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)?

When to Tell Your Inner Editor to Shut Up!

We’re not supposed to tell people to shut up. We’re supposed to be polite and considerate.

 Icon Design by Creative Freedom  All copyright for Shimmer Icons belongs to Creative Freedom Ltd.  http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/3.0/

Icon Design by Creative Freedom
All copyright for Shimmer Icons belongs to Creative Freedom Ltd.
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/3.0/

I’m here to tell you that sometimes we need to tell our inner editor to shut up.

I’m not saying we don’t need to edit our work. On the contrary, I even wrote this post, 7 Tips for Self-Editing, but there is a time and a place for said editing.

When you’re writing your first draft, I strongly advise you not to edit. Let your ideas flow. If you try to edit now, you may never finish your novel. Or worse yet, you’ll stifle your creativity.

There is another voice, one that may or not be your inner editor. The one that tells you this isn’t any good. Why on earth did you think you could be a writer? You should just give up before anyone discovers you can’t really write.

These, my friends, are the voice of the enemy. Do not believe his lies.

Recently, I heard these words burn through my mind. When you begin to hear the lies, turn to our source of truth. Pray that God’s voice would be the only one you would hear. Ask Jesus to silence everything that is not from Him.

I’ve started doing this every time I sit down to write. It is making a huge difference. We can choose to listen and believe the voice of truth.

If you’re trying to write your first novel or first draft of a new project, focus on getting it all out on paper or the computer screen. It’s fine to check and make sure your book is keeping in check with your outline and overall story and character goal, but don’t try to make it perfect.

Have you ever had to tell your inner editor to shut up? Do you have any tips to keep yourself going when you feel like giving up?

Top 5 Self-Editing Tips: Character

This month, let’s concentrate on an aspect of self-editing that writers spend little or no time examining as they go through each successive draft of their novel: character. The people who populate a novel should seem real to the author, and yet, readers often notice that characters are stereotypes—cardboard cutouts.

To explain the importance of knowing your characters well, let me use an example from the relationship between the famous editor Maxwell Perkins and the well-known author F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote The Great Gatsby.

After reading the manuscript for The Great Gatsby, Perkins wrote a note to Fitzgerald about one of his characters, which read:

 “Among a set of characters marvelously palpable and vital—I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him—Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery, i.e., more or less vague, and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken.”

Last month we talked about how every scene should have intention, but so should every character. Characters need motive. They must seem credible in all they do, as though they truly exist—as if they live down the street.

Fitzgerald, no slacker when it came to building characters, reexamined Gatsby through the eyes of his famous editor and wrote a note back to Perkins:

“I myself didn’t know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in & you felt it. If I’d known & kept it from you you’d have been too impressed with my knowledge to protest. This is a complicated idea but I’m sure you’ll understand. But I know now—and as a penalty for not having known first, in other words to make sure, I’m going to tell more.”

To fulfill Gatsby’s intention, Fitzgerald needed to make him an enigmatic figure, but to accomplish his purpose, the author also needed to know Gatsby’s history to make him real.

A reader doesn’t need to know who Gatsby’s grandmother was, but Fitzgerald as the author should know if and how she shaped his character. Do you know your character’s history, or did you begin your novel with a vague sense of what kind of character needed to occupy a certain place in your plot?

My suggestion is to keep a notebook on every character, making notes throughout your writing on character development. As you self-edit, you can then look back at your record of their motives, history, and tone of voice to make their dialogue and actions consistent, intentional, and credible.

To make your characters come alive, remember they are more than the sum of their physical traits. Characters possess social, psychological, and spiritual uniqueness as well.

 

What method do you use to develop your characters?

Top 5 Self-Editing Tips: Intention

In my first post last month on the topic of the Top 5 Self-Editing Tips, I covered in detail how a novel is structured and how you can be more aware of how to build the structure of your novel.

This month, let’s concentrate on an aspect of self-editing that writers rarely hear much about:  intention.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines intention as “(1) a determination to act in a certain way: resolve; (2) import, significance; (3) what one intends to do or bring about.”

The definition of intention includes other topics, but for our purposes, we can examine the synonyms for intention and determine how we might find intention in a piece of writing, whether fiction or non-fiction. Synonyms: intent, purpose, design, aim, end, object, objective goal.

Once you finish your first or second draft, ask yourself, “Did I fulfill my overall intention for writing this piece, and did I achieve my intention in each scene or section?”

