Welcome back. Today’s blog will add detail to my 10-Step Plan for Self-editing. Do not do your self-editing all at once.
Again, as we all know, a poorly-edited manuscript is certain death for any legitimate agent or publisher. And it is one of the things within our (your) power to control along the journey to publication. However, don’t obsess over perfect grammar. In the words of Stephen King, “Language does not always have to wear a tie and lace-up shoes. The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story… to make them forget, whenever possible, that they are reading a story at all.”
“Write it again,” is the whole deal; it is everything. My five (5) main goals when editing (says, James Patterson), are to:
- Move the story forward – I want to make the story more coherent. This is all that writing is. It is all rewriting. Sometimes my story just sits there for 40-pages; I must take that and move the story forward. Think of conversations you’ve had with someone where you just wanted to shout, “get to the point.” The story needs to move forward.
- Remove any distractions – You might have written all these cool scenes, or pages, or sentences, perhaps a hilarious joke…everything communicates. So, if it is supposed to be a suspenseful scene, all the funny and poetic, even if brilliant, is simply in the way. Get rid of it. Now you might be the most gifted poet-writer in the room, and if so, do it your way, but for the rest of us, we must take out everything that is not on point.
- Fix (tighten, refresh, etc.) the dialogue – the dialogue kind of flows easier than description so take a second and third hard look at it. Especially if a chapter or scene is dragging, go back and look at the dialogue and maybe the 3-pages of dialogue should only be 1-page.
- Keep the pages turning – So, I like to get to the point, you know, what happens next and so on…however, I learned that the hard way. Angelo is running up the stairway to his apartment, and as he turns the corner on the 4th floor, a body laid motionless in front of him, meanwhile in apartment 5E…don’t ever stop the action like that…I know that Clancy does it, don’t you do it.
- Stay positive during the edit – It can seem overwhelming, so that’s one reason I break it into 10-parts (think Bird by Bird). As you edit and rewrite, know this, you are not fixing mistakes, you are improving your manuscript your story, you are taking it from a vague thought and an outline to a tight, compelling and page-turning story. It’s like digging a hole to plant a flower; you will fill the hole again with soil, not because it was a mistake. You’ve added beauty to that patch of earth.
As I said, I use a 10-step plan for self-editing that has worked well for me in writing both nonfiction and fiction. I do not edit as I write (and rewrite) my first draft – I am strictly thinking story. Before during and after my first draft I am researching everything (names, clothing, expressions), so I know what period stuff I will look for when editing as well as “truth” stuff (especially in fiction). Read my introduction to this 10-Step Plan here.
1. Review the opening and closing lines for each scene. Why did you stop the scene with that line? Why did you start the new scene with that line? Always looking for (lazy), as in,I just wanted to get to the point of the scene (…to play the card). On page 246 of my first draft (of Weepers), I began the scene with, “As usual before going to bed, Angelo walked into Uncle Johnny’s room and told him about Jimmy …” As usual is lazy, but fine in a first draft. However, you will catch it during editing the first and last lines. As usual became, “Johnny, wearing only pajama pants, stood on his hands, his feet barely touching the wall, as he pushed himself up and down. The moonlight cutting through his window, chiseled his rope-like muscles and cast a shadow of a huge scorpion moving in for the kill again and again. Angelo, mesmerized by the image, stood in the doorway of his uncle’s room. Johnny sensed his presence and, without stopping, said, “Come in, Angelo.” “Uncle Johnny, will you teach me to a knife fight?” Angelo sat on Uncle Johnny’s bed. You might decide to do something different. Excellent, as long as it is not as usual.
Also, keep asking, why do I (the reader) want to go on?
2. Eliminate (unless included for a good reason) passive voice. King tells us the passive voice is safe. The timid fellow writes, “The meeting will be held at seven o’clock” because that somehow says to him, ‘Put it this way, and people will believe you really know. ‘Purge this fear! Don’t be a muggle! Throwback your shoulders, stick out your chin, and put that meeting in charge! Write ‘The meeting’s at seven.’ There, by God! Don’t you feel better?” Edit for tension vs boring (tension = danger, conflict, and/or uncertainty); for body language; for 5-senses.
3. Get out of the way of the action. I was asked what the difference was between filler words and filter words. I will come back to this in my September blog since I believe it requires my full attention.
4. Review for story and plot– does it hold together? Does this scene move the story along? Look for and eliminate:
- Stage direction – he got up, he walked to the door, he turned the knob…just say, he left;
- Mundane dialogue and pleasantries – here eliminate everything but the greatest hits of the dialogue;
- Information dumps – a character tells how it all happened. And so on. And, yes, “As you know, Bob, my…” is an information dump.
5. Make a list of the promises you have made and the foreshadowing and edit to ensure that you have kept your promises and fulfilled the foreshadowing. However, some foreshadowing might go unanswered; for example, one of the goals of Father Joe (in Weepers) was to save Angelo from the gangs. When a younger priest asks him if they were successful in that effort, Father Joe responds, “It depends on what the Weepers become.” So, you might not have to resolve the issue; you just can’t ignore or forget it. Also, this comment is a set-up for the sequel, Nunzio’s Way.
6. Edit for repetition. Repeated statements, descriptions, names, and words. Search for your most often used words. Mine seems to be, Just, Bit, that, but, some… Also, look for consecutive sentences that start with the same word.
7. Eliminate as many adverbs (especially “very”) as possible. King tells us, “The adverb is not your friend. Consider the sentence, “He closed the door firmly.” It’s by no means a terrible sentence but ask yourself if ‘firmly’ really has to be there. What about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before ‘He closed the door firmly’? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, then isn’t ‘firmly’ an extra word? Isn’t it redundant? “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that, Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him.” Just like the Muse is you. Also, eliminate as many tags (she said) as possible without losing track of who’s talking. Also, don’t get cute with tags, like instead of he said, he snapped. If you need to identify the character, just use “said” and let the dialogue and context carry the weight.
8. Do a surgical edit. Reduce the word count. Don’t kill your darlings but do imprison them in another file on your computer or folder.Here’s a technique suitable for surgical cutting and improving story – write the point of each scene as well as what happened in the scene on separate index cards. Then lay out the cards in order and ask yourself, “Do they move the story forward? Do they say what you want? Are they all necessary?
9. Have someone (or the computer) read your story out loud. Take notes. This does not have to be, and should not be, at one sitting – and if one or two friends sit-in even better.
10. Finally, consider a professional line edit. I can’t do that myself, I tend to read past mistakes, but maybe you can. You are free to accept or reject what your line editor suggests. You are the author. You know the story. But do give the line editor’s suggestions your full consideration. For example, take our friend the comma; if I write, “woman without her man is lost,” my meaning seems clear. However, by merely adding a couple of commas, I can convey the opposite sense, “woman, without her, man is lost.”
Workshop suggestion: Take a scene, page, or chapter you’ve written (or from a magazine, newspaper, a novel, etc.) and apply the self-editing steps above one at a time. I think you will find it both interesting and informative. Give it a shot.
Thanks for being here and stay brilliant, healthy and hopeful, Nick