Posts tagged ‘Christmas’

February 19, 2013

Three ways to edit a fiction book and a personalized editing plan

This is one of the best books I've ever read about writing fiction. I've gone through the entire book twice in the past month.

This is one of the best books I’ve ever read about writing fiction. I’ve gone through the entire book twice in the past month.

One of the best things about blogging is that every day is like a mini-writer’s conference.  There’s nothing quite like talking about writing with other writers. I love sharing what I know, and I love learning things that will improve my own writing.

Recently one of my friends from North Dakota finished her creative writing degree, which is amazing since I persistently called her and asked her to tell me about what she was learning. I don’t know how she had time to study, much less recap all her classes for me.

I’m especially grateful to her for two things: an introduction to a remarkable textbook, and verbal lessons on how to edit fiction.

The textbook is Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French and Ned Stuckey-French. She told me about this book more than a year ago, and I finally had the opportunity to buy a used copy on Amazon just after Christmas. I’ve already been through this book twice (and I’ve taken notes both times). It’s one of the best books on writing fiction I’ve read thus far.

As far as editing goes, she told me a fiction book needs three types of editing:

  • Content editing–this is where readers help identify plot holes and major problems the story has. These are re-introduced to the writer just one at a time, because we writers tend to get hurt feelings or overwhelmed with despair if we’re faced with too many problems at one time. Content editors should also give ideas as to how the problems could be fixed, according to this friend, and the process should continue until the plot holes, timeline troubles and other major issues are worked out. ONLY then  should the book move on to the next stage, copy editing.
  • Copy editing–according to my friend: “Copy editing is taking the prose and making it more elegant.” It includes characterization, dialogue, settings–all the descriptive and wonderfully fun puzzles of how sentences are put together, right down to personal style and sentence length. Once the prose is just right, the editor can move on to a line edit.
  • Line editing–This is an in-depth, line by line search for grammar errors, misspellings, formatting troubles and the like.

I’ve taken my notes from Writing Fiction and, along with the notes from my friend, I’ve created a personalized editing system. I’ve already begun to use it on a fiction book for my oldest child. We’ll see how well it works!

Here’s my process:

  • Wait at least three months from the time I finish a manuscript to the time I start editing it (it’s been half a year this time, which is even better). My writing always sounds different in my head when I haven’t looked at it for a good long while, which means I’ll be more apt to catch mistakes and less sentimental about throwing out writing that just isn’t my best.
  • The content edit–this starts with a complete review of the book, during which I list all the problems with the timeline, plot holes, tension and power struggles, etc. (There is no one-problem-at-a-time list here, simply because if I don’t write it down when I first discover it, chances are I’ll forget about it later and it won’t get fixed.) Once the list is made, I’ll delve into the research: for this book, I get to learn about the grief process, sailing, mining and geography. I’ll most likely need to add at least one chapter early on in the book to help make some of these changes. This re-writing will happen after the research is finished. I’ll go through the book once for each problem to make sure I’m not missing anything.
  • The copy edit–for me, this is the fun part. I’ve made a list of things I want to look at once the plot is fixed: characterization through dialogue, significant detail, appearance and belongings, daily happenings, body language and character’s thoughts; using setting to set the mood and display emotion; fine-tuning dialogue by adding action and removing tags; replacing filtered or passive language with a more active voice; and describing the continuing conflicts throughout the book.
  • The line edit–While I think this is generally the most tedious of the three types of edits, I also think if I do the first two edits right, this one should be more fun than it has been in the past.
  • At this point, I’ll be ready to enlist the help of beta readers. And then, with their help, I’ll start the editing process again.

I’m planning on a very methodical, slow edit and rewriting process. This is both because I want this book to be more polished than The Night Ones Legacy and because, after all, rewriting and editing is still part of the writing process. I want to savor it completely before I share a second fiction book with the wide world.

February 7, 2013

How ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ changed my perspectives on why I love poetry

This book has been so loved that it's falling apart.

This book has been so loved that it’s falling apart.

A week and a half ago, I promised I’d practice humorous writing, and that I’d post at least five different attempts before the end of January. Obviously, that didn’t happen–in January. I still intend to write and post attempts at humorous writing. Now, I’m shooting for the end of February, which seems much more realistic, to me.

The reason I didn’t write and post them? I don’t know, except that the past week and half have felt peculiarly somber here at my house. Interesting extended family situations certainly have something to do with it. It’s hard to feel love and loss and NOT feel somber, even while you rejoice in the goodness of lives lived exquisitely well.

