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Another Draft Finished and My Summer Writing Plans

It has been some time since I last updated this blog, and I feel I’m due for a new post. The last few months have been challenging on many levels, especially for writing and my dedication to this book. I’ll share some of those challenges and what I think the next few months will look like (hint: more editing!).

So, let’s move on to what I’ve been up to the past few months. For starters, I’ve done another draft of my book. It has some substantial changes, but I also kept a number of scenes and elements from the old version. I finished this draft May 3rd and sent it off to its next beta reader. I’m hoping to get their comments back at the end of this month. Getting to this point was not easy, though. There were some very busy weeks at work, meaning I had to work late and write less. I also went through a difficult time with my mental health in February/March, and only started to feel normal once mid-April rolled around. But I have a lot of optimism for the coming months. The sun is shining, my brain is perky, and I have a path forward.

First on that path is reading, specifically about writing and how to create a novel. I know, I know. I can hear you now: “Hannah, wouldn’t it have made sense to read those books BEFORE you started writing?” Well, ideally yes. However, I’m learning as I go. And these books really would only have been helpful to me once I gained a closer understanding of my characters, which is difficult to do without writing those characters a bit. Anyway, I’m going to go back to the fundamentals and learn about character arcs, plot structure, and building themes. I know that a lot of these crucial story elements have a presence in my book, but they are muddled and get lost. So the trick will be making them stand out.

After I finish a few of those books (one down already), I’ll re-do my story’s outline and re-apply it. At this point I should have my recent beta reader’s comments, and I’ll use those to help revise. I’m hoping to keep this round of revisions fairly concentrated. There will be a lot of work to do, but I don’t want to spend all summer doing it. I am considering taking a few days off in June to help facilitate this goal. We’ll see how that goes.

The next step after revising will be sending the manuscript to one last round (hopefully) of beta readers. I know I need to find someone of African-American origin to review at this point. If you’re curious why, I will note that both my characters are black and I am not. So, it is important to make sure I don’t include potentially harmful tropes or anything like that. For more info on this subject, I highly recommend stopping by Writing with Color on Tumblr. I think I will also want a beta reader to review the magic system I’ve created and see if they spot any issues or  logic holes. I

So, after this round of beta readers, I’ll do more revisions as needed (hopefully they will be pretty focused) and then I’ll start querying. The goal is for the novel to be its best possible form at this point, and I will definitely do a final copy-edit and proofread before sending it to any agents. But really, once I start querying I will likely step away from actively working on the project and will try to start something else while the rejection letters role in. This novel has been my main writing project for 5 years, and I think my skill as a writer will improve if I start working on something different. Also, working on something else might keep me from burning out, which may have been a contributor to my need to take breaks in the past.

So, that’s where things are at. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little update. My plan is to do these more often. I think this is slightly more likely than not because I’m back into a steady writing habit.

Cheers!

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Hello, there! I’m Back.

Hello, everyone. It’s been…. quite awhile. One year, four months, and nine days to be precise. Yikes.

What have I been doing over the past year? Not a lot, honestly. OK, that’s not true at all. I’ve been busy, I just haven’t been writing. That kind of sucks, but it’s also been good in some ways, I think. I’ve taken some time to re-invest in my physical, mental, and emotional health through travel and running; worked really hard and grown a lot at my job; and done some definite values reassessing. But let’s get to some specifics, yeah? And then I can share some exciting news with you all! Continue reading

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The Practicalities of Building a Magic System: What I’ve Learned So Far

When writing fantasy, the key to any good magic system lies in consistency. This is a lesson I’m learning now. It’s easy for me to get caught up in developing innovative forms of craft (incantations, wands, etc.) or cultural heritage. However, without consistency as a back bone, there’s really nothing to make a magic system believable, and even in fantasy, believability is very important. So, here are a few key areas of enforcing consistency within a magic system.

Culture
One hang-up my beta readers are catching in my current work in progress is cultural consistency: magic systems’ should be reflected in the cultures they inhabit. My husband gave me an example of this just yesterday. In The Kingkiller Chronicles, the main character encounters an inn that uses magical bells that are connected such that when one rings, the other rings as well, allowing bell hops in the hotel to provide quick service. The main character sees this as an extremely frivolous use of complex magic, but the point of the little episode is that magic interacts with the world outside the narrative. This helps enforce consistency with how magic connects to the story and invokes believability. Put it this way: If Harry Potter went to Hogwarts, but we never learned anything about the wizarding world outside the school, or the treatment of people without magic, would that fictional world and it’s magic have held such potency? Probably not.

HarryP_ScreenShot

Screenshot: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2001).

Logical Order of Operations
A magic system is far more believable if the audience can see or anticipate how the system actually works. Let’s return again to our two original examples: The Kingkiller Chronicles and Harry Potter. In The Kingkiller Chronicles, the author put a great deal of time in developing a detailed magic system: the laws of physics are kept in mind if not closely followed, and expert use of this magic is more about creatively using basic principles. By following fundamental laws, the magic system adheres to a logical order that the reader can understand and predict. The Harry Potter books lack a lot of this detail, but there is some logical consistency. A person must be magical (and not a muggle) to use magic. They also must have a channeling device (a wand or sometimes an umbrella) and they must know the right words and the correct movement of their wand. These are the “ingredients” of magic. In a good magic system, these elements don’t change, or, if they do, it’s explained in a way that makes sense.

KKC_ScreenShot

The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss. (DAW Books, Inc. 2008 and 2011).

Cost and Penalties
Even with cultural and logical consistency, a magic system is not complete without some sort of cost or penalty. If a magic system does not come with checks and balances, it loses its believability. In Harry Potter, wizards and witches have to learn and specialize in certain forms of magic, which takes years of training. In Kingkiller Chronicles, there are many magical students who go insane. The use of magic requires intense concentration and complex states of mind that, if done rashly, can cause serious mental damage. Without a believable deterrent, penalty, or obstacle for using magic, the system introduces logical inconsistencies: if everyone can do ANY kind of magic, why don’t they? If anyone can and does perform powerful magics, what is compelling about a character with talent and creativity?

It’s important to think about these things when planning a magic system. Do you guys have a favorite magic system, and if so, what book/tv show/movie is it from?

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3 Destructive Writing Habits

Most every writer has a few bad habits. I mean, when making a habit of writing, it’s fairly easy to add other habits into the mix of our process. Many bad habits are mostly harmless, like chewing pens or mumbling your characters’ lines out loud. However, sometimes our bad habits as writers can become downright destructive, and it’s a good idea to step back and take stock in them. I’ve seen a lot of benefit in my own writing practice from ending destructive habits. Here are a few I’ve battled with myself .

Only Writing When Inspired
I’ve written about this before: waiting for inspiration just leads to low productivity and self-deprecation. When we put off writing, our practice suffers. I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat in front of my computer screen, only to get up two minutes later because I just wasn’t “feeling it”. The best solution is to find a schedule and stick to it. Right now, I’m only managing to find time to write in 15-minute increments. It’s not a lot, but I’m writing several times each week, and it’s keeping my practice going.

Eating Sweets While Writing

chocolate cake

Photo by rore (Flikr). Used under the terms of the Creative Commons.

In high school, my favorite way to start a writing project was with a fat piece of chocolate, tea, and good music. The combination was very stimulating, and somehow got me thinking that I wrote better when I had a bit of sugar inside my tummy. Unfortunately, when I integrated a food item as a mainstay in my writing practice, I started gaining weight and suffering in other health-related areas. I don’t mean to say there’s anything wrong with a cookie when diving into a new chapter or a bag of peanut M&Ms to celebrate finishing your latest project. However, as when we add junk food to our writing habit, it hurts our bodies more than any stimulation me may possibly get from the jolt of sugar. To help me drop the habit of eating sweets while writing, I tried upping my tea intake to keep me less hungry. I also tried to write on a full stomach, choosing my times right after a meal or a healthy snack. In combination with a lot of willpower, I managed to kick the habit.

Drinking While Writing

beer trio

Photo by Lindsey G (Flikr). Used under the terms of the Creative Commons.

