April 2 – 8: “How do you scour your manuscript?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Spring has sprung…somewhere… In the spirit of “spring cleaning,” how do you scour your manuscript? This week we’re joined by ITW Members L. J. Martin, Michael Bradley, Michael Kardos, James M. Jackson, Max Karpov, Elena Hartwell, Ann Parker, Robert Black Whitehill, T. G. Wolff, Peter Beck, Lee Goldberg and Martin Roy Hill as they discuss the revision and manuscript “cleaning” process. Scroll down to the “comments” section – you won’t want to miss what they have to say!

 

L. J. Martin is the author of over 45 book-length works (westerns, historicals, mysteries, thrillers, and non-fiction), and has written a number of screenplays, one of which optioned by a major NBC approved producer, one of which is currently under option to an Independent. L. J. has a number of series, both western and crime. The Repairman series is now 9 novels deep.

 

Michael Bradley was born and raised in New Jersey, a fact that he hopes people won’t hold against him. He started life as a radio disc jockey, spending eight years “on-the-air” before realizing that he needed to get a real job. His broadcasting experience was handy for his supernatural thriller SIRENS IN THE NIGHT. It’s been called “smart, terrifying, heartbreaking” and a “compelling read”. His new thriller, FOLLOW YOU DOWN, was released this month from Amberjack Publishing.

 

Michael Kardos is the Pushcart Prize-winning author of the novels BluffBefore He Finds Her, and The Three-Day Affair, as well as the  collection One Last Good Time and the craft book The Art and Craft of Fiction. He grew up on the Jersey Shore, studied music at Princeton University, and played the drums professionally for a number of years. He currently co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University.

 

James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series consisting of five novels and one novella. Jim splits his time between the deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Georgia’s Lowcountry. He claims the moves between locations are weather-related, but others suggest they may have more to do with not overstaying his welcome. He is a member of International Thriller Writers and the past president of the 700+ member Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime.

 

Max Karpov is the author of the new Russia thriller The Children’s Game. Karpov is the nom de plume of James Lilliefors, who also writes the Bowers and Hunter mystery series (The PsalmistThe Tempest), featuring Methodist pastor Luke Bowers and homicide detective (and agnostic) Amy Hunter. Karpov/Lilliefors is a native of the Washington, D.C. area. He currently lives with his wife in South Florida.

 

 

After years in the theater, Elena Hartwell turned her dramatic skills to fiction. She writes the Eddie Shoes Mystery series. One Dead, Two to Go received four nominations for “best mystery of 2016.” Two Heads are Deader Than One launched April 15, 2017. InD’Tale’s five-star review: “…a delightful heroine in a story that promises pleasant romance and a hint of danger with a twist of an ending.” She can usually be found in the tiny town of North Bend, WA, with her hubby, their dog, two horses, and trio of cats.

 

Ann Parker—science/corporate writer by day and crime fiction author by night—writes the award-winning Silver Rush historical series, featuring saloon-owner Inez Stannert, set in 1880s Colorado. The newest in the series, A DYING NOTE, brings Inez to the golden city of San Francisco, California, in 1881. Publishers Weekly calls this latest addition to the series “exuberant” adding that it “…brims with fascinating period details, flamboyant characters, and surprising plot twists.”

 

Robert Blake Whitehill is a screenwriter and author of the award-winning, critically acclaimed, bestselling Ben Blackshaw Thrillers set on Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay. He has written highly rated true crime TV for Discovery, including The New Detectives, as well as UXO (Unexploded Ordnance), a feature script that won Whitehill a fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

 

TG Wolff writes thrillers and mysteries that play within the gray area between good and bad, right and wrong. Cause and effect drive the stories, drawing from 20+ years’ experience in Civil Engineering, where “cause” is more often a symptom of a bigger, more challenging problem. Diverse characters mirror the complexities of real life and real people, balanced with a healthy dose of entertainment. TG Wolff holds a Master’s Degree in Civil Engineering and is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.

 

Peter Beck studied Psychology, Philosophy and Economics in Bern, where he also gained a doctorate in Psychology. He did his military service as a cyclist in the Swiss Army and has a black belt in judo. Having done an MBA in Manchester, UK, he went on to become an executive board member of a large Swiss company and sat on several non-executive boards. Today he is his own boss and divides his time between writing the Tom Winter thrillers and supporting businesses in shaping their culture, organization and strategy. He is fluent in English. His thriller DAMNATION (2018) was originally published in German (Emons Verlag, 2013), has now been translated by Jamie Bulloch and is brought to you by Point Blank, an imprint of Oneworld, twice winner of the Man Booker Prize.

