Lessons I Learned From My Editor

From conception to finish, I spent a couple of years on my first novel, Shaken. I had a mentor who coached me, a professor who professionally edited the manuscript, and an internationally acclaimed novelist who provided a critique. But nothing affected my story quite as much as signing with my publisher and beginning work with my editor.

Writing is difficult. You are bleeding your emotional artery on the page, complete with life experiences, beliefs, and creativity. But editing? That became another playing field entirely. In my military-romance-driven brain, it could be described as surgery to remove shrapnel. Each piece of metal must be plucked for an individual to get back to full health. In a similar way, editing requires painful digging to remove everything that does not add value to the character. After the shrapnel of your story is removed, you are freed to enhance and improve your story until it’s as close to perfection as you can get it this side of heaven.

KarissLynch Kill Your Darlings

Working with an editor is refining, a true process of iron sharpening iron (just don’t throw the sword at them if you don’t like what they say), but ultimately, it is a beautiful journey. The longer I work with my editor, the more I am thankful that God gifted her to look at stories differently than I do. She makes me better, and she is constantly teaching me and reminding me of craft tips that just haven’t taken root yet. Over the course of writing The Heart of a Warrior series, here is what my editor has taught me:

  1. Timeline is everything.

By the time my first novel went to my editor, the timeline needed major surgery, something I hadn’t thought about in great detail during crafting. I am a pantser and only use a bullet point outline to guide the major points of my scenes. Everything else just spills out on the page. This can make editing much harder for me. When it came time to edit Shadowed, I had a better timeline in place. Lesson learned? Don’t make the same mistakes on the second novel as you did on the first.

  1. Ground your character. Ground your scene.

Ever heard of floating head syndrome? No? Well, that’s probably because I just made it up. But I have it. Bad. Especially when I am writing in a steady stream of consciousness. Characters speak but you don’t know what they look like or what is going on around them. Thankfully, I am now aware of this ailment and am working to correct it before the manuscript goes to my editor. Each character needs to be firmly grounded in whatever is going on, each person in the scene accounted for, even if only briefly. Your scene also needs to be grounded within the larger story. Your reader should have no question where the character is, what is going on, who the character is with, and what drama is unfolding.

  1. Provide concrete details. Paint the canvas.

I actually love this part of writing, but I also struggle with fear. What if people think that a place or person doesn’t look that way? What if I get a detail wrong? What if, what if, what if? The “what if” game keeps me paralyzed from simply using my imagination and the beautiful tools of my eyes and the Internet to ground a scene exactly as I see it. I use research to make sure I didn’t get a basic detail wrong, but otherwise, I craft exactly what I want the reader to see. They are less likely to question what I paint in great detail than they are a canvas where I leave glaring holes due to my own people-pleasing and insecurity. No fear. Write boldly. Paint that canvas, and give the readers a scene they don’t have to try to imagine. Let it unfold in all of its beautiful detail. And then make that process even better in the next book.

Time for surgery on your manuscript. What weaknesses do you notice that you could improve on next time? What lessons have you learned from your editor (or critique partner)?

In Praise of Editors

facebook personPosting a comment online this morning made me suddenly hyperaware of the publicness of published writing. Publishing actually does mean, as I tell my students, making something public.

“Everything you write for a class, even if it’s disseminated no further than the classroom, even if I’m the only one reading it, is public writing,” I tell them. “Don’t tell me you just wrote it for yourself or attach a sticky note saying it’s just for me. Assume that whatever you hand in may be made public. That it’s already public. It was public the moment you printed it up and put it in my hand or clicked ‘attach’ and then ‘send.’”

copyedited manuscriptIt’s easy to forget that writing is public, though. Consider Facebook, where people often post sentiments best kept to themselves. However tempting it might be to rail or even to agree—by liking it—with someone else’s railing, I generally restrict myself to happy birthdays, comments about good-looking photos, and commiserations with others’ suffering.

Today I was doing just that: commiserating with a friend whose autistic child had just “had a huge meltdown . . . complete with yelling, food throwing, and tears running down his face” in front of, as she wrote, “almost everyone I know.”

It was a wonderful post, as those who’d already commented said, because it was so frank. So, as my students say, “relatable.”

“Most of the time I suck it up,” my friend wrote, the “meltdowns, 10+ accidents a day, the stares, rude questions, the incomprehension on the faces of people around me, but today it was all too much, so I walked to the car sobbing my heart out.” She confessed, “it felt, somehow, like it was my fault,” and I sobbed too. For her. For her son. For sufferers of autism and their parents. For parents in general. Is there a more agonizing feeling than the unavoidable conviction that it’s somehow our fault whenever anything goes wrong—even something we didn’t cause and couldn’t have stopped—with a daughter or son?

It’s hard to respond to someone else’s pain in a way that doesn’t compound it, though. I learned that when, in the aftermath of a sexual assault at gunpoint, friends commented, among other intended condolences, that I was “lucky not to be dead.” I didn’t feel lucky and wished I was dead. Being told the contrary merely intensified those feelings.

I was thinking about that as I commented and (hopefully) didn’t make that error. Not this time, anyway—thanks to my best editor, the Holy Spirit, who, I’m convinced, translates our groans not only to God but to everyone else and (with some effort, in my case) bleeps our stupidest words. After telling her I’d cried, I advised her not to blame herself: she was doing the best and only right thing to do—loving her son—and doing it perfectly. So far so good, I thought—or anyway, I didn’t feel that tug in the direction of the delete key at that point.

BloggingI did feel it moments later, though, when I helpfully passed on a reassuring comment from a pastor’s wife eons ago when I was in the throes of parental shame about a problem with one of my toddling daughters: “God chose you, precisely you, for your girls,” she said, “because he knew you’d be the best possible mom for them.”

Sounds safe enough, I thought. And I was mightily comforted by that woman’s words at the time. God chose me to parent my girls. I was the best possible mother they could have. Everything was going to be fine.

But, as I say, the Holy Spirit apparently didn’t think so. In the fraction of a moment before I pressed enter, stories of parental abuse and neglect poured into my brain. A friend whose mom once told her children she hated them. Did God choose those children’s parents, too? What child, grown now but surely still suffering that meanness, might be reading my post?

The public is a tricky sea to navigate alone. Our kindest intentions, our most heartfelt theologies, have as much potential to mislead and hurt as to inform and uplift. Thank God for editors.

Balancing Clarity and Detail in Writing

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You want your readers to enter into the world of your book and experience in their imagination the places and events you describe as if they were there themselves in the midst of the action. Yet if your writing becomes ornate, your readers may get lost in the details and miss the point of the passage. Even worse, they may skim over the descriptive sentences, seeking the next main point. Why write words that will go unread?

Capture the Essentials

To maintain the readability of your writing while also creating vivid descriptions of people, places, and events, capture the essentials and make every word count. Choose verbs packed with meaning instead of tacking on adverbs. When describing a place, consider what senses are important to setting the scene for the passage. Is the sound of classical music playing softly in the background more essential than the color of the paint on the ballroom walls? If you are trying to set the mood for dialogue that follows, use just enough details to accomplish your goal. Create a sketch and let the reader’s imagination paint in the rest of the picture.

As a reader, I find myself jumping over passages where too many clauses and adjectives abound. As a writer, I have had to remind myself that my readers will do the same.

Edit the Extraneous

After you have written a descriptive passage, edit for clarity. Cross out your favorite phrase if it detracts from the paragraph. Provide sufficient description of the attributes of an object for the reader to understand its significance. You do not need to include all the colors of the sky that make for your perfect sunset. Let the most important two or three colors set the stage.

In dialogue, the word “said” may be better than “shouted,” “whispered,” or “intoned.” While those other words convey a richer meaning, they may break up the continuity of the conversation. Let the words of the speakers carry the content. Remove nonessential dialogue that does not carry the plot or illustration forward. Jump into the action without providing too many trivial details. In short, get to the point and remove material that will confuse the reader.

Check for Flow

Your paragraphs of writing describing a majestic waterfall at the edge of the forest may be poetic and beautiful, but if they interrupt the flow of the chapter, prepare to edit. While writing my first book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith, I wrote illustrations to enhance the point I was making. I learned from reader feedback that the illustrations worked best when they were entertaining but concise. If I spent too many sentences telling a story, the reader’s train of thought might be broken, defeating the purpose of the illustration.

On the other hand, writing that sparkles with clarity can seem too clinical without enough descriptive material. Coming from a scientific background, I am used to conveying challenging topics in clear and precise sentences. When I first started writing my book, I had to give myself permission to tap into my creative writing side and add poetic elements to my prose. Too much clarity can lead to short, choppy sentences that need more descriptive elements to weave them together into the tapestry of the chapter.

How have you learned to balance clarity and details in your writing?

Top 10 Ways to Finish a Book

Kariss editingAs I write this, I have just finished up a few days in St. Louis at the ACFW conference. Any other attendees feel like they drank from a fire hose? I’m still digesting all I learned. Still thanking God for orchestrating the meetings He did. As I talked to published and pre-published authors alike, a trend began to emerge.

Those who want it bad enough have the discipline to finish.

Unfortunately finishing doesn’t immediately equal a contract. Some pre-published authors have multiple completed manuscripts stuffed in drawers still waiting to be read. To you, I say, “Keep writing and keep pursuing publication!”

To those working on the first book and struggling to finish, life happens. It happens to those with deadlines. It happens to those with contracts.

It happens.

In the publishing world, life revolves around deadlines, and somehow you have to find the will and way to “let your yes be yes” and fulfill your commitment. Editors want to know you can finish and finish well before they invest in you. Before you comment with the specific circumstance that hinders you from finishing that manuscript, let me just say that I get it! And I want to help.

My creativity is officially angled towards my third book now, and as I work to finish that one in the next ten weeks, I can confidently share with you what it took to finish Shaken and Shadowed and what it will take to finish Surrendered.

  • Turn off your inner editor and write. I’m not a scientist, but I feel the tug of war in my brain when I try to think technically while thinking creatively. Write. Be creative. Edit later.
  • Pick your favorite caffeinated beverage and keep it handy. I became a coffee drinker about a month after I signed my first contract.
  • Select a time of day, place, and schedule that works for you! I’ve tried to become a morning person, but my best writing happens at night. Why fight my body clock? I love to sit in my room or on my patio in the quiet of the night with a candle burning and my creativity racing full speed ahead.
  • Alert your cheerleading squad. I have a group of about 20 ladies who consistently ask me about my writing schedule. They know when I have a deadline. They help me process. They are my test subjects when I need a reader’s perspective. They see the tears, laughter, creative passion, and the frustration. They know and they encourage me. Find your team.
  • Set healthy boundaries. I work full time, write on the side, volunteer in a young adults ministry, have Bible study, and time with friends and family. BALANCE is key.
  • Know that life will happen and work around it. This year, I’ve experienced family emergencies, my brother’s wedding, ministry situations, work crises, and somehow the writing gets done. I set my schedule and adjust when necessary. If I miss my word count because of something I can’t help, I make it up.
  • Cook ahead of time. Don’t forget to work out. Take care of yourself! Eating correctly and working out gives you energy to juggle everything.
  • Prioritize what’s important. For me, it is making sure to focus on the relationships I currently have. The Lord has sovereignly placed me in my city, my family, and my job right now. I need to be present where I am while saying no when necessary to hibernate and write.
  • Trust the Lord. He knows your journey. When you feel like nothing is happening, trust that He is working behind the scenes.
  • Just do it! Finish strong! You will go from pre-published to publication. But it takes discipline. And chocolate and caffeine. But mostly discipline. And prayer. Tons of that.

What else would you add to this list?

Encouraging Aspiring Writers

Photo/CCWCAs a freelance writer and writing instructor, I’m often asked to edit the work of my peers and of aspiring writers. And I love to encourage others to tell the stories that matter most.

