Writer’s Corner: Editing Advice

So, after nearly four years of work, I am once again drawing close to having a finished novel and man does it feel good.  Nothing reminds you how hard writing is so much as doing it and that alone makes it feel like a massive achievement when you finally get there. I spend half my days staring at a blank page wishing there was a magical machine that could take the things I see in my head and translate them onto the page. My thesaurus is so overused the page numbers are fading in the corners and I’m quite surprised my keyboard still has any letters still visible on it. I’d actually hate to know how many words I’ve written, rewritten and revised time and time again on this book.

Writing is not like riding a bike. It is not one of those ‘once you’ve mastered it you’ve got it for life’ skills. It’s something that constantly evolves. It might be coincidence, but the authors whose names are remembered are not young. The books they are famed for are not their first or second, but often something like the twentieth attempt. Writing is a mission for self improvement. And every word written will be an improvement on the last. I know I am a much better writer  today than I was when I first penned Myths & Legends some four years ago.

Writing is a passion. Writing is a love. It’s a celebration of freedom and something that is unequivocally yours. I still get a rush when that paragraph just flows perfectly, or a smug smile when I know I’ve just written an amazing sentence. But it is true, that often the true joy is in the ‘written’ stage and the ‘creating’ stage rather than the ‘writing’ stage. And that is probably why I have such a love/hate relationship with editing.

I want my book to be the best it can be. Not because I want to make millions (though that would be nice) or top the best-sellers list (though I definitely wouldn’t mind) but because I want something to be proud of. Hell, four years of my life have gone into it, the least I can do is make it good. Which means editing.

Self-editing is hard. Stage one is ripping your own work to shreds. As anyone who had the misfortune of reading the original version of my book will note, firstly, that book needed some SERIOUS work and secondly, the new version is almost unrecognisable back to its origins. The story is the same, the characters, the places (with a few name changes) but the book is different. I’m still working through the process that I started some six months ago but I feel like I can finally see the finish line.

I’m not an expert. I’m not a multi selling, sold to movie author whose net worth is hash signs on Excel. I’m just a kid with a passion whose learnt as she’s gone along, as well as listening and reading the advice of those who have been there before her. What follows are some of the hardest lessons I’ve learnt on my editing journey. Also at the bottom are a few links to some of the pages that have been my bibles through this process.

1. Know Your Story.

My least favourite thing in the whole writing process is writing that hook line on submission profiles. That ‘one sentence that tells your story’. I can’t help but think, ‘well if I could tell you in once sentence why would I have bothered with the other 100,000 words’, but this is an important hell we must all go through. Every book can be summed up into one key sentence. It took me a long time to realise I didn’t know what my own stories were about. And that’s a horrible feeling. My stories were wild and meandering but somehow, in all the excitement, I’d lost my focus. When I came back to edit, I started with a hook. It probably took me longer than any other part of this process, relatively speaking, to do but once I had it, it became my golden rule. I have it visible at all times when I’m working on editing. It keeps me focused and it gives the book drive.

2. Cut Things

As I say above, version one and two of my attempt at fiction are somewhat differing in content. When I decided Myths & Legends needed some serious work, I realised that was going to include some massive changes, things were going to have to go. This is one of the most painful things to do in my opinion. Not necessarily because I think the parts I’ve removed were good (Hell some of them I was glad to be shot of) but because every word represents hours and hours of work and for a while it feels like you are going backwards. I literally sat with a printed version of my book and just started scribbling out any sections I didn’t want. I think what remained were a plot document of the story (which I haven’t changed) and about 30%, most of which also had ‘needs rewriting’ scrawled over it. But just like a good haircut, after the initial shock of ‘oh it’s gone’, it felt good and it felt liberating.

3. Read your competition

I mean competition in the loosest possible sense. I simply mean, read books in your genre. See what they are including, what they are leaving out, common threads, how yours is different. Good and bad. I liked reading Twilight because I used it as a lesson on how not to do it and it was a big part of the reason I stepped away from first person narrative.

4. Don’t sacrifice your characters to your plot

In short, make sure you don’t have your characters doing something out of character just because the plot requires it. This was the biggest cause of the reshuffles in my work. I realised my characters were doing things because needed them to, not because that’s what they would actually do.

5. Watch for heightened progression

Chapter breaking has always been an Achilles heel of mine. I come from a scriptwriting background so my instincts, still to this day, are to split when the story moves to a new ‘scene’. Sadly, this is not the best way to keep people reading. Play around with chapter breaks. Try and find the moments that will leave people flicking to the next page desperately. As a general rule, break at the ‘comma’ moment, or the ‘colon’ moment but never at the ‘full stop’ moment until you write ‘The End.’

Also, a story has to keep moving. This ties with points one and two but I found there was a lot of dead weight to cut out. If it doesn’t add something to the story, it goes. Long flowery description or (another particularly bad habit of mine) pointless description of clothes beyond what was necessary need to go. Likewise, any spurious spin off stories or waffle that exist only for padding out the book and finding neater, more thematic ways of exploring elements of the characters without going off on a tangent.

6. Don’t ‘infodump’

Classic self-published mistake that (most) everyone is guilty of. Information needs to be spread across the whole book. Don’t give the reader all the information in one go, they’ll just get frustrated and close the book. It’s mostly why I stopped reading the Mortal Instruments books. Readers like to be teased and tempted. Let them draw their own conclusions only to reveal the actual truth later on. I can tell you this on good authority because I was the queen of ‘infodump’ in my early days. I spend half of my editing time breaking apart everything and finding better, more intriguing ways to introducing ideas.

7. Spell check and grammar check

And obvious point. I find printing pages is the easiest way to proof. Or better, bribing someone else to do it as fresh eyes are far more likely to see mistakes.

8. The Devil is in the Detail

Rewriting is a playground for inconsistencies. From character ages and the date, to how you might spell a certain thing or even the choice to capitalise or not a certain word, editing is when all these mistakes need to be removed. The other element here, particularly for people writing in their own worlds, is watch out for proverbs. By this I mean, if you have a world in which they don’t know what a ‘witch’ is, don’t have a character describe another character’s laugh as ‘a witch’s cackle’. It’s the phrases we use without even thinking. It sounds like a stupid and obvious mistake but I’m always falling over places I do it.

9. Tie it all up in a Bow

Get to the end. In one piece. With all plot strings attached. If a string doesn’t fit, either make clear its an ongoing theme (e.g. in a sequel) and then make sure it does get explained away at a later date, or get rid of it.

10. Listen

Let other people read your work and actually listen to what they say. Just because they don’t write or even read all that much doesn’t mean their opinion is any less valid. Listen to their questions, their comments, and then make a judgement call on whether to act on them. A comment like ‘this chapter feels really slow’ or ‘I don’t understand why she did that’ are important and need to be addressed while ‘I think it would work better if she had red hair’ can probably be put to one side.

GOLDEN RULE: Stay positive

You’ve finished a book. Never forget that point, even as you feel like you are ripping it apart. Editing should actually make you feel good about yourself. Writing is fun. We do it because we enjoy it. You lose that and you lose the whole point of the exercise. Be proud and keep smiling. You are most of the way through the marathon, the finish line is in sight.

Advice from the Experts:  (the last one in particular is gold)

http://ajbarnett.hubpages.com/hub/Good-novels-arent-written-they-are-edited

http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/complete-first-draft/4-editing-proofreading-techniques-for-your-novel

http://www.stevenjcarroll.com/authors-corner/advice-for-self-editing-your-novel/

http://bubblecow.net/editing-your-own-book-the-top-ten-tips/

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