Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Taking Out the Errors and Filling in the Blanks

I’ve been working on the second book in a new series that I’m hoping my agent will sell. She has the first book, and I have an eighty-thousand-word draft of the second. That’s a fairly long draft, but as I read it over I can see I’ve missed a few things.

The story concerns one of the heroine’s cousins and his wife. This is his second wife, and he has two children, a son by his first wife, now deceased, and a daughter by his second wife. I’ve set up the story with a reasonable number of suspects, developed and set out clues, explored the characters so that readers can see their motivations if not their guilt, and explored the setting and its influence on people’s behavior. In the end I have what I think is a sound confrontation scene, a few surprises, and, of course, changes in the protagonist’s life. What have I missed?

I missed the obvious. The teenage son is pivotal to the crime and its aftermath, though he is never a suspect. He is mentioned by the parents, the high school principal, the town librarian, and some other characters. He comes up in conversation, and he triggers some significant developments. So what have I missed? The protagonist never talks to him.

The protagonist is Felicity O’Brien, who owns a farm in a small community in a very rural part of New England. She talks to just about everyone, but somehow I managed to get her through this entire crime story without ever having her talk to one of the key players. I’ve set out to rectify the omission, with several scenes lined up at crucial points in the story.

I don’t think I’m the only one who falls into this trap. Indeed, Agatha Christie used the omission of the obvious as a clue (and the title) of one of her mysteries, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1934). I can’t speak for other writers, but I know that I sometimes focus so closely on what’s happening on the page that I miss details (and bigger things too) I should be including—location, time of day, day of the week, name of the character I’m writing about, and a number of other details. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was famous for changing his character’s eye color.

Correcting these errors is the work of the near-final draft and a good beta editor. But let’s face it. It is impossible to be both human and a perfect writer. But it is possible to look for errors and omissions and correct them. You can take this too far, and be obsessed about the text and miss the story itself, but overall, every writer should want the text to be as clean and as complete as possible.

When I began working on the scenes for the teenage son, I discovered other parts of the story I could strengthen. One change suggested others, and once again I followed them through the story. My task now is to fill in the blanks I’ve created, and make sure every detail is present and makes sense.

For a longer discussion of errors in books, you may enjoy this article on editors who also make mistakes:

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Reading William Trevor

Today I finished The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor, one of my favorite writers. When I came to the last page, sad that the story was coming to an end, I thought at once of how this tale and Trevor’s writing style had influenced me. The author is a quiet, careful writer, who takes the time to let the characters live and breathe on the page. There is no rushing about, no surprises out of the usual twists and turns of a life in a rural corner of Ireland.

Lucy Gault is just eight years old when the violence reaches a pitch in Ireland, and as a landowner married to an Englishwoman, her father Everard Gault comes to the unhappy conclusion that he and his family must leave the country he loves. As the day of departure nears, young Lucy has plans of her own, running away to the home of a favorite housemaid. But something happens, and she disappears. Everyone searches for her fruitlessly, and the conclusion is drawn that she has drowned after they find one of her missing sandals and an abandoned blouse on the beach. Stricken, the Gaults abandon Ireland for what they believe is forever. When Lucy is found weeks later in the woods, crippled with a broken ankle, the family solicitor is unable to reach her parents. And so begins her solitary life.

The novel held me in its gentle narrative, moving along seemingly at the pace of Lucy’s life in the care of the family servants, Henry and Bridget, who remained to tend the cattle and bees and gardens. At certain moments, a scene included an illusion to the future, or a knife was picked up. My mystery-writing mind expected a swiftness in plotting now, but Trevor held to his plan, and the story continued on its fluid way.

Throughout the novel I felt several opportunities for the author to change direction, to speed up the story, notch up the suspense, deepen the conflict. But he never took these pathways. Instead, we ached for Lucy’s mother, who never knew her daughter was found alive, and we ached for the young man, Ralph, who lived with a different loss.

I’m sure a number of readers would have found this book unpleasantly slow and dull, but I found it held me, page after page. I found something else. As much as I looked forward to reading this, and as often as I stayed up late to read a few more pages in this very slim volume, the pace slowed my reading. This book is shorter than the average mystery, but I spent twice as long reading it. Every word, every phrase seemed to matter. I took the time to be with Lucy in her story, and in a different world.

Trevor's language is simple and direct, his characters uncomplicated by the outer world but their depth of living in constricted circumstances is fully realized. Despite the pace and nature of the story, which recalls a much earlier time and style of writing, the novel was first published in 2002.

For a change of pace, you will find my books at the sites here:

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Overused Words

One of the last things I do when I’m finishing a short story is read for overused words. Most of these are easy to recognize—awesome, literally, really, and the like. They have migrated into the written word from casual conversation, trendy TV comedians, and the younger generation. I hear these the minute they come out of my mouth, or fingers on the keyboard. But these are not the words I’m most concerned about.

Each of us has our own distinctive verbal tics and habits, and those are the easiest to miss. We think they sound right, so we don’t hear the repetition, or echoes as I call them. To ferret out these habits of writing, I search on Find/Replace, and consider each sentence or phrase that pops up. Most of them I rewrite, tightening the passage and excising unnecessary words.

In a recent short story, I found I had used  -thing words almost 40 times in 6,000 words. These are so common as to be almost invisible—nothing, something, anything, as well as thing. Removing these forced me to be specific, editing flabby phrasing into a more muscular passage. (I almost used the word “robust,” but that’s one of the overused words I’m trying to avoid.)

One immediate benefit of highlighting a poor verbal habit, such as overusing looked, is that it forces me to examine the character more closely and think hard about what she or he is doing. Is she admiring the view, sneaking a peek at a stranger, or staring at an old friend now so changed she almost didn’t recognize him? Why does it matter that he is “looking” at a person or scene? Is he calculating the next move, or is he trying to identify the person? Making these changes doesn’t necessarily mean more detail, but it does mean greater precision.

I’m fortunate to have three beta readers who together spot my verbal tics and bring them to my attention. As I go about revising those passages, I usually identify other infelicitous expressions. By the time I’m finished, the manuscript is tight and clean, and reads smoothly, without echoes or awkwardness or repetitions.

“Overused” words is a popular topic on various sites for writers, and I visited several. To read a list of words considered overused in writing today, go to:

To read my fiction, go here:

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Front Matter

Recently I’ve come across a number of self-published books that all have the same flaw. The writers have hired editors and proofreaders, book designers and formatters, and cover designers. But they have still failed to get one part of the book right. And this is the arrangement of the front matter.

The extent of the front matter may vary; not every book needs a preface or an introduction. But the order in which the required items appear has been well established, and serves a purpose. The front matter leads us into the work by offering important clarifying detail. Arranged correctly, the front matter orients distributors, booksellers, and librarians, and provides necessary information in the expected place. They know where this information is located. Only, now it isn’t.

The front matter on too many self-published books has me flipping back and forth among the first few pages looking for the critical details (copyright, publisher, ISBN, etc.). The experience is disorienting. But learning the correct arrangement of the front matter is simple—just examine a book published by a traditional publishing house. All of them use the same setup, the one prescribed by manuals such as The Chicago Manual of Style. My copy dates from 1982. Another option is Words into Type, from Prentice-Hall.

The front matter consists of everything before the main text, which begins with Chapter 1, opening on the right-hand page. Traditionally, everything begins on the right hand page—opening chapter, section title (and following first chapter in the section), division title. After the first chapter, each chapter can begin on the recto (right-hand page), or verso (left-hand page), but the writer should be consistent about this throughout the book. Here is the standard list of front matter for a print book and its arrangement.

Half title (recto)
blank (verso) or series title or list of previous publications

Title page (recto) with title and author and occasionally the title of the foreword, along with the name and location of the publisher and date.

Copyright page (verso) with copyright notice, foreword or preface copyright notice, publisher and additional publisher’s information (if a special imprint), ISBN, Library of Congress Control Number (if known), jacket or book designer’s name, place of manufacture, edition. This is also a permissions page if the list of permissions is short enough to be placed here. If not, place a note here referring the reader to the end of the book for the list of permissions. This will also be indicated in the Contents. Some publishers put the list of previous publications here.

Dedication (recto)
blank (verso)
Contents (recto)
blank (verso)
Preface (recto)
Foreword (recto if the first page of text; if not, either recto or verso).
Introduction (recto)
Section title (recto)
Blank (verso)
Chapter 1 (recto)

Pagination doesn't usually begin until the first page of text, be that a preface or foreword or introduction or chapter 1. But some publishers begin pagination on the Contents page. If the front matter is paginated, the choice is roman numerals. Arabic numerals begin on the first page of chapter 1. But some publishers begin the Arabic numerals on the title page.

If you’re putting together an eBook, you have more flexibility. You can omit the half title and blank pages, and combine some of the others. The Title page can include the dedication, followed by a copyright page with list of permissions. A series title can also go below the title on the first page.

The back matter in a book of fiction is the place for links to websites, other books, and teaser chapters for your next book.

The front matter is important for providing a lot of technical information, and the point is to make sure anyone looking for it can find it. This may sound confusing at first, but putting things in their expected order makes the entire publication appear more professional.

To find my books (with front matter), go to: