely notice some sections that you feel are just brilliant.  Feel free to take notes on those scenes as well.

Step 3: Punch the big problems in the teeth

Chop out anything that doesn't serve the story.  This can be whole chapters or characters.  Add scenes that add clarity.  Move scenes around to increase tension.  Plug every plot hole with gravel and tar and dead bodies.

Step 4: Attack every scene

Take the book apart and scrutinize it scene by scene.  It helps me to edit the scenes out of order.  That way I can get a fix on them as short pieces that should be interesting on their own without depending on the book as a whole to prop them up.  Doing a couple editing passes on your scenes out of order also helps you notice continuity errors that you might otherwise miss.  If you have scenes told from different viewpoint characters, you may want to edit in viewpoint character bundles to ensure that the voice of the character is consistent throughout the narrative.

Step 5: Pummel every paragraph

Every paragraph, like every scene, should be designed to get the reader on to the next one.  Cut superfluous words - especially repeated words - and sentences to tighten up your paragraphs.  Re-arrange the order of sentences to better convey chronological action.  Look for sentences that simply restate something that's said in another sentence.  Pick which sentence does it best and kill the other one(s).  Are your paragraphs too long?  Try breaking up your long paragraphs into shorter ones, especially during scenes with a lot of action.  During fight scenes, end paragraphs with the big kicks and punches, and start paragraphs with the parries, the feints, and the bloody lips.

Step 6: Strangle every sentence

Look for the seemingly innocuous passive voice.  Get rid of almost every instance.  Kill adverbs and adjectives.  At least try some sentences without any at all.  You  might like them.  If a strong noun and a compelling verb can carry a sentence, let them do it alone.  Destroy all said-bookisms and unnecessary dialogue tags.  Seek out oft-used phrases and replace them with something fresher or more to the poin.  If you spend a lot of time reworking a sentence and can't get it to work, consider throwing it in the trash.  You'll be surprised to find how often that particular problem sentence can just be removed entirely with zero negative impact.  Check out overreliance on parentheses and dashes.  Be on the lookout for words you didn't know you were in love with and only allow one or two of those special words to remain in your manuscript.  I seem to have a fondness for pockmarked and chitin.  When you discover you have a particular fondness for words like these, you need to tell yourself that only one instance of its use is allowed to survive.  You also need to utterly annihilate any and all instances of unintentional alliteration.  It's distracting and often undercuts your prose with accidental humor.

Step 7: Doubt every word (and everything you think you know)

Read through your manuscript and circle every single word that, if quizzed, you couldn't immediately rattle off its definition with supreme confidence.  Be honest with yourself here.  This is very important.  Circle any word you find where there is any doubt.  Now, look up every single one of these words in at least two sources and make sure you've assigned the right word to the task.  Search for words that should be compound words and join them properly and separate the words you've compounded in error.  If you've invented words, make sure they are spelled consistently throughout.

Step 8: Question every mark (and your sanity)

Be on the lookout for missing quotation marks and sentences that end with double periods.  If you have lines of uninterrupted dialog, make sure they're clipped with a dash and not an ellipsis.  Ellipses should be used when the speaker's trailing off, leaving a thought unfinished.  Seek out every colon, semi-colon and dash.  Eliminate the use of these marks whenever possible.  The impact of these particular punctuation marks increases when used sparingly.  Exclamation points, too, should be rare creatures in your manuscript.

Step 9: Survey every single flipping page until your eyes bleed bloody teardrops

Print out your manuscript (single spaced) and flip through it.  Is there enough white space in the action scenes?  Is there a nice mix of dialogue and longer paragraphs of description?  White space is appealing.  Flipping though a book with a good amount of white space signals to the reader that this could very well be a fast-paced and fun read.  If you notice that you've got page after page of text in italics, you'll want to find a better way of conveying the time shift or the interior thoughts you've italicized.  Reading large amounts of text in italics is exhausting.

Step 10: Willingly hand your book baby over to a group of bullies who will point out all of its flaws

It's okay if you want to hand the thing over to your spouse or your buddy first. But once they're done telling you how absolutely wonderful you are, you need to seek out people who don't care about how wonderful you are. You need to find people who care about good stories, people who know how stories are supposed to work and, most importantly, people who aren't afraid to tell you that your book has problems. Ask them to tell you about things that bored them, things they just didn't believe, and things that confused them. Talk to them about the book. Ask them questions. Make sure they understood the things you wanted the reader to understand. Take notes. Take lots of notes. And keep that box of tissues nearby. But don't despair, because just like evil clowns, good books gain all their strength by drinking tears.

Step 11: Repeat steps 2 through 10 until you just can't take it anymore.

I feel like, when some of you guys write these things, that you're speaking directly to me, like you can see the problems I'm having.  Very well done, Gregor.  You've been more helpful than you can know (and made me laugh quite a few times too).  Thanks for participating in Between the Bindings :)
Until next time, y'all ....


Jason Parent said...

Well said, Gregor!

Gregor Xane said...

Thank you, Mr. Parent.

And thank you Meghan for having me over.

J. D. Brink said...

Sounds like sage (and sado-masochistic) advice! Good job. You've just convinced me to never write another book -- it's too much work! Just kidding. (Mostly.)

Andrew Leon said...

If that was my path, I would have stabbed my eyes out.
I am a fix-it-as-you-go kind of guy, which I realize is a rarity, but that's how I do it.

Andrew Leon said...

(I don't remember arguing with you.)

Meghan H said...

Haha you might not have. You are very full of information all the time :)