Many writers use Grammarly to catch mistakes in their manuscripts.
This morning, I found another free online tool that hunts out dubious grammar and spelling. Proofread.botworks well and catches glitches that Grammarly misses, offering more of an explanation as to why there’s an error.
Other tools can be found in the articleHow To Easily Proofread and Edit Your Own eBook, from the Digital Reader website, whose free newsletter is worth subscribing to:
Since returning to creative writing six years ago, I’ve scrambled up several steep learning curves to do with thebusinessof writing. These include formatting, book cover design, marketing the ebooks I self-published on Smashwords and Amazon and the all-important lessons of how to write a synopsis and query agents.
I made another round of supplications to the ‘gatekeepers’, in February, after spending the previous two months editing my fifth novel. As any writer knows, that feels like wading through porridge, but there’s still a discernible feeling of achievement in having polished a manuscript.
I’m at a stage where I feel like I’ve created a potentially commercial product—which is how I’m increasingly coming to view my novels—rather than taking joy in them as a readable story. Despite this confidence, I know I’m a nobody, an unpublished author looking for his first publishing contract. Any marketability I have comes from where I live in Cornwall, which is popular as a holiday destination and from being the location of the successful television adaptation of Winston Graham’s Poldark stories.
I know that some bestselling authors are poor writers, but what makes me mad is that if my manuscript was submitted to the gatekeepers by a media celebrity (who’s already got fame and wealth), then it would be snaffled up immediately. Commercially, it’s the way of the world in publishing that someone with an existing high profile, a ‘platform’, will be more attractive a risk than someone anonymous who will take more effort to promote—but it still makes me mad!
It’s proof that no one cares what you’ve written. Would-be readers are more enticed by already knowing who the author is, than anything to do with the quality of the story. As an example supermodel/supertwit Naomi Campbell has ‘written’ several novels and biographies—I don’t know if she’s read them!
That’s what makes me angry—realising publishing is a business and has little to do with art.
I’ve written and edited five novels since 2014. If writing a story is like wandering a world I’ve created, with beautiful scenery and fascinating characters, then editing resembles staggering through an endless swamp in thick fog, wearing lead boots; the only sign of life is the croaking of frogs—and they’re not saying nice things!
I firmly believe that this odious task improves the readability of my manuscript, yet, despite this, I wonder who I’m doing the editing for….Tidying my writing may impress a literary agent or publisher’s editor, though they’ll still find things to correct. As for any reader who may be drawn to my stories, I’m not sure that they’d notice the improvements.
The reason that I say this, is that the most frightfully written rubbish becomes a best-selling book. Also, while editing, I’ve read crime novels by three of my favourite authors, and they most definitely didn’t do any of the nit-picking I’m bogged down with at the moment. I admire Harlan Coben and Jeffery Deaver for the readability of their stories, but neither uses language beyond the vocabulary of a ten-year-old. John Connolly is more literary in style, but my jaw dropped when I read a short paragraph of five sentences, which contained the word ‘had’ nine times!
‘Had’ is one of the words I hunt down, so it made me question who edits his manuscripts, and how he gets away with such gawkiness. The answer is, of course, that he’s a successful author with a long track record. You only have to look at the monumental length of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, which started off at the conventional word count of 80,000, but escalated to 257,000 once she’d achieved mega-sales. You don’t tell the goose that’s laying golden eggs what to do!
Editing manuscripts feels like an initiation rite, a compulsory test that I have to do, to please gatekeepers whose judgement has little to do with what a reader likes. I’m a grumpy lion, who’s never been good at jumping through hoops, but do any of you feel the same way?
I’ve gradually refined my working method, since returning to creative writing six years ago. With my first novel, I did some editing as I went along, but the bulk of it gripped me like a grizzly bear after I’d typed ‘The End’. Five months of editing saw me interacting with my story as a recalcitrant object, rather than an interesting crime novel, as I hunted down punctuation errors, repetitions and clumsy phrasing.
These days, after completing my fifth novel, I edit assiduously as I go along. Some writing experts recommend using a word processor not connected to the internet, which I understand if you’re easily distracted by emails and social media, but I prefer to research facts close to writing about them. I do tons of fact checking beforehand, two months worth for my last story, but there are still times when details need refining.
In this way, I don’t trouble myself with reaching a set word count each day. Nor do I worry about finishing a chapter. Instead, I’ve taken to leaving off writing when I reach an intriguing development that poses questions of the protagonists. This usually happens after many hours of writing, when I’m also feeling weary.
