Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Wordy Wednesday - Reflections from the Editor's Desk: Visualizing Your Prose

Today, I’d like to build on the previous blogs by Christie Caughie, Graeme Brown, and Laurie Temple, and add another tool to your writing toolbox.  Let’s consider the technique of visualizing your sentences and paragraphs as they fit into your scenes. Just as reading them aloud gives you the sense of the cadence and flow, visualizing them gives you the cinematic flow.

I attended a seminar by Blake Snyder (Save the Cat) several years ago that helped me realize how much our words provide that cinematic experience to our readers. I learned that as you ‘see’ each scene in your mind, you can structure them to enhance the reader’s ability to enjoy your story on the visual as well as emotional level. For example:

Dave stepped to the plate, with one man on base. With one out left, in the last inning, he faced a lost game. The restless crowd booed him. The pitcher threw the ball and Dave hit a homerun to win the game.  Jane stood with everyone around her to cheer the hero of the game.

Viewing this as a movie scene, it would be flat and uninteresting. And on the cutting room floor. How do you add the texture, color and sounds that make the reader feel he’s standing right there beside Jane willing our hero to succeed?

Close your eyes and imagine yourself in that same place. What do your five senses show you? Let’s see what that might give us:

Jane squirmed on the uncomfortable metal bench seat as her butt went numb from having no opportunity to stand and cheer her team. The row she sat in behind home plate, full of fans just moments before, now lay empty of people but full of litter. Peanut shells scrunched beneath her feet, and her shoes kept sticking to the remains of a spilled soda from the crying child behind her.  The sour smell of half-eaten hot dogs and spilled beer fueled the turmoil in her gut. Adding insult to injury, it had begun to pour in thick humid sheets of rain.

Her Dave was at bat with one out left, bottom of the ninth. With the worst batting average in the league, this game was over. His career would be over too.

His teammate stood sullenly at second, his arms crossed, tapping his foot on the base. He was already thinking about a hot shower in the locker room and a stiff drink.

Breathless, Jane scanned the thinning crowd as the weight of their disappointment radiated through the entire stadium. Fathers and sons slouched their way toward the exits mumbling against the coach for putting Dave in the game.

She watched her fiancĂ©e flinch as the catcalls and boos rained down on him from the remaining die-hard fans, their faces contorted with angry jeers. Forcing her attention back to Dave, she watched hin step to the plate, set his feet, and raise his bat. The pitcher sneered as he stepped to the mound. Fierce determination blossomed on Dave’s face and hope sprang up in Jane’s heart. Maybe. Maybe he could do it.

She leaped to her feet, jumping and yelling encouragement to Dave, screaming to raise her voice over the crowd. He could do it!

And, of course, he gets to be the hero of the game. 

Being able to visualize a scene allows you to add elements that are beyond a mere description of a location or an interaction. You can see and feel the emotions of the crowd, our heroine, and our hero. You can feel and smell and hear the atmosphere in the stadium. Readers who’ve been to a baseball game will supply other details of the scene, from their own experience. They’ll remember when a drunk fan dropped a beer down their mother-in-law’s neck. Or sitting behind a whole row of Little Leaguers at their first big league game. It helps tie your reader to the scene and the emotions.

Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, this tool will add depth and color to every scene in your book. As an editor, I love getting that cinematic experience of your story while reading it. 

Monica Britt is an editor at Champagne Books. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Wordy Wednesday: Reflections from the Editor's Desk - Cadence

On the heels of Graeme Brown’s blog last week, and adding to what Christy Caughie blogged about the week before, I thought I’d offer a few tips about sentence structure. Don’t groan. You know it’s a necessary evil if you write. :) And don’t worry. This isn’t a grammar lesson. It’s just some pointers I offer to help your story read well.

Sentence length - Cadence is defined as a “rhythmic sequence or flow” according to Merriam-Webster. How your sentences are strung together is as important as what they say. Consider this example:

Chuck went to the grocery store. There, he looked for the perfect wine. He took forever to find one. Tonight’s date was important. At the check-stand, he stopped. He’d forgotten his wallet.

If you read it out loud, it sounds stilted and, well, boring. Now, if we vary the length:

Chuck searched the wines for the right one. Tonight’s date was important and he needed everything to be perfect. Somewhere around the thirtieth bottle, he found it. A Cabernet, her favorite. He grinned and sprinted for the grocery store check-stand, reaching for his wallet. His absent wallet. Chuck froze as it hit him. He’d left his money at home.

More readable, right? So varying the sentence length, along with some more dynamic word choices, makes this more interesting. Now take a look at your paragraph and make sure you’ve done a couple more things. Is there a purpose? Have you moved the story forward? And will it intrigue the reader? Here’s another draft of the above paragraph:

Chuck searched the wines for the right one, certain he could hear his watch ticking away. Beer, now that he could figure out. But wine? That was Sandy’s department. Tonight’s date was important and he needed everything to be perfect. He glanced down at the label name written in ink on his hand. Somewhere around the thirtieth bottle, he found it. A Cabernet, her favorite. He grinned and sprinted for the grocery store check-stand, reaching for his wallet. His absent wallet. All he pulled out was the small jeweler’s box. Chuck froze as it hit him. He’d left his money at home.

Hopefully, it reads quite a bit more interesting than that first draft. Keeping your reader entertained, whether your story is humorous or dark, is huge. As an editor, I love seeing the author’s excitement shine through like that in a story.

As I re-wrote the paragraph above, you’ll notice that it slowed things down. This moment is important to Chuck. It sets up a series of mishaps over the course of the evening that help Chuck realize some things about himself. But you can imagine quite a bit from this sample, can’t you?

Not every paragraph needs this amount of re-writing or slowing down. I always recommend writers read their work out loud. You’ll hear the cadence and recognize words that sound flat or need powering up. And hopefully you’ll smile. And as editors, we’ll get excited with you.

Laurie Temple is an editor at Champagne Books and writes under the pseudonym Laurie Ryan.
Twitter: @lryanauthor

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Wordy Wednesday - Reflections from the Editor's Desk: A Submission Checklist

If you can write a book, that is a great achievement. You should be proud; you've done what few can do.

All the hard work that goes into getting your prose to hold together cannot be overlooked. Perhaps you have gone through several drafts; there's only so much editing you can do before deciding it's ready to go on to a publisher. Just how much editing, though? Where do you draw the line?

Here's a quick checklist to get you started:

1) Can you boil your book down to a compelling two-three page story that is just as captivating as the book? If you can't, then take some time and try to do this. Not only will it give you what you need for a synopsis that will intrigue the acquisitions editor, but you will be able to appreciate your book's structure (or lack thereof). Some writers like to plot and outline ahead of time, in which case this step might be easy for you, whereas others like to go into the first draft blindfolded, then iron out the wrinkles in subsequent drafts. If this is you, then that doesn't mean you don't still need to, at some point, break your book down into an outline. After all, you can't iron out the wrinkles from a very big blanket if you don't know how to properly spread it out.

2) Do you know your characters' motives? Even though you might have chosen one POV character in a given scene, your story is (most likely) about more than that character alone. Just because you don't tell it through these other characters' eyes doesn't mean you don't have to know what they're thinking and what drives their actions. Many weak manuscripts contain this error - the world seems to revolve around the POV characters, turning the otherwise complex people they interact with into objects. If you take the time to jot down what some characters other than the main POV characters are thinking or doing outside of your main story, this will help you spot many places where they might be doing things that make no sense or have no impact on the story.

3) You can apply the same thing with settings. Do you know the background of each scene? Have you made sure you know this but have told the readers only what is relevant? Many stories are cluttered with too much detail, often a result of writers making sure they don't miss out on important facts about the backdrop to their tale. You can clear away these cobwebs by writing those extra facts down somewhere else, then removing them from the story in parts where they don't belong.

4) Have you dealt with all the things that make you cringe? You know, those parts that you know aren't strong, but you just can't seem to get them to work? That can be anything from weak sentences, to poor word choices, rushed action, rushed dialogue, confusing plot developments, lagging scenes (i.e. the dreaded filler chapter), etc. If they make you cringe, they will make your prospective editor cringe as well. Submitting a manuscript for publication is a professional venture - no different than submitting a business proposal or a job resume. Would you submit a weak cover letter? Would you present a proposal to clients with a hastily-put-together slideshow? No! This is your pride and joy, something you've worked hard on - take it that extra mile, work out all those bugs patiently, and deliver sunshine in an envelope (or inbox).

5) Do you have reader feedback? Usually, writers find a few beta readers to give them feedback on their story. A good time to do this is once you have your draft flowing properly (but not necessarily ready for submission). You might still have some of the bugs from 4) to iron out, but want to be sure you're not second guessing yourself. Beta readers are great for that. Be careful, though: beta readers are not there to tell you what you should put in your book. Instead, think of them like reconnaissance. As the writer, you're doing the groundwork; those readers will give you different aerial views you don't get when you're bogged down by the act of writing. Pick your beta readers well: diverse, willing to give timely, constructive feedback, and be sure you distinguish work-shopping from beta reading - the former is done between writers, and is often slower, more involved, the latter is done quickly, by a reader who will read your manuscript like a book and give you reader comments ("I really liked this," "you disappointed me here," "I couldn't understand this passage," "your character, James, seems so upset here, but I don't know why, I'm intrigued...").

6) After 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 are done, have you taken the time to go through the whole thing and search for any little typos or places where you can strengthen the prose? Would you be happy if the manuscript you send out went to print as it is?

If your answer is no, then it's not ready.

If your answer is yes, though, then this DOES NOT mean your manuscript is ready to go to print as is. What is DOES mean is that you are presenting your writing craft at its strongest, with the hopes of entering into a publishing contract where you will work with an editor to make it even stronger, a product that reflects the publisher's standards. When an editor has to spend time correcting you on things that are your job, as the writer, to have in place, that means the final product is less likely to be as good possible. An acquisition editor has this in mind when he or she is reviewing your manuscript, whether you are a first time author or a multi-published author; at Champagne Books, our goal is to present fiction at its finest, so as you can imagine we are not going to accept manuscripts we don't feel will reflect these standards by the end of the production process.

An editor is elated to receive a manuscript from a writer who has put all the right work into presenting his or her story with pride. So, for those of you who have written a book, who want to be published, be patient, do all that hard work. There's nothing more rewarding, for editor and author alike, than turning a manuscript that shines with potential into a book.

Happy writing!

Graeme Brown
Junior Editor

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Wordy Wednesday - Reflections from the Editor's Desk: And then…

During my days as a high school and middle school English teacher, I used to get a lot of narrative essay first drafts that included an overuse of “then” or “and then…” to link together the various parts of the story. First we did this, then we did that, then we did that other thing, and then it all got resolved. It was a bit like reading a series of police reports. Their essays were often just a list of actions to get their story from point A to point B, with very little narrative artistry in between. But we all lack a bit of literary polish when we first begin writing, and I enjoyed teaching them how to enliven those series of actions.

The manuscripts I edit now are much more polished, often beautifully written, and yet I find a lot of writers still struggle with the word “then.” They depend on it. They overuse it. And, more often than not, they use it incorrectly.

In fact, one of the most commonly misused or erroneously punctuated words I see when editing is the word “then.” I most often see it used as a coordinating conjunction, a joiner word, but that’s not its grammatical role.
Here’s an example: Steve spent the evening reading then went to bed.

That sentence sort of reads all right. It looks like it would work. But it’s grammatically incorrect.

Grammar’s coordinating conjunctions, words that can be used to join up clauses and different parts of a sentence, even have their own mnemonic to help you remember them. The FANBOYS are for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so.

So, how could we fix the sentence about Steve? We could add a coordinating conjunction.

Steve spent the evening reading and then went to bed.

We could also add a coordinating conjunction and separate the sentence into two independent clauses. To make the second half independent, we’ll need to add a subject pronoun too.

Steve spent the evening reading, and then he went to bed.

Or we could get rid of “then” entirely and draw out these actions, painting them in more vivid, tangible colors for our readers. Let’s face it, if you, as an author, need to tell your reader about your character’s actions in a blow-by-blow way, you need to make it worth their while.

Steve spent the evening reading the same book he’d been half-heartedly skimming all week. The black letters blurred to grey on the white page after about thirty minutes, and he found himself reading the same paragraph over and over, its meaning obscure by the time he reached the final line. Only the L stood out on the page, his eye drawn like a magnet to its sharp angle. He snapped the book shut, turned out the lights, and made his way to bed—an empty bed. He still slept on the left side. The right side would always belong to Lucy.

Do you find yourself using “then” a lot in your writing? If you’re using it, are you using it correctly? Are there other words you use too often and could remove to make your writing stronger?

Christy Caughie is an editor and book cover designer at Champagne Books.
Twitter: @writerchristy

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Wordy Wednesday - Reflrections from the Editor's Desk: Myth Busting or Who Told You That?

Over the years but never more than lately, there are some common ‘myths’ about publishing. As a writer, I heard about many of these. As an editor, I’ve experienced many of them. One caveat, this post applies to traditional and digital/small press publishing. While there’s some overlap into self-publishing, most of these myths surround the mainstream industry versus self-publishing.

Let’s do some myth busting.

1) Readers will love your book—after all, your mother, sister, cousin, best friend and coworkers do. Isn’t that grand? It is, truly. But here’s the thing. As much as we love our family and friends, they aren’t your readers. They aren’t editors or publishers. They aren’t reviewers. While it’s terrific that your family and friends love your book, they are family and friends and unless you have a terrific relationship with them that allows them to be blunt, you aren’t hearing that your heroine is too bitchy or you hero is just plain abusive. Family and friends are there to do what they do best – support you. However, when it comes to submitting your work, agents and editors don’t care if your mom likes it. They care whether they do and whether they can sell it.

2) Your family and friends will buy multiple copies and tell their friends and that will be at least 300 sales. As an author, I had this expectation too. For all the support and encouragement, when it came to plunking down the money, it didn’t happen. Yes, they bought copies – at least, they told me they did. However, it wasn’t 300. I’m not even sure it was 20. Might have been closer to five. Family and friends love us but that doesn’t mean they are going to buy your book no matter what they tell you. Sure, some may just because they are family and friends but most of them are just not going to. Sorry, it’s reality. Want to know for sure? Ask for a receipt.  Of course you aren’t going to but don’t rely or count on family and friends sales as proof of your numbers. You are doomed to disappointment.

3) By the same token, everyone you friend or who follows you on social media will not buy your book. Friending or following doesn’t mean you are on their auto-buy list. It means they want to be friends. That’s it. Now, I’m sure there are times those connections lead to fans and readers but most often, it doesn’t.

4) Once my book is published, I just have to sit back and the money will roll in. I wish. Once your book is published, you will have to promote your book. Think about it this way--if no one knows about your book, no one will buy it. I’ve had people tell me the key to success is backlist. I don’t disagree that ONE of the keys to success is backlist. I just don’t think it’s as simple as that. You can have tons of backlist but if you don’t tell anyone about it, how do they know where to find them? They don’t, unless they stumble across your website.

5) Yay! You got the call. Once the contract is signed, you are done. I love this one. You see, signing the contract is just the beginning of getting your book published. What’s next? Well, there’s content editing, production/blurb forms, cover art forms, marketing forms, more content editing, scheduling promotion, line editing, website updating, galleys… and on and on. Whew! I’m not kidding; there’s a lot to be done. By the time your book releases, you will be more than ready to be done with it. Plan to work just as hard after the Call as before it.

6) Editors will be your mentor. Ah, if only that were true. We want to help. We try as much as we can. But don’t expect it. Editors are overworked—those that work for houses and those that freelance. As much as we’d like to, unless you are hiring us for that particular service, editors can’t mentor you into the next contract and so on. As cold as it may sound, and we are all nice people, we have to get work done on your book then move immediately on to the next. It doesn’t mean we don’t like you. Far from it. Our livelihood and continued employment rest on getting the next one and the next one and the next one done. If you want to improve your craft, don’t rely on your editor to do it all for you—we do the best we can but ultimately, your career, your responsibility.

7) Your self-published buddy gets to make all the decisions about their book. Your publisher should let you do the same. Uh, wrong. While many publishers and editors are all about making their authors happy, ultimately, only they know what works for their readers and what doesn’t. This means that they may, and can, make changes during the process to end with a book that is the most appealing for their readers. If your vision is different, don’t expect them to budge just to appease you. They are in this to make money, not for artistic expression. Sorry. It’s the hard truth. By going to a publisher, you trust them to know what’s best. If you don’t, then you should self-publish.

8) Your book is perfect so you’ll only need an editor to edit for typos. Okay, this time I’m laughing. No one’s book is THAT perfect. In fact, since I’ve been doing this for nearly a couple of years, most books are not. Including my own. Good houses will put your book through the editing wringer. First, you’ll be edited for content. This is where everything is made consistent and plot holes are closed. Most houses want two rounds of content editing. You may need more. After content editing (also called developmental editing), it’s time for line editing. This is where spelling, grammar and punctuation are checked. The goal is to put out the best product and even in this day and age, when more and more books seem to be riddled with errors, the best houses work hard to put out perfect products (my houses do). So, suck it up. You are going to have to edit.

9) The days of being rejected are over. Not true. Ask around. Most published authors will tell you they have been rejected time and again after making the first, second or even tenth, sale. In fact, just recently, one of my publishers’s rejected an author who had two manuscripts already published. Why? First, the story didn’t work but more importantly, the first couple didn’t make any money. I’ve also seen them rejected because an author failed to understand #8 and decided her book didn’t need editing. Bottom line is rejection is just part of the business and should be viewed as a badge of honor: You are submitting and you are in some excellent company.

There are always more myths flying about but this is enough myth busting for today. Do you see any of them in yourself? Ah, my bad. Champagne Book Group blog readers are extraordinary so I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir. Feel free to pass this along to others who might not be as enlightened as you all.

Since I’m sure you know about these, got any you want to share with me? Maybe a myth and how you busted it?

Cassiel Knight is Senior Editor at Champagne Book Group. When she’s not wrestling manuscripts into shape for publication, she’s writing action/adventure books based on archeology and mythology – just a few of her favorite things – for Samhain Publishing, Lyrical Press and Champagne Book Group.

Connect with Cassie at:
Twitter: @CassielKnight