The Background Threat as Tension Builder

My last personal blog post played around with the idea of how I’ve grown to fear rain. This is becausewater has come into my house a couple of times in the past year during particularly heavy downpours. I only mention it because my recent drainage catastrophes have got me thinking about ways to establish and sustain tension in my WIP.

There are lots of tried and true ways of doing this. Most of which seem to be variations on the idea of putting some kind of countdown or deadline into the story: if the hero doesn’t complete his or her task within a certain window of opportunity, all is lost. The countdown is a great device, which is no doubt why it’s used so frequently across all genres. But I want to talk about another, perhaps more difficult tension building strategy, namely The Constant Low-Level, or Background, Threat.

I just finished Shana Burg’s A Thousand Never Evers which employs this latter type of tension building method. In it, the hero, a southern black pre-teen living in rural Mississippi in 1963, is forced to adapt to the growing racist reaction against the Civil Rights Movement. This threat sometimes seems to lessen, but it never goes away. And, most importantly, the white violence against her and her family escalates throughout the story, usually in a direct reaction to the choices the hero makes. Burg’s setting turns out to be her story’s greatest source of tension. It’s both elegant and compelling.

Which brings me back to my recent experiences with the flash flooding Central Texas is so famous for. If my household travails were a story, the opening scene (aka inciting event) would be me and my shovel last October ignorantly piling some dirt around the foundation at the back of my house where erosion has taken its toll. I’d probably have my “me” character look up at the threatening sky a couple of times as I unwittingly clogged the drain that allowed the rainwater to run off my patio.

From there I could go on to show that first night the water came in. Our frantic but futile reactions both inside and out. Our tearing out of the floor and the baseboards the next day. Me reinstalling them. Only to do it all over again nine months later.

After that I’d show my partner sewing the long thin sandbags we now deploy around the back of our house. And me digging and piling dirt in various configurations, mixed in with the increasingly brittle conversations we continue to have about the efficacy of my experiments in hydrodynamics. The mid-point of my tale would be a scene of the two of us watching the rain through our sliding glass door. Then, because I write fiction, I’d have the couple’s relationship begin to crumble under the stress of it all.

And that’s my point. Good low level, ever present threats in stories usually start off as just a vaguely menacing part of the setting. Like the sleeping dragon in The Hobbit, or the white racists in A Thousand Never Evers, it’s just a fact of the hero’s life. And it will probably remain a distant, passive threat so long as the hero doesn’t pick up her metaphorical stick and poke it in its eye. Of course, then it wouldn’t be much of a story.

Motivation and Voice

I’ve been having this conversation in one way or another since grad school. It comes through in different ways and at different times, but it’s always the same theme. Most recently, I had it at the Writing Barn’s Full Novel Revision Workshop – which felt like a tiny slice of grad school, so I guess that makes sense. Most times in this conversation more experienced writers talk to less experienced ones about the need to be ready to hear good advice.

Since I was often the less experienced half of the discussion, I would nod right along like I knew what they meant. Even better, I wrote down everything everybody said at conferences and classes and then promptly forgot most of it. I let the information wash right through me and into my notebook without sticking. And my work showed it.

Writers can generally be divided into two categories: those who care about creating the best work they can and those who write to show how clever they are. Sorry if that sounds harsh. But I’m really not judging. Well, except maybe myself.

For me, this vanity-writing stage was a necessary step along the path to becoming … well, a real writer. I had to work through why I write. For decades I had used my creativity to basically show off. Ever since that first little poster board diorama I made in Sunday school and peopled with costumed plastic spoons, I’ve been telling stories and dealing out one-liners in the hopes of being deemed clever.

Needless to say, I didn’t exactly enjoy learning this about myself. But it shamed me into not putting my ego so blatantly onto the page.

It’s still there, don’t get me wrong. A little piece of me will probably always get crushed every time I learn I haven’t, in fact, created a chunk of prose all humanity must surely agree is perfect. But it’s a much littler piece now. And it’s morphed into a sort of spiritual lizard’s tail that breaks off before any permanent self-esteem damage can occur.

I fear that last metaphor may have pushed this post into the realm of accidental irony, so I’ll get back to the point. Put simply, a writer’s attitude toward writing translates quite blatantly to the page. The ‘why’ matters.

In fact, I think a writer’s motivation for creating comes through (or not) in that indefinable concept known as voice. I’ve based my conclusions purely on self-observation, so I’m hardly being scientific here. But I can tell you that I only began to find my voice after years of receiving honest and supportive (if sometimes heartbreaking) feedback and advice. This includes all that literary wisdom I ignored, by the way. Because somewhere deep inside I guess I always knew those great writers and readers were right. Why else did I keep seeking them out?

Or maybe I’m just I’m bullheaded and clueless.

Either way, it all gelled at some point, and I stopped taking notes and started listening. I started to apply what I was learning to both myself and my work. And that included an honest assessment of the ‘why’ of my own writing. Did I want to keep clinging to my need for praise, or did I want to create the best work I was capable of?