 

Lee Goldberg is a two-time Edgar & two-time Shamus Award nominee and the #1 New York Times bestselling author of over thirty novels, including the fifteen Monk mysteries and the internationally bestselling Fox & O’Hare books (The Heist, The Chase, The Job, The Scam, The Pursuit) co-written with Janet Evanovich. He’s also written and/or produced scores of TV shows, including Diagnosis Murder, SeaQuest, Monk, and The Glades. As an international television consultant, he has advised networks and studios in Canada, France, Germany, Spain, China, Sweden, and the Netherlands on the creation, writing and production of episodic television series. He recently founded, with author Joel Goldman, the publishing company Brash Books.

 

Martin Roy Hill is the author of the Linus Schag, NCIS, thrillers, the Peter Brandt thrillers, and the award-winning short story collection DUTY, and EDEN: A Sci-Fi Novella. Martin’s short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, ALT HIST: The Journal of Historical Fiction and Alternative History, Mystery Weekly Magazine, Crimson Streets, Nebula Rift, Devolution Z, and others. A former national award-winning investigative journalist, Martin is now a military analyst.

 

 

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72 Comments
  1. I’m a big believer in “less is more”. I also subscribe to Goethe’s famous quote: “I apologize for writing such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write a short one.”

    For me filling the pages with words, sentences and stories is easy. The really hard part comes when I start to distill these down.

    I guess being Swiss and a perfectionist doesn’t help …. 😉 When the first draft is done, I clean out the manuscript at least half a dozen times, rereading and reworking it. There are always words that don’t sound right. There are always metaphors that don’t evoke the desired picture. And there’s always a rhythm which doesn’t have the right beat. It’s not only the story but also the way it is told. For me a thrilling story has to be told elegantly, with an esthetic quality.

    The flipside of this is that I produce a lot of waste. I estimate that about a third of the initial draft goes out the window. An example: In one of my thrillers, a family plays a tragic role. Originally, there were four adult children living in different parts of the world. My hero Tom Winter, the head of security of a Swiss bank, visited them all. I was almost finished when I decided that I had to simplify the story and to “kill” one of the kids. As a consequence, I had to go through the whole manuscript, adjusting dialogues and deleting every trace.

    That was a costly mistake. But I do think the readers deserve a clean book. If you check in a hotel, you don’t want to find cockroaches under your pillow.

    1. Hello Peter,
      I love your “clean book” to “clean hotel” analogy! So you do six rounds (or so) of edits on your initial draft? Do you look for specific problems/issues at each pass, or attack all of them at once?

      1. Hi Ann,
        Thanks. I give the ms to Beta-Readers, too (I call them test-readers). They give me hones and sometimes brutal feedback…;-) I look at all the levels at once, because a “cleansed” sentence is always motivating, but generally I do go from the more general, abstract level (does story and characters make sense?) down to the smaller issues. After a couple of rounds I also leave the ms for a longer period of time and wait several weeks until my mind and eyes are fresh again.

  2. I start scouring a manuscript for all forms of the verb to be, including is, am, are, was, were, and been. English teems with rich, dynamic verbs; one can find a perfectly nuanced action word for every situation. Cutting to be from a manuscript and swapping in a more specific verb wherever possible animates a work like lightning coursing through Frankenstein’s monster. Of course, as in most editing, slashing one word out, and stuffing another in its place is not always enough. Sometimes an entire sentence must hit the shredder in favor of a brand new structure that best suits the more specific verb. Search and Replace alone rarely satisfies a good writer’s highest quality editing.

    With to be dispatched wherever possible, I go on the hunt for repeated words, especially any standout word coming too quickly on the heels of the same word’s first appearance. The discovery made, I decide if the first or second deployment of a word is the one destined to stay. With that decided, I find a new way to say the thing.

    Here comes the crux. A repeated word might be the red flag to a repeated concept or idea, such as a description of one character that falls too closely to the portrayal of another character. Maybe one of those characters needs to collapse into the other. The remaining character will shine brighter, I promise. We might pick our friends because of similar tastes that agree neatly with our own, but when we read, we crave distinct characters that spark up heat and friction and set the pages on fire. For a time in an early Deadrise manuscript, Blackshaw endured a too similar brother. I caught on to the dull burden he presented soon enough. He never made it to publication. Today, I cannot remember his name. Banishing the brother from the first book left room in the garden for a fascinating and dangerous half-sister to grow in the second book. Killing your babies is one thing. Yanking the choking weeds is another.

    1. I love your Frankenstein reference! Your remarks are so true. Using a more dynamic word enriches the text considerably. It can be the difference between a simple sentence and a vibrant moment in your book. I’ll also admit to being guilty of repeated phrases. In my first book, SIRENS IN THE NIGHT, I had a reader mention that one of my characters “pulled her coat closed around her” a little too often. Ha! That one slipped past me and my editor.

    2. Peter – I totally relate to your post. (I’m married to a Swiss guy, so I get that part too). I cut a lot of my initial draft. I write very organically, so much of what I do on the page is figure out what the story is, with a lot of errors along the way.

      1. Hi Elena – Switzerland is so small, so we have to go places or at least travel…;-) I always say, writing helps me to think more clearly. I work “organically” as well. I usually have a holistic picture, mood or character in my mind an then I try to put it into the computer as fast as possible in order not to lose it. Then the cleaning begins until I believe that the readers can see the same picture (PS: And say hello to my fellow countryman).

    3. Whenever I have two characters who seem very similar, I ask if one of them can be eliminated; the answer is usually yes. I just had this experience with the mystery novel I’m writing and ended up combining the characters as you did. The remaining character is stronger than either of the two that went into his making.

  3. I look for word repetitions, flat writing, clichéd descriptions, awkward sentence structures and too many names starting with the same letter. I fall into that trap very easily while writing and discover nearly everybody’s name starts with M or B or whatever.

    The other thing is, as Peter says, finding and deleting all references to an event/person that’s been axed or had some change made to their appearance or name. I find I change minor people’s characters names at random–or the spelling of the name. I have a woman called Marlene in my present story who started out as Maureen. If I changed her name completely to one I’d remember more easily I’d have to make sure I did a ‘replace all’ for both names or another odd person would appear. 🙂

    1. Hi Elisabeth,
      I also find that, when I’m doing a first draft and the characters start to pop up, many of their names tend to start with the same letter, such as B. (I wonder what it is about B!) I finally, in desperation, started an Excel sheet listing all the names that appear through all my books. At least that way I don’t end up with two different characters with the same surname, three books apart…

      1. I get your B point. My hero is Ben Blackshaw. I strive to reserve the initial B for him. That leaves 25 other letters for ancillary protagonists and all antagonists. Your spreadsheet is a great idea. Only five books into the Blackshaw series, I’m still able to keep track of who’s who.

    2. Hello Elisabeth – I’m kind of glad that these kind of things happen to other writers, too. Some of my characters unwillingly changed their appearance…;-). I guess in the movie-making world the have a contingency-person, checking every scene. We only have one set of eyes. At the end I usually do a search in Word for with the core of the names, so the variations come up then.

      1. Haha. At the last Aus Romance Writers conference I bought a spiro notebook someone had developed with pages for major and minor characters listing name, hair and eye colour, personality characteristics etc. It also has a Chapter outline and best of all, a calendar. There’s a lot of stuff I don’t use but at least for this current book I can check what colour the heroine’s eyes are and what the neighbour’s name was when I realise I’ve changed it.

        Keeping track of time is another problem which needs careful checking during the scouring process.

        As an aside I’ve never thought of it as scouring before…I grew up on a farm and sometimes the cow would get what Dad called the scours. 🙂 Not a pretty image.

    3. Character names have been an issue for me as well. I’ve not been as challenged with naming them as much as remembering how I spelled their name in the beginning of the book. For instance, in the book I’m working on now, I have a character named Flanigan. So far, I think I have spelled it as “Flanigan”, “Flanagan”, and “Flannigan.”

      For a while, I was creating character worksheets with all the details, like description, background, flaws, fears, etc. But, I found myself changing them so frequently as I wrote my story that I gave up investing all the time. Now I practice what you might call it “organic” character development.

  4. Empty Promises is the fifth Seamus McCree novel and when it came time to scrub it shiny clean, I relied on what I learned from the earlier novels. Over time, I developed a personal list of nits to check, and whenever I discover a new issue, I add to the list.

    Some words are redundant. For example, I don’t need to say, “She shrugged her shoulders or she nodded her head.” Have you ever seen anyone shrug a knee or nod a foot? Me neither. Shrugging or nodding is sufficient (and should not be done too often).

    Other problematic words are flabby placeholders for what could be a stronger word or indicates a sentence I should revise. Going to, planning to, and trying to are three phrases I check to determine if a more determinant sentence would be stronger.

    You see, I like flexibility (don’t make me commit before I’m ready) and carry that trait into my writing. Finding multiple uses of “a bit” or “about” are leading indicators I’ve fallen into this flexibility trap. I might write the sentence, “He walked about a mile to the liquor store.” Readers know the character didn’t get out his ruler to make sure he walked 5,280 feet and 0 inches. In any given novel, I’ll include about about a thousand times.

    Do you have any pet peeves about authors’ writing styles that you wish they would change? If you want a copy of my current list, shoot me an email at jmj@jamesmjackson.com and I’ll send it to you.

    1. I have a list of “favorite” words that I use too often tacked over my desk. Along with the verbs you list, I search for the words on that list. I wish I could say I stop overusing them, but instead I seem to keep adding to the list!

      1. Elana — I keep adding to my list as well, but the good news is that a whole bunch of things on my list no longer cause me problems (but I keep them there just to make sure I haven’t backslid.)

        I’ll get the list out to you tomorrow, when I’m awake. Slumber calls.

    2. James, I’d love to see your list, since you’re sharing!

      Below is a comment that I inadvertently added to TG’s post instead of yours. Oh well.

