Fiction writing: The importance of rewriting

MOST new writers publish their novel too soon. Once they consider their book “finished,” they start chomping at the bit to get their baby “out there” by self-publishing it. These writers saddled themselves with a self-imposed deadline in order to make that happen. Jeez, isn’t there enough stress in life already?

So why do they do this? Award-winning novelist Lawrence Block got to the crux of the matter, I believe, when he said, “Too many writers don’t want to write, they want to have written.”

Have written.

Think about this. Do these writers take their work seriously enough to want to improve their craft? Or do they just want to be able to call themselves an “author” and impress their friends?

Successful novelists all agree that writing is rewriting. Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” He also called a first draft his “junk pile,” meaning that his initial finished version of anything was the raw material through which he could sift for whatever might be good enough to keep. His junk-pile metaphor encapsulates the most painful truth that any aspiring novelist has to learn: A novel isn’t written; it’s rewritten. Hemingway said, “I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.”

D.H. Lawrence rewrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover three times. Amy Tan labored through more than twenty rewrites of what eventually became The Joy Luck Club. J.K. Rowling rewrote the opening chapter of her first book fifteen times. For one story that was 20,000 words when finished, James Thurber wrote a total of 240,000 words and fifteen different versions.

Some quotes on rewriting

“The biggest difference between a writer and a would-be writer is their attitude toward rewriting. Unwillingness to revise usually signals an amateur.” — Sol Stein

“A first draft is nothing more than raw potential; to rewrite is to take that potential and use it to create a complete story or novel, which is just as much an art form as a painting or a symphony.” — James Thurber

“Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing gaily out of the house in your underwear.” — Fantasy writer Patricia Fuller

“By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” — Roald Dahl

“Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.” — John Updike

“I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” — Vladimir Nabokov

“Writing is rewriting. Books are not written—they’re rewritten.” — Michael Crichton

Don’t allow your excitement and impatience to get your book published compel you to do so before it’s ready for prime time. No matter how many times you give your manuscript a superficial rereading and how many friends and writing group members read it, what you have written is a first draft. As such, it should be professionally edited and rewritten at least twice. If you don’t do this, you are setting yourself up for a heavy dose of disappointment and embarrassment when readers trash your work with one- and two-star reviews on Amazon. Read some of those bad reviews—the ones NOT written by friends, family members, and family pets—and you will occasionally find ones that say the book needed to be edited. I’m pretty sure that any reader who says this is not a professional editor. Mature readers can easily identify a poorly written, unedited book. Bad reviews will kill your sales.

You must try with all your might to delay gratification. Don’t rush the writing process. Be patient. You’ve devoted considerable time and effort to your book. Rushing the process will almost always prove harmful in the long run. Do you really want to “waltz out of the house in your underwear”?

If rewriting seems like too much trouble to you, ask yourself: Do I want to write, or do I want to have written?

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
www.paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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Fiction writing tip: Avoid “purple prose”

Purple prose is writing that is so extravagant, ornate, hyperbolic, or flowery that it interrupts the flow of the writing and draws excessive attention to itself. Purple prose is characterized by the extensive use of adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors. The culprits of purple prose are usually modifiers that make the writing wordy, overwrought, distracting, silly and, in most cases, quite funny.

The term purple prose comes from the Roman poet Horace, who compared this style of writing to patches of purple sewn onto clothes. Purple was a sign of wealth (and pretentiousness), and so we now have the phrase to describe such writing in fiction, typically created by inexperienced writers.

In purple prose, skin is always creamy, eyelashes always glistening, heroes always brooding, and sunrises always magical. Purple prose also features an abundance of metaphors, figurative language, long sentences, and abstractions.

Examples:

“Her silken, sun-kissed locks made a golden frame around her perfect heart-shaped face. Soft, ruby red lips curved up, crystalline sky blue eyes sparkled as she looked down at the brilliant, beaming emerald clasped in her long, elegant, lily-white fingers.”

“His eyes spoke eloquent volumes of walks in the rain and white beaches, cool mountain paths, and crisp forests. She felt like she was floating from one place to another faster than she dared imagine, all the while his eyes daring her to move, to let go.”

“She answered him haughtily, the smirk on her face touched by a naughty flash in her eyes that tugged at the male part of him. He noticed she sat tall and relaxed with her nubile legs twisted in lotus position. Her poise reminded him of queens of old sitting dominion over loyal followers in huge temples of worship with rich gold and crimson fabrics cradling them as followers came and dropped down to pay homage.”

