The Perfect Sentence

Writing & Editing – Creating the Perfect Sentence

By Alexis Alvarez

I can still see the excitement in my German teacher’s face, how he radiated enthusiasm through his hands. His gestures grew like waves in a storm.  “This is one of the most perfect sentences ever written!” he declared. “And you are lucky to read and understand it in the author’s original voice.”

His gray curls bobbed.  “Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheueren Ungeziefer verwandelt.”

Light streamed in through the paned Barnard windows and I saw tiny flecks of spit hurtling like diamonds through the dusty air, and this accentuated his immense delight in the way the words moved in his mouth. He had us recite it aloud together, and we agreed on the perfection, the way it slid off the tongue, The German guttural and slick at once.

kafka book with quote

“Memorize it!” he exhorted us, and I did, the words ingrained in my brain after that one reading, my mind mesmerized with the cadence.

My German teacher’s  name was Marvin Shulman.  He was five feet something tall, and his energy for German, his love for words, radiated from his pores.  My mental image attached to his name is this: Seeing him lean forward in emphasis, as if only by approaching us with the words could he hurl them into our souls.

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He spoke about something I’d felt in small bursts while reading – the joy of finding lines where the words fit together like puzzle pieces, as if they were meant to belong in that order, and the author was the first one who discovered it.

Since then, I’ve been on the lookout for other perfect sentences, and sometimes I write them down in notebooks, so I can enjoy them later like mind candy.

“Like a cat in the dark, your whisker touched something the wrong way and you backed out.”

-Mary Gaitskill, Veronica

“In the water, a dark plume of blood blossomed by her foot; as I looked, a thin red tendril spiraled up and curled over her pale toes, undulating in the water like a thread of crimson smoke.”

-Donna Tartt, The Secret History

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Every Author is a Translator

In her New Yorker article Teach Yourself Italian,” author Jhumpa Lahiri talks about the difficulties of learning a new language as an adult, and trying to become not just proficient, but expert enough to write in the new language, beautifully.   She studies Italian for years in America, but it is only when she moves to Rome that she begins to think in Italian and to reinvent herself as an author who can write in Italian.  In the beginning, it’s a torturous process full of gaps and halts, but the sentences she writes to describe it are so lovely that they shine, notebook worthy.

“I write in a terrible, embarrassing Italian, full of mistakes. Without correcting, without a dictionary, by instinct alone. I grope my way, like a child, like a semiliterate. I am ashamed of writing like this. I don’t understand this mysterious impulse, which emerges out of nowhere. I can’t stop.

It’s as if I were writing with my left hand, my weak hand, the one I’m not supposed to write with. It seems a transgression, a rebellion, an act of stupidity.”

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She is determined to master the language to the point where the words work for her, within her, so that she can think in effortless Italian and make beautiful, perfect sentences in this new language that calls to her heart.

She does it: She learns to write so well in Italian that she doesn’t need to think of the words in English and translate in her mind into Italian; she does the more fundamental translation, that of images right into Italian.

Because all writers are translators.  We are learning the language of our own mind and soul, and finding a way to get the thoughts out in a way that other people can understand. Whether we do it in our native tongue or a new one, it’s a steep mountain to climb: how do you take the ephemeral wraiths in your brain and implant them into someone else’s head?

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It’s a laborious process. Often I feel the way she did, writing in English, my native tongue. We have to translate our thoughts into words, and organize the words into something sensible and lovely; then the other person must read and interpret them.

It reminds me of Escher’s drawing of the hands drawing each other, turning from three dimensional to two dimensional and back: It’s something alive that gets flattened out, smashed into print before it’s resurrected in another body, and only the excellent writers create words that can send thoughts across this journey without being irreparably damaged in the process.

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There’s no simple secret on how to do this.  But it’s possible to improve any writing through editing. The more we observe our work dispassionately, the harder we strive to improve our sentences, the better we’ll become at our craft.  And with practice, we can write some perfect sentences of our own.

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How To Start

Stop worrying about perfection and write what flows into your brain and out of your fingers.  Give your wordless images words; allow them ugly life, then you can mold them back into the images you see in your brain.  You can’t edit an empty page. There are some writers who don’t revise at all, but it’s rare.  Most authors find editing to be the most painful and most fruitful part of the  process.

collette quote with outline

It’s like assembling a box of old bones into some new animal the world has never seen, not even me. At first there’s a rough scaffolding of a shape, but it’s wrong: I have too many ribs, an ankle attached to a wrist, a sad leg dangling uselessly into space, a spine that diverges into two necks, one of which I must sever.  Over time, with great effort, I reassemble, remove, revise, until the beast stand firm, a shape emerged.  Only then can I start putting on the skin and the color, the delicate eyelashes and the sparkling teeth, the eyes that glance and burn.

When I have the animal, I can show it to other readers and allow them to tell me where it’s still wrong.  These people, my writer’s group and my beta readers, look at my creation and tell me where it’s broken, bleeding, dull, hollow.

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This part is the hardest part of my writing process, because sometimes significant changes are necessary, and they are difficult.  I feel like I’m doing brain surgery on most delicate tissue, trying to improve and refine without killing the host.  It would be easier to pretend the thing is  fine and  publish, but that’s the bigger misstep, because once it’s out there in the world, ready to roar out its presence, those flaws will make me wince every time I see it.

It’s not even that the editing process makes it perfect, it just makes it better.  Each thing I write, each edit I perform, I improve my skills. Malcolm Gladwell proposes in his 2008 book Outliers, and several follow-up articles, that it can take up to ten thousand hours to become an expert in many fields. He points to certain musical virtuosi, computing geniuses, and sports stars who put in significant amounts of time – nearly ten thousand hours each –  before becoming the master of their craft. 

paino with 10k

 

He reminds the reader that a certain amount of natural skill is necessary, and passion is what will keep you interested over the long haul– but for most people, putting in the time is fundamental.  People who skip past the practice right to the perfection are the exception, not the rule.

Don’t shy away from the hours your writing and editing take. Count them all as worthy steps toward your goal, although, of course, writers don’t always have discrete goals, but long, winding paths that last our entire lives.

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Common Writing Rules

How do you know what to cut, what to keep?  My process is this: Rules and readers.  I go through my work several times first, using basic rules of thumb to shorten and streamline, then I ask others to read it and give feedback on things big and small.  My writing group will pick out missing commas and redundant language as well as bigger plot inconsistencies, and my two sisters will give me gut-wrenching feedback about the story as a whole and what needs to change to improve it.

Some common rules that writers follow

  • Show, don’t tell
  • Avoid adverbs when modifying the word “said”
  • Limit adverbs everywhere else
  • Be succinct
  • Alternate long sentences with short
  • Use concrete rather than vague language
  • Avoid passive voice
  • Reduce “ing” verbs. (Ex: Use she looked instead of she was looking.)
  • Don’t repeat words too often
  • Cut the stuff that readers skip
  • Use outside eyes to help edit

There are more.  These can, and should be broken as necessary, but they’re a starting point, a good one.  In the rest of the article I’ll focus on avoiding adverbs, being succinct, “ing” words, and outside eyes for editing.

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Favorite Writing Rules: Avoid Adverbs — “Show, Don’t Tell”

For me, “show, don’t tell” and “use concrete language” are the most important ones; the “avoiding adverbs” –my current favorite — is part of that.

steven king quote 2

When I learned we’re supposed to be sparing with adverbs, I was sad. Obsequiously. Intermittently. Spasmodically.  Unskillfully.  You could  assemble a list of them and it would be a poem.

When I read the why behind it, I understood.  An adverb is often a short-cut that replaces details.  If you force yourself to eliminate certain adverbs, you will need to fill in the gap with a specific description, and this makes your story interesting and vivid.  Sometimes as the author you want and need your reader to fill in gaps, to make up their own mind about your characters, but it’s usually not in places where you’re clarifying something important about a character’s appearance, thoughts or actions.

No, you want to save that for places where they’ll catch hidden meanings or put together some clues you’ve scattered throughout the text.  Let them work for the intellectual, challenging connections. But for the fundamentals of your story? Those should be crystal.

 

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If you overuse them, adverbs hide what’s really happening. Compare the two versions below.

Original

He shouted loudly, gesturing wildly with his hands. His hair blew crazily in the wind, and even though she leaned forward intently she couldn’t understand a single word. Below them, the ocean churned.

Edited

He shouted, gestured, and it looked as though he were trying to shake water from his fingers. She couldn’t understand a thing. The wind tossed his hair over his face like a dancing veil. It seized his words and tumbled them down the rock wall to the sea, where they sucked under and drowned.

Maybe to you, gesturing “wildly” means waving your hands to and fro for emphasis. Maybe it means pointing a finger and shaking it, or slamming one fist into a palm. If I want the reader to see exactly what I see, I need to tell them. If I don’t want them to see exactly what I see – why not?  Is there a reason?

checkov quote w outline

For me, it was a shortcut. I was trying to get the pictures out of my  head and onto paper, and in order to do that before the ideas faded, I used adverbs as placeholders.