There’s a myth that the best writers in history were heavy drinkers: Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Marguerite Duras.  For me, I thought a drink while writing during my first NaNoWriMo would help me get words on paper. However, it was not long before I had a drinking habit that interfered with my writing production. To be clear, I’m not talking about a “drinking problem” in the addiction sense, and if you have a drinking issue, I HIGHLY recommend you seek professional help. This is not so much about physical dependence as about having a habit of consuming a product that left my wits dull and my body lethargic, when I really should have been at my best. To drop the habit, I stopped drinking at all during any writing projects. As with sweets, with a little willpower and the encouraging realization that my writing improved with the clarity of my mind, I managed to kick the habit. Now, I may have a small glass of something while writing for my blog, but I don’t feel I need it to get through a long writing process.

So, have you guys ever struggled with any bad writing habits? If so, do you still struggle, or have you found a solution to get over your habit?

 

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What I’m Reading – July

There are few things as important to the writing process as a good reading lineup. I’ve discussed before how I like to build reading lists, and I’ve even shared a few recommendations in the past. I find that I can learn more about a person from what they’re reading or have read recently than a conversation on other topics. But maybe I’m biased.

Anyway, in case you’re curious, here are a few books that I’ve read recently, am reading now, or will read this month. Judge me as you will.

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel – Finished
I first thought about reading Station Eleven after it was announced as a National Book Award finalist; however, I didn’t actually pick it up until my book club elected to read it together. I’m glad I did. I did sometimes find the actual writing to be a little lacking (among other things, the author ran into problems with verb tense agreement). However, I will always praise this book for seamlessly melding the perspectives of a host of different characters. Also, it’s a fairly unique take on the dystopian future genre that’s saturating the book market right now.

station eleven

New York City: A Short History, George J. Lankevich – Finished
Upon visiting New York City late last month, I was gripped with a powerful urge to understand this new place; I found what I was looking for in George Lankevich’s book. To be honest, I go through non-fiction phases (I’m in the middle of one now), and rarely seek it out unless I have the urge to learn a significant amount of information on a topic. The short history of New York, while compact, did give me this information. It starts from the city’s founding as an early Dutch settlement and continues on into the present age. While I can tell Mr. Lankevich has a few biases (he leans conservative), I appreciated his dry humor and sincere yet honest appreciation of this infamous city.

Let my People Go Surfing: The Education if a Reluctant Businessman, Yvon Chouinard – Stopped Reading
This book was recommended to me by a friend with an entrepreneurial spirit. While I’m not a burgeoning businessperson, I did appreciate the first section of this book, in which the author, Yvon Chouinard (founder and owner of Patagonia) discusses the birth of his company. It was interesting and made me appreciate the guts it takes to stand out in the world of sporting equipment. That being said, I didn’t see much benefit in reading the later chapters, which focused on Yvon’s business philosophies–I’m really not interested in business. I’m glad I read the parts that I did, though.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway – In Progress
I’ve owned this book for the better part of a decade, and this is first time I’ve actually decided to read it. A part of me is glad; it’s a renowned piece of American Literature. A part of me is also groaning; I have a distinct love-hate relationship with Hemingway going back to the first time I read The Sun Also Rises. I do appreciate the man’s simple prose, but sometimes I think he’s a little too obsessed with ideals of masculinity. In any case, I’m enjoying the few chapters I’ve read so far, and am doing my best to keep an open mind. There’s a reason this is part of literary canon, right?

belltolls

Prophecy, Ellen Oh – Next Up
I’ve been wanting to read this book for at least a year. It showed up on my Tumblr dash and I was intrigued by the cover, featuring a single red jewel over a churning blue background. According to the back summary, Prophecy is about a girl named Kira who serves as the body-guard to a prince. There’s political and demonic intrigue and all sorts of coming-of-age themes. Did I mention that this young adult fantasy book is based on ancient Korean lore and mythology? Yeah, I’m sold. I just have to buy it before I get distracted by my next book.

So, do you think you know more about me after getting a glimpse of my currents reads? What are your current reads? Do you find you reread more books than explore new books?

 

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So You Want a Steady Job in Writing: 4 Industries Seeking Writers that You Might Not Have Considered

I know from personal experience that many people feel writers have fairly limited career paths. After graduating with my English degree, I frequently was asked if I would teach, and after I responded in the negative, they asked what I could possibly do that was stable. The truth is there are many stable writing careers in a variety of fields, some of which require extra schooling, but many that don’t. So, in the interest of broader education and to support all those recent English grads out there, here are a few industries that offer jobs to writers.

People at work

Even in today’s technology-driven work environment, good writers with competent computer skills are desired. (Photo courtesy of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.)

Software
From how I understand it, coding well isn’t necessarily the most important skill for getting a job with software. The software industry also requires excellent writers to convey their product to the consumer. Software documentation has grown exponentially with the boom of the industry. Sometimes called technical writers, the people in charge of software documentation produce the writing that the consumer uses to understand the software’s system requirements and its uses. Positions in this field usually require applicants to have some experience working with code, but with free online coding courses available, this requirement is easily achieved.

Engineering/Architecture/Manufacturing
Often overlooked by many writers, the fields of engineering, architecture, and manufacturing are filled with positions. Called technical writers, technical editors, or project assistants, writers in these fields help write, edit, and format the technical documentation. This documentation can be a user manual for a tractor or a complicated report on the production of naphthalene. The subgroups within these industries are also varied. I happen to work in Environmental engineering, but in the past I’ve worked in Oil and Gas. Technical writing/editing for these industries is also a somewhat niche field, usually requiring some extra schooling or on-the-job training. However, it is by no means impossible, and if you find a field you’re interested in, it can be a very rewarding career.

Marketing
Career-wise, one of the marketing industry’s greatest strengths is its flexibility. Both of the previous industries I’ve mentioned rely heavily on marketers to sell their products. Many other industries also require marketing. A bigger plus is that the skills any good writer possesses are a natural fit for marketing: know your audience and know your medium. Marketing also allows for a great deal of creative expression, which many writers enjoy. Extra marketing classes in college can help get a job in this field, but it is by no means exclusive in that regard. Positions in marketing include copywriters, copy editors, bloggers, social-media gurus, and editors.

Non-profits
While not offering the pay benefits of the previous three industries, non-profits often provide very rewarding work for the dedicated. While positions may include marketing duties, often non-profits seek dedicated grant writers, who submit the applications for grants to federal and state agencies and philanthropic organizations. I’ve also seen positions with non-profits dedicated to social media campaigns.

Wherever the cross-section of your writing interest lies, there is almost certainly a career out there for you. The best thing to do is to research what you enjoy, find positions in that field that interest you, and see what qualifications they require. Of course, this requires some forward planning, but that might just pay off in the end.

Are there any writers out there in industries not often associated with writing? Or are there many publishers or journalists out there with an opinion on getting started in those industries?

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Brief Hiatus

Hi all! It’s been super busy lately. My husband and I are moving and I’m starting a new job in two weeks. That being said, I wanted to let you guys know I’ll be taking a brief hiatus from the blog for a couple of weeks. My goal is to start back up May 18, after moving and I’ve had sometime at my new job.

I hope you’re all well. See you in a few weeks!

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What My English Degree Taught Me About Writing

You certainly don’t have to an English major to be a writer, or go to college for that matter. Furthermore, with the rising cost of a college education and the lack of jobs offered for humanities degrees I can certainly understand if many people question the need for an English degree unless they plan to teach. However, I am the writer I am because of my path in education. The classes I took as an English major, my interaction with professors, even the papers I wrote, all made me the writer I am today. So, in humble defense of the English degree and also as a demonstration of the necessary skills a good writer should have, here are a few things I learned as an English major that made me a better writer.

English Essay

Oh boy, psychoanalysis and racial othering in the 19th century American novel. That’s what I call steamy reading. Source: Hannah Garrison

 

Learning From Reading Other Writers’ Works
I’ve mentioned this idea before on my blog: to become a better writer we should read the works of others. I do think it’s worth saying again. When we read the work of others, many good things happen. We naturally pick up on sentence and story structure. We can see how others have experimented with different forms of narrative, and decide if that’s interesting. Also, another author’s book is a great place to turn to if you need fresh ideas for accomplishing certain things in your book. Maybe you want to write about characters of a different race than yourself. A good place to start doing research would be to read the works of writers of different races than yourself. Perhaps you want to write a story in first person perspective, but have no idea how to go about this. You can turn to a book that offers that perspective, and ferret out what you like and dislike about that point of view. The great thing about books is there are so many, and chances are good someone has done before what you are attempting.