      Pet peeve… not mine, but my daughter’s.
      I’ve heard it said (ahem) that the word “said” is invisible. Well, not always. On a road trip, we were listening intermittently to an audio book by a famous author (who shall remain nameless). When I asked her if she wanted to hand me the next CD, she said, “Oh, you mean the CD for the ‘he said, she said’ book?”
      Sure enough, once she mentioned it, I realized that this dialogue tag was EVERYwhere. We could hardly listen from laughing and shouting out “(S)HE SAID!” at each point.
      So even so-called invisible words can have the force of a hammer blow, when overused…

      1. Ann — I try to use action in place of he said/she said when possible, but sometimes it’s the most effective way. I do suspect that readers do skip those words other than to help them know who is speaking. Listening, however, doesn’t allow you to skip the words.

        It’s one of the reasons I always do an auditory read through as one of my last steps. I always catch some problem I missed during my regular read throughs.

    3. Your “flexibility”-think is very interesting. I’ve noticed something similar in my writing, too. I write in German and tend to use words, which make something relative. These fillers come in through the backdoor of my thinking, probably because I don’t like the extremes.So something or someone is – on a scale form 1 to 10 – a seven. My hero is no Jack Reacher, but a regular guy. If those fillers help the story, I leave them. Otherwise I delete them.

      1. Peter — I know what you mean about not liking the extremes.

        In rewriting one WIP, I noticed everything was happening in the middle of whatever.

        Walking down the middle of the road
        Interrupting in the middle of a sentence
        Standing in the middle of the room
        The middle child

        — nothing was happening at the edges!

  5. When I finish a manuscript, I treat it like a fine wine or a good whiskey and do absolutely nothing. In fact, I go out of my way to wipe it from my memory, reading voraciously (because I tend not to read when I write), or writing something completely different.

    I do nothing for a good six weeks. Longer if I can.

    When I pick it up again, it is in paper form and I read it as a reader. I read at a pace only 10-20% off my normal reading pace. In this pass, I’m looking at the big picture. To see the holes needing to be filled and ridges needing to be filed, I have to forget what I know and read what is actually on the page. If I read too slow, I can’t see the forest for the trees. At this point, I’m no longer writing for the fun of writing. I’m writing for the fun of reading. I know I wrote it well when laugh out loud at my own jokes, make myself cry, or get angry at foolish mistakes. If I get confused or read contradictions or impossibilities, I have work to do.

    I read with a pencil, never a pen, especially a red one, because that implies a mistake and that’s not what I’m dealing with. Because this is, literally, a work in progress, I use a pencil and an old-school eraser. I read front to back, trying not to let myself be distracted with details. I mark things that don’t make sense, scribble quick grammar or word corrections, annotate areas to come back to later.

    The next pass is on the computer and goes one chapter at a time addressing the items I flagged and correcting grammar. Me and commas aren’t generally on the best terms. Now I search for the words I love to over use and the wrong-word typos that perennially haunt me. This is the slowest pass and the most technical because it’s about the details of the story and mechanics of the language.

    Back to paper with the clean copy. No more tweaking, this is just about proofing. Sometimes I’ll read with a straight-edge to make sure my eyes don’t wonder. Since this is the third time I’ve read the book in about three weeks, I’m not interested in the story anymore. As a reader, I’m bored. To keep the editor in me engaged, I usually only read 1-2 chapters at a time to make sure I stay focused. Once I’m through the paper, I make the corrections in the manuscript and celebrate with a glass of that wine or whiskey.

    This manual process works for me and the result is a finished product I’m proud to put in front of a publisher.

    1. Pet peeve… not mine, but my daughter’s.
      I’ve heard it said (ahem) that the word “said” is invisible. Well, not always. On a road trip, we were listening intermittently to an audio book by a famous author (who shall remain nameless). When I asked her if she wanted to hand me the next CD, she said, “Oh, you mean the CD for the ‘he said, she said’ book?”
      Sure enough, once she mentioned it, I realized that this dialogue tag was EVERYwhere. We could hardly listen from laughing and shouting out “(S)HE SAID!” at each point.
      So even so-called invisible words can have the force of a hammer blow, when overused…

      1. Whoops, sorry TG.The above comment was meant for James and his “pet peeve” question. Hmmm. I don’t see any way to “delete” so I’ll copy/paste it in the right place and march forward.

    2. Hello TG,
      It sounds as if you and I have a similar process. I also print out a copy when it comes to the edit/revising. Also, another thing you mentioned, which I forgot to add to my own comment, is that I view the first draft as being for me, and the revisions and all future drafts to final as being for the reader. (You said this more elegantly, however!)

      1. I completely agree, Ann. I write because I have fun doing it. There are always little things in my stories to entertain only me. For example, if an event in the story occurs on one of my brothers’ birthday, I wish them a happy birthday.

        Once I clean it enough to give to beta readers (which is usually in my 4-6 weeks down period) it’s not about writing anymore. It’s about how others read my words.

        It’s funny how readers think it’s all about them. If I only loved to read, I wouldn’t write!

