Every summer, the science-fiction and fantasy community gathers, anywhere in the world. This year? The site was supposed to be New Zealand — going where no WorldCon has gone before.
While the slogan still works, I didn’t get to go see Hobbiton, or fly for a day and a half. Instead, I get to meet and visit with all those fans online.
As the WorldCon staff helped out that Virtual Balticon I worked on Memorial Day weekend, I wanted to pay them back for their help.
I got in a bit over my head.
I’ve been helping train the panelists with zoom, I created a Virtual Tour demo that I’ve been running daily during the convention, and since the day the convention started (at least in my timezone), I’ve trained up over 10 new zoom hosts to help with staffing.
And of course, keeping an eye on the Discord and helping where I can. There were a lot of issues logging in, so helping people get started was a Herculean task that the staff deserves a whole bag of cookies for helping everyone they could through that rather messy process.
Not to mention, before I got on staff, I’d signed up to be a panelist. For the first day of the convention, I was on two panels: What To Expect When You’re Ready To Query and How To Establish a Social Media Presence.
Only one thing — in honor of the convention hosts, everything’s in New Zealand time!
So, that first panel with 3 other lovely panelists was at 9pm EDT, with a rather frazzled Morgan moderating, and I think it went quite well. My next panel? Was at 23:00 NZT — or 7am! I don’t get up that early for WORK.
So, I went to bed shortly after midnight, and eventually wound down enough to sleep, then rolled out of bed when my alarm went off.
Only to find that all of my other panelists had had to withdraw. So? It ended up being a 30-minute monologue before I opened to questions. This was a panel I had proposed, and I think we all know I can talk for a while. Thus, I opened up my outline from my A Starter’s Guide To Establishing a Social Media Presence (For Fiction Writers). While I know I’m far from an expert, I can definitely get you started. And? It seemed to be very well received, with some great questions.
Then, I went back to bed.
Today’s been busy, but fewer fires.
How’s your week been going? How’s your writing going?
The painful panel description was as follows: Panelists will discuss they’re favorite techniques four editing when they don’t have outside reader, or editor too help.
The panelists were: Mark Van Name (as moderator), Julayne Hughes, Margaret Riley, Beth Tanner, and James Stratton.
(I know, I just did Making Painful Edits, but I was in the editing stage when I hit this convention, so I hit more than one panel with the same theme.)
Different Approaches To The Writing Process
Before you can self-edit, you’ve got to have a draft to work with. There are several different methods people use — and just because one worked for you last time, doesn’t mean you’re stuck using the same method every time.
First drafts stink. That’s just the rule. Sure, there are exceptions, but you’re probably not it. But, it’s okay. It’s all part of the process. Ninety-nine percent of all writers are gonna have to edit their lousy first-drafts.
Pantsers – Draft it out and see what happens — easier for short stories, writing “by the seat of their pants.
Planners – Outline first, then write
Plantsers – Create a light outline, but sort out the details as they go, letting the story deviate organically
Immediately share chapters as they come out
Wait until it’s done before sharing
Wait until it’s revised to share
Things To Do To A Rough Draft
Now that you’ve got that rough draft, you’re gonna want to edit it. No, really.
Let it age, so you can look at it with fresh eyes. 2-3 months is usually good.
Or? Dive back in while the world is still fresh and vivid.
Run spellcheck and grammar check. Use Grammarly or EditMinion or the HemingwayApp
Change the font and/or print it out so you can look at it with fresh eyes. Or have your device read it aloud to you.
Read through and clean up the sentences
Outline the draft AFTER you write it, check for pacing and seeing what themes emerge that you can build on
Declutter, declutter, declutter
Don’t say something 6 times in 6 different ways. Keep the best version and cut the rest
Remove the filler words that exist to hedge: “just”, “so”, “well”, “a bit” “feel”
Kill your babies, your darlings.
We hear this a lot, but what does it really mean? These are the pearls of wisdom or great moving drama. It’s not gonna be everyone’s taste. Structurally, look for descriptors — most people have fairly good imaginations. You don’t have to spell out everything about the horse the rider hopped onto. Give them as little as you can at the beginning, move up the details as you move along.
Don’t write like a computer programmer or a stage director, you shouldn’t be dictating every move of your character.
Draw out your story arches — one for the plot, one for the POV characters. See where each peaks and ebbs and make sure they complement each other. See where you can cut or combine characters, or scenes, or chapters.
Don’t let your reader suffer for your research. Just because you spent five hours researching canning techniques, doesn’t mean you need to spend more than one sentence talking about your characters canning fruit.
Tools used for structural work
Maybe the part of the story you’re most worried about is the pacing or plot coherency. In that case, you’re probably going to want to use some tools to inspect your story’s structure.
Scrivener corkboard view. Or 3×5 cards on the table.
To organize the changes: watch where POV shifts. Color coded by POV or type of scene, etc.
Murder maps can be fun if your story has conspiracies.
Spreadsheets to track things:
When do we see each person
Create your own wikipedia (archivist.com will allow this)
Create a sort of D&D character sheet for each character
Editorial Pet Peeves
When editing your own manuscript, you should probably keep in mind the things that professional editors see as pet peeves. They’ve seen a lot more manuscripts than just yours, and I’m sure you don’t want your writing to come across as trite or overdone.
“letting go of a breath that he didn’t know he was holding”
“walking and walking” Or whatever word you’re reusing.
Words with the right meaning but wrong connotation
Fillers like: suddenly, just, that, of
Having every other sentence as a fragment
Not using conjunctions to seem more literary
Going out of your way to avoid using “said” as a dialogue tag
Bouncing POV, without a clear break
Bad grammar — for no reason
Reusing and overusing words
When to bring in the beta
At some point, though, you’re going to reach the limits of what you can fix on your own. You’re only one person, and you know the characters and the story too well to see what might be missing.
While it’s up to you, you really should bring in outside readers at some point. Some people share a few chapters to see if they’re on the right path. Others wait until the story is polished, then share. If you’re struggling with your story, you may want to reach out sooner.
Beta-readers are usually readers of your genre, but not necessarily writers themselves. They bring a different perspective to your story.
However, a critique partner/fellow writer is going to be more useful with story issues. Be selective who you’re sharing your manuscript with.
As always, you don’t have to agree with the edits, but even if you don’t like a proposed fix, you may want to look into clarifying the scene your beta tried to edit, to make sure it was properly set up.
And? As Margaret said, “you don’t come with the book. If I have to ask you questions, you’ve left something out.” The book needs to stand on its own without explanation.
Once beta-readers have taken you as far as you can go, there’s always one more option. If you’re querying for traditional publishing, you might be able to skip this, but if you’re self-publishing, you definitely want a professional editor, to make sure your book has that professional quality you want associated with your name.
You’ll want to make your manuscript as clean as possible before you hire an editor. You can’t afford not to. You don’t want them wasting time fixing things that Word could have told you, you want them to be able to see the bigger issues.
Make sure you’re hiring the right sort of editor — or get one who can do it all.
Types of Editors: Copy vs Clarity
Content editors are concerned with the plot and characters.
Proofreaders come in after edits and check for typos.
Copy-editors watch for repetitive/missing words, bad phrasing, bad logistics [missing arms, where’d the sword come from], etc.
There are a lot of stages of editing, and I know I’ve covered thistopicbefore in different ways, but it’s always good to get fresh advice from more writers. Especially when they agree.
Any tips or tricks you’d like to add?
Let me know and thanks, as always, for reading.
Shameless Plug: If you’re already attending WorldCon – CoNZealand July 29-Aug 2 (July 28-Aug 1st here in the states), come check me out day one on What to Expect When You’re Ready to Query and Establishing a Social Media Presence.
Experienced writers who have been on the roller coaster for a while know the big secret: you never really “make it.” Just because you’ve sold one book doesn’t mean you’ll sell the next one, and just because you didn’t sell the last one doesn’t mean the next one won’t hit big. Our panel offers tips and strategies for maintaining the will to keep creating.
