Tips for Writers: The Final Edit

'Fool for Hire' by Matthew LeJunePhoto by Matthew LeJune

Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, short or long, you’re going to edit your work multiple times.

Writing is like clay modelling. First, you slap a big blob of ideas, facts and feelings onto your table (computer screen). Then you begin pulling away chunks, moving them to other spots, or throwing them back into the clay bin (story ideas file?).

The first draft is your blob, but even it needs structure. To switch metaphors, you can’t find your way through the forest without a trail map. So, if you’re writing long form (novel, screenplay, biography), create a good outline first.

The second draft is about major changes. You’ll likely spend hours on just a few pages, moving, deleting, and re-writing paragraphs, or even whole scenes. The third draft gets more into detail: phrasing, getting character’s voices and mannerisms right, etc.

But the final draft is the real make-or-break stage, and in some ways the most agonizing. Why? Because for the first time, and more and more with each read-through, you’ll begin to get a sense of how it flows. This is when you’ll discover whole paragraphs or even pages that interrupt the story’s narrative momentum—what the reader experiences—and these will need to go, or at least be altered.

And it will hurt.

Here are three key elements you’ll need to focus on:

  1. Is it clean and clear of clutter (nice alliteration, eh)? Or does it break the flow? This may mean cutting some genius phrases and sentences but, as Mr. Spock taught us, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
  2. Is it emotionally engaging? Does it make the reader want to stay up past midnight?
  3. Does it contribute to the narrative drive? The reader needs to sense that every paragraph belongs there. And why. They may appreciate the pretty trees, but they came for the forest, remember?

My current novel, from my screenplay for the movie Healing River, originally had a two-page flashback I was particularly fond of. In it, our protagonist began stalking the teenager who killed her son. “It’s just you and me, buddy,” she told her SUV. “You have to help me find Michael’s killer.” And then she recalled when, at her son’s insistence, she and her husband had bought the 4-wheel-drive vehicle so they could have off-road adventures.

I wrote a lovely scene about the three of them huddling together, snowed-in in the woods, singing goofy songs—their final outing as a family before her husband died. And now the last of that little family, her son, was gone. How befitting, she decided, that the SUV Michael loved should be her partner in tracking down his killer.

The essence was right. But the novel, like the SUV, went off-road at that point, and had to be trimmed. A lot. That hurt. A lot. Still, the two paragraphs I condensed those two pages to in the final draft serve the story better–they contribute to the narrative momentum. So keep reminding yourself…

“The needs of the many.”

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Are You a Failure?

Rinum's Blog

RinumMy Featured Blogger this week is Rinum, a woman who moved as a child from a rural village in Pakistan to booming New York. Her poems and memoir-tinged posts capture the thoughts and feelings of someone who has lived in two different worlds. “Come take a glimpse into my life,” she writes. I’m glad I have!

Rinum's blog

Maybe I am stubborn
that’s why I keep rising
every time I fall.

You become a failure when you give up, not when you’re defeated. You fail when you don’t put in the effort to change or to make a difference. Trying, no matter what the circumstances are, is what makes you victorious.

Did you know Einstein’s father thought of him as a failure? Even Einstein thought of himself as a failure. He wanted to drop out, but he pushed through. After he graduated, he was so confused that he took a job as a salesman, going door to door to sell insurance. Keep in mind this was the same man that came up with the general theory of relativity. The same man who gave birth to the concept of quantum mechanics.

We all have doubts. We all have those moments where we don’t choose a road, instead we just…

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Skateboarding in the Stone Age

My Real Memoir

My buddies and I invented skateboarding. Kind of. There were two types of skates back in the stone age:

1) Pro skates with smooth “clay” wheels that you could rent at the local roll-a-rama. You’d glide around the rink, and Hokey Pokey to the center, hoping to “put your left foot in” just as that cute girl in the poodle skirt did.

2) Metal skates, the kind you’d steal from your buddy’s kid sister, strap onto your sneakers, and rumble noisily down “Death Hill” in, hoping nobody stretched a water hose across the sidewalk.

Metal skates were cheap and flimsy, and the only kind anybody I knew had. But, hey, they had wheels, and any kind of wheels were better than no wheels. Plus, we’d discovered you could pull the skates apart, nail the wheels to the bottom of a board, then stick a fruit crate on the front and, voilà, you had a crate-scooter! Of course, these tended to disintegrate, sending splintered wood and body parts everywhere. Still, they were kinda like surfing. And surfing was the gnarliest thing on the planet!

Then we heard about something called “skateboards.” Apparently, surfers would sometimes build crate-less scooters and go “sidewalk surfin’!”

We built one the next day!

Our first skateboards were metal skate wheels nailed onto two-by-fours. They lasted roughly as long as our crate-scooters had. Which is to say, exactly one trip down Death Hill before hitting a rock or a speck of dust and becoming airborne. But, hey, we were sidewalk surfin’, and there was no going back!

We soon discovered the sidewalks at our grammar school were smoother and featured virtually no cars backing out of driveways. We went everywhere on our little stone age skateboards.

Until one day…

My dad brought home a commercially-made “Chicago” skateboard, with better metal wheels, and a thinner board you could actually turn! Sort of.

Then, a short time later, a surf company started making “pro” skateboards. They had stringers, clay wheels that turned like a dream–and they actually looked like surfboards!

I got one for Christmas. A friend even got a “longboard.” It was so big that three of us could ride it, trading off roles as Captain, Engine Room, and Rudder Operator.

Skateboarding eventually became an Olympic-level sport, leaving us cave dwellers in the dust. Or splayed across somebody’s driveway, at any rate. But I’ll never forget the day…

My buddies and I invented skateboarding.

My Real Memoir is a series. To read the next one, click here.

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Humility vs. Self-Absorption

'Man in Black Leather Jacket' - photo by Mariel Reisner ( by Mariel Reiser

Thought for the Week

According to a recent study, only about 50% of men over age seventy are still sexually active. But when surveyed, nearly 100% of them say they are. Apparently, it’s not diamonds, or even sex, that are forever, but ego.

“Know thyself” is the first of three famous maxims carved in the ancient Temple of Apollo. This was to be taken in context, said the Greek philosopher Pausanius, with the other two: 1) “But nothing to excess,” for, 2) “Certainty brings insanity.”

The current age, it seems, has enshrined the first, and forgotten the latter.

Your fingers are actually quite small. But if you hold one up in front of your eyes, it appears to be taller than the tallest skyscraper. Trust me, I’m an only child–and a writer–so I know whereof I speak. But in the end, even I am capable of understanding that:

It is humility, not self-absorption, that is the key to knowing our true selves.

“You never really learn much from hearing yourself speak.”
~George Clooney

“The ego hurts you like this: you become obsessed with the one person who does not love you, and blind to the rest who do.”
~Warsan Shire

It is not the self that struggles

But the ego that struggles with the self

A battle that cannot be won

~Krista Hartley

“A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down you cannot see something that is above you.”
~C.S. Lewis

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”
~Rick Warren

“The Ego is a veil between humans and God. In prayer all are equal.”

“When you are Real, shabbiness doesn’t matter.”
~Margery Williams Bianco (The Velveteen Rabbit)

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Only One Death

Only One Death

Only one death–not an act of hate, but of love–ever brought anyone else back to life.

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Disaster Under the Double Moon

Double Moon

The Wishing Map is a full-length fantasy that is being posted episodically at this site. To read the previous episode, click here. To read the entire novel, begin here.Wishing Title (logo only)

Zack shot a glance across his shoulder. The peculiar orb had remained visible for three weeks now. Most people called it “the double moon,” but some insisted it looked more like a 3-D image without the glasses. Whatever it was, it had first shown up the day of the Eighth Grade Promotion Ceremony, the day life as Zack and Gina Dore knew it had ended forever:

Even before the Dore family car came to a complete halt at redundantly named Middleton Middle School (“Mid-Mid” for short), Zack, twelve in every sense of the word, flew out the door, his yellow straw hair flaying his pale blue eyes.

“He’s going off to play with his immature friends,” his sister Gina graciously observed.

“Zacky, come find us before the ceremony starts!” Mom’s voice faded into the distance.

Zack raced across the athletic field, hungry to reconnect with his friends. He dodged multitudes of parents, who in turn were dodging multitudes of green and gold balloons as they searched for unclaimed folding chairs.

Zack spotted his second and third best friends Michael and Casey at their usual place just outside the 800 Building. There Zack, Michael, Casey, and Arman had spent the last two years doing the only thing, in Zack’s opinion, worth doing: pretending. In fact, Zack was so good at pretending, that his friends had long ago surrendered all control of play to him, not because he was demanding, but because his imagination was so much better than theirs.