When I went back to edit, I replaced them with the more specific images. This made the passage longer, which is opposite of the “being succinct” rule. To make up for it, I went through the manuscript and cut out words elsewhere that added bulk without beauty.

Sometimes adverbs are the perfect fit for your passage, and if that’s so, use them proudly and unapologetically. Authors mix in a deliberate ratio of adverbs for emphasis, perhaps because they love the sound, perhaps because they want to grant the reader poetic license to see their own vision.

Some writers have such intricate prose and vivid descriptions that an adverb here and there is good; it’s a breath between thoughts, it’s the oil that glides the story forward.

Take this example from Robert Hellenga’s The Fall of a Sparrow:

“The guitar had tremendous power and volume, tremendous resonance and sustain, more than Woody had been able to control; but the man skillfully damped the strings, now with his left hand, now with his right, so that the sound that came through was clean and penetrating, free from the resonator rattling Woody’d been aware of when he was playing. He didn’t know what to say.

‘Guitar like this can change your life,’ the clerk said when he’d finished the song. You don’t have to play it; just show it to people, let them look at it.”

guitar closeup small

When a great author mixes in a few adverbs with his or her gorgeous description, it’s almost like a compliment to the reader:  “I trust you to fill in the details. You get me.” The use of ‘skillfully’ here doesn’t hurt the passage. It provides a little bit of “you figure it out on your own” help, and that’s effective, because Hellenga’s words are rich and luxurious, and the additional of a bland helper now and then works.  He doesn’t just convince you that he’s heard this guitar; he convinces you that you have.

Here’s an example from Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, by Geoff Dyer:

“A dusty pole of sunlight poked in from the outside, illuminating a piece of Sanskrit written on a wall.  The boy pointed at the light, which pointed at the sacred text like the finger of a slow reader moving across the page of a difficult book. I continued moving too and the boy tagged along, keeping fractionally ahead of me, thereby subtly suggesting that he was being employed to guide me.”

His style is unique, his words gorgeous.  The adverbs  keep us moving along so we can see more poles of sunlight and hear the bells ringing.  Unpacking these particular adverbs into longer exposition would spoil the passage.

sun ray on sanskrit2

Some authors use adverbs all over the pages, tons of them, and still write best-sellers.  Donna Tartt’s book The Secret History is a favorite of mine, even though she shot her adverbs at it with a BB gun. She uses Greek mythology and  purple-tinged prose that hangs just on the right side of beautiful, and that makes it possible to forgive her for sentences like these:

“I know what he wants,” Charles said bleakly. “He wants us to come over to his hotel and have dinner.”

“Suddenly, his face changed. To my great surprise he cursed loudly and slammed down the receiver so hard it jangled.”

“Isn’t that interesting,” he said coolly. “I’m really not attracted to you, either.”

I don’t mind because she has glorious lines like these: “When I got to my room it was silver and alien with moonlight, the window still open and the Parmenides open on the desk where I had left it; a half-drunk coffee from the snack bar stood beside it, cold in its Styrofoam cup.”

mittelmark on adverbs

Maybe because Tartt uses so many adverbs from the very start, and because her book is  larger than life, a Greek tragedy come alive, it’s appropriate to have the characters overact their emotions.  Her adverbs are like stage directions for the mind. We imagine what to see as the storyteller narrates.

parmenides ad

Fans of J.K. Rowling may note the abundance of adverbs in her writing, adverbs which in no way hindered her stratospheric success.  People love her plot and her characters so much that they care little about her adverb usage.

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More about Adverbs: Don’t Let Them Mar Your Translation

If you use too many adverbs, you don’t thoroughly describe the images in your mind, and the reader misses the path you worked so hard to create. Yet if you unravel every adverb with a long explanation, you can end up with unwieldy text, top heavy and boring.  Sometimes it’s necessary to rewrite an entire passage when you eliminate adverbs.

Here’s a paragraph I wrote after interviewing a provocative local artist.

This is how I felt when I saw his shop

His art workshop was impeccably organized and obviously styled; more like a gallery than a place of labor, it was instantly obvious that he was abundantly in  need of praise, as much from himself as from others.  The works of art in progress were discomfiting and strange, everything designed to provoke unease. Even the way he organized his books spoke to his need for  grandiosity. 

Arranged as they were in shelves, in such a fashion that a single book could not be extricated without sending the rest tumbling, his organization let any guest know that he was so incredibly smart about art that he’d never need to read such a book again. They were not worth his time.  It reminded me of a person so rich that he had no use for the dollar bills that we peons coveted.  There was nothing humble about his space.

