Getting the Words Right by Alexis Alvarez
In 1958, an interviewer for The Paris Review asked Ernest Hemingway how much rewriting he did. “It depends,” responded Hemingway. “I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.”
The interviewer was curious. “Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?”
Hemingway replied, “Getting the words right.”
Getting the words right can take a month or a lifetime. Most people use websites such as effortlessenglishclub.com to try and aid with this. It is as simple as opening a vein, Hemingway was reported to say. In truth, it was the sports writer Red Smith who joke that writing was easy: “You just sit down and open a vein and bleed it out, drop by drop.” Still, Hemingway’s life as an author, replete with adventure and difficulty, is a testament to the beautiful irony of this oft-quoted phrase, and every author who reads it laughs and then says, “Yes,” understanding the agony of empty arteries and garbled pages.
The books get written – perseverance and dedication pay. Every author develops a method to distill the word flood into a sophisticated or wild vintage, using her style and voice to create something fresh. Although good editing will never be described in a perfect set of rote rules, there are enough similarities in the work flow of successful authors, which, taken together, describe a starting point for a solid editing process. Reflection over time, outside eyes, and a ruthless scalpel are the keys to most finished manuscripts, regardless of the author’s genre and experience, with an emphasis placed on the ability to cut junk and keep the jewels.
I talked to authors who write suspense, romance, erotica and young adult fiction to find the unifying themes for an expert editing flow. They are indie writers, authors who are affiliated with well-known publishers, and authors who move back and forth between the two. Some are newcomers to the writing world while others have been writing for years. Yet they all share the same convictions about their writing – that only with significant self-reflection, help from other readers, and the ability to look dispassionately at their own work can they create their brightest masterpieces.
Several popular techniques I’ll focus on include getting honest feedback from peers before publication (either through a writer’s group or beta readers), reviewing the book multiple times to look for inconsistencies and errors, and having the courage to make significant cuts or changes to the book, even if it’s difficult and time-consuming.
Writing groups come in all shapes and styles – some groups meet on-line only, and talk in message boards about works they have emailed to each other. Other groups meet in person, read aloud each week, and get real-time feedback and critiques. Still others combine real-life meetings and on-line interactions. The popular internet site Meetup can locate participating writing groups by state and region; many authors are surprised to discover multiple writing groups exist in their neighborhoods. I started my own local writing group in Chandler, AZ, when I didn’t find the perfect one to fit my needs.
Beta readers are people who read a novel before it’s published and offer feedback and critique to the author, who uses the suggestions to improve the work. Beta readers can be friends, family, peers; the common theme is that they are trustworthy and give helpful advice.
Sonali Dev builds reader feedback into her entire writing process in order to create a book that is smooth and polished. Her system works well for her. Sonali’s novel The Bollywood Affair was listed as one of NPR’s 100 Most Swoon-worthy books and as one of NPR’s best books list of 2014, and her novel The Bollywood Bride was listed as a Best Book of 2015 for fiction by Kirkus reviews. She has an interactive writer’s group, and uses feedback from trusted beta readers to refine her novels.
Sonali is passionate about writing and about getting feedback ahead of publication so she can perfect her books. She told me, “I’ve always thought of critiques as absolutely essential to my writing. I WANT to hear all the criticism, so I can see what I don’t see, and fix what I need to fix. But of course, this is why building trust with your readers is so important, because I instantly discard anything that I believe is a personal taste thing, or a lack of understanding thing. There’s this intricacy to each reader’s reading and reacting process. When you get to know them, you work out what their comments really mean, and you get better and better at picking out what that means for your story.”
Sonali’s writing group meets in person several times per year and works together on-line to provide assistance to each other. She says, “We do weekly goals and recaps and basically put out calls when we need something read/critiqued/brainstormed. Either an open call: Can anyone read my synopsis/chapters/MS? Or then we go to individuals who might have the specific skills we’re looking for.”
The feedback helps her make improvements to the story, such as this one: “In the book I just finished, my hero and my heroine are both survivors of trauma and are trying to deal with a lot of pain. And their relationship is based on how they are able to process their own pain by sharing in and helping with the other one’s pain. My hero hurts my heroine a few times, without meaning to, but he still does. And this bothered my CP. Basically I realized that my aim in those scenes was to have the hero take care of the heroine. That was the important part that led to the growth of their closeness. It required a little work and digging but I rewrote the scenes where he takes care of her but he doesn’t inflict the hurt first.”
