Tools for Novel Writers: The Fruits of Editing

apple-treeEditing Fruits

In the title for this post, I don’t mean “the fruits of editing” in the usual sense of “the results.” Instead, I’m thinking of an expression I hear in the day-job world a good bit: “let’s go after the low-hanging fruit first.” What this means is that when you’re resolving a business issue that has many facets, it’s often best to fix the easiest things first and the proceed to the more complicated stuff.

As I work on the near-final edit of my first novel, I’m discovering the fruit-tree analogy works pretty well in the fiction-writing biz, too.

I have a list of about a hundred items that need to be fixed to make the novel its best. These are categorized as fruit, which is odd, I guess, but more fun than just calling them high, medium and low.

Low-hanging Fruit:

The low-hanging fruit are things I can fix pretty quickly, without much heavy head-scratching. For example, there’s a location called “Angels’ Common.” I needed to be sure I called it that every time, and not “Angels’ Courtyard” by mistake. That was a simple matter of search-and-replace in Microsoft Word.

Halfway Up the Fruit Tree:

Halfway up the tree are items that take some thought and creativity to fix, but aren’t likely to make me bang my head against the wall. For example, my protagonist, who is a guy with his body in a coma and his soul caught in Hell, has a brother back on Earth. I got a lot of feedback indicating that I needed some more scenes with the brother, to bring a wider variety of emotions to the book, or, as one person said, “to give it heart.” So, I’m going through and adding some scenes. It’s a moderate effort to figure out where the scenes should go and then I have to write them, but the job isn’t a killer.

Way Up in the Top Branches:

High up among the skinny branches of the tree, where my perch is the most precarious, are the things that will be hardest to correct, like plot holes. One case is a contradiction I didn’t spot until I did a read-through of the whole novel. Remember how the protagonist’s body is in a coma, while his soul is in Hell? Well, at one point in the novel, Satan wants to destroy the protagonist’s body because soul-protagonist is too powerful and killing the body will weaken him. At another point, Satan is thrilled that soul-protagonist has a body on Earth because it makes him more powerful and thus more useful to Satan (assuming Satan’s nefarious plan works out). The whole body-on-Earth deal is a linchpin of the plot, so I’ve got to figure out how to resolve the contradiction without weakening the story. I am hoping that a solution will come to me as I fix the low-hanging and halfway-up issues.

Divide and Conquer

Whether you buy the whole fruit analogy or not, I strongly recommend dividing your editing work into some sort of layers. Writing a novel is complex and editing one, I’m finding, is even more so. Whatever you can do to ease your path on the way do “The (finally all edited and done) End” is worth a try.

Leave a comment about handy editing practices for the benefit of the other readers. Happy writing!

Tools for Novel Writers: Character Traits, Inner Resources

Character Who?Queen Elizabeth the first was quite a character

In a normal blog, you’d expect a post with “Character Traits” in the title to be about crafting great fictional characters. Well, that’s a good subject, but this pile of prose has nothing to do with it. What I want to talk about is your character—and mine, for that matter.

Lots of people start novels, but few finish them. I got to thinking about why and, in my uncontested position as Lord Mayor and Judge of All the World, I concluded that the non-finishers either don’t have the character traits needed, don’t have them in sufficient quantity, or they possess them but haven’t brought them to bear on their writing.


There’s nothing more important to a novelist than stick-to-itiveness. A novel is a multiple-draft journey of 50,000 words or better. You’ve got to plan and execute, then plan and execute again, until the thing is done enough to put a fork in. If you’re a part-time writer like me, composing in dribs and drabs during the week, just cranking out a first draft can take a couple of years—I speak from first-hand experience on that.

Once you get the novel ready for publication, then you’ve either got to market it to agents and publishers, if you’re going the traditional route, or directly to the public, if you’re self-publishing. Achieving success in either of these modes takes time, as well. And don’t forget the second novel, and the third, and all the others. Often it takes a writer several books to get anywhere at all.

So that’s persistence. If you don’t have it, get it. If you do have it, shine its light one your novel writing.


Patience goes hand in hand with persistence. While you’re walking the long road that is crafting a novel, you’re going to run into the heebie-jeebies of haste. You’ll be eager to finish every single draft, especially the last one. And then you’ll be tearing your hair out making changes from editors, agents, or other valued critics, like beta readers, wishing you could OMG just put it out there already!

At times like these you’ve got to push back from the desk (not for too long) and whisper “patience grasshopper” to yourself. (If you don’t know where the grasshopper thing is from, you owe it to yourself to find out!) Patience isn’t just the quality of calm endurance; it is also the quality of being in the present moment with whatever you’re doing. If you can focus on one day, one moment, one task of writing at a time, the patience comes a lot easier. Practice makes is easier, too.

So, that’s… wait for it…







See what I did there? Wasn’t that cute? No? Oh, well, on to the next topic.

