Friday, January 11, 2013

Editing: A Continuous Learning Experience

I just completed the second edit pass on my new novel, The Training Bra, so I thought I’d share two things my editor, Cheryl Nicholas, pointed out. They are (1) don’t tell after showing and (2) be more creative with similes and metaphors.

I made four passes on the manuscript before I sent it back to Cheryl. The first two corrected the majority of the small errors and changes, and moved several blocks of text around where needed. The third pass caused a couple of chapters to be moved around and one new chapter to be written. The fourth was the clean-up pass, and it turned out to be the hardest because of the two items listed above. That pass was also the most enlightening for me.

At first I didn’t understand what Cheryl meant by “not telling after showing,” but I think I do now. That happens when statements like the following are made.

Her eyes widened in astonishment.
He hung his head in shame.
He stamped his foot in anger.

In every case there is a “show” aspect (eyes widening, head hanging, etc.) followed by a “tell” aspect (astonishment, shame, etc.). These examples also demonstrate the reason I had trouble with them. I knew use of adjectives and adverbs indicate “tell vs. show,” and that they should be minimized, but I was far more careless about nouns. Each “tell” item above is a noun. So, here are a couple of hints to help fix the problem:

a. Try The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Pugisi. It’s a great resource and has helped me a lot.

b. Be sure the “show” is complete enough to paint the picture you are trying to convey, and then follow it with dialog that is appropriate for the mood of the moment. If the dialog is not in synch with the description of the character’s emotions, the scene won’t make any sense.

c. Be sure to remove extraneous dialog and/or text insertion that will distract from the flow of the scene, especially if you are building tension.

Okay, I don’t claim to be an expert, and I will probably fall into the “tell” vs. “show” hole again. All I can say is I will try to avoid the pitfalls above as I continue to write The Trophy Wife, the next comedy in the Miss Havana series.

While I’m on the “show vs. tell” topic, I should mention the “show” item I have the most difficult time with—the one I don’t have a solid handle on yet. I run into the problem whenever a character is faking an emotion, such as sympathy, sincerity, astonishment or whatever. I understand showing each of those items, but showing someone feigning them is something else. It’s like the character must show and not show at the same time. It’s hard, so sometimes I just “tell” that the item is being faked and attempt to cover the deception in the dialog that follows. That seems like a cop out; I’ll continue to struggle with it, but here’s an example. The text is taken from the part of the novel when the devil is poisoning Miss Havana (he is concerned she might have too much underworld power to attack her directly).

When she is too weak to strike back, I will bare my soul without fear of retribution. I feign sympathy. “Bad shrimp at the buffet?”

Now, in this case, maybe I didn’t need “I feign sympathy” phrase. Maybe it was enough to offer dialog that is totally out of place when the devil knows without question he has poisoned Miss Havana and that she is dying—the problem is not the shrimp. I will mull this over until the next edit pass, and then attempt to do something to eliminate the “tell” part of these situations. Suggestions are welcome! Please!

The second problem mentioned above, the need to be more creative with similes and metaphors, is much harder to deal with because it involves creative laziness. I believe this one is especially critical for comedy writers. In fact, in some of the reviews I have done for other authors, I have singled out some of the more creative metaphors and put them in the reviews. I enjoy really creative writing and understand the author’s creativity comes through in the metaphors and similes he or she uses. I need to be on top of this myself. I have provided a few examples below, and then I’ll offer a suggestion that might help others develop their own.

Original: I know Shelly’s soul. Miss Havana is in there, and that particular female is darker and meaner than Newt Gingrich’s ex-wife.

Changed: I know Shelly’s soul. Miss Havana is in there, and that particular soul is darker than the inside of a vampires casket and meaner than a constipated IRS agent.

The problem: Not all readers are current on politics. Since I am shooting for humor, I needed a statement that people would both laugh at and identify with.

Original: Then, before I can make my move, he bowls me over like a lineman sacking the quarterback.

Changed: In the next instant, he barrels at me so fast I’d need a restraining order to stop him, and hits me hard enough to impress James Brown.

Problem: Original not creative enough and too trite.

You get the picture. In writing comedy, I try to make every paragraph a punch line, or at least put enough creativity into the way things are said to get a chuckle. It taxes my creativity, and I struggle with it throughout every novel. Sometimes I spend hours on a single sentence.

Here is the only advice I can offer to help other authors come up with clever ways to phrase things: use the Internet. I search on everything related to the topic at hand, and often add the word “joke” or “one liner” to the search criteria. I have never found exactly what I want, but I often find comments that cause me to think of the item in a new and creative way. Sometimes I might spend an hour or two searching, only to conclude nothing is going to help. However, by the time I reach that point, I know what not to use.

Another source for me is Facebook. People say some pretty creative things on Facebook, and when I see a cool way of saying something, I write it down. I might never use the concept, but the list continues to grow, and it always provides inspiration for different ways of looking at a variety of topics.

Excerpt: The Training Bra is the third comedy in the Miss Havana Series. The first two are The Substitute and Oh, Heavens, Miss Havana! The book should be released in a couple of months. The draft novel received a five-star review from Tony-Paul deVissage. That review is on my web site at http://cookinwithmisshavana.blogspot.com/. The excerpt below, taken from The Training Bra, is told from Lucifer’s point of view at a time when he is covertly murdering Shelly, the host for the spirit of Miss Havana.


We are about five hundred miles from Omaha when Shelly whines that her legs are cramping and that she thinks she might have diarrhea. Her cough has intensified and she’s holding her stomach like she got cramps. She says she needs to stop for the night, but I’m torn. A bad cough with diarrhea is a bad combination that could foul the car with a stinking mess. On the other hand, it will be far easier to dump her body if no one else is around when she croaks. I have just about decided to drive straight through when, to my surprise, Shelly bolts upright and screams, “You fucking idiot, she said stop the damn car!”

Oh, dear, I fear I’ve awakened a sleeping monster—the high-pitched shrill whine sounds like my ex. I glance over just in time to see her eyes flash red before Shelly’s body slumps back into the seat. Crap. Maybe I should stop. The heavily-salted French fries I gave Shelly for lunch might be pushing her over the edge.

I gleefully rub Dick’s hands together as I enter the motel office in Laramie, Wyoming. The proprietor is a middle-aged female with boobs far too small for her butt. I try not to stare as I offer a friendly compliment. “Did you know nine out of ten men prefer a woman with a big butt … and the tenth prefers the other nine men?”

She looks up with a deadpan expression. “Would you like me to call the police?”

“No, no, that won’t be necessary. How about just checking my new wife and me into your very best room? Anything to die for would be great.”

Her flatline expression doesn’t change an iota. Is it possible someone as outgoing and flamboyant as me has come through here before? She blinks before answering; at least I know she’s alive. “We have the bridal suite … if you have cash.”

I pay for three days, plus a big tip, and ask for extra “Do Not Disturb” signs while winking suggestively and giving her two thumbs-up. All she says is, “I need a hundred dollar deposit in case you damage something.”

I grin as I peel off another hundred. “No problem. Do you ever wonder if the bills you get have been in a stripper’s ass?”

She shakes her head as she slips my payment into a slot in the floor. “Your parents must be siblings.”

Well, that wasn’t very nice. Too bad I’ve already tipped her. Oh, well, with luck I’ll leave alone in the morning and won’t deal with her again.

I settle Shelly into the bridal suite and excuse myself to seek out food for the evening. She needs sleep to bring her to the brink of death, and I would hate to disturb her. Now that I’m free of the collar, I don’t have to play Lilith’s game any longer. As it has been from the beginning of eternity, I can go directly to Croco’s waiting line simply by killing my host. No one will miss Dick anyway. He’s such a dork.

I find a Hooters restaurant where I can think through the plan I’ve been honing during the hours of driving. Any place with owl eyes the size of huge knockers can’t be bad, and besides, I like the name. The place isn’t crowded, so I flirt with the waitress as I order a thick, rare steak with all the trimmings along with a shot of tequila. Her tight T-shirt and form-fitted white short-shorts are a turn on, a welcome sight after being cooped up with a sick broad all day. I also like the little badge she wears like bling over her right boob. It says everything that needs to be said: “Attention Whore.”

Women are far more aggressive these days than they used to be. If I tip her a thousand dollars, I wonder if she would join me in the back of my car for a little romp. I could use that. I feel horny, and a dirty mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Killing Shelly the slow and painful way makes me feel elated, like I’m getting my Mo-Jo back. I’ve been Lilith’s tethered puppet for so long I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to be free. Still, I would not dare attempt to kill Shelly outright; she must eat the tainted food herself. Ironic, isn’t it, that she should be poisoned by a little extra condiment. That’s exactly how Waldo killed me so long ago, except he mixed arsenic with my cocaine. I glance at the waitress again, and sense the girl likes cocaine as much as I used to. It’s good to have my special powers of observation; tonight could be special.

I chuckle internally at Shelly’s weakened condition; we are both taking life with a grain of salt. She’s taking hers with potassium chloride, and I’m taking mine with a slice of lime and a shot of tequila. I lick the salt off my wrist and down my drink. I am pleased with myself; I am truly a clever devil.

I hope this helps some of you newer authors out there. Learning to write well is a difficult process. If you are fortunate enough to encounter a few very hard editors during your journey, learn from them. Don’t argue; just do.

Thank you for reading,

James L. Hatch


Tina Donahue said...

Enlightening post, James. I've been catching up on two major authors whose books I haven't read in a while. Loved these two authors years ago, but now? Total tell, no show. Verbose. More metaphors and similes than regular words - or plot. What plot there is meanders and meanders and... My god, neither of them can seem to write anything under 900 pages when 300 would have done nicely.

If they weren't already mega famous, their current works wouldn't have been accepted for publication by anyone.

It's refreshing to read about an author (and editor) who takes writing seriously and wants to make the story the best it can be.

James L. Hatch said...

Thanks for the comment, Tina. Yes, my editor and I do well together. We are not quick, though. It takes almost a year to get through the edit cycle with her, but I understand she is my teacher. If she wanted to blow me off, she would. I am very lucky to have her on my side.

I also understand about some of the old works. I recently read "Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens. Frankly, I had to force myself through it, partially because the language has changed so much. Like you, I enjoy the new authors more. I suppose, in many years, IF anyone ever remembers our books, they will hold their noses as well. All we can do is the best we can while we are here.

Thanks again for the great comment.


Sarah J. McNeal said...

No matter how seasoned we become, it seems we must always be vigilant about some of the basics like show vs tell. For me, it's passive voice or back story that nags my heels. LOL
All the best to you, James.

Sarah J. McNeal said...

I think no matter how seasoned any of us become, we have some weak point we must always watch out for. For me, it's passive voice or back story.
A good blog today. All the best to you James.

James L. Hatch said...

Hi Sarah. It's always something, isn't it. Good thing we write for pleasure.

Thanks for stopping by. BTW, I did vote for Heart Song on the P&E poll. I wish you all the luck in the world.

Sarah J. McNeal said...

James, I really appreciate that you voted for Heart Song at the P&E Poll. Thank you for that.