Whoa! That sounds like a tall order, doesn’t it? You might be thinking, how long am I supposed to spend on an edit? The answer: as long as it takes. Because if you have not fulfilled your intention in writing your book, then how can your reader know what you were trying to say?

Let me make this a little simpler by starting with a chapter or even a part of a chapter. Did you intend to make your character unsympathetic in this scene? If not, then you have not communicated the soul of your character to the reader. You have not fulfilled your intention. The reader might even think, “Marsha would never say that. Why is she being so rude?”

On a greater scale, your story or your non-fiction book should have an over-arching aim or goal. It is the road that connects you to the reader and pulls the story along. Yes, even a non-fiction book is more successful if it tells a story that persuades your reader to believe in what you’re writing about.

Your road will twist and turn in a novel, but you, as the author, should always keep the goal in mind. You don’t want to tell your reader up-front what your intention is, but you should know where you’re headed. If you take readers down a rabbit trail and nothing of significance happens, they will soon stop following you through the brush.

Only you know what you want to achieve in your book. If you’re leading your reader down a “road less traveled,” the trip may be leisurely or it may zip along. You may travel on a super highway, on a country lane filled with potholes, or you may walk with your reader down a garden path.

But if you veer off that highway/road/path just because you have a sudden inspiration, your book may be filled with pointless arguments (non-fiction) or characters who pop out of nowhere to deliver a useless piece of dialogue (fiction).

My intention in this post is not to say that plotters are better writers than pantsters. You can write your book as you please, but if you know your beginning and where you aim to end—intention—then the journey will be that much sweeter.

To be continued…

How will you self-edit your novel or non-fiction book to make sure your intention is clear and that you have achieved your goal in every chapter? 

Top 5 Self-Editing Tips: Structure

Writing is rewriting, and rewriting is self-editing. “But isn’t that the job of the editor after I’ve made the sale?” No. Some writers think running spell-checker is self-editing. Not so much.

“But won’t rewriting my work edit the life out of it?” No, but it will catch the eye of an agent or editor as a well-written manuscript and may lead to a sale.

Obsessive editing during the writing process will destroy your work. However, after you’ve written the first draft, gain some distance and perspective on your manuscript by setting it aside for a few weeks or a couple of months. Now it’s time to rewrite.

Here are my top 5 self-editing tips in their order of importance for polishing your work to a high sheen.

  1. Structure: Think of the structure of your work as an arched bridge spanning a great river. If the contractor takes short cuts (such as using less cement, steel, or fewer bolts) because she’s bored with the process and rushes to the end, the bridge is weakened and will collapse.  The same holds true for both ends of the bridge. If too much cement is used at either end of the bridge, it will collapse from the added weight.

For the purposes of this post, I’ll concentrate on the structure of novels. If the structure of your story is solid, the reader will continue to turn the pages until the ending scene.

The material of the structure is comprised of the elements of the story arc (the basic story thread) held in place by a beginning, middle, and end. Pretty simplistic, huh? Yet the three-act structure has worked since Aristotle’s days whether you write plays, scripts, short stories, or novels.

Sydney Harbor Bridge

Some authors maintain they have a four-, five-, six-, or even eight-act structure. I maintain if you break down the parts of their story arcs, you will discover classic Aristotelian structure.

Using the bridge analogy, a car drives onto the bridge. This is the point in the novel when you can lose a reader in the first page or two. I’ve thrown many a book (or manuscript) on the pile beside my bed if nothing happens right away. The author might as well have written “blah, blah, blah-blah, blah.”

A novel that piques the reader’s interest starts as far into the story as possible. I don’t want to know that the protagonist’s parents left him stranded in a snowstorm when he was a toddler and that’s why he’s terrified of snow (or abandonment). That’s back story. The story should begin with stasis (a state of equilibrium) and then the main character, pressed with conflict, reveals her goal.

One of my favorite movies is Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark. The story throws you into the action, and the back story―Indy’s character, profession, the setting, and the antagonist―are revealed as Act 1 plays out.

As the story progresses into the middle (Act 2) and the bulk of the novel, you should have rising and falling tension as your protagonist encounters numerous obstacles or crises.

The main turning point, or big surprise, comes in the middle of the novel. By this time the reader believes he has the story figured out. You need to turn his assumptions on their head. The major turning point should be such a shock that no one sees it coming. It should keep your reader up at night turning pages.

