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Editing Challenge Day 25: Show Mercy

This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

Like many readers, I was haunted by Gene Weingarten’s Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on the awful tragedy of people leaving children locked in cars, resulting in their deaths. Weingarten explores many recent cases and comes to the thoughtful — and difficult — conclusion that this tragedy could happen to just about anyone, given the wrong collusion of certain circumstances. Smart, organized, loving parents can be guilty of this, just as lackadaisical and neglectful parents can. The article is absolutely heart-wrenching, so be prepared when you read.

Weingarten writes about how the introduction of a random element in life can result in some family’s world being shattered. If one day the other parent is taking a child to day care instead of according to the usual schedule, this can happen. And it got me thinking about all the near-misses that must occur as well. For every time a child is left to die in this horrible way, there are probably ten or a hundred times where it almost happens — and then it doesn’t. All of our lives are probably made up of these near-misses, and most of them we probably don’t even notice. When we do become aware of a near-miss, it’s a chance to reflect and to feel gratitude for how the universe has rolled the dice.

All this morbid talk today is a long way of saying that I think a near-miss in a story can be just as dramatic as a tragedy, and it might even feel more honest and real in your story. Many Alice Munro stories are built on this premise — a child falls into a pool, an animal escapes into the coyote-ridden forest, an aging father has a stroke. All of these stories could topple into the almost inevitable-seeming tragedy — and yet, they don’t always. The more realistic depiction of life is not this operatic bent toward tragedy, but rather that sometimes tragedies happen and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it’s our fault, and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s our fault, and yet still, the universe is merciful.

So today, consider your ending, and consider showing mercy to your characters. It’s the compassionate choice, but it might also be the more emotionally honest choice. It lets both your character and your readers draw a breath and sigh with relief — but to also feel the wind of the near-miss on their necks.

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting.

Editing Challenge Day 24: Write a 100-Word Story

This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

By this stage in the editing struggle, you probably feel that you’ve whittled the story down to the bare nub. There can’t be much extra flab left, you think. And yet, our perceptions of what is truly essential and what makes a powerful story can still be clarified all the more.

Several years ago I discovered that Microsoft Word had an “auto-summarize” feature. Open any document of text, select “summarize”, and you’d get a bizarre hodgepodge of sentences, an AI’s attempt to discern what was essential and what was not. Once I put a novel draft into this feature and boiled it down and down and down until all I had left was “Nicole said” over and over. The feature is essentially nonsense, and yet I found it fascinating and eye-opening to see what another’s perception (even an artificial perception) was gleaning were the most important and recurring pieces.

Sadly, Microsoft Word doesn’t have this feature anymore, but I discovered that Preview does on Macs; visit this instruction page if you want to learn how to activate it!

But that brings me to your exercise for today, which I always find tremendously helpful for my own thought process. Today, you are going to write a 100-word version of your story.

That doesn’t mean just summarizing the plot points as well as you can. This must be a powerful stand-alone story in its own right. That might mean choosing just one powerful scene, or composing new lines that best capture your characters and their conflict. Whatever you do, make it a story. Make it work.

It’s a fun challenge; don’t let yourself accept a single word over 100. And when you’re done, you might be surprised by what scenes and characters you’ve chosen to highlight. It can give you insight into what is really at the core of your story.

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting.

Editing Challenge Day 23: Cut and Replace the First Page

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This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

The editors of literary magazines (myself included) will tell you again and again that a story is made and lost by its first page so much of the time. Again and again I see stories that start to really pick up and present their conflict on page two. Sometimes we editors can forgive that of the story, and sometimes we just don’t have the time to do a writer’s work for him. Why does this keep happening?

You, dedicated editor, can get a leg up on the competition today by being smart about your first page. Look back at the opening of your story. Do we slice swiftly into the meat of the conflict, or do we meander for a while? Is there prologue and obfuscation? Is there no sign of a distinctive character or voice? These are things that can be fixed.

