Monday, May 21, 2012

Guest Post: Ali Luke on Why Editing Matters

Self-editing must be in the water . . . last week I posted on the Precision Editing Group blog about how I do it, answering questions from TJ, and today my readers get a treat: a guest post by Ali Luke that digs deeper in to the whys and wherefores of self-editing.

Ali is a personal writing coach. She's written books about freelance blogging, and now she's also a novelist. Today she addresses what's behind self-editing.

In short: It matters, and here's why.

Why Editing Matters . . . and How to Stay Motivated to Do It Well

by Ali Luke

Whatever sort of writing you do whether you’re working on a blog post, a book, or just a short piece for your church newsletter—you’re going to need to edit.

Sometimes, that editing might take just a few minutes. You’ll be looking for typos, smoothing awkward sentences, and making sure that you’ve included everything you wanted to say.

With bigger projects, though, the editing phase needs to take a correspondingly bigger chunk of your writing time. If you’re working on a non-fiction book or a novel, you may well find that you spent as long on the editing as on the first draft (and quite possibly longer).

If the creative bit of writing is what excites you—seeing a blank page fill up with new words and thoughts—then editing may feel uninspiring. You may be very tempted to just call it “done” and publish your blog post or send off your book manuscript as-is.

But here’s why editing matters...

Editing Shows Your Respect for Your Work . . . and Your Reader

It’s very, very tough to produce a perfect first draft. You might manage it on a short blog post (though even then, you’ll almost certainly find at least a word or two you want to change). With anything much longer, you’re likely to have all sorts of first draft problems. This doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with your writing, or with you; it’s just part of the writing process.

First drafts often have:

·        Missing information—sections, chapters or scenes that you realize need to be added in for a sense of completeness.
·         Superfluous information—tangents and digressions that you might have needed to write through . . . but that are now making your work lopsided.
·         Badly ordered information—perhaps chapter 10 would make more sense as chapter 5.
·         Repetitive information—maybe you’ve been working on your project for years, and you didn’t realize that chapter 20 covers rather similar ground to chapter 12.
·         Spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, poor punctuation, typos—all of these will distract, confuse and annoy your reader; thankfully, they’re easy to fix.

Careful editing means taking your work seriously. It means respecting the time that you’ve already put into the writing, and the time that you’re going to be spending on publishing, promoting, or sharing this piece with others.

Your editing also shows respect for your reader. Yes, of course the reader can still gain value from a piece of writing that has a few typos, or that’s badly organized—but when they’re investing their time and energy in reading your work, you want to deliver something that’s as good as you can make it.

Staying Motivated to Edit: Start to End

One of the best ways to be motivated is to split editing into several stages: don’t try to do everything at once, and definitely don’t try to edit while you’re writing the first draft. If you find yourself going back to restart every sentence before you’ve finished it, you won’t make much progress.
Whatever you’re editing—from a novel to a blog post—here’s a simple structure you can use:

Step #1: Let Your Work Sit

If you’ve written something short, leaving it alone over lunch might give your mind enough space to come back afresh. If you’ve written a whole novel, leaving it for at least a couple of weeks should help clear your head. While you’re away from your work, your subconscious will keep on mulling over ideas—and you may be surprised what comes up when you dig in on the editing.

Motivation Boost: Often, taking some time out can make you feel much more eager to get back to work! You might want to plan a vacation or a retreat so that you can rest while your writing is resting.

Step #2: Read Through the Whole Thing

Go through your whole post, article, or book in a short space of time—ideally, one day. Jot down any brief notes as you’re going along, if you’re worried about forgetting something. At this point, you’re just trying to get a sense of the shape of the work (something that’s tough to do when you’ve been writing for days, weeks, or months).

Motivation Boost: You’ll almost certainly come across some great passages in your work that you’ve completely forgotten writing. You may find that it’s better than you expected. And even though you’ll notice some problems, you’ll also start thinking of ways to fix it.

Step #3: Edit the Big Picture

This is the stage that I often call “revision”—making substantial changes to a work-in-progress. You’ll find yourself cutting, adding, or rearranging whole sections. If you’re working on a non-fiction book, you might change the direction entirely; if you’re writing a novel, you may add a subplot or cut a character.

Motivation Boost: You can make fast, visible progress at this stage, cutting through swathes of words at a time. You’ll see your book (or post, or article) coming into shape.

Step #4: Get Feedback

Once you’ve gone through step #3, it’s a great idea to get feedback on your piece, especially if you’ve written something in-depth like a book. Ask some trusted friends or fellow-writers to act as your “beta-readers,” testing out your work and giving feedback on what’s good and what might need some further improvement.

Note: Depending on the feedback you get, you might need to repeat step #3 and make some further big-picture changes.

Motivation Boost: Having readers feels great, especially if they get excited about your book. You’ll also get lots of new ideas and suggestions, which can be really encouraging, especially if you were starting to feel a bit stale.

Step #5: Edit the Details

By this point, your piece should be in good shape. If it’s a blog post or an article, all the paragraphs should be in the right order; if it’s a book, all the chapters and scenes should be firmly in place. Now, you can deal with all those little things like grammatical slips, spelling mistakes, punctuation errors, and so on.

Motivation Boost: This stage isn’t very creative, but it can be immensely satisfying to get things right. If it feels like there’s a lot of work before you, try splitting your project into sections; make a chart, and check each off as you complete it.

So, is editing really worth all that work? I was wondering that myself when I got to Draft 5 of my novel, Lycopolis: I sent the draft to a freelance editor, the lovely and honest Lorna Fergusson from fictionfire, and she recommended some substantial changes. I’d hoped for just a few minor corrections . . .  but I took her advice on board, and I cut the novel’s manuscript from 135,000 to 85,000 words.

It definitely was worth the work: the lovely reviews, tweets, and emails that I’ve had confirm that! So if you’re staring at a first draft right now—or even a fifth draft—then don’t be afraid to dig in once again, if that’s what your beta-reader (or your editor) is suggesting.

But once you’ve got that article or post or book as good as you can, let it go. Put it out into the world . . . and trust that the great editing job you’ve done will be enough that your work can really shine.

About the Author:

Ali Luke is currently on a virtual book tour for her novel Lycopolis, a fast-paced supernatural thriller centered on a group of online role players who summon a demon into their game . . . and into the world. Described by readers as “a fast and furious, addictive piece of escapism” and “absolutely gripping,” Lycopolis is available in print and e-book form. Find out more at

Monday, May 14, 2012

16 Months: My Transformation

While I usually talk about writing and books and word nerdiness here, this post is going to be a bit different. I'm hoping it will be of some benefit to others in their journeys.

A photo that amazing photographer Erin Summerill took of me at the recent LDStorymakers annual conference inspired me to put this post together. Even with my goofy facial expression and hand waving (I can't teach without using my hands), I've got great before and after pictures.

The really short version: 
For some unknown (then) reason, I got fat, sank into a horrid depression, and otherwise was miserable. Now I'm, well, not all that. The end. Oh, and this is what I looked like. The picture was taken at the 2010 UVU Book Academy conference. I may have gained a few pounds more in the following three months.

The longer version:
For most of my adult life, not counting pregnancies, my has weight stayed in about a seven-pound range. Ideally, I would have liked to have been around 10 lbs lighter and at my marriage weight, but I was at a healthy weight and felt decent about myself.

Then, a few years ago, the pounds began creeping on. I wasn't doing anything different in my life, as far as I could tell. Okay, I could have exercised more than I was (although I didn't stop altogether). And sure, I ate chocolate here and there. But that wasn't a change. Nothing significant had changed in my lifestyle.

But hey, I knew how to lose weight, right? I began watching my diet carefully, cutting here and there and eating much healthier. I exercised more.

Result: More weight gain. The scale just crept up and up. I'll clarify here that my weight gain wasn't in the realm of anything you'd see on The Biggest Loser, but it was still way more than was healthy, and I hated feeling like a beached whale. I hated not fitting into my biggest clothes and having to go to the thrift store to find stuff to wear. I rarely wore anything that didn't stretch.

At first I was in denial. Sure, the scale was up, but I didn't look that bad . . . right? I inherited my mother's frame, so I really can carry a little extra weight without it showing up. When my chocolate cookbook first came out, I had people asking how I could write it and stay so thin. That was before the weight gain. So when those comments stopped altogether, I had a clue what it meant. I was fat. I cringed at every photo of me. My usable wardrobe shrank and shrank.

I started to suspect I had a thyroid problem, but I didn't want to be one of those people making excuses for being fat. ("Oh, it's glandular . . .") I brought it up to my doctor, who ran a blood panel. My TSH and T4 were normal, so I was told not to worry about it; I wasn't hypothyroid.

But the results didn't sit right with me. I had plenty of symptoms of hypothyroid beyond unexplained weight gain, including a low body temperature (97.1), brain "fog," fatigue, depression, headaches, brittle nails, and a bunch of other things.

After doing a bit more research, including talking with a good friend who has a thyroid condition, I was convinced that something wasn't right. My original doctor, while a great guy, was a GP and likely didn't know how complex hypothyroid issues are and which panels to run, or how to read them. Finding a doctor to take me seriously and who knew enough to run the right tests took awhile, but eventually I did, thanks to the referral of a friend.

And waddaya know, but my T3 (the one that really matters) was in the toilet. So was my progesterone (which helps with stress, sleep, and mood), and a few other things, including Vitamin D, which was also contributing to my depression. I was indeed hypothyroid, among other things. My body was whacked out.

Almost as soon as I began taking the supplements I needed, my life, and my body, began to change. While the weight didn't come off in a flash, it did come off, slowly and steadily.

Here's a key point: I still had to do the work. 

I had to exercise, stay hydrated, and watch what I ate. But at least losing weight became possible, where before, it wasn't.

Something to note here: It's a horrid myth that to exercise you have to find something you like to do. I hate exercising, but I love having exercised. If you're waiting to like huffing and puffing and sweating like a pig, and you're using your dislike of exercise for not doing it, then you'll never have success. I often go running even when I hurt all over and I feel like someone's taking an ice pick to the back of my head. I go because it's something I have to do. I force myself to do it. I don't go to the gym when I feel good. I go to the gym and work my tail off so I'll feel good.

Another aspect in my success was that I started reading blogs of people who'd managed to lose weight and keep it off to learn more about how to fuel my body properly for weight loss (which takes more than cutting calories, of course). I grew up in a nutritious home, but there was still a lot to learn.

I'm now within (count 'em!) 9 pounds of my marriage weight. I'm solidly in the healthy range for what my weight should be, and on the low end of my old range. (I think I can actually hit that old marriage weight yet!) I sleep better (didn't even know how messed up my sleep was until it was fixed). I can exercise more. My chronic headaches are still around, but they're more manageable. My depression isn't the dark sink hole it once was.

No, life isn't all unicorns and rainbows. I still have chronic headaches. Depression of some kind just runs in my family. But things are so much better.

Losing the weight hasn't been an easy road. Like I said, it's still work. But now I can fit back into my skinny clothes, and my fat clothes are a thing of the past.

In my before picture up there, I hated myself.

But now? Well, this next picture was taken just over a week ago, at the LDStorymakers conference. I feel and look like myself again. Huzzah!

Monday, May 07, 2012

Why I DO Read Mormon Fiction

I had a fantastic weekend at the 9th annual LDStorymakers Writers Conference, which was followed by the Whitney Awards gala. The weekend those two events happen is something I look forward to all year.

I've been part of the LDStorymakers guild almost since its inception. I was something like #18 to join, and there are now somewhere around 200 members. I taught at the first conference, which was about 1/10 the size of the one we just held. 

I signed my contract with Covenant just over 10 years ago, and in that time have become familiar with the LDS publishing industry, market, and authors in a way I couldn't have otherwise. Thanks to the Whitney Awards program, and the desire to cast a vote as part of the hundreds-strong voting academy, I read more LDS fiction every year than most people, and I'm quite sure I read far more LDS fiction than the author of THIS POST.

It really got under my skin. I tried to set it aside, but after a weekend of seeing and hearing serious writers learning and bettering their craft, after months of reading books and voting for the best of the best, and after an inspiring Whitney Awards gala this past weekend, I just can't keep my mouth shut.

The post pretty much lambasted LDS fiction as anything but worthy of reading. So here I'll address some of the arguments made in that post and then explain why I do read Mormon fiction.

The post contends that:
The Mormon author that wants to get published is either faced with the cringe worthy fluff of Mormon publishers or the appetite for the salacious in national publishing.
I contend that there's a far broader spectrum than those two extremes, and that further, neither the LDS market nor the national market deserve such condemnation.

Has "cringe worthy fluff" been published in the LDS market? Absolutely, especially in its infancy. I'll go so far as to say it is still being published at times.

But the entire market isn't like that. 

For that matter, the national market also has plenty of cringe-worthy fluff. I imagine that any market has mediocrity. It's the nature of the arts. But the amount of fluff and the proportion of it are changing. In the ten years I've been publishing here, I've seen a huge increase in the quality of work. 

The post also claims that Mormon fiction has no real problems or decent stories or characters. I have to wonder if the author has read more than a handful of books. And if they read even that much, I'm quite sure that handful happened to be the fluff still on shelves. 

He claims to not read Mormon fiction and then describes Mormon fiction, as if he's read it, yet his description shows his initial claim: he hasn't read it, so he doesn't know what he's talking about. 

If he tested the waters, he certainly didn't go to someone knowledgeable to ask for an accurate sampling of the range of fiction out there, or he wouldn't be making these claims. (Bookstore employees don't count; they're paid to promote the latest release, whether they've read it or not.)

Are there no decent stories, characters, or problem? Hardly. 

Here's one element of the current market that a lot of people don't know yet: Lots of LDS readers aren't looking for blatantly LDS stories; they simply want to be able to pick up a book in their favorite genre (mystery, romance, etc) and not have to worry about compromising their values (or flipping pages). And no, that doesn't mean the entire national market is "salacious," either. But it is harder to pick up a book, knowing beforehand whether it has content you'd rather not stumble upon. In other words, a lot of "Mormon fiction" (as defined by the author of the post, as books published by LDS presses) isn't really about Mormons at all.

I've read my share of awful LDS fiction, complete with trite characters and shallow problems. 

I've also read deep, meaningful LDS fiction. A lot of it.

As with the national market, the books with the most depth in some ways will be the literary titles. And, just as with the national market, literary fiction always sells fewer copies. 

It's no shock that the big publishers stick primarily with genre fiction. So do the Big 6 in New York. Publishing is a business, and the bottom line matters. It matters even more with small presses, where the profit margin is smaller. They have to sell a certain amount of books to stay in business. 

The result is fewer literary books, but, increasingly, higher-quality genre novels.

While the LDS presses do cater to a conservative audience, I don't believe it's the pathetic audience he describes: 
 the average politically conservative Mormon reader who, by the way, is shallow.
Okay, yes, shallow, uber conservative, readers exist. But that's an awfully broad brush to paint the "average" LDS reader with. The longer I'm in this market, the more I'm convinced there is no "average" LDS reader. I've come across readers like the ones he describes, but they aren't in the majority. The readers I come in contact with and hear about are far more discerning and demanding of their reading material than he gives them credit for.

More to the point, I take issue with his sweeping description of the entire market:
Any serous reader automatically finds it stifling and boring. The protagonist doesn’t have any real conflict to overcome. Sure there is conflict that exists, but the choices made aren’t very hard and therefore no real struggle to overcome. 
I consider myself a serious reader. I wasn't an English major for nothing. 

Off the top of my head, I can think of many examples that contradict his claim, lots of books from a variety of writers. And yes, I include myself in that number of novelists who write books that aren't boring, that do have "real conflict" and "real struggle."

To me, one of the biggest red flags of the post is that it pretty much wrote off every writer except, it seems, for himself, as he has aspirations of his own to write and publish, and perhaps some obvious fringe LDS writers. 

Why include only the LDS writers who have largely left the faith? I don't see why someone has to pretty much abandon their faith to write good fiction. 

I also don't see how criticizing and writing off an entire market is either useful or honest. 

Or remotely valid. 

Personally, I'm honored to be part of the LDS writing community. I've made some of the best friends a woman could ask for. I've had some of the greatest experiences of my life here. I've read a lot of fantastic work.

Have we achieved Orson F. Whitney's prophecy of having "Miltons and Shakespeares of our own"? 

No, of course not. But we're raising the foundations, moving upward all the time, so that some day, someone else down the road will be there when it happens.

I love the fact that Milton and Shakespeare were popular writers, the equivalent of genre writers in today's world. "Hacks," as some people call genre writers today. I don't think we'll reach the heights Whitney spoke of with only fringe and literary works, although they, too, will surely be part of the cannon.

I believe that LDS literature will grow and improve at the rate we support and encourage one another and at the rate we recognize the best, constantly raising the bar. That's why the Whitney Awards were first started. And in the five years the awards program has been underway, I have watched that bar continually go up. 

Kudos to those writers working hard in spite of outdated stereotypes and prejudices about what they do and the market they do it in.

Yes, I read Mormon fiction. More people should.


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