But then last week, within three days of each other, Michael and Casey had both turned thirteen, and immediately begun to change. Which is to say, they’d begun to act the way they supposed all proper teenagers act: bored and superior, and completely uninterested in anything.

“Hey, slime monkeys!” Zack yodeled as he slid across grass and onto the concrete at the base of the steps.

Michael and Casey both started to laugh and instinctively reached out to grab his arms in order to soften the blow, but then, as if suddenly remembering Zack was made out of razor blades, Michael pulled back and stifled his laugh.

Nervously following suit, Casey released his grip.

Zack crashed bottom-long into the cement steps. Undaunted, he bounced back up onto his feet and said, “Ta-da!” He’d have a black and blue butt for a week, but so what? At any given time at least some part of his body was black and blue.

Eerie silence. Where was the roar of appreciation? Even a small roar would have sufficed.

Michael murmured “hey” in a self-consciously low tone, and then resumed the cool-bored pose he’d been working on for the last week and a half.

“Sup?” said Casey, glancing uncertainly at Michael, then back at Zack.

“Did you guys see the double moon? I mean, it is SOOOO freaky!’

“Uh, yeah, I guess,” Casey replied.

“Why, it’s abnormal, I tell you!” said Zack in his famous mad scientist voice.

“Yeah, it’s kinda yellow and blurry,” Michael offered with a “so what?” shrug.

“‘Kinda yellow’? ‘Kinda blurry?’!”

Michael’s next words were chilling and, to Zack’s ears, pure evil: “We’re not doing that kiddie pretend crap anymore, Dore.

Game over.”


Thoughts: When asked why he wrote stories for children, Kenneth Graham (The Wind in the Willows) said it was because they were “the only really living people.”

To read the next episode, click here.

Wishing pix-Map

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Autumn colors will peak this month in most of the Northern Hemisphere. How inspiring is it? If you google “landscape paintings,” over half the images you see will have been painted in October. Ditto photographs. And if you’re south of the equator, we’ll look for your pictures in March. Wherever you are, enjoy your first weekend of Ahhctober!

Click on any image to enlarge it, to read caption, or to start slide show.

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Why (at Least Some) Bad Things Happen


I don’t often get a sense of “why bad things happen.” You know, the “senseless” stuff we didn’t plan on—illness, lost income, the death of a friend. But a few years back, while writing the screenplay for my movie Healing River, I got a meaningful glimpse.

My car was entering the final curve on a nearby hill when the tail lights on the Mercedes-Benz in front of me lit up. No big, I was already starting to brake anyway. Except that this guy was braking harder than me. Way harder. So I pressed down and angled my steering wheel toward the median. The maneuver should have been enough, but slick yellow median paint is not traction-friendly stuff. My wheels locked-up and glided ahead, striking the corner of the now-halted Mercedes.

A moment later, I saw why the Mercedes had braked so hard. The car directly in front of him had collided with a beater from the opposing traffic, that car having suddenly veered onto our side of the road. The cause became clear when a cop pulled the barely conscious driver out of his automobile. “Heroin!” the officer said with disgust. I walked a few steps forward and glanced into the crunched beater. There on the passenger seat was a used hypodermic needle.

Outside of the “coincidence” that I was currently working on a screenplay about a death caused by a heroin-using driver, the incident produced no immediate tingle of Greater Purpose in me. Nor did I sense any upside when my right shoulder and lower back began to complain (both injuries turned out to be permanent).

But then, one by one, reasons began to materialize:

First, to my surprise, the addict’s insurance company didn’t dispute the charges. They offered me twice the value of my car, a 28-year-old Porsche that I’d wanted to sell for years, but that had needed pricier repairs than it was worth.

Second, X-rays revealed an issue I needed to know about (arthritis). I’ve since altered my writing schedule to include therapy and walking breaks from my desk-jockey life.

Finally, the addict, Christopher, was sent to a drug treatment center which may well have been the turning point of his life. I’ve prayed for him ever since, and believe this may have been the main reason the incident occurred. My back and shoulder in exchange for a soul, God? Count me in.

Yes, I’m implying there’s Someone behind all this, Someone with a Plan, and not only that bad things happen for reasons, but that our recognizing and participating in those reasons is, at least sometimes, part of the Plan. Bringing good from evil is God’s M.O. And he calls us to complete the process. Am I imagining a Greater Purpose where there is none? Could be. But every time I taste my wife’s lemon bars I realize, This is why God created lemons.

