Cutting Words Without Value

I have to admit that self-restraint around food isn’t one of my strengths. I like food a little too much. I’m working on down-sizing my appetite… and then hopefully my wardrobe.

One of the things I use to say when younger was about “unwanted calories”. If you aren’t going to enjoy eating something (e.g. the flavourless crusts on a pizza) then its “unwanted calories”. Why consume calories when it’s surplus to need and not going to be enjoyable either? It’s smarter on so many levels just to bin it.

There are certain words that have no value, just like unwanted calories. They add nothing to the story and so should be deleted.

One of the tasks I’ve done recently is to review every use of the word ‘that’. It is most often a filler word whose presence can be removed without altering the meaning of the sentence at all. I know I use it unconsciously. When I did my word frequency analysis I had a massive 735 ‘that’ uses.

that
A particularly bad example of THAT shame

My ‘that’ hunt eradicated it down to just 149 instances. A good hunt, indeed.

Organising Feedback

feedback-1793116_640

I’ve had a few rounds of feedback on Vengeance Will Come and have been mostly diligent in filing responses in a sub folder of the project as soon as I receive it. (If your inbox is anything like mine, things get lost in there like a grain of dirt swept up in a mudslide).

Sadly, that’s about where the organisation of feedback ended. (In my partial defence, I intentionally wasn’t processing the feedback straight away: I wanted a balance of opinions and some time to pass).

Here is what I’m going to do now, and in the future, before starting the revision process.

Compiling the Feedback

Create a Feedback Compilation document, which has the same structure (chapters and scenes etc) as the novel.

Go through each (feedback) document/email:

  • Where it’s a typo, grammar or obvious error (e.g. wrong character name), fix it in the manuscript immediately.
  • Where the feedback is incontestably wrong, ignore it. (If there is any doubt, don’t ignore it).
  • Where the feedback relates to a given chapter/scene place it in that location in the document. If it’s thematic feedback or has broader application than a single section I’ll add it to the top of the document.

    I’ll add three-letter initials of the reviewer in brackets at the end of the comment, just in case I want to know who provided it. Some reviewers opinions should hold more weight than others and it’s always helpful to be able to later clarify comments.

Colour Coding

  • If the tone of the comment is positive, change the font colour to something less stand-out than black. I’m leaving it in the document so I don’t accidentally “edit out” the bits people like. And, inevitably, there’ll be days when I need a motivational boost.
  • Where I disagree with the feedback I’ll add a comment in brackets as to why, and colour the font a grey. (It’s still there, but less important).
  • Where I agree with the comment (or enough reviewers pick up on the same issue) and it’s a major problem, apply bold and red font.

Summarising

  • Once I’ve added all the feedback from all reviews, I’ll group my related dot points (to see the weight of opinions). This might result in grey text I disagree with becoming black text. I might also paraphrase a collection of dot points down into a concise problem statement.
  • If reviewers disagree with each other then I’ll either side with one, or put both opinions in a table with two columns (pros and cons).

After all this work I should have a single document to use as a reference when editing each section of the novel.

If you write, what are your strategies for managing feedback?

VWC Revision: Renaming Characters

Still learning how to write, I don’t always do the right thing at the right time.

The writing luminary Orson Scott Card has rules for naming characters (here and here). The primary rule is that character’s names should not start with the same letter or sound. A sensible rule.

The image below lists all of the named characters in Vengeance Will Come and highlights the problem.

VWC Named Characters Original

(Those in grey are minor characters who don’t get a point-of-view. Some appear repeatedly, and others are only in a single scene).

Too many names?

There are, arguably, too many names and if possible I’ll cull a few of them during the course of the revision by de-naming them.

The reason for so many characters is two-fold. I admit I find it awkward and unnatural to refer to someone multiple times without assigning them a name. Occasionally I’ll give them a nickname (like “Tuxedo” or “Double Muscle”), but doing that too often also feels unnatural – unless that’s a point of view character quirk. Also, like a good fan of Robert Jordan I plan to take a few of the minor characters and elevate them in subsequent books.

Breaking Uncle Orson’s rule

This is a problem I should have fixed much earlier, but better late than never. You’ll also notice in the original image there are a heck of a lot of characters named with similar letters (S, T and M). So here are my proposed changes:

VWC Named Characters Revised

I’m achieving a few goals with these changes:

  1. I’m de-stacking the heaviest use letters.
  2. I’m strategically changing the gender of Teskan (see upcoming post about gender balance).
  3. I’m structuring names in-world. It’s always bothered me that some characters have two names while others only have the one. This was just how it was and I had no good reason for it. Now I do: important individuals (the elite) in the world get two names, whereas everyone else gets one.

The only difficult, and possibly controversial change I wrestled with was “Three”. My opinion pivoted like a see-saw.

