Editing Advice: Find a Proofreader for Your Story

I’m going to start with a rather bold statement today:

Writers cannot edit their own work beyond a certain point.

Yes, we may be able to fix crucial plot problems and catch quite a few spelling and syntax errors on our own, but after a while, no matter how sharp our eyes, how well-trained we are, how many times we read the story, we’re going to eventually stop seeing the problems.

How do I know this? Well, I see it a lot even in heavily edited manuscripts. But also, it just recently happened to me.

I gave one of my short stories to a friend a couple weeks ago as a sort of introduction to my writing. Since this story is currently making the submission rounds, I figured it was a good place to start. I’ve edited it to death, after all, so I was confident in sharing it. However, a few paragraphs into it, he looked at me and said, “You wrote the wrong ‘coarse’. ”

In other words, I’d written the wrong homophone.

At first, I thought, “I’ve already submitted it! What am I going to do?” (The answer is: nothing.)

Then I thought, “I’m an editor. How could I have missed that?”

Then I laughed. All of the Muses had read this story at one point or another and yet not one of them caught that mistake either. I myself have combed through the piece a thousand times.

But my friend—a non-native English speaker, in fact—saw it within seconds.

So what’s the moral of the story?

Get other people to read your work. Not just your writing buddies, not just your critique group. Find an assortment. Non-writers, for instance, may see the story more as a reader would see it. A programmer (as my friend is) is accustomed to noticing small errors and may be more detail-oriented (but in a different way than your average writing editor). Different people will see your story in different ways. You’re not obliged to implement all of their advice, but fresh perspectives may offer new insights. They may also save you from small embarrassments.

Now, if the literary magazine truly wants to publish my story, they’ll probably overlook the “course” error and allow me to fix it later, but proofreading is an essential part of the manuscript preparation process. When you think your work is as perfect and shiny as it can be, find someone who has not yet read the story to read through it again for you. The more people who read it, the better your chances of finding those lingering errors you no longer see.

Even editors need editors, after all.

Writer Anxiety

Things Writers FearWriters are brave people. We hang our hearts out on the line every time we show our work to someone, whether it’s a family member, an agent, or a reader. Working with and rising above fear is the dividing line writers who write and writers who plan to write.

Today we’ll look at some of the common fears writers face. Next week, we’ll look at the symptoms or the ways those fears present themselves. The more you know, and the more you understand you are not alone, the easier it will be to address and move beyond anxiety.

The fears we face:

Fear of failure: The anxiety of starting a new project without knowing if we will be successful in writing something decent and good hits us all.

Fear of starting: Facing the blank page is an anxious moment for many writers. Margaret Atwood said “Blank pages inspire me with terror.” Part of this is not knowing how to begin. Part of it is the realization that, as soon as we start writing, we have to face the fact that what we will probably never do justice to the story in our head.

Fear of judgment: We write from places deep inside and from our own emotional experiences. That leaves us feeling vulnerable when we let others read our work and our inner truths. It’s a fear of exposure.

Fear of silence: Nothing is worse for a writer than to hear “that’s nice” or worse . . . nothing. It’s hard to pour ourselves into the words on the page when we don’t know if the story will ever be read or appreciated.

Fear of comparison: So many times we fall into the trap of comparing our first drafts to the polished work of another writer and feel our skill and talent will never compare favorably.

Fear of the unknown: First time writers also cope with anxiety of the unknown. First stories involve feeling our way through the process for the first time. The first time we publish brings its own set of anxieties.

Fear of delivery: Once a story is written, edited, and polished, publishing writers face the moment of commitment to releasing their work out into the world. This can involve fear that the manuscript contains missed errors, that it might be judged wanting, that no one will read it, or that whatever hopes and dreams we have as authors and for the story may not (and probably won’t be, in most cases) realized. Another term for this is “fear of delivery.”

Fear of success: What if we have a breakout novel? What if we surpass our expectations? Then the pressure is really on.

Fear itself is not a bad thing. In fact, the more you fear a story or scene, the more it is likely to contain something powerful, something true. Writers live with anxiety. The writers who are actually writing have learned either to overcome that anxiety or have learned to use it.

Fear and anxiety are universal for writers and creatives. You are not alone. Talking about it helps. Having writer friends helps. Acknowledging the positive benefits of fear helps.


How have you overcome fear in order to write?


Invoking Fear with the Horror Genre

Want to hear the truth about the horror genre? It’s going to scare you. Did you really think it wouldn’t? No one in their right mind should ever open a horror story without the intent of being scared. If you go into the text blindly, well then dearie, you are in for one wild ride. Yet, those who are naive about this genre are my favorite kind of readers. I love watching them become afraid because their fear is unexpected.  Am I sadistic? Well, maybe a little. It is a compliment to see terror spread across their faces and light their eyes. Please don’t have me committed for saying that. I would never do anything to anyone–except give them nightmares.

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. — H.P. Lovecraft

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(c) wintersixfour

Fear allows a person to see and understand their most inner thoughts and feelings. One truly learns about themselves when they analyze their deepest terrors. Authors of the horror genre know this well and use it to their advantage. They take the most innate, natural of things and twist them into an alternate reality that riles up terror in a reader. It is an art. To be a horror writer, you must love fear. You must get in touch with your own fears and expose them, become one with them, accept them. Once you have accomplished this, then you will know how to craft your words to bring out the fear in others.

Integrating your own understanding of fear (and acceptance) into your work is a good tactic to produce a well received (and frightening) story. Horror writing has to be strong and your voice unique. There are also several core elements that need to be kept in check while drafting your tale of the macabre. If you want to know more about these elements, check out my article Core Elements of a Horror Story

Horror is an ultimate fear and terror that inhibits a person’s body, mind, or soul.  It is the knowing and foreboding feeling that a situation will not end with a positive outcome.  It is the darkness trying to overcome the light, and the epic battle that ensues.  Horror can be strictly psychological or it can be wholly physical.  It can be blood, guts, and mutilations or a strict torture of the mind.

Horror is the element that turns sweet dreams into heart-ripping nightmares.

What “horror” is not:  Happy endings

True horror will never have a happy ending.  Even if by the end of a book or movie the evil is vanquished, there will always be a cliffhanger that shows a seed of the evil still exists.  The evil is left in hiding to wait for and plan the optimal moment to reveal itself and wreak havoc on a new batch of characters.

Within the realm of literature and film, horror is a simple genre.  It is the genre that instills terror within the audience by any means necessary. However, a book or film does not have to be one straightforward fear fest.  The work’s genre can be of a hybrid-genre with horror and another means:

Dark Fiction:  This usually consists of genres like fantasy, sci-fi, and / or speculative that have a heavy element of horror ingrained.
Gothic:  This is a Horror genre classic that has influences of mystery and / or romance.
Comedy-Horror:  This hybrid pretty much explains itself as the work contains a mix of horror and comedic elements.
Weird West: A Western themed work that highlights the elements of horror, sci-fi, and / or the speculative.

Horror, as a secluded genre in of itself, can be broken down into the following sub-genres:

Psychological:  The focus of this sub-genre takes place more in a character’s head, playing heavily on his or her fears and morals.  There may or may not be an element of blood.

Slasher:  This is your classic Freddy Krueger / Jason / Michael Myers villain, where the antagonist murders characters through violent and visceral methods.  The murder weapon of choice is always a sharp object used to maim or dismember.  This sub-genre typically mixes with the splatter sub-genre, but if the actual act of the murder occurs off scene (not visual), then the splatter element is not viable.

Splatter:  With this genre, I do not personally consider it to always be hand in hand with the Slasher sub-genre.  You can have a Splatter film without having the Slasher element.  A good example (and the most disgusting movie in existence) is The Human Centipede… and all of its subsequent segments.  Splatter is a horribly gruesome and visceral sub-genre, but the antagonist goal is not to kill the main character(s), but to merely affect the a character’s physical body.  This sub-genre relies more heavily on the visual effects of the blood and guts rather than the action of expelling the gore.

Supernatural:  This sub-genre highlights the elements that are not of the “natural / human” world.  Typically the sub-genre highlights entities from a heaven or hell realm.  Such fodder are ghosts, demons, angels, etc.

Monster:  This sub-genre focuses on those beings that are from the “natural / human” world, but are either not human or genetically altered humans.  Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf-man, Toxie, and Kaijus are all considered monsters.  The monster may or may not be bent on the destruction of the human world, but the actions of the monster (whether good or evil) do instill the element of fear within humanity.

Extraterrestrial:  Any life form that comes from “outer space” that is not considered a human.  The extraterrestrial may take on a humanoid form, but genetically they are not a pure human.

Weird:  This is a mashup of any non-human entity / life-form that the human mind cannot comprehend or extends to a forbidden knowledge.  This sub-genre typically uses a mix of elements of the supernatural, monsters, and extraterrestrial.  It can also sprinkle in some of the splatter and psychological sub-genres.  Every story that H.P Lovecraft wrote would fall into this category.  The Call of Cthulhu is a prime example that contains a mixture of the horror sub-genres: monster, extraterrestrial, and psychological.

When thinking of these genres / sub-genres, keep in mind the horror industry cycle. The horror genre is currently in flux.  On my personal blog, I mention several times my interpretation of the horror industry cycle. With this new year, we have come full circle back to the age of monsters. The slasher movies and stories of the 80’s, 90’s, and early 2000’s have been buried.  The ride of the Zombie-Vampire-Werewolf craze is on a downhill trend since its rebirth in the early 2000’s.  Ghosts and demons are about to hit a mid-life crisis before fading back into the Earth.  However, a new egg was laid about 5 years ago and has hatched.  Monsters are in full force this year.

Horror can embody a large element in almost every genre within literature and film.  Hybrid and sub-genres of horror can be mixed and mashed to create one story of complete and utter terror.  And to think, the information in this post is only related to fiction!  There is a whole other side to horror within the non-fiction realm through biographies, memoirs, and documentaries.  To think of the gruesome memoir that could have been written by the hands of Elizabeth Bathory!

Tap into your own fears and show them to the world. Understand the horror industry’s cycle use it to your advantage to strengthen your work. Pick a horror genre that well suits your goals. Follow the core elements of horror.

Integrate these tips into your writing and one day you will become a Master of Horror.



Your Hero Has Two Brains

Your Hero Has Two BrainsHow many times have you read a novel and been annoyed because one of the characters makes a stupid decision? You know it’s stupid. The author knows it’s stupid.

But the character doesn’t know it’s stupid. She thinks it’s smart. She reasons it all out using horrible logic and comes to a stupid decision, because the author needed her to make a stupid decision so as to add some plot twist to the story.

What’s gone wrong is that the author got lazy. He knows that people make bad decisions all the time. He needs a bad decision to get his character in trouble.

And he lets the character use bad logic to reach that bad decision. He makes the character be stupid.

But that just makes the author look stupid.

It’s the wrong way to make the right thing happen.

Yes, you absolutely must throw your characters into danger. Over and over. Your characters must do stupid things.

But they’d better do them for the right reasons.

And yes, there can be a good solid reason for behaving irrationally.

I’ve just finished reading an amazing book on what makes people do stupid things. The title of the book is THINKING, FAST AND SLOW.

The author is Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who never took a single course in economics, yet won the Nobel prize in economics in 2002.

Kahneman has spent his long career studying why people do things. Why do they sometimes make irrational decisions? (The conventional wisdom among economists for many years was that people act in their own best interest. Kahneman and his collaborators showed that people often don’t.)

THINKING, FAST AND SLOW is the best nonfiction book I’ve read in the past year. If you’re a novelist and you care about how people think, you need to read this book.

It’s a long book, but it’s not hard to read. Prepare to be astonished.

In this article I’ll give you a few (a very few) tidbits from the book.

Your Intuitive Brain

Let’s switch gears for a second. Here’s a simple math problem for you:

Suppose you’re at the store and you see a baseball bat bundled with a baseball. The price for the ball and bat together is $1.10. You ask the clerk how much the bat costs all by itself.

The clerk grins and says, “The bat costs exactly $1.00 more than the ball.”

Quick, how much does the ball cost?

Have you got the answer?

If you’re like most people, your mind’s first reaction, almost instantaneous, is to say that the ball costs 10 cents. That’s your intuition speaking.

And your intuition is wrong. The ball costs 5 cents and the bat costs $1.05.

If you work this out with your rational side, it’s an algebra problem that takes a couple of seconds.

But your intuitive side instantly barrels in, suggesting the wrong answer much faster than your rational side can do the algebra. Unless your rational side intervenes and insists on checking the answer, you’ll get the problem wrong.

More than 80% of US college students get this problem wrong. Even at elite universities like Harvard, more than half get it wrong.

The human brain is a funny thing. Your intuition is incredibly fast, but it can lead you astray without you knowing it. And this, I think, is a useful thing for a novelist to know when he needs to get somebody in trouble.

Daniel Kahneman’s book, THINKING, FAST AND SLOW, gives hundreds of examples of the strange foibles of the intuitive side of the brain.

Would you rather receive $3400 right now, or $3800 a month from now?

Most people would take the money now. Their intuitive side wants the money right away, even though it’s rationally better to wait.

Your Risk-Averse Brain

Would you bet $100 on a single fair coin toss if the payoff for winning was $110?

It’s a rational bet to make, but most people wouldn’t. Their intuitive side is terrified of risk. If they take the bet, they could possibly lose $100, and human intuition is designed to avoid losing. The typical payoff that makes a human’s intuitive side happy is $200. That’s enough to balance out the fear of losing $100.

Yes, the rational thing would be to take the bet if the expected win is positive. But your intuitive side doesn’t like it. The pain of losing is greater than the good feeling of winning.