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

“She lay upon her silken sheets in her ornately embellished robes of satin, her chest ascending and descending easily with every passing second, deep inside the caverns of her subconscious mind.”

“My heart is pounding, my blood singing as it courses through my body, desire pooling, unfurling . . . everywhere.” (From Fifty Shades of Grey)

Do you feel nauseous now? Me, too. Please oh please don’t write this kind of dreck.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
www.paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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English language: Funny new words

The Washington Post  once again invited readers to take any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing one letter, and supply a new definition. Here are the winners:

1. Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period of time.

2. Ignoranus: A person who’s both stupid and an asshole.\

3. Intaxication: Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realize it was your money to start with.

4. Reintarnation: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.

5. Bozone (n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.

6. Foreploy: Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of getting laid.

7. Giraffiti: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.

8. Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it.

9. Inoculatte: To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.

10. Osteopornosis: A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)

11. Karmageddon: It’s like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it’s like, a serious bummer.

12. Decafalon (n): The grueling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you.

13. Glibido: All talk and no action.

14. Dopeler Effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.

15. Arachnoleptic Fit (n.): The frantic dance performed just after you’ve accidentally walked through a spider web.

16. Beelzebug (n.): Satan in the form of a mosquito, that gets into your bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out.

17. Caterpallor (n.): The color you turn after finding half a worm in the fruit you’re eating.

The Washington Post has also published the winning submissions to its yearly contest, in which readers are asked to supply alternate meanings for common words. And the winners are:

1. Coffee, n. The person upon whom one coughs.

2. Flabbergasted, adj. Appalled by discovering how much weight one has gained.

3. Abdicate, v. To give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach.

4. Esplanade, v. To attempt an explanation while drunk.

5. Willy-nilly, adj. Impotent.

6. Negligent, adj. Absent mindedly answering the door when wearing only a nightgown.

7. Lymph, v. To walk with a lisp.

8. Gargoyle, n. Olive-flavored mouthwash.

9. Flatulence, n. Emergency vehicle that picks up someone who has been run over by a steamroller.

10. Balderdash, n. A rapidly receding hairline.

11. Testicle, n. A humorous question on an exam.

12. Rectitude, n. The formal, dignified bearing adopted by proctologists.

13. Pokemon, n. A Rastafarian proctologist.

14. Oyster, n. A person who sprinkles his conversation with Yiddishisms.

15. Frisbeetarianism, n. The belief that, after death, the soul flies up onto the roof and gets stuck there.

16. Circumvent, n. An opening in the front of boxer shorts worn by Jewish men.

I hope you enjoyed those as much as I did.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
http://www.paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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Writing tip: the passive voice of verbs

VERBS have two “voices”: the active voice and the passive voice. With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passivefiction-reveals-truths verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence.

Don’t confuse voice with tense. Tense concerns the time of the action; voice pertains to the way a verb functions relative to the subject of the sentence. In the active voice, the subject and verb relationship is straightforward: the subject is a be-er or a do-er, and the verb moves the sentence along. In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is neither a do-er nor a be-er, but is acted upon by some other agent or by something unnamed. Example:

The ball was thrown by Johnny.

The subject of this sentence is the noun ball. Something is being done to the subject of the sentence, so it is written in the passive voice. To change the sentence to the active voice, write:

Johnny threw the ball.

Examples of the active and passive voices:

Jewelry is often stolen by burglars. [passive]

Burglars often steal jewelry. [active]

Passive forms often use the verb was:

Oxygen was discovered in 1774 by Joseph Priestly. [passive]

Joseph Priestly discovered oxygen in 1774. [active]

In the examples above, the subject of the sentence—burglars and Joseph Priestly—are not the doers of the action.

Exceptions

You don’t have to change every passive construction to an active one. For instance, various stock locutions such as The project was abandoned and The Romans were defeated are perfectly acceptable.

Also, the passive voice is useful when the doer of the action is unknown or unimportant:

The lock was broken sometime after four o’clock. [Who broke the lock is unknown]

In 1899, a peace conference was held at The Hague. [This sentence comes from an essay by E.B. White. In this case, the doers of the action—the holders of the conference—are unimportant to White’s point.]

In every other case, do as Stephen King flatly says in his book On Writing: “You should avoid the passive voice” (emphasis his), noting that it is one of his pet peeves. You will find the same advice in The Elements of Style by Strunk and White and in John Gardner’s book The Art of Fiction.

