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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

Just last week, esteemed writing coach Leslie Guccione called me on a grammar thing. OK, not really incorrect grammar, but a stylistic error. She pointed out something that marked me as unsophisticated, in a writerly way. Me? No!

She didn't really say it that way, but I'd asked for her help and Leslie is nothing if not honest in her critiques. She was part of my original writing group, along with a small group of other fabulous writers. Recently, a few of us reconvened online and I'd submitted an essay for their consideration. In other words, I should have known better. I asked for it.

I'd committed a mistake the writers of SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS: How to Edit Yourself Into Print address in Chapter 11 of the second edition of this book--Mistakes they claim show a lack of "Sophistication." And by the way, it's not just a book for fiction writers.

Here's what Leslie pointed out to me, chapter and verse:
"One easy way to make your writing seem more sophisticated is to avoid two stylistic constructions that are common to hack writers," namely:

Pulling off her gloves, she turned to face him.
As she pulled off her gloves, she turned to face him.

Nothing my fabulous high school English teachers would object to enough to bring out the red pencil. BUT both examples take a bit of the action and tuck it away into a dependent clause. According to Self-Editing, this makes some of the action seem unimportant.

You also need to beware the -ing and the as thing if it gives "rise to physical impossibilities."

While an occasional use won't wreck your writing, in a 700-word essay (such as what I asked Leslie to critique for me so of course it glared at her when I did that -ing thing...), too many of these constructions will soon jump right off your page. And not in a good way.

An oldie but a goodie, this book. Better yet, call it a classic. My copy was dusty and buried on the shelf, only occasionally opened since I first embarked on this writing thing ten years ago. I knew how to write back then, but Leslie and the rest of the critique group pushed me to improve. Books like SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS showed me the way. Great book. I'll remember some of the fiction tips as I slog my way through early drafts of my new project.

(Note to self: when introducing new characters, include physical descriptions with concrete, idiomatic details. Chapter 2: Characterization and Exposition.)

Now back to work.

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Kay Tee said...

Those little things are so easy to miss!

You might find the AutoCrit Editing Wizard to be helpful. It finds stylistic problems like this.

I always run my manuscript through the AutoCrit Wizard before I show it to my critique partners-- saves some embarrasment :-)

Anne said...

As I munch on celery and carrots while posting this comment, I find food for thought in your review. Reading your example, however, I'm curious as to how you rewrote the offending sentence or passage. :-)

Thanks for sharing -- I'm not familiar with the book or with AutoCrit Editing Wizrd. I always learn something new from your posts and the resulting comments.

Augusta Scattergood said...

Aha, Anne. Ask and re shall receive.
It was a personal essay I was working on (not fiction). I first wrote

Standing in a flea market in Florence, Italy, many summers ago, I needed to mark the day and I liked the coolness of the smooth brown leather.

I changed it to

I bought mine at a flea market in Florence, Italy. I was a student; it was a bargain. I had no plan for the book, but I needed to mark the day and I liked the coolness of the smooth brown leather.

What do you think?
FYI, the examples in the blog were from the book. The examples, above, are from my essay, in case I'm confusing you!

I don't know that editing wizard either, but it sounds helpful. Thanks, Kay Tee.

Sue said...

Hard to believe the two samples were written by the same person, she thought, as she opened her latest manuscript, wondering if she'd find too many of the same hackorisms.

Theodora said...

Thanks Anne, for inquiring about the rewrite. What does everyone think would be an interesting way to rewrite the offending sentence in the blog? That was my first thought after reading the offending sample.

Also, I think it would be interesting to see how many commercially successful writers-- who aren't hacks -- use the "ing" in their writing. Just curious...

Perhaps "pulling off of her gloves and turning to face him" is simply an example of a young woman multi-tasking. : )

Augusta Scattergood said...

And the Self Editing writers did say the problem comes when you overuse those forms.
You ladies are pretty funny!
Thanks for the comments.

Running out the door, I am typing quickly.

(now that's the kind of "ing" physical impossibility the writers of the book really frown upon!)

Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

BUT both examples take a bit of the action and tuck it away into a dependent clause. According to Self-Editing, this makes some of the action seem unimportant.

So good to have this expressed in this way. I know these constructions bother me but haven't known how to articulate the problem.

Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

That revision is a definite improvement!!

Anne said...

Great rewrite, Augusta.

You've begun with a "doing" action instead of a "standing still" action. You immediately raise the question, "What did she buy?" which leads me further into the essay. I really like the parallel construction of your second sentence.

The first version seems a bit vague, while the second version comes to life.

Now -- if a writer was trying to convey vagueness, I wonder how he/she could do that without being vague himself/herself.