Today’s Writing Tip

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I already mentioned this fairly recently, but it’s important enough to bear repeating. Understand there are several types of editors. Proofreaders look for typos. Copy editors look at punctuation and grammar. Line editors look at sentence structure and flow. Content editors look at plot & characterizations.

If you’re lucky enough to have a first-rate publisher, they are likely to provide all of these. If you’re an indie author, then it’s essential for you to understand these different roles. Just because you can come up with a clever story doesn’t mean it will be worth reading unless you can convey it effectively. The skills these types of editors represent can help make sure you do.

Of course it’s going to cost you. Thus, it will serve you well to educate yourself and become the best possible writer so as to minimize the help you require.

If you want more detail regarding the types of editors you can find it here.

Today’s Writing Tip

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Feed your inner editor by reading others’ work with a critical eye. Often what jumps out is something you do as well. I have had many an “Aha!” moment tripping over something awkward in a story, then realizing I was guilty of the same thing.

I admit that always reading in critique mode has a downside, but when you’re an editor at heart, you can’t help it. I know something is well written when I don’t keep stumbling over things that throw me out of the story. I can’t always tell you what they did right, but I definitely know it worked.

Thus, you can learn a lot from less skilled writers. There are so many typical mistakes such as overuse of adverbs and prepositional phrases, awkward dialog, clumsy flashback transitions, viewpoint swaps, and so forth. When ever something jolts you out of the story, take a few moments to identify exactly why.

On the other hand, reading well-written stories has a more subtle effect. You can become a better writer by osmosis when you familiarize your brain and subconscious with strong writing.

Today’s Writing Tip

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Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em…

That phrase from the Kenny Rogers’s song, “The Gambler,” came to mind the other day and reminded me of how difficult it can be to edit your own work. As authors we tend to be attached to our own words, especially when we say something really clever. Yet sometimes, it really does nothing for the story other than to slow it down.

It requires a high level of objectivity to cut something out of your own work. It isn’t easy and for some, it’s impossible. Sometimes letting your work sit for a while so you can go back and see it as a reader would works. If you absolutely can’t do it, hire someone. Just make sure they know what they’re doing. I know too many people who have been ripped off by editors who really didn’t do a proper job.

Remember that there are several kinds of editors, i.e. copy editors, line editors, and content editors, to name a few. If your work requires all three, but is only reviewed for one or the other, it will still have problems.

The Cosmic Season for Editing and Revising

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If you’re a writer it would be to your advantage to know a little astrology. Not only can it help you develop your characters as noted in a previous blog but there are actually three times a year when the cosmic climate is particularly conducive to editing and revising.

If you don’t believe in astrology, that’s fine, I didn’t used to either. But you might want to give it a try because most writers, myself included, can use all the help we can get. So what exactly is this spell and why is it helpful? Stay tuned, I’m about to tell you.

It starts with the planet Mercury. In mythology Mercury a.k.a. Hermes was the messenger and the only one who could come and go to the Underworld. In astrology he rules communications of all varieties including your thoughts, ideas, writing and paperwork in general. In this day and age he also rules electronic communication devices such as cell phones, computers, television and the internet to name a few, plus anything mechanical, i.e. with moving parts, such as your lawnmower, small appliances, automobile and so forth.

If you’re already familiar with some astrology you’ve probably heard of Mercury Retrograde. While it’s intuitively obvious (or should be) that the planet Mercury does not reverse the direction of its orbit, as a rule three times a years he appears to move backwards in the sky compared to his usual direction. The reason for this is easily explained as similar to when you pass a car on the highway. You’re going faster so it appears the other is moving backwards, even though it’s not. Thus, when the Earth passes Mercury in its orbit you get the same effect.

So what? Hang on, I’m getting to that.

As I originally wrote this, Mercury was currently in that state which started on 4 October 2014 and lasted until 25 October. As noted earlier, this happens about three times a year so we are into it again between 21 January – 11 February 2015.  So far this current cycle looks like a doozy.  My computer is acting psycho and I’ve had numerous reports of misbehaving appliances and it’s only the first day.  Astrologically when a planet is retrograde (yes, they all do the backstroke from time to time) it internalizes its energy. During this spell you may notice more computer problems than usual, things may break down more often, traffic is often worse and so forth. Anything ruled by Mercury bogs down during this time. If you buy something ruled by Mercury during a retrograde period it’s likely to be a lemon. Furthermore, anything initiated during Mercury retrograde seldom comes to pass. For example if you interview for a job you’re less likely to get it with one possible caveat, that being if it’s a second interview with the same person. It’s also not a favorable time to sign a contract or lease.

Why? Because during Mercury retrograde it’s a time to rethink, redo, reconsider, revise, refine, repair and so forth. This is a time to slow down, stop, and look over past work, thoughts and decisions. For a writer this is an awesome time for editing and revising. This is when you go back and see your work through different eyes, giving you the ability to make positive changes. It’s not uncommon for writers to dislike this phase because you may feel stuck, your brain may not work as efficiently and your computer may be on strike. Any new endeavors started at this time are likely to bomb out and relate to yet another “re” word, i.e. regret. This is because you’re resisting the cosmic flow. Reviewing, revising and editing your work from time to time is essential if you want to produce professional quality work.

If you’re suffering from writer’s block this is the ideal time to look over what you have and see if it’s on the right track. You’ll be surprised at how much you’ll be able to improve it, perhaps even make some critical changes you didn’t think of before. Don’t expect to make much progress with new endeavors which are likely to be an exercise in futility. Use this time to rework and refine.

Will you be out of the woods for new projects come 25 October? Possibly not. Until Mercury gets back to the zodiacal position where he stationed retrograde he’s in his “shadow period” when things are still stalled. This lasts until November 11, at which time once again it will be “all systems go.”

Even if you think that astrology is a bunch of myth and superstition give this some thought. Observing the world around you and how people behave is part of your job as a writer. See how many events and situations you can find which reflect this internalized energy, the cosmic climate designed to rethink, reconsider and revise. Few of us get it exactly right the first time and the Universe is well aware of our human frailties. Use these spells as they’re intended and you’ll find they can become some of your favorite times when you can polish your work to perfection. Use this one to advantage, the next one will be January.

If you’d like to learn more about such things as retrograde planets or just about anything else related to astrology you’re invited to visit my website www.valkyrieastrology.com.

Picture: Astronomical Clock, Cathedrale de Notre Dame, Strasbourg, France

Earthly Tips for Indie Writers (and Editors, too)

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If you’re familiar with my blogs you already know that I’m a details freak. I believe that getting them right can make or break a story because as soon as something doesn’t ring true the spell you’re trying to cast is broken. When I see the same mistake in two different books by two different authors it sends up an alarm which implies that particular bit of knowledge may be missing at a more pervasive level than a simple oversight by one uninformed or possibly distracted author.

As I think about it, it’s very possible that the subject of my rant du jour was never specifically taught past grade school, if then, considering the current state of education. Ironically, most of these facts surround you on a daily basis if you’re paying attention. If you weren’t before, I hope this will motivate you to take note whether you’re an author or an editor. Maybe an author caught up in an inspired run of prose dictated by his or her personal muse can be excused for missing a few mundane details. Editors who let such things slip by should be ashamed of themselves.

Sunrise, Sunset

Most novels incorporate the magic of at least one sunrise or sunset. Not only is it something everyone can relate to and thus draw them into the story, it also operates at the subconscious level as an archetype for a new beginning or ending, respectively. If I’m reading your story and you’re describing watching a sunset over the Atlantic Ocean I sincerely hope that your protagonist is viewing it from Bermuda, perhaps somewhere in Europe or the west coast of Africa. Conversely, if he’s watching the sun rise over the Pacific, I truly hope he’s in Hawaii, a South Sea Island, Japan, Australia, etc.

Why?

Because for those of you who haven’t noticed, perhaps due to living in a city or mountainous region where the horizon is obstructed, the Sun rises in the East and sets in the West. Seriously. Every day, with some seasonal variations I’ll get into later. Thus, unless you do some serious geographic gymnastics with your setting (no pun intended) they are not going to be watching both a sunrise and a sunset over the same body of water, at least from the same location. People on an island could of course see both as well as those onboard a ship at sea but they would have to change locations, or at least the direction they’re facing. Get the picture?

Seasons

Seasons are another archetype used to emphasize a sense of timing or even a phase of life. Most locales have seasons which bring some weather variation (unless they’re along the equator) though many don’t conform to the stereotyped four, i.e., spring, summer, fall and winter. (As a baby-boomer I learned the names of the seasons from watching Howdy Doody which had a female Native American character named Princess Summer-Fall-Winter-Spring.)

I have only lived in one place in my life that actually had four which was the southern part of New York State; most have had three, at least judging by the weather. For example, in Utah I called what was considered spring on the calendar as winter simply because it was still snowing, sometimes as late as the end of May. In Central Texas where I currently live there really isn’t a winter, more like a protracted autumn, yet in many areas the stereotype display of autumn color is missing; the leaves turn brown and fall off without any eye-pleasing fanfare.  What’s my point? Make sure the weather in your story’s locale conforms to reality. You can use it to enhance your sense of place, an important story element, and also emphasize plot action or the passing of time. You should describe your setting with the same care with which you do your characters and that includes the season and perhaps even the weather.

I’m sure you know what I mean about using weather to set a mood, like in the classic opening, “It was a dark and stormy night.” In some cases the weather itself can be the major antagonist in the story. It can provide a backdrop that provides additional depth and feeling. Just get it right. A rainy day has entirely different implications in New England versus New Mexico. Rain is not “normal” in numerous places except at certain times of year. If you don’t know and have never lived there then look it up. Wikipedia probably has all the information you need and it will take you five or ten minutes of research to enhance your story’s credibility, particularly for any readers who live there. Readers rolling their eyes at your ignorance are less likely to become fans.

Seasons are marked by four events which relate to the relationship between the Earth and the Sun. These are known as the Vernal or Spring Equinox, Summer Solstice, Autumnal or Fall Equinox and Winter Solstice. The equinoxes mark the day when night and day are of equal length. The Summer Solstice is the longest day of the year and conversely, the Winter Solstice is the shortest. Winter and summer are reversed in different places on the planet, depending on whether you’re in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere. When it is summer in the USA and Europe, it is winter in South American, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

This variation in the length of days in the different seasons is because the path of the Sun across the sky, known as the ecliptic, changes. If you really want to get a handle on this find a place where you can note how the Sun’s location changes with time. This is most easily done from a place where you can watch an actual sunrise or sunset at the horizon, such as over a large body of water, a flat plain, or perhaps even an upper floor in a building, anywhere you can note how the Sun’s setting or rising location changes with time. Literally. You won’t be able to make this observation at the same time every day because, in case you haven’t noticed, that varies by a minute or so each day as well.

At the least try to do so at the equinoxes and the solstices. Take note that where the Sun rises and sets on the equinoxes is true East and West, respectively. The solstices will mark the extremes in the other directions, toward the northwest in summer and southwest in winter. During the winter the path of the Sun is shortened which is why the days are shorter. Conversely, in the summer, the path is longer, placing the Sun in the sky for more hours which lengthens the days and brings about the use of Daylight Savings Time. Speaking of which, if you have a difficult time remembering which is earlier, Eastern or Pacific Time, just remember the Sun rises in the East, thus hitting the East Coast first. Easy.

Accuracy in such details adds life to your story. Your readers will feel as if they’re there and may even learn something along the way. Authors are usually looked up to as amongst the upper echelons of society and expected to be smarter than the populace as a whole. Living up to those expectations begins with knowing your stuff. Now repeat after me: The Sun rises in the East and sets in the West. The Sun rises in the East and sets in the West. The Sun….

(Picture taken by the author on September 12, 2011 over Lake Buchanan in the Texas Hill Country.)

Confessions of a Reviewer from Hell – Part Two

When I finally got around to writing novels it was in the “old days” when you not only had to write it on a typewriter but also hoped to find a publisher. Self-publishing was available through various places known as “Vanity Presses” but they cost a lot of money I didn’t have. So I went the query-submission-reject route multiple times. This, of course, didn’t exactly help my confidence since I was certain it was because my work was not perfect enough. Thus, I’d go back to the manuscript with a critical eye, rewrite and retype.

Revising meant retyping with the most fun when the pagination changed. Then you had to retype everything up to that point or perhaps do some more editing so it fit correctly. I became a master at fitting it in the available space, a skill that came in handy later when I designed pamphlets and other promotional material to say nothing of Twitter. Today’s young authors have no idea what it was like prior to work processors! OMG, it gives me an anxiety attack just thinking about it!

Of course I didn’t realize, naïve as I was, that in most cases getting published was largely political and a matter of who you knew and schmoozed as opposed to genuine talent. My lack of confidence made self-promotion like that impossible as I hoped to be “discovered” and thereby validated. Thus, getting published was often more a matter of confidence as opposed to ability which of course explained why so many books that I considered inferior, or at least no better than mine, made it into print.

I was a late bloomer, which was also a confidence issue. I felt like I wasn’t good enough, mostly based on the number of rejects I’d collected, and was afraid that everyone else would figure that out.

But I wanted to be a science fiction writer and a good one so I figured that I needed to get the education required to do so. So at 35 I went back to college to get a bachelor’s degree in physics. No one was more surprised than I was when I actually graduated and eventually went to work at NASA where my writing skills were often the tie breaker between me and another candidate competing for the same job.

One particular job I held at the space agency was that of a technical writer. My duties were to take minutes at safety review panel meetings which entailed recording the proceedings and capturing action items, writing them up, then submitting them to the engineer for editing and eventual approval. And again I found out how very imperfect I was! It was really hard on my pride when the engineer would bleed all over my hard work with red ink. (Years later, when I was the editing engineer I would use green ink, which somehow seemed far less hostile.)

After limping through hundreds of pages splattered with red ink, however, something I could actually classify as transformational occurred. Eventually I became jaded to criticism and thus got past the shame of producing an inferior product. After overcoming that emotional milestone I could see more clearly and recognize that my writing was greatly improved by the joint effort. I learned to collaborate and eventually let go of my pride. My attitude changed. When people edited or criticized my work I saw it as helpful because it improved the product. I finally realized that I was actually a pretty good writer even though my work still came back with numerous edits sprawled all over the paper like blood-thirsty worms. Writing was subjective and there was probably no such thing as perfection once you got beyond “See Jack run.”

Little by little I had become a “professional” writer.

(To be continued)