After the First Draft, Now what?: Revising vs. Editing

Revising vs. editing--what's the difference? @emily_m_deardoSo you’ve got the first draft. Yay!

Now comes time to let out your inner editor. This can be hard, because the inner editor can be a beast, and think that everything you wrote is crap. So I recommend–and so do other writers, like Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones–that you take time away from your piece for a little while. Sometimes it’s a week, sometimes it’s a year, but that time away allows you to refocus your vision and recalibrate your inner editor. When you come back to the piece, you’ll have fresh eyes, and this enables you to see both the good and the bad in what you wrote. When I was recently going through The Undesirables, there were places that were great–and places that were just crap. I deleted the crap and attempted to write new and better things.

This brings us to an important distinction between editing and revising. Revise means (among other things) “to alter something already written or printed, in order to make corrections, improve, or update.” Edit means “to revise or correct, as a manuscript.”

Essentially, revising comes before editing. When I used to “edit” papers in college for other people, what I did was revise and edit. The first reading was usually for revisions. I made sure that the paper flowed, the argument presented was made, and that everything moved in a sequential, logical fashion. If an argument was weak, I noted that, or if there was too much repetition, I noted that. Sometimes I would circle entire sections in red pen and note that they should be moved around–either forward or farther on–in the text.

When I revise novels, I delete sections I don’t like, I add things that need further exposition, and I can re-imagine the timeline, if I have to. Revising is more about the grand shape of things. Editing is about the nit-picky details–spelling, punctuation, grammar, things like that. So if I’ve revised a paper, the second pass is usually for editing purposes, unless the person wanted me to read it again to make sure the revised copy worked.

I really like revising and editing. To me it’s the process that turns the coal into a diamond, if you will. Now, there does have to be the one good sentence in there to begin with. But if it is there, then you simply have to build on it in revision. I find the first draft the hardest part in my own writing, because I haven’t gotten everything down yet. The ending is still ambiguous, and I might just have one scene in my head–how can I create an entire novel out of one scene? The writing gremlins are usually pretty present in my first drafting experiences. It’s probably the effect of the blank page, or the blank canvas. But when I’m revising, I have fresh eyes and I’m ready to tackle the manuscript head on again.

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Writing Updates May 25, 2015

Writing updates from my desk pile @emily_m_deardo

Notes from the writing room:

  • This week I’m finally adding the new (and hopefully last) section to the memoir. I’ve nicknamed this part the “Dominican section”, since it deals with me joining a Dominican parish, discerning a vocation to be a cloistered nun, and things that happened after that. (No spoilers here, guys.)
  • I’m writing up my D.C. trip on the blog tomorrow, which, coincidentally, involves more Dominicans. (Subscribe to the blog if you don’t already, please?) It was a picture-perfect weekend, weather wise, which was so nice, since the last trip I made to D.C. involved snow and cold.
  • I’m also writing my next Real Housekeeping column this week, which involves how to stock your pantry and create easy meals from your food stash.
  • On Wednesday in this space will be a piece on revising vs. editing: no, they are not the same thing!

The First Draft–the Messy Scribbles

Writing the first draft, aka getting down the messy scribbles @emily_m_deardo

So you’ve finally decided you’re ready to start the first draft.

And you put pen to paper and….nothing.

I know some people think they need to know everything that’s going to happen in the novel before they start writing, and you really don’t need to. It helps, sure. But it’s not necessary. I’ve started pieces with just one scene in my mind and then gone from there. (Gift of Snow started this way.)

For a first draft, I find things like NaNoWriMo to be really helpful. You’re stuck with a word goal and the objective is to get everything on paper. You can’t stop because you’ve got the time crunch to meet the goal of 50,000 words, so you write through writer’s block and hopefully come out the other side with a story that has a beginning, middle, and an end. Personally, I need that sort of external accountability to get my first drafts done, and I only stop if I am really stuck–totally, creatively dry and at a dead end, which is what happened to my piece for NaNo last year. I just had no idea how to move the story beyond its embryonic stages.

If you don’t like the word goal idea, you can also tell yourself you’ll write for 30 minutes a day, or an hour a day–whatever. The point of a first draft is to get the basic sketch–the messy scribbles–of the story down. This also applies to writing nonfiction. Things like essays or speeches can be done this way, and I’ve done that before. You start with what you know is going in the piece. Then you can write things like “MORE HERE” (which I do all the time), or “WORDS” (if you’re being cheeky) as placeholders.

No one turns out a perfect piece of written work in a first draft. No one. Not Jane, not Dickens, not Ernest Hemingway. No one. So shut up your inner editor and just write. No one cares if it’s trash, because no one but you is ever going to see it. This is where you can think up whatever you want. When you go back and edit, that’s when you can critique and slash out entire chapters if you want. That’s the purpose of editing. But the rough draft is like a Pollock painting. It’s paint splashes on the canvas of the page. Reduce your expectations, sit down, and write.

Writing the first draft, aka getting down the messy scribbles @emily_m_deardo

It’s Alive! Creating a Vibrant Novel Part III: Dialogue

How to write convincing dialogue @emily_m_deardo

Dialogue is my favorite thing to write. Putting words in people’s mouth is always a fun thing to do, especially when it’s part of the job. Characters need dialogue in order to really exist. You can dig out the caves, you can do all your pre-writing research, but your characters, eventually, will have to talk to each other.

Having a good ear for dialogue is a bit of an unearned talent. Some writers have it, and some don’t. There was an entire period of novel writing when dialogue was pretty spare. Henry James is a great example of this. You have pages and pages of text, without any dialogue, and to be honest, this sort of writing drives me crazy. I don’t need pages of internal monologue. I need dialogue. Detail is helpful, yes; but there is a place where it becomes burdensome (see Moby-Dick….this is the main reason why I so dislike Melville).

Knowing your characters will tell you a lot about how they talk. If they’re lawyers, they’re going to talk different than Eliza Doolittle. An Earl is going to speak differently than a shopkeeper, and someone older is going to use larger words, and more sophisticated sentences, than a two-year old.

Here’s an example from The Undesirables, where we have several characters of different ages interacting:

I found Jack in the kitchen, spreading batter into a cake pan. “Guinness Cake, for Kate,” he said.

“Her favorite.”

“We’re going out for dinner?”

“Yup.” The strands of Aladdin, and the girls’ singing, came into the kitchen.
“Sweet. I’m off duty.” Jack placed the pan in the oven and tossed the mitts on the counter. “Where to?”

“We need to decide.”

“CHEESE,” The girls cried. LeAnne and Margaret were of one mind–they wanted the place that served grilled cheese down the street.

“Something a bit fancier, my ladies,” their dad said, picking each one up under the arms. The girls squealed and the threesome fell on the couch.

“Wendy’s!” They squealed in concert.

“Even fancier than that,” I said, tickling Margaret.

“I don’t know that it gets much fancier than Wendy’s,” Emme said as she tossed her keys on the counter.

“In their world, probably not,” Jack said as we let the girls go back to the movie. The Rug was playing checkers with Robin Williams’ Genie.

I actually love writing in kids’ voices, so this scene was fun for me to do. But it’s an example of adults interacting with kids, and kids being kids.

Dialogue is a place where stealing is a great idea. Charles Schultz said that if you didn’t have a funny dog you didn’t know how funny a dog could be, and it’s the same way with dialogue.

If you’re writing in an accent, it can be hard to catch that accent, so definitely do research beforehand. Don’t throw in words or expressions that wouldn’t fit that particular culture/social realm.

Jane Austen, of course, is a master of dialogue. There’s a reason we find her and Shakespeare so quotable. It’s because they knew how to write in a way that captured our ears and our minds. Stilted dialogue can kill a scene really quickly, and it’s something I’m always obsessing over.

A really good example of stilted dialogue? The Star Wars movies, especially the prequels. I like them as much as anyone else, but George Lucas’ gift really is not writing dialogue. It’s just not. Even the best actors can’t save bad dialogue.  They can try, but ultimately it’s probably always going to sound stilted.

