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The Still Small Voice of Doom: feeling flaky about your MS

I finished my MS the other day. I tend to edit as I go, so it was fairly clean. Everything had gone as per the synopsis. And I’d finished early. Yay! (I have four deadlines this year, I need to get on).

I told Mr KJC I’d reached The End. He said, “So have you sent it to the editor?” I said, No, I’ll send it to beta readers first. He said, “Well, have you sent it to them?” I said, Not yet. I’ll do that now.

I sent it to my beta readers. I twitched. I fretted.

Mr KJC said, “Why are you fretting?” I said, I’m not fretting.

Mr KJC said, “Why don’t just you send it to the editor, whose job it is to read your MS?” I said, I want to do some pre flight checks. Make sure the timeline’s okay. See if the readers spot anything.

Mr KJC said, “I’m pretty sure editors do that. I’ve been married to an editor for a decade, I know this.” I said, Yes, well, it’s my first book with a new publisher. I’m just being tidy.

Mr KJC said, “Are you wanting to make sure Teacher doesn’t tell you off?” I suggested he might shut up.

Then one of my beta readers texted me and said she liked it but wasn’t sure how the ending fitted the story. And I nodded and went about my business doing other things, and three days after that, I sat at my desk and said aloud, “Of course it doesn’t bloody work.”

It didn’t work. It didn’t work (since you ask) because it was making a big dramatic number out of an insufficiently significant plot strand, because it didn’t weave in the other main plot strands, because it ignored the Big Massive Existing Threat that touches on the entire cast of the whole trilogy in favour of a small localised threat that actually the heroes had already confronted successfully. It was, structurally, crap.

And I knew it.

That’s why I was finding all kinds of reasons not to do what you do with a finished MS, i.e. send it to the editor. Because it wasn’t finished, and I knew it wasn’t finished, but I had typed The End and I wanted it to be finished, and so I was ignoring the Voice.

You know the Voice. The one in your head quietly going, um, not really sure that’s…hey, aren’t you just jamming that in…what about that abandoned strand…are you sure that fits there? The one that niggles at that one little line every time you pass over it: are you just going to let this sit here? The one that is soft and mild and persistent and will not go away.

I’m not talking about the grating voice that says You can’t write books, who do you think you are? and Why aren’t you doing something better and more important, you loser? I mean the persistent little niggling wobbly-loose-tooth Voice that you don’t even really notice, except that you keep telling yourself, Sure the ending’s fine and Yeah, I can retcon it, build it up in editing and Well, it’s just a different sort of plot structure, that’s all, and That’s just a detail, tidy it up later.

The Voice talked to me a lot during the doomed first version of Magpie 3 where I ended up dumping 30K words. Hello, old friend, we meet again.

Thing is, though, the Voice knows its business. The ending was wrong, sure. But when I went over the MS and picked up the other little tiny points that the Voice had been niggling and nibbling and chewing at all along, they slotted together like jigsaw pieces to form a picture of a better ending. One that ties in the key themes to become proportionate and relevant, and which will do a hell of a lot more towards the two linked books. It’s pretty obvious this should have been the ending all along (duh), and the Voice was itching at me to see that, but I had an apparently perfectly good synopsis and a deadline, so I ignored it. More fool me.

One day I will listen to the Voice while I’m writing, rather than before I reach the end of the draft. One day. Meanwhile, the following:

  • If you’re feeling niggled at while you write, find a trusty beta reader to read the incomplete MS. That will help keep you on track and it’s always useful to have people’s thoughts on where the story is going.
  • Small pointless details that niggle at you are probably not small and pointless after all. Listen to your subconscious.
  • We all feel that this is the worst MS ever at some point. Ignore that feeling. But if you keep on thinking about/circling round/justifying something to yourself, especially if it’s specific rather than general self-doubt, you might as well face up to it now.
  • If you’re actively finding reasons not to send a finished MS off, it’s time to go hunting for the bits that made the voice say, Ummm…
  • Editors can fix this stuff. If you have an in-house editor, ask for help. If not, and you can stump up for a development editor, that’s what we do. Even if we’re not, apparently, fantastic at doing it for ourselves.

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KJ Charles is rewriting. Jackdaw is out on 17 February.

