Friday, September 4, 2015

Editing Panel with This Year's Anthony Finalists for Best Short Story

By Art Taylor

A few weeks back, Paul D. Marks hosted a chat about themes with this year's Macavity Award finalists for Best Short Story, and I'm pleased this week to welcome the Anthony Award finalists in the same category—weighing in on this week's question about how we writers edit our works. 

Before we get to the discussion, be sure and check out each of the linked stories below; the winning story will be announced at this year's Bouchercon in Raleigh, NC—based on the votes of attendees at the conference. 

As for the question at hand, I'll introduce it by saying that editing may well be both the hardest and the most rewarding aspect of the writing process—whether it's done along the way (write some small part of a story, then revise it extensively before diving in again) or as discrete stages (push through an entire draft, then step back and see what you've got). So I was wildly interested in hearing the responses from my fellow panelists.

My own process is a combination of two extremes. I'll fret over individual lines and paragraphs and scenes along the way—very slow forward progress always—but even when it's all "done" I feel like I'm at a new beginning, seeing the whole of it for the first time and trying to examine how well a story is balanced, how well it moves, where it falters, where it fails. In the best cases, reading the first full draft of a tale will open up new possibilities—I'll finally see what the story is really about, where the connections are revealing themselves, and how to orchestrate all the parts into better harmony. Such was the case with "The Odds Are Against Us"—the final scenes falling out of that rereading. In the worst cases, though, I'll discover that it's an ungainly mess—major work ahead. I always tell my students that the word "revision" really means "new vision" or "second vision." And it's important to get that renewed or objective perspective, whether by having others read and critique your work or by setting a draft aside for a period of time. I've had times when I've put aside a story for months or even years (sadly true) before coming back to it to do the hard work of finishing it right.

When does the tinkering stop? It's too easy, I think, to become paralyzed by the notion that something isn't good enough and for your work to become a draft-eternally-in-progress. I've talked about this trouble before here at Criminal Minds—my own liberation at the example of sculptor Alberto Giacometti, whose ten Women of Venice are each beautiful in their own way and each molded from the same lump of clay, worked and reworked again and again. Many ways of doing something, and you don't have to find the perfect one; that way leads to madness.

Enough from me, though. What do the other finalists say? Their responses follow—continuing in alphabetical order by first name this time around.

BARB GOFFMAN: I wish I could give a simple answer. I edit as I write, so when I get to The End, most of my stories are pretty clean. Nonetheless, I'll read a finished story over more than once for problems (grammar, spelling, clarity, wordiness, overused words, inconsistencies, and more). I'll review it to see if I have enough description and if I'm telling where I should be showing and if there are ways I can add richness. I'll also send the story to a trusted friend or two for feedback, and then I may make more changes. If I have enough time, I'll let the story sit for a few days and read it again. A fresh eye can be important to spotting problems. But when do I stop editing? I stop when the story reads right. When I'm happy with it. It's subjective and hard to explain because in the end, editing is an art, not a science. 

CRAIG FAUSTUS BUCK: I write by the seat of my pants, so I often find myself going down dead end streets when I need a highway, then having to backpedal my way out. It's an incredibly inefficient way to write, but it's a lot more fun to have your characters surprise you than it is to paint by the numbers from an outline.

However, as my characters do their thing, I'm constantly going back to earlier scenes and making revisions to properly motivate their actions. Also, if I take more then two days off, I'll usually have to start back at the beginning and read the entire manuscript to catch up to where I was. I will inevitably edit again along the way. And as I write, I will often shuffle the parts of sentence around until I find the order that best serves my three Cs: clarity, cadence and character. I generally don't distinguish between writing and editing because it's all one big blur.

Once I write "The End" I'll make several editorial passes for single purposes: to track a character's emotional arc, to double-check the timeline, to follow a B-story, whatever. By the time I finish a project, be it a short story or a novel, I've probably spent about ninety percent of my writing time editing. I stop when it's time to send it.    

JOHN SHEPPHIRD: The gut tells you. It's far easier to edit than compose (in any medium). I try not to get hung up rewriting and overthinking. I force myself to keep moving forward. Then I reward myself for finishing, step away for a bit, and come back to make it better. Some of the best stuff makes it into the second, third, or umpteenth pass. At a certain point different ideas pull me away from what I'm working on. I go on to write something else, but not before finishing. 

Sometimes the editing process is fast and furious. Before "Ghost Negligence" was nominated for the Shamus, Linda Landrigan, the editor of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, asked me to consider making it a series. I agreed and wrote "Of Dogs & Deceit" quickly because I wanted to get her something and didn't spend too much time editing. The title for the story was the last thing I came up with while walking my dog one morning.

When "Ghost Negligence" won the Shamus, I thought Linda would print "Of Dogs & Deceit" soon after, but she waited almost a year until she could give me the magazine's cover with the Roy Lichtenstein inspired artwork featuring my story. It happened to be the November Bouchercon issue (with copies in the book bags) so convention regulars were exposed to my work. Alas, here I am, nominated for the Anthony for the second in my Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine private eye series. And it's such an honor to be included with the other talented authors in my category. Onward!  

PAUL D. MARKS: Some people edit too little. I think I tend to edit too much. I want to keep going and going until it's 110% perfect, kind of like in The Producers where they sell more than 100% of the show to investors. But of course it never is perfect. And there comes a time when you do have to stop editing and give birth to the story.

As for process, and mundane as it might sound, initially you just have to read it over, find whatever works and what doesn't (this could be an article in itself), fix what you find. But we go "snow blind" to our work and miss a lot of errors or plot issues, etc. The best way to deal with that is to let the project sit for a week and come back to it fresh. You'll be amazed what you find. The other thing is to read it out loud. Again, it's amazing what you missed when reading it to yourself. Then, of course, you can have beta readers or hired editors and if you have an agent and a publisher they will also give input. But no matter what you do or how much you read and re-read and edit, you will always find something you wish you had changed even after the book is published. Big things, little things, but there's always something.   

* * * 
In other news (back to Art): This is the last post I'll make before the official release date of my debut book, On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, so I wanted to give a quick bit of BSP in that regard. Very eager to make Tuesday, September 15 a big day launch day—both for myself and my fine publisher, Henery Press—so please do take a moment to check out the preorder links below. And for folks in the DC area, please do come out for my launch party on Saturday, September 19, at One More Page Books in Arlington, VA too!

One More Page (store pick-up):
One More Page (mailed):

Thursday, September 3, 2015


by Alan

We're asked a lot about how we write, but less about how we edit. How do you know what to change and when to stop?

The End When I type “The End” on a draft, it’s a great feeling, for sure. I exhale deeply, crack my knuckles, and unclench every muscle in my body. Yet, there’s a small, squeaky voice in the back of my head, whispering, “You know you’re not finished, bucko. You know the pain is just beginning.”

I do know that, but I still savor the moment. After a brief period of celebration, I stuff my manuscript in the proverbial drawer for a cooling-off period. Could be a couple days, could be a couple weeks. Could even be longer (I think I’ve got one still chilling in my drawer from 2009).

When I’m brave enough, I pull it out and the revision process can commence. First thing, I’ll reread the entire manuscript, all the way through. I generally realize it’s not as bad as I thought (in spots) and not as good as I thought (in other spots). One thing I do know: it will be very uneven. There will be plot holes and timeline issues. (I once had a day contain about 36 hours. Another time, I’d set a roaring fire in a fireplace, but it was the middle of summer.)

On my read-through, I take copious notes.

After the initial read, I’ll go back and fix things. What do I change? Everything that “doesn’t work.”

When I write the first draft, I write linearly—straight on through, no editing. When I revise, I jump around, usually fixing the bigger stuff first. I find that sometimes it’s an iterative process. Changes in one spot will prompt changes in another spot, and this, in turn, will force me to go back and change things some more.

After that, I’ll make a few separate editing passes, mostly to address specific things. The next time through is usually for the plot. Does it make sense? Does it hold together? Are there gigantic holes or flaws in logic? At this stage, I’ll map everything on a timeline to make sure it all works within the constraints of the universe

Next time through, I read for characterization. Are the characters consistent? Are their motivations sound?

