Monthly Archives: November 2011

Are You Editing Improperly?

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Not too long ago, I wrote about various methods that writers can use to focus on their writing. Once you’ve picked your ritual and/or piece of software (and beat writer’s block), it’s time for the most dreaded part of writing-– the editing.

I’ve always found editing to be the most tedious part of writing my novel Rawmesh, but it’s a necessary step before you can submit your work to an agent, publisher or even an editor (there aren’t many who would accept something full of basic errors). Of course, editing also leads to some amazing ideas and concepts that might have never crossed your path any other way. There are countless books on editing, but I’ll describe what I feel are the ten most important steps you should do once the first draft is finished:

1) Remember that first drafts are almost always crap (no, seriously, even first drafts by famous authors can be outright horrible). Don’t be discouraged by your writing. While reading through your work the first time, take notes on which characters, scenes, tangents or other items can be changed or cut entirely. Be ruthless. Even J.K. Rowling admits that she cut an entire character (and associated scenes) even though she “really liked her”. When you finish reading all the way through, cut what isn’t doing what you need/want it to do (though keep it somewhere in case you ever need to bring it back).

2) Split your writing into separate pieces and look at them individually. This could mean putting summaries onto index cards (or using software like Scrivener to separate everything into “sections”), spreading out the attached physical chapters/sections, or simply zooming-out in your word processor. Doing this allows you to see the big picture and modify the flow a lot easier. Many times, this also allows you to see gaps that might not have been noticeable while you were in the weeds. Personally, I like rewriting summaries onto index cards by hand as that forces me to think of a specific goal/point for each section, as well as shows me where I might have “wimped out” in certain chapters.

3) Along with the above, it’s important to check continuity (whether it’s continuity of a character’s hair colour, time of day, or a part of travel you’re discussing in your autobiography), everything should be catalogued and checked each time you read your work. Make sure that all subplots or ideas are followed through to completion, otherwise they should be cut.

4) Especially in fiction, it’s important to check both the point of view and language of your characters. It’s easy to make mistakes with both of these points, but important to get them right. Having your character suddenly know another character’s emotions or thoughts (when they normally wouldn’t be able to) or have a character say a word they normally wouldn’t can pull the reader out of the story.

5) I strongly recommend having at least one vivid image or event on each page of your writing, whether fiction or non-fiction. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a major plot point — it could could be something as simple as a line that resonates with the reader. Not only does this give a visual memory for the reader to look back on, but also gives the reader expectations/hope that more will come.

6) First and last lines have always been important for readers. This isn’t just true with the first and last lines in the entire book (though they are)–- the first and last lines of your chapters are vital as well. Going along with number five above, you need to give something to the reader at the end of each section that will make them want to keep reading.

7) Weasel words (salt-and-pepper words, beholder words and lazy words) should be eliminated as much as possible to keep the pace of your writing in check. Not every one of these can be removed (some are required grammatically, or are part of your character’s speech), but use your software’s Find option to see which can be changed.

a. Salt-and-pepper words include “a number of”, that, just, various, fairly and quite. They have no real meaning to the reader (e.g., “A number of men in black suits stepped out of the van” could be changed simply to “Men in black suits stepped out of the van.”).

b. Beholder words like interesting, surprising, remarkable, or clearly, are “boring” or do the dreaded “show and not tell” (e.g., “To his surprise, the gun was out of ammo.”).

c. Finally, lazy words include very, extremely, a lot, seem, many, most, several, really, usually, often, great, exceedingly, few, vast. These don’t describe the events on the page in any real detail and should be changed to something a little more concrete (e.g., “The greyhound ran very quickly” could be “The greyhound ran faster than our own car could go.”).

8) It shouldn’t have to be said, but considering how many times I’ve read them recently, clichés need to be searched for and destroyed (unless, again, they’re a part of your character’s speech for some ungodly reason).

9) Big blocks of text or large portions of white space should be examined for possible changes. Zooming-out to two or four pages at a time can give you some idea of where your writing might be too dense/slow or too wordy. All writing should be about balance, otherwise the reader might be forced to alter their reading style (or forced to re-read dense sections) too often.

10) Although having a trusted friend read your book is always a good idea, I would also suggest having the book read aloud. Even better would be to listen to a recording of you reading (this could be for certain troublesome sections only, if you so wish). This allows you to truly understand the flow of the writing and what sections need to be worked on.

There are entire books on the art of editing, though the above should help push your drafts into a near-final state ready for submission. I won’t lie — editing is hard work (taking up to 3/4 of your writing time) and is usually the point where most people give up. But, this work needs to be done if you want to have your work published. Take it slow if you need to, but keep working at it. Good luck!

Jason Boudreau is a writer whose blog, www.adadpress.com, provides entertaining insight into publishing and writing. ArchitectureTravelWriter reviewed his blog last month.

Seven Things I’ll Miss When Leaving Lima, Peru

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For a couple weeks now I’ve been contemplating what I’m longing for of home, but what I’ll miss of Lima, Peru, has begun to hit me. The sentiment of leaving this city weakens my heart and mind. Surely it’ll peak to sadness in the coming weeks. Here’s a few things I’ll miss.

The Commune

After spending my first four months here I ended up living in the neighborhood I’d sworn off, Miraflores, home to Lima’s elite. It’s been a treasured experience, though. I have all the privacy I need to continue my heavy drinking habits alone on the spacious rooftop terrace. Yet friends are available downstairs, too. Our commune features a beautiful and intelligent El Salvadorean woman; a Peruvian Lothario with musical gifts that send heavenly notes through open windows to my ears when he plays piano; a sweet and sensitive Hong Kongese woman with a penchant for cooking; and me, who swills Coca Zero or lattes while teaching or writing at vegetarian restaurants during the day.

 

Five– Arts and Diversity

When I return to the States, I’ll be staying in a town whose ethnic diversity holds as much excitement as a box of white chalk. Conversely, Peru celebrates life with color. The buildings are colorful. Combinations I’ve never encountered from trips around the world present themselves in the clothing, art, and architecture. The music, rich with diversity, seems to throw color into the air, as does the tropical flora and tropical cocktails.

Street art in the bohemian district of Barranco

 

Four– Castellaño

Speaking Peruvian Spanish, or Castellaño, feels good and natural. While I’ve surprised myself in not taking classes to refresh what I learned in undergrad, I’ve found it does of course return naturally. In fact I have improved. But I’m contemplating hiring someone from the local Mexican restaurant for conversational Spanish upon returning to the States.

Three–The Malecon

The Malecon is the Pacific coastline. If relegated to taking a taxi to the southern part of the city, I’m delighted when he takes the Malecon. Whatever book was in my hands is forgotten in lieu of views of ubiquitous surfers who brave the cold waters. Recently sunbathers have taken to the beaches as spring is warming up the air and kicking out the drizzly skies with its buttery sunlight. This weekend’s agenda includes taking a lengthy walk down the beach.

Two– Perufume

Limeños smell damned good, especially the men. Unlike what I experienced in China and India, the profuse application of colognes, perfumes, and deodorant seems as important to the Limeños (people from Lima) as eating. Some cultures I’ve experienced in my three years of serial expatriatism make smelling good seem avant garde. Here, as I read in a Mario Vargas Llosa book written in the 1950s, even maids from the sierra and the selva (mountains and jungle) used talcum powder to prevent odors. I’ve come to call the Limean scent Perufume.

 

Colorful Walkability

 

One– Architecture

Hello, Bauhaus

The tightly knit diversity of architectural styles rendered me breathless upon arrival from the US six months ago. From where I currently sit in Miraflores, one of Lima’s more affluent neighborhoods, an Art Deco cathedral appears to my left, some Spanish-filtered Moorish houses to the left. Also around the city numerous examples of Brutalism, Mid-Century Modernism, Republicanism, and indigenous designs echoing the irregular shapes of Machu Picchu architecture can be found. Not a day passes when a house or building breaks my step and forces me to stare in awe. Not normally inclined to take snaps, my photo collection has grown like guppies in a fishbowl.

What I’ll miss about Lima is a topic I’m unwilling to delve into during the last few weeks I’m here. Instead, for now, I’m reveling in the aspects I enjoy.

Nichole L. Reber is turning over her journalist leaf to explore her talents as a creative nonfiction writer. She writes about architecture, art, travel, and the realities of expat life for magazines, blogs, and bathroom walls. So far on her list of lived-in countries are China, Hong Kong, India, and Peru. She plans to return to Peru, exploring beyond Lima, in January.

How to Perturb a Journalist: Talk about Literary Writing

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When I began to switch my career over to literary writing from journalism a few months ago, I didn’t know I’d have to defend that choice. A Peruvian journalist, however, decided it was his responsibility to convince me of my poor decision. In fact it happened on our first (and last) date.

“Oh, so you want to be a real writer. Journalism isn’t good enough for you anymore.” The 42-year-old’s voice seeped with defensiveness, with sarcasm, with judgement. His voice, already naturally loud, rose. His chest puffed up like a Limean pigeon. “What’s wrong with journalism? What harm did it ever do to you?”

“I’m not saying no one should be a journalist. I’m not taking a stance against journalism.” I sipped my maracuya sour through a straw. “It’s just not fulfilling anymore. It no longer makes me happy. I’ve been upset for months that journalism no longer makes my heart radiate. But the time has come to put into practice the literary writing I studied in graduate school… the personal essay, more creative nonfiction.”

Sr. Journalist adopted a tone of betrayal, as if after years of marriage a wife told him she’s a lesbian. He fidgeted on the low, white leather couch we were sitting on, each movement edgy like his voice. “What else is there outside of journalism?”

“Listen, I’m not telling you this to be judged by you. I was looking forward to having a writer as a friend. Is it too much to ask for some sympathy?”

“Well, what is an essay? I mean, you want to stop writing journalism to start writing scientific things?”

We sparred then over the definition of an essay. It’s something we wrote in school, in university, he said belligerently. I concurred but explained that there’s a lot more than the five-paragraph formula. For me it started with Joan Didion, introduced to me in grad school. She’s one of the most significant influences on my writing. From her I learned how an essay is a literary effort to understand something. Other, more contemporary essayists such as David Rakoff and David Sedaris, illustrate that essays may read like fiction. Essayists tells of a journey, one that’s often personal but also possibly one that ponders the human condition. Essays or creative nonfiction incorporate various tropes such as fiction writers employ. It may be told in first person or even second or third, though the reader is always aware that it’s the writer who’s working out something. In that sense it can often feel like sitting with a family member of friend or even a stranger who’s trying to figure out which step to take next, or how to resolve something. The form allows an expression of personality, of voice. It has a narrative arc.

Sr. Journalist isn’t the first person who’s thwarted my efforts because of their own misunderstanding of an essay. Working on producing a literary journal with an American and a Frenchman in Shenzhen, China, the same thing arose. We were trying to determine our own guidelines and the content we wanted to allow. Naturally I suggested that certainly I couldn’t be the only person interested in literary essays, in creative nonfiction. They disregarded my comments lightly, saving face by pretending to read examples I’d brought in a stack of books such as Philip Lopate‘s Art of the Personal Essay. My efforts there had been futile as well; the guys simply couldn’t get past the image of an academic essay– or they didn’t want to work so hard on learning a genre they weren’t familiar with.

While explaining this to Sr. Journalist he became quieter. He took his eyes from mine, leaned back as if to put distance between us.

Sr. Journalist’s ordered another pisco sour for himself. His voice lowered to a less embarrassing level as he commenced his next wave of criticism.

“Journalism isn’t educational. It’s  informational,” he said, still with a stinging tone. “What’s the point of journalism overall? A journalist has a responsibility to be factual and accurate; it’s the reader’s responsibility it as mere information, to make up her own mind.”

“Well, yes, you’re right. I still love journalism but I’ve reached my apex. Besides, it pays so poorly.” I touched his arm in hopes that he’d come to realize this needn’t be a debate. I echoed a conversation we’d had earlier about Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru’s most famous writer and a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. “Didn’t Llosa write in Conversation in a Cathedral, ‘Journalism is the worst paying profession. The one that leads to the most bitterness, too’?”

The periodista gave a dirty look as if I’d hit below the belt. “Well, at least you could write that stuff that became popular in the 1960s. What was it called? Creative journalism?”

“That’s sometimes called literary journalism, sometimes creative nonfiction,” I say, slurping the remnants of my cocktail. “That’s kind of what I’m doing. I’m working it all out, trying to figure out this part of my voice.”

“Then you’re still a journalist! You’ll always be a journalist!”

“Again, I’ve given the majority of the past 15 years to journalism. My ambitions were once so strong that I spent a week in a psychiatric hospital after the economic crash sent my career down the drains. But since then I’ve never been able to look at journalism the same. It’s toxic to me, and I’ve had enough of its limitations.”

“Limitations? How is journalism limiting? You can write about anything when you’re a journalist,” he hissed.

Trying to convince another writer of my own desires was pointless, it seemed. I’d thought that even if we don’t turn out to be romantically involved at least I’ll have a writer as a friend. At this point in my life I need someone to bounce ideas off of. I need someone to edit and critique my work fairly, constructively. I tried to steer the conversation in that direction.

“Did you read the two articles I sent you?” He responded.

“Of course. But because they’re in Spanish they took me a few hours to get through,” I confessed. I continued by telling him that I liked his vocabulary, his eye for detail, and his ability to look at things politically– all the while throwing in a humorous bit that added levity in otherwise 5000-word pieces. They were all genuine compliments.

“Thank you.” He grinned and puffed his chest up again, more like a peacock this time. “Well, I never did get around to reading anything of yours.”

I smiled gently and took a swig of water since my cocktail was empty. An hour later I was sitting at home, working on a travel essay from the solitude of my rooftop terrace. The night had reminded me of a conversation I had about five years before with a well published author. I was interviewing him for a local publication, and naturally the subject of writing arose. He asked if I wanted to write a novel. Writing fiction irritates me to no end, I had explained. Since I was a kid I wanted to connect with people through my writing, through truthful writing, and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood steered me toward my personal truth–nonfiction. It’s the only format that makes sense to me personally. The author had taken offense to my lack of desire to write fiction. By night’s end I realized my date didn’t mark the first or last time I’d have to defend my chosen genre. It’s a choice made, like vegetarianism. Yet like writing itself, there isn’t as much as choice as we think; the writing chooses us.

 

Nichole L. Reber hasn’t stopped writing journalism, but spends most of her time composing essays on travel, expatriatism, architecture, and art on her blog. She weathers the harrowing submission process by reading essays in Harper’s, the Best American series, and Virginia Quarterly Review over cappuccino and Diet Coke.