  6. With my magician/cardsharp novel BLUFF out this week, all the scouring I did to the manuscript is still fresh on my mind. Honestly, scouring is a part of the writing process I love, because it means there’s already a manuscript that exists and is ready for scouring.

    Here are a few scouring/scrubbing techniques that have worked for me:

    1) Read the draft aloud. That’s how I know if the sentences feel natural or if I’ve done something lazy or off-voice.

    2) Do a word search for filler adverbs like “really,” “very,” and “just.” Most of the time, I can cut those words and the sentence becomes stronger.

    3) Search for certain phrases I tend to put between moments of dialogue, when it seems like an extra beat is needed for pacing and rhythm-like people shrugging, sighing, or nodding. Usually I can cut those, or I’ll replace them with something more meaningful or character-revealing or interesting.

    4) Speaking of interesting: choose random pages throughout the manuscript and start reading (ideally aloud) from the top, with no context at all. Is it immediately interesting? If not, make the prose more energetic. Or cut. Or add a monkey. Just do something, anything. As Henry James explained in “The Art of Fiction” back in 1884: “The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel, without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting.”

    1. Adding a monkey, the ultimate tool that should be in every author’s tool belt. The word “just” is a big challenge for me. I tend to use it a lot when I speak, so it usually ends up in my dialog when I’m writing. I’ll catch it in the review process, but it is hard to break the habit.

    2. Yep, the word search. What did we do before computers and automatic word searches?
      I’m intrigued by your technique of reading random ms pages aloud. I’ll have to give that a try!

    3. I do the “read-a-random-page”, too. I even have a theory, that the first 30, maybe 50 pages of books are usually better (edited) than the rest. So when I check out a new book I usually jump to page 150 or so an compare it with page 20. If I feel a quality gab between these pages something is amiss. And as long as my own ms doesn’t pass that test I don’t dare to hand it in…

      1. Agree with this random page idea. There’s a tendency to treat the opening of a novel different from the rest (for me, anyway). When I’m in the revision process I sometimes begin the day’s work at a random, non-consecutive place in the manuscript. This is, of course, how people read, putting a book aside for a day or two and picking it up again (with the exception of those that can be read in a single sitting). So it needs to hold up and have plot tension wherever people begin their reading for the day.

    4. My most over used / under useful word is “that”. I don’t even like it THAT much but it sneaks in over and over. THAT’s annoying.

      I like your suggesting of selecting random pages and reading it for interest. Gonna give THAT one a try.

      tg

  7. Scouring my manuscript start early in the writing process and includes some extra sets of eyes. I collaborate with a small group of writers in a critique group. They get chunks of my “work-in-progress” and help identify little “naughty trends”, like in my new novel FOLLOW YOU DOWN where they found that I used the word “narrow” almost a dozen times in one paragraph. I’ve always found that an extra set of eyes helps find the things that sound great in my head, but are horribly wrong in real life.

    When my first draft is done, I always read from a printed copy. I find that I miss too many things when I read from the computer screen. Generally, I’m looking for overly long sentences and plot holes during the first read through. I also read the text aloud to my dogs. That helps with finding correct sentence structure . . . the reading aloud, not the dogs. My dogs usually sleep through most of my reading.

    Some where between the second and third draft, I’ll do a manuscript search for “ly” words. I have a tendency to make an action more descriptive with pesky adverbs. It’s a bad habit I’m trying to break. Knowing that I do it is half the battle, or so they say. Each one that I find gives me a chance to tighten the prose, usually requiring a rewrite of the sentence.

    I’ll agree with what Peter said earlier, my final manuscript is usually more compact than the first. I usually end up trimming about 10,000 words of fat off the manuscript by the time I’m done.

    One thing that I’ve heard works well, but haven’t tried yet is reading the manuscript backward. I’ve been told that it really helps find its shortcomings.

    1. Hi Michael,
      I also lean on my critique partners to call me out on those repetitious words/phrases/gestures. I admit I love -ly words. Since I write historicals, I give myself some latitude there (for better or worse). Your dogs sleep when you read aloud to them? When I read to my cat, she insists on adding her own voice…loudly!

      1. Yes, they sleep when I read to them. I’m a little unsure how to take that. I often wonder if I’m boring them . . . which then makes me wonder if my story in boring . . . which then causes all kinds of anxiety.

        I think critique partners are God’s gift to writers. But, it is important to get good partners who you trust to tell you the truth. It doesn’t help if everyone says “I liked it.” My small group are dedicated writers who aren’t afraid to tell me when I am way off base.

        1. Yep, Michael… I know what you mean about critique partners. I shower my critique buddies with chocolate and, of course, we all critique each other’s work.
          I rue the (few) time(s) I plowed ahead despite the cluster of “data points” from the group that indicated I was going astray. I paid for it later. Ouch!
          That experience was a reminder to me to listen to my “reader-partners” carefully when they all pretty much agree on something (particularly when I *dis*agree with them. :-} )

    2. Haven’t heard your last point: reading the ms backward. I guess from a story-telling point of view that makes sense. If I can’t retrace my steps, the readers would have a hard time following you through the jungle. Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs come to mind. Have to try is sometime.

      1. Peter,

        The theory is that you pay closer attention to sentence structure and word choice when you read it backward. I’ve yet to try it with anything more than five or ten page essay. You really need to have your wits about you to make sense of what you are reading. I haven’t dared try it on a three or four hundred page manuscript.

  8. My writing ritual is simple. I do my best writing from 8 pm-2 am…and I usually start my day at 10 or 11 am by rewriting what i did the day before. When that is done, I start writing “the new stuff.” I repeat that process until the book is done.

    I’m a big believer that writing is rewriting…and that it’s always easier to rewrite crap than it is to fill an empty page…

    Get. Something. On. The. Page.

    That is my writing mantra.

    But that often means that what I end up with at the end of the day is terrible or just the broad strokes of what I am going for. I know I will go back, sharpen the dialogue and color between the lines, adding the character or details left out in my eagerness get something down. Or it can go the other way…I’ve written endless reams of exposition and dialogue that I need to trim with an ax. Ten pages of blather becomes three pages of tight, lean writing. If what I’ve written doesn’t further the plot and reveal character then it has to go. I am also very aware the beat of my story, the pace…it’s almost like tapping my foot to music. If i lose that beat, cuts or revisions need to be made to move things along.

    I typically go through the pages with an eye toward cutting all the exposition that I possibly can,all the unnecessary details that slow the pace, and taking whatever clever lines I come across in prose seeing if I can put them into my characters’ mouths instead. I strike out any cliche phrases, which were left as place-holders for actual writing that I’d do in the revisions.

    I will often rewrite a scene four, five or six times before a book is finished. So when I complete my first draft, it’s pretty close to done. Anything I do at that point, before turning it in, is more about tweaking and polishing.

    PS – I should also mention that I always work from an outline, I never just wing it. I need to know where I am going so that when I’m writing I’m concentrating on writing, not plotting. My plot may change (and often does) as I write, and when that happens, I revise my outline. That is a continual process. I usually finish my outline, which I call a living outline, about a week before I finish the book.

    1. Hello Lee,
      I’m also a night-owl when it comes to the fiction-writing part of my life. I figure once the midnight hour strikes, the internal editor is too tired to argue with me and I can let the words flow unimpeded.
      Your “circle-back” approach to rewriting is interesting. I have some other colleagues who employ that same process. One of these days, I’ll have to give it a shot.

  9. I always breathe a sigh of relief when I finish my first draft and type THE END. I know the work isn’t done, but for me, I’d much rather attack the story in its entirety than be muddling around in its initial creation. Like the others here, my preference is to set the draft aside for a while and let it recede from my consciousness. However, I’m usually squeaking close to deadline, so there may be only a 48-hour “pause” before I have to dive back in again.

    The first thing I do is print out the draft using a different font from the one on my computer screen (a handy trick another author shared with me that gives a “new perspective” to the draft). The mountain of double-spaced pages are then shoved into a binder. I end up hauling this binder, a clutch of different colored ink pens and highlighters, and plenty of sticky note pads and tabs around with me during the scouring stage. For the scouring process, I tend to haunt coffee shops, the public library, my dining room table… any place but my home office. On the first pass, I address comments stockpiled from my critique group. (I address the big issues right away during the rough draft, but comments on language or suggestions for alternate wording are set aside until this phase.) In a second pass, I focus on those words I tend to overuse, including “look,” “very,” “just,” and “back.” (?? Why “back” crops up so often, I can’t say for certain, but it does.) Since I write historical crime fiction, I also highlight/double-check my slang to be sure the expressions are appropriate to the period.

    Once I’ve marked up the hardcopy draft, it’s back to the computer to input the changes. Once that’s done, I am almost cross-eyed from being so close to the manuscript, so I once again print out the (hopefully improved) draft and turn to a few (two to three) trusted readers for an “alpha read.” These alpha readers are folks who are comfortable with reading rough drafts, and they, like beta readers, are worth their weight in gold (or chocolate). Once I have their comments, I do what I call a “sit on my hands” edit at the computer. I address the points raised in the alpha pass and try very hard to not compulsively tweak text and/or story line for the sake of tweaking. After that, I do a final spellcheck, and off the manuscript goes to my most important beta reader: the editor. Any scouring after that is at her direction.

    1. I LOVE when I hit that big, giant binder stage. It feels like a real accomplishment at that point. Even though I usually know I’m going to do that a couple times 🙂

      1. I agree, Elena! There’s something about having all those words on paper and the paper contained/controlled such that one can turn the pages… It’s very satisfying. A proto-book. 🙂

    2. I also find it challenging to revise on the computer screen. After every round of revisions, I “kill a couple trees” and read through the printed manuscript. Like you, I wait to review my critique group feedback until after the first draft is finished. I may glance at their comments early, but I never act on them until after the first draft is complete. If I tried to make changes to the first draft during the writing, I would never get it completed.

