Baring My Writer’s Soul – Part 24

Editing is like looking for your car keys on a messy dining room table.  The keys are there, but you are unable to see them among the mail and magazines, your daughter’s homework, brochures from the hardware store, the candlesticks and forgotten napkin, a cup of cold coffee, a box of tissues, your toddler’s blocks, the dog’s leash, a bag of catnip, flyers formerly tucked in the front screen door, your son’s iPod, your husband’s wallet, and on and on.

Only when you have searched every other room in the house and finally returned to the dining room table will you be able to see the keys that have always been there.  It is the same with editing.  You must allow yourself to step away so that when you return, you will be able to see immediately what portions of your writing need to be revised.

I like to edit during my writing process.  Part of the reason I do this is so that I don’t forget the really great idea that just popped into my head.  I don’t understand the point of writing said idea in a notebook and going back to fix the issue after the entire novel is written.  This works for some people, but not for me.  And that’s okay.  There is no one way to write a novel.

With that being said, I also like to step away from my work, especially the larger pieces, for about three months.  Absolutely no peeking at the story on my laptop.  I even try to not think about it unless an amazing idea surfaces, and being in touch with my work, I know the difference between when that occurs and when I’m just anxious to cheat and sneak a peek.

Turns out, what I discovered intuitively is actually a recommendation from one of my favorite writing books, Page After Page by Heather Sellers.  Mrs. Sellers refers to this process as curing, and in her case, it’s what happens when she submits a work and doesn’t look at it, edit it, consider it again until all the rejections return or she’s accepted, in which case she doesn’t need to edit.

Then she goes one step further past the editing process and offers this practice as a method for handling rejection.  When you and your writing come back together, it’s more complex, deeper, richer, funkier, more interesting, and a whole host of other things you didn’t see before because you didn’t put enough time between you and the writing.  Also during this time, you’ve grown.  Hopefully, you’ve been reading both for pleasure and to study writing.  Keep writing every day to ensure you have enough stuff that you don’t feel as if you’re wasting time not editing it.

It’s really quite simple, and yet in its simplicity, it’s brilliant.  Write to keep from editing too soon; write to ease the pain of rejection.  But whatever you do, write.

Write Happy!

Have a Holly, Jelly Christmas

Christmas morning of 1917 was a time of excitement for Johnny Welles and his three older siblings.  In addition to celebrating the special day, a secret was brewing behind the scenes that would add to the festive holiday season and bring joy to the entire family.  In a passage leading up to the discovery of this secret, I wrote a portion for my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, that included the special treat of apple jelly on pound cake served for Christmas breakfast.  The following recipe is the one I had in mind when writing the above-mentioned scene.

Collie’s Apple Jelly

3 lbs. tart apples (¼ underripe and ¾ ripe)

3 c water

2 T lemon juice, strained

3 c white sugar

This recipe doesn’t require an outside source of pectin because it uses tart apples which are higher in pectin.  Also, the slightly underripe apples further ensure a natural source of pectin.

Sort and wash the apples.  Remove the stems and blossom ends.  Do not pare or core the apples.  Cut them into small pieces.  Add the water, cover, and bring to a boil on high heat.  Stir occasionally to prevent scorching.  Reduce the heat and simmer the mixture for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the apple pieces are soft.  Do not over boil or you’ll destroy the pectin, flavor, and color in the fruit.

Dampen a jelly bag and suspend over a clean bowl.  Ladle the cooked apples and liquid into the jelly bag and allow the juices to drip through on their own.  Pressing out the juice will result in cloudy jelly.  If a fruit press is used, pass the juice through a jelly bag to reduce cloudiness.

Pour the apple juice into a flat-bottomed pot.  Add the lemon juice and sugar.  Stir thoroughly.  Boil the mixture over high heat to eight degrees above the boiling point of water (this temperature depends on where you live in regards to sea level) or until the jelly sheets from a spoon.  Remove the jelly from the heat and quickly skim off the foam.

Immediately pour the jelly into hot, sterile jars.  Be sure to leave ¼ inch headspace.  Wipe the rims with a clean, damp paper towel.  Fit a canning lid into a ring and place on the jars of jelly.  Take care to level and tighten them properly.  Process the jars in a water bath canner.  The time required will depend on the altitude at which you live:

0 – 1000 ft. for five minutes

1001 – 6000 ft. for 10 minutes

Above 6000 ft. for 15 minutes

Remove the processed jars using canning tongs.  Allow the jars to cool on several layers of towels.  During this time, you’ll hear the lids pop indicating successful canning.  You can remove the rings for reuse once the lids pop and the jars cool.  Any lid that does not pop has not sealed properly.  These jars should be cooled and refrigerated for immediate use.  This recipe yields about four to five half-pint jars of golden sweet deliciousness.

Now it’s time for the confession portion of this post.  Thinking like a modern woman, I had Collie making the apple jelly a few days before she served it for Christmas.  In my world, one would simply go to the store for apples or pull them from the refrigerator where they waited patiently to be eaten or made into something delicious.  Refrigerators for home use weren’t invented until 1913, and I seriously doubt the Welles family would have had one by 1917.  They could have had a cellar, but I never mentioned this in the description of the house, and to do so for the sake of one scene would feel contrived.

Apples will last for six to eight weeks with refrigeration, but left on a counter, they will ripen ten times faster because enzymes are much more active at room temperature, and they will only last for a week or two.  More likely, Collie would have made the jelly during the months when apples were in season.  So while I made a small culinary mistake in my novel, fortunately I discovered it prior to publication.  As I’ve always said, the research begins with the author.  It will be easy to edit this scene by having Collie say she held back one jar to use on Christmas morning.

Who is in Your Details?

God Is In The Details by Mauricio Raffin

God Is In The Details by Mauricio Raffin

Today’s post counts as two entries in The Weight of Words and one for Research Road. It also stresses the importance of thoroughly editing and researching your work as well as finding a good editor. We’ve all made mistakes. I have received tactful comments from followers pointing out errors I’ve made. It’s easy to correct a blog post even after the fact, but what about my novel? I don’t live in fear of discovering an error post publication…oh, wait—I do.

I can’t tell you how many times my mother has said, “What difference does it make if you’re not 100% accurate? The common reader won’t know if you’re right or wrong.” To which I explained that I would know. Then there is the historian or well-read person who may read my novel and nail me for incorrectly portrayed facts. I’m not talking about the creative license we employ when placing our fictional characters in real periods of history or an entire reimagining of historical events such as the Germans winning World War II. I’m talking about modern words and phrases ending up in the mouths of characters from an earlier century and inaccurately portrayed artifacts, architecture, places, etc. due to lazy research.

A book I finished recently had two such errors. The first was the spelling of the word carcase/carcass. About thirty years ago, I read Dorothy L. Sayers’s novel Have His Carcase. It was part of a trio of Sayers’s books gifted to people who made a donation to the local PBS station. The announcer kept mispronouncing carcase the way one would say car case. How embarrassing. Years went by before I stumbled across the spelling carcass, which, by the way, is the only spelling Word recognizes as correct. I assumed it was another instance of American English vs. British English. What I discovered after reading several definitions for both spelling variations, is that carcase is the older, often consider archaic, of the two spellings although both are acceptable. Why is this important? The author of the aforementioned book used the word in the diary of a Carthusian monk from 1535, but she spelled it carcass. As soon as my eyes fell across the word, I was jolted out of the story to ponder whether the mistake was mine or hers. True, most people would have let it go, but for historical accuracy, well, I’ll leave it up to you to decide.

Small sidebar: When I checked writing forums for the correct spelling of carcase/carcass, Dorothy L. Sayers’s novel, Have His Carcase, was referenced at least once on every site as the example for the spelling carcase.

I was much less forgiving toward the second mistake. Another character, also from 1535, mentioned seeing a nine-branched menorah used in the second temple of Israel. Did you catch that? Talk about being shocked right out of the story. All my research on the subject verified what I already knew to be true: menorahs used in the temple of Israel have seven branches. The most reliable source of this information is the Bible. I don’t doubt that the candelabra people see the most and the one with which they are familiar is the nine-branched version known as a chanukkiah used in celebration of Chanukkah. The terms are used interchangeably and incorrectly. However, the two items are absolutely not the same thing.

My thoughts on the subject ranged from disappointment toward the author to wondering if the editor was too young to care about such facts or not interested in verifying them. Several years ago a self-published author gave the advice that you should research your history to the nth degree because your readers will trust that what you have written is true. That advice is what prompted me to research my own novel in minute detail. At one point, I had a fellow author/history buff tracing World War II troop movements to ensure I had placed my protagonist with a unit that had actually ended up in a battle I needed to feature.

Perhaps I sound like a fanatic. Even Andy Weir, author of The Martian, admitted to minor mistakes pointed out by other brilliant scientists, the type of knowledge the common reader wouldn’t possess. There may even be mistakes in my own novel. I sincerely hope someone catches them before it goes to printing. Still, I cannot stress enough that the writing and research of your work in progress begins with you. Beta readers and editors are essential to the process, but there is no excuse for a lazy author.