Do you have favorite writers who excel in dialogue? Do you ever have problems writing it?

let's talk about creating great dialogue in your writing! @emily_m_deardo

It’s Alive! Creating a Vibrant Novel Part II: The Characters

let's talk about how to create great characters in your writing! @emily_m_deardo

Last week, we talked about how important research is to a novel. Today, we’re going to talk about the people that populate your stories–the characters.

There are a plethora of approaches involving characters. Virginia Woolf talked about digging a cave behind hers:

“I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters; I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humor, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect, & each comes to daylight at the present moment.”

 Diana Gabaldon writes about characterization at length on her website. Some authors prefer to know everything about their characters, from the time they were born to their favorite childhood breakfast, while some wing it as they go along. Some characters have things borrowed from people I know, and some are created out of whole cloth (like Ariel, a minor character in The Undesirables–I just worked on a scene with her yesterday, so she’s fresh in my mind. And yes, her name is Ariel for a reason.)

Generally, I know my main characters well. I write down details about them–eye color, hair color, height, general body shape and composition. I know how they like to dress and what they do for fun, and I can picture them as I’m writing. Secondary characters tend to spring up because the main characters need them to populate their world. For example, in Undesirables, Kate (the main character) has a best friend, Paige. David (Kate’s husband, and the other protagonist), has a best friend, Eric. While I might not know as much about these guys as I do about Kate and David, I still need to know how Eric and Paige will react in situations with Kate and David. How do they talk? What is their relationship with my main characters? What is their physicality–how they enter a room, how they sit, their mannerisms.

In Pilate’s Wife, for example, I knew there were things that Pontius and Claudia wouldn’t do. They wouldn’t slouch or be slovenly people. They wouldn’t talk with their mouths full. They have a certain sense of breeding and carriage. I also had to be careful of their dialogue. I couldn’t put twenty-first century idioms into first century mouths.

But the main characters have “caves” behind them: I know when they were born, who their parents are, their siblings. I often sketch out family trees for these guys, and have birthdays for their siblings and parents. I know where their parents live and where the characters grew up. I know their best and worst school subjects. To me, that’s all very important,  even if I will never use this information. I still have to know it.

The last piece of creating a vibrant novel is dialogue, and for this, I’ll have to devote another post.

Who are some of your favorite fictional characters? If you write fiction, how do you create your characters?

let's talk about creating great characters in your writing! @emily_m_deardo

Writing Updates–May 11, 2015

Writing updates from my desk pile @emily_m_deardo

The latest updates from the office:

  • First, I’d like to state that, as much as I love the new baby princess’s name, I named my royal character Charlotte years before she was born (The Gift of Snow). So when the novel comes out, don’t be thinking I stole her name, guys. 😉
  • Blog: The blog has its own tab here (look up–it’s the furthest right), but if you want blogging posts when they’re published, please go over there and subscribe. Here’s what I wrote about last week: How to handle life’s curveballs; knitting and reading. Two weeks ago, I had a post about books you need to read before you die, so if you’re looking for some summer reading, I’ve taken care of it for you!
  • Some of you have been asking about excerpts of the novels. I’m in the process of working on finding good sections and I will post those under the “excerpt” pages, above (they’re currently empty). I’ll update you when there is something there!
  • I’m doing major revisions to The Undesirables. When I first wrote it, my objective was basically to get a beginning, a middle, and an end in 50,000 words for NaNo. To do that, I wrote quickly and skimmed over some pretty large plot developments. Now I’m going back and filling all of those empty spaces in, and I’m having a ball.
  • As a gift for subscribing to the page, I’ve sent y’all a copy of Pilate’s Wife. If you did not get it–or are a WordPress Subscriber, in which case you didn’t get an email because I don’t have your email–please let me know so I can send you a copy. I want to make sure everyone who wants to read it can!

Pilate’s Wife–now available!

Pilate's Wife has been released! Find out how to get a copy  @emily_m_deardo

Hi everyone!