      1. Hi Michael!
        Ah, and I thought I was the only one who “stockpiled” all the critique comments until the end. I’m glad I’m not alone! I have to admit that it’s pretty daunting when I unpack the file box of notated papers (our group critiques on paper, mostly).
        For the last book, I finally got smart and created a labeled folder for each chapter, in which I stored the critiques. That proved a godsend when I started shifting chapters around.
        I’ve often thought that my gravestone should read: “She killed a forest for her life’s work.”

  10. Scouring a manuscript means cutting words and scenes (and sometimes characters) that don’t add to the overall effect of the story. There’s an art to cutting, though, just as there is to writing. For me, setting the manuscript aside and trying not to think about it for days, or weeks, helps enormously. It’s easy to become attached to scenes or paragraphs that are fine by themselves but detract from the whole. With my Russia novel The Children’s Game I ended up cutting about 20,000 words after it was accepted for publication (and countless thousands before that). The opening scene, with Christopher Niles and Anna Carpenter in Greece, which sets up the plot, was cut by more than half. Patience is a virtue in this process. I think back to Hemingway’s “iceberg principle”: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing he may omit things that he knows and the reader … will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

    1. Hello Max,
      It seems that putting the rough draft aside is a common thread in this particular group. I agree that time provides distance and perspective on those scenes/paragraphs that are, at first, so hard to delete. I also count on my critique partners / alpha readers to point out any “darlings” I may have overlooked.

      1. Hi Ann,
        I too find that printing out the book and getting away from the office is a valuable (necessary) step. I often go to a local beach/park, find a picnic table in the shade and settle in for a while. Will try printing out in a different font.

    2. Hi Max. With my Exacting Justice novel, I had to cut 30,000 words to meet the publisher’s target. It was painful to cut the scenes and harder to remove all those little threads woven into the remaining words. The result is better, tighter story. No one but me will miss what was cut. I appreciated the sharing of Hemingway’s iceberg principle. It is a wonderful visual and I’ll hold onto it for the next time.

      1. Yes, even though it is painful having to cut so much, the result is nearly always a stronger book. Hemingway’s iceberg principle has been with me since I first read about it as a teenager (in Death in the Afternoon). He was really talking about short stories, but it applies to novels as well.

  11. Besides the normal rewrites and line edits we all do, I use technology to help clean up my writing before handing it off to my editors. Word’s proofing capabilities are often dismissed out of hand, but that’s because most users, including writers, use it as comes right out of the virtual box. However, tweaking Word’s proofing options can make it a powerful editing tool.

    There are slight differences between Word versions, so you might need to do a little exploring. Basically, click on File, then Options, then Proofing. This is where you can make changes to how Word checks your document. One of the best changes you can make here is to ensure the “Use contextual spelling” or “Frequently confused words” box is checked. In my experience, Word comes with this option disabled. Enabling it will make Word differentiate between such words as “its” and “it’s,” “their” and “there,” and so on. That can be a real time saver.

    I like Word to check grammar at the same time it checks spelling. If you want that option, make sure the “Check grammar with spelling” or “Grammar and more” box is checked. Here you can choose what problems you want Word to look for. A comma after the last item in a sequence? Punctuation inside or outside quotes marks? One or two spaces between sentences?

    The rest of the selections allow you to tweak Word to your personal writing style. Do you write in the first person? Then tell Word not to check for it. By default, Word will urge you to not to use contractions. However, most dialogue is written with contractions because that’s how people talk. So, uncheck the “Contractions” box. Do you tend to use clichés? Make sure the “Cliché’s, Colloquialisms, and Jargon” or “Cliché’s” box is checked.

    I also use a grammar checking program called ProWritingAid by Orpheus Technology. There are similar programs—AutoCrit and Grammarly, for instance—but ProWritingAid was cheaper seemed to have more capability.
    An online version of ProWritingAid is available to use free, but I opted to use the downloadable premium edition at the cost of $40 per year. Once downloaded and installed, ProWritingAid places an icon on the Word toolbar. (The premium version also has a standalone app if you use Scrivener or another word processing program.) Before using it, you need to set the style of writing you do—creative, business, legal, academic, etc.

    After scanning your manuscript, ProWritingAid lists the problems it found in a sidebar—passive verbs, adverbs, overused words and phrases, inconsistent spellings, etc. All similar problems are grouped together in the sidebar and color coded in both the sidebar and in your document. ProWritingAid provides advice on how to correct the problems, but it’s up to you to go through your document, find the color-highlighted words, and use your own innate writing talent to clean up your copy.

    Finally, I load an edited version of my book into my Kindle and read through it. It’s amazing how reading your book like that can identify problems not caught by Word, ProWritingAid, or my editors. I use the Kindle’s highlighting feature to mark the problems, then correct them in my final manuscript.