The Old Testament’s Joseph rose to a position of power that enabled him to save thousands of lives. He then told his brothers, who’d indirectly put him on this path by selling him into slavery, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” (Genesis 50:20) Joseph got it. He was participating in the Plan.

Are we?


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What if Our Conception is Wrong?

My Featured Blogger this week is Gordon Couch, aka “Rocky,” of The Fractured Rock. Rocky is a retired businessman, world traveler, and longtime teacher at his church. He and his wife of 50 years have the foothills of Tennessee’s spectacular Smoky Mountains for a “backyard.” The story below, by an anonymous writer, has apparently been around for a while, but it was Rocky’s post that called it to my attention. Heads-up: This may not be what you think it is!

In a mother’s womb were two babies.

One asked: “Do you believe in life after delivery?”

The other replied, “Why, of course. There has to be something after delivery. Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later.”

“Nonsense,” said the first. “There is no life after delivery. What kind of life would that be?”

The second said, “I don’t know, but there will be more light than here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and eat from our mouths. Maybe we will have other senses that we can’t understand now.”

The first replied, “That is absurd. Walking is impossible. And eating with our mouths? Ridiculous! The umbilical cord supplies nutrition and everything we need. But the umbilical cord is so short. Life after delivery is to be logically excluded.”

The second insisted, “Well I think there is something and maybe it’s different than it is here. Maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.”

The first replied, “Nonsense. And moreover, if there is life, then why has no one ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery, there is nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion. It takes us nowhere.”

“Well, I don’t know,” said the second, “but certainly we will meet Mother and she will take care of us.”

The first replied “Mother? You actually believe in Mother? That’s laughable. If Mother exists then where is She now?”

The second said, “She is all around us. We are surrounded by her. We are of Her. It is in Her that we live. Without Her, this world would not and could not exist.”

Said the first: “Well I don’t see Her, so it is only logical that She doesn’t exist.”

To which the second replied, “Sometimes, when you’re in silence and you focus and listen, you can perceive Her presence, and you can hear Her loving voice…calling down from above.”

Posted in For Pastors and Teachers, Humor, Quips and Quotes, Religion/Faith, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 40 Comments

Newspapers and Talking Birds

My Real Memoir

Dad was ambitious to a fault. Acquiring a newspaper dealership in a brand-spanking-new suburb was great (honestly, I don’t recall any more than the usual amount of spanking). But it would be some time before enough customers lived there to put gas in our two cars and tuna in our three cats. Newspaper dealers were expected to not only hire paper boys and collect subscriptions, but continuously build up their territory.

So, along with sending “Welcome” letters and knocking on doors (I write about that here), Dad sought other ways of expanding his business in brand-spanking (or at least stern-talking-to) new La Mirada.

Result? He took on the local “rack route.” This consisted of placing newspaper racks at outlets like drug stores and coffee shops. Every day, Dad would stock the racks with papers, put new headline cards in them (“Space Race Heats Up!”), and empty their cash slots of shiny new dimes and nickels!

For a while, I snagged rare me-and-Dad time by riding along on this rack route. We’d talk, sing “My Friend the Witch Doctor” along with the radio, and shout “Tequila!” each time the sax solo stopped. And then I’d help Dad restock the racks, and get a cold Dr. Pepper (my drug of choice) as a reward.

But my absolute favorite stop was “Gus’s liquor store.” Dad would greet the owner while I talked to Pretty Boy the mynah bird, who blithely greeted customers as they entered. But the titular event would come when anyone asked Pretty Boy, “Where’s Gus?” and initiate the greatest recurring comedy bit in cross-species history!

Pretty Boy would screech, “Here, Gus!” in his best mock-human voice. And a moment later, Gus the hound dog, dubious protector of all things hooch, would come loping in, and look groggily up at the owner. The owner would say, “Don’t look at me, Gus, I didn’t call you.” And then Gus, who to his dying day never dreamed that birds could talk, would–after a sympathetic head pat or two–lope lazily back into the storage room. At which point, Pretty Boy would guffaw “Ah-hah-hah-hah-hah!” till the cows (and other gullible species) came home.

No one will ever convince me that bird didn’t know exactly what he was doing. And so did I when I spent time with Dad, Pretty Boy…

And Gus.

My Real Memoir is a series. To read the next one, click here.

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