Editing the Ego Out of Your Work, Part 3

You've written your first draft; you've added texture with the 5 senses. Now it's time to clean up the dialog.

Here's the rules as I follow them:

1. Group the dialog.
2. Group the action; try not to interrupt the natural flow of conversation.
3. Keep the tags to a minimum.
4. Don't let tagless conversation go longer than 4 lines.
5. Keep the character voices unique.

When I read, my eyes slide over the tags. Most of the time, I know who is talking by context and voice. In the passage below, I set the set the stage with some description and action, and at the end, I add some internal commentary to solidify the scene in the reader's mind.

In the middle, the dialog speaks for itself.

Rising to my feet, I face her. Her bald head, freckles, and dark eyes--it's like looking in a mirror. But she wears the blue uniform of an elite soldier. I wear the white scrubs of a patient. Jadon folds her arms across her chest; lips press together; chin juts out. Not one emotion flickers across her face as she studies me.

Fidgeting, I glance away. “The dragon told me to.”

“That’s what you told me last time.”

“I had to come.”

“Father will kill you if he finds out.” If her face wasn’t made of stone, she would be frowning at me.

But I know she is right. Favorite project or not, he won’t let me live if he can’t control me. Should I be afraid? Could death be any worse than living here, in the army’s barracks? Or am I already dead? I’m not really sure. I could be.

Editing the Ego Out of Your Work, Part 2

My first draft is a brain dump, empty of anything other than action, more of an outline of events than a story. I don't care how it looks; I just want to barf my ideas onto paper. Most of the time, I grit my teeth and close my eyes, cringing at every horrible word I've spewed, reminding myself I can fix it later.

If I think about how terrible it is, I'll never finish.

Different authors have different methods of editing. For me, the process is like adding layers or shading. The first draft is a rough sketch, then I add the shading with sensations (sight, sound, smells, texture) to make the world real.

In this passage below, I originally said that Jadon stood at the top of a cliff. Nothing about her emotions, what she saw, how she felt. It was the beginning of a new chapter, and even though I had painted the scene in the previous chapter, I needed to reinsert the reader into the scene.

Adding the "sensation" layer gave me an opportunity for some character development. Jadon had just shot someone point blank. By describing the scene through her eyes, it took on a whole new dimension.

Standing at the top of the precipice, Jadon looked down at the men milling about on the quarry floor, at the body lying lifeless by her own hand. She pictured herself falling to the bottom, her arms spread wide. Then she would be free, her memories wiped clean.

In this passage, Jadon and Lelea are tracking down a stowaway on their stolen spaceship. Lelea moves down one passage while her sister takes another. Written in Lelea's perspective, the story originally focused on Lelea's movements--walking down the hall. In trying to add the sight, sounds, and smells, this is what it became:

Jadon disappears around the corner, her boots clinking on the metal floor. Click, click, clack, click. Click, click, clack, click. I raise my gun and step in the opposite direction, matching Jadon's rhythm. Click, click, clack, click. Signs, directions, rules, patriotic slogans, and pictures of the General fill the walls. I put my hand on my father’s face as I pass. Would you have loved me if I hadn’t been broken?

Likely not. You don’t love Jadon either.

But I’d rather have my brokenness than your love.

Here's a section that had absolutely no scene description when I started. Ahern walks up, and they start talking and looking for the intruder. What a missed opportunity!

Alone, I tremble.

People, memories of things I never experienced, trudge down the halls, in a continuous flow away from the cockpit. Weary lines streak their gray faces. Empty eyes stare out from ragged souls. I shiver as one of the cold figures pass through me.

From the posters on the wall, my father’s smiling face cheers them on to their duties, which they race about to achieve like faithful dogs, wagging their tails, even as the master raises a gun to shoot them. I want to scream at them, shake them, tell them the truth. You are the army’s slaves. The ones I vow to rescue.

But you don’t really exist. I have imagined you. My waking dream.

Everytime your characters enter a room, turn a corner, or fall through a trapdoor, take the opportunity to add sensation. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. What do you see?
  2. What colors are there?
  3. How much light is there?
  4. What do you smell?
  5. What do you feel?
  6. Is it warm or cold?
  7. What is the weather like?
  8. What does the wind feel like, smell like, taste like?
  9. What do you hear?
  10. How does the POV feel about these sensations?

