Thursday, April 26, 2018

Self-editing tips for authors

While not everyone will be able to afford the services of an editor, I firmly believe authors can get into the habit of good self-editing to catch many of their gremlins. Believe me, there’s nothing that gives me the conniptions as much when I hear some writer talk about how they’re going to release their novel or novella a mere week after they’ve typed “the end” on the first draft.

I don’t think I need to go into any great detail as to why that’s a bad idea. (In any case, that’s a post for another day.)

Anyhoo, here are my favourite, top five tips for better self-editing that I’ve gathered over the past few years. Use these, don’t use these.

1) Sleep on it. This is self-explanatory. Don’t dash off a submission the moment you’ve finished writing it. Yeah, yeah, I get it, your hairy little palms are all clammy and you can’t wait for someone to verify your brilliance the instant you unleash this little beast into the wooly wilds. But seriously. Don’t. Close the document. Step away from your machine. Go walk the dog. Hang upside down from your balcony. Do something that’s NOT writing. Come back tomorrow. Or a week from now, and then look at the document again. You’ll have fresh eyeballs. You’ll see all sorts of weirdness you didn’t imagine you could ever have hacked up.

2) A different view. Change the font. Save this as a PDF. Make the type bigger, with larger spacing. You’d be amazed how many errors jump out when you do so. Now, look for any places where you’ve repeated words. Read with the view of finding any sentences that are too long. Spelling that looks off. Defamiliarisation is the key here. If you make the text look different from that doc you were working off, you’ll have a better chance to catch anything odd. Watch out for words that end with ‘-ly’ – do you really need so many instances of “really”, “actually”, “finally”. Are you starting sentences with filler words like “He saw”, “She thought”? Did you just write “their” instead of “there”? Can you tell the difference between “its” and “it’s”?

3) Learn to love the sound of your own voice. Seriously, read the story or sections out loud to yourself. This is a great way to find clunky constructions … or even sentences that are way too long. [A hint, if you find yourself gasping for breath, you probably need to have ended that sentence a bit sooner.] Also, typos you missed earlier may jump out at you at this point. Dropped words too … you might gloss over them otherwise, but you’ll most certainly hear them when you read out loud.

4) Print it out. Yep. Kill some trees. Take a red pen or even any other kind of coloured pen or pencil, and scribble on the document to your heart’s content. Colour code your comments. I use this method to proof my printed layouts before I set up my print files for CreateSpace. You’ll find loads of gremlins this way. [Hint, you can use this method while busy with early structural edits too.]

5) Learn from past mistakes. This should be a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many authors have the incredibly bad habit of saying, “Ah, the editor will fix it” and they make the same bloody mistakes over and over again. If your editor points out that you have a habit of constructing sentences with misplaced modifiers, figure out the root of this bad habit and fix it. Too many filter words? Start viewing those constructions as if they were radioactive. So, what I’m saying is, know your bad habits and rein them in. Put them in a box, seal it, and set it on fire. Make an effort. Your editor will thank you (and be less homicidal). And so will your readers.

PS, I know I said I’d only have 5 tips, but I’d like to point out these great resources online for days when you can’t figure out your effect from your affect: Grammar Girl and GrammaristI refer to these sites OFTEN, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Moonshawl by Storm Constantine

Sometimes there are books that I should have read the moment they came out, and The Moonshawl by Storm Constantine is one of them. To my eternal regret, this story languished on my iPad for far too long before I finally cracked its virtual spine. 

While The Moonshawl is part of a sequence of stories set in Storm’s Wraeththu mythos I believe it works well as a standalone novel as well. I’d even hazard to say that if you are yet to read any of the tales set in this world, you can pick this one up as someone who is new to the mythos. (Storm works in enough back story, and she has appendices at the end too.)

At its heart, The Moonshawl is a ghost story in a fine gothic tradition. We follow the har Ysobi, who comes to the small town of Gwyllion, in a region once known as Wales. He is a hienama (priest) and the community leader wishes for him to write rituals for the hara who dwell in his domain.

Only things are not as simple as that, as Ysobi discovers. Buried deep beneath the skin of this community is a dark secret, and as the summer comes into its fullness, so does the danger – as he faces an entity that is threaded together out of pain and malice that threatens the hara Ysobi has begun to care about. 

Okay, so what I really, really love about Storm’s writing is the way that she describes her environment. She has a way about her words to evoke a rich, detailed world, where all your senses are engaged – I think the words I’m looking for are lush, sensual, intoxicating. The characters themselves are often enigmatic, conflicted, and the interplay between them is lovely to behold. Then, of course, there is Storm’s magical system, which is a central theme to this novel; if you’re a lover of Wraeththu lore, and are yet to pick up this tale, then you’ll not be disappointed.

Storm also takes her time unspooling the telling, and much like real life, there are no definite endings – only some threads are stitched into the warp and weft of the narrative, while others are left loose, so that she can no doubt pick them up later. The Wraeththu mythos is like that – a rich tapestry that enchants. And yes, I rate these stories as some of my greatest influences.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin is one of those books I had all the good intentions to read over the years but never quite got round to it. Le Guin was one of my early introductions into SFF, so it was wonderful to return to her writing, and I think as an adult I'm getting a lot more out of her works than I did when I was in my early teens. I do suspect I did have one botched attempt at this book in my younger years, and I'm glad I picked it up now.

As with all her writing, there's a lot going on. This isn't merely an exploration of a new world, though that does offer the template upon which Le Guin builds the story. We discover the world of Winter through the eyes of the human envoy Genly Ai, but it's more than that – Le Guin digs a little deeper beneath the skin, beneath the differences, to discuss what it means to be human.

Then on top of that, there is some discussion about how society orders itself – we learn about two different nations that exist upon Winter: one ruled by a monarchy, the other a communist state. Some of Le Guin's observations, I feel, might even be pertinent today, cautionary tales, even.

While the political intrigues at the start of the story were a bit difficult for me to follow, and the environment itself was hostile (not an easy setting in which to immerse), the process of the novel's unfolding was in itself the reward, and much like life, it took unexpected turns. Le Guin's description for the last part of the story, of the journey, and the challenges faced, reminded me once again of her absolute mastery of language. She is one of those authors who, with a few, deft brush strokes, can paint a detailed, rich image.

The notion of the Gethenians all being one sex wasn't too difficult for me to deal with (here I'm thinking of Storm Constantine's Wraeththu mythos in comparison), and it certainly added to the defamiliarisation Genly experienced.

Central to her story, I feel is the notion of truth, of one's own personal truth, and how one's perceptions of it may change, along with notions of identity. Political intrigue, check. Deep introspection with a smattering of Taoist leanings, check. Part travelogue, check. The Left Hand of Darkness is all this and more, and I suspect it's the kind of book that will keep on giving every time I read it.

I must add that while I was sad to learn of Le Guin's passing this year, I found it easier to accept because of the incredible legacy she's gifted us after a full life.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of JRR Tolkien

I honestly have no idea who put me onto Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of JRR Tolkien (edited by Janet Brennan Croft and Leslie A Donovan) but it's proved to be one of my reading highlights for the year so far. If you're reading this review right now, thank you.

Those who know me well, will know that JRR Tolkien has always been my first love in fantasy, so to delve into this selection of essays that re-examines the role of women in the works was an absolute treat.

Everyone who's read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings will know that there aren't that many female characters central to the story. We have Arwen, Eowyn, the lady Galadriel... And unless you've read the Silmarillion, you most likely won't pull up that many more names for female characters in Middle-earth.

I believe the selection of essays in Perilous and Fair, however, redeems Tolkien to a large extent. While the three primary characters I've mentioned are not front and centre in terms of the narrative in the novels, they are, however, not without agency, and each is examined, along with others, such as LĂșthien TinĂșviel, in terms of their power, and especially how male and female power differ and complement each other in Tolkien's Middle-earth.

Through this collection of essays, I've also come to see Tolkien himself in a different light – as a man who though a product of his time and environment, was nonetheless quite progressive in terms of his attitudes towards women (and their education) when compared to peers such as CS Lewis.

A nice touch was also the acknowledgement of the transformative aspects of fanfiction, and its contribution to the fandom as a whole – and a re-envisioning of the world from the perspectives of a woman's experiences within the setting.

Lost Gods by Micah Yongo

I'll start by saying that Lost Gods by Micah Yongo is an ambitious novel, and Micah most certainly bites off a lot of content for readers to chew on as this adventure kicks off. And this is most certainly a book one in a series, with some narrative threads left undone by the end and some fascinating characters who will most likely still go on to uncovering further mysteries.

Firstly, the world building is something that's right up my alley – a wonderful departure from the standard Euro-centric fantasy – that takes on a decidedly African flavour to the setting that is well realised. So, that's a huge thumbs up from me. That being said, Micah has a bit of a tendency towards exposition that could possibly have been reined in a wee smidge. Not that it bothered me too much, because the story does move along at a cracking pace, but there are moments when I feel that the flow has a few hitches. Then again, I'm a bit of a history buff, and while all the names and places did get a bit overwhelming at times, I reckon I remained afloat.

And there were some lovely characters. While we primarily deal with Neythan, and his quest to find his peer Arianna and figure out what on earth went wrong with his first mission as a newly fledged assassin, we do have some of the story from secondary characters who also have important narrative arcs. Perhaps here is a little bit of my wish that we could have seen a little more of them? Then again, some of what they discover I suspect will be important for readers to know later. There were a few moments where I felt that point of view could have been a bit deeper, with a bit more digging in terms of understanding characters' motivations to keep the overarching plot on track, but on the whole the characters are distinct and I cared about what happened to them. So there is that.

There is a lot going on in the story – not only courtly intrigue, but also conspiracies to uncover within an order of assassins, and Neythan (and by default readers) won't have any clue what's really happening, as Neythan is kept off balance the entire time – which I quite enjoyed. I did feel at times that the divine prophecy aspect to the story felt a bit tacked on, and could have had a bit more development, but it added an intriguing dimension to the novel that I'm certain will be developed later on.

While at times I wasn't entirely certain of what the characters' actual goals were (this was a bit muddy, especially near the end), I did enjoy Lost Gods, primarily because it's a breath of fresh air in an incredibly detailed world. There's a lot of lore here, beneath the skin, and for lore junkies like me, that's pretty much irresistible. So a big thumbs up from me, and I'm going to keep an eye on Micah's career.