The Editor Hat: The Smoldering Stage of Writing

Although one hat is not more important than another, the Editor’s hat has a vital role unlike the others: while wearing this hat (which will be done more often than the others), you are the arbitrator, business-like and unyielding when it comes to the specific goal—improving your story and your prose. During the edit phase, you will snuff out the fire of the Creator, dislodge the contentment of the Reader, and thereby shatter dreams, tear down walls and fashion them into something more to the Editor’s narrow liking. James Scott Bell, in his valuable book, Revision and Self-Editing, says to “write hot, edit cool.” The Editor’s Hat thrives on revision—The Smoldering Stage.

I realized the importance and uniqueness of the Editor’s Hat during a previous revision session of The Returning, and also became aware that I had not been very good at that particular function. I decided to take the next week and wear the single hat. Freshly printed copy in front of me, mechanical pencil held like a sword, I attacked the manuscript with a new fervor.

I sliced away adverbs and adjectives that now held no value to my new critical approach, ripped at phraseology I once thought clever or inventive, slashed at weak verbs and lazy parenthetical phrases. Heated with a new resolve to have the manuscript “read” better, faster and more succinct, I spent the next week extracting anything I felt was of no consequence.

My 136,000 word novel pared down to 125,000—11,000 words eliminated, but more than that, I learned an invaluable lesson: Brutality.

(A Side Note: I did not lose those clever little phrases or weak analogies, though, but saved them on a “removed from novel” document. Who knows, maybe I’ll be able to give them new life and find a use for them in future writings)

There must be honesty when wearing the Editor’s hat, and one cannot flinch from dismantling a scene to make it better or pulling a particular phrase you have fallen in love with. You cannot afford to be a star-crossed lover, though your Creator will assure you that the clever little things should be kept because they are so good. “Nonsense, if it does not benefit the story, its use is deemed pointless, and worse than that, offensive,” the Editor says.

The Editor’s world is revision, wielding his scepter with the will of any ruler. The editor is the one who has final say, the one who knows better, but like any ruler, has the ability to be fair or cruel. At different times during revision, you may have to be both. While wearing the Editor hat, you will make mistakes, no doubt, but afford yourself that. In time, you will be rewarded by improved skills.

I wear the Editor’s Hat many times during the polishing process. First time through, I look at the general tone and flow of the work, like being in an airplane looking down on the entirety of what I have written, ie., my story world. I check for inconsistencies in the plot, scene order, transitions, and character arc.

Second time through I concentrate on the character arc, because without strong characters that change, the story will be dull. In The Returning, I use multiple viewpoints (4) with most attention given to my protagonist, Syjer, but the other three personages are important ingredients in the overall story-line. James Scott Bell suggests reading the work and marking all character attributes and attitudes (both their own and the way others perceive them) with a colored highlighter. When completed, read only the highlighted areas—each go-through for a different character—to make sure each character experiences change (internal and external) from beginning to end. There is nothing more boring to a reader than a character who is the same at the beginning as at the end.

The third (and subsequent) time through the manuscript is when I deal with phraseology, word usage, description versus narrative, dialogue, syntax, and overall flavor.

How many times should you wear the Editor Hat? There is no clear answer. Some writers claim they only re-read and edit two or three times (I do not believe writers who say they do not rewrite at all), but for me, it can range from five to seven times for a novel, and perhaps more. Each writer is different; the important thing is to stop before the story gets stale, and think on this: if Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, or Charles Dickens returned today and reread their greatest works, each would most likely want to change parts of their writing. This, I believe, is a natural tendency, but like a great painter, you need to learn when to make the last brush stroke—in time and with experience, you will.

Comments? I always look forward to feedback, whether good or bad, and always wear my Rhino-Skin.

Have fun, and write often.



This Week’s Writing Quote:
“I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.” James Michener


The Reader’s Hat: The Glow Stage of Writing

A little late getting this posted today as life got in the way.

The Reader Hat is worn after the first draft is complete; by complete, I mean you have the beginning, the middle, and the end. Your story will have holes (plot, characterization, etc.), and the Reader is the first instance when those problems present themselves.

The Reader is the softer and gentler phase, like the comfort of a fireplace burning peacefully for the last several hours—The Glow Stage. This stage requires a length of time (at least a week, preferably more) after the Creator’s hat is removed. During this time, work on another writing project, and that way you have something to keep you occupied while forgetting about the completed work; you want to sever the ties between the Creator and Reader as best you can.

Take time to congratulate yourself—not everybody finishes a novel. Wow! There’s a lot of work in that, so be proud.

I print out a copy and read through as if for the first time. It is not an easy thing to do, but I find the more time I allow (especially for a longer work like a novel), the more inclined I am to read it with a fresh perspective. I make few notes, only things like consistency issues or a rough spot that stopped me reading. I might circle a weak verb or the overuse of a single word, but nothing that takes any time. My goal is to read the story as quickly as possible. I go through the entire work, a single sitting for a short story and no more than four for a novel, paying special attention to plot flow and character development.

When reading the first draft, pay close attention to the story’s logistics. If your world is mostly desert climate, do you have clouds appearing in every other scene? Wrong. If your world is lush and tropical, is the sky normally clear? Not possible. Weather can be an important factor in works of fiction, just as they are in our day-to-day lives. Do not ignore the impact weather can have on a character, a scene, or as an added difficulty that inhibits your characters from reaching their goals, but most importantly, keep it consistent within the confines of the world you created.

Once I finish the first read-through, I take a couple days to digest what I read, making notes of my observations and things that did not feel right. At this point they are generalities, overviews; specifics will be addressed when I’m wearing the Critic’s hat, and you can be sure that hat is anxiously awaiting its turn.

Ignore the urge to make corrections to sentence structure and syntax—that task is left to when you put on the Editor’s Hat.

Just as the Creator’s purpose is to get the story down on paper, the Reader’s goal is to get a sense of story flow. Are there enough obstacles to keep the reader interested throughout the entire novel? Is the action and character reflection done in appropriate portions? Does the dreaded Info Dump—also known as Backfill—pull you out of the story’s progress?

Upon completing The Returning, I actually read through twice before I started to edit, each time a couple weeks apart. Because of the length of the tale (135,000 words initially), I needed the second time to crystallize observations from the first read-through.

Next: The Editor’s Hat, where everything comes together.

Go write; you’ll be glad you did.


This Week’s Quote:
“Sleep on your writing; take a walk over it; scrutinize it of a morning; review it of an afternoon; digest it after a meal; let it sleep in your drawer a twelvemonth; never venture a whisper about it to your friend, if he be an author especially.” A. Bronson Alcott

The Creator Hat: The Burning Stage of Writing

The sole function of the Creator Hat is to get the story from your head to the blank pages in front of you, ie., to create the first draft. Without the first draft completed, you have an idea unresolved, and nothing more.

The Creator is the urgency stage when you’re cold, in need of warmth and first stoke the fires of creativity—The Burning Stage. The first draft is when your characters start to become people, friends, and the world you envision begins to take on life. Do Not Stop writing, and do not take time to read anything except the last paragraph or page to get the writer’s blood pumping so as to continue the story. Getting to the end is the goal, and putting on your Reader or Editor’s hat at this point will derail any effort to finish. Note: The second novel in my trilogy has reached the ½ point as to the plot, but only amassed 30,000 words—about ¼ of the planned length. That is to be expected because life will be breathed into the book during future phases.

As with each stage of writing a novel, only one hat can be worn at a time; however, the other hats will vie for attention, insisting they are the best choice. It is imperative you ignore the prompting to either read of edit during the first draft. The Editor Hat, especially, will try to take over. You must fight the urge.

The First Draft will likely be drivel, and that’s okay; the goal is to finish the piece of writing and not worry about the prose during this stage. As you write more, the drivel will miraculously improve. Why? Because you are going to put on the Reader’s Hat, then the Editor’s again and again during the writing so that their unique skills will color the Burning Stage the more you do it. The next first draft will be clearer and crisper, which gives the Reader and Editor less to do. Isn’t that perfect? Improvement by repetition. Who would have thought?

If you have constructed an outline, follow it but do not force yourself to adhere when other ideas (plot twists, introduction of an unplanned character, etc.) appear on the page. The most important thing about the first draft is to get the words on paper, understanding much will have to be discarded, or at minimum, totally revised—that’s okay and expected.

When writing, and you come to a section that does not feel quite right, move on. If I hit a wall during the writing, I do several things to propel me toward completion. Often, my ideas are scenes without a transition to the next section, so I put a (TR) to indicate I need to come back and deal with the timeline within the text. While writing the first draft, weak verbs (used repeatedly) will avail themselves, words like walked (strolled, ambled, strode, etc.) and I will put other verbs in parenthesis to highlight the need to think more about those choices.

When stuck, I will jump to a scene planned for later in the novel and write that which is burning to be written. I find that after having done so, I am ready to attack the section that gave me trouble.

These are the main things I do during the Creator Stage:

  1. Develop the plot with a definitive beginning, middle, and end.
  2. Define the characters: this includes conflicts (internal and external), their personalities and how they deal with life’s problems (both small and large) which gives them a well-rounded feel.
  3. Explain the world in which my characters live. Writing mostly fantasy, world-building is a large part of my process. At the outset, I have a map drawn and the specific places the story will happen. I also will have notes on the different cultures populating my world, though each of these aspects is rudimentary at this point.
  4. I also devise a calendar with the highlights and the general timeline of my story. I neglected to do this part in The Returning, and found I had to revamp after finishing the draft, which took me an inordinate amount of time that would have been better served concentrating on a different function.

The Creator Hat, for me, is the most enjoyable while offering the most potential problems. The Editor can transform into the Critic, comments like, “You’re not good enough,” “Nobody will want to read it,” “You have no talent” streaming through your consciousness with vexing vengeance. All writers face these doubts to one degree or another. It’s difficult, but ignore the Critic who has no place in artistic expression. Look at the writing that sells and you will realize your writing is better than much of what is published. Embrace that, and embrace that every word typed is improvement, no matter what it seems like at the time.

Now, go write that first draft and take comfort in the knowledge that with each keystroke you are honing your craft. It is truly an amazing thing.

Ideas and techniques you have for pushing through the first draft? Comment and share with other Knights of Writ readers.


This Week’s Quote:
“Don’t look up or down. Look at the page in front of you and nail it.James Scott Bell

The Hat Rack: An Overview


Each hat a writer wears—whether Creator, Reader, or Editor—supplies a unique perspective to a specific task, each with a distinct purpose. Although they complement one another, no two hats can be worn at the same time.

The Creator Hat: The Burning Stage

Once the idea is firmly entrenched (the What If answered, as in my novel, what if a disheartened immortal yearns to be dead), I mull it over and allow my subconscious to work on it beneath the surface. This can take a few days or weeks, depending on the project—it is usually on the shorter side because I want to get on with the writing while the fire of creation burns hot; the reason I call this hat The Burning Stage.

The Creator Hat is worn during first draft, and may be before or after having outlined the characters and plot. The process of writing begins with an idea; the idea will not—and probably should not—be complete during the first draft. Part of the joy that comes with creation is the journey. Although I have a plan where the story will go, I enjoy the process of the story unfolding as I write; it evokes the mystery, and then surprise, when twists and turns appear—the exciting element of creation.

The Reader Hat: The Glow Stage

There should be an extended time-gap between the Creator Phase and the Reader Phase. With shorter works, a week is enough, but with a novel, at least two weeks is recommended, more if possible. Fight the urges to start this phase too soon. You want to let the first draft cool in your mind so when you read the initial time after creation, the writing will be new, and as much as possible, fresh like a reader who first opens the book. The Glow Stage.

The Editor Hat: The Smoldering Stage

The Editor Hat is the most precarious of the three, in that it will demand to be worn when it is the worst possible thing to do. Be wary of the editor, because he has a nasty side (per Jekyll and Hyde), known as the Critic.

At this point, re-read the first draft from beginning to end and make only scattered notes as to flow and desired path. Ponder certain aspects, turning scenes around in your mind, changing viewpoints, altering dialogue to add tension and conflict: The Smoldering Stage.

This first revision is where you begin to flesh out the characters, enhance the settings, and tighten the plot. Scenes or even chapters may be moved (or eliminated entirely), and new ones will take their place. During the first revision, start with an overview; don’t necessarily spend too much time making corrections to sentences and phraseology—that will come later. Instead, focus on the plot and flow of the novel, where chapters start and stop, the natural breaks in the story, and any logistical issues.

