Tag Archives: Editing

Spring has Sprung and other Clichés on Revising

Yes, it’s that time of year when the temperature is getting warmer, the ground is opening up with colorful treasures to entice the birds and the bees, and the internet is full of posts about the springing of spring making it a metaphor for everything from child-rearing to motocross. Spring cleaning, spring love, spring forward, spring break: almost everything we associate with spring is positive and growing. Harriet Ann Jacobs but it beautifully when she said “The beautiful spring came; and when Nature resumes her loveliness, the human soul is apt to revive also. Many religions tie spiritual and natural growth together making spring the optimal time to create and begin new adventures.

Hence the onslaught of posts.

But there’s a reason it works. I fought and fought the urge to do this post, but the spring bug has won. And for once in my life it is because of the things growing out of the ground. I’ve never been a big plant person. If you wanted your plants to die, just bring them to me. My mother and sisters have been great at plants. Beautiful gardens hand done and planned by each of them. I had trouble with my cactus.

And then came moving to the semi-country and visiting the farms for produce and berries. I got excited learning how to use these new plants and creating jams from the fresh berries. Then last year we decided we could do some of that. Plants with a purpose I could get. So we composted and put in our bed with tomatoes and cucumbers and peppers, and I waited for them to die. But they didn’t. Working at them, they grew bigger than I imagined. We had enough that I could can for use during the winter. We decided to take out a bed, so we could plant fruit trees. I had never transplanted flowers before, but I tried. I put them in other beds hoping I wasn’t the gruesome executioner of the springtime beauty.

Jump to this spring, and after this winter decided to finally pull back its death grip on our area, the first of our garden poked out its head. And wouldn’t you know it, those transplanted flowers woke up and blossomed beautifully. So, now we are adding two new beds and three blueberry bushes and a pollinator garden. Even our apple trees already have blossoms. Who knew I could be a plant person?

It's alive! ALIVE!

It’s alive! ALIVE!

The whole spring metaphor thing seemed like less of a cliché and more of a truth. Okay, let’s be honest; it’s still a cliché, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.

This spring timing worked in my favor. My editor, the wonderful and talented Vicki Leigh, sent back my manuscript for OF SCIONS AND MEN for my first round edits and revisions. I got to spend time taking this piece that I already had spent so much time on and make it stronger and better. It was exhilarating. Nurturing something into a beautiful success. I have to admit, I am one of those crazy people who loves revising.

A recent metaphor, non-spring related, I’ve heard recently for revising is that drafting is just putting sand in the book; revising is making the sandcastle. That’s true. Revising is where you take your original idea and shape it to be the true reflection of your soul. There are only so many story ideas in the world, but no matter how many people writes “boy-meets-girl” no one will ever write it just like you. Revising is where you make that piece of your soul shine. Just like building a sandcastle.

Just like you make small seeds become a delicious jam.

As the late and great Robin Williams said, “Spring is Nature’s way of saying ‘Let’s party’.”


Updating the Character Worksheet: Emotions

Confession time: “Hello, my name is Courtney McIlwain Sloan and my writing Emotional Intelligence Quotient is low.”

“Hello, Courtney.”

There, it’s out there now. What a load off.

What I mean is in “real life” ® I can watch my friends, family, colleagues, etc and read their varied and personal expressions of emotion, interpret them and react accordingly. Non-verbal communication, folks, it’s where all the cool kids are at. Hell, I teach it in my communication classes. People trust non-verbal cues far more than their verbal counterparts. Why? We can’t shut them off and most of us don’t actively control them. If someone tells you something very sincere then rolls their eyes as they walk off, you’re going to believe the eye roll more than the controllable word choice. It’s human nature.

The same applies to our characters in writing. Their non-verbals have to express the underlying truth. As Mark Twain said, “All emotion is involuntary when genuine.” Very often it is the only way to express a character’s emotion and still show instead of tell.

“Jack gripped the wine bottle until his knuckles were white. I was worried the vein in his forehead would explode before he made it out the room.”


“I could see Jack was pissed.”

This hits a new level when writing in first person, as in my latest works.

“My stomach churned at her callused words. I turned away, willing the tears in my eyes not to fall.”


“She upset me.”

Both of these are identifying an emotional state without spelling it out. They also help guide the reader to feel the emotional reactions themselves rather than just stay a casual observer. And words should do that. Choosing the right word does more than paint the correct picture for the reader. It also paints the right emotion behind that word for the reader to experience.

Hence the different picture a someone paints when they describe the young under average weight heroine as “slender” or “bony” or “petite” or “gaunt” or “emaciated”. Each experience is different for the reader. This I get.

BUT this is where my trouble starts. I often go to the same areas of the body for each emotion. One BETA reader a book back actually asked me, “What’s your obsession with backs?” I didn’t know what she meant until I looked back and realized half of all my emotional descriptions were happening with everyone’s back. Boring and inaccurate to human experience. It needed more dimension.

Enter my emotional savior: Vicki Leigh. She saw my conundrum and came to my rescue with the suggestion of one book. That book is Emotional Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman.

"See it, Smell it, Touch it, Kiss it!"

“See it, Smell it, Touch it, Kiss it!”

This book is amazing. 75 major emotions are each broken down in helpful suggestions in the categories of definition, physical signals, internal sensations, metal responses, cues of acute or long-term, and cues of suppressed. So no matter if characters are experiencing emotions personally or observing it in others, this book has great and varied examples of each.

More than giving my books more variety, this is allowing me to personalize each character even deeper than I have before. I am so impressed that I am now also adding a section to my character sheets where I can ID each major characters major tells of different emotions. Thus from the start I can make each characters reaction distinct based on their background, and allow others to learn and respond to emotional cues with a more grown up emotional intelligence.

So, thank you, Vicki, you have helped far more already than you know.

Special News

I know I usually post on Fridays not Saturdays, but I wanted to wait and share this very special news.

Black Sun is done!


The revisions are completed, and it is together in a master clean copy. I still think I will redo some of the chapter breaks, but all the revisions and editing is done. This week it will get to the waiting hands of beta readers and I can start working on the next project.

Happy Snoopy Dance time!

Sizing Up

“That’s a…short, um, chapter.”


How big is too big?

“I thought size didn’t matter.”

“She lied.”

Size has been haunting me through the entire process of my current project of Black Sun. I found myself constantly questioning what the ideal length was to entice my audience and get through the action, without losing them. I was perpetually asking others, trying to find the length that would give the reader a sense of movement and accomplishment without chopping up the story. At the end of my search, my quest uncovered the maddening treasure of “there is no answer.” Like Bali Hai or Olympus, it’s not to be understood by us mere mortals.

Looking for models is also complicated. Great heroes of the speedy short chapter, like James Patterson and Dan Brown, have made an art form of breaking their work into chapters that are very often less than 5-6 pages. Great, okay, there’s a template. Then there are classics that have withstood the markets for years, like Tolkien and T.H. White, whose chapters almost never end. Back to square one. Who’s right? Which is the most marketable? Which are readers, agents and editors going to like best?

It does come down to a personal choice. Most of the advice I hear says chapters should be long enough to be:

  • interesting,
  • carry the story,
  • end on a hook of some kind or
  • be a logical break with point-of-view.

I’ve been trying to take this advice to heart. For me, my project begins with short chapters, cultivating a fast-moving rhythm. Understanding the readers are just getting engaged in the story, I want to make them feel the set up is moving quickly. Give them a sense of accomplishment in the story. Later chapters tend to get much longer. The readers have gotten far into the world are already interested and willing to read through much longer sequences.

However, in revising I discovered I’ve gone overboard in letting those midrange action chapters really grow in length. I discovered 10-12 pages (2500-300- words) for my early chapters switching to 35-42 pages (7000-9500 words) for my middle chapters. Needless to say, that difference is a bit extreme. I’ve decided I’ll continue revising my chapters as they are set up now.  On my next pass through, I’ll add chapter length to my to do list. I plan on moving them to a master document then changing up chapter divisions to reflect all the above, but with more manageable breaks.

Step by step, the work is getting there. Thanks for hanging in there with me.

Zen and the Art of Revising

Whew. It has been a flurry of activity on my novel front. Revising/editing has consumed me, and the work is showing it. I have revised/edited four chapters in the last two days.  This is a long process, but the outcome is well worth it. I am seeing characters find their voices and scenes gaining levels.

As I responded to J.P’s blog the other day, when I teach my students the writing process, the two stages that should take the most time for a writer are prewriting and revising. These are the idea stages and the realization stages. Drafting is just getting it from head to paper. It really is as Arthur Polotnik said in one of my favorite quotes, “You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you.  And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.”

When I see how much I change from drafting to revising, it astounds me. The blood bath the pages go through is something of a birth by fire. One chapter lost over a thousand words, but gained two new levels of meaning and a nice foreshadowing I hadn’t even planned.

