The 50k word challenge is done! Now is the time to self-edit. Why am I tired of it already?
I have been self-editing book one and two of my historical fiction thriller, Fodder for Pigs, the entire month of November and then some. Editing is hard work and I appreciate people who do it as a job.
Even though there are professionals out there to help us, it is still essential that we writers learn to self-edit. A polished manuscript gets more constructive attention from alpha readers, beta readers, editors, agents, and publishers. They have to be able to see the story without getting distracted by mistakes we can fix ourselves. Once they see the story, they can focus on the nitty gritty details, if that’s what they are ultimately there to do.
I’ve noticed several things about writing during this process and will list them here in order of completion:
The first draft is crap
No matter how much I thought I polished it (7 times!), the first draft was just a draft and never progressed to second draft status. I got great feedback but more disappointing feedback. This is why one should do developmental edits before reaching out to readers.
Cut the fluff
That’s right, my amazing scene building in the beginning chapter was distracting fluff. The extra words I added to make it sound nice were not needed. In fact, the first thing nearly every reader said was “you write beautifully,” but the second thing was “I’m confused, I don’t know what to focus on.”
I spent hours analyzing what to keep, what to cut, and what to use in a different way.
Is it believable?
A small town sheriff has to have a darn good reason to let a person take over his jail. A stalker needs a reason to start stalking. A person needs considerable pressure to decide to kill his own father. People don’t just do things, they decide to do things for good reasons (to them). For more on characters doing things, see my post on Character Profiles, and The Why Test.
Furthermore, the important facts have to be right in order for people to suspend disbelief in minor areas. The real events have to be accurate. Tools and weapons need to be correct. Any town not made up has to be true to what it really looked/sounded/felt like. Slang has to be correct for the time period and the person, yet readable for a modern audience (it is all about context). If something is off, like two inmates together when it is known one will kill the other, I must make sure the reader knows that I know the scenario is not normal.
Reorganize for tension and flow
I have four drafts and counting of my first chapter. Getting the tension, setting, intros, and flow right was difficult for a person who started writing by the seat of her pants.
The saggy middle, the part where tension usually drops, needed some help.
There were entire chapters where I had written a basic idea of what I wanted to say but didn’t show it happen. When I had a couple people read the next version of chapter six (Emily’s life and death), one of them had forgotten about the character entirely and wondered if she was new. This is one reason to show and not tell in matters of importance—showing cements things in people’s minds. This brings me to my next point.
Weave the events together
Don’t expect people to remember everything if they only see it once, and they see it in passing. If David’s dead girlfriend Emily holds little meaning if she is mentioned only a couple of times, and doesn’t get a spotlight, or get remembered in everyday things.
David is hesitant to believe his father murdered his mother. When he witnessed the murder, he was just tall enough to see the man’s boots, and his father never wore boots like that. “He would never forget it”, helps the reader know they should not forget either, but just in case…the boots get described briefly as patchy, blood-spattered leather. They show up again as a memory. They show up again on a person who isn’t what he expects. Blood spatters them again. The patchy leather is made from…well, we learn something uncomfortable about how much this boot-wearer values human life as he prepares to acquire another patch.
Story level, chapter level, paragraph level, and sentence level tension
Tension is easier to build over large portions of text, but one of the last steps is sentence level tension. This is where choosing the right nouns and verbs helps. “Blood dripped into the bucket” is different than “crimson drops fell one by one into the bucket, bound together in suffocating signs of slaughter.” Or perhaps this: “he drew at his cigar and blew smoke in David’s face” vs “he drew at his cigar every few seconds. Every ten heartbeats.” It’s not always grammatically correct, so the decision to play with tension that far is up to the author and editor.
Filler words, adverbs, passive words, and crutch words
Use sparingly. Do a search for problem words and decide if they should stay or go.
“That” is usually an example of a filler word. Any redundant word is a filler word that must go.
Most adverbs can be replaced by a stronger verb.
If a verb comes before the subject, the writer has a passive sentence, and this usually detracts from the tension. Example: “he was beaten senseless by Jasper” vs “Jasper beat him senseless.” According to my Yoast pluggin, 16.7% of this blog post is passive.
“Was”, “could”, “would”, pretty much any way to say “to be” is a crutch word of mine. I must seek these out and replace them with more fitting words, and sometimes restructure the sentence to make it flow better with the new word.
Grammar and punctuation
Manuscripts are formatted to Chicago Manual Style (at least here in the US). I’m learning the ins and outs of this, but it’s important to note: if a writer breaks a rule, he or she must have a reason that makes sense to the intended audience. If I don’t know I broke a rule, that’s a problem. If I did break one and nobody seems to understand why, that’s a problem. I need to be able to explain what I did to my future editor and it needs to make sense to my readers.
There is so much more to editing and I have only scratched the surface here. A couple of services that help with this are:
They have a free and paid version. I like that it works with my browser (free version) to correct minor mistakes. Some things I have to ignore the suggestions, though.
They also have a free and paid version. I LOVE this aid. I wish I had discovered it on my first draft. I ignore far fewer of these suggestions and there are a TON of them.
Again, free or paid. I like this one too! It even gives a reading grade level. My work is sometimes 5th grade level and sometimes 12th grade. I really need to find that happy middle ground.
Well, that’s it for now. I think each one of these issues deserves an entire blog post, but I am going to go do some editing instead.
Want to know more? Here are some resources: