An infinite number of writing prompts

I try to stay away from badly written books and totally worthless movies. Yet, they might be goldmines! A writing professor of mine once said that he finds a lot of value in both because he used them as writing prompts. How? The challenge he saw in them was figuring out how to fix them.

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In the world of major publishers and agents, this is one of the editor’s jobs, though they don’t intentionally begin with something worthless. They begin with something that has promise but needs a lot of work. They help the author turn the work into something much better.

You can practice your writing skills in a similar way by taking badly written books or movies and figuring out what makes them badly written and how you would fix them if you happened to work for a major publisher as the author’s editor. If you like writing prompts, fixing bad books–or scenes out of bad books–gives you an infinite number of exercises.

Think of the kinds of complaints you read in one-star Amazon reviews: thin or unbelievable plot, one-dimensional characters, skimpy information about the novel’s setting, storyline padded out with too much description or lengthy and inane conversations that don’t move the plot forward, etc.

Pick one scene and make it work. Make sure it’s a scene that requires better writing and not a scene you would cut altogether. For example, if there’s a section of lengthy description, try to re-write it at half the length. If the dialogue is inane, what can the characters say to each other at that point in the story that makes more sense? You can give yourself a bigger challenge by writing within the original author’s voice and style rather than your own.

My professor thought that one way of learning how to diagnose and fix weaknesses in our own work was by diagnosing and correcting problems in the works of other writers. It’s an interesting exercise and, goodness knows, there are hundreds of books out there we can use for raw material.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the recently release short story collection “Widely Scattered Ghosts.”

I have no idea why I can’t proofread worth a darn

“Nothing can affect my voice, it’s so bad.” – Bob Dylan

Likewise, nothing will help my proofreading because it’s so bad. Fortunately, an Internet program called Grammarly has weeded out most of the typos from my Facebook posts. But, I’m cheap and have a free version. That one doesn’t seem to help much with Word files.

So, today I’m going through the manuscript for an upcoming short story collection for the 5th time looking for typos. I keep finding them. After I go through the manuscript, I always think, “Finally, it’s now error free.”

Except it isn’t. If I go through it again, I find more typos. I don’t know I miss them. My publisher sends my books to an editor and she always finds more.

I feel slightly better about the situation when I read that many experts think the worst person to proofread a manuscript is the person who wrote it. S/he always starts reading for a sense of the story and misses the same errors that got missed the first time.  Typos are a big problem with many self-published books because authors try to proofread them and miss a lot of mistakes. They’re advised to hire editors, but many editors charge more than the authors think the books will earn.

My editor has been doing her job for a long time, so I’m pleased to say that she catches what I miss. Thank goodness. My publisher relies on our editor as well. When I send her a new story, she’s reading it to see what happens in the story and whether that story will be a reasonable addition to the catalogue. So, she misses some of the same stuff I miss. She grumbles at this because she’s also a writer and thinks, as I do, that at some point our proofreading will be worth a darn.

Some authors have a team of beta readers who go through manuscripts in progress and make suggestions. Naturally, these readers will catch a lot of the errors. However, I dislike the concept. I never know where my stories are going when I start writing them, so the last thing I want is a committee making suggestions about what’s happening and what ought to happen next. That would totally screw up my chaotic writing process.

My wife is a big help, though. She worked for a daily newspaper and has also done a lot of writing. She finds many of the errors in my work that I don’t see. Sometimes she catches continuity problems such as “Hey, didn’t Bart die in chapter three? If so, what’s he doing sneaking around in chapter eight?” Oops.

In my Florida Folk Magic trilogy, my conjure woman Eulalie claims she’s older than dirt. I’m not that old yet, but I’m getting close. That means that I’ve been writing long enough to have figured out how to be a better proofreader. What I think happened is this: James Patterson and Nora Roberts started worrying that I’d knock their books off the bestseller list. So they put a hex on me. That’s the only reasonable excuse I can think of.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “At Sea” which is free on Kindle for a few more hours.

 

I expect book editors to catch the over-use of a pet word or phrase

I just finished reading a novel by a “global bestselling author.” It was published by an imprint of a major publisher. Since it was a mystery/crime novel rather than a satire, I wonder why the publisher’s editors didn’t catch the fact that the author kept using the word “curtly” over and over again, as in, “It’s not my fault,” she said, curtly.

The first time I saw the adverb, it worked even though writing teachers generally don’t like adverbs because they tell the reader something rather than show the reader something. However, in a fast-paced dialogue sequence made up of short sentences, the adverb seemed justified. The second time I saw “curtly,” it was used appropriately, but I wondered why the author didn’t use something else rather than re-using “curtly.”

I didn’t count how many times he used this word. However, its use was excessive, noticeable, distracting, and lazy. His editor should have caught it.

Sometimes when I use a word, I think it’s the first time I’ve used it in a story. But then I notice it a few more times. In Word, I can see how often I’ve written it and where with the “find” function. It tells me how many times I chosen the word and highlights its occurrences. This makes it easy to change some instances of the word with synonyms or to rewrite the passages.

Now, perhaps the author in question is powerful enough to overrule his editor. Okay, the editor’s off the hook. But in this case, the author appeared to take the lazy way out.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the Florida Folk Magic Series of crime and conjure novels.

 

Thanks for the editors

At this very moment, an editor is going over the manuscript for Thomas-Jacobs Publishing’s re-release of my contemporary fantasy Sarabande. I’m glad she is. She sees what I cannot see along with inconsistencies and goofs I wouldn’t recognize if I did see them.

Note: none of my editors look like this.
Note: none of my editors look like this.

I could blame my cataract surgery for making my right eye see so much better than I need new glasses to read the words on the screen. (My old glasses are now too strong.)

However, if my editor sees this post, she can remind me (and all of you) that I was overlooking a lot of typos before the surgery.

Sometimes my wife reads over things I’ve written that I think are error free. Nope. She was a newspaper editor so she catches a lot of stuff.

So does my publisher, but she likes to check and double-check, so an editor reads my stuff after she reads my stuff. It must be a fact of life that a writer can go over his or her work a hundred times and guess what? It’s still waiting for the editor’s red pen.

Unfortunately, the red pen is gone. My wife and I are old school: we grew up editing copy (news copy) on a double spaced printout. I find more errors this way than I do when looking for typos and missing punctuation on the screen. I have to admit that Word’s Revision/Markup makes it easy for publishers and editors and writers to communicate over time about manuscript corrections.

But I still prefer edits on paper. My eyes are attuned to the page rather than the screen. Even so, I miss a lot. You probably do, too, whether you edit on the screen or print out a hard copy and look for your favorite pencil.

That’s why I firmly believe everything should go through an editor even though it’s not always easy to arrange this in today’s Kindle Direct Publishing world. If your spouse didn’t work for a newspaper, at least get your pets to review everything before you hit the “Save and Publish” button.

Thanks Lesa (wife), Smoky (editor) and Melinda (publisher).

–Malcolm

TSScoverjourneysMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of “The Sun Singer,” a contemporary fantasy that is currently on sale on Kindle.