Thinking Critically About What You and Others Write
Critical thinking skills are necessities for any college student. Without them, all those essays would be regurgitation of fact instead of an original display of knowledge. A common task in literature class is to identify and discuss prevalent themes in works of fiction (and sometimes non-fiction). When writing essays, English majors must also be aware of what they’re writing, making sure they follow through with their thesis and address any holes in their own logic (i.e., think critically about what you’re saying). The same is true for writing books; authors must think critically about what they put down on the page. For instance, a prominent theme in The Great Gatsby is greed. Obviously F. Scott Fitzgerald put a lot of thought into his book and how he wanted to discuss this theme. Similarly, any writer, whether she be an English major pulling together a paper on The Great Gatsby or a writer working on a novel, needs to think carefully about the themes in her writing.

Crafting an Argument
While many authors might say they don’t want to craft an argument in their work, all good writing comes down to the author putting out a point of view. Often, this point of view can be taken from how they address a major theme in their book. Obviously, the same is true for any writing. If I fill my book with natural imagery, obviously nature is a key theme in my book. How I treat nature, whether I show it as dangerous and unpredictable or a victim of humanity’s machinations, demonstrates an argument, intentional or not. A writer can get into trouble if they aren’t fully aware of how they treat themes in their book. For instance, in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, the antagonist Fagin is described as a Jew in very stereotypical and antisemitic terms.

Fagins

Fagin played by Alec Guinness and Timothy Spall

 

Dickens’ first defended this characterization, feeling that it seemed to reflect what he saw as the truth. However, after hearing from others that the characterization of Fagin offended many Jewish people, Dickens began removing stereotypical caricatures of the character in public readings and later editions. So, as studying literature shows, it’s important for writers to carefully consider the arguments they’re making in their text, even if they’re unintentional.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts on writing and whether a degree is useful or not. Do any of you writers have a BS degree, and if so, what do you think that brings to your writing?

 

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Four Teas for Writing

All writers should be familiar with the soothing powers of tea. Aside from numerous health benefits, tea can be used as a mild stimulant to get your brain working or a sedative to help you relax and recover. Case in point: I’m in between revisions of Footfall and looking to find other things to keep me occupied. Spending time worrying about starting my next draft just makes me unnecessarily anxious. So, I’m taking a short break from writing and I’m enjoying several regular cups of my favorite herbal and rooibos teas to help me relax. It’s a simple pleasure, but sometimes returning to simple pleasures is just what we need to make it through a difficult period of time. Here are a few of my favorite teas for writing, whether I’m powering through a draft or trying to recover from burnout.

Jasmine Green Tea
Brand: Sunflower
Why I Drink It: This is a very straightforward green tea with a very nice jasmine flavor. Unlike some jasmine teas, it doesn’t taste like it’s been sprayed with perfume. Also, the caffeine level is moderate, so it’s a good drink for when I need a mild boost but don’t want to be up late.
Where To Find It: I’ve seen it in several Asian groceries stores and I know Amazon sells it as well.

tea1

Summer Evenings Herbal Tea
Brand: Victoria’s Lavender
Why I Drink It: As with most herbal teas, I find the warmth and smooth flavors help keep me calm, if not down right drowsy. Also, this is a very satisfying blend of flavors, none overpowering any other. It’s good hot or iced and is what I’m drinking right now to help me relax.
Where To Find It: You can order it online here.

