To help you edit, reverse your sentence order

by Intermittent Rain ~ May 16th, 2019

Here’s how to make your computer help you find grammar and line editing problems. Awkward phrases, missing words, repeated words in close proximity, and repeated sentence length will be much more obvious and easier to identify to fix.

It requires Word, WordPad and Excel. Plus a bit of computer skills, or, just follow the instructions closely and trust my advice.  🙂

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In late drafts we need to focus on line editing and on finding oddball errors like extra words or missing words. Reading aloud can help, but when I read aloud I insert words that aren’t there because I know what I meant to say and I know the context and make corrections as I read without noticing. Reading to someone else can help but only if they notice the changes you make, and they may not have your eye for phrase structure or voice or sentence pattern.

Some writers read their prose backward to break the stream and the context. This is very useful for finding line edit issues, but doing so from a regular draft is strenuous, so here is a method to have the computer separate each sentence and to reverse the order for you.

I’ll use square brackets in the instructions to surround specific characters for you to type. Normally I would use quotation marks but that won’t work since we need to replace some quotation marks.

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  1. Copy your entire document and paste into Wordpad (shortcuts: Ctrl + A to select all, Ctrl + C to copy, Ctrl + V to paste). Or, you can use Word instead of WordPad but you must turn off all AutoCorrect options. Autocorrect will mess with what we’re going to do. I find it easier to copy into Wordpad than to turn all the Word Autocorrect off and then back on.

  2. Replace all [. ] (that’s a period followed by a space) with [.~] (period with a tilde) The “Find and Replace” shortcut is Ctrl + H.

  3. Replace all [? ] (question mark and a space) with [?~]

  4. Replace all [.” ] (period, end quote, and a space) with [.”~] (You may need to copy [.”] from somewhere in your Word document because WordPad doesn’t use Word’s smart quotes.)

  5. Do the same with ! if you used them.

  6. Done in WordPad. We’ve now replaced the space after each sentence with ~ to make it easy to identify. Now, copy all from WordPad and paste into a new Word document.

  7. In Word, replace all [~] with [^p].  ^p is a special character that tells Word to break for a paragraph. You can also do this in WordPad but it’s more difficult because you have to use the code for special characters to identify the paragraph break.

Now each sentence is its own paragraph. Easier to read backward.

To reverse the order, I use Excel. You could also use tables within Word, I think, but I prefer Excel.

  1. Format one entire column as text (otherwise Excel will autoformat the text in Excel-ese). To do so, select the column and right click, select “Format Cells”, in the “Number” tab choose “Text”. Or, select the column, from the menu choose “Home”, then “Cells”, “Format”, “Format Cells”, “Text”

  2. Copy and paste from the broken up Word document into a cell in that column you just formatted in Excel.

  3. In an adjacent column, fill the column with sequential numbers. One way to do this is to type [1] in the highest cell, then [2] in the next, then drag the bottom corner as far down the sheet as your pasted text goes. I do it differently, but I work with Excel a lot and am faster using keystrokes.

  4. Select the two columns that have your text and the numbers

  5. Sort, high to low, on your sequential column. Now your sentences are in reverse order.

From here you can read in Excel format, if that helps you see things new. Or, copy just the text column back into Word.

Now, read from top to bottom. It won’t make a lot of sense (which is part of the point) but each sentence will stand alone.

I edit in the new Word document. Corrections I type in red, text to delete I change to strikeout font, and I highlight both types of changes so they are easy to find. Then save this new document and go back and fix your original.

In theory, it may be possible to write a macro that will use tables and do this entire process within Word, but I’m more of an Excel expert than a Word expert. If someone knows how to do this, please leave a comment below.

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One thing that limits any writer is what they don’t know or can’t see. Reading in reverse order is like shining light from a different direction to find the spots you missed when you were dusting, a way to help you to see some of those pesky little things that you’ve become blind to.

Open Your Story at the Start of the Ending

by Intermittent Rain ~ March 13th, 2019

“Begin at the start of the ending” is a writing aphorism. Open your story there and you set yourself up to easily carry through without losing the reader’s attention.

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During a Twitter discussion on the use of literary devices, I said that I use flashback because I tend to start near the end and I need flashback to get at the history of the character and situation. One person assumed that if I’m starting near the end, then I know the ending before I begin writing. She was envious.

But I almost never know the ending when I start writing. I don’t even know what I’m writing about until much later. All I have is a situation and/or a character or just a character trait, or perhaps a technique to try or a restriction I want to play with.

My ability to craft prose has become quite decent and I can improvise off a small vision or idea for a few hundred words without difficulty. I do this by feeling around inside the situation hoping to find where it wants to go. Then I wait to see if the character or voice or situation inspires me to keep going. This I refer to as seeing if the story “has legs”.

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So how am I starting near the end? When I don’t know the end?

I think it happens naturally. If the material has enough tension and cohesion to continue (ie. if the story has legs) then it doesn’t take too many words to write to the resolution of that tension.

These are 1,000 to 5,000 word stories, though in one case it became a 23,000 word novella. That one took 23,000 words because of the complexity of the situation. A lot of backstory and context was required —  some flashback, some internal narrative, as well as the POV and narrative and interaction of multiple characters — before I could explain how this all came to be, even though the primary story timeline is only six or eight hours long. Still, the story from middle to end is the resolution of those opening tensions. When the story opens the endgame has just begun, only none of the characters realize this (and neither did I, when I was working on early drafts).

This is slightly different for novels. My novels open with tension and situation and voice but the material feels more open-ended. The tension for a novel is a fact of life for the character rather than the one-time event or limited applicability condition of a short story, and it’s gonna take an entire novel to explore the different situations that the tension will affect.

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So in a short story, if you open with tension and work towards its resolution, you will have started near the end. If instead you explain the situation, describe the characters, and then write the history to get to the moment with the tension you might start far from the end. And if that set up lacks interest, you may lose your reader before you get to the important parts.

As a reader for a publication, I see this problem all too often in submissions. Yes, especially for science fiction we need to know the world that you’ve built, in historical fiction we need to know the time and place, but don’t bore the reader by dumping it all at the opening. Describe it in a fascinating way that whets the reader’s appetite, or hold on to parts and tuck in snippets at natural points in the narrative.

Differences between reality and fiction

by Intermittent Rain ~ February 14th, 2019

Writing a story is not the same as experiencing reality.

For one thing, fiction is more interesting than 99% of most people’s reality.

Even creative non-fiction and memoir take reality and reshape it for presentation so it’s not boring, doesn’t include irrelevant moments, and has a coherent story or point.

There are some basic differences between good writing and reality, and reasons why those differences exist.

 

Dialogue

Fiction or even creative non-fiction rarely use actual dialogue. Too many ‘um’s and shortcuts and unclear wording.

A fictionalized version carries dialect and character traits and is clear when the character is intending to be clear and obtuse when the author needs the character to be obtuse.

Setting descriptions

When you walk into a coffee shop you carry a plethora of background or assumptions. What country are you in? City? Time of day? Previous times in this location? Previous experiences in this chain? How do you know what you want? Where is the menu? You expect the smell of coffee, display cabinet of snacks, sounds of canned music, or do you? Are they there, or are they missing?

The writer needs to give the reader some of the details that the writer may not think about when they walk into a coffee shop. The reader is not actually there and needs extra description to compensate.

Use of the seven senses

I’m not very Zen. I pay little attention to the feel of my clothes, the sound of my shoes on gravel, the flavor or temperature of my coffee, the smell of my toothpaste, the spin around our spiral staircase, the change in air pressure from 100 meters above sea level at my home to almost zero where my office is, the taste of my food. As long as these experiences are close to my expectations or previous experiences, I barely notice.

If you walk in the snow you sense the softness under your foot, hear the crunch, feel the cold, but if you were in this situation yesterday, why pay attention? The reader does not come into a situation with your expectations and background and previous experience. They need the information that you take for granted to help them understand, to help them to be there with you.

Time

Time is pretty constant unless you are an astronaut traveling at significantly different velocities than the rest of the planet.

In stories, time is presented at different speeds: important moments have lots of words, some internal narratives exist almost outside of time, and large chunks of irrelevant time brushing teeth, opening doors, driving, are skipped entirely. Most writers don’t have too much difficulty with this, though the balance between words allocated to crucial and less important moments is something that we all struggle with.

Detail

Two lines from a draft of a memoir read, “We stopped at Normandy, where my father had fought in the war. It was an emotional experience,” and then goes on to talk about the next stop. This is either an example including material simply because it happened even though it plays no part in the point of the story, or, more likely, an example of the writer failing to understand the difference between what they experience as they read the words to what the reader gets from those words.

As a reader, what do you sense is missing? Description of Normandy, past and present? Backstory about the father? Actual things the author saw, heard, thought? Explanation and description of the emotions so the reader can understand and experience them?

Now, try to get into the author’s head and understand why this writer wrote what they wrote. For them, all the missing context and backstory and memory of sights and emotions are conveyed by the words as given. ‘Normandy’ brings up sights and experiences. ‘Father’ and ‘fought in the war’ have many meanings and stories. ‘Emotional experience’ sums all the feelings their depth and flavors the sentence with it.

It’s all there. For the author.

But for no one else.