Weird Words 5

The fifth in a series of posts about words, taking a lighthearted look at some of the most troublesome, overused, misused, comical, or downright peculiar words in the English language.

All suggestions for words to include in future instalments are welcome—simply comment with your suggestion.

On with this week’s words…

Raccoon

Thanks to Vijaya for suggesting this word—it’s one of her favourites.

Raccoon… hmm, makes me think of Guardians of the Galaxy and, unlike Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars prequels, a non-irritating CGI anthropormorphic animal named Rocket.

For anyone who doesn’t know, a raccoon is a small nocturnal carnivore native to North America. According to Merriam-Webster, the word derives from the native American language Virginia Algonquian, also known as Powhatan. According to Wikipedia, that language became extinct around the 1790s when its speakers were forced to switch to English.

That makes me feel sad.

Noisome

Meaning highly obnoxious or objectionable; often used to describe a disgusting smell.

It’s one of those words ripe for being misused by the careless writer who chucks it into a sentence without double-checking its meaning.

The noisome explosions surrounded me while I cowered in the foxhole.

Nope. Unless, perhaps, you’re describing the rapid expulsion of air from someone’s backside, or a hand grenade lobbed into a cesspit, explosions are rarely likely to be noisome.

Kerfuffle

Another of those words I love because they sound so much like their meaning. Does a disturbance or commotion sound like a kerfuffle to you? Of course it does.

It apparently comes from a combination of ancient Scots and Gaelic. Probably. It typically refers to a commotion caused by an argument, though can apply to most disturbances.

Since I’m claiming it to be one of my favourite words, I checked to see whether I’d used it in any of my published fiction. Lo and behold, it appears in my first novel, The Village of Lost Souls.

Although the rear wall blocked out the Dead Lights at ground level, they were bright enough to light up the garden like a flare and I was vaguely aware of a kerfuffle coming from the disturbed animals and poultry as I sprinted past them.

See—told you I loved it.

 

That’s all for Part 5. Don’t forget to suggest any words you find weird for inclusion in future instalments. I’ll credit anyone whose suggestion I use.

 

What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 6

To continue with my occasional look at interesting grammatical points or issues (yes, grammar can be interesting) I come across from time to time. It’s not intended to be deadly serious, but not too jokey, either, despite the title. Somewhere in the middle, then—grammar with a smile.

Onwards…

Punctuation for Effect

Most writers know there are rules of punctuation to which they should generally adhere. It is possible to depart from these rules—for example, by not enclosing dialogue in quotation marks à la Cormac McCarthy—but do so at your peril because you can bet your bottom dollar that it will irritate the heck out of some readers. And some of them won’t hesitate to post a scathing review. (If you don’t believe me, check out the low-star reviews on some of McCarthy’s works.)

Most writers also know that sometimes the rules can be broken deliberately and to good, if subtle, effect. There might be other instances, but I’m thinking particularly of punctuation in dialogue. Consider these examples:

“No, we don’t.”

“No. We don’t.”

“No we don’t.”

It’s all about nuance—each example conveys a slightly different tone on the part of the speaker. The first is punctuated as you’d expect, suggesting the speaker is calm and talking in a normal tone. The second has the full stop (period) after ‘No’, implying that the speaker is being deliberate and more emphatic—maybe they are involved in a minor argument with someone. The third has no punctuation between the words. That’s not breaking the rules to be contrary, but for a particular purpose: it requires the reader not to pause between the words, implying that the speaker is a little flustered—a hurried rebuttal, perhaps.

Here are some more examples:

“No. We. Don’t.”

“No we don’t!”

“No, we don’t…”

“No, we don’t—”

It depends largely on the surrounding text, but each example might suggest something slightly different on the part of the speaker: over-emphasis, excitement, uncertainty, interruption.

Not all of these examples break the rules of punctuation and sentence structure, but even those that do are effective at conveying the desired impression about the speaker. In dialogue, especially, it is possible to imply a host of different moods simply by altering the punctuation.

It’s probably a good idea to depart from the norms only sparingly, since even the most forgiving readers will grow irritated at what they consider cavalier disregard for rules that have been long established for good reason.

‘Try and’ v ‘Try to’

Many of us will have used the expression ‘try and’ in everyday speech.

“When will it be ready?”

“I’ll try and get it done by tomorrow.”

The reply could have been, “I’ll try to get it done by tomorrow.” Either way, most people wouldn’t bat an eyelid.

Yet, ‘try and’ is a weird expression when you think about it. Change the reply in the above example just a smidgeon and only the ‘try to’ construction works:

“I’m trying to get it done by tomorrow.”

If we said, “I’m trying and get it done by tomorrow,” the listener would think we’ve gone barmy.

In my writing, I have always changed ‘try and’ to ‘try to’ whenever I notice I’ve used it (except I’ll allow it to stay occasionally in dialogue). This comes from a nagging sense that ‘try and’ is somehow ungrammatical. But is it?

The short answer is no. If you want to use ‘try and’ in your writing—not just in dialogue but in narrative, too—have at it.

For a longer answer, take a look at what Merriam-Webster has to say on the subject: try-and-v-try-to

 

I’ll leave you with another thought about collective nouns. If there’s a prickle of porcupines and a paddling of ducks, why isn’t there a poppycock of politicians? Till next time…

Audiobooks – Part 5

I had three main concerns when embarking on the process of producing my own audiobooks:

  1. a soundproofed workspace;
  2. differentiating between characters without using accents;
  3. learning how to edit and master.

In Part 4, I looked at the second concern and the process of narration generally. I’m turning now to the third concern. It’s a big topic—editing, especially—that’s going to need two or three posts.

Editing – Part 1

A few pertinent reminders:

  • I record in a homemade ‘studio’—my younger daughter’s bedroom arranged to block out as much external noise as possible.
  • I use the free software Audacity.
  • I have certain limitations: an inability to perform accents and a denture that makes me whistle or lisp or slur on occasions.
  • I have no previous experience of working with audio software.

What all this means is that my raw recordings are riddled with errors and stray noises that would have no hope of passing muster without serious attention. (The errors that I notice while recording and, as a result, simply repeat the messed-up section are usually the easiest to deal with because it’s merely a case of deleting the bungled bit and smoothing over the join.)

I’d practised and practised recording audio tracks until I felt I’d reached a level of competency upon which I was unlikely to improve without professional acting lessons. I’m an impatient so-and-so and was itching to begin to grasp editing—I knew it was time to sit down and make a start.

Before attempting my first edit, I bought a couple of books about producing audio and devoured the sections on editing, which didn’t take long. They made it sound pretty straightforward: all that’s required is going through the recording to eradicate any obvious foreign sounds or mistakes and then any remaining errors would be erased during the mastering process. Simple. Yeah, right. They failed to mention the endless hours of trial and error, the ‘fixes’ that introduced more problems than they solved, the frustrations and countless occasions when I thought I’d never be able to get the hang of it.

I recorded a short story from the collection Pond Life and used that raw recording for practice. The story is the first I ever had published: ‘Celesta’. Safe to say, by the time I’d finished practising editing, I was sick of the sound of the bloody thing.

At first I was completely clueless. Audacity has dropdown menus for sound effects I had a vague idea about, such as ‘Fade In’, but many more that I’d never even heard of before. There’s an online manual, which is of some use but that supposes a level of knowledge on the part of the reader that I didn’t possess.

After a lot of fruitless fiddling with various effects, I discovered how to delete sections of audio, and how to copy and paste. I edited ‘Celesta’ by deleting any background noises that shouldn’t be on the track and replacing the deleted sections with a second or two of silence copied from elsewhere on the track.

That only worked to a point. The problem was that I was introducing new sounds. Where I pasted in the section of silence, at the beginning and end of the splice popping/clicking/ticking sounds would appear that hadn’t been there before, caused by the background noise differential between the start/end of the new clip and the end/start of the old clips around it. It’s a little like inserting a section of text into a document where the start and end are of a different font or point size or thickness to the text surrounding it. The reader’s going to notice.

Try as I might, and I tried for hours on end, I could not get all the edges of the clips to join seamlessly. In despair, I sent out an SOS to my brother.

His job is like Chandler’s from Friends. We all know he works in IT, something to do with designing graphics for video and arcade games, but that’s about as well as we can describe it. In any case, the chance of him knowing a lot more than me about editing voice recordings was high. And so it proved.

It was he who alerted me to the effect in Audacity called ‘Crossfade Clips’. Now I use it all the time. It allows me to, for example, shorten too-long pauses or eliminate stray clicking sounds or soften whistled ‘ess’ sounds, without introducing new foreign noises. I’ll explain a little more about it in the next part—for now, it’s enough to say that it makes the job of editing abundantly easier.

My brother advised me to add a second track to the recording. I didn’t get this at first. Audible’s requirements are for a mono recording; to me, adding a second track meant the recording would now be stereo. Yeah, it doesn’t mean that at all. What it means is that I now have an effective way of making longer sections, such as the pause between sentences or paragraphs, silent. I use the effects ‘Fade Out’ and ‘Fade In’ to remove unwanted noise, and paste a clip of ‘good silence’ onto the second track to mask the fades. Again, I’ll explain more in the next part.

For now, here’s a screenshot of a track being edited. I’ve added annotations in red to show:

  • the ‘Effect’ drop-down menu (with the effects I use highlighted),
  • the main track, i.e. the original sound recording I’m editing,
  • the second track, which is added post-recording via the ‘Tracks’ drop-down menu, and
  • the clip of ‘good silence’, which I’ll explain a little better next time.

And that’s essentially it. Thanks to my brother, I can now edit raw audio tracks to Audible’s standards using only three effects—Crossfade Clips, Fade Out and Fade In—and a second track on which to add masking clips of good silence. As I’ll talk more about next time, it’s massively time-consuming, but it works.

In Part 6, I’ll run through my editing process step by step. This will be for the benefit of anyone who, like I did, sits down to audio-edit for the first time without the faintest idea where to start, but who, unlike me, doesn’t have a knowledgeable brother to call upon for advice when at their wits’ end.

Till then…

Weird Words 4

The fourth in a series of posts about words, taking a lighthearted look at some of the most troublesome, overused, misused, comical, or downright peculiar words in the English language.

All suggestions for words to include in future instalments are welcome—simply comment with your suggestion.

On with this week’s words…

Definitely

One of those words that is so frequently misspelt that I have to pause to think when writing it. I know Facebook and Twitter are hardly the measure of society’s literacy standards, but it’s rare indeed to encounter it spelt correctly on social media. How often have you seen it written as ‘definately’? Or, my favourite and the result, no doubt, of that curse of modern technology, the autocorrect function:

‘Are you sure?’
‘Oh, yes, defiantly.’

I often find myself reading the post as if the writer meant what they wrote—there’s something almost noble about being defiant in the face of the latest photograph of someone’s dinner.

A good way to remember how to spell it correctly (at least, the way I remember) is to pronounce it in your head as ‘dee-fie-night-lee’, or to remember that it’s the opposite of ‘infinitely’. Best—defiantly best—not to rely on autocorrect.

Serendipity

One of my favourite words in the entire English language. I didn’t even know it existed until one day I happened across it by happy accident.*

A former work colleague—I hope she’ll forgive me if she ever reads this—came across the word for the first time when taking down a customer’s address over the telephone. The customer had called his house ‘Serendipity’. My colleague wrote the address as ‘seven dippety sendipity’. For years afterwards, I kept the yellow Post-it note on which she’d written the address and brought it out for a giggle whenever I needed cheering up.

Collywobbles

If you’ve read my previous posts in this series, you’ll know I love words that sound like their definition. Meaning stomach pain or queasiness usually brought on by intense anxiety or nervousness, ‘collywobbles’ is another beautifully descriptive word completely in harmony with its definition.

(At the risk of destroying the magic, Merriam-Webster says the word probably derives from a transformation of the New Latin term for the disease cholera, cholera morbus, to make it sound less sinister. Hmm, that’s one of those things I’d prefer, on the whole, not to know.)

 

That’s all for Part 4. Don’t forget to suggest any words you find weird for inclusion in future instalments. I’ll credit anyone whose suggestion I use.

 

*see what I did there?

 

Twinkies

Making the Mysterious Mundane

If the title and subtitle don’t already tell you, this week’s post is not profound. Indeed, you might say it’s light-hearted. Frivolous, even.

Nothing wrong with a bit of frivolity now and then. It can provide a small but welcome distraction from the deadly serious stuff that’s been pretty much the story of 2020 thus far. So here’s a bit of froth about Twinkies.

I’ve mentioned them before in a post about the differences between British and American English: What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 2

For those who don’t want to read the entire piece, this is what I said about Twinkies (‘SK’ being Stephen King):

For years I read (yet again in SK’s books) about some mysterious object called in American English a ‘Twinkie’—note the spelling; in Britain, a twinky is something else entirely—without having any clue what a Twinkie is. I was eventually able to deduce from context that it was something edible and, from the capital T and it being a SK novel, a brand name. It took many more years and ease of access to the internet before I discovered quite what they are. As an aside, I’ve also read the claim that in the event of a nuclear holocaust, that Twinkies are likely to be one of the only non-tinned (that’s non-canned in American English) foodstuffs that will survive, but I don’t know how much truth there is to that, and hope never to find out.

For any non-Americans looking in who don’t know what they are, Twinkies are a cake, of sorts. A snack-sized, yellowish sponge filled with synthetic cream.

They feature in the film Zombieland, where Woody Harrelson’s character is constantly on the look-out for them. (Interesting aside: the Twinkie he consumes in the film is, apparently, not a real one but a vegan version mocked up for him. The real ones contain ingredients unsuitable for vegans; some would argue they contain ingredients unsuitable for humans.)

After first encountering them in a Stephen King novel in my early teens, I spent many years knowing that Twinkies exist, but without knowing what they are. As anyone with an active imagination will appreciate, we often picture the unknown as more exciting and exotic than the reality. I don’t now recall what I imagined a Twinkie to be, but it wasn’t a plump finger of highly processed, sugary sponge filled with fake cream. When later, much later, I learned the truth, it came as a bit of a let-down, but still my curiosity wasn’t fully assuaged. That would only happen if I one day ate a Twinkie.

I’ve since visited the States a few times, but on each occasion, there being too many other delights to sample (such as a corned beef sandwich in Katz’s deli in Lower East Side Manhattan—yum, yum), I completely forgot to hunt down a Twinkie. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I finally tried one for the first time.

During lockdown, one of my daughters decided to order a delivery of confectionary from a place that stocks products from the US. Yep, including Twinkies. She ordered a box of ten for her and her boyfriend; one was enough for me.

The most satisfying part of the experience was getting to set eyes on a Twinkie at long last, to hold one and peel off the cellophane wrapper. Actually consuming it? Not so much.

Hmm, how best to describe it? Well, it was edible. Too sweet, cloyingly so, for my palate. Did it leave me wanting more? Nope, I can’t say it did, though I guess I’d happily consume them during the Apocalypse.

So more than forty years after first hearing about them, after many moments spent idly wondering what they are, I’ve eaten a Twinkie. Despite it not being an experience I’m in a hurry to repeat, I’m glad to have done it. A small part of my teenage curiosity has been satisfied.

Now to find out what this sex thing is all about…

Guest Post – Cindy Tomamichel

Today I’m delighted to host Cindy Tomamichel, who is going to say a little about organising ourselves for best effect. For more, much more, pick up Cindy’s recent release The Organized Author. It contains a great deal of useful information, especially for the newer writer who might be finding the sheer volume of stuff they need to do to organise themselves daunting, if not overwhelming. Over to Cindy…

Organised Authors Have More Time

New authors often struggle with the expectation of having an author platform. Stories of publishers demanding thousands of followers, countless blogs giving advice on how to build and grow it, and a never-ending avalanche of marketing tasks. Is it possible to do all the things and continue to write?

The short answer is no. No one can be on every social media channel, market, blog, send out fascinating newsletters and hobnob with influencers. Not if you are actually doing any writing!

However, while being an anti-social hermit may have its attractions, there is no denying some sort of effort is needed to attract readers. There are ways to make it less of a timesuck – and that is to be organized. Today I’ll provide my two most helpful tips for authors overwhelmed by the demands of being a modern internet author.

1. One file to rule them all.

Make a file for all your most-used links, book blurbs, book-buy links, author bio, social media profiles, hashtags, blog URL’s etc. If you tidy it with headings and/or tables, this will be a document that will save endless bookmark hunting, and save a great deal of time in the long run. Make it easy to access with a shortcut on your desktop or pinning it in Word.

2. Review once, share everywhere.

Creating new content can be a nightmare of coming up with new ideas, crafting graphics, writing it, then posting and sharing it around. Make it easy on yourself by using the reviewing platform tools. For instance, most people have a slightly different audience for Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and BookBub. So write a review of a book you enjoyed – don’t do this for books you hated as no one is going to thank you for it, least of all the author.

So with one review copy, put it up on Amazon as a courtesy to the author. Then put it up on Goodreads, which is then shared to all your friends on the feed. Take advantage of the tweet and post buttons on Goodreads, adding hashtags and tagging the author. If you then go to BookBub, this recommendation is emailed to all your followers, reminding them you exist, and that you read the same interesting stuff they do, and maybe they might like your books. After this, if you have a blog, you can use it, and when published, use the book image to add it as a pin in Pinterest. As a last effort, the book image can be added to an Instagram story. It can go in your newsletter as well.

So from one bit of written content you have refreshed audiences and your platforms on potentially eight places. By tagging the author, you increase your influence and they may share your books. If it is a book in your genre, you may garner fresh readers who are fans of that book. Best of all, because most of it is copy-paste, it takes up little time.

Get The Organized Author

 

Cindy Tomamichel is a multi-genre writer. Escape the everyday with the time travel action adventure series Druid’s Portal, science fiction and fantasy stories or tranquil scenes for relaxation. Discover worlds where the heroines don’t wait to be rescued, and the heroes earn that title the hard way.

Cindy Tomamichel is also the fiendish mind behind the empire of The Organized Author. She is bent on world domination … hmm, sorry, did I say that out loud?  … making life easier for authors by sharing tips that can streamline their author platform.

Contact Links:

Website

Fiction Newsletter

Facebook

Twitter

Amazon Author Page

Author Services

 

Audiobooks – Part 4

I had three main concerns when embarking on the process of producing my own audiobooks:

  1.   a soundproofed workspace;
  2.   differentiating between characters without using accents;
  3.   learning how to edit and master.

In Part 3, I talked about the workspace and how I had set up a ‘recording studio’ (such a grand title doesn’t fit the reality) in my younger daughter’s bedroom at the back of the house, away from the main road. Nothing’s changed there—this is the best I can do.

Time to talk about the second of my concerns. As anticipated, it turned out that my difficulties would amount to more than merely trying to differentiate between characters, so I’m going to look at the process of narration as a whole.

There are various aspects to consider before starting to record, such as the positioning of the microphone, and the time of day when your recording environment is likely to be quietest and your voice at its optimum.

Here’s something I learned the hard way: it’s vital to ensure your recording software is set to record using the correct microphone. Since my professional microphone ‘lives’ in the recording studio, I can only change the default setting once I’m all set up and it’s connected to my laptop.

One evening I recorded four short stories, one after another, while ‘in the zone’—my pronunciation and enunciation were top drawer, my pacing felt spot-on, I barely made a mistake. When I was back downstairs ready to start editing, that something was wrong became evident as soon as I opened the first recording. The wave pattern was peculiar: all spikes and no flat lines, not even on the silences. The sound coming through my headphones confirmed what my eyes had already told me: my voice sounded distant and tinny, overlaid by crackles and hums and weird popping noises. All four recordings were the same—worthless.

It took me a while to work out what had gone wrong: I had forgotten to set Audacity to record through the USB microphone. The stories had been recorded through the laptop’s inbuilt microphone, which I hadn’t been speaking directly into and which, in any case, is unsuited to capturing sound to the standard required. Live and learn—I haven’t made the same mistake since.

Another time I sat down to edit a new recording, only to find my voice overlaid by a distant humming noise that I hadn’t noticed while recording and which rendered another lengthy effort useless.

It again took me a while to work out what had gone wrong. One of my daughters had been charging her electric toothbrush in the bathroom next door to my recording studio. We live in a modern house where the internal walls are slightly thicker than cardboard and the microphone had picked up the electrical hum. Again, it’s now something I make sure to check before starting to record.

Onto the recording process itself and my physical limitations.

Over thirty years ago, when in my early twenties, two of my teeth—one of the front incisors and the tooth next to it—were snapped at the roots. My dentist was able to straighten them, but warned that I was likely to lose them one day. ‘One day’ turned out to be around eighteen months ago; since then I’ve had to wear a denture that affixes to the roof of my mouth. It was only when sitting down to attempt narrating for the first time that I realised the effect the denture has upon my speech.

Where the fake teeth butt up to my real teeth, there’s a gap which occasionally, especially on words with a pronounced ‘ess’ sound, causes me to whistle. My tongue sometimes slaps against the plastic denture plate. The denture causes me to slur or mumble certain words. (I’ve tried narrating without wearing the denture, but that’s worse—without it, I struggle on ‘th’ and ‘ff’ sounds; I can’t say fairer than that, boom boom.)

It’s a disadvantage for audio work. When I realise I’ve whistled or mumbled during recording, it’s fine because I simply re-record that part, knowing I can remove the bungled section during editing. It makes the recording (and editing) process longer, but it’s something I accept I have to put up with until I can get implants to replace the denture. It’s more problematic when I whistle/mumble but don’t realise at the time—more on that when I come to talk about editing in a future instalment.

As for my inability to perform accents, I’ve tried and failed, and concluded that it’s not something I can learn to do, except perhaps by having professional voice acting lessons, and probably not even then. I can do an identifiably Irish or Scottish or Australian accent for the odd stereotypical phrase or two (“G’day, cobber!”), but it lasts as long as the average sneeze before deteriorating into some weird intonation that sounds like a cross between Welsh and, I don’t know, Martian, or something off-planet.

How, then, to differentiate between characters holding a conversation, especially when there are only two speaking and so there may not be many dialogue tags in the source material? I experimented with having one character speak deeper and/or quicker than the other, but found it difficult to be consistent, and the finished recording usually sounded ludicrous and amateur. After many, and I mean many, hours of trial and error, I settled on not trying to differentiate between them at all and relying on the listener to know who’s speaking from context. Now and again, I might throw in an extra dialogue tag during recording if I think the listener needs an additional cue.

Then there’s lack of knowledge about pronunciation. I’ve blogged about The Avid Reader’s Curse, where a reader might only have encountered a word through reading and so has no idea how to pronounce it. There are a surprising number of them.

And there are words I know how to pronounce, but that nevertheless keep tripping me up. ‘Anemone’, for instance, and ‘algae’ (I keep wanting to pronounce it to rhyme with ‘guy’, instead of the correct ‘ghee’). Or ‘pasty complexion’; I know that ‘pasty’ is pronounced to rhyme with ‘tasty’, but my traitorous brain insists on making me pronounce it during recording as the meat-filled parcel of pastry.Some word combinations I stumble over for no apparent reason. ‘Smoky oakiness’ is one. ‘Or harpist’s’ is another. There’s a story in Pond Life with a character named Jake; at one point of the story, I kept calling him Jack, usually without noticing. Fortunately, it was during the practice phase and the recording would be deleted anyway. By the time I came to record the final version, I knew what to look out for.

The practice phase. Yeah, that lasted weeks. Hour upon hour of recording the same material, experimenting with distance from and angle to the microphone, voice tone, pacing, breathing. I kept at it until I could no longer stand reading the same stuff aloud knowing it would be deleted. It was time to start recording in earnest and get to grips with editing.

Editing, hmm. More on this in Part 5. Till then…

Guest Post – Desiree Villena

Today I’m delighted to host Desiree Villena, who’s going to talk about self-editing, a topic I have discussed myself on occasion. Over to Desiree…

5 Common Self-Editing Mistakes to Avoid

Editing your own manuscript is one of those capricious endeavours that’s high-risk, high-reward. On one hand, if you’re able to perform an effective self-edit , you can maintain complete creative control over your work and save money on editing services down the line. Even if you intend to hire an editor regardless, an initial round of self-editing can make their job a lot easier (and their final invoice a lot lower) than you might think.

On the other hand, without the right information and expectations going into this process, you could end up spending hours on a self-edit that barely improves — or even degrades — your manuscript. To prevent this from happening, you can’t just rely on what you should do; you also have to know what not to do! That’s where this post comes in. Here are five all-too-common self-editing mistakes to avoid, both for your sake and your future readers’.

1. Diving in immediately

Sam touches on this in the post linked above, but it’s such an unequivocal blunder that it bears repeating: do not, under any circumstances, start editing your manuscript the day you finish it (or even the day after that!). For one thing, you deserve a break after all your hard work; for another, you need some space in order to evaluate your book as objectively as possible. This space allows you to detach emotionally from both your prose and your story, giving you the capacity to see where your sentences might be overwrought, or your plot a little bit patchy.

Writers have varying opinions on the ideal amount of time to wait before editing. I’d recommend a six-week minimum, though I agree with the above post that two to three months is better still. Zadie Smith, one of my writing role models, has said that this couple-month period “will do” — she prefers to wait a year or more, though acknowledges this isn’t always possible. However, her reasoning is airtight: “You need to become [your work’s] reader instead of its writer.” I think this can be achieved in six weeks, but the longer the better, if you have the time to spare.

2. Copy editing first

Upon commencing your self-edit, you may feel like you should start by going through your manuscript and correcting spelling, grammar and other mechanical mistakes: in other words, copy editing. Resist the urge to pick this low-hanging fruit! While it may feel like a good way to ease yourself into the editing process, it will almost certainly end up being a waste of time.