Next Week: The Creator Hat—The Burning Stage elaborated.

Go write . . . .



This Week’s Quote:
“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”  Robert Frost

Where Do Writers Get Their Ideas?


A question that arises when a non-writer meets a writer: where do you get your ideas? I have been asked this question many times, and like most writers, I shrug and admit I do not really know. That is not entirely true; it’s just that the way ideas formulate is many-faceted and can take several forms. To pigeon-hole the exact process can be difficult.

Often, a kernel of an idea will strike from an unknown origin, usually raw without much else to go with it. When I wrote the story, The Accomplice (published in Women’s World in their mini-mystery section), the seed was simply, “a double-cross.” Soon after, I developed the main character, Deke, a petty thief who is hired by an antiquities trader to “steal” a valuable chalice and collect the insurance money. That is all I had when I sat down to write the story.

Once seizing on an idea for The Accomplice, I played the What If game; what if Deke sees a double-cross coming—how would he prevent it? I knew Deke was the protagonist from the outset, which gave me half of the puzzle, leaving only the identify of the antagonist. That was simple, the collector.

Having my lead and his adversary in place, now came the questions of setting, plot, and the other workings of the story. But here, I am talking about getting ideas, not explaining how the story developed—that will come in a later post. (You can read the published story here.)

What is important is the What If game: what if Roxanne’s ill-fated marriage to Franklin ends in a murder right after (or during) the ceremony? What if Franklin is killed in a gangland style assassination? What if Franklin, a CPA, had connections and clients Roxanne knew nothing about despite being his secretary? What if . . . . ? You see what I mean; asking What If starts the mind working on possibilities, ideas that may become the kernel for a story, but maybe not. Write the ideas down anyway, because even if the original thought does not develop into a story as planned, it may prove useful in a completely disconnected way, perhaps a subordinate plot twist in another story not yet conceived.

I have dozens—if not hundreds—of snippets, and every once in a while I look them over with fresh eyes. On more than one occasion, I have used these notes to strengthen and add depth to an entirely different story.

Back to how a writer gets ideas. Sometimes a potential title flickers through my mind, a character’s name or trait, or just a concept. The idea for my fantasy novel, The Returning, began with an answer to What If an immortal, plagued by endless lives without purpose, grew weary of the lives he is forced to endure? (I had already made the assumption that rather than living in one body for endless generations, my character returned to a new body at the death of the current person he possessed.) From there ideas swept upon me, each adding depth and prospect to the initial idea of an immortal yearning to be dead.

A current story I am developing started with a character’s name, Whimsy Woo, and from there came the title, The Untold Story of Whimsy Woo.

The idea for an undeveloped story started with a title: Turmoil in Paradise.

These are examples of how ideas come to me, but only a short list. Sometimes ideas have to be (or simply are) prompted by the world around us. Newspapers, magazines, internet posts and even books can germinate an idea into a story. A couple years ago, I read of a grandma who was a master jewel thief. What made the story unique is that she would dress in fine clothes, wear exquisite jewelry (that which she had previously stolen) and shop at busy stores where she asked to see certain pieces; distracting the clerks, she would then slip an expensive piece in her sequined handbag, politely thank the clerk, and leave the store without making a purchase. She did this over a hundred times, if memory serves. The What if to this particular scenario sparks an avalanche of story ideas.

Ideas avail themselves at awkward times and places, so be sure you have a pen and notebook with you at all times. Ideas have come to me in the shower, while shopping, interacting with others (or just people-watching), and a host of other times, many of them inconvenient. Be ready for those sparks, and a funny thing happens—the sparks become more frequent, clearer and ready to add to other pieces of the puzzle that is your growing story.

Now that ideas are popping up, go write them down, massage them, nestle with them beneath a shady oak, and walk the path that is your character’s journey.

A Note: Next week’s blog, The Writer’s Three Hats — A Review will be posted on Wednesday rather than Saturday because my daughter is getting married over the weekend.

Now, go write.


This Week’s Quote:
“Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable.” Francis Bacon