Category Archives: Editing

Review: Damn Fine Story

Damn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful NarrativeDamn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative by Chuck Wendig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wasn’t able to attend the DFW Con writing convention this year, where Chuck was the keynote speaker, but I did get to read this book, so I still feel like I got to have a good long conversation with him.

The book is both light-hearted and zippy and meaty and something you’ll ponder. It took me a long time to get through because I kept ruminating. Which is the point! Thank god this was a different kind of writing book! There is no torture over adverbs or controversially short memory devices; Chuck leaves all that to King and the plethora of his imitators. Instead, this book is about the overall shape of a story. That’s a mushy, hard-to-define topic, which Chuck handles with movie story examples, quick jokes, and great illustrative metaphors.

You’ll have something to think about, and you’ll damn well like it, young man!

(Seriously though, I just want to watch TV with Chuck. He has excellent nerd taste.)

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Editing Tip: How to Pluralize Your Holiday Cards

miserable kids at Christmas

What not to do this Christmas.

Here’s a hilarious (and largely accurate) article to help you figure out how to fill out your Christmas (or other-holiday-of-your-choosing) card.

Q: What if my last name ends in a Y? 
A: Add an S. Do not add -IES or an apostrophe.
Merry Christmas from the Murphys. 

Q: What if my last name already ends in an S? 
A: Add -ES. Do not add an apostrophe.
Season’s greetings from the Simmonses.

Q: What if the end of my last name normally functions as an irregular noun? 
A: It is not irregular when it is part of a last name.
Happy holidays from the Hoffmans. Warm wishes from the Wolfs. 

Q: What would adding an apostrophe do? 
A: It would hurt Tiny Tim make your last name possessive.

Go read all about it:

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How’s Your Side Hustle?

I found this little article fascinating: 2015 Side Hustle Earnings Report.

When you pick up a side gig–whatever your reasons–it’s so hard to know what success will look like. If you’re picking up extra work for money, it can be easy to feel like you’re failing if you’re not the next Steve Jobs. But this report brings us right back down to earth. Success can look like a whole lot of things.

I mean, sure, this list includes a motivational speaker/CEO who makes a slick $89,000 in her “side gig” (gag me a bit here)… but there is also a blogger who made only $450. That’s a huge range.

Did you know the average part-time job brings in $8,000 a year? That’s so small potatoes (forgive me, I read it in another article and can no longer remember the source). But if a traditional side job like waitressing or working at a shop or whatever brings in only $8,000 a year, maybe it’s worth it to try to make your personal hobby into a side gig instead.

Personally I feel that the benefits of running your own small business are completely worth the challenges. You learn so much, about relating to others, managing your time, what your goals really are…

How’s your side hustle? And if you need any editing, just let me know. 😉

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How to Edit Your “Choose Your Own Adventure”-Style Book

Now that you’ve written your totally awesome gamebook, you’ve got to edit it! Unfortunately, because you’ve got all these disconnected storylines running all over the place, that’s a bit more of an organizational feat than normal editing. So what should you do? Here’s my advice after working on my adult zombie gamebook, Undead Rising: Decide Your Destiny.