Okay, fine. I decided I wanted both. Just not in the same proportions as before. Now I write (and revise) to make the story better, not to showcase my clever wordplay. And that shift in motivation — along with a lot of time at the keyboard — has allowed my voice to emerge.

At least I hope it has. I’ve gotten a little nervous about the whole unintentional irony thing again.


An Introduction to Track Changes


Track Changes is the language of editors. As a writer, you need to speak it because, sooner or later, you will have to deal with it. This post is an introduction to the Track Changesfeature in Microsoft Word. I am a PC person, so I will be referring to how it works in the Windows operating system. If you’re one of those Mac people, then this post should still be helpful, although you may have to do some translating. (For context, here are links to two Youtube videos by Terence Jorgensen–one for PCone for Mac–that I think you’ll find useful.)

In my version of Word (2010), there’s a row of tabs across the top of the document window. If you click onReview (2nd from the right), you’ll see the editing tool bar appear (replacing whichever one you were in before, probably Home). You’ll also see it’s divided up into sections from left to right (labels along the bottom): ProofingLanguageCommentsTrackingChangesCompare, and Protect. I’ll just be looking at the buttons in the CommentsTracking, and Changes sections.

First off, in the Tracking section, you’ll see a button labelled Track Changes. Hover your cursor over it and you’ll see that either the top or bottom half turns yellow. That’s because it’s a split button: click on the top half (with the page and pencil icon) and you toggle the Track Changes feature on or off for the entire document. If you click on that part, both halves turn yellow signifying that Track Changes is on.

Click on just the bottom half and you get a dropdown menu allowing you to modify the Track Changessettings. The first option on this dropdown menu is merely a duplicate Track Changes toggle switch. Below it is the Change Tracking Options feature. This opens a window where you can customize whatTrack Changes looks like. Feel free to play around here a bit and get to know your options. Jorgensen does a great job explaining this part in his videos, so go there if you want to learn more about that. I mostly just use the default settings because they work fine for me.


The third and final choice on the Change Tracking Options menu deals with the user name. This is useful when you have multiple editors or authors working on a document. Or if you use a pen name or alias. To use this feature just enter the appropriate user name and initials in the boxes under Personalize Your Copy of Microsoft Word and click the Okay button at the bottom right. Keep in mind that doing this changes the author name for everything you do in Word from that moment forward. It’s not specific to the document you’re working on. So be sure it’s reset to the appropriate name after you’re done.

Next to the Track Changes button(s) you’ll see a stack of three buttons with little down-pointing arrows next to them: Final: Show MarkupShow Markup, and Reviewing Pane. Click on any of these to get their dropdown menus. Starting at the top, click on Final: Show Markup to see your four choices for viewing your document. These allow you to compare and contrast your original draft with your “final” draft (the one that has the changes in it).

The middle button, Show Markup, allows you to choose what changes, including comments, you see on the screen. Simply check or uncheck the boxes to customize what changes are highlighted. I like to keep them all in view.

And rounding out the bottom comes the Reviewing Pane button. Click on the left side where the words are and you get a list of all the changes that have been made. This can be useful when trying to decipher and navigate a heavily edited page. If you click on the little down-pointing arrow section of the Reviewing Panebutton, you can select a vertical or horizontal layout for your list of changes and comments.

Next, let’s move on to the mechanics of making changes and comments. Again, the videos give a nice visual of what editing and commenting looks like.

To make a comment in the margins of a document (as opposed to an actual change), simply click on the New Comment button in the Comments section of the tool bar (just to the left of the Tracking section). The three buttons to the right of New Comment (DeletePrevious,Next) remain grayed out and unusable until the document actually contains comments. Once you start commenting they “light up” and activate. They’re mostly self-explanatory, except Delete is a split button. Click on the down-pointing arrow and you’ll get a drop down menu that lets you choose to cut the comment you currently have highlighted, all comments shown (I have no idea what this does or even means; it’s always grayed out as far as I can tell), or all the comments in the document.

On the other side of the Tracking section, you’ll findChanges. This section contains the buttons you’ll use the most as a writer receiving feedback. Again, these are pretty self-explanatory, except to note that both Acceptand Reject are split buttons with tiny dropdown menus giving you more options.

There are two points the videos don’t touch on that I want to close with. First, if you right-click on a change or comment in the body of the document, a small window will pop-up. In there you’ll see Accept and Reject buttons. This is just another way to navigate the changes and comments. And lastly, never forget the Undo button in the very upper left corner next to the floppy disc (Save) icon. You can always hit that and make whatever horrible mistake you just made go away.

Happy revising!

What Kind of Editing Do You Need? Part the Third


In case you’re just tuning in, this post completes athree part series detailing the various freelance editing services offered by Yellow Bird. I promised to talk about copy editing in this edition. No really, I did. And you seemed okay with that. So here we go.

What is copy editing and how is it different from proofreading? To answer that, let’s start by defining the two levels of copy editing:

Standard copy editing includes corrections for grammar, punctuation, capitalization, verb tense, spelling, sentence structure, awkward phrasing, and word usage errors. Intensive copy editing covers all of the above with an additional focus on style, consistency, clarity, pacing, and dialogue.

So where does proofreading fit into the mix?

Proofreading is essentially the same thing as standard copy editing. However, the distinction is that proofreading is done on a PDF or print-ready file (for example, when getting ready to self-publish a book). In addition to correcting spelling, punctuation, capitalization, etc., your editor will also check for visual disruptions in the text layout, such as widows and awkwardly-placed hyphens at the end of a line.

So if you’re just looking to give your manuscript a final once over before submission, then go with proofreading or standard copy editing. An editor will go through and fix only the mechanical things. This is probably the least subjective editing service because it’s all about the rules of writing.

But if you need a little more guidance, a little more spit with your polish, then you might be looking for an intensive copy edit which delves deeper into more subjective questions of style and usage. This slightly more expensive service is perfect for the writer who feels pretty good about the “big picture” but still needs help wrestling with clunky sentences and paragraphs before sending her baby out into the world.

And that’s that. We’ve reached the end of our journey. Now I’m off to a workshop/retreat at Austin’s own Writing Barn where I’ll start revising my own manuscript for a change of pace.

Happy writing!

What Kind of Editing Do You Need? Definitions Edition


Last post I blithely tossed around a handful of terms for the editing services Yellow Bird provides. I may have put the freelance editing process into the right order, but, because of space considerations, I didn’t fully describe what each type of editing entails. So, without further ado, allow me to present What Kind of Editing Do You Need, Part the Second.

Let’s start at the wide end, with content editing and developmental editing. What’s the difference between the two? I like to think of it in terms of editorial invasiveness.

If you’re looking for an editor to douse your manuscript in red ink, you probably want content editing. Your content editor will pore over every sentence in the book, making hundreds (sometimes thousands) of edits directly into the text to improve the content, flow, and style. Line edits are usually made using the Track Changes feature in Microsoft Word, and broader comments about the text are inserted into the margins. This service touches on everything from big-picture commentary (character development, plot, pacing, etc.) to nitty-gritty sentence-level details. Unlike copy editing, which is primarily focused on fixing errors, content editing is inherently subjective and influenced by the style of the particular editor.

Follow this link to see how your pages will probably look when you get them back from a content edit. It can be daunting to see that much red ink on your baby like that. I won’t lie; it’s not for the faint of heart! More importantly, it’s not for the writer who hasn’t already taken her manuscript as far possible with critique partners and beta readers. Get your novel as clean as you can before you pay for this service. You don’t want to hire a pro to do what you can do for yourself, especially when you’re paying, on average, $6-10/ page.

If you’re not ready (or can’t afford) the rigors of a full content edit on your manuscript, developmental editing offers the same thorough, high-level feedback without all the line-edits. Yellow Bird offers two different types of developmental editing, depending on how you prefer to receive feedback:

With Developmental Editing Type A, your editor reads your full manuscript and compiles feedback in an extensive editorial letter, usually ranging from 6-8 single-spaced pages. This editorial letter covers feedback on a range of issues, including: pacing; flow of narrative; transitions; voice; plot; structure; dialogue; character development; audience; potential market. Obviously, this format necessitates a primarily big-picture focus. But that doesn’t mean you won’t get highly specific notes. My editorial letters are always heavily peppered with cited page numbers and quoted bits of manuscript text.

With Developmental Editing Type B, your feedback comes in the margins of the manuscript instead of an editorial letter. Specifically, your editor will read your draft, highlight passages that need attention, and insert a variety of comments in the margins plus “end-notes” after each chapter. The comments in the margins are usually specific to that page, whereas the end-notes summarize feedback for the whole chapter.

Either way you go, developmental editing does not provide actual rewrites. The revising remains completely up to you. But don’t think that means you’ll get off easy! Your editor will still put your manuscript through the wringer, believe me.

The last editing option I want to touch on here is the manuscript critique, which can be thought of as “Developmental Editing Lite.” With a manuscript critique, your editorial letter will likely be shorter (3-5 single-spaced pages) because your editor won’t go into as much depth or detail. If you are primarily just looking for an editor to help you see the big-picture (voice, plot holes, character arcs, etc.) a manuscript critique is usually sufficient. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for extremely thorough and detailed feedback, then developmental editing or content editing is probably a better choice.

Regardless of which editing service you choose, the end goal remains the same: to prepare your manuscript for the next step in its process, whether that’s another round of revisions or pursuit of publication.

Well, I’ve run out of room. So you’ll just have to wait until next time to read about the thrilling and nuanced world of copy editing and proofreading.