In closing, I’ll point to the title of this post as my final comment on the importance of using the correct words/phrases and conducting research. You’ve probably heard the devil is in the details and the older, slightly more common phrase, God is in the details. The first means that mistakes are usually made in the small details of a project. Usually it is a caution to pay attention to avoid failure. The second means that attention paid to small things has big rewards, or that details are important. Who is guiding your writing efforts?

A Snapshot of Writing

A Snapshot of WritingThe creation of art can be a wonderful and dreadful process at the same time. Some of the struggles I’ve encountered with my chosen art form of writing include writer’s block, doubts and fears regarding my abilities, the evil query and rejection letters, comparison, envy, impatience, and the list goes on and on. But every now and then, there are lamps along the tunnel as I travel toward the light at the end. That’s when it’s wonderful.

As an outlet for my frustration, I began to tag along with my sister-in-law when she took photographs. She’s really quite good and a patient teacher as well when I asked her questions on how she approached her shot. One of the ways she explained the process was to hand the camera to me. I declined the opportunity to even hold her camera, which looked far too technical and expensive, but in addition to being a great teacher, my sister-in-law is mildly insistent. There was no way I was getting off the hook.

So, I snapped a few pictures as she taught me what the various dials and buttons on the camera do. She talked me through the procedure, and by allowing me to make mistakes, I learned quite a bit and became addicted to photography.

Here’s where the wonderful part happened. After setting up an account on ViewBug for my photos, joining challenges, and voting on other peoples’ pictures, I earned a free tutorial on landscape photography. Even though I don’t own a camera, I watched the video with the hopes of gaining more knowledge and possibly impressing my sister-in-law.

The lesson on photography will help me hone my skill, but what truly impressed me was how much of what the instructor said could be applied to writing. For starters, new experiences are good for you. Even if you’ve been writing for a while, keep in mind that every time you start a new piece, you’re taking yourself someplace you’ve never been with a different location, characters, style, descriptions, etc. And even if you’re working on a series, you have the power to make something new happen each time. Then there is your unique perspective. You are going to see things differently than anyone else in the world, so write them from the perspective that you alone possess.

As for equipment, writers have the luxury of keeping it simple, and I strongly suggest you do. A well-sharpened pencil and single-subject, college ruled notebook is all you need to create literary brilliance. Know the basics and fundamentals of your technique. Scouting a good location is important for a writer because distractions, even in the home, will keep you from your goal. Timing is important for the same reason: determine when in your day you are the most productive and stick to the schedule. And when it comes to composition, that’s where your personal style will shine through.

So now it’s time to address your process. The instructor on the tutorial called it a mind process and used words every writer knows. He started with subject. Identify what deserves to be written. Don’t forget POV. Take a small bit of advice from a photographer, and don’t be afraid to explore multiple POVs at the same time. What it does for photography will not be lost on writing. The formula for determining exposure translates into plotting, pantsing, or a combination thereof for a writer. Again, don’t be afraid to experiment. Next, decide what you’d like to focus on. Once all of this is determined, work that composition.

When you show your photographs to other people, they don’t know what else is going on around the scene you’ve captured or how you felt when you took it. Writers can combat this issue by providing essential backstory at the appropriate time. But just like a photographer, you don’t have to show it all. Leave a little mystery, a little something to the imagination, and your reader won’t feel led around by the nose. Write about the most interesting parts because that’s where the story is, and you’ll capture a good picture. A mental picture in this case. Remember that the objective is not to capture one big picture of everything all at once, but rather a frame that tells a clear story. You are the director, you choose the content.

Don’t fall in love with the first thing you write. Investigate your characters’ surroundings and discover what else you can do with it or them. Walk through their world. Return many times with breaks in between. Take another look at your subject, and decide what else you can do with it. Then apply your creative style in a way no one else has thought of.

Add vibrant but well-written details and structure, and a sense of order will emerge. You can do this on different levels of your writing whether writing on a grand scale, intimate stories, or the minute particulars. Keep in mind that your ideal and the reality won’t always match, but don’t let this discourage you. Work with what you’re given, seek inspiration, and the great story will come.

As for filters, they apply to the writer during the editing stage. You’ll be able to filter out the bad in your own writing after you’ve set it aside for a couple months and return to it fresh. Beta readers provide some of the best filtering toward your writing goal, seeing things you didn’t, and offering advice from their own perspective.

With a few modifications, the guidelines for taking a great photograph apply to writing with stunning clarity. I mentioned this at my writer’s group and was told by a poet that this is known as the rules of the creatives. They are a set of standards that transcend one artistic form to positively influence another. Hanging with the poets a couple of times a year has already lent valuable insight to my writing. Imagine how thrilled I was to discover that my newfound hobby would as well.