Each writer has their own process for revising/editing. Mine is still growing as I learn, but so far it has many stages.

1)      I print out the chapter or chapters I plan on working on. Printing them out lets me see more than the computer screen does. I take my trusty red pen (it’s not just for students anymore) and go to work. I look for the biggest things. Attacking it as a writer. Last time I was at this spot, it was not a completed work. I may have had a plan, but the ending probably wandered down a different course at some point. Characters did not end up how I had thought. So now I need to match character voice, goals, emotions as well as story and tone with what will finally happen.

2)     Next read I look for continuity. I have made changes, time to see if they all line up with the finished product. Since I am doing paranormal and sci-fi, do I follow all rules for race, technology, world, station and magic that I established? Continuity errors are my pet peeve, so this is a big step for me.

3)     Now it’s time for the dreaded grammar check. No, not the one on the computer. I can’t tell you the amount of times I have yelled at the computer “You are wrong” over its grammar “suggestions”. I look for my own personal patterns of errors. Questions marks are my nemesis. Run-ons challenge everyone. Have I backloaded the right sentences? Everyone has their personal quirks, I just concentrate on mine.

4)     Filler words. CTRL-F is my friend here. I look for all those words that make writing weaker. Those dratted words that fill space not meaning. Searching for overusing “that”, “really” (and most other adverbs, thank you, Steven King). Sensory words that break the story flow are something else to go “thought,” “felt,” “sensed,” etc. By using the find function, I can shorten my time in this area and ensure I don’t miss any. A small cheat, but it works.

5)     Time for my secret weapon: my husband. I get to have the advantage of him as my first reader and editor. He will take my work and mark it up with any suggestions or errors he find. (Don’t worry; I do the same for him). The most important part here is we are honest with each other and don’t get upset at each other for suggestions. But he gives me those first pair of fresh eyes to see what my creating eyes can’t. Useful beyond words.

After, I decide what suggestions to take and finish that chapter with a clean copy. Then I move to the next chapter, repeating the entire process. So far, this method has cleaned up my work to a decent point.

Once I finish the entire work, I will do it once more from beginning to end, just an overall read. Making sure all the changes work, and I don’t see anything new. Then it’s time for Beta Readers. Speaking of which, thank you to S.B. for agreeing to be one of my Beta Readers when the time comes. That point, however, is a month or so off.

So that’s my process at the moment. I’m doing some of it every day, getting through it slowly but surely. When I get frustrated with the process and the time it takes, I simply remember, “When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing.”  ~Enrique Jardiel Poncela.

A few changes

A few changes

Grammar Magic

I just finished taking a course on revising your novel, trying to improve my writing (or as many like to call it, my craft). We spent a couple of weeks on techniques, then a clinical where the entire class picked apart each other’s work. I was terrified and excited about that part. It was invaluable, but humbling at the same time. This book is my baby, and they pointed out every flaw big and small. I am glad they did.

The second class was almost all about grammar. This class made me realize grammar is not a prerequisite course for writing a novel, just an added bonus. I’m still sorting out my feelings on the Oxford English dictionary admitting “LOL” and “OMG” as new “words” to be accepted by the community as a whole. But there it is. Mechanics help make the writing easier for the audience to read and lets the author control such things as dialogue and voice. Truly put by Wittgenstein “the harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of the language.” Knowing how to manipulate language through grammar allows the author to add layers of meaning and emotion with the simple twist of words and silence.

I have found a magic trick to get stronger in these twists, without going back to seventh grade. I have personally witnessed change many people’s written language skills. Find a college or university’s writing center and get a job there or volunteer your time for a semester or a year. Truly the sharing of knowledge and the variety of grammar issues that I have faced have taught me more than I ever forgot about the English language. Also editing other people’s work so often made it so I couldn’t turn it off. I do it with books, newspapers, anything in print.

I would recommend it for anyone wanting to improve their revising and editing skills. Instead of paying to take a course to give you the basics then end, you can gain more skills for free or while getting paid. I have also met many people who have similar interests and have helped me learn about the industry. It is a place to network. Where I work, there are published authors and poets who not only help me expand my abilities, but also give thoughts and advice on the actual publishing mystery that so many are trying to decode and crack. To quote Sir William Jones, “Never neglect an opportunity for improvement” and this is an opportunity that you can take upon yourself.

Books, classes and the like are wonderful, but can only bring you so far. This is real life writing, day in and day out. You will meet character ideas, learn about dialogue from ESL speakers, and hone your skills. A win-win for the budding writer and the students that learn from him/her.