Then I’ll beef up the dialogue, or the descriptions, or the settings, or any of a dozen other things.

At some point, I need to lock down some of that research I’ve put off (place names, dates, esoteric stuff that requires some one-on-one time with Mr. Google).

As I go, anything that gets deleted gets dumped into a “clips” file. Who knows, I may change my mind and put it back into the manuscript, or I may find a way to repurpose it in another work. Those words don’t always come easy, so if I can recycle them, I’ll do it!

When I write a draft, I don’t include chapter breaks; I usually wait until I’m pretty far along in the revision process before doing that.

I also don’t polish the prose until sometime toward the end of the process. (No sense doing it earlier, especially if you’ll be deleting a lot of prose along the way). I always make sure to search on my crutch words (just, pretty, that, maybe, etc.), run spell/grammar check, make sure the formatting is okay, and other important stuff.

After the manuscript is “ready,” I give it to some beta readers. When I get their comments, I start the process all over again. All. Over. Again.

When do I stop revising? I guess when the changes I make simply make the manuscript different and not better.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Step Away From the Red Pen

 by Tracy Kiely

            Knowing when to stop is a problem that I am quite familiar with – on many different fronts. I don’t know when to stop talking. I don’t know when to stop being a wise ass. I don’t know when to stop redecorating. (Our dining room? I’ve painted it six times. My husband won’t let me in the room unescorted anymore.) There have been times when I didn’t know when to put the chardonnay down and step the hell away. I can’t tell you how many times I didn’t know when to stop mindlessly grazing like a cow out in the cold (Yes, that’s a real thing. Like any decent author, I Goggled it. So there.)
            Based on this radically abbreviated list of examples of my lack of self control, you probably won’t be shocked to learn that knowing when to stop editing is something I struggle with as well.
            I constantly reword sentences in my head – many times, long after the I’ve turned in a book. I will read passages from my books that are published, and I still find myself mentally editing them.
            It’s really annoying, actually.
            I constantly tweak, reword, play around with adjectives, and generally wear out my thesaurus. If I didn’t have a deadline, I’d never turn anything in on time. (If my editor reads this, she will no doubt spit out her coffee in surprise that I consider my submissions to be even remotely on time.)
            My only “tell” that I have that alerts me that it’s time to put down the red pen, was given to me by my first editor. She told me, “When you find yourself swapping the same two words over and over again, it’s time to stop.”
            I’m glad she had told me this, because on my first book, I did just that. I read the draft and changed this one sentence. Then I read it again, and changed it back. And then I did it again. And again.  It became a kind of obsession, as if by getting that one sentence just right, I’d ensure the success of my book.
            The funny thing? I can’t even remember which sentence it was.
            So, I think when you find yourself reworking the same passages, and not really doing anything other than tweaking a few adjectives, or worse, just one word, it’s time to stop, and hit the “send” button.
And then? Take a moment to celebrate your hard work! Have a glass of chardonnay, pat yourself on the back, and be proud.

And then go repaint the dining room, because that color is hideous.  

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

No Editing: No Book

By R.J. Harlick

We're asked a lot about how we write, but less about how we edit. How do you know what to change and when to stop?

I love editing. It’s when I get to transform my rough first draft into a real book. 

Because I don’t outline, I use the first draft to get the story down, without giving thought to writing niceties. Once a chapter is finished, I never go back but keep plunging forward until I type the last sentence of the story. Well, not quite the last sentence, rather I stop when the major plot line has reached its conclusion, usually when the murderer is finally caught. I often don’t write the final tying-up-the-ends chapter(s) until I’ve had a chance to digest all the storylines through successive revisions. 

I use the first revision to flesh out the storylines, resolve inconsistencies and add depth and colour to the prose. My first draft is often quite spare, because I am more interested in writing the story down than adding meat to it. I fine-tune my characters to make them more alive and distinctive. I flesh out the settings, adding description that works on all the senses, so my readers can image themselves in the middle of it. I hone my characters’ dialogues to ensure they are distinctive and unique to them. While I do some word streamlining, I don’t worry about it with this revision. Needless to say the first revision often has a greater word-count than the first draft.

