Tag Archives: edit

Zero to First Draft

I mentioned in my “Still here and blogging” post that I finished the zero draft of my novel on 5 June 2016. Let me just pause to relish that statement…

Woo-hoo! I finished the zero draft of my novel!

All the best writing advice says that it’s a good idea to let that zero draft cool off until the writer can muster enough objectivity for the next step which is editing the novel. (Cooled off. Check.)

The next step is to edit that roughly novel-shaped pile of words to the best of my ability. (The following step is recruiting beta readers and other writers for feedback/critique. Then more editing.)

But, where do I start? I had a hard time wrapping my head around the entire 115k words of novel draft. It’s tough to hold the whole slippery thing in my mind all at once. Do I start editing at the beginning? Do I jump around in the middle, using the notes I made to fix the sudden shifts in plot and character motivation and loads of other stuff? I haven’t really seen any writing advice about the nuts and bolts of digging in to a messy zero draft and turning it into a coherent first draft.

So, this is the approach I came up with for editing my zero draft:

First, I read through the zero draft and summarized everything as it is. Including that chapter I knew would have to be thrown out and rewritten the moment I finished it. Mistakes and all, even the first chapter that doesn’t work anymore now that I know exactly how the novel ends. My summary consists of about one sentence per section, so there’s a paragraph for each chapter.

My next step is to write a chapter-by-chapter summary for the novel’s next draft. This will serve as a detailed outline when I begin re-writing and give me a tool for holding the entire novel in my brain at the same time. So far, I’m up to chapter 4 of 18. I hope that the two outlines will serve as a map from where I am to where I want to go.

How do you handle the first revision of your zero-draft?

Barley Thrasher we saw 17 July 2016 near Alchi, Leh district of Ladakh, India

Barley Thresher we saw 17 July 2016 near Alchi, Leh district of Ladakh, India

So You Want To Be a First Reader

I thought I would share a few things about what my first reader experience was like. The mileage of other first readers and potential first readers will vary.

I read slowly, so slushing took up a significant amount of time for me. I didn’t keep track for the first four months, but for the last six months (February through July 2013) I first-read 357 stories for a total of 1,391,500 words. That’s like between eight and thirteen novels. And I was barely “keeping up”.

On a few rare occasions, I skimmed after the first 1000 words or so. But most of the time I read the entire story. Many first readers don’t do that – because it’s not a requirement – but I did. I’m not completely sure why I kept reading to the end. I guess I didn’t get jaded, but by the conclusion of my stint I was feeling burned out.


Reading from the slush pile was like eating Bertie Bots Every Flavor Beans. Sometimes the one I pulled out of the queue was like tiramisu. Occasionally I bit into earwax flavor. But generally I read a lot of interesting stories.

An often-repeated piece of writing advice is to read what you’re aspiring to create – read the best authors in the genre you’re writing in. I personally found that the time I spent reading slush severely limited the time I could spend reading anything else. On the plus side, I was exposed to genre stories I wouldn’t have read otherwise. I discovered that I really dislike “squick” and body-horror. I discovered that I quite like character-driven horror. (btw, Strange Horizons is NOT a horror market)

One of the bitter-sweet parts of my First Reader Experience was that when I read a really good story, I couldn’t share it. Because of course all submissions are confidential. But on the up side, if I wanted to I could read submissions even if they weren’t assigned to me. So occasionally I got to read brand-new stories written by authors I knew or knew of from their previous publications.

So, would I ever volunteer as a first reader again? The short answer is yes. I learned a great deal, and it was generally a positive experience. But first, I need to refuel. I have a huge stack of novels at home waiting to be read. I have a bunch of short stories and a novel churning in my head, begging to be written. And I want to apply some of what I’ve learned to my own writing.

I would definitely encourage my writerly (and readerly!) friends to apply for a First Reader position. My main caution would be make sure you have the time.

Have you ever thought about applying to be a first reader? Have you ever been a first reader? What was it like for you?

Happy Writing!

Words Like Lego

One thing that Mary Rosenblum said during the one-day workshop I took with her was: “Words are like Lego Bricks”

That idea really struck a chord with me, and soon after that I saw this Lovecraftian lego sculpture at the business where my oldest daughter works.

giant octopus attacks spaceship

giant octopus attacks spaceship

Words are just building blocks. The magical comes from the way we connect them, and they can be put together in an infinite number of ways. So all I have to do is snap those bricks together and build a story. Edit, and take them apart. Rearrange and build some more.

This is fun, like building with Lego.

Happy Writing!


Character Building in Layers

Photo of a lilac tree Miriah saw on her walk in Bellevue on 30 April 2013

Lilac tree in Bellevue. It’s Spring!

Looks like Spring has arrived in the Pacific Northwest. Happy Beltane!

I’ve been busy with real life, the kids, etc. Slushing has also kept me busy (since February 1st I’ve first-read 179 stories totaling 702,600 words).

About two weeks ago I attended a Clarion West ONE-day workshop with Mary Rosenblum “Step Into Their Shoes – Breathing Life Into Your Characters”. This workshop was amazing. Mary Rosenblum is not only a wonderful author, she is also a fantastic teacher. If you ever get the opportunity to take a class from her, I urge you to do it!

One thing I learned in the class is that depth can be added to characters during the editing process. An approach Mary suggested is to edit for characterization in layers, progressing to the next level on each pass.

Levels of Characterization
1. External – What the character does in reaction to physical stimuli.               (The first draft)
2. Internal – How the character reacts physically. Body language, facial expression, etc. that indicate thoughts, attitudes, emotions, etc.
3. Modify the internal reaction to convey a sense of backstory.
4. Modify the internal reaction with character faults that are known to the character.
5. Fine tune so that as the story progresses, character traits that the character is NOT aware of are revealed to the reader.

Photo of a fern Miriah saw on her walk in Bellevue on 30 April 2013

A tentacle fern, ready for Spring!

Here are some more things I’ll be thinking about when I try to create deep characters. (This is sort of from the notes I took in the class, filtered through my brain. Mary’s version and numerous insights were SO much better.)

Voice – What the character says and does.
I’ll be asking myself, would my character really SAY that? Because if I write a character speaking with my vocabulary instead of their own, then that character will sound like me instead of himself. I’ll also be asking myself, would my character really DO that? As the author, I am holding the puppet strings. But the reader should not be aware of those strings. So if I need the character to notice a clue or look out the window to further my plot, I’ll make sure she has a believable reason to look.

Environment – How the character is molded by their world and society.
It can be really easy to fall into the trap of having my character react to situations the way I would. But if (for example) I have created an oppressive world, then my character needs to reflect the pervasive world view. I will ask myself how my character has been affected by living in that society and how he has internalized that society’s ideals. Then I’ll ask myself if she is reacting in a way that makes sense.

Perspective – How the characters evaluate what they observe.
People are constantly noticing what other people are doing, and observing their environment. So I’ll be asking myself how my character relates those observations to themselves. How do they interpret the surroundings and people around them? What does it mean to them? A person who gardens will notice more specific things about a room full of plants than a person with no interest in plants.

Change – How the character changes over the course of the story.
I will remember that like regular people, characters don’t just have an epiphany and change suddenly. The character needs to change as the result of external stimulus and experience. In a character-driven story, the character should make one step along their character arc in each scene.

For more about getting into a narrator’s head, check out Cat Rambo’s recent blog post.

Happy Writing!

Nano Excuses

Well, here it is December already. I would like to say that I skipped posting to my blog for the entire month of November because I was busily plugging away at my NaNoWriMo novel. That’s what I’d like to say. But the truth is that I stopped nano-ing about a week-and-a-half in. It wasn’t a complete loss. I wrote about 7,500 words of the novel I had in mind, and about 6,000 words of the pre-quell novella that I also had in mind. So I didn’t come close to “winning” Nano. But – the way I look at it – it’s more than I had before.

I have some resolutions for the next Nano…

1) Get my family on board with supporting me. In advance.

2) Make sure that if there are any submission deadlines coming up at the end of November, I will finish that story before Nano starts.

3) Complete the detailed outline for my Nano-novel before NaNoWriMo starts.

Hmm. I see a pattern here…

Green Woman with Rowan Berries
This Green Woman is on the wall over my desk;-)

One thing I DID accomplish in November was writing and submitting a story for an “Urban Green Man” anthology. It had been two months since the last time I submitted a story, so it felt really good to send one out.

Another thing I did in November – that I’m counting as an accomplishment, but was really more like a fun distraction – was post two “Drabbles” (stories of exactly 100 words), and three “Twabbles” (exactly 100 characters each) in the Drabblecast.org forums. I’ve created a new page – Fiction in a Flash – here on my blog to share them.

I’m still First-Reading for Strange Horizons. It’s a volunteer gig that can be somewhat time consuming, but I feel that I am learning SO much.

Happy Writing!

NaNoWriMo, the Prequel

This is the mandatory blog post that all bloggers who participate in NaNoWriMo make. The one where I announce to the world the full extent of my writing insanity and say, “Yes, I am planning to write a novel during the month of November.”


Yes! I am participating

Never mind that I have dozens of time consuming things already on the calendar for November. Never mind Thanksgiving, never mind Christmas shopping, never mind that my twins’ birthday is the first week of December. Because somehow I am going to make time to write (on average) 1667 words a day.

One year and three days ago, I heard about NaNoWriMo for the first time.

For anyone out there who still has never heard of National Novel Writing Month, you can read about it on their website here. The basic idea is that writers from all over the world attempt to write fifty thousand (50,000) words of a new novel during the month of November.

Last year on October 29, I decided try it. I logged in and signed up. With no time to prepare, I based my story (very loosely) on the backstory of one of my PBEM RPG characters, in an alternate universe version of the world the RPG is set in. I accomplished the 50,000 word goal. I met a few fellow Nanos at write-ins and online (one I still write with). But at the end of November my “novel” was a mish-mash of vignettes that barely held together as a narrative.

This year I planned to have a carefully prepared outline. But here it is October 30, and still no outline.

But, I do have a story in mind. I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the world of my story. I know the main characters and the villain. I know the conflict. I’ve done quite a few of the exercises in Alan Watt’s book “the 90-day novel”. So, I have a plan, which is more than I had last time.

If you are Nano-ing also, I would love it if you “buddy” me on the Nano web site! My user name (no surprise here) is “Miriah”.

Happy Writing!

First Published Story!

Duck family at Idylwood Park in Redmond

This photo has nothing at all to do with my blog post! I took the kids to Idylwood Park last week, and this family of ducks were going around stealing food. The crowds of people didn’t bother them at all.

Yesterday I got an email from the Editor in Chief of Penumbra eMag.

My “Dream Catcher” story will be in the September Native American folklore issue!!!

I must admit that I was sort of expecting to hear from Penumbra. I had been watching acceptance and rejection reports on Duotrope, so I knew the decisions would be made around mid-July about what stories would be used for the September issue. At the end of April I got a “passed on to the next level” email, and in mid-June I got a “final round of consideration” email. So I was looking forward to a personal rejection, and I already had the next market-for-submission picked out.

When that email arrived in my inbox yesterday, I had to read through it a couple of times before it sunk in that I really did get an acceptance. I found my husband watching TV and told him. I went back to my computer to read the email again to make sure it was still there. I phoned my mother. I emailed my sister and a close friend. After about an hour, I still hadn’t gotten another email telling me it was all a mistake, so I posted an announcement on my facebook page.

I also agonized for about twenty minutes over whether or not it was appropriate to reply to the email acceptance with a thank you. In my speculative fiction critique group, we have discussed responding to a rejection several times. (Btw, the conventional wisdom I have gathered is that you do not respond to a rejection. Editors are usually far too busy to deal with even a “thank you for your consideration” email. Some emag website submission guidelines even ask writers not to.) But, no one ever talked about how to respond to an acceptance! In the end, I went with my gut feeling and I did send a thank you email, to which the EIC responded graciously.

So now I guess I’ll be working on getting that second story published;-)

Edit. Procrastinate. Edit. part 2

A photo of Kiki the cat - the passive verb "was" personified

Kiki demonstrates the lazy nature of the verb “was”

What words of wisdom do I have regarding self-editing? To start with, I recommend a book by Ken Rand, The 10% Solution. The sticker price is $10, and it’s a slim book and a quick read. Like all how-to-write books, I expect more of it will be meaningful to me as my writing improves, but for now it has two main ideas I frequently use now.

1) Read the story aloud. This advice is just so important. Many errors, awkward sentences, overused words, and bad grammar just jump right out at you when you read the story aloud.

2) Use the search function on your word processor to identify problem markers. In his book Ken Rand identifies twenty-six words and suffixes to scrutinize. This is a very useful tool for zeroing in on problem areas of a story that may need rewriting.

I could just end there with the advice to go read that book. (I really do recommend it.) But first I’d like to explain my own take on why “ly”, “ing”, “was”, and “of” (as examples) are problem indicators. I don’t love to study grammar, but lately I’ve found that knowing a little bit about grammar helps me understand why certain word constructions are more successful than others.

Most adverbs end in “ly”. The purpose of adverbs is to modify the verb. Now, verbs are what bring life to a story. Good verbs engage the reader and drive the action. But adverbs are word vampires. They suck the life energy right out of a verb, and slow it down so that it’s left struggling to move. Some writers avoid adverbs completely. For myself, I’m willing to put up with a few. But generally speaking, every time “search” finds an adverb, I try to find a better verb and toss the adverb. When I do use an adverb, I make sure it’s pulling its weight by adding an important piece of information to the verb. For example, in the phrase “ran quickly”, “quickly” is not adding any information. A better verb might be “dashed” or “sprinted”, or just plain “ran”.

The “ing” suffix is added to a verb to make it function like a noun. (In grammar, I think it’s called a “gerund” or “verbal noun”.) Examples are: build to building, dance to dancing, feel to feeling.  Usually an “ing” word is giving a name to an activity, behavior, or “state of being”. Sometimes “ing” is added to a verb to turn it into an adjective (“tantalizing scent”, for example). Words that end in “ing” are the cross-dressers of the English language. It’s easy to be fooled. Once a verb dresses up in “ing” drag, he is for all intents and purposes a noun. Don’t let him sneak into the verb position!

“Was” (and her plural form “were”) are the past tense of the “to be” verb. “Was” is passive. She is the couch potato slowing down your prose to take a nap, and putting your reader to sleep along with her. She likes to collude with her best friend Gerund, and make your story boring with passive phrases like “he was running” instead of “he ran”. When I start editing, I usually search for “was” first, because she sneaks into my first drafts way too often. I replace “was” with an active verb whenever I can.

The word “of” can be used to construct the genitive, or possessive case instead of “ ‘s”. For example “the tail of the dog” or “the dog’s tail”, “the love of a mother”or “a mother’s love”, are genitive constructs that mark one noun modifying another. Sometimes “of” is used with intent, for example “the quality of mercy” sounds so much better than “the mercy’s quality”. Or there may be an established convention, for example we (usually) wouldn’t write “The America’s United States”.  But “of” is another word to watch out for. “Of” has passive aggressive tendencies and likes to slow down the action. He makes the reader stop and pay attention to exactly which noun is possessed by another. Stories often move along faster using “of’s” agreeable little sister “ ‘s”.

Now that I’ve finished this blog post, it’s time to go edit a story. But first I’ll just make myself a cup of coffee…

Edit. Procrastinate. Edit. part 1

photo of my cat, Snowflake - the ultimate procrastination role model

Snowflake has procrastination down to a fine art.

If there’s one thing that  drives me to procrastinate, it’s editing. It can even drive me to write another blog entry. Oh yes, I really should be editing that last piece, but first I’ll need a cup of coffee, then I’ll just start a load of washing, and I’d better check my email… You get the idea.

When I first started writing, I thought editing was about correcting spelling and grammar errors.  But no, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. A very small tip, one that will fit in my cup of iced coffee.

Writing the story is the fun part. Some writers, including me, talk about turning off our “internal editor”. For me, (I won’t try to speak for other writers) that’s the part of my brain that wants to make every sentence perfect the first time I write it. One skill I got out of completing NaNoWriMo was learning to turn down the inner editor’s voice. She’s allowed to add notes (“need better verb”, “more description”) but otherwise I know that if I let her interfere, I’ll get bogged down in one sentence and I won’t finish the story.

I love that feeling I get after finishing a first draft. I just want to submit it right away. But now I know better. I send it to my first reader, who happens to be my mother. I recommend recruiting a first reader, someone to read that first draft. Preferably this would be someone who loves you unconditionally (just in case the story is complete cr*p), who will agree with how absolutely wonderful you think it is. Once your ego is soothed, put that story aside for at least a few days.

Why not start editing that first draft right away? Because at this point I’m in love with that story. It’s my baby. I don’t have the perspective I need to see its flaws from the point of view of an editor, or even a savvy reader. I have a couple stories that I think – from my admittedly biased point of view – would have been good candidates for particular markets. But I blew it because I submitted them before they were ready.

(To be continued)