Self-editing your writing – Part 1

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Self-Editing Checklist: golf balls, beans, sand and water.

There is a frequently told story about a college physics instructor who sat a pickle jar filled with golf balls on top of his desk and asked his students if it was ‘full.”  When they agreed that it was, he poured a sack of dried beans in it and shook the jar until they settled. “Now is it full?” he asked. They had to admit it was, until he took a scoop of sand from a bucket and poured it in.  When he shook it once more, they all concluded that now, at last, the jar must be full.  Then he reached for a pitcher of water…

This is the first in a series of short self-editing steps that I follow in my own creative writing.  They work for me, and I pass them on for any useful information they might provide for you. In successive posts, I’ll write about the golf balls, beans, sand and water in my own editing approach.

golf ball bucket

  1. Golf Balls – The Plot Hole Edit:  After a first draft, check your plot holes!  If there are major holes in your story, readers won’t care how well it’s written. Good writing from professional writers is assumed.  To be fair, there may be some readers who will accept a weak or illogical plot if the writing is superb.  Do you know of any?

Passage of time: Things happen in the right sequence. Especially important in mystery stories; e.g., a murder weapon can’t be found before its had a chance to be lost.  A man can’t celebrate his 35th birthday 40 years after he was born (unless these are plot twists that are later resolved). There must be scene-to-scene continuity. Consider creating a time line for your story.

Setting: The setting(s) are consistent and believable.  A beach front cottage, a mountain cabin, a mid-city condo.  The views that can be seen, the activities that can take place, the weather that can be expected. Be careful in transitions from scene to scene, that the variables are taken care of.

Relationships:  A spouse, close friend, casual acquaintance. Don’t confuse them (and the reader). Make sure relationships are identified and they stay consistent – don’t let the protagonist’s aunt suddenly become her step-mother in a later scene.

Facts: Faulty research, e.g. a 1955 Ford Mustang (no Mustangs until 1964); wrong dates for historical events – acts of nature such as floods, hurricanes, earthquakes; notable events such as battles, wars, assassinations, honors, prizes, etc.; wrong names ascribed to books, paintings or titles thereof.  Readers are often more diligent than writers think, in finding these anomalies, and are frequently annoyed by them.

Chuck Thurston

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Rowan/Cabarrus Writer’s Night Out

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Every fourth Thursday of the month – mark it on your calendar – the Rowan/Cabarrus Writer’s Night Out gathers at the French  Express Internet Café, Cannon Blvd and Dale Earnhardt Blvd. (right around the corner from Bi-Lo). We get started at 7 pm with our monthly discussion topic, but get there early to grab a coffee and let us know if you want to read at our open mike after we’re  finished with our topic for the evening.  Poetry and short prose pieces are welcomed.

Coming up:

Thursday, April 24rd: Discussion leader Melinda Metz.  This very prolific writer had the first draft of the first manuscript of her “Roswell High” series optioned by a TV producer.  She was subsequently given the opportunity to be on the writing staff of the TV series.

If you’re in interested in writing for television, or Young Adult literature, you’ll want to hear Melinda describe her experiences.

And when we say prolific, we mean it.  Look her up on Amazon and prepare to be amazed.

Thursday, May 29th: Discussion leader Jonathan Ewart will discuss how actors prepare for a stage role.  If you are interested in developing characters for your own fictional works, or are interested in scripts from an accomplished actor’s perspective, this is a meeting you won’t want to miss.

Jonathan has done just about everything theater related for Concord’s Old Courthouse Theatre and others.  (Jonathan – need short bio here)

Care to post your own thoughts?

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We would like to, from time to time, post articles from “guests.” Your comments, of course, are always welcome, but we will also accept longer pieces. We ask that these be somehow related to writing – fiction, non-fiction, columns, essays, observations, etc. They could be short poems or prose pieces that are examples of your own creativity. They might be your thoughts on publishers, marketing, book art, writing tools, helpful hints, etc.  You can link to your own blog, too.  Please send things you want us to consider to my email: cthurston@ctc.net.  Obviously, good taste (which is not to say we eschew candor and controversy) apply, along with adherence to topic.  Be our guest!

The Writer’s Tai Chi

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I have taken Tai Chi for many years.  It is properly called one of the martial arts – a “soft art” – and it has several forms, with many movements in each.  There are, however, a few principles that apply to all of them.  These principles can be applied to a lot of other things in life – gardening work, driving an automobile, painting a picture – and in my case – writing.  Here are three that help me, and might be of use to you.

 

1. Concentrate

Concentrate, but be aware of what that really is.  In Tai Chi, concentration does not imply stress.  It is, instead, “relaxed focus.”  If you find yourself tense and struggling to find the right words, you are perhaps trying too hard.  Think about what it is, exactly, that you are writing about — and wander around in it a bit.

Sometimes I close my eyes when I am doing a Tai Chi form that I know very well.  I don’t bother to check on where my feet are going or where my arms are.  I rely on my muscle memory to complete the form.

I do the same with writing now and then.  I happen to be a good touch typist (just a crazy aptitude, I guess), so if I am stuck in a story, I close my eyes and peck away.  I  wander around in the story, typing in a stream-of-consciousness kind of mode.

I don’t bother with capitals letters or other punctuation excepting periods.  I just type away.  After several paragraphs, I open my eyes. Sure enough, there are a ton of red marks from the word processor — but spell check is a wonderful invention.  It takes care of many of them.  After I clean up the rest, I am often amazed to find out how much this exercise has lent to the story.  Sometimes it suggests a direction I hadn’t given much thought to before, but which I now intend to exploit.

 

2. Everything moves at once 

In Tai Chi, you don’t, for instance, move your feet to a new position and then move your arms around to “catch up.”  Everything moves at once.  Your body parts – head, arms, legs, torso,  — move in unison to go from one position to another.

So it must be with your writing.  Nothing should lag behind.  The plot doesn’t advance on its own without revealing something of the characters in the process, and the characters don’t engage in a lot of actions that don’t advance the plot in some way.

As you create your work, you lay down the logic of it.  There are lots of guidelines for creative writing, but most of them follow more or less the same flow that has guided good writing for years.  You can name these steps what you will.  To put it very simply, you will open by introducing your characters and putting them in a situation – good, bad, humorous, etc.  You will often introduce a conflict that they solve, succumb to, or ignore.  You explain the consequences of the path they chose.  And you wrap things up.

All through this, everything moves at once.  Plot, characters and ideas move apace.

 

tai chi

 3. Balance and Power

Tai Chi is not a mere waving of arms, although it may look like that to someone not familiar with it.  Most of what is happening revolves around the torso – the core of the body.  With no core you have no balance and no power, other than the limited amount your legs and arms can provide.

Your story’s meaning is the core of your work – and you must always do things that will strengthen it – make it more powerful to your readers.  Ask yourself all the time, “just what is the idea behind this story?”  This is not the same as plot or character – they will carry and develop your story, but if the you find that you are having misgivings about where it is going, you are out of balance.

Go back to the idea that attracted you in the first place.  It may have come from a newspaper article or something you saw on TV.  Perhaps a street scene, or something in the supermarket caught your eye.  It might have been a crisis in your own family.  What about it made it so compelling that you wanted to write about it?  Think, specifically, about your feelings at the time.  Sadness?  Hilarity? Puzzlement? Guilt?

It would be similar to an insight into a painting, that, perhaps not initially apparent, eventually captures us, and gives us that “Aha” moment.  You have discovered how the artist uses objects in a painting to tell you what the painting means —  the core of the painting.  Consider “The Raft of the Medusa,” a well-known painting by Gericault.  The painting portrays a raft of desperate ship-wrecked sailors, and a distant sail which marks a ship that may – or may not — have spotted them. Looking at it as merely a group of sailors a-drift and waiting for rescuers is like saying that Moby Dick is primarily a story about the big fish that got away.   The meaning Gericault hopes to convey in his work — the meaning of the painting  — is the spectrum between hope and despair – even death.

Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning “The Road” describes a father and son wandering through a harrowing and dangerous post-apocalyptic world.  The characters are not even named.  The man tries desperately to find some sanctuary in this blasted land that can sustain the boy whom he knows will surely survive him.  As one astute critic observed, though, it is essentially “a love story.”  This is the core around which McCarthy builds his story.

There is a core in your story, also, and everything is balanced around it.