Today, draw one big red bloody line across your first page and see what you have. The second page might be a big nonsensical without some of what you’ve lost, so try starting over and doing some re-writing today. Focus on getting to the action of the second page as quickly as you can. Think of today’s exercise as a temporary experiment; if, at the end of the day, you think you’ve sacrificed too much, you are permitted to reinstate that page. But just try it for today. You may be shocked by how vital and fast-moving your story suddenly becomes.

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting.

Editing Challenge Day 22: Pull Out the Explanations

This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

There are only nine days left to go, editors. You’ve been working hard and diligently on that story you first printed out twenty-two days ago, and I bet it looks quite different from the way it did on day one. I’d love to see your marked up pages; tweet a picture to me @bhurley and I’ll be delighted to retweet.

So today I’m suggesting you do just a bit more cutting. Just when you thought you couldn’t cut any more, you discover a new spot that is redundant or weak or just over-explaining the magic of the scene that you’ve worked so hard to create. Today, do a pass with the story and look for places where you’re over-explaining the meaning of the story. We all do it; it comes from a simultaneous burst of braggadocio and insecurity. On one level, we want our readers to appreciate how smart we are. See that metaphor over there? See what I did with that parallel between the father and his son? Yeah, I know, it’s pretty great. Here, let me show you my brilliance. And at the same time, it’s the insecurity: I don’t know if you can tell what I’m trying to do here. Maybe I was too subtle. Here, let me help you.

As a general rule of thumb, readers are smarter than we give them credit for. We need to remember that they can pick up on clues, and more importantly, they want to draw their own conclusions from the story.

So today, take that pass and again look for moments where you are over-explaining. Take a breath. Have a little faith that your ideas are there, and they’re good.

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting.

Editing Challenge Day 21: Read Your Favorite Sentences

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This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

It’s Sunday again, editors, which means it’s time for a little bit of rest on the editing quest. But not complete rest! Sunday is a wonderful day to immerse yourself in the pleasure of reading and of words and sentences, so you’ll return to your work on Monday refreshed and inspired. Today, my assignment is for you to look at your bookshelf, open a few old favorites and re-visit some of your favorite sentences.

Some writers do this almost as a way of casting a spell, or perhaps marinating in the rhythms and music of others. I know some writers who began their own journeys by diligently copying down the sentences of their favorite authors, hoping the habit of writing great sentences would sink in this way. So today, take a look at some beautiful sentences, and simply enjoy them. To get you started, here are a few lists of beautiful sentences in the English language:

51 of the Most Beautiful Sentences in Literature

The 50 Best First Sentences in Fiction

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting.

Editing Challenge Day 20: Enrich the Setting

The Blairzone - 33This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

Today’s editing challenge sounds big, but is actually quite small, and still on our theme this week of looking at the story on a micro level. In a first draft, I often find that I’m in a hurry to get going to the main points of the plot; I know this and that clash has to happen in this room and at that train station, so I gallop ahead to the clash. But part of the great pleasure of reading is in being able to picture the world that characters enter and be moved or unsettled by it. I love stories that have a strong sense of place. But dumping in a giant paragraph of passive description isn’t the right way to go about it.

Instead, we want to give our reader just enough for him to be able to paint a picture in his own mind, with his own quirks and preferences. We want to enrich the setting by incorporating it more strongly into the story, right alongside the action.

Take a story with an ugly confrontation at a cocktail party. How big is the space? Is everyone crushed up against each other in somebody’s studio apartment, or is it a lofty and grand ballroom? Is there a table with food and drinks or is everyone pawing through the fridge? Is the enemy across the room or face to face? Are the lights dim or glaring? Giving us little details of setting are crucial to our immersion in the scene — and the setting can actually make important differences in what goes down in the plot.

The same goes for a story about wide-open spaces. If you’re writing a cowboy story, are we in the desert or the mountains? Are we in a gully or on top of a ridge? What wildlife is here? Is there water near? Is the setting somewhere dangerous, the kind of place you shouldn’t linger if the weather gets bad? How far back are the people pursuing, and do they have it tough or easy? In many stories, setting is the story. But we still want the focus to be action and character.