On the one hand some reviewers found it understandably difficult, because it’s a real word with a different meaning. It can therefore trip the brain up for a while.

However some respected reviewers liked it and were upset at my thoughts of altering it.

It does breach Uncle Orson’s rule, and is especially dangerous because another major character (Terefi) use the same letter. I can’t change Terefi because of the origin of his name.

But I was also really fond of the name. It’s so different that I think it helps put an “other world” spin on it. (Which, in hindsight, is kind of ironic because we have some crazy names being used on this planet). As I originally conceived it, it is also more than just a name, though that won’t become apparent until later in the series.

So eventually the see-saw motion stopped and Three remained.

A final warning

The other draw back I’ll warn you about is using words that the grammar checker will work itself into a lather over. Because three is a legitimate word, but capitalising it in the middle of a sentence is not kosher, the grammar checker has a perpetual hissy-fit. Even worse (and I’m not sure I should admit this) “Three” started off as “X”. Just a bad move; I don’t think I could get the spellchecker to ignore the single letter.

Hopefully these changes will help to balance out name-usage and make it easier for my readers. Now it’s just a matter of retraining my brain and muscle memory to type the new names instead of the old.


Help over the fence

Want a beta-reader? I’ve been helped in my development process by other beta readers and now it’s my turn to ‘pay it forward’. Each month I’ll read a chapter of someone’s story and comment on it. To be eligible, just comment on one of my posts with “*Review*” in the comment and you’re in the running.

Jumping the Productivity Moat

Although revision on Vengeance Will Come has only just begun I’m reasonably happy with the progress so far.

Revision Work…

Here’s a summary of what I’m looking at:

  • I’m Cutting out superfluous words. Not just the occasional word in a sentence, but also entire sentences. For example, the following line of dialogue:

“Physical muscles are less important than mental strength and wisdom, neither of which is guaranteed by age.”

I originally wrote it as a subtle dig at a character that he was physically weak, to feed a sense of inadequacy. That reference is no longer required and its presence is now out-of-place. It adds no value and causes only distraction. The delete key fixed that.

  • Word choice. Sometimes I’m using the same word in quick succession and that is poor form. (Sidebar: A previous Writing Excuses podcast I listened to mentioned that there are some words you can only use once in a story).
  • Using contractions in dialogue. This, strangely doesn’t come naturally to me. Although I speak with them, for some reason I write long-form. My flow-of-consciousness dialogue tends to be formal and so feels scripted. It was something an earlier version alpha reader detected, and I was trying to fix this… obviously I missed a lot. I suspect the further into the story the less I detected.
  • being more descriptive about motion and emotion; trying to show in a more nuanced way, instead of telling the reader.
  • Evaluating the criticisms of my beta readers, and adjusting accordingly (more about that in another post).

…Meets Productivity Moat

But then my forward progress is halted, midway through chapter 2 (of 29). I’ve hit a piece of text that’s really slowing me down: a productivity moat that’s blocking my path.

I’m not happy with the paragraph of text and are indecisive about wording and positioning. Several times I have opened up the document and sat there looking at it, as though it were written in Swahili (which I can’t read). After an annoying ten minutes of staring, my enthusiasm begins to wane. Stupid moat. I’ve tried to skip it and move on, but it’s like I know it’s there like an enemy at my flank and it’s on my mind.

I have a new strategy. To be honest it’s not much different from my previous strategies, but often I’ve found writing is a mind game. So if my slightly modified strategy works – hooray. They say you need an edge over your enemy: not a whole new weapon, just an edge.

I’m going to:

  1. Highlight the paragraph, admit to myself that I currently lack the ability to solve it and I can’t allow it to slow me down.
  2. Write some extensive comments: what I think is wrong with it (why I am having difficulty) and any possible options I can see to fix it in the future. I’m going to try to be descriptive e.g. “Z might work but that would require Y (which I don’t have)”.
  3. I’m going to move on, having done everything I can currently.
  4. At a later date, either at the end or when the answer presents itself, I’ll go back and fix it.

The productivity moat may cause a change in strategy, but it won’t stop me.

Revising Vengeance Will Come, Again

Previously I stated it was my intention to not further revise my first novel, Vengeance Will Come unless of course a publisher decided they wanted it. (Not that I’ve sent it out yet).

That decision was born of the knowledge that many first time authors get stuck in an endless rewrite cycle, and I didn’t want to be one of them. Especially considering how long this project has taken.

However since making that decision I’ve learned that professional authors can regularly do 6+ revisions. (Granted, some of these would likely be under the direction of publishers and editors).