As promised, Pilate’s Wife went out to all subscribers today as a thank you gift! I hope that you enjoy reading it!

However, if you are a WordPress follower, I can’t email the story to you. So if you want a copy, please use the contact form on the about me page, and I will send you the story! I want to make sure you get your gift!

I’m “excited and scared” that this story is out there in the world, and I hope that you all enjoy it.

It’s Alive! How to Create a Vibrant Novel

Or, more basically: How I research novels.

Research leads to vibrant novels. Here's how to do it! @emily_m_deardoResearch is the part of the iceberg you don’t see, and it’s crucial to creating a world that your readers can believe. Even if I was writing about central Ohio in 2015, I’d still need to make sure that what I was writing about could actually happen in this place and this time. Nothing takes me out of a book faster than an author who doesn’t do research.

Here’s a real-life example of the above. I read a book that was set in present day central Ohio a few years ago, but it drove me nuts, because the geography was all wrong. One of the protagonists was a professor at what was meant to be OSU, which is in a specific location downtown, within relations to hospitals, landmarks, and our freeway system. But the author clearly wasn’t from central Ohio, because she had this character going from the OSU-stand in to hospitals around the city in ways that aren’t possible because 1)  we don’t have roads like she wanted us to have and 2) there were no hospitals where she wanted them. Since I’ve lived in Columbus and environs all my life, I know this area well. really well. I wanted to throw the book across the room every time I came upon another error in geography.

good example of this is the novel The Weird Sisters, which also takes place near where I live. The family lives in a suburb of Columbus, and it’s described the way it actually it. OSU again plays a part in the novel, and the time it takes for the characters to get from their house to OSU is about what it would take to get there, from where they live.

Now, will anyone else in the world notice these things, other than crazy me? Maybe. Maybe not. But research, as I can tell you, is a critical component to creating a believable world, and thus, a believable novel.

When I was writing The Undesirables, I did a lot of research things like the federal appellate process, Korean food, time zones, and travel times. I also did a fair amount of research into the opera that I had my main character performing in at the beginning of the novel. In this case, Kate (my protagonist) is a contralto. Thus, I can’t have her singing Brunnhilde, which is not a contralto part. But Olga, in Eugene Onegin, is. I researched how operas are rehearsed, and looked up terminology, like a “sitzprobe” instead of a “music rehearsal”. (A sitzprobe is the term for the first time the singers sing through an opera with the orchestra. It’s also used in musical theater, occasionally.) In Undesirables, I did research as things occurred to me, because I didn’t have a solid idea of where the novel was going to go.

For The Gift of Snow, however, I had a clear idea of setting, and it’s a place I’ve never been–Northern England. I had to do a lot of research for this: the weather, which plays a key element in my plot; roads in the area; types of houses and what they looked like (I didn’t want Nottingham House to be Buckingham Palace, but it also couldn’t be Barton Cottage from Sense and Sensibility), and servant etiquette (Downton Abbey helped in this last part!) There was no way I could write the novel without doing preliminary research. It would’ve driven me crazy. So I got a notebook and began to chart things: average temperatures for November, road maps, a photo of the house I was using as Nottingham House, a topological map of the area, etc. I kept all this in the notebook I used for this project, and I still have it, because there’s no way I’m throwing away all that research.

Like in journaling, I prefer paper. I’ve tried to use online tools, but pen and paper work the best for me. It’s a lot easier for me to rifle through the pages in my notebook than to try to find the file. I do, however, like the Stickies on my Mac as useful reminders of things I may come across.

And I also use Facebook. Yes, Facebook. I have friends who are incredibly well-traveled, many who are lawyers, and most that are just full of Worthless Knowledge. When I was researching Undesirables, I often put up statuses that asked questions for my lawyer friends.

Lack of research can actually stall a novel. I think this is the problem with the piece I mentioned last week. The novel is set in 1920s Pittsburgh, and I’m having a hard time getting into that mindset, and more particularly, the day to day life of an Italian family within that time period. I’m going to have to do a lot more research than what I thought I was going to have to do in order to truly create a world for these characters to populate.