I’m thinking particularly of one of my grandmothers today, and I’m thinking about her because, as I was helping get her house ready to sell, I retrieved the following treasure:

'The Song of Hiawatha,' by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow--my grandmothers' copy

‘The Song of Hiawatha,’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow–my grandmothers’ copy

On the inside cover, in blue ink, my grandmother affirmed that this book belonged to her, and added her address, in case it was ever lost. Seeing her handwriting again was a sentimental moment for me. Seeing how much she loved this book made it even more so.

I don’t know how old this particular copy is, but it’s fragile. The binding is cracked, pages are yellowed and loose, and, in some spots, it’s been patched together with an aging cellophane tape.

For some reason, I never imagined my grandmother reading poetry.

I remember her cooking, getting her hair ‘done’ at the local beauty parlor, spending hours and hours in her yard cultivating the most beautiful flower beds I’ve ever seen, laying out wondrous Thanksgiving feasts with her best Prairie Rose china dishes. She watched the Miss America pageant every year and soap operas every afternoon. She read funny books by Erma Bombeck and clipped articles from a bazillion magazines covering everything from flowers and birds to food and fashion.

But poetry? As refined as she was, until I saw this book, it never occurred to me that she loved poetry, too.

Now it just makes sense. A love of good poetry is in my blood.

My mom used to read poetry to us, when I was little. One year she recorded several stories and poems for my older brother and I for Christmas, and I can never  think of those poems without hearing her voice in my heart.

My favorites, from my childhood days:

  • Little Orphan Annie, by James Whitcomb Riley
  • The Cataract of Lodore, by Robert Southey
  • Little Brown Bear–I don’t know who the poet was
  • Miz’ Noah–I don’t know who this poet was, either
  • Sky Boy–I really wish I knew who wrote this poem, because after all these years, I still have most of it memorized. Sometimes I repeat the parts I remember to my own boy.

I think my grandmother must have passed a love of poetry on to my mother, and she passed it on to me. I fully intend to keep the tradition.

I’ll be reading The Song of Hiawatha aloud to my children at the dinner table tonight,  carefully, from my grandmothers well-loved copy.


December 23, 2012

How new curtains make me write better

I write better when I feel at home in my office--and these curtains help me feel at home.

I write better when I feel at home in my office–and these curtains help me feel at home.

It’s the week before Christmas. I look around my office.

It’s not clean. The toy box I keep in my office to entertain a certain little soul has been moved by that same enterprising little soul to the middle of the room. The limited space by the door has been conquered by Christmas presents and wrapping paper. The table that serves as my desk has a piles of notes from three different projects on it, as well as my camera, my cell phone, my recorder and a well-used copy of Dr. Suess’ Green Eggs and Ham.

But it’s better than it was a month ago. I can see the carpet. I at least know where my notes are, which means I can get things done on those projects when I feel like it. All the Christmas presents are in one place–no running around at the last minute looking for things hidden in drawers or under the bed, no tracking down wrapping paper or tape. Doing just a few things each day has helped keep things under control.

That said, I got a kick out of this blog post from The Garrett because it resonated so well with me. From that post:

My office has three states:

  1. Hot mess – If the office usually looks like it’s exploded, like it does now,  I’ve been busy working in it. The closets are open, the desk is surrounded by paper, pens, packages of Kleenex, chargers and a few unidentifiable objects. Things (plants, books, papers, cats) are hanging off my bookshelves. My closets are open and things are falling out. That’s what it looks like now.
  2. Cold mess – If there are a lot of boxes and laundry baskets in the middle of the floor and it hasn’t been vacuumed in a long time, I’ve been avoiding it – and my novel – for a long time. I’ve just kidnapped my laptop, closed the door and fled. This is what it looks like after the holidays.
  3. Clean –  Have you ever seen Poltergeist? Remember the little psychic lady who says “This house is clean”? If so, you know how creepy “clean” can be. It is the worst state for me office by far. Everything is tidy. Spotless. Dusted. Everything’s been filed. The carpet has been cleaned, the laundry is gone, and worse, the desk is immaculate. If my office looks like this, it means something’s wrong; I’ve spent a lot of time in there but all I’ve been doing is cleaning.

I had to smile. Several times. My office is currently a lukewarm mess.

I understand what that post is all about, although I’m coming to see I really do write better in a clean office. It’s worth the investment in time for me to be able to focus.

I recently re-decorated my office in an attempt to claim my office space as my own. This weekend, I made curtains. And was this just an attempt to avoid my writing projects?