Today, try slipping in just a sentence or two of setting among the action of your paragraphs. Give us the way the light is coming through the window or what the stores are selling along that deserted street. Show us the train tracks. Show us the bustling mall. Let us picture where we are while the story unfolds.

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting.

Editing Challenge Day 19: Cut the Clichés

The Blairzone - 24This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

It’s time, readers, for one of the age-old practices of editing: now that we have shaped and altered a lot of the big picture elements of a story, we are ready to examine our writing on a sentence level. Today we are on the hunt for clichés.

What is a cliché and why is it so bad? We all know examples of clichés. Are you blind as a bat? Do you think blood is thicker than water? When there was a car stopped in the street, was there a deafening chorus of horns? Was it just the icing on the cake when you won that prize, or was it the tip of the iceberg? Our language abounds with phrases that easily slip of the tongue and that have the ring of idiomatic familiarity to them. We use them in speech precisely because they’re a kind of shared shorthand with our fellow human beings. We know them already, and so they act efficiently when we are trying to communicate something. And that’s precisely why they’re so noxious in creative writing. On the page, they’re old news: they’re unfresh, uninviting, not giving us a new perspective on anything. They’re relying on other people’s thoughts to make a scene, and so they end up acting as dead space on the page. The reader’s eye will skip right over them because they’re so familiar — and if all we’re doing is skipping, then it’s like a screen with a dead pixel. There’s nothing left to enjoy.

Cliches are a sign of lazy writing, and so they make readers trust the writer a little bit less with each one that appears. They create a cumulative effect of incompetence or of apathy. Didn’t the writer care enough to work harder and give me something new? The reader will wonder.

So let’s make sure we don’t let a single one into our writing. Let’s strike them down with the full force of our power and strength as discerning editors. Today, get out the red pen and read through your story, circling any clichés. By cutting them, you’re creating an empty space in your writing, of course; you’ll have to fill in the blank with a phrase that is more new and more individual. Often, the way to fight a cliché is by getting more specific. If you have a character who is joyful, don’t say he’s over the moon; think about his specific expression of joy. What does he do that is unique to him?

Here’s a list of some of my favorite clichés or over-familiar phrasings that I’ve collected from student work over the years. It’s a place to get you started in your hunt:

every fibre of my being
jumped out of my skin
it all started when
she was his everything
her smile lit up the room
this is just the icing on the cake
hit me like a ton of bricks
heart skipped a beat
just a pawn in the game
he was as free as a bird
it was like a slap in the face
who am I to judge
the man of my dreams
at lightning speed
one thing leads to another
to say the least/needless to say
nothing would ever be the same
it all happened so fast
she stormed off
little did I know
the fabric of our lives/existence
she meant the world to him
each and every one of you
only time will tell
day in and day out
Just when I least expected it
right then and there
the next thing I knew
he is a blessing in disguise
it was my home away from home
tears streamed down my face
cried myself to sleep
with that,…

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting.

Editing Challenge Day 18: First and Last Sentences of Every Paragraph

The Blairzone - 40This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

Good character work this week, editors! We’ve asked some tough questions about building your character outward and inward and upward. Now it’s time to return to editing on a micro level, really polishing the piece from sentence to sentence. As I was reading one of my favorite stylists, Zadie Smith, I noticed something powerful and effective about her paragraphs. Check out an example from her New York Review of Books essay, “Joy”:

“…if you asked me if I wanted more joyful experiences in my life, I wouldn’t be at all sure I did, exactly because it proves such a difficult emotion to manage. It’s not at all obvious to me how we should make an accommodation between joy and the rest of our everyday lives.

Perhaps the first thing to say is that I experience at least a little pleasure every day. I wonder if this is more than the usual amount? It was the same even in childhood when most people are miserable…”

And here’s another couple of paragraphs later on:

“An egg sandwich from one of these grimy food vans on Washington Square has the genuine power to turn my day around. Whatever is put in front of me, foodwise, will usually get a five-star review.

You’d think that people would like to cook for, or eat with, me—in fact I’m told it’s boring. Where there is no discernment there can be no awareness of expertise or gratitude for special effort. “Don’t say that was delicious,” my husband warns, “you say everything’s delicious.”