If you stop running, you fall.jackdaw small

Jonah Pastern is a magician, a liar, a windwalker, a professional thief…and for six months, he was the love of police constable Ben Spenser’s life. Until his betrayal left Ben jailed, ruined, alone, and looking for revenge.

Ben is determined to make Jonah pay. But he can’t seem to forget what they once shared, and Jonah refuses to let him. Soon Ben is entangled in Jonah’s chaotic existence all over again, and they’re running together—from the police, the justiciary, and some dangerous people with a lethal grudge against them.

Threatened on all sides by betrayals, secrets, and the laws of the land, can they find a way to live and love before the past catches up with them?

This story is set in the world of the Charm of Magpies series.

Self Editing Tips: Line edits

As I said last week, self editing is no substitute for real editing. If you are self publishing and intend to charge for your work, you should hire a professional editor. I am well aware this can run to significant money, which most of us don’t have to spare. But a lot of the readers stumping up $5 a copy don’t have it to spare either, will resent spending it on a poorly edited or unsatisfactory read, and will be likely to review/make future buying decisions accordingly.

So it makes sense to reduce editorial costs by getting your MS into better shape before you send. I blogged previously on how to have a crack at your own development edits; now we move on to line edits. (Some of this stuff should probably have gone in the development edits blog post, but whatever, it’s here.)

Before we begin: An excellent general tip is to read your MS aloud. You will be amazed how much you’ll spot if you read it out loud–echoes, infelicities, typos, unclear sentences. It takes a while, and may require a solitary room/waiting till the kids’ bedtime, but it’s really worth it. Or, less good but still valuable, read it in a different format. Print it out, or send it to your ereader instead of reading on computer screen. That will defamiliarise the text and allow you to see things that your eyes are used to skimming over.

I have blogged on a lot of these issues before so rather than repeat myself I’ll just link where appropriate.

Speech tags

Small things, big problem. Blog post here. To summarise:

  • Don’t use thesaurus words (opined, declared, asseverated, proclaimed) when you mean ‘said’.
  • Don’t use dramatic speech verbs (snarled, snapped) if you haven’t written a snarly or snappy line. If you have, check you need the verb.
  • Don’t use non-speech verbs (nodded, hesitated, smiled) as speech verbs. I will hurt you. (Exception, as always: funny writing, eg ‘he oiled’ or ‘she oozed’. But do it consciously.)
  • Don’t overload with unnecessary speech verbs of any kind. You don’t need to tag every line and you can use action to vary the style.

‘Said’ is often called an invisible verb but it can still make its presence felt too strongly, and it is certainly worth taking out when it isn’t doing anything useful. Compare:

“Well, I hope it’s not as boring as the last luncheon,” Stephen said, snuggling down into the bed.

“Well, I hope it’s not as boring as the last luncheon.” Stephen snuggled down into the bed.

‘Said’ is useless there. However, that does not mean you should mark all dialogue with action. That’s agonising.

“I mean, look at this.” The purple-haired editor reached for her pen.

The aspiring writer drummed her fingers on the table.“What do you want me to do, use ‘she nodded’?”

“So help me God, if I see ‘nod’ as a speech verb again…” The editor’s face betrayed her rage and pain.

The writer’s foot was going to sleep. “Is it me or is this conversation taking forever?”

While I’m at it: Please make sure you know how to punctuate speech. I am appalled how many writers get this consistently wrong. It’s time-consuming for an editor to tidy up, and that’s a pure waste of your money.

“My name is Jim.” The man picked up his cup.
=>   Two sentences. First sentence ends inside the quote marks.

“My name is Jim,” the man said.
=>  One sentence. Speech ends inside quotes, sentence goes on.

And, by analogy:

“What’s your name?” The man picked up his cup.
=>   Two sentences. First sentence ends inside the quote marks.

“What’s your name?” the man asked.
=>  One sentence. Speech ends inside quotes, sentence goes on.

Pretty straightforward, but if I had a quid for every

“What’s your name?” the man picked up his cup.

“My name is Jim.” The man said.

that I’ve had to fix, I’d be writing this from a beach. Quite seriously, there are more valuable things you can pay a skilled editor to do than insert and remove capital letters.

Names and pronouns

This one is a bugbear of queer romance in particular: the Big Old Mess Of Pronouns.

pronouns

Don’t ask me for answers. Just look out for it. Remember that the reader will probably link any pronoun back to the previous noun, so if your viewpoint character is Jonah, but the last referent was Ben, Ben’s likely who the pronoun will be stuck to.

It’s tempting to use metonyms like ‘the smaller man’, ‘the blond’ etc in place of names, but this can become obvious and jarring. If doing this, make them earn their place. ‘The smaller man’ is pointless words, but if you frame it as ‘the evasive little bastard’ that gives us a flavour of the POV character’s thoughts. (Again: can easily be overdone.)

Sex scenes

People quite often seem to write these at white heat with a bottle at the elbow, resulting in heavy edits, and nobody likes getting them back full of red pen. Edit them yourself, in sobriety, or you’ll be cringing till your backbone snaps.

This is probably one for its own blog post since every scene has its own demands and every writer her own stylistic issues. Play it out in your head, though, remembering your characters’ relative height, weight and position, to double check that all the bits line up. If you’re using metaphors or euphemisms, keep them under control, and consider that if people actually want to read sex at all, they can probably cope with something a bit more plain-spoken than ‘her intimate dewy petals’.

(While I’m here, can I make a plea for physical plausibility? Limitless priaprism and receptivity in standard-issue humans is just silly, and unintentional silliness kills sexiness dead. As does the reader thinking words like ‘stinging’ and ‘tearing’ and ‘yeast infection’. Do you want your editor to leave comment boxes about this? No, I didn’t think so.)

Metaphors

Look at what your metaphors are doing and don’t pile up inconsistent ones. Thus: if you talk about a character moving with feline or snakelike grace, don’t give him ‘barked’ or ‘growled’ as a speech verb in the same paragraph. If a character has cutting wit in one line, don’t have him asking rapid-fire questions or hammering his point home in the next.

Point of view

If you are directly telling me what a character is feeling/seeing etc, you are in his POV. If you switch to another POV in the same paragraph/scene, you are head hopping, which is jarring for the reader and will cost you a lot of editorial time to fix.

pov

Never, ever, ever switch mid-para like the first example. Never.

Control switching, think about it, and preferably wait for a scene break before switching heads. This isn’t just style guide prescriptiveness. In a good scene of any kind, the reader should be immersed in the story via the POV character. When you switch POV, you jolt the reader out of the immersion, like a train switching tracks, and if you do it badly (so that the reader doesn’t realise you’ve switched heads for a few lines and the action makes no sense), that makes the transition even more distracting. It draws the reader’s attention to the fact that she’s reading a book–which is what you want her to forget.

So if you absolutely must switch POV mid-scene (think carefully about why you need to), at the very least put in a clear line break and do the switch at a significant mid-scene cliffhanger. Multiple switches in a single scene are a really bad idea. And I would be incredibly cautious about switching at all in any intense scene (sex, violence, deep dramatic emotion), when you need the reader totally immersed in the story.

More on POV here.

Repetition

A chronic problem and surprisingly hard to see until the book is published, at which point it might as well be in highlighter. Blog post here to avoid, uh, repeating myself.

Continuity

It is a very good idea to keep a list of your characters’ names, physical appearance and quirks, names of businesses/imaginary places, and all those other things. You can waste a lot of everyone’s time randoming whether your heroine’s cutesy business is the Donut Palace, the Doughnut Palace or The Doughnut Palace, or if her sister is Lucy or Lucie, and it’s always embarrassing to discover that you called two other minor characters Lucille and Lucian in the same book.

Pacing

Another one that I can’t summarise here. I will say this: if you find yourself skimming through a stretch of description or a conversation, I expect the reader will too. If your characters are wailing, “Do we have to go over this again?”, ditto. Take your own responses as a guide and see if you can trim or tighten.

Good habits

If you need to cut down editorial costs, sweat the small stuff. Get into the habit of doing things properly. Take, for example, the dash.

  • Train yourself to type an em dash/double hyphen instead of using a hyphen or spaced hyphen or whatever.
  • If you’re not sure about how to use em dashes, find a style guide, print out a list, and keep checking it till it’s second nature. Thus, part of yours might read:

Em dash for hesitation, no space “I think–regrettably–you’re right.”

Em dash with space if new sentence “I think– What’s that over there?”

Em dash outside quotes, no cap or full stop, if interrupting “I think”–he handed her a bun–“it’s teatime.”

I know this is tiresome–I’m currently training myself to use double quotes instead of my habitual single, and I resent it bitterly–but if you follow a style sheet and type things like em dashes correctly in the first place, rather than scattering inconsistently spaced hyphens around the text and needing all your broken speech tidied up, you will save editorial time, which is to say, your money.

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This post just scratches the surface, and doesn’t go anywhere near what an edit should pick up about blocking, pace, length, unconscious prejudice (it happens), character consistency in speech and behaviour, etc etc. But if you want a professional product without breaking the bank, sorting out what you can yourself should cut down considerably on your editorial costs.

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KJ Charles is a freelance editor and Rainbow Award-winning romance writer who has made most of the above mistakes, so I know how you feel.

Self Editing Tips: Development edits

Self editing is no substitute for real editing. End of. It is not the case that you can do it yourself (I’m an editor and I can’t do my books myself), and your friend who reads a lot isn’t qualified to do it either. If you are self publishing and want to build a reputation or charge for your work, get an editor.

That said, I’m sure you don’t have hundreds of dollars stuffed down the back of the chair, and sums like $45/hour for line edits look pretty scary with no guarantee anyone will buy your book. So it’s a good idea to cover what you can yourself before it goes to the editor, instead of paying someone to do grunt work. And if you’re planning to submit to a publisher, it’s an excellent idea to make sure your MS isn’t full of obvious holes.

So here are some ways you can start to whip your MS into shape. (Again: this is not a substitute for a professional edit.) This is a pretty big topic so I’m going to do two blog posts covering the basics. Today, development edits; look out for line edits next week. Some of this is stuff I’ve blogged on already, so I’ve given links.

Beta readers and crit partners

A strong beta reader/crit partner is invaluable. Strong means someone who likes the genre, or is happy to read in it, but who will be honest with you about the book’s flaws. This is incredibly hard to do. This person may be your friend or relative, they may be about to send you their MS, they probably don’t want to hurt your feelings. It may be easier to find a partner from across the internet, to avoid the face to face difficulty.

You must make it clear that they should be honest. That requires the following from you:

  • Actively ask for what they didn’t like, not what they did. People want to give you positives. Ask for the negatives.
  • Take criticism on the chin. Don’t argue. Don’t say ‘You didn’t get it.’ Don’t say ‘You’re wrong.’ Don’t show your inevitable hurt feelings.
  • Even if they’re wrong in specifics or have blatantly misread, they’ve probably identified a problem. Don’t just reject without thinking.
  • Thank them for their honesty, and mean it. You should.

Again: No tantrums. If you can’t handle criticism from a beta reader, you’re going to die when the reviews kick in. You might as well cut out the middleman and have a huge social media meltdown right now.

Here are some of the questions to ask your reader:

  • Were you bored/did it drag? Where?
  • Does the plot make sense? Any holes?
  • Are the characters consistent?
  • Was anyone too stupid to live, or obviously serving the needs of the plot?
  • What didn’t you get?

I gave my ‘troubled’ first version of Flight of Magpies to two readers. They both – politely, lovingly, reluctantly – said, ‘It’s boring, there’s not enough plot.’ It hurt. It hurt so much I junked 30K words and started again. It would have hurt a lot more if I’d released a substandard book and heard ‘It’s boring, there’s not enough plot,’ on every review blog, and spoiled my beloved series with a crappy instalment that I could never get rid of.

Warning: There are people who take joy in slagging off other people’s work and relish finding clever ways to explain just how bad you were. That’s what Goodreads is for, not beta reads. If the response is all hilarious similes to convey how stupid/boring/confusing that bit was, close the email right there, thank them nicely for their time, and don’t ever ask them again. And when you’re taking your turn at beta reading, don’t be that person.

Structure

It’s hard to look at your own book’s structure but here are some tips.

Write a synopsis from scratch. If you have a glaring plot hole, you may well find it here. If you’re writing all about the adventure plot and nothing about the progress of the relationship, that’s a red flag for a romance. If it’s all ‘And then…’ rather than ‘But then’, if it’s a sequence of events rather than reversals and changes, that may suggest a too-simple narrative line.

