Revising Aloud

Tihamér_Margitay_Exciting_story“Reading aloud,” I’m always telling my writing students, “is the best way to revise.”

I encourage them—sometimes require them—to find read-aloud partners or start writing groups in which they take turns reading their work aloud.

“Hearing your sentences spoken lets you know whether they’re clear and natural-sounding—whether someone actually could speak them,” I explain. “And it doesn’t work to read to an empty room. You need a warm body, a listener, to complete the communication. Speaking is, after all, a collaborative act.”

Finding that read-aloud partner is easy at college, where everyone’s engaged in writing all the time. Outside the college setting, though, finding someone willing to listen can be a challenge.800px-Anker_Sonntagnachmittag_1861 People are busy. Few have time to sit still for an hour while some verbose writer drones on. That’s how they’ll imagine it when you propose reading to them. We Americans have lost—or never had—the habit of listening to people read. We had only the shallowest tradition of serial novels, released chapter by chapter as Dickens’ novels were and read to the whole family at fireside. And no comfy pubs—without blaring TVs—like the one where C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and their writer buddies hung out, drank beer, and read their work to one another. Writers who give public readings these days will tell you it’s hard to get even close friends to attend. Our lives are too busy for read-alouds.

I often recommend to writer friends that they make use of the lonely people in their lives: shut-in relatives, kid-imprisoned friends who wish they had a grownup to talk to, recently retired colleagues with time on their hands. 1280px-Anker-_Die_Andacht_des_Grossvaters_1893It sounds terrible, this “making use” of others, taking advantage of their neediness to assuage your own, but in my experience such mutual exchanges not only helped my writing but also transformed intended acts of mercy—“I should spend more time with my mother-in-law,” I was always telling myself—into pleasurable time together, which we both looked forward to. My mother-in-law not only got longed-for company but also felt needed; I got my warm body but also genuine enjoyment, without having to chide myselfHugo_Bürkner_Lesestunde (usually in vain) to, as Paul recommends, “give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9.7 NRSV). The mutual benefit, I found, guaranteed that cheerfulness, for both of us—because attentive listening and being listened to can’t help but nurture relationships.

My daughter Lulu has been on semester break from college for the past month, with a couple more weeks to go. It’s tricky having a grown daughter home that long. We’ve long since put our Christmas CDs away, but I’m still in the throes of Bing Crosby’s parental prophecy for the season: “And Mom and Dad can hardly wait for school to start again!”

Luckily, Lulu’s engrossed in the final revision stages of her senior project—a hundred-Amédée_Guérard_Bibelstundepage translation of and critical introduction to an East German book—and I’m busy trying to cut 30,000 words from a novel before sending it out, so we have tasks to distract us from the inevitable mother-daughter combat. Also, since we’re in about the same place in our revisions—where what we need most is to hear them aloud and find out if they work—we’ve established a read-aloud schedule: I read her a couple short chapters during her late breakfast, and she reads me one long chapter while I trim vegetables for dinner.

I can’t say it’s the perfect exchange my mother-in-law and I had. Lulu doesn’t end my readings, as my mother-in-law always did, with “That’s the best thing you’ve ever written!” And, as a writer and teacher of writing, I give more critical feedback than Lulu really wants. But our reading fills two hours of our day with mostly pleasurable, mutually beneficial work. More importantly, the listening involved gives us both practice, at this complex juncture of our parental-filial journey, in navigating our new relationship as related but separate adults. As peers, in other words. Equals. Reciprocally heard, appreciated, and loved.

Advertisements

Dumpster or dumpster? Important Editing Skills That You Need to Know

The first time I really became aware of style concerns in a novel is when I read Dumpster, not dumpster, in my book of the week. I think I was in high school or college. Did you know that Dumpster is a proper noun because it is a brand name? Neither did I.

As book authors, you all have to follow specific conventions based on the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS). Even if you are not aware of all of the editing conventions, your editor is, and he or she will call you on them during your revisions.

Here are ten interesting rules that writers of books must follow when using CMS.

  1. Include an ‘s’ to indicate possession after words that end in ‘s’. For example:  Uncle Thomas’s garden produced several large vegetables. Other style manuals indicate that it is okay to not include the last ‘s’, but CMS does not recommend it.
  2. Do not include “scare” quotes. In other words, do not do what I just did. When you include a term that is not really your term or your character’s term, do not include quotation marks around it. Simply write it as is.
  3. CMS prefers a.m. and p.m. So, that means no am, pm, AM, PM, A.M., or P.M.
  4. These are a few of my favorite things. You must use the Oxford comma when writing a list. In other words, if your character is going to the grocery store, he needs to buy milk, eggs, and orange juice. He should not buy milk, eggs and orange juice.
  5. “What about using dialect in my writing?” you may ask. Fortunately, you’re in the clear. CMS specifically states issues of dialect fall outside of the scope of its manual. Still, be consistent in your use of dialect. Also, your editor may have some good tips for writing appropriate dialect. Follow those guidelines.
  6. Spell out numbers zero through one hundred for non-technical documents.
  7. I often see this mistake: When you combine two independent clauses (complete sentences) with a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet,so–FANBOYS is a great way to remember them), always include a comma before your coordinating conjunction. For example: I like cats, and I like dogs. Books are fun to read, but they are not as fun to read as magazines. Note that you would not include a comma if one part of the sentence was not complete: Books are fun to read but not as fun as magazines.
  8. If there is a mistake in the final version of your novel, you are ultimately the one responsible. “In book publishing, the author is finally responsible for the accuracy of a work; most book publishers do not perform fact-checking in any systematic way or expect it of their manuscript editors unless specifically agreed upon up front” (chicagomanualofstyle.org). That said, most of the editors that I know are excellent fact checkers and editors. However, do not assume that just because you have an agent or an editor that he or she will take care of the errors in your book. Take ownership of your work.
  9. If you are writing for a newspaper and you are talking about effective punishment methods for three-year-olds, you might use the word timeout. However, if a character in your novel is throwing a temper tantrum, he or she needs a time-out.
  10. And, finally, although this is not an error that I see too often any more, do not include two spaces after a period. Two spaces used to be necessary because typewriters were not formatted to handle a period followed by a T, for example. The left side of the T would overlap the period. Now, computers handle all of the spacing issues for us, so we do not have to worry about hitting the space bar twice.

Now, let’s put some of your editing skills to work. Find the error. Its nearly impossible:

AAA
BBB
CCC
DDD
EEE
FFF
GGG
HHH

Do you know of any other CMS differences of which writer should be aware?

7 Tips for Self-Editing Your Novel

Before I signed with my awesome agent, Barbara Scott, I knew my novel needed another round of edits. I looked at several freelance editors, but I just couldn’t afford the cost. So, I rolled up my shirt sleeves, prayed, and decided to do it myself. Again.

At this point, I’d already gone through my book for grammatical errors, typos, etc. I’d had a published writer and several beta readers go through it. Three other agents expressed interest if I could go back and make my novel stronger.

Here are the tips I learned that pushed my book from a maybe to yes.

1. Print it out. I fought this (don’t ask me why, my frugalness I suppose, sounds better than stubbornness), but it truly makes a huge difference. Your eye will catch things on the printed page you won’t see on the computer screen.

2. Only edit one thing at a time. Go through your manuscript focusing on one thing at a time. Do a sweep for dialogue. Is there useless chatter? Talking that doesn’t move the story forward? Do you have too many tags? Then go back for description. And so forth.

3. Examine every character. Don’t waste time with cardboard characters or the stereotypical bad guy. I highly recommend Deb Dixon’s Goal Motivation and Conflict.

4. Setting. Regardless if you write historical or contemporary, you need to research your setting. Find some of the not so common places to set your characters in. For example, lots of scenes are in restaurants, change it up and put them on a picnic at some fantastic landmark.

5. Hooks and cliff-hangers. Check out the beginning of every chapter and the ending. What can you do to make it stronger? What could happen that would ensure the reader couldn’t put your book down because they have to know what happens next? Is your heroine being chased by a wolf? Then make it a pack of wolves and have her twist her ankle. Take it a step further and do this to every scene. I recommend James Scott Bell’s Revision and Self-Editing.

6. Description. Remember to include things beyond sight. Let us know how it smells, tastes, feels, and sounds. Is the rain splattering or pounding? Are the hero’s hands calloused or warm? See Frontierinternetservices.com.

7. Wrapping up all the ends. Make sure all the sub-plots and story lines are resolved. You can set things up for a sequel, but you can’t leave things undone. Readers will feel cheated if they have to buy the next book to find out what happens to the main storyline in book one.

What are some of your favorite non-fiction writing books? Do you have any tips or tricks you use when editing?