Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Editing Workshop Recap

This past weekend I had the opportunity to take a weekend-long (and by that I mean 16 total hours) self-editing workshop with Catherine Ryan Hyde, bestselling author of Pay it Forward and 16 other novels. The workshop was held in a remote coastal California town that was hell to get to (6 total hours of driving for me, after sitting in disgusting Friday Bay Area traffic). But the whole weekend was worth it and more. Catherine was gracious, personable, and generous with her information.

The workshop was small -- seven total people, and the idea was to learn by repetition how to edit out common problems in your work, especially in those crucial first 20-30 pages. We started by having Catherine read our work aloud so we could hear it as a reader -- not how we intended it to be read in our minds. Mine was up first and I could hear where readers caught up on things, and I learned that I am apparently obsessed with pee, since I counted four instances of it in the first two chapters. (I've since reduced the number of pee-mentions to a respectable three. That is a dry jokey joke, but is actually sadly true.)

For me, hearing what Catherine had to say was valuable because she’s got the publishing and writing experience. I can honestly say she, along with the group’s comments, helped show me that my beginning needed reworking in the right way.

Here’s a broad view of what I learned:

Have a personal list of things you need to do a search and destroy for in Word.
Most of us already have a list like this, but it's probably filled with adverbs, right? What I learned was that if you have a single instance of a punctuation problem, like in a dialogue tag, add that to the list because you probably have more of it. Take the time and put everything you can think of on there. When you edit and correct a mistake, put that mistake on the list.

Make sure your character’s thoughts and reactions are in the story.
It can make the difference between an audience feeling empathy for your character or not. Your character's motivations don't just make the story work -- they hold the attention of the reader.

Have someone read the thing aloud to you.
There's just no substitute for hearing your work this way. You might never catch multiple pee references if you don't, but best of all, you'll be able to hear where people light up in your story. Having someone read the first 20 pages to you should make a difference.

Take workshops and go to conferences.
If you're committed to a career in writing, then taking time out to attend conferences and workshops will help put you in touch with like-minded writers, established authors who can impart the wisdom of their whole careers, and other publishing professionals. Make the time. Spend the money. It's worth it.

Thanks to the workshop and Catherine and the other writers in it, I have reordered my first 30 pages to something that I think actually goes to a new level. I understand now just how important it is for everything to mean something in your novel. I hope that makes sense. I can't adequately communicate all that I learned in the workshop (this will sound selfish, but I don't want to communicate it, either -- because everyone's experience is different. Mine was very personal to my own story). But I hope the above points serve as reminders for things you should do.

One last important thing. When you are presented with opportunities to study with successful authors, TAKE THEM.

(Special thanks to Anne Allen for encouraging me to do the workshop and for working hard to get the word out for Catherine. I know Anne gets how valuable an experience it was.)


Simon C. Larter said...

Why does it not surprise me that my nemesis would write an opening chapter filled with scatological references? *sigh* I wish you every success, m'dear. Good luck with the edits!

(See, 'cause if you achieve some level of publishing success, it'll be all the sweeter when I orchestrate your eventual downfall. You know how it is.)

JEM said...

I've wanted to do a conference or workshop myself, but I've been too nervous to so far. This is good encouragement, though! I'm thinking of taking a writing class at our local community college...thanks for the nudge, Sierra.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like time well spent.

I'd probably need two lists to keep track of all the things I do too much.

Also, con season always depresses me, because everybody and their pen name is talking about how much fun they had, are having, or will have at cns and workshops, and here I am unable to make it to any. :cry:

KLM said...

Yeah, the reading aloud thing is crucial. You get a better sense of how the sentences flow into each other. And if something sounds weird, it probably reads weird.

So when you yourself give a workshop someday, Sierra, the take-away wisdom from that will be, "Cut back on the pee." That's going to replace "Kill all your darlings" as a writing conference fav, no doubt.

Dawn Hullender said...

Your obsession is one minute word, mine is endless adjectives/adverbs.

Oh the agony!

I'm stuck on editing a WIP when I need to be writing my happy little ass off.

Nice post.

Roni @ FictionGroupie said...

Glad you had such a positive experience. And how nerve-wracking to be the first the be read aloud. Good job on surviving that! That alone would have made me want to pee. :)

Lola Sharp said...

I'm glad you had a great time (in spite of the commute).
These are excellent bits of advice.
I am a big proponent of reading our work aloud, making those rounds of changes...then having someone else read it aloud to me (and another, if possible).

Also, Simon, I believe (and I could be wrong, but I don't think so) that 'scat' is poop, not pee. I'm just keeping it real up in here, yo.

Simon C. Larter said...

I think you're right, Lola. That can only mean one thing: now I must destroy you also. So sorry.

*storms off in a rage*

*severely beats, then fires proofreader*

Sierra Godfrey said...

Oh, Lola is exactly correct Simon, and I'm only deeply annoyed that I didn't get a chance to comment yesterday and call you on it. Scata in Greek means poop. Therefore.

*Nemesis is wrong, Nemesis is wro-ong!*

Sierra Godfrey said...

Kristen, I'm still laughing over me giving a workshop and "cutting back on the pee" being the catchphrase for it...I can see it having its own marketing campaign and logo.

Meghan Ward said...

Great tips. I took a workshop with Catherine at the SB Writers' Conference years ago. I love conferences and was jealous when I heard you were going for a weekend workshop, but I've workshopped my WIP to DEATH (writers' group, MFA program, Squaw Valley, SB ...), so I won't be attending any more until I start a new project. I bet you'd love Squaw, by the way. And Napa's supposed to be great, too.

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