Look at your romance arc. (If you’re not writing romance, there will be a similar list of questions for any genre fiction, eg your mystery or adventure arc.)

  • Is the book about internal conflict (problems between the two MCs) or external conflict (homophobic boss/evil ex/zombie incursion) or both?
  • If internal, is there enough of a plot arc and character development to show change and the overcoming of obstacles and the growth of the characters?
  • If external, are you relying entirely on those factors to create the obstacles? Are we still seeing romantic growth and tension?
  • If you use instalove, how are you maintaining satisfactory tension between the characters throughout the book?
  • Have you got a black moment? Even in a sweet relationship comedy, the relationship should rise and fall and rise. No obstacles=no plot.
  • Ensure it’s a shifting conflict – not the same point gone over and over again till one of them gives way.

Check things are going badly. It may be kind to the characters to let them off the hook, have them discuss all their issues sensibly or make everyone around them lovingly understanding, but it makes for a pretty boring book.

Are your hero/ines agents? Are they always reactive/helpless, or do they take agency? That doesn’t mean they should always be in charge: the story should flow from the characters’ flaws and weaknesses as well as their strengths, and obstacles easily overcome aren’t interesting. But we need to see how the MCs’ actions and responses change their situation, for good or ill.

Is enough stuff happening? Pages of banter that don’t advance the plot are a great deal more entertaining for the writer than the reader. Are we moving forward along some arc in every scene, whether action or emotion?

Have you woven in your backstory rather than infodumping?

Time lines

Keep track of ‘that morning’ and ‘three days later’. If you’re doing anything remotely complicated, or if this is a bugbear, I strongly recommend you invest in Aeon Timeline ($40, which is less than the editorial fee for unbuggering your dog’s breakfast of a timeline) or similar software. This allows you to track your timeline, check that it really is a Wednesday, and get character ages and ‘two months ago’ right every time.

Make sure that days have 24 hours and come one after another in chronological progression. Some real examples I have seen/perpetrated:

  • A dramatic ghost hunting scene taking place in the morning includes references to the dark and the moon because, you know, scary things happen at night.
  • All the action is happening on successive nights. The days somehow evaporate.
  • The heroine leaves work on a Saturday night and flees through a busy crowd of commuters heading to work the next morning which is, er, Sunday.
  • Our heroes cover 25 miles on foot between 7am and 10am.
  • Book set in England. Hero is jailed in February. He is released six months later and weeps at the daffodils in bloom, as well he might. (I can’t tell you how often this happens. CHECK. YOUR. FLOWERS.)

Read scenes for action

This is almost impossible to do yourself, because you know what ought to be happening. Try to play the scene as a film in your head.

  • See the hero get out of bed naked, have a screaming row with the heroine, and storm off to ride away on his motorbike without actually dressing!
  • Gasp as the heroine gets up three times without sitting down once!
  • Marvel as the villain stubs out a cigarette she never lit, then lights another one which she never smokes or stubs out before lighting the third!

Sex

Are the sex scenes serving the plot? Does each advance character development, our or their understanding, the emotional progress, or the plot action? If the sex scene doesn’t take us somewhere new, it’s porn, and it’s skippable. Yes, this applies even if you’re writing erotica. In a good book, each one should count.

Don’t place heat over character consistency. There is no point writing a shy, repressed virgin with a touch phobia and then having him bottom like a porn star first time.

Run the mental film to ensure limbs/orifices are in the right places. If his tongue is there, he’s going to require a spine made of Silly Putty to get his genitalia there. And how many hands is that?

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This is only really scratching the surface of what a good development edit can do. You will almost certainly not be able to identify the bits where, eg, the story comes to a dead stop because of the brilliantly witty but pointless conversation between two beloved secondary characters, or you totally missed an obvious course of action that destroys your carefully worked out plot, or your carefully laid clues turn out to be undetectably obscure/glaringly obvious, or two scenes are simply in the wrong order for the emotional arc. This is why you need an editor. But she’ll have a chance to see the wood for the trees, and more cheaply, if you clear the undergrowth first.

Next week: some hints on clearing up for line edits.

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KJ Charles is a writer and, no kidding, freelance editor. Will beat hell out of your MS for $$.