And how about just one more pair of paragraphs:

“…my husband nods a little impatiently; there was no need for the addition. My husband is also a professional gawker.

The advice one finds in ladies’ magazines is usually to be feared, but there is something in that old chestnut: “shared interests.” It does help.”

There is much to love in Zadie Smith’s clean, precise, gently comedic writing, but I want to focus today on her transitions. In the way we often do, Smith seems to be thinking about her topic from paragraph to paragraph; we can see each paragraph engaging with a different aspect of her subject (the differences between pleasure and joy). But she does a neat little trick that makes every paragraph seem to flow seamlessly from the next: the last sentence of each paragraph is actually the beginning of the thought of the next paragraph. See how that works? The first paragraph mentions everyday lives and then the next paragraph is about experiencing pleasure every day; the next one mentions the pleasure of food and the one that follows is about food and cooking; and the next one mentions a shared interest of her husband’s and the paragraph that follows is about their connection and bond.

It’s such a simple trick, but it’s the kind of thing that can usually only be caught in a second or third draft, not the first. We first think of the ideas and anecdotes we want to share in separate, discrete chunks, and put them in paragraphs accordingly. But what if we re-visited them and just made the first sentence of each paragraph the last of the previous one, or wrote a new transitional sentence? Suddenly the idea seems to flow naturally from the one that came before. This works for both fiction and nonfiction; we want to see a continuous thread of thought and narration, weaving seamlessly through the story.

So today, play around with the first and last sentences of each of your paragraphs in your story. See if you can just make them jump up to the previous paragraph, or throw in a quick image or phrase that will transition from one to the next. It makes things more suspenseful and also more inviting.

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting.

Editing Challenge Day 17: Give Us Your Character’s Dreams

This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

Yesterday we talked about giving your character little details that make him or her seem real. But I often see student or professional stories that give us a believable person and milieu, and yet don’t think bigger. We want to read a story that has movement and direction, and we’ve discussed doing that in plot, but it’s also a journey that must be taken in character.

So today in your editing journal, take a few notes down about your character’s dreams and aspirations. What are his most potent desires? What does he imagine happening in a perfect world? And what would he do if only he were brave or talented or wise enough to get it done? I was thinking about this recently after setting a story at an artist’s colony and having my character meet various wacky characters. That was all well and good, I thought, but why was he really there? What was he hoping to accomplish? Was he there to finish the novel and make it big, or just as a curious observer, reporting on the funny people around him? What the heck did he want, anyway?

I think we have to have a strong sense of what a character wants if we are going to let the story’s plot points flow in a natural and believable way. Short stories often go off the deep end by having character go to stranger and stranger places and do stranger and stranger things — but I find those kinds of stories tedious unless I full understand why the character is really doing those things.

It’s back to basics today, folks. Why is your character there? What does he or she really want?

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting.

Editing Challenge Day 16: Know Your Character Like Yourself

This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

One of the great joys of sinking into a good story is feeling that we truly understand a character. Out of that understanding and knowledge comes sympathy and investment; even if the character ends up making terrible choices (see yesterday’s exercise about touching the bear), we can still empathize if we feel that the character is real and human. In the short space of a short story, this building of character is often neglected; we’ve got so much to do already, after all. We’ve got to get in and get out.

But today’s goal it to let your reader feel just a few more sparks of recognition in your story, to feel that the character is real. Pull out your editing journal and think about brainstorming five to ten possible details about your character that could be incorporated into a scene or as a quick mention about the character’s past. I remember in one story by a colleague, a quick mention of a character playing with her cereal in a certain way made me feel a powerful aha! because it was the exact way I played with my cereal as a kid.

Other examples might be:
*the way he or she drives a car or puts on clothes (does she hook the bra behind her back or hook it in the front and swivel it around?)
*how he stirs ice cubes in a glass
*the annoyed politeness she uses when speaking to telemarketers
*the way he brushes his teeth
*the sensual pleasures she finds in life: digging hands into sacks of rice, getting stuck glue out of a bottle, cleaning her ears

What examples can you think of that will make your reader say, “Aha”?

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting.