Divining Dorothy

Dorothy Parker offered the following advice: “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

Dorothy’s comment was on my mind last Friday as I presented a workshop on editing. When I was asked to do the workshop, my first thought was, “How can I talk about editing for an hour and a half?”  I certainly wasn’t going to get up in front of a room of writers and go into the finer points of grammar and punctuation. What, then?

As I thought about my own proofreading experience, I realized editing comes down to patience. Not just the patience it takes to read through your manuscript multiple times, but the patience to do it right in the first place.

Disclaimer: I have trouble practicing what I preach. My number one character flaw, but not the only one, is impatience. When I learned to sew, I never basted first. To baste, from the (Old French bastir) means to “sew lightly.”  I always skipped that step, and turned out some real disasters in my high school home economics class.

Likewise, I don’t write light. I never outline; I should, but I don’t. I remember shuffling, cutting and taping scraps of paper together before I had the luxury of using a word processor. If you ever wrote a book on a standard typewriter, you know what I mean.

For the workshop, instead of talking about whether to use lay or lie or the overuse of ellipses, I decided to focus on how to edit a manuscript effectively and, what is more important, how to avoid making rookie errors during the writing process. It’s a lot easier to avoid the mistakes initially than it is to find and correct them later.

For some writers, ideas form slowly–and are given adequate thought– before the writer’s fingers ever touch the keyboard. They have the patience to think through the format, content, story line, and arrangement of data. They may make well-organized notes, lists, or even spreadsheets.

Others, however, begin writing the moment inspiration strikes. The ideas are flowing, the words are piling up, the characters are interacting. Occasionally, however, a few details get overlooked and proofreading and editing becomes a chore. I fall into this category. Knowing this, I’ve devised a simple plan that works for me and might work for other impulsive writers

I create several documents and keep them handy on my computer desktop.

1)     List significant events as they unfold. Only takes a minute and it keeps the  chronology straight. It’s especially necessary for a mystery,  crime, or intricately plotted novel.

2)     Major characters–record their date of birth. Add relevant information as it develops: graduation, wedding, divorce, employment, residence. After each significant event, note how old they were at the time.

3)    Record all characters names even if they only appear once. Indicate who they are and any facts about them that will need to be addressed later in the story. This not only provides a quick reference, but keeps you from making an unwanted spelling change; for example, Mr. Waters becoming Mr.Walters.

This list can also prevent you from having all the characters names begin with same letter or sound similar. Marion, Martha, Mary, Melissa, Merissa, Marvin, Martin, Marlon and Margaret!

4)     Whenever you use numbers to indicate the time between incidents–years, months, days, hours, minutes–make a note. It’s not only a useful reference for you, but eliminates confusion for the reader. Clarity is often the differentiating factor between a clumsy read versus a page turner.

If you are really patient,  you might follow Dorothy’s parting words:

“ It takes me six months to do a story. I think it out and then write it sentence by  sentence—no first draft. I can’t write five words but that I change seven.”

You Poor Mother

“You poor mother,” the female character said. I stopped reading. Wait a minute. Was she calling the young man, who had just told her that his mother was comatose, a “mother” in the most derogatory sense of the word?

This was supposedly a caring young woman. Something wasn’t right. I went back and read the line again. Oh! It was supposed to read, “Your poor mother.” Of course. And therein lies the need for careful editing, even if you have to read your manuscript a dozen times, read it until the words swim and you hate it. Read it until you know it’s right.

One of the criticisms of self-published books is sloppy editing. But we can’t confine those observations to independent writers alone. I recently read the latest novel of a very well-known and admired mystery writer. She has a top level publisher and consistently hits the best seller list. Yet her latest book had errors that were too obvious to miss–wrong words, dropped letters, twisted timeline.

At a book fair in our area, I shared a table with a fellow author and I complimented her on her latest novel. She laughed and said, “Did you notice anything wrong?” I hadn’t, but she told me she’d changed the color of a main character’s car, describing it blue in one scene and green in the other. We talked then about how easy it is to overlook errors.

Sometimes we simply know the material so well that our mind supplies the correct word or phrasing. Sometimes we have read through so many times we can no longer concentrate. Sometimes our proofreading programs supply the wrong word–I’ve laughed until I cried over some of the auto-text correction errors people have posted. And, sometimes, we just have a mental block that causes us to consistently use the wrong punctuation or the wrong word (a friend didn’t call me the “comma queen” for nothing).

Do minor errors detract from the characters, the plot, the theme? Not usually, but they often confuse or irritate the reader.

In my nonfiction, true-crime book, I paid scant attention to the chapter titles once I set up the table of contents. Since it was a book involving two murders, two trials, and two executions, the chapter titles included dates. During the last proof (after discovering on previous proofs various oddities including two lines that, for some inexplicable reason, were in a different font), I realized that, according to my chapter titles, my protagonist went to trial a year after he was executed. It was just a typo, but still . . ..

Would anyone really notice and be thrown by the chapter title error, I wondered? Maybe not, but the one or two people who did notice might question the veracity of my other facts as well–or think I was just careless.

I was saved by FRIENDS, people who believed in my work enough to read it . . . and read it again . . . and again. One used a Microsoft program to add, delete, and suggest. The other read an early copy of the actual print book and made pencil notations. Their time and attention to detail was invaluable.

My best advice? Treasure your early readers, find a good copy editor, and read that manuscript just once more.