Rewritten

Soup-can-shaped containers waited in silent precision. Four feet tall, wiggly and large enough to hide a crouching human, they rippled at a finger touch. A white, powder-coated body exposed wires from a leg, a thigh, the torso, dripping them onto the shiny steel table across from his desk. This view was equally intimate and disturbing: his signature.  A hundred glossy hard-cover art books, arranged  in an intricate pattern of piles and floating shelving from which a single volume could not be extricated without disrupting dozens, were themselves an exhibit.

I once saw a picture of a wealthy man who lacquered an entire room in gold and hundred dollar bills, and it struck me that Tonnesen had a similar narcissistic arrogance; so convinced was he of his superiority that books on the subject, with nothing left to teach him, were best used as self-congratulatory décor.

 

bill tonnesen art

 The thing with adverbs is to use them with intent — verify that they’re the best option to make your sentence complete.  No published author has a perfect manuscript, so don’t use their mistakes and shortcuts as a justification for your own. Make your writing as strong as you can. In the long run, it will serve you well.

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Be Careful With “ing” Verbs

Renee Rose, USA Today best selling author of romance and erotic fiction, gave me an example of a before/after paragraph from one of her best-selling novels.

Original

“No,” he said and then had to lunge to catch her as she tried to escape. He wrapped both arms around her and held her tightly against his body. “No, Celia. I would never do that. Angelina was talking about you because she’s jealous.”

He could feel the shape of her firm breasts pressing against his chest through her thin robe and the image of their naked glory rose in his mind. His eyes strayed down to her lips again. She was looking at him full in the face, studying him as if to determine whether he spoke the truth.

Edited

“No.” He lunged to catch her as she tried to escape. With both arms wrapped around her, he held her tight against his body. “No, Celia. I would never do that. Angelina was talking about you because she’s jealous.”

Her firm breasts pressed against his chest through her thin robe and the image of their naked glory rose in his mind. His eyes strayed down to her lips again. She looked at him full in the face, as if to determine whether he spoke the truth.

Renee did a few things to clean up the passage.  She eliminated several “ing” words (progressive verbs).  By replacing “She was looking” with “she looked” she made the sentence crisper.

Sometimes the sense of motion or time passing is necessary to the story, or to your character’s voice, and if that’s the case, don’t hesitate to use an “ing.” However, many times authors use it as a habit. Be aware of when you’re using an “ing” instead of an “ed” and make it a deliberate choice. Overuse of “ing” words makes a passage fuzzy – a matted dog that needs a haircut.

Authors use “ing” words because they worry that time will snap by, sharp, and slingshot the action ahead of itself. That’s not the case. Readers know to extend or compress time using context. They don’t need a constant flurry of “ings” to remind them about it.

Too many “ing” words:

She  kept looking out at the sea during her coffee break while she was eating her sandwich.

Revision without “ings” makes it stronger:

During her coffee break, she ate the sandwich without taking her eyes from the sea once.

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Beta Readers Provide Valuable Input

My sisters are my two best beta-readers. They read my entire novel from start to finish.  Because they see the whole manuscript, they can give me overriding feedback about a character’s development and where it falls flat. In addition, they give me detailed critiques of sentences and paragraphs that should be fixed.

Here are some examples that Maria did for my novel in progress, Boston. She highlights the comments that need help, and puts her thoughts in a comment to the right.  I usually take all of my sisters’ suggestions, because they make sense.  (Don’t worry; many adverbs were harmed in the making of this story.)

comm3 from maria

She points out places where the language is clunky or offensive.

comm2 from maria

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Writing Groups Are Golden!

My writer’s group provides feedback on a chapter by chapter basis. During a typical meeting, each person takes a turn reading their segment aloud while the others follow along on hands-outs and take notes. The written-up hands-outs go back to the original author, who can use the comment to make improvements.

I’ve scanned several hand-outs with comments from my group. In each case, I used the feedback to make changes.  Some of the changes may seem small. Added together, these comments work together to make a book streamlined and sleek.

Bren commented on my excessive use of the word “I”.  My book is written in the first person, and it’s imperative to break up the “I-fest” and come up with creative ways to tell the story without inundating the reader.

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Edits from Bren

Angela always gets on me for my excessive use of semicolons. What can I say; I love the dang things.  She  pointed out my over-reliance on the word sex(y). When I edited, I found new words and maybe even got rid of a few semicolons; a sad process, but critical.