Quiet and Solitude, Tolerance Thereof

You’re going to have to endure a certain amount of quiet isolation. When I say “silence” I’m not quite talking literally; for example, I like listening to some downtempo chill when I’m writing. Stephen King listens to hard rock and even metal, I think. Others like just freakin’ quiet, I’m sure. And I don’t know of anybody who writes in a crowded room where they are expected to respond to conversation; coffee houses work (for some) because, even though there are people around, you don’t have to deal with them.

What I mean is you have to create a space that makes it possible for you to create characters, plot and all that good stuff. Once you’ve made it, you have to commit to spending lots of time there; otherwise, no novel.


A person who lets themselves be distracted by a lot of different things is going to have a hard time completing a novel. I won’t say such a person can’t do it, just that it would be extra hard and extra slow. I know this very well, being of a somewhat “AD… ooh, shiny…” disposition myself. Even so, I have taught myself to focus little by little and after many years have become able to manage my distractible disposition. An hour is great for me; then I get up and stretch, or play a few minutes of guitar, or check on Facebook, or whatever—just for a few minutes. Then I get back to it. But during that hour, I am on task, not thinking about much else but the writing and taking the occasional sip of coffee.

Figure out what your focus rhythm is. If you can’t focus at all, you can learn. I learned a lot about focus by taking martial arts and yoga classes. Those physical pursuits require a level of attention that translates pretty well to writing. You can figure out something that will work for you, no doubt. But you’ve got to find it.

It’s Just Me

These observations on character traits needed for writing a novel are based on my own experience to date. Your mileage may vary. A lot. But I hope this piece gets you thinking about inner resources you can develop to make your writing better and more fun.

Let me and the other two readers know if you’ve got any other ideas about inner resources a novelist should develop and how they might do it.

Tools for Fiction Writers: Index Cards. Yes, Index Cards.

Index Cards in several colors

Index Cards for Invention

Howdy folks. Did you miss me? My apologies for being so long between posts. I’ve been focused on the fiction and on a writing conference I recently attended, at which I’m happy to say I was not marked as a complete loser who should never write fiction again. So, yay for that. Okay, enough about me and on to the main event:

note Cards in a BoxNote Cards!

I know, you’re falling over with excitement, right? Well, I am, because these cards, the plain old, paper, 3 x 5 or 4 x 6 index cards, are a thrilling new fiction writing tool for me.

Here’s the deal. I love my electronics. My laptops, large and small are particularly dear to me. My 7” and 10” tablets, my phone and even my small music player from that fruit company keep me going in a pleasant daily swirl of media.

I also love using my electronics for writing novels. Word processing changed my life. I used to type, people, on a manual, portable Smith-Corona typewriter (Google that word if you’re not familiar). So, when word processing came along, with its lack of white correction fluid and its ability to just make text bold with your having to backspace a hundred times and type over the same word ten times, I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven.

I use the well-known suite of corporate software from a giant software company and I use Scrivener for Windows, the latter for my second novel (just starting) and the former for my first (gradually finishing).These are fine tools, but the sticking point I find with them both is:


In the corporate world we sometimes call this step “ideation.” In the fiction realm, some of us call this “dreaming stuff up,” which process lends its name to this blog. This is the pre-planning stage, where you’re just spewing up ideas from the inner recesses of your twisted mind like lumps of mud from a seldom-used well pump.

What you want during this process is for your mind to run free. You (meaning “I” – your mileage may vary) don’t want anything imposing order on these ideas or on your mind. You just want to generate, generate, generate. It’s brainstorming at its finest. At least, you hope it is.

I find the trouble when I do this brainstorming and record the notes on a computer, in any form, that I can’t curb the impulse to impose order on them. A word-processing or spreadsheet program puts the ideas into lines, which I then must rearrange into some order. Scrivener has its soft note cards, which I am compelled to start arranging into a story as I put ideas on them.

The result is that my dreaming-up process gets short-circuiting by the planning process, which doesn’t need to be happening at this stage. My recently discovered solution to this is:

funCardBoxA Box and Some Paper Cards!

I have an idea. I jot it on the index card. I stick the index card into a box. Now the card is hidden. I do this with several more index cards. Now I have several ideas, all hidden, arranged in no particular order. The ideas are not sitting there in front of me, begging to be arranged. When I think I have enough ideas, which is just an instinct, I pull out the cards and start arranging. Not until I have them in some rough order to I put the ideas into electronic format.

I tried this with the planning of novel number two and it worked really well. I am still a slow planner, but the index cards made the invention process a lot faster and a lot more fun. And fun is what this fiction writing deal is all about for me, at least until I get that $2,000,000 contract.

