"Tricks of Self-Editing and Revising" with Helen Chappell

Thursday, September 6, 2001

Moderator is Kristi Holl, author of 24 books, 150+ articles, and the web editor for this site.

Helen is Helen Chappell, author of 39 books of fiction and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in the Baltimore Sun, where she was a columnist for many years and in the Washington Post, as well as many magazines. Under the pen name Rebecca Baldwin, she was the author of a successful series of Regencies. She is also the author of the Sam and Hollis mystery series. Her next novel, A Whole World of Trouble, is due out in 2002.

Names color coded in blue are visitors who asked questions.

Interviews occur on Thursday nights: 9-11 p.m. Atlantic/Canada, 8-10 p.m. Eastern, 7-9 Central, 6-8 Mountain, and 5-7 Pacific

Moderator: Good evening, everyone! Welcome to tonight's interview! I'm your moderator, Kristi Holl, and I'm happy tonight to introduce Helen Chappell, author of 39 books of fiction and nonfiction, who will be talking about "Tricks of Self-Editing and Revising." Today editors no longer have the time to personally guide writers through the revision process, so it's essential that writers be able to revise and edit their own work before an editor first sees it. Helen is here to share her expertise on this subject. Welcome, Helen!

Helen: Hi, everyone! I'm really happy to be back here!

Moderator: First, Helen, could you give viewers an overview of what you've published so we have an idea of the types of revision and editing you've done over the years?

Helen: I've published Regencies, mysteries, "serious fiction", magazine articles, a couple of nonfiction books, a whole lot of newspaper features and more. So I've done a lot in different fields.

Moderator: What has changed in publishing the past ten years or so that makes it critical for writers to know how to revise and edit thoroughly?

Helen: Young, inexperienced editors. Editors who have to spend more time in meetings than with their writers. Time just isn't there in the book world anymore. That's why it's good to learn how to edit yourself.

Moderator: What is the purpose of editing and revising? Is it basically to check spelling and grammar, then cut down the word count to the required length?

Helen: Spell check and grammar first, then refining, revising and polishing. Basically, you are honing what you've done. Remember, the hard part was getting it all down the first time. Now comes the easier part; taking it apart, picking it over and making it better.

JaciRae: When editors talk about "editing" and "revising" are they the same thing? My instructor talks about revising like it's the major things, but editing like it's for minor things. Is that what editors mean too?

Helen: Yes. Your instructor is probably talking about copyediting, which is all that spelling, grammar, punctuation stuff, the mechanical nuts and bolts of the job; revising is the creative part. Making it better, making changes, larger or smaller, cut and paste, re-write, revise.

Moderator: Do you revise as you go, or do you finish the rough draft first? What are pros and cons for doing things each way?

Helen: Both are equally important. But the second is more fun. I revise as I go, thanks to computers. Then I take a look at the whole work when that's finished and check to see if it all hangs together. I look for continuity. Does a character have blue eyes on page 3 and green eyes on page 67? Did I tie up all the plot strings? One of the most important things you do in revisions is make absolutely certain all your details hang together. And sometimes, you just forget! So it's good to keep an eye on those small things. As I revise, I look for bad syntax, and awkward phrases, things like that. It's more technical. When you do that last look-over, you want to be sure that everything is in place.

janp: Do you start out in longhand, then transfer to computer or work strictly on your computer?

Helen: I sometimes start on a yellow legal pad, then go to the computer and work out an outline, then I start the real work. Sometimes I also draw little sketches of my characters. This helps me "see" them.

Moderator: When do you start revising--how long do you wait after you finish a rough draft? Do you wait awhile and let it "chill", or is that helpful at all?

Helen: Kristi, this is a great question. I find that letting something "chill" between drafts is often my best editor. Putting say, a chapter down for a while, walking away from it, then coming back with a fresh mind and a new eye is one of the best editing devices.

JaciRae: When you are setting deadlines, or have a deadline set for you, do you count that "chill" time in the deadline and make time in your schedule for it too?

Helen: I've learned to do that! I just finished a novel, and I asked my editor for a year to do it. Most of that time, I was thinking: hatching, gestating, making notes. I needed that time to work in my head and imagination. So if someone tells you just sitting around, reading or thinking or whatever isn't really writing, don't you believe them! Thinking about it is as hard as sitting down and actually typing it all out. At least in the early stages I think you need to take a few hours, a few days, whatever you can spare.

sue: When you write a book in a year do you work on it daily?

Helen: Yes. In the sense that when you're working on something--and I think many of you know this already--it's always THERE. Lurking in the back of your mind.

MBVoelker: Do you edit on screen or on hard copy?

Helen: Good question, MB! I do my first edit on screen. And my second on hard copy, then type in my changes. For me, a computer screen can blind me to things like typos, missed words, passages that don't make sense, stuff like that. I started writing when dinosaurs roamed and we used typewriters and I would never go back to that era again, but one can get "screen blind." So hard copy checking is a good idea.

MBVoelker: How many distinct drafts do you tend to have? Does it vary for different types of writing?

Helen: With the computer it's hard to tell, since you're always revising on the screen, and I'm too lazy to track my changes, but a couple, I'd say. One on screen, one in hard copy.

Moderator: A big part of the reason you can get by with two major revisions--instead of dozens that some people do--is all the "think time" before you put words down on paper. People think it's wasted time, but it isn't! (Just my 2 cents' worth!). Helen, you said once that you used to dread revisions, yet now you enjoy them. Why did you dread them before, and what changed your attitude?

Helen: I've thought a lot about this. Learn from my mistakes, gang! When I started out, I'd re-read my stuff and all I could think was "oh, this is so awful!" So it was painful to revise and edit and I'd try to avoid it at all costs. BIG MISTAKE! How can one learn anything if one doesn't study one's own work? Being a creative neurotic scored me no points and set me back because every word we write ain't golden. One day, I actually read something I'd written and it wasn't as bad as I thought. So from then on, I took more pride in my work. Being a futz gets you nothing and costs me years. So learn by my mistakes. Don't be afraid to look back! It may be good stuff! And now you know just how crazy writers can be!

sue: Are you always completely satisfied with the finished piece?

Helen: Satisfied? Never! I always think I could do better. And I think the day I think I'm perfect, someone should smother me with a pillow! You can always do better. The trick is to know when to stop, move on to the next thing and give it a rest.

Moderator: Where do you START when revising? I read my rough draft and see weak characters and flat dialogue and a boring climax. What should I tackle first?

Helen: My suggestion is the dialogue. True, it's not the easiest place to start, but you can bring characters and plot to life with dialogue. First, it can reveal so much about a character, the way they think, act, react to a situation and to life in general. And, I've found that I can move the action forward in dialogue by allowing the characters to tell us what's happening. (Its a cheating form of telling rather than showing, but it can work really well!) So punching up your dialogue is a great place to start solving problems in fiction.

kmags: Which part of writing do you find the most challenging, the descriptions or dialogue?

Helen: Descriptions. I always want to tell so much, and I get so wordy. My personal challenge is sketching in a background without taking up 20 pages, for instance.

james55clinton: How do you keep think time from turning into daydreaming? Do you?

Helen: James! Daydreaming is writing! At least that's what I tell myself! I think there's a lot to be said for daydreaming. Some of your best ideas can come when you're daydreaming or mowing the lawn, or swimming or commuting to work. I think more people should daydream. It would be a better world.

Moderator: What if you're revising a nonfiction piece, either article or book? Where do you start in revising nonfiction?

Helen: I learned my nonfiction as a feature writer, so I first look for my lead. Does it have a hook? Does it bring my reader into my world? Then I worry about what sequence to use in laying out my story. You want the who, what, when, where and why, but you also want that sense of a person, or a place or whatever your subject is. In some senses, nonfiction is a lot like fiction--you need a plot of sorts, but at the same time, you have an absolute obligation to the truth. And that obligation can tell you how to develop the article.

Moderator: Do you have a revision "checklist" of any kind? I'm afraid I'll forget something important to check for!

Helen: I have senior moments, where I can't recall if I've put everything in that needs to be there, so I'll make notes to myself at the beginning of each chapter. But I think a checklist is a great idea. If I can remember to do it!

Moderator: When I was a writing student, I made a personal checklist from all my instructor's comments throughout the course, since she had done a good job of pinpointing my weak areas, and I always made sure I revised with each of those particular items in mind. Just a thought! Now, Helen, can you tell us the things we should revise (or look at and evaluate) in a fiction manuscript?

Helen: Wow. That's a hard question, since fiction is so subjective. I think the first question is: am I enjoying this? If you're not, your reader probably won't either. The second question is: does this make sense? Could these events reasonably happen to these people or have I contrived something unbelievable? You see, as writers, we have a contract with our readers: we will tell you a story, and you will suspend disbelief if we can convince you these things can really happen to these people.

Moderator: Can you tell us the things we should revise/look at/evaluate in a nonfiction manuscript?