The titular panel at Virtual Balticon 54 consisted of panelists Joshua Bilmes (as moderator), D.H. Aire, Keith R.A. DeCandido, Scott Edelman, and L. Marie Wood
Of all the panels I hit at Virtual Balticon, this is literally the one I’ve been wrestling with the most. Especially this month, but honestly, everytime I get rejected. I want to look at my work and see what I can do better.
When we talk about momentum for writers, we’re talking about when things are going well, versus productivity grinding to a halt. We’re talking the long term, not the day-to-day grind.
7 Struggles Of Getting Work or Finishing Work
If there’s a deadline, that can be a way to know you’re done
Sometimes you can think you’re done, but your editor sends it back to you
Work often comes in feast or famine — either more than you can handle or crickets
Never give up, never surrender. As long as it’s something you find worth the effort.
It took Scott Edelman 44 years to get a piece accepted by Asimov’s, but he kept trying (and getting many of those works published elsewhere).
Or, in Joshua Bilmes’s words, “if I saw you trying to get a car unstuck from the ice like that, I’d tell you get get a tow truck.” If you’re stuck on something, maybe it’s time to try something new or get some help.
Decide how much you want to prioritize your writing
L. Marie Wood put off starting a family because her career was getting momentum
Rule 1 – never give up your day job. Selling a short story for $25 isn’t gonna pay the bills, (even if you can always resell it when the rights revert.) You need benefits. (At least in the States)
Don’t be a shark in the writing world — online or at conventions. Don’t see people as connections you can use to advance your career — people will always find out if you’re using them. Network — but to make friends. And be willing to help them as much as you ask for help from them.
8 Ways To Keep Your Momentum Up
Allow the first draft to suck
Instead of noodling over the first 3 chapters for the rest of your life, accept that the majority of the words are going to be the word “the” anyway.
Have a variety of projects in a variety of stages
If writing one story isn’t going well, try a different one — new characters, new settings, new worlds might help
If fiction writer brain needs a break, maybe editor brain is good. You can do line edits if you want simple tasks, or revising and re-conceptualizing the whole piece if brainstorming is more where you’re at.
Feed your creativity
Read books (in and out of your genre)
Take a walk and drink in the world around you
If you can’t write what you love, see if you have other stories in you
L. Marie Wood writes psychological horror, but it was too close to home when she had kids. Que writer’s block for 9 years. So, she wrote other things – mysteries and gardening and other articles.
When life hits you, it’s okay to pivot
For DH Aire, in one year his lease suddenly ended and his father was dying, so he couldn’t write book 5. Instead, he started a novella, so he didn’t have to use as much brain. It ended up at 75k words…
When deadlines won’t move, try to create an outline and get the words out the best you can. Then pray you have time to edit.
Give yourself permission to not be god-like. Stop telling yourself “I’m supposed to write something meaningful. Change the world. Better than anything I’ve ever written before.” — let it go. It’s a career. You’ll learn from that story how to write a better story. But you need to move on.
As Scott Edelman says, he couldn’t have written his favorite story without having written the twenty before it.
The pandemic has been HARD. Be kind to yourself.
Joshua Bilmes couldn’t get edits done during March, so he did other stuff. When writing your own work, publishers will often extend a due date, if needed. Just don’t ask this if you don’t have to.
Making It Past Those Make-Or-Break Points
Writing is a tough field. Sharing your dreams and sweat and soul with strangers and hoping for a connection. But, we all have those make-or-break points — often dozens of times — where we have to decide if we’re gonna keep going, or if we’re gonna invest our time on something with maybe a more guaranteed return-on-investment.
For Scott Edelman – He’s still got a dayjob. After writing comics in the 70s, he wanted to write his own stuff and was tired of collaborating. He’ll quit jobs that get in the way of his writing.
For Keith – As a former editor, he saw what worked, what didn’t, and what was overdone. And it gave him connections. But knowing people, while helpful just for pitching, doesn’t mean you can get away with writing things that don’t suck. It can help you know the market and know opportunities coming.
For D.H. Aire, back in ’08/’09, he was unemployed and his marriage was ending. He wondered if he was writing stories good enough to get published. So, he entered one in a little writing.com contest. He won first place and got in an ezine. Then? One of his serialized stories from writing.com got picked up by a small press. Next, he got asked to contribute to an anthology. From writing.com, to the anthology, to the conventions he hits, he’s created his own creative network that encourages him, challenges him, and lets him know where new opportunities arise.
For L. Marie Wood – The convention world is her tribe, but she’s only been back for 2-3 years. During her 9 year drought, she wasn’t here. But? When people would compliment her local paper articles or her students would ask and she could answer everything… Not keeping it to herself helped. Hearing others say that she still had it gave her the confidence to go back to her writing. “You haven’t lost it all, it’s just sleeping”
Writing is one of those things that you can always come back to. Which is part of the attraction and part of the struggle. Only you can decide if the benefits outway the costs.
It’s hard to cut out scenes or characters that you love, but your story may be better off without them. How do you learn to recognize when something has to go, and how do you reconnect any threads that run through the parts you’re removing?
These are my notes from the titular panel at Virtual Balticon 54. The panelists were: E.C. Ambrose (as moderator), Kim Hargan, Julayne Hughes, Nick Martell, and the writer guest of honor, Wen Spencer.
Editing can be painful. But it doesn’t just hurt the novice, even experienced, award-winning authors can suffer the pain.
Ways of Handling Painful Edits
Nick Martell once cut 100,000 words. Then, he basically rewrote the manuscript. He hated it at the time, but made it better. He doesn’t regret it for a minute.
Julayne Hughes – In her first short story published in an online magazine, there was a beautiful, long description… gorgeous writing and it felt like “just a punch in the stomach” to her when she deleted it. But it sold.
As an editor, she has told authors to cut chapters. She will justify the cut and the authors typically agree with her.
Wen Spencer usually walks around, stomps and screams when she needs to make painful edits.
One example: while on contract, Wen wrote 50k about a slave on a ship. Then, realized the character needed free will. So, turned her into a freelance translator. Then, realized she needed to go over there. So 2 boats, with the character working for the other boat. THEN. Threw that away and started with going off somewhere else. So, rewriting the opening is part of her process.
E.C. Ambrose prefers painful edit notes via email, not live or via phone. (A thought I 100% concur with.)
How to figure out what needs to change in your story
While the big picture can be easy to plan, the details are often where everything goes off the rails.
If you’ve gotten a rejection letter with a clear complaint? Start there.
If you outline, (and you can outline after your drafts are done), do you want it to be good or bad for the character? Usually, you want to escalate the conflict. You can also try checking your chapter pacing against beat sheets (see: Jami Gold’s great selection)
Does the story track? It has to be logical that the character does what they do. Although, there is a difference between what’s happening and what the character knows.
Ask your beta readers — one reader might be off the track, but if multiple beta readers are saying the same thing — you’ve got a problem.
Tips for those painful edits
Let it set.
Outline what you ACTUALLY wrote, not what you intended to write and see how that affects the pacing and character development. See if plot lines or side characters are dropped. Etc.
Change the font
Read it out loud (or use an app: naturalReader.com or apple accessibility features)
Check your time-table/travel — don’t hesitate to map it out and use spreadsheets
When making a change, start at the beginning of the scene and work your way through
When cutting a scene, reread the previous chapter and the remaining sequel to make sure it still flows.
Note: Just because you cut a scene or setting, doesn’t mean you have to eradicate all mentions of it. Wen once HAD a magic school but left references in as a “we wish we could, it was back in the day”, that way the ruins, etc were still cultural touchstones.
Make sure all your characters are needed and three-dimensional. A lot of times, especially if multiple characters are fulfilling the same role, you can consolidate those characters into one. The more reoccurring characters, the harder it is on the reader. And one shot characters don’t need names.
Sometimes, you’ve gotta take the full draft, use it as a reference, but re-write and reorganize the whole thing from scratch.
No matter if you’re the one deciding to completely revamp your novel, or the suggestion is coming from a beta-reader or editor, it’s hard to set aside the pages and chapters that you spent so long on.
I do tend to overwrite, and from experience, I know that I like the finished product a lot better when I’ve streamlined my story by cutting about a fifth.
A final thought. One of the most nebulous complaints we try to fix as authors is: ‘I just didn’t connect’. While you don’t actually need to have a likable main character, you do need a relatable character. That, plus a clear setting can go a long way toward helping immerse the reader.
Have you struggled with knowing how to fix your writing? How did you figure out what was needed? And how did you fix it? Did it work?
Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back again next Thursday with more writing tips and writerly musings.
Throughout the history of science fiction and fantasy, creators have used the opportunity for imaginative storytelling to explore issues of their day. From the Twilight Zone to Alien Nation to Mass Effect, what are ways that genre stories have explored the concerns of the world in which they were made?
These are my notes from the titular panel at Virtual Balticon 54. The panelists were: James Mendez Hodes (as moderator), Mary Fan, Arkady Martine, Ada Palmer, and Sarah Pinsker.
Now, while we can’t go into all the ways politics have been interwoven with science-fiction because that would be a doctoral thesis, there is a lot we can discuss.
Why Use Fiction?
Censors don’t vet “unserious media” nearly as much as they should. Science fiction and fantasy in novels, comics, or even video games can often slip past the filters.
The Panelists Discuss Their Approach To The Political
Mary Fan never meant to make her writing political, but that’s how it came out. Plus, as an asian minority in the states, her stuff often gets filtered through that lens — both in her writing process and in the interpretation — even when that’s not what she intended.
James Mendez Hodes reminds us that the ability to appear apolitical is a privilege.
i.e. When your life experience doesn’t match mainstream media, every way in which you are different ends up getting coated with a political brush.
Arkady Martine avoids politics online.
Ada Palmer has friends who vet comments and reviews before she sees them, because her work IS so political.
Some people have so much damage and sore spots, that they can’t read stuff that go anywhere near a subject because it’s too personal. And that’s okay. That can inform what they write, what they read, and can explain why some people lash out after reading a novel.
Things To Watch For When You’re Writing SF (or Fantasy)
There are a lot of things built into the genre, and tropes people often end up following without making it a conscious decision. They’re not bad, but they’re done a lot. You should try to contemplate why you’re using these tropes and what story you’re telling.
Check for imperialism
Do you default to a western society?
Is your fantasy defaulting to an anti-populist, pseudo monarchy?
Check your SF for consistent tech vocabulary, astronomy details, & imperialism.
Check your fantasy for magic consistency and feudalism
What are the generational relationships like? The western nuclear family has only been a thing for a brief period.
You can be regressive and still say powerful stuff. It depends if you’re leaning in as “those were the days” or pointing out the flaws.
Publishing itself tends to view things with a Western lens. We’re looking for individualism. The pro-active individual. And that’s cultural baggage and a political choice, even if we don’t think about it.
When you go to do your research, newer history doesn’t whitewash as much, and fills in stuff that used to be skipped.
Avoiding the ‘Afterschool Special’ Approach
All too often, when writers have a message or theme they want to imbue their story with, they worry that the audience won’t get it. So? They clobber them over the head with the message.
Read older science-fiction fantasy — their outdated ideas and mores will be easier to spot and can help you evaluate how your writing might be seen by future generations.
Make your story about the people. Don’t preach.
Try to make sure your characters have a vested interest in the political process.
i.e. Maybe the society kills all second born or something
Know your audience
Different tropes naturally fit different genres. You can skip some of the explanation if the genre is used to those tropes.
Such as racism in Lovecraftian Horror.
In manga, you can have a conversation about gender at the 202 level, but with a different audience, it’s going to need to be 101 or 401.