Several famous authors recommended a similar approach, including Ernest Hemingway, who stopped when he still had an idea about what might happen next but didn’t want to empty the well of his imagination. There’s a difference between dropping anchor to moor safely, and foundering on a reef.
I’ve also adopted a trick suggested by Thomas Edison:Never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious. In this way, my brain sometimes offers solutions to a predicament while I sleep, that I wouldn’t have thought of when awake.
After writing my first novel The Perfect Murderer, I took a month to weed out filler words from the manuscript. My search was prompted by 43 Words You Should Cut From Your Writing Immediately.When I started this exercise, I thought it would take a couple of days, but after noticing about 25 other words and phrases to remove I continued to plug away. Two months later, my manuscript was 9,000 words shorter.
I moved on to hunt for hyphens—words that need them, and those that don’t. This was time-consuming to do, and very boring too with none of the joy of creative writing. It set me to thinking about how differently I feel about a novel at different stages of writing it, then doing multiple edits, while trying to interest literary agents and publishers in it.
I’m apantser as a writer, plotting loosely while still having a firm idea of what the overall themes will be. In making outline notes for a novel, I do more sketching of the natures of my characters than making a detailed plot. My protagonists direct the story as much as me. This planning stage feels a bit like drawing a rough diagram of a building on a scrap of paper, something that I will inhabit with fictional people who’ll construct the walls for me.
Actually writing a novel, I feel both involved and removed from the process. My characters sometimes do things that I haven’t anticipated, but which are true to their natures. Writing a crime novel means strewing red herrings all over the place, as detectives try to work out what’s going on, so I don’t worry too much about mazes and dead-end corridors that appear. All the same, it can feel a bit like directing the building of my house/novel from a distance. Reading through the latest chapters at the end of the day, to see if it makes sense, is like trying to learn the layout of a new building.
Once finished, upon typing The End the editing begins. I become a building inspector, correcting features of my story-house—moving an illuminating window from one chapter to another, to reveal details that made my murderer act the way that he did. Overall, it looks like my story works, but as with any newly-built house, I know there’ll be plenty of bedding-in to come, with further adjustments needed.
Trying to flog the novel to literary agents, through queries and submissions of a writing sample from my story, requires so much polishing and hard work for so little response, that I feel like the world’s worst double-glazing salesman. While trying to ingratiate myself with these gatekeepers, my story house sits neglected and empty with no visitors. I don’t read it anymore, and though I’m proud of my creation, it’s also a museum of old thoughts. I want to make something new.
Tired of scrutinising my manuscript, which feels more like a forensic examination of each and every brick for integrity, I yearn for fresh writing challenges. I’ve become numb to whether the story works as a story, after picking sentences and individual words apart with tweezers and scalpel.
So, my novel has gone from a rough sketch to a building project followed by a second-fixing, correction, mopping-up exercise, onto being a product that I hawked from door to door, before I turned neurotic, micro-managing the elements that I used to construct my monster like Doctor Frankenstein.
Have any of you gone through similar shifts of attitude to their work?
Since returning to creative writing in 2013, I’ve learned a lot of new skills and some of them felt like scaling a frozen waterfall using ice axes and crampons. I mean stuff like formatting a manuscript, which made my brain melt as I attempted to understand the instructions in Smashwords founder Mark Coker’s free Style Guide.
It turned out to be easier to learn by actually doing it, submitting faulty versions of a short story to Smashwords’ Autovetter which told me what I’d done wrong.
Aspects of writing that I thought I’d be capable of doing, turned out to be complicated with subtleties…mainly linked to marketing myself and my books. Learning how to write plot synopses, queries to literary agents and which tags or keywords to choose to attract readers of ebooks all had me feeling like I was a trainee psychiatrist, not an author.
Selling anything requires trickery. I don’t mean dishonesty, just something that lures a customer into taking a bite at your hook. It could be termed Clickbait in that however you describe your book, including the tags, cover blurb and cover design, needs to make a potential reader curious in some way.
In learning how to do this, I’ve become very aware of what attracts me to a product, be it a book, DVD or CD. The title of this thread is provocative, for we all know that ‘gooder’isn’t a proper word, but using a slang word might create more interest than my being correct with ‘How I’ve Improved My Writing’…which sounds pompous. It’s important to choose a story title that intrigues as well as informs.
When I read through short stories and poetry I wrote five years ago, the main thing that I correct is wordiness. Usually, less is more, as keeping things simple lets the reader use their imagination. I’m currently re-editing the first novel I wrote, having not looked at it for eighteen months. Leaving stuff in the bottom drawer always improves my eyes’ focus.