Grammar cops. I also appreciate the editing skills of my writing peers, as they wield their red pens and hack on my “shoddy” first drafts. But at times, I observe grammar cops attack insecure, fragile writers, who approach them for encouragement as they tiptoe into the waters of writing for publication.

Now, I’ve been known to whip out my red pen from time to time, when someone asks me to do that kind of editing. But I try to use a little discernment and discretion when a novice writer approaches me with their work.

Aspiring writers. Sensitive, aspiring writers need our empathy, since they trust us with some of their most intimate tales. These newer writers pour out their hearts and souls into their first pieces; we need to handle them with care.

I’ve seen writers spanning from late teens to senior citizens. And I’ve noticed many of them choose topics dealing with difficult life struggles—the death of loved ones, flashbacks of war experiences, or simply leaving home and beginning their own journey as adults. I’m able to empathize with their pain, confusion, doubts, and fears. I recognize their need to tell their stories, trying to make sense out of the rumblings of their minds and troubled hearts.

Levels of edit. I believe it’s vital to discern the needs of a writer, not always assuming they need a grammar cop to attack their work with a red pen. My unsolicited grammar cop comments tend to cause more harm than good. I find it helpful to ask writers to clarify their needs and their expectations of me as an editor. What level of editing do they want?

I also think it’s important to examine one aspect of editing at a time, since I don’t do well at multi-tasking. And although many professional editors may have different terms to describe their levels of editing, my editing checklist for my own work includes three—the panoramic, macroscopic, and microscopic viewpoints. But sometimes, I consider one more level editing, especially with writers who need encouragement—like students, wannabe writers, or hobby writers (i.e. not professional writers).

Peer responses. Some professional writers may not even consider the peer response a valid level of editing, but it can serve as an important phase of the writing process. For instance, this approach might be helpful for some critique groups.

In the classroom, I required my students to participate in peer groups where they would listen and respond to each other’s work. I preferred small groups, where students seemed to be a little less intimidated. I wanted to encourage their writing, not scare them off.

I provided every student several copies of a peer response form. Then, as each writer read their essay out loud, their peers would listen, read along, and record their responses. After each reading, the group would discuss the responses.

One of my favorite writing professors, Dr. Sally Crisp, encouraged me as she taught aspiring writing teachers the value of emphasizing meaning.

I believe that we write to communicate and connect with others, often others we don’t know and may never know. In responding to writers, I like to let them know how their message got through to me. In other words, whether I ‘got it’ or I didn’t. I teach the same principle when I teach collaboration. The right kind of collaboration can be an excellent means of fostering in writers a keen sense of audience.

Dr. Crisp also composed a list of peer response questions and comments that you might find helpful, too.

Peer Responses

  1. How has the writer introduced the essay?
  2. What is the main theme of the essay?
  3. Is there any information that you are wondering about? What might be added to develop the main point more fully?
  4. How did the author conclude the essay?
  5. What part of the essay do you find the most effective? Why?
  6. Suggest two or three things that would make the paper even better.

Who has encouraged you as a writer? 

Kiss “I Can’t” Goodbye

In high school, my band director erased “can’t” from my vocabulary. It was a slow, sweaty, painful process. We had been a championship band, a finalist in the state for 4A high schools. But after two years of mediocre performances, we were left wondering if we were “has beens” that had become “wannabes.”Kariss - band 1

But Mr. C never settled for defeat. He delighted in giving us the most challenging routines and music while watching us rise to the occasion. And he tolerated nothing less than our absolute best, knowing that our greatest potential often lay just below our valid but weak excuses.

It took training. Sweltering hours on pavement in Texas weather, running the routine over and over again until clothes clung to sweaty frames. Then we hit the classroom, fingers meticulously skipping over the keys until we knew every note by heart and could play it standing or running at 160 beats per minute.

I remember trying and trying to get a note set correct and failing miserably (in front of fifty of my peers by the way). After the fifth time, I quit trying.

“I can’t do it.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“I can’t do it, Mr. C.”

“I don’t understand that word. Try again.”