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Edits from Angela

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Edits from Angela

 

We point out things that work with a smile or an LOL, and are honest about things that don’t work. Jill gave me a smiley for a  good line, and suggested eliminating an entire paragraph, which I did. She gave me an idea for a better phrase, and I used it.

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Edit from Jill

Adriana asked for more detail on perfume; when I rewrote, I added in the exact scent (Light Blue, by D&G.)  She suggested ways to streamline and I took many of them.

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Edits from Adriana

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Edits from Adriana

Kacey pointed out that I used a lot of run-on sentences, something I want to fix.  Her reminder stayed in my head while I edited, and I was careful to mix it up — some long sentences, some shorter, for variety.

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Edits from Kacey

Group members are honest when they find a phrase that sounds out of place or awkward.

kacey edit 2

I removed the “whore” reference. It didn’t work.

Make Your Editing Process Your Own

Your editing process might not involve beta readers or friends from a writer’s group, but no matter what you do, it’s critical to revise and improve your work. Sometimes, time itself is a wonderful editor.  Let the manuscript sit for a week or a month, then re-read.  After some distance, you may be able to make changes that would have scared or hurt you the first time through.  The point is to do what it takes to make our work better, to turn it into something that captures readers.

My favorite books are ones where I read something and exclaim, “Yes! She gets it. I feel this way. I am this way.” Or, “This is really what life is like.”  When you find an author who shines a light into your soul and illuminates something, not just in you but across humanity, showing you that a part of you which you considered fundamentally different is actually intrinsic to a greater population, it’s better than any magic trick in the world.   Words are finite, but some authors make them sing.

kafka quote

Franz Kafka, author of The Metamorphosis, supposedly said about writing:

“Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.”

The interesting part is that sometimes our writing comes out muddy and watered down, and it’s only through editing that we get it clear and perfect.  Jhumpa Lahiri used all of Italy, the country, as her editor, while she was in the process of learning Italian.  We, too, can use everything at our disposal here at home:  Writer’s groups, beta readers, and self-reflection. 

Lahiri never stopped; just like Malcolm Gladwell’s “ten thousand hour” experts, she pushed on, day after day.  So do that.

The more we revise and edit, the closer we come to making perfect sentences of our own.

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Bibliography / Credits

Kafka, Franz with  Ian Johnston. Die Vervandlung – Metamorphosis (German-English Parallel Text).  London: JiaHu Books, 2014.

Gaitskill, Mary.  Veronica. New York: Vintage Books, 2005.

Tartt, Donna. The Secret History.  New York: The Ballantine Publishing Group, 1992.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. “Teach Yourself Italian.” The New Yorker Magazine. December 7th, 2015 Issue. (With translator Ann Goldstein.)

Gladwell, Malcolm.  “Complexity and the Ten Thousand Hour Rule.” The New Yorker Magazine. August 21st, 2013 issue. 

Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers. The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008.

Dyer, Geoff.  Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. New York, Vintage Books, 2010.

Hellenga, Robert. The Fall of a Sparrow.  New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1999.

Quote by Parmenides:  https://faculty.washington.edu/smcohen/320/parm1.htm

Photography:  All pictures are owned and copyrighted by Alexis Alvarez.

book pile

I have hundreds of ebooks, but I still love my paperback versions!

 

 

Getting The Words Right – The Magic of Editing

Getting the Words Right by Alexis Alvarez

 

Retro styled image of a vintage typewriter with a blank sheet of paper

 

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.

steven king quote

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 graphic

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.

KACEY GRAPHIC

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.”

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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.”

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One of Renee’s most trusted beta readers

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.”

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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.)”

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Leslie’s jokes are far better than these. No kidding.

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.”

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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.

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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.”

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One of Leslie McAdam’s Fans

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.

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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.

Happy Editing.

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Find the Authors & Editors:

Sonali Dev

Leslie McAdam

Renee Rose

Kacey Shea

Natasha Knight

Kristi Lin Billuni (SexyGrammar.com)

References

Real Quote by Hemingway:

The Paris Review, Spring  1958, No 18:  Ernest Hemingway, The Art of Fiction No. 21.  Interviewed by George Plimpton.

http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4825/the-art-of-fiction-no-21-ernest-hemingway

Quotes by Red Smith, incorrectly attributed to Hemingway:

The Quote Investigator.  http://quoteinvestigator.com/2011/09/14/writing-bleed/

https://killzoneblog.com/2012/11/the-perils-of-internet-information.html

http://oztypewriter.blogspot.com/2015/03/making-blood-splattered-words-dance-off.html

hemingway farewell to arms