I recall wanting to write a crime novel that had literary elements. This ambition led me into using posh words and ten words where one word would have been better.. It’s stuff like having written: “The knife had left a scar on the fatty part above his left jaw” —the fatty part above his left jaw, what are you one about, Paul? I rewrote this as “He had a knife scar on his cheek” Simpler and conveying the same message.
Overall, I think that I’ve learned how to make my writing more forceful with fewer words…punchier. One of the masters of laconic yet dynamic writing was Raymond Chandler, who apparently laboured for hours to cut back what he’d written, and who said:
It takes time to distil a story into the written equivalent of whisky. Far easier to dash off what amounts to palatable but weak beer. As Mark Twain is deemed to have said: I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.
Writing a story shouldn’t force your readers into consulting a dictionary. Using pretentious and unusual words can certainly be used to show the nature of a character, maybe a snob who’s trying to intimidate someone. I did this in my latest Cornish Detective novel, where a murder suspect, a snooty art dealer, talks down to the detectives by referring to painting terms such an en plein air and wet-on-wet.
What I need to get betterer (!) at is how to schmooze. Ingratiating myself with literary agents, publishers and readers doesn’t come naturally to me, but it’s onwards and upwards, as these days there’s no choice but to be your own cheerleader. The biggest fallacy about publishing remains true—that a well-written and well-polished manuscript will automatically rise to the top of the slush pile. Your story may shine, but luminosity alone won’t sell it.
How has your writing improved?
Do you look back at early efforts and groan?
What aspects of writing and publishing intimidate you?
As writers, one of the most commonly given pieces of advice is to cut excess detail, pruning the flowery passages that looked so good when we wrote them in a euphoric burst of inspiration, our fingers a blur on the keyboard. Less is More is the mantra.
Elmore Leonard cryptically claimed: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it”
Much as I love his books, his style is as bare and parched as a sun-bleached horse skull. Colette was equally blunt, but offered more of a clue about what’s needed to avoid bloat.
My first Cornish Detective novel, The Perfect Murderer, was written before I learnt about recommended word limits. I may have been swayed by reading two very long novels at the time, Donna Tartt’s Secret History (193,000 words) and Neal Stephenson’s Reamde (322,080 words).
I queried agents with that story, eventually cottoning on to what was the main problem with my manuscript when one commented that although he loved the premise and my writing, it was simply too long. I edited it down by 40,000 words to 139,000. I may return to hack away more, though I can’t see how without a major rewrite, as it’s such a complex plot. Also, my two readers, merciless critics both, not given to pulling punches, didn’t notice the length. This had me thinking that just as a well-proportioned athlete isn’t considered obese, even if they’re heavy, then a well-paced story disguises its length.
J. K. Rowling’s latest Cormoran Strike crime novel Lethal White has been criticised for being bloated. She does have form. It’s worth remembering that, while her first Harry Potter novel came in close to the recommended word count of 80,000 for a debut by an unknown author. Her second story was a bit longer, but then she embraced loggorrhoea in a ‘too much ain’t enough’ way!
1) Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/ Sorcerer’s Stone: 76,944 words.
2)Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets:85,141 words.
3) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: 107,253 words.
4) Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: 190,637 words.
5) Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: 257,045 words.
6) Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: 168,923 words.
7) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: 198,227 words.
The thing is, you don’t criticise the goose that’s laying the golden eggs—do you?
I was living in America when Harry Potter became a publishing phenomenon, and I read the first three novels to mythen wife. We got one-third of the way through Goblet of Fire before giving up, as it was flabby and self-indulgent, disappearing up its own backside!
J. K Rowling isn’t the first author to take flak for verbosity. J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye was widely panned when published, with critics saying, among other things, that it was “too long“ and“monotonous“.When confronted with the six volumes of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the Duke of Cumberland remarked to the author: “Another damned, thick square book…always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr Gibbon?”
As Ambrose Bierce observed: “The covers of this book are too far apart.”
Having said that, these days, thanks partly to the success of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice, adapted into the epic Game of Thrones, there’s been a whole slew of mega-novels in the Fantasy genre.
While this might work in Fantasy, as well as Science Fiction and Historical novels, I can’t help thinking that for other genres, it’s got to be a case of diminishing returns for an author to spend years writing extremely long stories.