I don’t think so. Sure, it took an hour or two away from my writing time, but that’s not bad when I think of the benefits I’m getting from them:

  • They make me feel ‘at home’ here. I’ve admired the fabric for these curtains in several fabric shops. never mind the fact that they don’t have any green in them and may not exactly go with my new green walls. They sparkle. It’s a constant reminder to me that I need to make all my work sparkle too. Also I just love sparkly things.
  • Because I feel at home, I allow myself to daydream here. Writing, for me, is daydreaming while I type. I become a more productive writer and can concentrate well enough to be a better editor.
  • So does this make me a better writer?

I’m giving myself the benefit of the doubt and saying yes. I write best when I’m happy.

Maybe it’s just about pampering myself or having something new that I really love. Maybe somehow it makes me feel a little more professional to put time and effort into my work space. When you work at home, there’s something to be said for every effort you make to be professional.

Whatever it is, these curtains make me happy, and that can’t be a bad thing.

December 13, 2012

Can I communicate in computer code?

Writing computer code is supposedly like using a recipe.

Writing computer code is supposedly like using a recipe.

With Christmas (and upcoming visits with relatives) around the corner, I find myself musing through past conversations with close friends and relatives. Most prominent in my mind has been a discussion I had with a brother-in-law in early November.

This brother-in-law is a genius. He builds things, he understands things, and he carries on terrific conversations simply because he knows so much. He’s good at everything he does, but his chosen work is writing computer code (and making wonderful things like happen because of it).

This particular conversation had to do with my perception of how writing code works. For several months now, I’ve had pictures floating in the back of my mind–parabolas graphed on crisp white paper, strings of the numerals zero and one, the dark DOS screen with bright green lettering I used way back in junior high school. It was all math related and, realistically, probably nothing like computer algorithms.

A few months after we moved away from North Dakota, I was interested in this topic because I had an urge to write a series of step-by-step computer code books for children. I knew it was probably out of my league, but even now, I’m intrigued by the idea. Like most projects that spark my interest, this would be as much for my personal education as for the education of children. I can hardly set that kind of idea aside.

My perception of code as a mathematical problem to be solved has changed, though. It’s due in part to music. Over the past decade, I’ve come to see music–piano music in particular–as a kind of language. It’s a very mathematical language, to be sure. Its intricacies play on both the mind and the heart, bringing ideas and feelings together in a way that’s completely useful. Things get done when music plays in the background.

I wondered–what if computer language is like that? What if it really is simply another language, something I could learn and use to more effectively communicate ideas to the wide open world around me?

I know very little about other spoken languages. I can say this much: Ich kann nicht Deutsh. Es tut mir leit. I’m not even sure I spelled that correctly or if it means what I think it does: I can’t speak German. It causes me sorrow.

There are other writers out there who put their words into languages beyond their native tongue. I marvel at the beauty of it.

It’s made my code-writing brother-in-law a particularly awesome case study. I knew writing code for computers couldn’t be what I saw in my mind, but until I asked him about it, I couldn’t view it any other way.

“The simplest way to describe writing code is like using a recipe,” he said. “You put things together in a certain order, do things a certain way and you get a certain outcome.”

In the meticulously ordered universe we live in, this makes sense on several levels.

In an ordinary spoken language, there are protocols for meeting new people, cultural and politically correct ways of talking that carry people to the brink of war or help them achieve the art of cheering and blessing everyone they meet.

We say hello at the beginning of a conversation. We say goodbye at the end. Even our facial expressions and emotions are wound up in the things we think and say and do as we communicate with other people.

I doubt my brother-in-law would say this kind of communication happens when he writes code, but the possibility of it still dances in my imagination. I yearn to learn more.

As I look toward conversations at Christmas, I have to admit I now sometimes picture my brother-in-law in a chef’s hat. I also see the things he’s accomplished because he knows another language, a beautiful language, unspeakable and amazing.

Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll take a class to learn more about it.

December 12, 2012

My Feng Shui home office: cheering up my chi


Not so long ago, I decided I needed to Feng Shui my office.

At least, I knew I had to do something with it. The walls were a dingy yellow that slowed me down. In the middle  of work, I found myself staring at them, distracted by a desperate need to clean them. Every shadow was a fingerprint left by someone I didn’t know; every nick in its imperfect surface, a reminder that this room didn’t yet belong to me.

Even with the blinds up and the sunlight pouring in, this was the kind of yellow that made me feel brittle, old and too unfocused to write well. It was the hand of a thief that reached into my mind and took all my best thoughts. I found myself weary enough to toss things in the trash instead of recycling them, and piles of papers cluttered up every corner because I didn’t want to take the time to put them away.