Take a Deep Breath
And just try to be patient. It’s pretty complicated, and even after taking more than 6 passes through it (both me and with other editors) I still found mistakes in the final form. Which is frustrating.
Make a Checklist
Since you made that awesome list when you wrote it, you can now turn that list into a checklist. You’ll want to mark off each section you’ve read/reviewed as you go. YES, you will most likely loop through the same sections repeatedly. You have to check the direction with every one, even if you just glance to make sure the transitions make sense.
Use the “Find” Feature
Late in the game I decided to change the names of a few characters. There was no way in Hades I was ever going to find all the incidences of those names, but the find tool made it easy to find and replace them in one quick pass. The same thing holds true with other story details (if you’ve decided, as I did, to keep some things constant across storylines). Because you’ve got a nonlinear story, you’ll need some clever tricks to track everything down.
Rewrite and Modify
After I showed a draft copy to my brother, I had to add in a few more scenes. (He felt like he died too often, poor baby). Because I’d written the book in Scrivner, this wasn’t that hard, but it did mean changing the choices to lead to that section, and inserting new pages. If I had been going by page number at this point–instead of the simpler numbering system–I’d have been in big trouble.
Layout the Pages
When you are completely confident that the story works, doesn’t have errors, and is generally in good shape, lay out the pages. It is a BIG headache if you have to go back and change these later (odds are good that you’ll have to go back and change them later…) but that’s why you’ve got your checklist as a backup.
You may want to do a rough layout, and then save two versions, if you’re doing ebook and print. They are similar in manuscript format but are about to change dramatically.
Add Page Numbers
I worked from the beginning and moved through my numbered list in order. That meant, in some cases, I added page numbers to some choices and left others with the placeholder number until I reached that point in the number system. In those cases, I just used the “find” tool to find my placeholder once I knew for certain what page it would be on. I also wrote the page number next to the original number in my list.
Use a pencil. I had to erase and scratch out at least a few times, particularly in the final pages.
Add Links
Because I wanted an ebook option as well as a printed option, I had to add links for ereaders. But the number system I used also made this pretty easy! I added the links in my document in Word (after exporting the manuscript from Scrivner). Word has a great “bookmark” tool that allows you to create in-document links. In Microsoft for Mac, this is located under Insert>Bookmark. You’ll add the bookmark itself to the section you want to send readers to, and add a hyperlink to that bookmark to each choice. (So: choices become links; bookmarks are at the beginning of the new section). You can also nickname your bookmarks with a few words–or even your number system. That chart you made really comes in handy!
Google “add bookmarks in Word” if you need step-by-step directions. A word of warning: if you have a full novel like Undead Rising with a lot of links, your document is going to get pretty big and the bookmarks may get challenging. That’s another reason I find the number system so useful.
Add Formatting For eBook and Print Versions
This was really time-consuming and you may want to hire a designer for this part. Print and ebooks naturally have some strong differences in layout and needs of the reader, and you’ll have to design carefully to accommodate that. For print, I wanted clear bullets to indicate each new choice. For the ebook, the choices were already obvious because they are underlined links. I also added dropcaps to signal new sections for the print book; that wouldn’t be necessary in an ebook, because the link will “warp” the reader directly to the new section.
Whatever formatting you decide on, be extremely careful that you don’t mess up your page numbers (in print) and that you are consistent throughout.
Check It Again
After you think everything is perfect, you’re going to need to check it..again. And probably again after that. The first pass should look for spelling and grammatical issues (I read the book backwards to help look for those); the second pass should check every link and every page direction. It’s tedious but very important that it be perfect!
After this, you should have a gorgeous ebook and/or print gamebook ready to publish!
Undead Rising coverIf that sounds like a ridiculous amount of work, maybe you should just enjoy a good gamebook instead. How about Undead Rising: Decide Your Destiny, now available in print and for Kindle?

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Editing Quick Hit: Inner Monologues

Oh shit! he thought. I have no idea how a monologue should be written! What will I do?

Ah, rest easy, writer’s inner muse. I’m here to help.

Insight into a character’s mind is one of the gifts of fiction. In real life, even when someone tells us what they are thinking, they aren’t often telling us what they are really thinking. But in fiction, we can climb right into someone’s head and learn from their very thoughts. It’s pretty powerful stuff.

But how do you convey that something is an inner monologue?

First, make sure you’re in the right kind of story. Sorry, nonfiction, you’re right out: even if we have someone’s journal, we don’t know exactly what they’re thinking (don’t worry, historical fiction; you can stay). Also excluded are stories written in “third person limited”–ie., are told by an outside narrator who doesn’t have access to the thoughts and motivations of the characters. (IMPORTANT: If you switch between characters’ perspectives, do so only at a clear break, such as a chapter, so that the reader can keep up. Don’t “head hop.” If you’re in third person limited, you’re limited!)

But say you’re in first person, or third person omniscient, and someone is thinking something. How do you write it?

  • Where is she going with this, he wondered?
  • “Where is she going with this?” he wondered.
  • Where is she going with this? he wondered.

Which of the above is clearest for the reader? The last one: the change of the font gives the reader a hint, from the beginning, that something is different about this sentence. They’ll know to read it in a different “sound” than other dialogue.

On a similar note, why does the placement of that question mark matter so much? Read it aloud. English sucks for questions, because we don’t alert readers that it is, in fact, a question until the very end of the sentence. When we ask a question, we raise the tone of our voices toward the end of the sentence (when we’ve figured out it’s a question after all!). If you move that question mark to after the “he wondered,” that lift will come on “wondered” rather than on “this?” where it belongs.

Now, if there is some reason you can’t use italics in your book (I pity you greatly), it is ok to write thoughts without italics–I think it’s just the most efficient method. If you leave off the italics, try to clue the reader in some other way. For example, don’t make it dialogue:

  • He wondered where she could possibly be going with this blog post.

Or keep it as dialogue but warn the reader up front:

  • He wondered: Where is she going with this blog post? Will it ever end?

Don’t ever use quotation marks! Those are reserved for–duh!–quotations, said aloud.

Your job as the writer is to make your story as clear for the reader as possible: after all, if they’re busy trying to figure out how to say the sentence you just wrote, they’re not getting immersed in your great story.


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Editing Tip: Keep the Mystery Alive

This is titled as an editing tip, but it may be more of a writing tip. However, it doesn’t really matter whether you handle this at the beginning of your writing process or during an editing phase: it is essential that you keep some things from the reader.

“What?” you’re screaming right now. “But I’m supposed to show, not tell!”

Yeah, you are. But don’t show the reader everything. They don’t really want to know everything. Mystery is one of the reasons people read stories; trying to figure out the plot of the puzzle.

I’ve seen this from many beginning authors. They get so excited about the story, the world, they’ve built in their imaginations, they just share all of it. Because it’s just SO awesome, right?

But what ends up happening is the plot gets weighed down by unnecessary, irrelevant details, the reader gets bored, and the story overall doesn’t feel very good.

Take Harry Potter, for example, all the books. JK Rowling is known for having developed a deep complexity to her world, with pages and pages and pages of notes and plans for each character. But the first book does not, say, cover every year of Harry’s life from birth until he gets picked up at Hogwarts. Nor, when he arrives, does she take the time for a luxurious tour of the castle: all we the reader get is a bit about the exterior, the Great Hall with the floating candles, some moving staircases, and a rough sketch of the tower for the Gryffindors.

Basically, she only introduces the rooms that Harry directly interacts with–and then only includes the relevant ones (no bathroom breaks in Hogwarts). And yet Hogwarts is a lush and beautiful scene that doesn’t feel at all shortchanged by these exclusions.

So, why should you leave things out of your story?

  • To get to the good stuff. Unless you’re writing an architecture book, your readers probably don’t care about all those luscious details you’ve got planned out. They want to know what’s going to happen next, not the color of the chandeliers!
  • To avoid an info-dump. It’s much more exciting to figure out the shape of a story little by little than to suddenly be told everything. If I wanted to know everything in one go, I’d read the Cliff’s Notes.
  • To protect you when/if you change your mind. Oh, you want the windows to be curved? Sorry buddy, you wrote that they were rectangular four books ago. If your book becomes popular (as you hope it will!), you’ll have everyone poring over every detail, trying to make them fit together. Just ask GRR Martin how that goes.
  • To leave room for more stories. This is actually the BEST reason: if you leave folks wanting more, you’ll have the opportunity to write (and sell) more. But that can’t happen if you spill everything in the first go! Keep some details under your hat, and you’ll continue to find more to develop.