It’s amazing what I came up with in the absence of that word. I’m having trouble. This is hard. How in the world do I do this? I don’t know how. But not one of those gave me the option to stop trying. And every excuse carried with it the opportunity to discover a new journey in the struggle.

He never let me quit in the classroom or on the marching field. Slow down, sure. Take each note one finger at a time, yep. But NEVER quit. Because he knew I could if I set my mind to it, no matter the challenge.

Success lay just below the “I can’ts,” just waiting to come to fruition with the acknowledgment of “I can…somehow.” And that lesson has shaped my writing journey. Rejections became detours. “Can’ts” became other challenges to conquer.

There have been many moments when I have been tempted to say “I can’t” in the middle of writing or editing or even marketing (I might have even slipped and said it a few times). But somehow, I meet the deadline every time, proud of the finished product.

Much like with marching or learning music, I keep writing until the words become an Kariss - band 2extension and enhancement of the story instead of simply an exploration to jog my creativity. Every time I finish, I know I CAN. I just have to discover HOW. I finally determined that I wanted it much more than I feared it.

Talent and passion may come naturally to a point. But success as a result of those attributes NEVER comes without hard work and a willingness to push past rejection, defeat, and redirection. As soon as you purge the excuses, the story blooms, and it’s only a matter of time before others outside your circle begin to notice the beauty of the finished product.

By the way, when we purged the excuses, our band went on to place first in every competition that season and ended the semester and my high school career as 4A Texas State Champions.

This thing you keep attempting that you think is impossible? It’s possible. It just takes placing one foot in front of the other until you see the results.

Where do you need to erase “can’t” from your vocabulary?

Rewriting: 7 Simple Tips – Part Two

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A book is made in the rewrite. We take the words and begin to refine and reshape them into the finished book. We compose the first draft quickly, getting the words down on paper as they flow. Then we begin the work of rewriting.

Here are our final four tips on rewriting with examples from The Shepherd’s Song. You can read the first three tips here.

4. Watch out for the word “felt” when describing a character’s feelings.  Remember the old saying: show don’t tell.

FIRST DRAFT: She felt confused and out of control.  

This is okay for a first draft but needs rewriting.

FINAL DRAFT: “What’s your name?”

She tried to focus. Her name?

“Kate . . . McConnell.” She gasped out each word.

“Your birthday?”

She tried to come up with the answer, but it was too confusing. Tears welled up.

“It’s all right. Just stay with me.”

“What hap…?” She wanted to finish the sentence but could not.

5. Eliminate prepositional phrases that tell us about the character or action.

FIRST DRAFT:  Without hesitation the nurses joined Dr. Belding in pushing the stretcher toward the elevators.

Instead of telling the reader “without hesitation,” why not put the scene in play and show them?

FINAL DRAFT:  Dr. Belding grabbed the end of the stretcher. “Okay, people. Let’s get her down to the OR.” He turned to the nurse. “Has the family been called?”

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6. Watch out for the word “saw.” Show us what the character is seeing instead.

FIRST DRAFT: He slipped the phone out of his pocket and saw the text message from his dad.

We don’t need to explain that the character saw something.  Show it from the character’s POV.

FINAL DRAFT:  Matt slipped the phone out of his pocket.

‘Emergency. Call me.’

A text from his dad. That was unusual.

7. Evaluate each adverb. Is there a better way to show the reader what is happening?

FIRST DRAFT: John McConnell looked up in irritation at his secretary.  

“I said hold all calls,” he said impatiently.  

Telling reminds the reader that it is not real. Staying in the character’s head means we show through the character’s actions what is happening, and how they are feeling. We had to rewrite to show his impatience.

FINAL DRAFT: “Mr. McConnell. A phone call, line three.” His secretary spoke from the doorway.

“I said to hold all calls.” He continued scanning the document in front of him.

“I know, but.”

“I am well aware that we all need to get out of here.”

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These simple tips help us with our writing. Do you have others to share?

Betsy and Laurie

http://www.WritingSisters.com

Grunge ornamental cover for an album with photos