My beta readers have also alerted me to the fact that there are numerous improvements to be made. This new-found knowledge of my novel’s shortcomings means there are two options:

  1. I revise, or
  2. my book goes in the bottom desk drawer, never to see the light of day again.

I realise that I’m still learning the writing craft (very much so) and my novel won’t be perfect. Ever. However, I’m not willing to let the book out into the world with simple things I know how to fix. It’s about quality control, and respecting my readers to do the best I can.

And so, the revision process begins anew.

PS: I’ve taken “The Hostages” off my progress chart. I’m still very committed to writing it, but it’s not going to progress any time soon, hence it’s disappearance.

My Beta Reading Experience (Part 1)

As Vengeance Will Come is my first novel it stands to reason that I’ve never had beta readers before. In this post I describe what I did, how it worked out (part 1, anyway) and what I’d do differently.

Who to choose as beta readers

Listening to the Writing Excuses podcast it’s pretty clear that the who and why of beta readers varies from author to author. Some authors want industry insiders to beta read and other authors want average Jill-and-Joe reader.

Ideally I was looking for people who would cover off on some of these criterion:

  • could be relied upon to give an honest assessment. Liars, be they ever so motivated by noble sentiment in this instance, will not help me improve my craft.
  • well-read in my genre. Not only do they read a lot, they also read in fantasy/sci-fi so they can compare or contrast, and have some kind of benchmark or knowledge of common norms.
  • people who are likely to provide the most valuable feedback. More than just a thumbs up or down; detail behind what they liked or didn’t like.
  • grammar aficionados. Although I was more interested in the sweeping narrative than the minute detail, I’m also happy for someone to spot errors.

To be honest I didn’t feel like I had an already assembled go-to group. Quite possibly this is something I need to remedy. Maybe some of my time online needs to be spent on genre forums. Decision made: I’m going to try it getting into a few fantasy forums.

Without a go-to group, I just about begged passersby. I did manage to pull together a group of people who were willing read for me. It helps to remember that these people were doing me a favor. They were taking time out of other leisure activities to read a first novel (with all its inherent problems). Good people.

How I managed the Betas

beta readers

In the interest of focusing the feedback I inserted a page at the beginning of the book with some directions for my beta readers. By putting it in the book it meant that it was always available for them to refer to, not something separate in an email that might get lost or deleted.

Inserting a ‘due date’ is also a must. The last thing I wanted to do was leave it wide open. I didn’t want to be delayed by a well-meaning but continual, “I’ll get it to you soon.” I gave my readers two months, which I thought was a reasonable timeline. While setting a date I correctly guessed that it would be pushed out, but at least there were still goal posts. One beta reader returned it super fast and others around the due date.

I also gave my readers an ‘out’. The last thing I wanted to do was harm friendships or make it a heavy chore. Again, generous volunteers should not be abused.

I’ve also heard of some authors providing templates or more structure for their beta readers. I likewise have ideas for a number of tools that I’d like to be able to implement in the future.

I received feedback from only a portion of my beta readers, and I think that is to be expected. Life happens and sometimes unavoidably crushes everything that stands in its way. It’s also a reflection of my choices: I knew some people read less, and in different genres than were ideal.

It’d be naive to think that some readers didn’t just got bored and hit the delete key, too-kind to tell me.

I did intend on sending a reminder email to my betas at the halfway point, but didn’t do it. I didn’t want to harass them. In hindsight a single (or couple of) reminders really isn’t that much hassle and may have increased the number of returns I received.

Going back over the text, I question if it was too early for beta readers; a heinous crime. The goodwill of potential betas shouldn’t be exhausted with three-quarter-baked reads. Choosing and working with beta readers is absolutely a skill that needs to be developed. Beta reading is also a skill (one that I don’t possess myself). Undoubtedly as my skill improves for picking betas, and writing, others will become more interested, improving the fruitfulness of beta reading.

Nobody talked me down…

I’ve had a mini break from writing (dangerous, I know). But it’s been a time of enjoyment and productivity (albeit in other areas), so I don’t regret it.

Firstly since no one talked me down, I’ve been doing some coding in Java. It’s not a writing program yet but the framework to support it (at about 75% completion, to pull a number from the sky). And while I’m making up numbers let’s also say its a thousand percent under budget. (Speaking of budgets – the Australian budget is out tonight and here’s an excellent article on the immorality of spending the next generation(s) money). But I digress…

For my framework I’ve gone with what’s called an internal frame application because it allows maximum flexibility to the user. You can stretch the application over multiple monitors and position and size any number of internal windows to your preferences.

Writing Framework1

Each window can then have any number of panels added to it. (For example a writing panel, a character attributes panel, a todo panel…)

On other matters I’ve also been enjoying more time in the kitchen, having fun preparing a few more meals. (This gives both me enjoyment and my beautiful wife a break: wins-all round).

But now that I have some feedback from my beta readers it’s time to get back to writing and Vengeance Will Come. My next few posts I plan on writing about how I work through those beta reader comments.