It’s a tricky balance for sure: how do you balance juicy descriptions with holding a bit back? I can’t tell you the how or the what, unfortunately–just the why. But trust me: when you figure it out, your book will be the better for it.

Have you read anything that just over-described and gave too much away? What did it tell you about good writing?


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Taxes For Writers

It’s almost tax time–time for writers and editors to circle up and figure out what the heck they owe the government! Yay!

Seriously, I know it’s not the most fun part of being a creative individual, but it’s an obligation-to-society thing. I know a lot of beginning writers/editors/freelancers just try to dodge the taxman entirely, but this is a) not doing your social obligation and b) likely to bite you in the butt later on if you do strike it rich…they’ll find ya.

So it’s better to just be on top of it from the beginning, yes? Before we go any further, allow me to clarify that I am NOT a tax expert in any way, shape, or form–I’m just a regular Jane who has to pay these taxes, too. And I know I was completely overwhelmed (and did it wrong) when I started.

If you read this list and it applies to you, it would probably be a good idea to talk to a tax professional and/or to read a helpful DIY guide (I learned a lot from My So-Called Freelance Life).

  • Self-Employed: If you are earning money as a writer or editor, you need to list yourself as “self-employed” and pay self-employment tax. You can even do this on years you didn’t bring in any money; this can give you a discount for some things (but don’t do it too often; it’ll increase the chances you’ll be audited).
    • You must pay self-employment tax if you make more than $400 a year through your business. In other words, most people probably owe self-employment taxes.
    • Write down every time you get paid for your work. How much, who from, and when. I have a spreadsheet that I use both to keep track of my work-in-progress and who has paid me what.
    • Set aside 25-30% of the money you earn and tuck it away in a savings account. (Which figure you choose has to do with your income bracket…and whether you’d rather accidentally overpay–and get a rebate check–or underpay and pay in come April 15. Personally, the 30% figure gives me more peace of mind, so that’s what I do.)
    • As a self-employed person, you have to pay estimated taxes quarterly, or risk being fined (the interest). This seems really unfair and scary if you’re used to a regular desk job–hey, why I gotta pay FOUR times?–but the reason is that your accounting department is paying the company taxes every month, so, since you’re being considered a business of one, you’re also expected to pay in regularly. To do so, you need the form 1040-ES, a Social Security number, and a check. (Here’s the info from the IRS.) You’ll pay in April 15, June 16, Sept. 15, and January 15.
      • If you’ve planned ahead, this totally won’t matter: you’ll have those owed taxes tucked away in that savings account, earning interest on your behalf. It’s easy enough to just withdraw that amount owed four times a year.
  • Discounts: The good news is, if you’re listed as self-employed and paying in what you owe, you can also get some tax breaks! For example:
    • Home Office: if you work in a designated part of your home, you can take a tax write-off for your rent/mortgage cost. You’ll measure the square footage and that percentage of your house is for your work, so you’ll get a little break there. All you have to have are basic supplies: a desk, a computer, paper, whatever. But you really do have to have a office set up.
    • Supplies: Bought a new pen for book signings? That’s a write-off! Paper and envelopes to mail in manuscripts? Keep the receipts and that’s a write-off! You can list the business expenses during a year, just like a big business would, and get a tax break. This can even include things such as a new outfit for cons (I met one person who dressed up as a steampunk character for books signings. Yup, her costume was a write-off!).
    • Car Miles: This probably has less effect for the most home-bound of us, but if you drive around for your business (and keep very good records) you can count the miles driven and gas paid as business expenses, further lowering your tax burden! For example, you may drive a lot for meetings with book clubs as you promote your book: track all those miles and you’ll have a discount you can take!
    • Gifts: There are rules about gifts, but basically, if your business gifts a business contact a gift, you can write off the entire cost! Those chocolates at Christmas that you sent to your editor are now helping you!

Paying taxes as a writer or editor is a little more complicated than your typical desk-job paperwork, but it doesn’t have to be a bad thing! While writing those quarterly checks can sometimes seem painful, I’ve kept good records of my business work in general and I typically get a bigger rebate at the end of the year than I expected…which is money I can safely put right back into my business.

All it takes to be a law-abiding taxpaying writer is a bit of record-keeping and awareness. (Besides, everyone who pays you more than $600 is also required to put that on their taxes…so they’re reporting your earnings one way or another!) The best tax-defense is a good offense: perhaps it’s time you made an appointment with an accountant?

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Stephen King as a Writing Teacher

I loved On Writing, and it surprised me just how much I embraced it. Now, even though I’ve read only a few of his books, Stephen King has become one of my favorite authors–not for his writing, but for his devotion, his thoughtfulness, and his brain. I wish I could meet him.

Stories like this one remind me of how much I like him and want to hang out with him.

He’s just very authentic, and honest, sometimes about things that people (writers) aren’t comfortable admitting.

For example, he says that grammar–while still needing to be taught–isn’t the most critical skill.

And, even more heretical, he says that not everyone needs to be a writer. The scandal!

(I’ll take it a step further: not everyone needs to be a self-published writer…)

But I think he’s right. Sometimes it’s a matter of teaching people what they need right now in their real lives; they have opportunities later to further develop their talents if their interests take them there. Fundamentals. (See what he says about teaching kids to write directions from A to B.)

Also, I just love his frank crassness, like this: “Reading good fiction is like making the jump from masturbation to sex.”

Oh heavens, Mr. King, you’re givin’ me the vapors!

Anyway, he’s fabulous.

What do you think of King’s advice? Does it hold true in your experience?

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Editing Quick Hit: How Many Sentences to a Paragraph?

What I tell you next is going to make some English teachers hate me, but it will make you a better writer, so I’m willing to risk it: You’re doing paragraphs wrong.

In third grade, you were probably taught that a paragraph was required to be three to five sentences long. If your paragraphs were NOT sufficiently long–or, heaven forbid!–were longer than five sentences, no smiley face stamp for you!

And then the internet came along and writers started chucking paragraphs right out the window. In fact, it’s practically blogging 101: keep it short, stupid. (Even me! Look at all these paragraphs! So short!)

Between these two influences, some writers have given up on having paragraphs at all, cleaving to just one or two sentences jammed together.

And it’s deplorable.

Look, blogging is one thing, but a blog is not a book, nor should it be (if I can get the exact same information out of reading one blog that I can get out of reading your whole multi-chapter book, the world doesn’t need your book).

Paragraphs are there to help the reader decipher your text. The line breaks make it easier to read. (Ease of reading is exactly why bloggers are told to keep it short. The sans-serif typeface used on most internet sites is a bit harder to read when grouped together, plus you’ve got the backlighting on the screen adding strain, too.)

But paragraphs are also a tool used to show what parts go together.

Let me give an example, with every sentence given its own line:

Bob the butterfly loved to dither in the field of flowers.

Being a butterfly, he didn’t have many cares in the world, but he was absolutely fascinated by the myriad colors, smells and delightful flavors.

He flew from one flower to the next, lost in a whirl of enthusiasm.

His attention span was short–he didn’t have much of a brain, if you could even call it that–and so was quick to taste, then fly to the next, on and on.

But he could have been paying more attention.

While he was busy drinking nectar from the One-Eyed Susan, a sparrow zoomed down and ate him.

That kind of reads like a poem, doesn’t it? Which is great, if that’s what you’re going for. But if you’re writing prose, it is more commonly formatted like this:

Bob the butterfly loved to dither in the field of flowers. Being a butterfly, he didn’t have many cares in the world, but he was absolutely fascinated by the myriad colors, smells and delightful flavors. He flew from one flower to the next, lost in a whirl of enthusiasm. His attention span was short–he didn’t have much of a brain, if you could even call it that–and so was quick to taste, then fly to the next, on and on. But he could have been paying more attention. While he was busy drinking nectar from the One-Eyed Susan, a sparrow zoomed down and ate him.

A punchy little narrative, perhaps a fable, in six sentences.  But there are other ways to format it, too, which may be even more powerful:

Bob the butterfly loved to dither in the field of flowers. Being a butterfly, he didn’t have many cares in the world, but he was absolutely fascinated by the myriad colors, smells and delightful flavors. He flew from one flower to the next, lost in a whirl of enthusiasm. His attention span was short–he didn’t have much of a brain, if you could even call it that–and so was quick to taste, then fly to the next, on and on. But he could have been paying more attention.

While he was busy drinking nectar from the One-Eyed Susan, a sparrow zoomed down and ate him.

The separation between the paragraph and the surprise ending in the last line gives the reader a moment of pause, and can heighten the zing.

So–how long should your paragraphs be?

As long as they need to be.

I know, radical! Throw out the rulebooks and use your well-honed subjective judgement–but be prepared to defend your reasoning if someone challenges you. Why do you want it that way? If you don’t know, or are falling back on old rules, you may want to rethink your formatting.

**Special note: In my opinion, you get less opportunity to be loosey-goosey about paragraphs when it’s in dialogue, but I think the misunderstanding comes from the same place. Here’s the rule for dialogue: If it is all being spoken at once, by the same speaker, 9/10 you need it to be all in the same paragraph. If someone is giving a speech, it’s perfectly fine to create a big ol’ text wall. Breaking it into chunks, particularly in a back-and-forth conversation, can create gads of confusion for the reader.

(If you really want to break it into chunks, the natural place would be whenever commentary is added, such as “he shuffled his feet awkwardly” or “she giggled” or “The cat did not care an ounce for the story, but tolerated it nonetheless.” In other words, stuff that’s related to the dialogue but isn’t actually being said aloud.)


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Editing Quick Hit: ‘Backward’ Apostrophes

What I’m about to say may shock and confuse you–it’s okay, it’s not your fault; the machines are lying to you. But I’m here to help.

Your apostrophes are backwards.

Don’t worry, it’s not all the time. The most common writing software is just making things bonkers for you.

On fonts that utilize “curly” apostrophes (unlike online, like this typeface) should always have the “tail” of the apostrophe pointing toward the missing letters in a shortened word, such as in dialogue. In other words, the apostrophe should be “closed” or shaped like a number 9.

But Microsoft Word botches this every time, like this:

wrong way to use apostrophes

The apostrophes for ’em (them) and ’90s (1990s) should show the reader where the missing letters go. Thinkin’ (thinking) is correct, however; the tail says, “there should be a ‘g’ right here!” Instead, Microsoft Word thinks those apostrophes are single quotation marks, which leads it to put in the wrong one.

Here’s how it looks when it is correct:

correct apostrophe position

Now our helpful apostrophes say, “look, these two words are missing letters!” Perfect. (And “thinkin'” is still correct.)

Individually, this is easy to correct: just put in two apostrophes when you want to flip one around. The second apostrophe will be turned the correct direction. Then, just delete the first one.

If you’re going to be apostroph-izing frequently, you may want to look into the programming to see if you can turn off the flippy apostrophes, but most people don’t need to go that far. Of course, you can also hire a good editor/proofreader (like me!) to do all the apostrophe-scrounging for you.

I recently worked on a fun book that featured a lot of Western-y dialogue. There were a lot of backward apostrophes to fix. Here’s an example of how this kind of dialogue should look when it is done correctly:

example of dialogue with apostrophes

With all the shortened words spelled out, this would say, “That is because you run faster than I do, so as I gotta get them first.” But that just sounds crazy, so shortened dialogue it is! Just be sure to keep track of which direction your apostrophes are facing.

If you want to read up on apostrophe directions, consult section 6.114 of your Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition.

Are your apostrophes backwards? Have you run into this problem before?


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