At this point I send my manuscript off to various critical eyes to get their input for the second revision.

Further fine tuning takes place with the second revision. By now I really know my story and my characters, so can more easily see the ‘forest for the trees’ so to speak and identify the improvements that need to be made to make it flow smoothly. Plus I have the feedback from my critical eyes to help hone it into what I hope will be a winning story. Even at this stage substantial changes have been known to happen. This is also when the major polishing of my prose takes place. Sometimes I will read sections out loud, though I don’t usually do it for the entire book. I find this helps to find the clunky prose and the dialogue that doesn’t work. 

I do one final pass through before I send the manuscript to my publisher. I look for inconsistencies I’ve missed and other anomalies. But usually at this stage it is minor tweaking. With this revision, my major task is to further tighten the prose and rid it of any remaining useless words and to get it to down to the word count my publisher has stipulated, if it’s not already there. 

One of the most valuable edits I ever did was when my editor told me I had to reduce my manuscript by another 10,000 words. I almost croaked, until she suggested it was a simple matter of deleting a hundred and fifty words or so from each chapter, which sounded much easier. And easy it was. By the time I’d finished I knew I had a much better book. I now make this final edit a practice.

But of course this isn’t the end of the edits. It’s my editor’s turn to go through the manuscript and identify changes. We usually do a bit of horse trading, with me readily agreeing to some, compromising on others and outright rejecting the rest. But at this point the edits are usually minor. 

The last and final pass through is on the proofs. I always feel a thrill when I see my words finally in book format. My only task is to catch any real bloopers that haven’t already been caught, like names that weren’t changed and the like. 

And once I send it off, that’s it. That’s the last I will read these words, for I never read the book after it is published.

P.S. I don't think I'm this bad, but sometimes it feels like it.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Revising, revising, revising...

"We're asked a lot about how we write, but less about how we edit. How do you know what to change and when to stop?"

by Meredith Cole

The writing process can be summed up like this for me:
  • Attempt to roughly flesh out and outline my story before I start. Figure out if I have enough for a novel, or if it really needs to be something else (a short story, poem or one-act play).
  • Take a deep breath and start writing. I give myself a word count and goals (I love goals!). The pages start piling up. It does not go like my outline. It never does. I run into lots of issues and attempt to write my way out of them.
  • Reach the end (months later). Take another deep breath. Set aside the manuscript until I have some perspective (or can't stand waiting any longer).
  • Print out the book and read it. Write all over it. Despair. Throw out huge sections and figure out what needs to be there instead. Rewrite. Repeat previous steps.
  • Figure out what my book is really about. Despair. Throw out sections, revise, rewrite, repeat.
  • Have someone else read it. Fix typos, make more revisions.
  • Go through and look for passive voice and annoying words/phrases that I use all the time. (Must everyone shrug? Really?) Make sure I've fixed all the mistakes (Bill's name needs to stay consistent throughout the book, darn it!).
And then eventually I do stop revising. Why? Either because I have a deadline or I'm just changing stupid stuff now or I'm just exhausted. Maybe the book could be better. Maybe it hasn't lived up to its full potential. But it's not going to get better with another rewrite by me. So I declare it done. For now.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Is That a Bad Review or Just a Ham on Rye?

How do you react to negative reviews?

by Paul D. Marks

I call up my friends in the Mossad and tell them to seek out and destroy all negative reviewers in the shank of a dark and stormy night. Oh wait, no, that’s what a producer said he was going to do to me when we got in an argument about a script.

Take 2:

Some people say never to read reviews and that’s probably good advice, and probably what one should do. But it’s hard not to. Why? Because, I’m sure, we all want to have our egos stroked. And we’re looking for the positive reinforcement that says we haven’t wasted our lives working on something that nobody likes. So our expectation—our hope—is to get good reviews for that and other reasons. When we don’t our egos are shattered. And those who say it doesn’t affect them, well, let’s just say I think they’re most likely doing that stiff upper lip thing.

I’ve been gratified by most reviews, whether by professional reviewers or consumers on Amazon and the like. But every once in a while...

bill-murray-1984-razors-edgeEven big stars like to check their reviews. I was on the Warner Brothers lot (though it may have been called The Burbank Studios at the time, now it’s back to Warner Brothers [long story]) one day and saw Bill Murray leaning against a car reading a review of “The Razor’s Edge” (1984) that had just come out (and based on my tied for favorite book along with The Count of Monte Cristo). It wasn’t getting rave reviews to say the least, but as I say above, we all want to be validated and maybe also get some constructive criticism as to what went wrong. And I remember thinking even Bill Murray, with all his popularity from “Ghostbusters,” etc. still must feel the sting of a bad review like everyone else.

Hell, even Bob Dylan doesn’t like the sting of being booed, as when he first went electric andBringing it All BAck Home  D1 5701847_147 rock from strictly acoustic folk music. Check out this YouTube clip. It’s less than a minute long:

So let’s focus on Amazon reviews because they’re there, for good or ill. I don’t like reading negative reviews, but how I react depends on the review. Not everybody can like everything. I get that. Of course, one is tempted to remind some reviewers what their mommies told them, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” But that isn’t the real world, is it? So for me, it depends on what the reviewer says. Does it seem like they actually read the book? Do they have an axe to grind? Are they offering constructive comments about what worked or didn’t for them or are they just off on some kind of tangent? Did they get what I was trying to say and, if not, is that my fault or theirs?

LA Late @ Night ebook Cover -- Paul D Marks FD1I got a couple of one star reviews for my short story collection “LA Late @ Night”. And they did piss me off. I had gotten some lukewarm reviews on “White Heat” and lived with them. But these two reviews for “LA Late @ Night” just didn’t make sense to me. These two reviewers, who seemed cut from the same cloth (literally), both hated the book and the stories in it. But their comments made little sense.

One said: “Uninteresting, choppy writing. No plots. I wouldn't waste my time reading this series of books as they are rambling writings.”

Where do I start? With the fact that it’s not a series. Uninteresting, well, that’s your opinion. Choppy, well that’s my style on some things. But each story had previously been published in a magazine or anthology, so somebody found them interesting. No plots, see previous response. Bottom line, I wonder if they even knew what book they were reviewing—But Wait: There’s More. The Kicker is yet to come. But First:

The other crappy review:

“Not that great of stories and the writing is stilted...I didn't even finish them all!”

Oh, where to begin: How ‘bout them criticizing my writing as being stilted when their sentence is grammatically incorrect? So maybe someone who doesn’t know proper grammar criticizing my grammar is actually a compliment.

Okay, here it comes. Hold your breath. The Kicker:

Being a glutton for punishment, I of course had to check each person’s profile to see why they hated my book so much. What I saw were reviews for muffin pans, muck boots, kitchen gadgets, children’s books, religious/inspirational books and very few mystery books, and no noir or hardboiled books. So I wondered why they even bought my book? Judging from their other reviews I could have told them they wouldn’t like it and would have saved them the time, aggravation and money.

It made no sense to me why they would even read a book like mine. So I had to assume there was an agenda going on. I called this to Amazon’s attention, asking them to remove these reviews, which they wouldn’t. I still think there was some kind of agenda happening here, though I couldn’t say exactly what the motivation is and these are the kind of reviews, totally baseless, that really piss me off. And I know authors are not supposed to say that, we’re not supposed have emotions or respond, but hey, you asked, that’s our question this week.

And here are some other One Star Amazon reviews for your entertainment pleasure, only the names have been removed to protect the guilty.

Reviews from Amazon – yellow highlights and purple comments have been added by me.

200px-RaymondChandler_TheBigSleepReviews of The Big Sleep:

One Star
By XXX/Reviewer’s Name Removed
The book is a big sleep. (Paul’s comment: Well, some of us who liked this book must just be insomniacs.)
One Star
By XXX/Reviewer’s Name Removed

Reviews of Crime and Punishment:

One Star
By Amazon Customer
Very slow & plodding. (Paul’s comment: That damn Raskolnikov, why didn’t he just get it over and confess? On “Law & Order” Briscoe and Curtis would have had him spilling all in 2 minutes flat.)