      1. ProWritingAid has a cliche hunter as well. But I’ll be honest with you, if you’re writing a maritime adventure (as I am now) they can be a pain. If I write a sentence saying something like “he tossed it overboard” or “he came on board,” both “overboard” and “on board” will be marked as cliches. Why? Because so much English slang and cliches come from everyday nautical language (i.e., “he went overboard on the decorations” and “are you on board with this?”).

    1. I do most of my writing in Storyist, which only has rudimentary spell checking. I’m amazed at the number of errors that exist when I export my manuscript into MS Word. I’ll need to check out the Cliche Checker. That’s awesome!

    2. When I read about the “Cliché’s, Colloquialisms, and Jargon”-checker, I first thought it’s an April’s fool joke…;-) But when I saw that you wrote in on 2nd April I tried went into Word, but could not find it in the German-Version. Bummer! I’d love to see Microsofts’ algorithm behind it and how they feed the the data base…

    3. Like everyone else, I’ve not heard of the cliché checker! I’m going to check that out.
      ProWritingAid sounds fascinating… I think I’ll mosey on over and look at the free version, for starters.
      Thanks for sharing your process!

  12. To scour my manuscript, I like to do what I call “revision with intention.” I think it’s easy to just keep reading and tweaking, and there’s a place for that in the writing and rewriting process. But I also think it’s very useful to have a specific goal for each rewrite. So, for example, I might have as my intention to “fill in the plot holes.” While I might catch other kinds of mistakes, it’s not what I’m looking for on that specific pass. I focus on where the plot jumps from A to F. Then, I’ll go back with a different intention. I might choose “Check Point of View.” I’ll have that very clear aspect of the writing to check throughout the entire manuscript. Each time I go through a draft with a specific intention, the manuscript gets cleaner and cleaner. By the time I’ve addressed the big questions, story structure, pace, character arcs, I’ve been simultaneously picking up the smaller stuff – typos, missing or unimportant dialogue tags, repeated words. Sometimes I catch the small stuff in my peripheral vision because I’m looking for the big stuff. Much like having to stop trying to remember a word or someone’s name, by letting the mind go elsewhere. By the time I’ve gone through several rewrites with one specific goal each time, the draft is ready to send out to beta readers.

    1. Hello Elena,
      I’m intrigued by your process… it sounds very orderly (which I like!). How many passes, on average, do you make through a manuscript? I’d love to see a list of your “intentions.” This seems like it could be a very useful/helpful approach to revision.

      1. Hi Ann. I’m a disordered person, so I work really hard to be more orderly! Great question – It’s a little hard to estimate, because I do a lot of rewriting as I’m writing (the opening pages are always more polished in a first draft, but the ending is usually better written because I understand what’s happening). I would say somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-15 passes before it goes to a beta reader. I start with 1. Plot Holes. Then 2. Contradictions to plot (because when I started I didn’t know how it would end). 3. Research (I do a lot of research, police procedure, location visits etc. So I usually print off a hard copy and highlight/mark with post its where I need to research. Then I go through all those places with notes on the hard copy, then fix on the computer file). These first three intentions may take more than one pass and I usually do by reading a hard copy.

        Then I go through (in any order) 4. Repetitive language. 5. Dialogue (bad/unnecessary/unclear voice) 6. Moments that I should repeat (this could be an image I want to reuse or a comment another character remembers later or a thought a character realizes they’ve had before. 7. Grammar/word choice. This is a tedious one, but I do try to go line by line to make sure it’s the strongest word choice. I catch a lot of repetitions this way too, and extraneous words “well” “so” “perhaps” or weak verbs. 8. POV. My current series is first person, so that’s easier to stay consistent, but my current work in progress is multiple, so this is a big one. I have caught myself head-hopping.

        Throughout all of this, I am constantly trying to monitor if I have scenes in the right order and characters acting in character. Are there places I need to up the tension. Sometimes I read through looking at Objectives/Obstacles/Stakes – which is easy to overlook and imperative to have.

        Lastly, it varies a bit depending on what I’m working on. Once I get feedback from a beta reader, I go back through with their specific notes, which often gives me another intention along with line notes. For example, on a recent short story, I left out an aspect of the parents, so I tracked that through the entire short story, not just the specific references to the parents (I actually cut the dad, now it’s a single mom, so I had to think, how did that impact the dynamic of the kids.)

        I’d love to hear if my process is useful. You can shoot me an email and update me elenahartwell@gmail.com

        1. Wow! This is great! Thank you, Elena!
          I am going to copy/paste/print this and put it in the REVISION folder for my next book. (Yeah, I’m very paper-oriented. :-} )
          I, too, seem to live and write in chaos, so anything I can do to smooth the process is a boon.
          Thanks again!

          1. I just added a new intention! I’ve done this in the past, but not as an intention. I’m setting out to check “clarify internal emotional state” – So that’s now added to my list 🙂

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