Unless you’re some kind of perfect-first-draft deity, you’ll need to rewrite significant chunks of your book in the course of editing — rendering any previous copy editing of those sections useless and forcing you to copy edit similar passages all over again. Indeed, copy editing before developmental editing can genuinely hinder later rounds of polishing! You’ll feel as though you’ve already caught everything major (even if you’ve technically rewritten a good portion of your manuscript) and give yourself permission to skim, or you’ll grow so impatient with rereading that you eventually just give up.

That’s not to say you can’t do any early-stage copy editing, especially if it helps you loosen up your editing muscles… but try and keep it to a minimum before you’ve worked through the big-picture stuff. If you know you wouldn’t change a word of your first chapter or your current book description, for example, you have my permission to copy edit as a (brief) warm-up to developmental editing.

3. Prioritising style over substance

Jumping off that last tip, another frequent pitfall of the editing process is caring more about the style than the substance of your work. Again, I know it’s usually more fun to tweak your prose than to address problems with your plot and characters, but even the most eloquent writing in the world won’t make those problems go away! On the contrary, it will aggravate readers, who’ll wonder why you put so much effort into decorating a mediocre-tasting cake when you could have been refining the recipe (if you’ll excuse the slightly mixed metaphor).

If the problem persists, you’ll end up with a book that’s eloquently written but ultimately shallow, or too long and meandering, or even completely nonsensical. I’m sure we can all think of books like this; don’t let yours become one of them! Even if you’re determined to cultivate a signature style, you must focus on the fundamentals first: a beginning, middle, and end, round characters who interact in interesting ways, and a central conflict that rings true and gets readers invested.

If you feel your work is lacking in any of these areas, try some writing exercises to develop them, particularly in terms of plot and character development. Once you have these elements nailed down, you can return to experimenting with your prose.

4. Comparing your work to other authors’

Here’s another issue that often befalls writers who believe shimmering prose is the end-all, be-all of literature: comparing their writing to that of other authors. For those attempting to pay homage to literary favourites, this can certainly exacerbate the style-over-substance conundrum, but there are other negative outcomes as well.

One of these, as you can probably guess, is editing your own writing to sound precisely like your favourite author’s — effectively erasing what makes you unique as a writer, and often forcing you into a style that doesn’t come naturally. In fact, in my experience, comparing my work to that of others typically results in the worst of both worlds: my own voice gets lost, and the one that replaces it sounds utterly contrived. (I still remember a painful summer of writing and editing when I was trying to imitate Gillian Flynn, memorising snippets of Gone Girl that had been posted on her author website in a desperate attempt to absorb her style.)

On top of all this, remember that your book is still a work-in-progress at this stage! Comparing it to a perfectly polished, published title is unfair on every level. To that end, if you feel especially impressionable or fragile while editing, I’d suggest steering clear of well-written books altogether — or reading exclusively outside your genre to avoid potential comparisons. Just as you need mental space from your own book at the start of this process, you also need it from other books once it’s time to get to work.

5. Not getting a third-party proofreader

I know this post is about self-editing, but hear me out: even once you’ve gone through your book multiple times with a fine-tooth comb, you can’t guarantee error-free copy without a professional proofread. The harsh reality is that your own biases will keep you from fixing phrases that sound awkward to everyone else, and your brain will skip right over typos because you’ve seen them a million times. So once you’ve powered through the developmental and copy editing stages, don’t kid yourself — hire a proofreader for this final, crucial part.

Naturally, there are many other ways that the self-editing process can go awry, but these five are perhaps the most prevalent and harmful. They’re also all mistakes that I’ve made myself, about which I wish someone else had warned me! So do as I say, not as I’ve done, and embark on your own self-editing journey with the confidence and clarity to evade these terrible traps.

 

Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors with the world’s best self-publishing resources. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction, writing short stories, and giving (mostly) solicited advice to her fellow writers.

What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 5

To continue with my occasional look at common grammatical issues I come across from time to time. It’s not intended to be deadly serious, but not too jokey, either, despite the title. Somewhere in the middle, then—grammar with a smile.

Onwards…

Starting sentences with conjunctions

Is it okay to start sentences with conjunctions such as ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘so’ and ‘but’? Take the opening line to William Blake’s poem that has subsequently been turned into the hymn ‘Jerusalem’:

And did those feet in ancient times…

So there’s the answer (see what I did there?)—yep, it’s perfectly acceptable.

I’m not going to overegg it. There are plenty of places where you can read more about this; here, for example: quick_and_dirty_tips

But it leads nicely (and there?) into the next topic…

Ending sentences with prepositions

“A preposition is a terrible thing to end a sentence with.”
― Winston S. Churchill

The grammar pedants would have Winnie saying, “A preposition is a terrible thing with which to end a sentence.” There’s nothing wrong with this second version, though it sounds a little stuffy to my ears. However—and here’s the crux of it—there is absolutely nothing wrong with the original version, either.

Over to Merriam-Webster: words_at_play

Startled

I have, on occasion, encountered this construction:

He burst into the room. I startled.

That’s grammatically incorrect. You can be startled:

He burst into the room. I was startled

You can startle someone or something:

He burst into the room. He startled me.

You can also start (jump in fright or surprise):

He burst into the room. I started.

There are, of course, technical reasons why the first example is poor grammatically. They’re to do with transitive and intransitive verbs, and requiring an object to be acted upon, but you can look that up yourselves if interested. It’s a little dry.

Here’s one of the more accessible explanations I’ve found online:  english_grammar_explained

 

I’ll leave you with a thought. If the collective noun for a group of squid isn’t ‘squad’, it ought to be. Till next time…

Guest Post – Maggie Plummer (Part 2)

American author Maggie Plummer becomes the first person to guest twice on my blog. It’s been more than a year since she first appeared, here ; what a different world we lived in then. Today she’s going to talk about something highly topical so it’s over to Maggie.

Writing Fiction During a Pandemic

When the coronavirus began to hit the United States a few months ago, it just so happened that I was finishing up my latest novel, Webs in the Mist: The Jessie Morgan Series, Book 2. As the television and internet news got more and more alarming, working on the new novel gave me desperately needed, long breaks from real life.

What an advantage, submerging my overactive mind in my 1970s Jessie Morgan fiction world! What a blessing! Each day, when I finished working on the book, I felt refreshed by having thoroughly escaped our new reality. It reminds me of how, during our too-long, too-gray western Montana winters, I sometimes find relief by writing about hot, sunny settings. It’s a mental vacation.

As the coronavirus crisis progressed, I watched friends and family being consumed by the news, obsessed with the pandemic’s frightening impacts on our country. Many of them were and are paralyzed by it.

I’m lucky, because somehow I’m able to keep working on my writing during this crisis. I’m lucky in other ways, too:

  • I live alone with my sweet dog and work in my house, so staying home in self-quarantine is not that different from what I normally do;
  • I don’t have children at home, taking away from my writing schedule; and
  • My new novel is set in the 1970s and offers a cheerful escape for my readers; I’m not adding to their fear with pessimistic, dystopian novels, and that helps me go for it, even now.

One writer friend is journaling about her day-to-day pandemic experience. That can help us work it out in our minds, and keep our spirits up. Keeping a gratitude journal is a great way to stay focused on our many blessings.

COVID-19 is a huge distraction that’s difficult to avoid, with the media in our faces. Our imaginations take off: What a story! How will it end? Compared to what’s actually going on in the world, perhaps our novel’s conflict seems trivial. How do you keep going as a writer?

I think we can give ourselves a break now, whether we’re being productive in our writing or not. As novelists we can bury our heads in the sand and feel good about it. But: If we can’t write during this pandemic, that’s OK too. Life is too short for beating ourselves up.

Here’s the bottom line: Writing fiction is good for our mental health. It’s a great way to channel our creative energy, so that we don’t go haywire and start bouncing off the walls. Writers need to write. That means spending plenty of time in our fiction worlds, even if all we do is play around with character studies or do internet research about our books’ settings. The main thing, I think, is to immerse ourselves in that fictional realm, letting our writer minds take a massive, deep breath of fresh air.

Don’t forget, our writing might just help others take refreshing, deep breaths, too.

Maggie Plummer is a multi-genre author whose latest novel, Webs in the Mist, is Book Two of her semi-autobiographical Jessie Morgan series. Like Jessie, she lived in San Francisco during the freewheeling 1970s, riding the cable cars in raggedy bell-bottom jeans. These days the author works from her Montana home near the shores of Flathead Lake, where she loves camping with her sweet black lab, Peaches. Webs in the Mist is Maggie’s fourth published novel.

Links:

Webs in the Mist

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