No. 18 Georgian Blend Tea
Brand: Harrods
Why I Drink It: This black tea blend is smooth but powerful, packing a nice punch of caffeine. I used to drink it in college when I needed to stay up late. This tea also goes nicely with cream and sugar, a little bonus when I feel like treating myself.
Where To Find It: Harrods in London or you can order it online. However, shipping to the US is nearly three times the cost of the tea, so be warned. As far as I can tell, Amazon does not sell it.

tea2

Market Spice Cinnamon Orange Tea
Brand: Market Spice
Why I Drink It: Mostly I drink this for sentimental reasons now, since it was a favorite of my mother-in-law. However, this tea does stand on its own two feet, offering a robust orange-cinnamon flavor. Market Spice makes it in black or rooibos tea blends. Both are tasty, but the rooibos is caffeine free, which is a nice option.
Where to Find It: Their store in Pike Place Market, their online store, or Amazon.

Are you guys tea drinkers, or do you prefer coffee or something else? I like coffee, but have learned that it upsets my stomach if I drink it too late in the day.

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3 Writing Tips to Improve the Editing Process

I’ve been writing my book, Footfall, for almost a whole year (+/- a few months).  Right now I’m in the heart of my revision process. I’ve sent the book out to a few beta readers, and as I look back on the rounds of editing the book has gone through so far, I have come to a very interesting conclusion: I’ve been doing it wrong. By “it” I mean the whole process: writing, rewriting, revising, etc. Obviously I’m being a little hyperbolic and thanks to my many revisions, I’ve fixed my mistakes. However, next time around I’m going to go about it differently. So, in the interest of preserving this realization for myself and in helping any of you aspiring writers out there, here are three mistakes I’ve made in my writing process that have really hurt my editing.

editing1

Hand marking my novel in a nice coffee shop almost makes up for the hair pulling.

 

I Didn’t Start With an Outline
Technically speaking, an outline should happen as the very first step of the writing process. However, I didn’t start with an outline and I’m feeling the pain now in my editing process. An outline serves as a sort of map for a writer. It should show where your story starts, where conflict begins, and how it all resolves. Ideally, a good outline will even include a breakdown of chapters. I decided writing by the seat of my pants would produce a more “organic” story than an outline, and I skipped this step. However, I ended up having to entirely rewrite my novel to encompass all the changes I decided to make halfway through my second draft. I still had to pull out old stuff that wiggled its way into the rewrite when I went back for more edits. While an outline sounded like a pain, I know now that I could have saved myself a lot of time and effort if I had hammered out the major story elements in an outline in the beginning.

I Didn’t Take Many Notes as I Went
I chalk up my lack of note taking to laziness. I read plenty of articles that advised taking thorough notes on place or character names and descriptions. It really is important to make those decisions early on to ensure consistency in the book. I had good intentions of doing this, too. I have a few half-finished lists of possible character names. However, I never sat down and wrote out all of my characters names and how I needed to describe them. This means that as I go back and edit, I have to be very conscious of spelling and which characters have what coloring. Not only that, but location names and descriptions have to be double checked for consistency as well. Again, I would have saved myself a lot of time on this end if I had done more planning at the the beginning.

editing2

Picking up hand marks: the most arduous task in existence.

 

I Didn’t Reread Until I Was Finished
A lot of writing advice blogs say a writer shouldn’t read their work as they go and they should just keep writing until they finish. There’s certainly a benefit to this; not stopping to read means there’s less chance of getting bogged down in rewrites before you finish. Unfortunately, the down side to this is the possibility of a painful lack of consistency in the end. For example, in my own book, a spy decides his position at the enemy base is in jeopardy and decides to leave. This information was passed on to my main characters in the middle of the book. By the end of the book, I forgot that my characters already knew this information, and I wrote a version of the previous conversation. Books take a lot of time to write, so it’s no wonder that I had a hard time keeping track of what my character’s knew and what they didn’t. If I had reread while I was going, I might have avoided this problem.

 

Now, because I even had a revision cycle, the mistakes I’ve made above will not hurt the final product. However, I feel like I’ve wasted a lot of time revising things that should not have needed fixed if I’d done things properly. I also worry that I’ve neglected other important elements in my editing, like character voice  consistency, because I’ve put so much effort elsewhere. All I can say is thank goodness for beta readers.

So, do you guys have any helpful writing/editing tips to share? I’m going to be at this editing thing for a while and any advice would be appreciated.

 

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