Editing a la Susan Spann

The brilliant Susan Spann (website and Amazon page) generously shared her editing process last month (Sept. 2017) with us lucky attendees at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers conference in Denver. Susan is an attorney specializing in intellectual property – another of her conference sessions focused on what to look out for in an agent or publishing contract – and an author of a mystery series set in 16th-century Japan starring a master ninja and a Portuguese Jesuit priest.

She stressed that this is her process – it works for her; if it works for you, great; if not, don’t do it this way. Before she starts, she spends 3-4 months reading and researching the world of the novel, and creates a brief outline of the 5-act structure and the events that occur on-stage and off.

Her process resonated with me in part because it ‘s similar to what I used to do while writing government reports in my previous career. We called it multi-pass editing, and the idea was that you’d:

1 – Get words on paper. If you don’t have anything to work with, you can’t make it better.

2 – Review the draft for content. Is the right information in the report, is there anything in there that doesn’t need to be, are the ideas adequately explained, using clarifying examples where needed, and is the information presented in context?

3 – Do another pass for organization. Does the report use headings and good paragraph structure, and does the information flow logically; can a reader skim the report and get the gist?

4 – The next pass was for style. You’d look for connections and transitions, active voice, clarity, conciseness, and any jargon that had snuck in.

5 – The last pass was for mechanics, like spelling, punctuation, grammar, and any errors you tend to make.

After we’d done everything we could to make it a good report, we’d pass it along to our in-house reviewers, editors, and quality control people, similar to fiction writers’ alpha and beta readers.

Susan’s approach seems familiar:

First draft: 

  • Unfiltered draft, written with the aid of a 3-page bullet point outline. She looks at the outline at the beginning and end of the day, but not while writing.
  • She writes on a device called an Alpha Smart Neo that only lets her see three lines at a time, for distraction-free writing; she downloads to Word every night.
  • No deleting anything till the draft is finished. Fix in editing is the mantra.
  • Set a word count goal.  Figure out your baseline – how much you’re currently writing in a day. Make that your goal till you can do it consistently on however many days a week you write. Then reset your goal to something attainable but that will push you, and stick with that till you can meet it consistently. Repeat. Using this approach, she went from a goal of writing 15 minutes a day, 200 words, to her current 6,000 a day in 4-5 hours.

    You have to touch the wall every day.

  • Don’t measure your speed against anyone else’s. She does her first draft in about 10 days now, but see above bullet for where she started out.
  • Write every day. She requires herself to write an hour a day, although she usually does more.
  • Stop for the day right before the cool thing happens, not at the end of the scene.
  • If you get stuck, think “what’s the least plausible, but possible in this book’s world, thing that can happen here?”

    Celebrate everything!

Second draft: 

  • She spends 2 1/2 months on this draft, editing 2-3 pages a day at a pace of about 2 hours per page. She doesn’t do a complete read before she starts; just starts at the beginning.
  • Focus on structure, plot/subplot, world building, big inconsistencies.
  • Remove unnecessary characters; maybe combine characters who fill small roles
  • Remove scenes where nothing’s really happening, it doesn’t advance the plot, or it duplicates another scene. Think about what information was gained in the scene and where else it could go if you delete it. Save deleted scenes in a separate file.
  • Make sure the character’s actions make sense. Is there a good reason they’re chasing down a killer instead of staying home and eating tacos?
  • If you notice a grammar mistake, typo, etc., fix it, but don’t look for them.
  • Put a square bracket where you need to research something, figure out how to fix something, or check internal consistency.
  • Make notes at the end of the manuscript of things you need to think about more. If she thinks the reader would have a question, she puts it at the end.

Third draft: 

  • Research and detail insertion. Take care of all those square brackets.
  • Make the characters distinct.
    • Every character gets something that sets them apart, as recommended in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. This could be a physical characteristic, a typical gesture, etc.
    • Make them sound distinct. Add their inner dialogue. With every line of dialogue, ask what they’re feeling (or what they want others to think they’re feeling), and how their gestures or movements convey that.
  • Triple verify everything you find on the Internet. Email experts; go to the place, stay there, and talk to people
  • If you have characters from a different culture than your own, research until people in that culture say you got it right. If you can’t do it justice, delete it.
  • Reverse engineer any subplots. Fill any holes in the plot.

Fourth draft: 

  • Add the chapter breaks.
    • Put the break where the reader will want to turn the page, not where they’ll want to put a bookmark in and go to bed.
    • She goes to the 5th page, scans the action to see where a break should go. If there isn’t a good place, she keeps reading. If the natural break isn’t till page 8, she cuts 2-3 pages out of the chapter so she can break it on page 5 or 6. Whatever chapter length works for you, be consistent.
  • Look at the chapters individually:
    • is there a beginning, middle, and end?
    • is there conflict on every page? You can add tension by making a character obstreperous, not necessarily related to the master story arc.
  • Make sure the dialogue is snappy.
  • Make sure the changes you’ve made haven’t messed up something else

Fifth draft:

  • First polishing draft
  • From here on, read the draft out loud. You want it to read smoothly, and reading out loud will also help develop your writing voice and lyricism.
  • Look for grammar, sentence structure, and voice.
  • Look for echo words that you’ve repeated over and over. Use the thesaurus to fix this, but watch out – some words are so high-impact you can only get away with using them once in the whole book.
  • If you fix something in a scene, go back and start reading 2 paragraphs earlier. It’s like smoothing a tablecloth, where you can create more wrinkles.

Send the draft to your alpha and beta readers. Her alpha reader is her son; her beta readers are her critique partners. None of them sees the draft until this point. Tell your readers to crush the manuscript with a mighty hammer. There’s nothing they can tell you that will be as mean as what someone will post on Amazon.

Sixth draft:

  • Integrate your readers’ comments and do a second polish.
  • Pay attention to the comments:
    • Even if reader has it wrong, there’s a reason they had the question, so look at why they had that reaction, and figure out how to change.
    • The change needed may not be what the reader suggests. Their question might be triggered by something you did earlier. Talk to them, ask why they had that reaction.

This is where she sends the manuscript to her agent. She has an editorial agent, so her seventh draft is integrating her agent’s comments.

If the process sounds grueling, I’m sure it is, based on my past experience writing and editing reports. But it makes sense, and I believe if I try to follow Susan’s process for editing my novel, I’ll end up with a much better final product than I’ve ever accomplished before.

What do you think? Do you have an editing process that works for you? Please share in the comments below!

 

Advertisements

Screwball comedy – it’s not what I thought

I’ve been thinking of my current project as kind of a screwball comedy, modeled roughly after Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog and Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair. The key features I had in mind were:

  • Things spiral out of control in a crazy way. Ordinary events, like mislaid keys or misunderstood messages, pile on each other, leading to worst-case but wacky consequences.
  • The heroines are likable and capable though quirky, the supporting characters are even quirkier, and the antagonists are straitlaced and controlling.
  • Even though the stakes are high, like the end of the world as we know it, the reader doesn’t feel unduly anxious or stressed, because the whole situation is so absurd.

Through the wonders of Interlibrary Loan, I got my hands on Romantic vs. Screwball Comedy: Charting the Difference by Wes D. Gehring, who teaches film at Ball State University. He’s talking about movies, not books, and that’s an important distinction, since some of the features of screwball comedies only apply to movies.

As it turns out, screwball comedies have some features that never occurred to me. Some of them are irrelevant to my book, but others sparked new ideas for me, like these:

  • The central character is an antihero, a “little man” who’s always going to be thwarted, because he’s trying to create order in a world where order is impossible.
  • The plots often have couples from different classes coming together, a metaphor for reconciliation between classes, generations, genders, and attitudes (anxiety vs happy-go-lucky optimism).
  • The movies use nutty behavior as a prism through which to view a topsy-turvy period in history.

Other features of classic screwball comedies are more tied up in gender roles and romance. There’s typically a childlike man who has lots of leisure time and is frustrated in his relationships with women, and a zany eccentric woman rescues him from a domineering mother-like wife or fiancee. The movies involve ritualistic humiliation of the male, and Dr. Gehring says the vanquishing of male rigidity is the goal of all good screwball comedies.

Screwball comedies often parody more serious movies, usually romance (there’s a great sendup of Love Story’s most famous line in What’s Up, Doc?) but not always, as in Analyze This and others that spoof gangster movies. There’s usually a lot of physical comedy in screwball, unlike in romantic comedy, where attempted slapstick can be really awkward (I’m looking at you, Woman of the Year kitchen scene).

Dr. Gehring’s discussion of how the Great Depression and the transition from silent pictures to talkies influenced the development of the screwball genre is fascinating. For example, he talks about how screwball was intrigued with the wealthy classes but had a softer take on class differences than the class warfare and anarchy of some other comedies at the time, like some Marx Brother and W.C. Fields films. In screwball comedy, the idle rich are “entertainingly odd.” Talking pictures brought writers in from all over to produce the witty conversation.

Even though I was off base in my ideas about screwball comedy, I enjoyed reading the book, and I’ve assigned myself some movie watching homework. If you’re interested in experiencing some screwball comedy yourself, here are a few movies you might start with:

  • My Man Godfrey (1936), based on a novel by Eric Hatch
  • Topper (1937), based on a novel by Thorne Smith
  • Some Like it Hot (1959)
  • What’s Up, Doc? (1974)
  • All of Me (1984), based on the novel Me Two by Ed Davis
  • A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

 

Surviving summer in Phoenix

It’s the middle of June, it was 110 today, and it’s supposed to be 120 in a couple of days. I just got back from a few days in L.A., where it was a civilized 90 or so, and I needed my sweater when I was waiting for the shuttle bus at the Griffith Observatory. Driving home across the desert, especially in the stretch where they tell you to turn off your air conditioning to avoid overheating – a message reinforced by the U-Haul truck with its hood up at the side of the road – I thought about how many summers I’ve spent here. These are the lessons I’ve learned.

Respect the heat

Every summer, people trying to hike, bike, or jog in our beautiful desert collapse from the extreme heat. Some are rescued; some die. This article says it’s nearly impossible to replace the water you lose while hiking in these temperatures, even if you’re carrying enough water (you lose a liter an hour while hiking, double that in extreme heat, and your body can only absorb half a liter an hour). Heat stroke and dehydration kill dogs, too.

 …but don’t let it ruin your life

You don’t have to hole up all summer long. We average 110 days per year over 100 degrees, and 19 days over 110; that means you’ll lose almost a third of your life if you don’t learn to live with the heat. If you plan ahead, you can actually enjoy Phoenix in the summertime. It’s not a ghost town, but it’s less crowded without the winter visitors and university students. There’s not as much to do, which is okay, because in this heat you probably won’t feel like doing much anyway.

Follow these tips:

  1. Take advantage of free air conditioning. Movie theaters, libraries, museums, the gym, indoor malls – if you can find one – and stores are air conditioned on someone else’s dime. So’s your office, probably. Summer might be a time to forego telecommuting. Keep a sweater in your car for those places that are kept too cold for comfort.
  2. Go out in the morning, by which I mean as soon as it starts to get light out. It’s the coolest part of the day, using the word “cool” loosely, This is especially important if your dog walks with you. The sidewalk is way too hot for their feet later on.
  3. Hydrate inside and out. Carry water with you everywhere and sip it constantly. Walk under the misters at outdoor malls. Jump in the pool – yours, a friend’s, or the public pool. Visit the splash pad with the kids.
  4. Park in the shade. Yes, you’ll have to walk farther in the sun to get to your car, but you’ll be able to touch the steering wheel when you get there. Better yet, run your errands after dark if you can.
  5. Get out of town. Flagstaff, the White Mountains, Prescott, and Payson are all within a three-hour drive of Phoenix. If you want to hike, those are the places to do it in the summer. You can even drive to the beach in less than eight hours, or catch a cheap flight and be there in a couple of hours. Even a short break away makes the summer more bearable.
  6. Keep your house cool. Plant a fast-growing shade tree or two, replace your old windows with the kind that keep heat out, and install ceiling fans and cool-burning light bulbs. Use your vent fans and don’t use the oven. Learn to love salads. Use your swamp cooler, if you have one, before monsoon season hits – it’ll keep your house more comfortable for less $ than a/c.
  7. Give yourself permission to veg out. Other people do jigsaw puzzles in the winter when it’s too cold to go outside; you can do them when it’s too hot. Same with adult coloring books. Read. Alphabetize your spice rack. Plan your next big vacation. Take it easy, it’s summer.

What did I miss? Add your tips in the comments below.

Forget to learn

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about learning. I’m studying banjo and fiction writing and Spanish at the moment. Sometimes things seem to be going well, other times, not so much. Thanks to the magic of the YouTube recommendations algorithm and the generosity of people in my FaceBook writing groups, I’ve found some terrific information recently that I think is going to be really helpful.

The Feynman approach

If you want to understand something, explain it simply.

You can do this in person, if you have someone handy, preferably a kid who will keep asking you “why?” I often discover how inadequate my own understanding is when I try to explain something to someone else. Of course, that can be embarrassing, and not everyone may want to listen to you flail around.

An easier approach is to explain it on paper. Here are the steps:

  1. Write the name of the thing you want to understand at the top
  2. Explain it in simple terms. Include examples and ways to use the iScreen Shot 2017-06-04 at 11.14.23 AMnformation.
  3. Identify problem areas where your explanation is weak or your understanding is shaky. Go back and learn more, then revise your explanation.
  4. Identify any technical terms or complexity, and try to simplify your explanation.

Here’s a post from Thomas Frank with more details, a video, and links.

And I recommend checking out Richard Feynman himself. He was a brilliant theoretical physicist and a great explainer.Here’s a website dedicated to him, and here’s one
of his books that even us non-physicists can enjoy.

Spaced repetition

To remember more, give your brain more time to consolidate the information, and give yourself a chance to forget a bit so when you come back to it, you’ll learn more and your recall will be strengthened. This is that “forget to learn” idea. The harder you have to work to retrieve the information, the better you’ll be able to remember it later. Two obvious ways to make retrieval harder are letting some time go by (giving time for interfering information to seep in) and focusing on something else (e.g., interleaving study topics, like ABCABC instead of AABBCC).

Thomas Frank recommends a flash card setup called the Leitner system with five boxes Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 12.29.21 PMor piles:

  1. Review every day
  2. Review every other day
  3. Review weekly
  4. Review biweekly
  5. Review when you need it (i.e. before a test)

All the cards start out in box 1, and you move each card to the next box when you’ve mastered it. If a card’s in a higher box and you discover you don’t remember it, you move it back to box 1. Frank’s post lists several apps you can use for this. Duolingo, the language learning app I’m using to learn Spanish, seems to follow this principle.

Here’s Robert Bjork explaining the “new theory of disuse” which is behind this idea.

 

Practicing and engagement

Engagement is key to effective practice when learning a skill. You have to be there, focused on what you’re learning. This is going to be my challenge – I’ve gotten used to practicing banjo rolls and running through pieces I’m trying to memorize while watching Netflix, or even while reading (more difficult. Banjo picks get in the way of turning pages.)Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 12.35.53 PM

Here’s what it takes:

  1. Focus when engaged in practice
  2. Minimize distractions
  3. Start slow, and increase speed later
  4. Practice repeatedly with frequent breaks
  5. Visualize the skill to reinforce practice

To reach a big goal, you have to really want it. You also need to be able to break it down into bite-sized pieces, and take pleasure in completing each piece.

This article, about a kid auditioning for Juilliard, explains this and more in a clear and entertaining way. I followed some of the links in the article, including this one, which includes a TedEd talk about how practice works, and this link to The Bulletproof Musician.

Do you have any tips on learning or resources you’ve found helpful? Please share in the comments below.

 

 

Purging books

Today, I’m acknowledging three things. #1, I am not going to live forever. (What?!?) #2, I am never going to live in an English country manor with an enormous library with shelves to the ceiling. #3, my daughter and granddaughters are not going to see it as a positive thing if they inherit thousands of books. Okay, four things: #4, my paperback Soylent Greencopy of Harry Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room with the movie tie-in picture from Soylent Green, cover price 95 cents, whose glue has disintegrated so the cover is just a holder for the loose pages, isn’t worth any money now and never will be.

So I’m purging my shelves

The Marie Kondo approach didn’t work for me. You know – take all your books out of the shelves and touch each one, and only give shelf space to the ones that spark joy. I’m not the exact same person every day, and I don’t trust myself to guess what will spark joy for Future Me.

Deciding if you can safely purge

The best advice I found online is The Booklover’s Guide to Purging Books, which recommends using Google to help figure out what to get rid of:

  • Can you get it digitally for free?
  • Is it obsolete? This applies mostly to nonfiction.
  • Is it worth something?
  • Is it still in print? I would add, is it available as a paid ebook?

Once you’ve done your research, you can decide:

  • Would you absolutely love reading it again?
  • Is it a book you cherish and want to keep? (Ah, there’s that spark of joy!)

And I would add to that:

  • Is it cited often? I like being able to pull my Modern Library edition of Poe Poeoff the shelf to read The Raven when I come across a reference to it. Same with Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics and Shakespeare’s plays. I know I can easily find these things online but what if the internet’s down?

Which brings me to the zombie apocalypse. Or, if you prefer, the lingering illness or debilitating injury. I can easily imagine a scenario in which I’m trapped at home and have no internet or even have no electricity, so couldn’t charge up my Kindle. (And by the way, I’m on my fourth Kindle; they don’t last forever.) This is the real reason I’ve accumulated so many books – the fear of having nothing to read (Twitter calls this abibliophobia).

I’m pretty sure that once I’ve finished my purge, there will still be plenty of things to read in my house. So I’m making a start today with the top shelf of my science fiction paperback bookcase – Aldiss through Bova, with a smattering of others that snuck in because their own shelves were full.

How do you manage to keep your bookshelves under control? I have a feeling I’ll be working on this for a long time. Any tips gladly appreciated.

Zombies and bestsellers

I just finished reading World War Z by Max Brooks, which is #87 on the list of 100 books the algorithm in The Bestseller Code (Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers) thinks you should read. I enjoyed it – my review is on Goodreads if you’re interested – and one of my compatriots in this 100-book journey suggested looking back at The Bestseller Code to try to understand why this was chosen.

Theme and topics

The algorithm says that bestsellers limit their focus. They give 30% of their paragraphs to just one or two topics. This focus brings both depth and a story that can be easily followed by the reader. WWZ clearly hits this mark: everything in the book is about the zombies – how the plague got started, how it spread, how it affected the world, and how humanity fought back.

As for secondary topics, an important one is work – TBC mentions Stephen King’s assertion that readers love to read about work, and in WWZ, which is structured in the form of interview notes with people who lived through the crisis, almost all the interviews are with people who were doing their jobs. We read about pilots, astronauts, soldiers, doctors, and sleazy profiteers.

Maybe the absence of human closeness as an important secondary topic – it comes up some, but not a lot – helps explain why this is ranked #87 on the list and not higher. On the other hand, the book is sound on dogs, another important feature to the reading public. And it includes lots of modern technology, with descriptions and even footnotes about military vehicles and weapons.

Pace and plotting

Bestsellers break up the tension with scenes of ordinary life, giving readers a chance to catch their breath. I think the lead-ins to the interviews serve this function: they provide a little background about the person being interviewed and the life they’re living now, after the worst is over.

The algorithm identified 7 patterns in ups and downs of bestseller plots. I think WWZ matches one of them pretty well. It’s the same one that fits Stephen King’s The Stand, another story where humanity is decimated by a terrible plague and the world is changed forever. The key seems to be that the curves need to be steep enough to grab the reader. WWZ gives us a plummeting downhill slope from warnings and blame to the great panic; gives us something to cheer about when people figure out how to fight back; and then drags us down again with what’s happened to the world and the seemingly endless task of eradicating the remaining zombies.

Style and voice

Readers like voices that speak with authority, like Jane Austen’s famous first line in Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” And many modern readers like language that sounds like the way people talk, which TBC calls the journalistic (as opposed to literary) style and, by the way, identifies with women writers. The structure of WWZ does this brilliantly. The interviewer barely appears, so each piece is the transcribed speech of a person who lived through events and has had time to reflect on them and decide what they think about it. While I was reading the book, my only quibble was that not all the voices were differentiated from each other.

Characters with agency

Finally, readers like characters who do things. WWZ‘s 100-ish interviews are all with people who did something. The algorithm identifies this through analyzing word choice. Flipping back through the pages of WWZ, I see flying, guard, make a stand, risk, drop, climb, slam, shoot, grab, drilled, jazzed, all showing characters doing stuff. The book also has some good, strong female characters. And let’s not forget the dogs, who sniff, hunt, launch themselves, and lure.

If you’d like to learn more about the Bestseller Code 100 or join us on our journey, check out the official book group site at Roberta and Karen’s It’s A Mystery blog.

 

 

Living better the Nashville way

I went to an all-day seminar last weekend with my friend Maureen and a group of people from my old office. We got a great group price on tickets. As it turns out, some elements of the conference weren’t exactly my cup of tea (like the woman who planted herself in our friend Tanya’s seat during the morning break and refused to budge – we got the last laugh, though, because after lunch the venue moved our group to a VIP suite), but with 9 speakers, I came away with a bucket full of ideas for making life better.

Intentionality (Dave Ramsey)

  • You become what you think about. Be intentional about what you think about.
  • Decide to change, then change. Set goals that are specific, measurable, have a time limit, are your own, and are in writing.
  • You’re not failing if you don’t quit – you’re experimenting. Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.
  • When choosing between options, think about where you want to be in 10 years.

Priorities (Christy Wright)

  • Spend your time on what’s important to you. Cut out what doesn’t matter, and do more of what you love.
  • Be 100% present. If you tend to get caught by social media (who doesn’t?) think about two questions: 1 – is it more important to know what the rest of the world is doing than to experience what I’m doing? 2 – it is more important for the rest of the world to know what I’m doing than for me to experience it myself?
  • Say yes to your own priorities, not everyone else’s. For people-pleasers: there’s a difference between doing something to be loving and doing it to be loved.

Gratitude and generosity (Chris Brown)

  • You can be resentful or you can be grateful. Gratitude makes you want to give to others.
  • You don’t have to feel rich to act rich – the magic number for feeling rich is always double whatever you have. Be generous.
  • Gratitude breeds contentment and generosity. Try this: every morning when you wake up, think about two things you’re grateful for. Write them down on a running list.

Money (Rachel Cruze and Chris Hogan)

  • Don’t compare yourself to other people. (You’re probably only seeing their highlight reel, anyway.)
  • Stay out of debt, have a plan for your money (a budget), and think before you spend. Rachel Cruze recommends the everydollar app for budgeting.
  • Save for emergencies, then to have 3-6 months of living expenses, and then for the future.
  • Give a little until you can give a lot.
  • Talk about money with your partner and your kids, even if it’s uncomfortable.
  • Plan for retirement so you don’t have to worry about money.
  • Talk about your retirement dreams with your partner. Make the dreams vivid and specific, so you know where you’re going.

Relationships (Les Parrott)

  • The four horsemen that ruin relationships are criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.
  • In contrast to the world of work where the “praise sandwich” has a bad reputation – poor performers may not get the message, and be surprised when they lose their jobs – in a personal relationship, wrapping a negative between two positives makes the message go down easier.
  • Marriage doesn’t make you happy; you make your marriage happy.

Parenting (Meg Meeker)

  • Kids need to know they’re important to their parents. Spend time with them.
  • Don’t take teenager behavior personally.
  • Model great character – integrity, patience, courage, and perseverance.
  • Praise for character, not just for achievements.

Growing up (Anthony O’Neal)

  • Be determined to be the best you can.
  • Be uncomfortable. Don’t let comfort kill your dreams.
  • Mistakes in the past don’t define us, they refine us.

The presenters are headquartered in Nashville, and several of the speakers had that passionate bible-belt presentation style that got the crowd on its feet. They all have books and podcasts. The ones I plan to check out myself are from Christy WrightRachel Cruze, Anthony O’Neal, and the star of the show, Dave Ramsey.