Editing While You Write


Editing While You Writeediting

There are some authors, like Alistair MacLeod, author of No Great Mischief, who are well-known for editing their work in progress–they have a penchant to pause over each word, looking for the perfect one.

Some writers also are in the habit of stopping during a writing session to evaluate the quality of their writing.  But by and large, I don’t think it’s a good idea. If stopping to edit resulted in “Hey, what a lovely turn of phrase,” I would withdraw the objection. But more often, it degrades into a negative judgement fest. More typical thoughts are “This is junk or “I can’t do this” or “It’s a stupid idea.” Or any other phrases which portray the work as flat, stale, and unprofitable.

In addition, if you edit during the creation phase, you may make premature judgments. Half way in, you may convince yourself that a particular character doesn’t work, can never work, and has no right in the novel. But if you continue including the character, you may find that there is a crucial role for him which only reveals itself as the story roles out.

Frankly, I think this is all a manifestation of writer’s block, so I would avoid giving the pernicious phenomenon a chance to infect you.

Isn’t editing a good thing?

Absolutely. It is the time to catch obvious mistakes of place or season but also a chance to decide whether the whole thing hangs together and whether your characters are as compelling as you want them to be.

But you do it once you’ve finished what you have to say. At least the first draft. Then, you can go to town on editing and even should.

How to avoid self-editing while writing

It can be a hard habit to get out of but I encourage you to try. Instead, just keep writing even if you are morally certain that the scene isn’t going anywhere. Take the scene to its logical conclusion before you wash your hands of it.

I know this feels as if you are pushing a rock up a hill, but often I have found that how you feel about the writing as you are writing has little relationship to its quality or usefulness. A piece you are convinced isn’t worth keeping, may be considered by others as a great, or at least a good, piece. I know you don’t believe me, but honestly, it often works out that way.

Unfortunately, the converse can be true. You think the piece you wrote is Booker Prize material only to get a lukewarm reaction. Just goes to show you that you are not good judge of you own writing in the heat of the moment.

It may seem to make sense to edit as you go, but this is your efficiency side talking. I hope you let your creative side take you where it will rather than stopping to judge a work in progress.

Breaking the Continuous Dream


Breaking the Continuous Dream


As discussed in the previous post, the writer’s job is to create a continuous dream for his readers. When he can’t, the reader is confused or bored or will abandon the reading. The breaking of this dream often consists of inadvertent slips by the writer—ones which are eminently avoidable.

Here are some ways writers can break the continuous dream for readers:

Implausibility in plot

If the reader ever thinks anything like “He wouldn’t do that,” or “That wouldn’t happen,” or “How did she get there?,” you’ve pulled the reader out of your world by making him skeptical of events in the novel. The detective who just happens to be in the right place to catch the murderer, the heroine who overcomes using a power the reader didn’t know she had, the lightning which luckily hits the secret cache—all of these can make the reader pull her head figuratively out of the continuous dream enough to have a moment of doubt, confusion, or disbelief.

Erratic characters

By erratic, I don’t mean ‘runs around a lot’ or even crazy. Rather, I mean characters who suddenly become different people in the middle of the novel, usually because the writer needs them to do something uncharacteristic to move the plot along. The loving devoted father who suddenly slaps his son so hard he crashes into the secret room; the villain who frees the hero in a sudden rush of sentiment (thus allowing the hero to live on for a sequel); the taciturn and sulky teen who suddenly breaks into a peon of love for his would-be significant other.

I don’t mean to suggest that none of the above could happen, but you’ve at least got to give the readers enough clues to this surprising aspect of the character that they don’t get confused about who the character is. If it comes out of the blue, it breaks the continuous dream.


I once read a mystery novel where a psychologist, a biker and a model were talking (don’t ask how that happened—another example of breaking the continuous dream). I suddenly realized that I couldn’t tell who was saying what unless the author tagged the dialog with a name. They all used the same kind of vocabulary, had similar insights on the world, and spoke in beautifully formed sentences. I don’t think so.

You don’t have to stereotype your characters but you do have to be aware that how they say something can be as important as what they say.

Otherwise, you again pop the continuous dream.

Grammar and other stuff

I know, totally boring. But if the reader starts to think, “Shouldn’t that be ‘affect’ not ‘effect?,’” or “Which ‘he’ are we talking about? Jordan, Guy, Allan?” or “Is that the right spelling?,” you’ve lost them. They’re thinking about the mechanics of the work and not where you are hoping to drive to (dangling participles also a problem but I like them).

Keeping a continuous dream is not the same as magic

Dodging these pitfalls can up the chances of your reader remaining in the continuous dream. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that doing this conscientiously is a necessary, but not sufficient condition, to great writing. This is where craft, practice, and magic come in. It’s one of those unfair things—if you commit these errors, you and your reader pay for it. But avoiding them doesn’t guarantee an enthralling narrative. Sorry to have to break this to you (pun intended—breaking your continuous dream—might not be a pun if I have to explain it. Sorry).

Creating the Continuous Dream


Creating the Continuous Dreamdream

John Gardner wrote The Art of Fiction, a classic coverage of learning to write. If you haven’t read it, it is worthwhile although I find him a bit rigid (e.g. he believes that people can have such faults of the soul that they should just walk away from the keyboard). However, he does have one concept—creating the continuous dream—which I find immensely helpful when talking about the difference between a reader and a writer. Okay, the obvious—one reads and one writes—but the continuous dream helps reveal their different roles in fiction.

The reader, the writer, and the continuous dream

As a reader, I want to sink into the world created by the author, to immerse myself completely in the story, to identify with the characters, to feel at home in the writer’s world whether it be a planet in outer space, a different reality, or the story of your life.

When you’re successful in creating this continuous dream, the reader will not even realize he’s in one. He’s likely to experience it as, “I couldn’t put it down,” or “I wanted to make sure the guy got his comeuppance.” For me, I know the continuous dream is working when I near the end of the book and am worried that things are not going to turn out as I want them to for the protagonists.

So, according to Gardner, the job of the writer is to create this continuous dream—that is, a world that a reader can drop into and remain in happily until the end. You want to weave a world which is completely engrossing and persuasive.

Easier said than done, of course. This is where our creativity and mastery of the craft come in. Which is, of course, the subject of this entire blog. But there is one aspect of the continuous dream I want to focus on: the breaking of it.

Breaking the continuous dream

When the reader gets pulled out of the world you created, when she momentarily ‘wakes up,’ she doesn’t say, “Oh, gosh, the writer broke my continuous dream.” Instead, she’s likely to experience this discontinuity as boredom, disinterest, or confusion. She’s more likely to say, “I put it down and just couldn’t get back to it,” or “I tried to get into it, but it didn’t grab me” or, the worst, “I lost interest.”

The problem for the writer is that these types of comments are minimally useful because they provide no clues on how to make the novel fascinating and unputdownable. Nor, realistically, is it the job of the reader to do so. The reader’s job is to read; it’s the writer’s job to figure out how to make the writing compelling so the reader will want to read it.

Of course, writing can be successful largely because of the magic I discuss elsewhere. But there are other, more mechanical means, by which the writer can inadvertently break the continuous dream. What these means are and how to fix them is the subject of the next post.

Description Gone Wild


descriptionDescription Gone Wild

First off, let me admit I’m not much of a description gal either in reading or writing. In many novels, I have to force myself to slow down enough to read the description or go with my default which is to skip more than three of four lines of it. In my own writing, I rarely describe the characters physically and my descriptions of the environment are, to be kind, limited. So, you need to factor this in when you read what I have to say about description.

Sensuous detail

Writers are exhorted to include all the sensuous detail. And by and large, that’s good advice. You want the reader to smell the coffee, feel the silk of the pillow, hear the rattle of the car, see the volcano erupting, and maybe even gasp aloud at the plot twist you cleverly inserted.

Having said that, it can go too far. I recreate a piece I once heard at a writing workshop.

I arrived at the entrance. It was a big grey stone building with bars on the lower windows and mesh on the upper ones. I knocked at the door. It was opened by a guard. He had on a grey uniform with a black belt. He had me sign in. He handed me a pass. The buzzer sounded to let me through the door. I walked down a long corridor. The walls were painted grey and nothing was hung on them. I got to the next checkpoint. There was another guard, also in grey with a black belt. He looked at the pass the first guard had given me and pressed the button which buzzed the door open. I walked down the long grey corridor, then took a left turn down another and found room 45.

I’ll quit before I fall asleep. This blow-by-blow description includes a lot of detail (although sensuous is in question). To my mind, it is not a useful piece of description.

I take that back, perhaps. In the hands of a skilled writer, the entrance into the building could have been valuable if the intent was to show the grey hopelessness of the surroundings. But then you need to rejigger it to emphasize this. In its present iteration, it is more a litany of steps rather than the creation of a specific mood.

The use of description

Description needs to be in service of the story. That is, an account of the countryside view is to establish how isolated the mansion is; you have to mention that Alice has dark hair so she’s less likely to be seen in a dark corridor when eavesdropping. Every part, including description, needs to be in service of the narrative. If it is not, no matter how beautiful, you need to give it a good hard look to decide if it stays or is consigned to the ‘extra’ file.

The annoying part of writing is, of course, that there are always exceptions to every rule. Some writers’ descriptions cause swoons in their readers’ ranks and perhaps you aspire to that. Okay, fine. However, I bet if you did a close analysis of a novel whose descriptions you particularly admire, you’d find that the descriptions by and large still are in service of the story as well as being beautiful.

The trick is to know whether you can ignore this practice or are better off sticking to the tried and true. See my upcoming post on breaking the rules. Obviously, and ultimately, only you can make that decision. But for the rest of us, I think it is well to keep in mind that description should be in service of the story, whether to establish mood, or anchor a plot point, or anything else which will help the reader stay in the continuous dream.