An Easy Way to Improve Your Novel Right Now

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If you read my post on using find and replace to edit your novel, you know that I’m all about easy ways to pretty up your prose!

There are certain writing tips and tricks that get shoved around a lot: showings vs. telling, info dumps, and purple prose, for example. But there’s another big one that’s often ignored: filtering.

Filtering is when you “filter” the novel through the character’s senses, creating an extra layer of distance between the reader and the story.

There are a lot of filtering words, but here are the big ones.

Filtering Words

  • Saw
  • Heard
  • Felt
  • Tasted
  • Knew
  • Thought
  • Realized

If you’ve never heard of filtering, you might be thinking, I use these words all the time!  Unfortunately, filtering is something widely known among industry professionals (it can be a red flag that work is amateur), but it’s much less known to aspiring authors.

Let’s look at an example of text with filtering:

Tina heard a deep grown and felt breath on the back of her neck. She knew the monster was too close, and she realized the door was too far for her to get away. Her mouth tasted dry and metallic with fear, and she could feel her heart thumping against her ribs. As she turned, she saw big drops of monster spit all over the ground and knew she was done for.

The problem with all of this filtering is that it stops the reader from putting themselves in the character’s place because they are constantly reminded of their distance from the events. It’s Tina who heard the noise, not the reader. It’s Tina who tasted the fear.

So what would this look like if filtering were eliminated? There are lots of ways to get rid of filtering, and they all require you to stretch your creative muscle. Here’s one possible rewrite:

There was a deep growl and hot breath sprayed against the back of Tina’s neck. The monster was close. Too close. She squinted in the darkness, but the door was at least fifteen feet away. She’d never make it. A dry, metallic taste filled her mouth, and her heart thumped against her ribs. She turned and the toe of her shoe dipped into a puddle of monster spit. She was done for. There was no way she’d make it out now.

Do you notice how much closer you feel to the action in this second version? Do you see how much more heavily it relies on showing instead of telling?

Eliminating filtering words is an easy way to improve your writing right now.

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The Goal of Editing

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What is the goal of editing?  Why do writers spend months or even years rewriting, revising, and editing their books?  Why are you editing your book?

The first answer that comes to your mind is probably something like:

“I’m hoping to make my novel better and more entertaining.”

“I’m hoping to get rid of errors, plot holes, and inconsistencies.”

Or maybe even something like: “I keep getting rejected and I don’t know why.”

While all of these reasons are legitimate, they don’t get to the heart of what editing is actually all about.

The real goal of editing is to eliminate anything that might jar the reader out of the story.

That’s it.

Simple, huh?

When I tell writers (especially my clients) that this is what editing is really all about, it’s like a light bulb goes off in their head. Instead of getting hurt or depressed about hacking and slashing their novel, they get excited. They can see the true goal, the light at the end of the tunnel.

Editing isn’t about conforming to genre stereotypes or imitating famous authors. Most importantly, editing is not about following laundry lists of writing rules. The rules are just there to help steer you towards the bottom line, the end goal of keeping your readers fully engaged in your story.

Books are about the reader. A novel is nothing without the reader’s suspension of disbelief.  If head hopping, tense changes, or telling instead of showing pulls the reader out of the story, your novel fails to do its job. It fails to transport the reader into a world they can fully believe and become absorbed in.

For a novel to work, the reader must believe that what they’re reading is authentic. That can’t happen when they get hung up on unusual word choices, plot inconsistencies, or characters behaving out of character. When that happens, they see your hand in the work. They see right through your characters and straight to you, the author, and just like that they’re no longer absorbed in the story.

What separates a novel from being laughably bad and amazingly engaging is nothing more than the reader’s ability to believe in it. Nothing gets a book chucked back on the shelves (or into the rejection pile) faster than a reader thinking, This would never happen in real life!

“But,” some writers might say, “my book is a Fantasy. It can’t have happened in real life!” But that’s why readers pick up a Fantasy (or SciFi or Horror). They want you to make them believe that crazy things could really happen, that there is really magic, mystery, and wonder in the world, at least for a little while, at least while they’re reading your book.

Part of the fun of Harry Potter is thinking that someday (maybe!) you might get your acceptance letter to Hogwarts. And what fun would Doctor Who be if we didn’t all secretly believe that someday he might show up in in his TARDIS and whisk us away on an adventure.

When you’re editing, no matter what you’re editing, the bottom line is that you must eliminate anything that prevents your reader from fully engaging in the story.

So there’s no need to cry for the loss of a chapter you loved or despair at the major restructuring required to make your plot believable. It’s all for the good of the story. It’s all for the reader, and that’s who editing is really all about.

 

Need help figuring out why readers are getting jarred from your story? Check out my editing services.

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Improve Your Novel with Find and Replace

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Once you’ve perfected your plot and polished up your prose, there’s a quick way to add an extra layer of shine to your novel: Find and Replace.

The “Find and Replace” feature (sometimes called “Search and Replace”) is an easy way to get rid of bad writing habits that you might not notice when reading straight through your novel.

Here are some things to search for and eliminate from your book:

Began & Started

Find: Begin, begins, began, beginning, start, starts, started, starting

Replace these words with active verbs. We don’t need to know that the character started doing something, we just need to know that they’re doing it. “Start” and “began” make the action feel less active so consequently, the reader is less engaged.

Example: He started to run.

Change to: He ran.

Adverbs

Find: ly (this can be a bit tedious, but if you have a love affair with adverbs it will be well worth the time.)

Replace words ending in “ly” (AKA adverbs) with stronger verbs or cut them out entirely. Adverbs weaken the action rather than strengthen it, and they are often a sign of lazy writing.

Example: He quickly ran across the park.

Change to: He darted across the park.

Verbs Ending in “ing”

Find: ing (again, this can be pretty tedious, but it’s worth it.)

Replace verbs ending in “ing” with verbs ending in “ed” whenever it is proceeded by “was,” “were,” or “is.” This sort of “ing” verb makes the action less active and if you use it a lot, it can also raise your word count.

Sometimes, however, this sentence structure makes sense if an ongoing action is being described, but think critically about whether it makes a difference if the action was ongoing or immediate. If it doesn’t matter, go with “ed,” as in the example below.

Example: I turned and Mary was glaring at me.

Change to: I turned and Mary glared.

Time-Based Adverbs

Find: when, then, suddenly, immediately, always, often, already, finally

Replace these time-based adverbs with stronger descriptions that show the suddenness, frequency, etc., or eliminate them entirely. I wrote a post about time-based adverbs here. But here’s the gist: more words take longer to read and make the action feel less immediate, not more immediate.

Example: I immediately ran through the door.

Change to: I ran through the door.

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How to Write and Edit a Novel: The Ultimate Guide

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Have you always wanted to know how to write a novel?  Well apparently, 81% of Americans believe they have a book in them!  But how do you write one?  More specifically, how do you write a good one? Here’s my ultimate guide on how to write a novel.

The Writeditor’s Ultimate Guide on How to Write a Novel

Step #1: Create a Plot

First, make sure what you have is actually a plot and not a premise.  A premise is the concept behind a book (aliens have taken over the world).  A plot is the conflict or obstacle the characters must face (John must stop the aliens from assassinating the president).

A plot must also have a risk. If the character fails, something bad will happen (the aliens will become president and control the human race).

2584174182_ffd5c24905Step #2: Create Characters

Your characters should have strong personalities and identifiable differences between them. If everyone talks and acts the same, you’re in trouble.

Furthermore, characters must have something they want, a desire.  The climax for the character is either achieving that desire or failing.

Watch this video and learn eight steps to writing unique characters.

Step #3: Choose a Point of View

This is where a lot of would-be authors fail right off the bat.  You need to not only understand the differences between the types of point of view, but you also need to make a conscious decision to choose one!

If you can’t name which point of view you’re using for your novel, you’re in serious trouble.

Step #3: Write the First Draft

Sit down and don’t worry about your inner editor, just bang out the first draft.  Try to include all of the elements and plot points you want in the final novel.  Don’t worry too much about voice, consistency, or cohesion, you can fix that later.

If you like outlines, create one before this step. Outlining or not outlining is a matter of preference.

7447732100_1dd60a9c6eStep #4: The First Edit

The first edit should focus on the big picture: which chapters/scenes should stay and which ones should be cut (learn how to spot bad chapters here).  Each chapter/scene should have a conflict and should push the story forward.  If it’s not doing either of those things, it needs to be cut.

You may find it helpful to use flashcards (physical or digital) to map out each chapter or scene.  Reorder them as necessary for clarity and to increase tension.

Step #5: The Second Edit

Now you should take a step closer to your novel and look for inconsistencies and issues with cohesion.  Is your character blonde in one chapter, then brunette in the next?  Does a character’s quirk disappear in chapter eight?

And here’s a big one: are you breaking your own rules?  This is particularly relevant in SciFi and Fantasy.  If you created a rule for your world (only wizards can use wands), then in chapter fifteen you break that rule (a squirrel uses a wand to create an endless supply of acorns), you need to fix that.

Step #6: The Third Edit

This is where you need to put each sentence under a magnifying glass. Ask yourself: does this sentence sound good?  Could it be worded clearer or more smoothly? Is this the best way to get this concept across? Is it in the character’s voice?  Is it needed? Is it repetitive?

3925743489_60e27e04f2Step #7: Get a Second (or third, or fourth) Opinion

Now that your book is the best you can make it, you need to get the opinion of another person.  Depending on many factors, this could be a writing group, one or more beta readers, or a freelance editor.

Your mom, brother, husband, friend, child’s opinion does not matter.  They are too close to you to tell you the truth.  They also don’t know what the heck they’re talking about (some beta readers might not either, so be careful with who you choose).

Step #8: Final Edit (maybe)

Take the notes and comments given to you by your beta readers or freelance editor and integrate them into your novel.  But don’t forget that this is your baby.  If you don’t want to make a certain change (because you don’t believe in it, not because you’re lazy), then don’t change it.

And Finally (you’re going to hate this) 

4835746606_04946f813bJust because you followed all of the steps above, that doesn’t mean your novel is publishable.

Some people have a natural writing style that is relatively error free. They don’t even know what the writing mistakes are, but somehow they just naturally avoid them (feel free to pout about this, it’s totally unfair).  And there are other writers who will make nearly every writing mistake in the book no matter how many times they revise.

What to Do

The best way to improve your writing at this point, is to learn what mistakes you are making. This can be done by going to writing classes, getting more beta readers, stalking writing forums, reading writing advice articles and videos, etc.

But in my totally biased opinion, the best way to learn your mistakes is to work with a freelance editor who will painstakingly explain every teeny-tiny thing you’ve done wrong.  Yes, it’s an investment, but I guarantee that it is the fastest and easiest way to improve your writing (my wonderful clients have told me so).

If you’d like to hire me as your freelance editor, check out my editing services.

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Writing in Present Tense Might be a Bad Idea

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First, just let me say that I do not hate the present tense.  In fact, I have a present tense story being published in an anthology later this year.  The problem with present tense is that it’s great when it’s great, and when it’s not….*shudder* it’s horrible!

Present tense novels are an editor’s nightmare because no matter how much you think you understand present tense, you don’t.  You really don’t.  Every single present tense novel I’ve ever edited has had hundreds of mistakes in the tense.  If you’re an unpublished, unknown writer, having hundreds of errors makes it a pretty short trip to the rejection pile.  And that’s if the agent/editor likes present tense.

There are many agents and editors who have a written or unwritten policy to never or rarely accept fiction in the present tense (this seems especially common in adult science fiction and fantasy).  Aside from maybe second person, it’s one of the most widely hated narrative styles.  This doesn’t mean that present tense fiction is never published.  It is.  Though in adult fiction it is greatly outnumbered by stories in past tense.

If you want to take a risk and go with present tense, it is not a guaranteed failure. But is writing a present tense novel a good way to launch a writing career?  Probably not.  Does it lower your odds of publication?  Almost definitely.

However, for young adult and middle grade readers, present tense is far more common and acceptable. It’s possible that writing in present tense may even be advantageous in these genres (for stats on present vs. past tense in middle grade, click here).

Still going with present tense?  I cannot stress enough the importance of getting it in the hands of a competent editor before self publishing or submitting to agents/editors.  You’ve gotta get rid of the errors in tense!

Present tense is one of my specialties, so if you’d like my help, check out my novel editing services.

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Don’t Let Your Novel’s Characters be Crybabies

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A lot of writers attempt to increase the drama of a scene by having their characters cry.  This can work (sometimes) if we know the character really well and truly empathize with them. But waterworks should be used sparingly in your novel, very sparingly.  If everything is a 10 out of 10, then nothing has any intensity at all.

Besides, who wants to read about a blubbering crybaby, anyway?  The last thing you want are readers rolling their eyes at your character’s melodrama, silently urging them to pull up their big kid pants.

The other reason to keep tears to a minimum is that tears release tension, and a novel should build tension. So if something bad happens and your character cries, that crying is like a catharsis, washing away the fear, excitement, or sadness.

The other, other reason to avoid crying is that most people find resisting tears much more touching than falling into a blubbering heap.  Consider the following examples:

“I hate you,” he spat.

She burst into sobs, tears streaming down her face.

Versus:

“I hate you,” he spat.

Her lip trembled, but she swallowed hard, turning away.

See how much more powerful the second example is?

Is your novel making you (the author) a crybaby? Learn more about how my editing services can help you.

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Stop Using “-ing” Verbs in Your Novel

Want to add instantaneous strength to your novel?  Cut out verbs ending in “ing.”  These verbs weaken your writing and reduce the reader’s perception of immediacy. So avoiding these verbs can increase tension and improve flow.

6891657867_2b78f2abfeConsider the following sentences:

  • He was walking to the park.
  • I was dancing on stage.
  • She is staring at me.

Now check out these replacement sentences:

  • He walked to the park.
  • I danced on stage.
  • She stares at me.

See how much more direct and powerful these sentences are?  And of course,  this has a cumulative effect.  The more “-ing” verbs you cut out, the stronger your writing will seem. Consider this paragraph:

Abigail was walking along the bike trail. There was a boy riding his bike. He was smiling up at her as she passed. She started wondering what the boy was so happy about.

Now consider the alternative:

Abigail walked along the bike trail. A boy rode his bike and smiled as he passed her. She wondered what the boy was so happy about.

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