Never overlook research. It’s the thing that undergirds the whole story, like the base of the icebergs I’ve got here. Will most people ever see all this? No. But you need to have it so you can create a world that won’t cause your readers to toss your novel across the room because you’ve gotten it all wrong!

(Next week: how to create characters.)

How do you like to research–or do you research? Tell me in the comments.

Research is the key to creating a vibrant novel! Here's how I do it @emily_m_deardo

The Art of Journaling

Yes, the ART of journaling--not just the practice of it! Find out more @emily_m_deardo

I really do mean the ART of journaling. This isn’t to imply that you need to draw or paint in your journals–I certainly don’t!–but that there’s a difference in style and approach between a journal and a diary.

A diary usually connotes daily basics: “got up. went to work. Traffic horrid. Squid for dinner.” This is why diaries that are sold for little girls usually have pre-dated or divided pages; there’s not much you’re going to cover in these.

A journal, on the other hand, can contain those elements, but it usually expounds upon more things–or it might not have anything to do with your day. In my journal (and yes, that’s it, pictured above) I’ve written about movies I like, books I’m reading, something in particular I saw on the news, evenings out with friends, how yoga class went. Essentially, anything is fodder for your journal. You can write as much or as little as you want, and you don’t have to write every day.

I’ve kept a journal since I was about 12 years old and my Aunt Patty sent me a Hallmark diary for my birthday. Even then, I didn’t stick to the pre-planned page layouts, and just wrote as much or as little as I wanted. I don’t write every day, and I’ve gone months without journaling (like immediately post-transplant, when I really couldn’t write–my right arm was covered in dressings for the burn I received, and even when it was removed, it took me a long time to make my handwriting legible again!). But in general, there are multiple entries a week, and I feel better when I’m journaling regularly. Research shows that journaling is a great stress reliever, and it’s certainly been that for me. But I also like the record I’m keeping of myself. Since I keep all my journals and date them, it’s easy for me to go back and find my college journals, or even my high school ones, and see what was important then, and how I’ve grown and matured in many ways since I’ve written then (my handwriting has gotten remarkably better, for one thing).

I do keep a paper journal. I can’t seem to keep an electronic one, unless you count blogging, and I don’t. That brings up an important distinction: a blog/facebook page/twitter is not your journal! This seems to be a problem for folks who grew up with Facebook and social media in general. Allow me to ‘splain it to you, Lucy.

Journals are private, unless you choose to share them (one reason I like the book form–easy to hide!). No one else reads my writing there. It is totally private. A blog/Facebook update/tweet is not. I don’t care if you only have five followers. Nothing written on social media is TRULY private. Do not bare your soul and share intensely private things unless you want everyone you know to read it. That’s also a good rule of thumb for blogging, by the way. When I first started working for the state senate, our legal counsel told us not to write anything in a work email that we wouldn’t want posted at the corner of Broad and High (Columbus’ equivalent of Times Square). Please, people, keep some things private. We really do not need to know everything about you.

But in a journal? Write away. Write whatever you want. It’s private!

So I keep a plain journal, preferably lined, although I’ve used unlined journals. I like moleskines the best because they travel really well and are made to take abuse. I use pens (I’m very picky about my pens), and I like to use sharpies for some color. I generally journal at the end of the day, but I have my gratitude journal in the morning, which I write in after lauds.  If you’re artistic, feel free to doodle/draw/paint in yours (Moleskine does sell journals for watercolors). I like to put in quotes I find funny/profound, or comic strips I’ve cut out of the paper, adding to the “commonplace book” aspect of my journaling.

It doesn’t have to be elaborate, and it doesn’t have to take long, but journaling is a habit I recommend for everyone, not just writers. Virginia Woolf said that “Nothing has really happened until it has been described,” and a journal is a great place to do that.

Do you keep a journal? How long have you done so? Or does the idea of journaling overwhelm you? Let’s talk about it in the comments!

Yes, the ART of journaling--not just the practice of it! Find out more @emily_m_deardo