Helen: I'd start with the subject matter. Is it working? Did you do your research? As I said before, I always have a problem with what events or facts should go where, so you want to look at your narrative flow. Does Point A move easily to Point B, and from then to Point C, or does my reader need to know C before he can understand B? Logic is important when you are imparting information. You also want to be certain your facts are absolutely correct. Are your quotes accurate? Did the mayor really award the sewer contract to his mistress, or is that just a rumor? Last, is this understandable? Am I presenting my information clearly?

janp: Does nonfiction become creative nonfiction as soon as you use anything but quotes for your subject?

Helen: No. As a reporter you are certainly allowed to use your eyes and ears etc. to report on what's happening. But again, you have an obligation to report the truth. In creative nonfiction, there can be more of YOU in the story, but please, stick to the facts, however you write them.

Moderator: Do you let friends read your ms. and give you their ideas about what needs to be changed? How important are critiques by other writers?

Helen: I allow about two trusted friends to read my stuff. And I don't let them get too detailed in their personal likes and dislikes. That's why I have an editor. And believe me, she or he will have plenty of ideas I'll have to adhere to!

Moderator: In critique groups you often get mixed messages from the group. How do you decide which criticisms to take seriously and which ones to ignore?

Helen: Ha! That's why I avoid critique groups! Too confusing for me! I'm too easily lead astray!

JaciRae: I'm in a critique group where no one has been published yet, so how do we know if our criticism of each other's work is even valid?

Helen: Jaci, it's what your heart says, not what anyone else says. If it really doesn't feel right, what someone says, trust yourself. If it does feel right, use it! But give it some time to sink in before you rush off to revise!

Moderator: Could you talk more about this "trusting yourself" to know what is right and what works? New and veteran writers alike have trouble with this.

Helen: If a student and I disagree about something, I always tell them to trust their own instincts. Sometimes, what we want to do may not feel right to anyone else. We might not even get it published because we're so in love with something, but even that experience is a learning one because somewhere down the line, that bit we loved so much might sell somewhere else! Nothing you do as a writer is ever wasted.

JaciRae: How do you find the balance between trusting your own instincts, yet taking criticism/suggestions from someone (like a published teacher) whose advice might be exactly right?

Helen: It's a trust issue. Nothing anyone writes is solid gold and I think you should at least try what's suggested because you're there to learn. Put it aside revised, come back and compare again in time.

Moderator: You mentioned to me once needing to submit an "editor-ready manuscript." What is that? How do we know when we've reached that level of completion?

Helen: I'm a little superstitious. I'm reluctant to say this novel is done because I know my editor will have suggestions for revisions, but I got it to the point where I was ready for him to have a look at it and see what he thought. So I knew I was far from done when I sent him the ms. and I'll be done when I hear back from him and do the changes.

Moderator: How do we know when to quit revising, when it's "good enough" to submit?

Helen: Easy answer, and I know we've all done this: just before you get to the point where picking it over one more time will make you very, very crazy. Short answer: when you feel you've done the best you can do. That's all you can ask of yourself.

Moderator: What is copyediting? Is it something you (the author) do, or have to hire it done, or does the editor take care of it?

Helen: Copyediting is all the detailed, tech stuff: spelling, grammar, syntax, fact checking, typo cleaning up, continuity. I have a friend who's senior copyeditor at Random House. What she does is basic proofing, fact checking, production work. It's not as glamorous as acquisition editing, where you buy the book and schmooze the famous writers, but it's more hands on editing than an acquisition editor is likely to do.

Moderator: Do you do everything the editor wants, or just some of it? How do you decide what to change?

Helen: The editor decides what he/she wants and sends it back to me for revisions. A good editor will be precise. A bad editor will say, "Oh, you know what to do." I've had both kinds and I like good editors better.

Moderator: Do you do everything they want you to do?

Helen: No. But I've been around long enough to know what I want and what I don't, and long enough to trust a good editor.

Sarah: If you don't make the changes that the editor wants, will they still publish it, or do you have to find another publisher then?

Helen: If you're new to the business, they surely won't publish you if you don't do a great deal of what they want. And if you don't want to, you should have good reasons and be able to back them up.

sue: Do you let the editor know why you did not make some of their recommended changes?

Helen: Absolutely. We discuss these things pretty thoroughly. Editors aren't tyrants. And they want to make you comfortable. (There's a lot of mother hen in a good editor.)

Moderator: Has an editor ever made changes without your permission? Can they do that?

Helen: Changes. Yes, I've had stuff cut, for length, but no one's ever changed my work without my permission, except for a copy desk editor at a newspaper who changed a direct quote in a news story, and we both got in a lot of trouble! With a book, you'll see so many edits and galleys and proofs, you'll wish they would change it!

james55clinton: In nonfiction do you edit for word choice to keep your opinion out of the work? Example: an envisioned course of action could be called a scheme or a plan.