Kacey Shea, a fresh new voice in the indie romance world who combines light-hearted humor with deeper themes, has used feedback from her writer’s group to improve parts of her manuscript for her well-received novels Uncovering Desire, Uncovering Love, and Uncovering Hope. She says, “In the manuscript I finished a few months ago, one of the main characters is a drummer. There was a passage with him getting into his car and blasting the music for the ride. A group member said, ‘I want to know what he was listening to, because if he’s a musician, it would be important to him.’ I thought that was insightful feedback, and made sure to add that he was listening to AC/DC’s Back in Black.”
That may sound like a small change, but many of these little suggestions add together to make a character more coherent.
Writing groups can take time, and some people with full schedules and young children can’t attend physical meetings. For these writers, beta readers provide feedback about the manuscript and suggest changes. In fact, many authors say that the beta readers are the most critical aspect of their entire process.
Sonali Dev has about ten beta readers for each book, some of whom include close family members. She says, “I get different things from different beta readers, who range from experienced writers from various genres to regular readers. But generally a good beta reader is someone who replicates a reader well and is able to tell me what worked for them and what didn’t in terms of character, plot, pacing. My beta readers are a mix of author friends whose work I enjoy (mutual respect and love for each other’s writing) to friends who love reading and are honest and read widely and whose opinion I respect as a reader. I also seek out a few beta readers who are subject matter experts in a theme or subject my book touches on.”
Sonali sends early revisions of her book to a set of beta readers, makes changes, and then sends the next revision to a new set of beta readers for additional feedback. Doing it this way, she says, guarantees fresh eyes the whole way through and gives her the kind of insight she needs.
She offers this advice to authors who are contemplating using beta readers for the first time. “Build relationships. Readers who can brainstorm their reactions are invaluable to me. Also the best readers are ones whose writing you enjoy and those who enjoy your writing. Sometimes even your closest friend just isn’t into the same sort of writing you are into, and then you’re both just wasting your time. Also, each reader has a different strength. Some do well at the scene level, others at larger story level. Take the time to learn and apply each individual skill.”
Renee Rose, USA-Today best-selling author of erotic romance, is enthusiastic about receiving honest feedback about her book ahead of time. She says, “I think I’ve always been open to honest critique. I majored in creative writing in college and spent thirteen years doing technical writing, so I’m used to receiving feedback and edits. I almost always accept feedback from my beta readers. I’ve learned that any time I ignore a beta reader’s feedback, a reviewer is sure to leave the same opinion.”
Renee has hit #1 on Amazon in the Erotic Paranormal and Sci-fi categories in the U.S. and U.K., is often found on the list of Amazon’s Top 100 Erotic Authors and is a regular columnist for the website Write Sex Right. Her most recent book, The Don’s Daughter, rose to the top of multiple Amazon charts. She isn’t part of a writing group, and she picks her beta readers carefully, developing strong relationships with them, in order to continue her success in the marketplace. She explains, “A good beta reader has your best interest in mind and wants to help you do your very best. They are the sort of friends who would tell you that you have spinach in your teeth. They aren’t afraid to say what bothers them, and they know you won’t take offense, because the feedback is given from love.”
Renee’s process is streamlined. She has four to five regular beta readers for each book who give detailed feedback and suggestions. “I share a google doc and they track changes. This way multiple beta readers can give feedback or interact at the same time, and I can make updates to the same doc. They will give me feedback about plot holes, likes and dislikes of characters, word choice, sentence structure, and even punctuation. I rely heavily on my beta readers.”
One change she’s made to a manuscript based on beta feedback? “In The Hand of Vengeance, I originally had the hero’s dog die. My beta readers and professional editor both complained, so I saved Dog.”
Kacey Shea has recently expanded her team of beta readers from four to eight to increase feedback for her newest novel. Because her large family and second career make it difficult to attend regular meetings in person, she’s moving away from physical writer’s group meetings and putting more reliance on her beta readers. She welcomes honest feedback, saying, “My beta readers are crucial to my process. I won’t write another book without them! Feedback, both positive and negative, fuels me to be better, to stay on schedule, and to edit along the way.”
Instead of sending a finished book, she sends several chapters at a time to her beta readers, and gets continuous feedback as she writes. “I ask them to email or message me once a week, after they’ve read the chapters. I ask for them to share with me the feelings they get from the characters (do they like them, hate them, relatable), story (did it flow well, did anything make you stop and have to re-read), and anything else that stands out, the good, bad, and ugly. I honestly live for their emails/messages because my betas are smart, well read, and have a great sense of humor.”
Kacey has made major changes to books based on beta reader feedback. “On this last book I wrote, I added an entire chapter based on one beta reader’s feedback that she felt jolted and completely taken out of the story from the transition of one chapter to the next. She actually thought maybe I had made a mistake and didn’t include it. The transition was too jarring and in turn I added a chapter that I not only love, but also develops the main character better. Sometimes when you’re in the thick of it, you can’t see with fresh eyes, and I think good beta readers do that.”
It’s not always easy to ask for and receive feedback, but a serious author does it anyway because the reward is worth the pain. Kacey disclosed to me, “I always get insanely nervous about sharing my work because it’s maybe the most vulnerable I’ve been. To let someone into my thoughts, my writing, is to share a piece of myself that most people haven’t seen. I’m an introvert who still struggles with opening up to new people, so I am learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable! For me, I don’t think this part will ever get easier.”
Leslie McAdam, a Wattpad writing sensation who recently published The Sun and the Moon to rave reviews on Amazon, says “Wattpad is my beta.” She doesn’t work with a writer’s group, but she gets large-scale feedback in other ways. She has hundreds of followers on Wattpad, some of whom have become friends and regular commentators on her work. She explains,“With the chapter by chapter publishing format of Wattpad, and the constant votes and comments, a writer gets A LOT of feedback. Since I pretty much write and post same hour because I’m crazy, I am basically letting the world see my first draft and comment on it. And sometimes those comments shape the manuscript because people will bring up questions that they want answered, or things that bothered them.”
In addition, she works with a trusted critique partner to develop the books further. She says, “I met Kristy Lin Billuni, who is both a grammar nazi and a former sex worker. Her business is called sexygrammar.com. She gives me feedback, from the ‘add commas’ here type, to the ‘my reaction as a reader was to think ___ when I read this.’ She is so helpful, I can’t explain it. She used to work for a publisher reviewing manuscripts and editing them, so she knows both the business and the genre of romance novels/erotica. She also knows STORY and a lot of the advice she has given me has stuck.”
Some of Kristi Lin Billuni’s suggestions include:
- “Write the fun part first. If you’re struggling to write something it could be because it’s boring and you don’t need it.
- Don’t use the word “was” if you can help it.
- One way of looking at plot is that a story has certain questions and the plot is when you answer those questions.
- Use the quirky, weird words to make it more interesting. Make the sentences lively, with sensory description.”
Leslie is adamant about listening to feedback. She urges other writers: “Don’t be too precious about your writing. Make it strong but malleable. Let in the criticism, even when it hurts. And if all else fails, whiskey.”
She gave me an example of a change she made based on feedback. “If too many people call you out on something, it probably needs to be changed. I had a joke in my book that I loved and NO ONE got it. NO ONE. I finally ended up taking it out because it was cleaner without it. (I still like the joke.)”
She recognizes that feedback is sometimes hard to take. When this happens, she recommends taking time to think it over. “Give it a moment. Don’t react immediately. Because maybe you’re defensive at first but later on it seems like a good idea.”
Despite being in a demanding job where getting writing critique is just a part of her day, she points out that receiving reader feedback as an author feels different, and it’s important to react appropriately to get the most out of it.
“In real life, I’ve been a lawyer for fifteen years and have received near constant criticism of my writing during that time, from colleagues, clients, and occasionally judges or the other side. At some point, you get used to it. That said, it’s still scary. Every time I hit “publish,” I sit back and cringe a little, because I am scared of what they are going to think. I like what I wrote, clearly, because I hit publish. But what if they don’t agree with me? That feeling/thought process hasn’t gone away yet.”
Leslie differentiates between various types of critiques, and how to respond to each.
“There are a lot of different types of criticism. The type that is the easiest to take (that is not praise) is that which points out fixable things, like grammar or punctuation, errors in word choice, or things that you look at and go, ‘ah, that’s what is written but that’s not what I meant, let me change it.’ That type of feedback is no big deal.
What is harder to take is when people say that they don’t connect with your character or that the chapter isn’t resonating with them. And when that happens, there could be a few things going on. Maybe that person just isn’t your reader. Like shopping at the super-huge Rose Bowl Flea Market, not everyone wants to buy your goods and it would be impossible to do so. Maybe that person really likes Sci Fi and you write Historical Romance. They are never going to like your writing.
But if the person IS your reader and something isn’t connecting with them, listen to them. I had a chapter that was a climax to a book and I really liked the chapter and no one else did. I asked Kristy to look at it recently and she gave me two items of feedback that really helped. She told me that the chapter was all in the character’s head and I needed physical description, a specific, easy fix. And she told me that my word choices were leaning toward generic rather than specific, and to use the weird words that make it more interesting. Again, a specific, easy (ish) fix. It was so helpful to show her the chapter and say, this isn’t working for others, how do I fix it?”
In addition to writing groups and beta readers, an author can get important information from reading Amazon reviews. Natasha Knight, one of today’s biggest names in erotic romance and dark erotica, told me that she always reads her reviews carefully, looking for trends and commonalities. “It’s often hard to take, but look at similarities. Chances are, if you’re hearing the same criticism over and over again, it’s not them, it’s you. Nobody is perfect and one of my favorite reviews is a 2 star I once received on Given to the Savage. There is value in this if you take it the right way.”
Natasha is a USA Today Bestselling author who writes a variety of genres including contemporary, paranormal, post-apocalyptic, science fiction and fantasy. She is a #1 Amazon Bestseller in multiple categories. Her most recent novel, Retribution, hit the top ten listing on multiple Amazon charts when it was first released. Natasha is currently self-published, but when she started writing she was with a publishing company. She gave me an example of a change that was suggested by her editor/reader at the time. “Captive’s Desire had some content edits. I’d not given Livia’s sister a happy ending originally and was asked to change it, and I understand why now. A satisfying ending — and not just for the main characters — is something people rely on in romance. At least I do when I read a romance.”
Natasha doesn’t use beta readers or a writer’s group (she lives in The Netherlands, and the closest genre-specific writing groups are hundreds of miles away in the UK). She goes through her manuscript herself at least five times, revising and making changes as needed after spending time in between reflecting and thinking about the storyline. She hires a copy editor to help clean up the manuscript when it’s almost ready for publication. Her process is thorough so she can catch as many flaws as possible. Here’s Natasha’s flow for editing:
“I first write the story and when I’m about three chapters from being finished, I book my editor so I can get on their calendar. I submit once I’ve read it through and revised myself about five times after the first draft is done. Once the editor gets my MS, I like two rounds rather than one because I tend to make a lot of changes between the two.
The first round is the hardest, but I go through the changes one by one, and accept or reject. My manuscripts at this point look like a very badly done test with more red than anything else! Once that’s done, I go through and read the MS again, revising along the way. I make notes as I go on timelines to double check as I do this, and end up reading it through probably twice more before sending it back for round two.
Second round is easier, but I’m really paying attention now to errors in timeline or hair color or anything the editor and I may have missed. I’ve worked with great editors, but I think it’s important to note that this is your book and your name is going on the book. If the editor missed something, you’re the one who looks bad, so it’s really important to be very present during this stage of the revision and make sure your story makes sense and flows and that you don’t have storylines that drop off or don’t match up between chapters. This happened in one of my books where, during this round, I found an error in one of the secondary character’s storyline. It was kind of major and I’d missed it after multiple readings and so had the editor (it happens, we’re human). You’ve just got to really be paying attention and not reading when you’re tired or the kids have the TV going in the background or anything.”
Most authors agree that regardless of whether or not you use beta readers or critique partners, a final content editor is critical to catch errors. The content editor is responsible for grammar and spelling and general continuity, and usually does not offer any kind of advice about plot, pacing, or characters.
Kacey Shea says, “I would never be able to publish a book someone else has not laid eyes on. It’s impossible for me to catch errors at a certain point because I have been reading it over and over and my brain already knows what it’s supposed to say. Attempting this solo doesn’t sound like a good time to me!”
Many authors find a content editor through word of mouth from author friends, and some have eagle-eyed friends and family who help with the read-throughs. Going through every single word is critical.
Natasha Knight recommends, “Ask questions if you’re hiring someone for the first time, and get references. Be very clear up front on your expectations. And ultimately, trust your gut. It’s your book, be humble and be open, but also know that you know it better than anyone else. Stand up for yourself and speak up when you’re not getting what you expected or what was promised.”
Even before sending a book to the copy editor, authors get it as clean as possible first, to give the editor the best chance to make it perfect. Kacey Shea comments, “I change the font between edits. It’s amazing how things pop out when it looks different! I also give myself time. Enough time so that when I’m reading it’s not something I’ve seen twenty times before and hopefully I’ll catch errors, double words, etc. And even though I do hire a copy editor, I have at a minimum three people I trust read though the final copy to look for errors, all of whom have not read the book before. It’s always fascinating, and a little scary, how many errors can slip through at this point.”
Leslie McAdam offers this advice to authors who may feel nervous about their grammar expertise — do the best you can, use others to help, and focus on how to make the book more meaningful to the reader. “I wasn’t an English major (I majored in Forestry) and I have some hang ups about grammar and writing. I haven’t let that stop me from writing, I’ve just tried to suck as much information as I could. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve been given about writing is to ‘lower the level of abstraction.’ What that means is instead of saying ‘he harassed me,’ you say ‘he called me every day at seven in the morning and let the phone ring three times and hung up.’ It’s more specific. I think that as you edit, look for ways to lower the level of abstraction so that the reader is more engaged in the story and can really picture what’s going on. Always think of the reader, even if you’re writing for yourself.”
If you’re still stuck? If the editing process is so painful that you want to give up? Maybe you need to change something bigger than a few words, or even a major plot twist. Are you writing what you really love? All of the best writers groups, beta readers and content editors in the world can’t improve a work that doesn’t resonate with readers – and in order to connect with them, you first have to connect with yourself.
Sonali Dev says, “When I started writing novels, I was trying to write this really complicated literary novel, and I was very lost. And I kept hearing write what you love, write what you love. And I had this love story in my head. I had TB and I was stuck in the house and I was too depressed to write my literary novel. And I said, well, you know, I’m going to write what I love and this love story that’s been in my head, which was The Bollywood Bride. I grew up watching Bollywood films, and what romance readers are seeking and what the Bollywood audience is seeking are exactly the same, which is an emotional connection, emotional highs and lows. People who criticize the predictability of romance or of Bollywood films misunderstand the point of both. The point isn’t logic. It’s feeling. We hunger for that emotional bite, those highs and lows and that—I call it a heartgasm. That’s what both have.”
Remember to keep the heart of the thing, even as you busy yourself with the myriad details involved in editing and publishing a book. Don’t let your story get lost in the flurry of details and revisions, in the Oxford commas and the adverb deletion.
The authors quoted in this article are experts at their craft, and they’ve all created brilliant stories that I love, and one thing I respect about each one is her unique and strong voice. They put their heart and soul into their writing. Despite the fact that there are significant differences in their editing processes, they all do the hard thing – they listen to feedback and edit, even when it’s nerve-wracking and heart-smashing. You can’t mimic their results by copying their formula, but reading about their experiences can help spur new ideas to try. Their commitment reminds me of another quote by Red Smith: “I made up my mind that every time I sat down to a typewriter I would slash my veins and bleed and that I’d try to make each word dance.”
The point is to get creative and do what it takes, using ideas from other writers and your own, to turn your work into the best thing it can possibly be. In the end, if you do it well, you will get your words right.
Find the Authors & Editors:
Kristi Lin Billuni (SexyGrammar.com)
Real Quote by Hemingway:
The Paris Review, Spring 1958, No 18: Ernest Hemingway, The Art of Fiction No. 21. Interviewed by George Plimpton.
Quotes by Red Smith, incorrectly attributed to Hemingway:
The Quote Investigator. http://quoteinvestigator.com/2011/09/14/writing-bleed/