In the winter of 2018, I completed my fifth Cornish Detective novel, which comes in at 90,000 words—10,000 more than the previous three—but I’m OK with that, as it signifies a sea change in my protagonist’s character. The plot included two new elements with my hero falling in love and lust, only to be in a fight to the death two days later, which sees him and his opponent on life support at the end of the book. I’m hoping that by the time my faithful readers (?) have read the story arc of my detective, that they’ll not mind a slightly longer tale. After all, previously published crime writers, such as Jussi Adler Olsson, James Lee Burke,John Connolly, Dennis Lehane and Michael Connellywrite series that are as much portraits of their characters and their family lives, as they are about the investigation they’re running. Readers read on because they’ve bonded with the protagonist, their relatives and their cohorts.
Have you read any stories that you thought needed pruning?
Even if an author avoids writer’s block, it’s quite possible to feel jaded by one’s output.
There’s a lot that’s rather mechanical about the writing process, when it comes to multiple read-throughs of the manuscript, editing away, thinking that you’ve finally created a version that’s faultless, at least so far as punctuation, grammar and repetition are concerned—only to discover a glaring error that you somehow missed fifty times!
Some writers love the task of editing, but whatever your attitude, there are various proofreading apps such as Grammarly,Hemingway Editor andTypelyto assist you.
When I returned to creative writing in 2013, I did so after four years of depression, which my brain cells plainly got tired of, as suddenly I had a freshwater spring of writing ideas bubbling from me. Titles, sentences and fragments of verse erupted: I had to sit down at the keyboard to turn down the noise in my mind.
Initially, I wrote short stories, poems and song lyrics. Some of these were about aspects of life that were of concern to me, such as bereavement, being a loner, the aftereffects of having fought in a war (PTSD), mistaken identity and the search for love. Several poems became the inspiration for short stories and novellas.
I turned to writing novels in 2014. I completed the fifth story in my Cornish Detective series in 2018. I queried 88 literary agents and indie publishers early this year, which is my third major campaign of making submissions, totalling 650 times I’ve heard ‘No’! It’s hard to keep querying fresh, for there are so many hoops to jump through, to satisfy agents’ different requirements, that it becomes an exercise in concentration and humility.
I’m planning a return to self-publishing. In between novel writing, and even during, I’ve created flash fiction, poetry, short stories and novellas. Some of these were for competition entries, but working in shorter forms is stimulating.
Even if you don’t normally write poems or stories that are 50 words long, there are benefits to trying. For one thing, it forces a writer to consider word choice, refocusing your imagination. With no intention of releasing this work on sensitive readers, you might still get inspiration from it, that will intensify your novel.
Another advantage of compressing or condensing ideas into verse or flash fiction is that when you return to longer forms you’re more aware of the logline and tagline of your story….
Altering perspective in this way helps me to stay fresh. It’s very easy to get obsessed with the characters in your main project. But, changing tack doesn’t always provide clarity.
With the overbearing influence of technology and forensic evidence in 21st-century criminal investigations, I was starting to feel rather constrained in how to simply tell a story, so I took a break and returned to the 19th-century to write the second novella in a series about an American Civil War veteran. Far from being simpler to create, there were so many complicated issues to do with race and politics, that it was even trickier to tell in a cogent way. I began to yearn for the solid certainty of CCTV and autopsy evidence.
The process of writing a book involves many stages, from the inkling of an idea to making plans and researching, before writing the story, followed by editing…then, wondering how to sell it!
Of all of the stages, editing is my least favourite, and as for marketing my novels, I’m as confused a dunce now as I was five years ago.
For me, the best part of the process is the actual writing: I come alive when I return to the keyboard. Steve McQueen encapsulated the excitement of doing something he loved—racing—and I feel the same way about writing.
I’m intrigued to see what happens next, for whatever plans I’ve made and however inventive I am, there’s still an unknowable element that appears while I write.
I split into three parts: creator, critic and reader, watching the story coalesce. Not every author feels the same way:
‘My greatest fear is of suddenly feeling that to devote so much of my life to writing is meaningless. It’s a sensation that I’ve felt very often, and I’m afraid that I will again. I need a lot of determination, a stubborn, passionate adherence to the page, not to feel the urgency of other things to do, a more active way of spending my life. So yes, I’m fragile. It’s all too easy for me to notice the other things and feel guilty. And so it’s pride that I need, more than strength. While I’m writing, I have to believe that it’s up to me to tell this or that story, and that it would be wrong to avoid it or not to complete it to the best of my abilities.’
Elena Ferrante, author of My Brilliant Friendand four other Neapolitan Novels. P.G. Wodehouse
Other authors don’t have any guilt about writing:
‘Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.’