Editing the Ego Out of Your Work, Part 1

Egos do not belong in the editing process. Ever.

If you are editing your own work, the process is cold and calculating. You (and I) must be willing to sacrifice every sacred word on the altar. If we as writers didn't make the baby bleed, we've failed in our jobs. The most important thing the author can do is to make the reader forget that the writer exists. Your ego (and mine) must die for the story to live.

The same goes for editing the work of others. Your ego (and mine) have nothing to do with the refining of someone's story. Again, it is a cold process, more analytical than creative. Treat it like a mathematical equation, and leave your heart and personal preferences out of it.

I have met two types of writers in the world: those that sacrifice to learn the trade and those that refuse to learn from anyone. I've come to the conclusion that the submission process to find a publisher is designed to weed out those that are unwilling to submit to the learning process. After all, if you can't write a query letter to industry standards, how are you going to write a quality manuscript?

Recently, I was involved in a group anthology. I submitted a 5K story. It took me a week to write and a week to edit before I sent it out. Then I humbled myself to listen to the critiques of my editors. I had four people read it, two of which felt there were major plot holes, and I had to go back and beef up the story.

Then it went through another round of edits for word tweaking. I didn't fight my editors. I let them tear me apart, and I listened and learned from their advice.

As a dear friend said, if you want to be a writer, "Pay your dues!"

Interview with Kate Quinn, author of Mistress of Rome

It is with great honor that I share this interview of Kate Quinn, author of Mistress of Rome, with you.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Rita: Reading Mistress of Rome, I didn't feel like I was reading history. It felt more like a fantasy novel, and I had magically transported into a whole new world. What did it feel like for you, writing it?

Kate: Extremely immersive. No other words for it. Part of that might have been the setting in which I wrote “Mistress of Rome.” I was a freshman in college and I didn't have a computer, so I had to trek over to the university computer lab, which was just about the most cheerless place on earth: ninety computers stuffed in a basement with flickering fluorescent lighting and a lot of grad students hammering sourly away at their thesis. Somehow, though, it was the perfect blank slate for the imagination to take off. Rome really sprang to life for me – the colors, the smells, the sounds; everything seemed triply vivid. As I typed away, I was seeing the Colosseum and the palace and the forum much more clearly than I was seeing that windowless colorless cinder-block cell.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Rita: As you wrote, did you ever second guess yourself, wondering what you were doing, questioning if you could find an agent, doubting you could pull this off? If so, how did you handle these doubts?

Kate: Did I have doubts/second-guessing moments with this book? Yes and no. No, because I'd been writing novels since I was ten years old – it was a way of life to have a project on the back burner. I wasn't really thinking about getting it published yet, just trying to write the story that was clamoring in my head. But also yes, there were some doubts and fears, because this book was the first thing I ever wrote entirely on my own. As a teenager I had my mom – classical scholar, voracious reader, and merciless editor; every writer should be so lucky – and I was used to bouncing my ideas off her, talking out my plotting problems, getting input whenever I got stuck. But when I wrote Mistress of Rome I was a freshman in college three thousand miles away from my mom or anybody else I knew. I had no help. So I just gulped down the worry and went at this massive project alone. A little scary at times, but exhilarating.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Rita: For all of us who want to follow you, how did you find your agent and publisher?

Kate: At the time, I wasn't even trying to get Mistress of Rome published – that was sitting in my desk drawer while I touted around another novel I'd written about the Hundred Years War. I lugged Literary Marketplace home from the library and incurred astounding late fees on it while I combed through looking for agents willing to look at historical fiction. Not so many as you might think. I googled each one to make sure they were legitimate (I'd had a previous near-miss with an agency that, I realized just in time, was a scam) and sent off a round of query letters. I got a prompt round of rejections – and one “I like your style but this book isn't quite doing it for me.” That sounded encouraging, so I emailed the agent back and asked if she might like to see something else I'd written. She gave a somewhat unenthusiastic ok to that, and I shipped off Mistress of Rome. When she read that, she offered to represent me.

Later, I realized she'd taken a real chance on me. Mistress of Rome was in very rough shape – about twice as long as it is now, with twice as many plotlines. It needed a lot of work, and my agent took a gamble that I could edit it down to something marketable. I spent a few months cutting it up and putting it back together; she liked the result and sent Mistress of Rome off to several publishers. A few months later, I had an offer.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Rita: What was the inspiration for Thea and Arius?

Kate: Thea's character fell into place once I realized I could make her a survivor of the suicide-massacre of Masada. Her various quirks – her dark view of the world, her cynical humor, her habit of cutting herself when things get rough – all flowed from that. I loved the idea of a heroine who is so cosmically troubled, yet still functional. We live in the era of therapists and self-help books which tell you it's okay to wallow in your traumas, but Thea didn't. She doesn't bother feeling self-pitying because she had a tragic childhood, or because her master treats her as a sexual convenience, or because she is a slave. She just copes as best she can, and goes on with her life.

Arius began as a challenge that I set for myself: could I make such a violent man into someone readers would still root for? During the course of the book, he does a number of fairly unpalatable things: kills women in the arena, for example, or beats up his son for becoming a bully. Heroes in books normally do not do these things; they talk to their kids rather than give them black eyes, and if they are told to kill women they find a way to say no. I didn't want to make things easy for Arius; he keeps having to do terrible things through no desire of his own. I don't know how my readers feel, but I adore him even in his black moments.

I felt bad for Thea and Arius for all the things I put them through, but at least I gave them each other. Their romance was another thing I tried to turn against the trend: they fall in love fast and hard in the first fifty pages rather than postponing the inevitable till Act III; they have the most unromantic settings possible for their romance (dank cells instead of luxurious beds), and when they first have sex it's Arius rather than the much-younger but much-preyed-upon Thea who is the virgin. Really, the two of them shouldn't be able to make it work – any normal person trying to love a man with such a short fuse or a woman with so many self-destructive habits would run screaming in the opposite direction. But they are both so screwed-up that they can look on the other's problems with complete equanimity. Hey, whatever works.

Rita, thanks for having me!

Book Review: Mistress of Rome

My daughter sat in the grocery cart, and I was supposed to be picking out a book for her. But instead, I steered us down the adult books aisle--it wouldn't hurt to check if my local Target carried a book I already owned, right?

"Can I help you?"

"Do you have--?"

And then my eyes lit on it. The Mistress of Rome. Only two copies left.

I wanted to jump up and down, and I had this overwhelming urge to tell the salesclerk, "I know the author! I even have a short story in the same anthology as one of hers. No, I've never seen her face to face. No, I've never heard her voice. But really, I do know her!"

I felt like a stalker.

Well, I've read all the reviews, wanted to argue with anyone who said anything bad about it, and nearly jumped down someone's throat for ripping on my favorite characters. Even after finishing the book several months ago, I still feel like Thea and Arius are friends that I will defend to my dying breath.

"It's a book," you may say. But it didn't feel that way when I read it.

The Story
Mistress of Rome follows the lives of two girls of fourteen, Thea the slave and Lepida the slave's master. Lepida is ambitious. She wants power and jewels and men. First on her list is the gladiator Arius the Barbarian. When Thea and Arius fall in love, Lepida sells Thea to a whore house.

Pregnant, Thea is then sold to a musician who trains her to sing and play the lyre. Her fame grows until she catches the eye of the emperor and is taken as his mistress.

The Characters
For me, Thea made the story. I really identified with her. She's human--failings and all. A loving mother who must leave her child in the hands of another in order to keep him alive. A woman made of steel who would do anything to survive. A survivor who feels guilty for surviving. A dreamer who wants freedom. A lover. A fighter. A believer. I felt like she is me.

The World
Kate's portrayal of Ancient Rome didn't feel like a dry history book. She painted the world with vibrant colors. The gladiator games. The fights. The parties. The politics. It felt more like I was stepping into one of the best fantasy books I had ever read.

The Writing
I started thinking about what I would rate this when I was halway through. I figured I would give it 4 stars, leaving me room to give her next book 5 stars, for I expect Kate Quinn's next book will be even better. But by the end, I knew rating her 4 stars would by lying.

The Author
Stalker that I am, I requested an interview from Kate Quinn, and she graciously agreed. So please return tomorrow for the conclusion of my review.

Warning: I would rate this book as NC-17 for violence and sexual content and Roman orgies. I do not recommend this book for anyone squeamish.