Helen: If you're writing a non hard news story, sure, you can be really creative and as opinionated as your editor will let you be!

Moderator: Have you ever been asked to change your titles?

Helen: All the time. I HATE THIS!!! Dell wanted all my mysteries to have the word "Ghost" in the title! I thought my titles were much better!

sue: If an editor rejects a piece of your work are they more likely to reject more of your work if they see your name cross their desk again?

Helen: Sue, I don't think so. Especially if you get a note saying "this wasn't for us, but keep us in mind!" No, I think most mss. are judged on their own merits.

Moderator: Are there any books on revising or editing that would be helpful?

Helen: I'm a great fan of my first editor Reni Browne's Self Editing for Fiction Writers, which is good for nonfiction writers too! Personally, I also enjoyed Stephen King's book on himself and writing. He was an English teacher and it shows.

Jackson: When revising, how important is the word count really? Should you revise and revise till you're almost exact? How much leeway is there for maybe a l000-word story?

Helen: I'd say in an article, give or take 100 words. Shorter is okay, but editors are so pressed for space that they don't like too long and will ask for cuts. Cutting, that's a whole other topic!

MBVoelker: About cutting: I write far too long and have great difficulty with that aspect of revision.

Helen: Cutting! Ack! It's awful, isn't it? A friend calls it "killing her darlings", and it can feel that way, but you'll live. You can also cut and store what you cut in a special file you create. Basically, what you want to cut is lengthy descriptions draped with adjectives like a Christmas tree, the places you repeat yourself (and we all do!), long passages of telling rather than showing, dialogue that doesn't advance the plot or reveal something about a character (this is true in nonfiction, too), anything that even hints of purple prose and overlong backstory. Those are just starters!

Moderator: Do you go through and edit specifically for things like voice, the tone of the piece, pacing, tension, etc.? They're nebulous things we tend not to think of, yet they're so important.

Helen: Yes, I look for those elements. Whether I see them or not is another story! But I try. Still, I'll read something I've written in print and see things I coulda/shoulda done better and I wince. My writing is littered with regrets. But I have learned to be cruel!

janp: I'm intrigued by your choice of a user name of oysterback. I've heard of quarterbacks and lobsterbacks but never an oysterback. Is there a story here?

Helen: Jan! Funny you should ask! Oysterback is a town I made up for a lot of my fiction. I just liked the way it sounded, like a sleepy Chesapeake Bay high place in the road, somewhere between Brigadoon and Yoknaptawpha County, which I can't spell.

JaciRae: This is kind of nosy, but would you tell us something about your writing life, like when you write, or your office, or any special writing rituals you have?

Helen: Anyone who doesn't like to talk about themselves is dead or a candidate for the Jerry Springer show! I live at the edge of a small village on Chesapeake Bay, and I've spent most of my later career writing about this region. I have a small house with a tiny study, and I use an IMac. I like to read in the morning. You are all reading, aren't you? A writer should read widely and voraciously! In the afternoon, I slowly approach the desk and sit down to do a day's work which I distract myself from by checking my email, getting on line and surfing, etc. Then when I can't stand it anymore, I start pounding keys. Some days I never get there; I'm just daydreaming, or out researching. Some days I'll sit here from dawn to midnight, typing away. Some days I divide my time between staring out the window and staring at a blank screen. And then, a deadline looms! I panic and write like crazy until the piece is finished because I know I'll only get paid if it IS finished. This is not a life for the faint of heart.

Moderator: There is something not fair here! Helen gets to type "I live at the edge of a small village on Chesapeake Bay" and I get to type "I live in a dinky Iowa town"!

Helen: I think a dinky Iowa town sounds great! Iowa's a pretty state! And this is one funky town. It smells like crabs. Wherever you live, I think there's stuff to write about.

Moderator: True! Helen, I'm sorry to interrupt, but I'm afraid we're out of time. This is a subject that could easily go on and on for hours! Thank you so much for coming tonight and sharing your ideas with us. You take a lot of the fear out of revisions and almost make them sound fun!

Helen: Good night, all. Thanks for coming!

Moderator: Do come back in two weeks on September 20 when Kathryn Pearce will be here to discuss "Cross-Over Writing," or writing for both the adult and the children's markets. Kathryn's published work ranges from adult Silhouette romances to historical novels for children, and this interview will include discussion of both short and book-length material. How are the writing skills and requirements the same for both markets? How are they different? Can you use the same byline writing in both markets? These are many other questions will be discussed! See you in two weeks! And now, good night, everyone!

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