There are so many artistic pursuits that crossover to supply inspiration and encouragement. Already I’m viewing the story ingredients in my mind and trying to figure a way to bake them all together so as to produce a perfect word painting. I suggest you do the same.

Recycling Before Recycling Was Cool

25bcf1fd2283ff81a59233bb01a448faDetails, details. They really can make or break a piece of writing. Too many and the passage is bogged down, too few and the reader will visualize what they choose, too gaudy and you’ll be accused of purple prose. But if you can capture a scene with the right amount of description formed by carefully chosen words, you will achieve Olympic writing gold. We’ve all experienced that moment when we sit back in open-mouthed awe of a perfectly crafted sentence that conveys exactly what we meant to say.

I recently experienced this during my fifth round of editing on my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles. I needed to show the quaint but tidy lifestyle Lyla Welles maintained in her home. Her husband, John, is a farmer, and while the family does well enough, there isn’t money for frivolous luxuries such as lace curtains.

When I described what I wanted for the scene, my mother suggested feed sack curtains. Images of stained, coarse fabric crudely stitched togetherfeedsack-dress came to mind. Mother informed me that they were quite pretty and, in fact, feed sack was used to make dresses for little girls, tea towels, and aprons. I had to go in search of the fabric that could be used for such items while baring a name more plain than homespun. What I found prompted this post.

Ingenious women of low income reused the fabric from feed sacks for undergarments, curtains, pillowcases, etc. Initially, the fabric was white and without pattern. A company logo, which had to be scrubbed out or strategically placed on the homemade item, was the only ornamentation. These plain white feed sacks were probably what Lyla Welles would have used during the time period for the above-mentioned scene. I imagine her hand lovingly embroidering a simple pattern or trimming the edges.

It wasn’t until the 1920s that patterned feed sack became popular as a marketing tool. Women chose the products they purchased depending on the pattern on the feed sack fabric. Contests were held to design prints and artists were consulted to make them more appealing.untitled (5)

The following link from the Buchanan County, Iowa Historical Society provides a complete history on the evolution, popularity, and history of feed sack fabric. I recommend utilizing Google to see a myriad of garments and household items made from the repurposed fabric. There are even Pinterest boards and quilting forums dedicated to the humble feed sack.

A Clean Sweep of Bad Words

images89FPFS5WVery, Really, Suddenly, Amazing, Awesome, That, Started:  what do these words have in common?  They should be avoided when writing.

This isn’t something I’d be too concerned with during a first draft, but when you go back to edit all the bad writing, these are the words to remove.  We’ve all slipped them in from time to time because they’re overused in every day language.

After reading the post from Writer’s Circle, I recalled a passage where I used suddenly.  It had been bothering me, but I couldn’t come up a worthwhile replacement word or phrase indicating the action.  As soon as I finished reading, a workable solution presented itself.  Some time away from my manuscript and this gentle reminder spurred my creativity to stretch beyond the commonplace.

One place I allow myself some leeway on using the seven, above-listed words is when writing dialog.  Working in the court reporting industry taught me that even educated people don’t speak as well as they’d like to believe.  Dialog sounds more realistic if is isn’t as perfect as prose.

I have noticed, however, that since I started writing, I make an effort to keep these words out of my conversation.  I’d be lying if I said I never used one , but I can’t put everyone on pause and go back to clean up what I said.  Until then, I’ll do my best to be very careful… Oops…

Also, don’t replace one bad word with another poor choice.  I discovered that I replaced very with extremely much too often when speaking. What sounded good to my ear prompted yet another scan of my manuscript to ensure that I hadn’t done the same thing in my writing.  I found five instances, and I’m currently in the process of editing them.

Another great thing about cleaning these words out of your writing is that it’s the first, small step to the editing process which often feels overwhelming.  Getting rid of them provides a building block to better editing which in turn means better writing.

“Very” and Other Useless Words to Erase Forever

I’ll Take Theme for $1000, Alex

I'll Take ThemeThe continued editing of my novel has been an equally wonderful and painful experience. One of the points I wanted to make sure I had cinched up was my story’s theme. It was time to revisit one of my favorite posts by writing guru, K.M. Weiland. Then I realized that I should probably share this one in my Writing Toolbox.

What’s the Difference Between Your Story’s Theme and Its Message? posted on December 14, 2014, by K.M. Weiland, Helping Writers Become Authors.

Blood-Red Pencil: Things That Drive An Editor Crazy

Today’s advice comes from The Blood-Red Pencil, a weblog hosted by a team of editors.  The post I’m sharing was written specifically by Maryann Miller, author and freelance editor.  Her post originally ran October 7, 2008.  I know you’ll find her advice is every bit as relevant today.  Enjoy! 

Blood-Red Pencil: Things That Drive An Editor Crazy.

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