One Star
Too Long
By XXX/Reviewer’s Name Removed
Long and pretty boring I don't like the old timely language they use in this book I know it's translated from German or Russian maybe but I was bored to tears and there was never any payoff really just goes on and on.

Reviews of 1984:

One Star
0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
I love a good dystopian but this was just such a…
By XXX/Reviewer’s Name Removed
I have always heard about 1984 being the father of all dystopian novels... I love a good dystopian but this was just such a hard book to read because in the entire story, there is no room for hope.
(Paul’s comment: Maybe Katniss from “Hunger Games” should show up and rescue Winston and Julia from O’Brien.)

Canter's Collage D1One Star
0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
….must be a book only an English teacher would like. I classify this a worse than "Catcher and ...
By XXX/Reviewer’s Name Removed
This must be a book only an English teacher would like. I classify this a worse than "Catcher and the Rye" (Paul’s comment: Is that a new book, Catcher AND the Rye, or is that something you get at Canter’s Deli (or Katniss’ Deli) – or maybe Canter’s and the Rye, or maybe Ham on Rye – h/t Chinaski.)

Damn! I’m hungry now.

So, overall, you have to take both the good and the bad with a grain of seasoned salt, a quesadilla and some damn good and spicy hot sauce.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000037_00019]
Vortex: My new Mystery-Thriller novella coming September 1st. Available for pre-order now.

“...a nonstop staccato action noir... Vortex lives up to its name, quickly creating a maelstrom of action and purpose to draw readers into a whirlpool of intrigue and mystery... but be forewarned: once picked up, it's nearly impossible to put down before the end.”

—D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review

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Thursday, August 27, 2015

La-la-la . . . can't hear you.

How do I react to negative reviews? By Catriona

Okay first, I need to make a distinction between A. a review, by a reviewer, in a publication or on a website where reviews are published and B. a rating, possibly anonymous, by a private individual in the role of a consumer.

I have no beef with B. When I'm operating as a fellow consumer, I look at the yellow bars on Amazon. If the numbers are large enough you can sometimes draw conclusions. (On the other hand, if a book has eight to eleven five-star reviews, all beautifully composed, and nothing else . . . I tend to assume the author is in a writer's group. And brings cupcakes. Call me a cynic.)

But I don't look at my own books on Amazon, so I've never seen any good or bad star-ratings to react to. The upside of this speaks for itself, the downside is that when people write glowing testimony and then I meet them at events, I never say thank you. Ahem. THANK YOU!

And the reason I don't look at my own books to find out what people are saying? They're not talking to me. They're helping readers decide whether to buy a book. Or, if they are talking to me, it's kind of weird, isn't it?

But what about A? The press and trade reviews feel different to me. They're one of the ways our community expresses the fact that it's a community. (Does that make sense? My one year of social anthropology was a long time ago.) So how do I react to negative reviews in newspapers, trade journals and websites? Well, I can tell if the review is good or bad from the subject-line of my publicist's email "ANOTHER KIRKUS STAR!!! YAYYYY!!!!!"  or "Here is the PW review for your files".

So I either click the link, cross-post, share, put a quote on my website and redesign my bookmarks or . . .

Of course, if someone reads that publication or follows that website, they'll hear the thoughts of the reviewer. But they won't hear it from me.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

On Negative Reviews

Question of the Week: How do you react to negative reviews?

My Answer: I drink a glass of wine and write something scathing into whatever manuscript I'm working on at the time.

And I love Susan's answer from yesterday. Sometimes I drink a second glass of wine and do that, too.

Monday, August 24, 2015

"How do you react to negative reviews?

    What negative reviews?

(From Susan: I freely acknowledge I took this photo from a site called Glee Wiki. I couldn’t find a photographer’s name or copyright information and I apologize profusely if this wasn't available to use. It was so perfect…..)