Don’t be passive-aggressive. Use the active voice.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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Fiction writing: Scene framing

Novelists should settle their readers quickly into each scene. To accomplish that, use scene framing. To frame a scene, you should:

• Identify the setting and give the reader a sense of where we are.

• Let the reader know how much time has passed since the previous scene.

• Indicate who your point-of-view character is and describe his/her frame of mind.

• Mention everyone who is present so that a character doesn’t suddenly pop up out of nowhere or so that character’s dialogue doesn’t come as a surprise to the reader.

• Subtly place any props your characters need, so when they reach for a briefcase or gun or chair, readers will already have that object in their vision of the setting.

For variety, offer these required elements in a different order each time you write a scene. You can make a quick check to see if you have included all the elements of scene framing by asking Who? What? Where? When?

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.

 

“Begs the question” — Writing tips

I have seen and heard the expression begs the question used incorrectly much too often. Begging the question is a fallacy that comes from the discipline of logic and the art of formal argument, where it’s known by the Latin term petitio principii. In a debate, if someone begs the question, he is assuming in the premise the truth of something that he seeks to establish in the conclusion. This is a failure in reasoning that renders an argument invalid.

aristotle-bust
Aristotle’s work Prior Analytics contained an early discussion of this fallacy.

Alice in Wonderland

Begging the question is a form of circular reasoning. For example, in Alice in Wonderland, during Alice’s wacky conversation with the Cheshire Cat, he says, “Well, I’m certainly crazy; therefore, everyone here is crazy.”

What the cat says seems logical at first glance, but it isn’t. It’s a fallacy—faulty reasoning. In the premise of his argument he is using an assumption (that he is crazy) to conclude that everyone in Wonderland is crazy. This is an unsound argument. He is begging the question.

Other examples of begging the question:

“Celibacy is an unnatural and unhealthy practice, since it is neither natural nor healthy to exclude sexual activity from one’s life.”

“Happiness is the highest good for a human being, because all other values are inferior to it.”

“Of course smoking causes cancer. The smoke from cigarettes is a carcinogen.”

When a writer or speaker uses begs the question incorrectly, he means to say that some fact or condition brings up a question that deserves consideration.

Incorrect use: “The increase of terrorist attacks begs the question of why authorities can’t stop them from happening.”

Instead of using begs the question, you could say “raises the question” or “prompts the question” or “forces one to ask” or “makes me wonder” or “leads us to ask.”

From now on, please use this expression properly. I beg you.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.

The dirtiest word in the English language

I have to mention a dirty wordgrammar. Oh, horrors! I know, I know. Studying grammar is about as much fun as poking yourself in the eye with a stick. But if you take writing seriously, you have to acquire the tools of the trade. If you want to build a house, you have to do the same thing—get the proper tools, learn how to use them, and learn carpentry. Unless you do that, your new home will look like a tree house built by nine-year-olds.

Most technical shortcomings are as crucial as the literary ones to providing your readers with a smooth reading experience. If, for instance, your reader notices that you have written many run-on sentences or that your page is peppered with semicolons, his/her read is disrupted as much as if your scenes lacked details of the setting or your plot wandered off on a tangent.

I also know that obvious problems with grammar, punctuation, usage, and spelling are reason numero uno for rejecting a manuscript. Literary agents and acquisitions editors rarely read more than a few pages—or only one page—before hitting the Reject button, which is easy for them to do when they see writing that’s littered with technical clunkers.

Many readers who aren’t as sophisticated as literary agents also notice writing errors. As proof of that, find some self-published novels on Amazon and read their reviews, especially the one- and two-star ones, not the five-star ones the author solicited from family, friends, and all their pets. Some of these reviewers mention how grammar and punctuation errors disrupted or ruined their reading experience.

Too many self-pubbed authors have made the mistake of skipping the last step in the process in their rush to get into print—having their book professionally edited. As a result, they embarrass themselves and fail to sell books.

Sorry, friends, but you can’t get around the need for this kind of education if you want to be a competent writer. You simply must learn about all the nuts and bolts.

So okay. Maybe now you have decided to suck it up and learn about the rules of the writing road. Where to start? Take a class, either online or off. Buy a good college-level textbook and study it cover to cover. Or find a website like this one: DailyGrammar.com.

I will discuss some technical issues in upcoming posts, so stay tuned.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.