If your invention process is buggy, try the index card thing. It might work for you. And if not, I’m sure something else will. Heck, Faulkner used a wall for “The Sound and the Fury” (I think that was it). I’ve seen said wall. So find your cards, or your wall, or your clay tablet and go for it! I wish you happy writing.

Writing the Synopsis of a Novel

writers-block Man resting his head on his laptopWhen I write my next novel, I’m going to write the synopsis first. For one thing, my research tells me writing the thing first helps you frame up your novel and I’m certainly all over that. For another thing, I have recently discovered the writing the synopsis after the fact is a giant, festering pain in the wazoo.

This coming May, I’ll be attending the Atlanta Writer’s Conference, where I will submitting not one, but two types of synopses in hopes of receiving useful pointers from the learned minds of real live editors and agents. The first is the short one in my query letter, the initial pitch one sends to an agent or editor. The second is the long one that stands on its own, the one you send when said agent or editor invites you to do so.

To start off with, I read a book about writing query letters and synopses, The Sell Your Novel Toolkit by Elizabeth Lyons. It’s especially strong on the long synopses, in my opinion, and isn’t bad with queries. My best advice on query letters came from, specifically, the page titled “How to Write a Query Letter.” It has solid, succinct advice and a link to many queries that have actually won their authors agent representation or requests from publishers.

I can be pretty slow, sometimes (some would say all the time), so even after reading these resources, I had a hard time producing the materials. I took a precious vacation day, spent nine hours working just on the query letter, wrote three versions, and they all stunk. Before this, I had spent many hours working on the long synopsis and produced a five-page document that was only slightly more exciting than the phone book. (Non-old people, see the definition of “phone book” here.)

It was slow. It was painful. I was discouraged.

But then something wonderful happened.

The Saturday after that awful vacation day, I sat down and wrote another short, query-letter synopsis. It just poured out, natural as you please, and the result wasn’t bad at all. The Sunday after that, I wrote a long synopsis that came almost as easily, was two pages shorter than the previous five-page monster, and read like I had written it, instead of some robot.

There’s plenty of polishing left to do, but the bones are there, and a lot of the meat, too. (And that, Virginia, is what we call a mixed metaphor.)

One interesting thing (about time, right?): When I complained to my wife about wasting that vacation day, she demurred, pointing out that the frustrating work of that Friday had been necessary to get my brain to the point of producing Saturday and Sunday’s good results.

So, one thing I’ve learned: If you are writing them after your novel is done, throw the synopses onto the page as best you can, then walk away for a while and let them marinate in your subconscious. When you come back for another try, you may find that they roll right out.

I’ll probably have more to say about synopses in my next post, but for now, I am sick of writing anything and I’m going to stop. See you next time.

Tools for Novel Writers: Multiple Editing Passes

old wooden fence post

Get it? It’s an old post!

Not too long ago I published a post entitled “Tools for Novel Writers: The Editing Checklist.” It’s about using a through-going list as a guide for making multiple passes through each scene of your novel, checking for things like overuse of simile and metaphor, grammar blunders and the like.

I’m still using the checklist and it’s still working out very well, thank you very much. My first rewrite is looking good, if you ask my writing group (you can trust them—I pay them handsomely).

After spending even more hours with the checklist, I’ve discovered an added benefit that was staring me in the face the whole time. It was just so big and obvious, I couldn’t see it. It was the forest, I guess, and I was down in the trees, as the age-old metaphor goes.

pass imageUsing the checklist forces you to make multiple passes through the same material over a period of days. In my case, that’s 19 mandatory passes and 14 optional ones. Granted, some of the mandatory items, like “Adrasteia as priestess – Perhaps make her Artemis priestess from the start” require just a quick “N/A” or a scan and then a little work putting in something about her priestess-hood, if it’s necessary.

Still, a quick scan is still a scan, and I do catch things when I’m doing these, as well as when I’m tackling one of the heftier items, like checking for telling versus showing. I’ll catch continuity errors, things that don’t make sense unless they get foreshadowed earlier, things that need splitting up or rearranging, and things that just plain stink (I often find those while working the “read aloud” item).

the word discovery under a magnifying glassOne of my favorite discoveries recently is the realization that I could flip-flop the roles of a couple of characters to increase the surprise later in the novel. Basically, the one who seems good at first turns out to be bad, and vice-versa. (Thank you, J. K. Rowling!) I was looking at the beat sheet to see if I had any changes to make noted there (that’s one of the checkpoints) and there was the change, begging to be made. If I hadn’t been making multiple passes through the sections, I probably wouldn’t have seen it.

Maybe you’re a checklist kind of person, or maybe you’re the laissez-faire type, or something in between. Whatever your bent, I’ll bet you a nickel your writing could benefit from your making pass after pass at it. Sometimes it’s painful, sometimes it’s dreary, but sometimes it’s fun, too and, besides, there’s gold in them there passes. Give it a shot.

The Unexpected Moment in Novel Writing

privetHedgeThe Privet Hedge of Writing Semi-Doom

Many times, when you’re writing or rewriting your novel, you’ll hit a brick wall. Well, maybe not a brick wall; more like a tall, thick privet hedge. You can’t seem to climb over it or dig under it and the sucker extends from horizon to horizon. It’s not exactly writer’s block, this condition. With writer’s block, you’re standing in front of that hedge and you’re certain there’s nothing on the other side and there’s never going to be (at least that’s the way I think of it, and it’s my blog, so there). This is more like writer’s blah. You’re pretty sure there’s something on the other side, but you have no idea what it is or how you’re going to get there.

A Real-Life Examplereallifelogo

Now that I’ve whiled away a little of your time with an analogy, let me give you a concrete example. (Yeah, yeah, I know… about time.) I’m currently in the process of planning my second novel, based on the assumption that I’m going to finish my first one before I shuffle off to the eternal Buffalo. (So I’m an optimist. Sue me.) I had a dandy start for the thing all drafted up in full prose, with shooting, blood, crazy characters and a briefcase full of shrunken heads. Unfortunately, upon doing further planning, I discovered that none of it worked, except that case of heads. Damned if I was going to let go of that. Trouble was, I didn’t know how to get the case into the hands of the hero, which was a problem, because I was pretty sure the whole plot revolved on that one circumstance.

I tried all my usual tricks. I stared at the ceiling. I wrote a few outlines. I did some free writing. I prayed. I cast the bones and threw the stones. I banged my forehead on the laptop.

All this availed me nothing.

Let-GoLet it Go (Not the Song, for Once)

Finally, I just walked away from it. After all, it’s novel number two and I’m just in the planning stages—there’s no hurry. A few days later, that beginning started nibbling at the corner of my brain again. I was doing something more or less mindless—driving, gardening, playing with a loaded handgun, something like that—and I decided to give that matter some play in the old brain, just on a casual basis.

And, boom! A new beginning presented itself. I don’t know if it’s the be-all, end-all new beginning, but it’s something to work with for the moment, at least. What a relief!

unexpectedMomentThe Unexpected Moment

It was an unexpected solution at an unexpected moment. I think it worked because:

  1. I had let the matter rest a while.
  2. When I thought about it again, I wasn’t trying so hard, I was just casual about it.

Maybe this is a sure-fire tool for me, maybe it’s not, but it worked once, so I’m going to try it again. Maybe it could work for you, too.

Keep writing and good luck reaching “The End.”

Rewriting Your Novel: Cutting the Fat to Improve the Story

movie extrasThe Coolest Cuts of All

The Extras

Not too long ago, my niece and nephew got roles as extras in The Hunger Games, a lot of which was shot in our city. Under normal circumstances, these two are as handsome a pair of humans as you could want, but the movie studio decided that their slender builds and pale complexions made them perfect for District 9. Put them in ragged clothes, smear some dirt on them and, voilà, half-starved, oppressed young coal-country yokels.

Family and friends were all a-quiver with excitement. Discussions of what scenes they might appear in and where they might be spotted ruled dinner tables across the land.

Then we found out that most of their scenes got cut. The land was filled with sighs of disappointment.

Man cutting down a treeCuts Most Cruel

So, why, oh why, were my relations deleted? While poor judgment on the part of the filmmakers remains a possibility, the real reason is probably that their scenes didn’t contribute enough to the film to make them worth keeping. After all, when you’ve got just two to three hours to tell a complex story, you’ve got to get pretty picky about what stays in and equally ruthless about what comes out, if not more so.

I’ve run across similar issues during the rewrite of novel #1. (Yeah, still working on it, and thinking of changing the title from “Thin Spots” to “The Neverending Story,” copyrights be damned. Anyway…) Some lovely bits have gone the way of the niece and nephew’s movie scenes, excised from the work to lie on the cutting-room floor.

girl with a chainsawThe Joy of Cutting

Alas and alackaday? Well, not really. With every scene I’ve cut, the novel has become a more sinewy thing, more lithe, not weighted down by a lot of literary belly fat.

It’s not so hard to tell when a scene can go. All you have to do is ask yourself if it’s moving the story forward. Is new information conveyed? Does a character change? If you took the thing out, would anybody know the difference or detect a hole in the story? If not, out it goes.

This rule applies even to scenes you really love. (Also to characters, sub-plots, everything.)

I have a scene I really like, where damned souls are playing baseball, the ball itself is the former dictator of a small island nation and a soul who can’t hit gets hung from a lamp post by the loin cloth. It’s so much fun! I loved writing it. But it doesn’t do a blessed thing to further the plot, so… yank.

I do save these cuttings. Some of them may make their way into future novels, but they won’t be in this one.

Go thou and do likewise.