This was one of the most surprising things I read in the book, because lots of people go to Las Vegas and gamble on bets that have a slightly negative expected payoff. Kahneman doesn’t discuss the psychology of this, but my best guess is that it’s related to the following fact.

The very strange thing is that people really like gambling when the payoff is huge, even if the odds are heavily against them.

Suppose you have a chance to win $100 million in the lottery. There are 200 million tickets, and each one costs $1. Would you buy one?

Most people would, even though the ticket costs twice the “fair” value. Why? Because the payoff is huge and the cost is low. Buying the ticket gives the possibility of radically changing your life. Your intuitive side loves possibilities.

Your intuitive side sees that you stand to gain $100 million and you stand to lose only $1. Your intuition doesn’t care a fig about the odds. The amount to gain is vastly bigger than the amount to lose. Decision made.

So why do people go to Vegas to gamble? Kahneman doesn’t say, but here’s what I’m guessing. Even though the odds of each particular bet are against you, it’s possible to have a long run of luck and let your money ride and come home with a big payday. It’s not likely, but it’s possible.

We’ve all heard stories of people who did it. So the trip as a whole has a possible big payoff, even though each individual bet is against you. And your intuitive side lovespossibilities.

In fact, your intuitive side is heavily swayed by the way possibilities are presented. Here’s an example:

  • Your surgeon tells you that the operation has a 99% survival rate. You feel highly optimistic, and you’re eager to have the operation. Because the doc focused on survival.
  • Your surgeon tells you that the operation has  a1% death rate. Oh my god! You have a 1 in 100 chance of DYING right there on the table! No, no, no! You’re scared out of your wits. Because the doctor focused on death.

Notice that the surgeon is giving you the exact same information in both cases. A 99% survival rate means a 1% death rate.

Your rational side gets this, but your intuitive side doesn’t.

Yes, your rational side can talk your intuitive side off the ledge. But only if you give your rational side a fighting chance. If your rational side is out of practice or it’s been misinformed or it’s dulled by alcohol or it’s shouted down by your intuitive side or it’s smothered by lust, then you have all the ingredients you need for a bad decision.

Your Associative Brain

Your intuitive side is also very strong on making associations between words.

If you play a word game and happen to see the words “Florida” and “forgetful” and “bald” and “wrinkled”, then for a short time after you finish playing, you will walk more slowly than normal. You will act old, even though you didn’t actually see the word “old.” Your intuitive side does that free-association thing and it affects your body.

When you read a sentence that uses a lot of long words in it, you tend to disbelieve it more than if it were written using short words. Your intuition tells you that somebody is trying to snow you.

If you read a sentence that has an internal rhyme, such as “Woes unite foes,” you tend to believe it. Somehow the rhyme gives it credibility. And that’s bizarre. What do you think? Is it really true that “Woes unite enemies?” But that’s the same thing as “Woes unite foes.” Even though your rational side knows this, the rhyme still rings more true to your intuitive side.

Your intuitive side is eager to accept the easy answer. But here’s a strange thing. Remember that baseball bat problem? If you read that problem in a font that’s nearly illegible, your rational mind will have to work harder just to read the question. And you’ll be more likely to get the right answer. Just because the font is bad. Just because your rational side is more engaged in the problem.

Your intuitive side loves to jump to conclusions. Your rational side is perfectly able to check those conclusions, but it’s way slower than your intuitive side. Your intuitive side requires no effort at all. It’s always on, always tossing out answers. Your rational side takes time and effort to work. If you max it out, your intuitive side may just step in and solve a simpler problem. And you may not even notice.

This means that your intuitive side can quickly and easily leap to a wrong conclusion. Your rational side will have to work hard to check the conclusion, and it’ll take much longer. So a lot of times, your rational side just doesn’t bother to check.

Most of the time, this doesn’t matter. The reason you have intuition is because it’s often right, or close to right. Intuition is good. It’s just not perfect.

The Lesson For Novelists

When you need your character to make a bad decision, you can’t afford to let him use his rational side. You have to do an end-run around that.

You need to appeal to his intuition. You need to find a way to get his intuition to cheat him.

How do you do that? There are zillions of ways. Read Daniel Kahneman’s book, THINKING, FAST AND SLOW, and you’ll learn a few hundred ways.

And once you’ve absorbed a few hundred examples, your intuition will be trained and you’ll be able to easily invent a billion ways to defeat your characters’ intuition.

Yes, really. Your rational side can train your intuition to get other people’s intuition to do an end-run on their rational side.

If that isn’t twisted, I don’t know what is.

This article is reprinted by permission of the author.
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 7,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visitwww.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.