I’m sure that at one time, that particular shade of yellow meant something to someone. I almost felt bad changing the colors. Almost. It had to go.

And so last week, a year and a month beyond the day we moved into this house, I painted my office a happy, light, spring-time green. It’s now my thicket in the forest, my sunlit meadow, my moss-covered stepping stones as I wander through lanes of imagination.

It makes me want to grow…and so I work, and I learn, and I’m writing and polishing articles faster than I’ve done in a long time. This feels good.

I’ll hang sparkly blue curtains in the window this weekend.  The acrylic painting of an ocean scene, given to me as a Christmas gift from a multi-talented writing friend, is back on the wall. My tiny blue water fountain has new batteries. All I need now, I think, is a fish.

The real celebration came spontaneously. As I was wandering through the Christmas section of one of America’s favorite discount stores, I came across a low shelf filled with despairing plants. They called my name, pleaded with me for life.

I brought three of them home. One jade plant sits near the window, on the top of a metal filing cabinet. The other jade dances on the corner of my writing table, and the Christmas cactus smiles at us all from the top of another filing cabinet across the room.

In just a week, these plants have begun to flourish. My office feels clean, new, both relaxing and full of energy. It’s affecting me in little ways–I’m drinking more water, I’m exercising more, and certainly I’m happier handling my deadlines.

Writing feels right again–and although I don’t really know about Feng Shui, I think this was a good move.

My chi is cheerful.

December 10, 2012

My baby and books

My son's books, in his favorite formation...

My son’s books, in his favorite formation…

My baby knows about books. I started reading to him the day he came home from the hospital. They were all simple board books, at first. Guess How Much I Love You and Five Little Pumpkins were his favorites for a long time. Then we found several sets of superhero board books at Family Dollar, and he was hooked.

He comes by his love of books honestly.

Reading was my greatest adventure growing up. I lived on a farm, in an area where television reception was sketchy at best. During the hot desert summers, when there was nothing entertaining to do, Mom took my brother and sister and I to the bookmobile. We came home with armfuls of books, piled on Mom’s bed and all read together. It was more than a great education. I didn’t know it then, but it was a great way to connect with people who loved me.

We’ve tried to carry on the tradition. When my daughters were younger, my sweetheart  read aloud to them when he came home from work. The girls colored in princess-y coloring books while he read the Harry Potter series, The Indian in the Cuboard series, The Little House on the Prairie series and all the books in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series. He read every night until his voice was raspy.

That was his connection time. Mine was taking the children to the library(s). Some days, we toured the cities of Bismarck and Mandan, spending time at the North Dakota state library, the Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library and Morton Mandan Public Library all in one morning. After lunch, we camped out in the living room, munching on graham cracker-frosting sandwiches and reading quietly together.

We still love family reading parties, but they’ve changed somewhat over the past few years. Having a toddler around means we read aloud again, and we’re reading quite a few more picture books. Right now, my little guy loves just about anything by Dr. Suess. As soon as I finish a book, he picks it up, puts it back in my hands and says, “Moh. Moh. Moh,” until I read some more.

He seems to love the rhymes. With that in mind, I tried to think of books he’d like for Christmas. My thoughts immediately floated to Clement C. Moore’s T’was the Night Before Christmas. I was too excited to wait. I downloaded it to my Kindle.

Then, to my dismay, I discovered he’s not nearly as enthralled with the Kindle version as I am. The first time I tried to read it to him, he screamed.

Of course he knows something’s wrong. There are no pages to turn, and the pictures aren’t as enchanting if you can’t turn them yourself.

Poor kid. I love my Kindle, but I get where he’s coming from.

Good thing he’s getting books for Christmas, and not a Kindle. The girls decided to box up all their old picture books and wrap them for him. I feel more tender about that than I can say.

After a year and a half, his book collection has outgrown the enormous basket we kept them in. He’s getting a real bookshelf for Christmas, too. I think that’s all he’ll need. I look forward to the times when our house gets almost too quiet, moments  when I have to put my writing aside and go see what he’s up to.

This has happened before. Admittedly, it sometimes means he’s digging in the dog food. Occasionally he’s tripping around the house with my popcorn popper or the lid to the garbage can, but these are exceptions to his general behavior.

More often than not, I find him sitting on the floor in his room with an open book. He turns the pages, points to the pictures and, every few minutes, he babbles something incoherent. He’s happy.

So am I.

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