The crises continue. Will he? Won’t she? Oh, no! What will happen to this character your reader has invested her time in? Will everything turn out all right? How will the story ever end on a happy, satisfying note now?

Tension mounts and we reach another major turning point before we head into the final third act. Every turning point should be a surprise to the reader.

The crises are unrelenting until we reach the climax halfway through the third act. The protagonist faces off against the antagonist. The clash of the titans ensues. A woman faces her attacker or her paralyzing fear. The antagonist is not always a person. A man pushes his wife out of the path of a stampeding herd of cattle. Will he live? You get the picture.

Tie up all the loose ends of your storyline in the denouement―the final resolution of the plot or story arc. Is your ending satisfying? Does the main character live happily ever after? If you live and write in America, trust me, she better if you want to succeed as a professional author. Americans are eternal optimists.

To be continued…

How will you self-edit your novel to make sure your structure is strong enough to carry your storyline through to the end?

Photo credit: Sydney Harbour Bridge with the Opera House in the background by Ian.

Three Ways to Focus on Editing for the Web

“Real writing begins with re-writing” (James A. Michener).

I began blogging in 2008, and I’ve visited many websites to determine the most effective way to communicate online. I developed a helpful web-editing checklist below from my research for a writing workshop using three photographic terms—the panoramic, macroscopic, and microscopic viewpoints.

Panoramic View. Begin the editing process by determining the overall, or broader view, of contents and evaluating your audience, purpose, context, and the design elements.

  • Read aloud from the reader’s perspective (not the writer’s).
  • Find main point and sub-points. Can you summarize your piece easily?
  • Examine benefits for reader (take-away value).
  • Use appropriate fonts (not fancy or distracting to your content).
  • Use subheading in boldface type to introduce more points.

Macroscopic View. Take a closer look at paragraphs, word usage, and tone.

  • Place main topics near beginning of each paragraph and sentence.
  • Limit each paragraph to one main idea.
  • Use shorter units of text with more breaks.
  • Use an introduction for a “teaser” paragraph (preview for content).
  • Avoid long texts that break content into several pages.
  • Provide a brief summary or table of contents hyperlinked to each section for text over 500 words. Use lists, hyperlinks, and extra white space for a long document to break up dense patterns of text.
  • Avoid slang, jargon, and inappropriate humor.
  • Use nondiscriminatory language (e.g., bias based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, sexuality, disability).
  • Use common words (appropriate for target audience).
  • Avoid vague words.
  • Use key words to describe the site in the first 50 words of text.
  • Build verbal bridges to connect text (transition).
  • Use action verbs rather than passive.
  • Incorporate single links into content (embedded into the text).
  • Make short, bulleted lists of links.
  • Use “Find Out More” links, when details are needed.

Microscopic View. Zoom in on the elements of grammar, mechanics, and punctuation.

Self-editing should distance you from your piece, so you can examine it without the emotional attachment. You can see your actual words, rather than just intentions. Consider these final ideas to help you edit for the web.

  • Create style sheet/guide with some common problems, to avoid repetitive research of the editing rules (e.g., grammar, mechanics).
  • Find someone to read and edit your work (e.g., critique group, another writer).

Remember: “You write to discover what you want to say. You rewrite to discover what you have said and then rewrite to make it clear to other people” (Donald Murray).

Image(s): FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Do you have any tips for editing for the web?

The Search-and-Find Feature

Over the years I’ve harped at authors never, ever to turn in a first draft. Some writers think the editor’s job is to spiff up their grammar, correct misspelled words, change passive voice to active, eliminate repeated words and phrases, or do laser surgery on their mixed metaphors.

Word travels in publishing circles about whether you’re a professional or you’ve made your living on the backs of good editors. You don’t want to be known as a hack writer.

Hopefully, the electronic tool known as search and find will make your self-editing chore more enjoyable.

  1. Passive voice (one of my pet peeves): Passive voice is created by using a form of be, such as am, is, are, was, were, being, be, or been and followed by the past participle of the main verb, or gerunds comprised of a present participle (ending in “ing”) that functions as a noun. Learn more in Hacker’s Rules for Writers. Search for these words and recast your sentences to make them more active. Examples:

Passive: He was jumping over the cliff into the river below to escape.

Active: He jumped over the cliff into the river below to escape.

  1. Qualifiers: These words clutter up your writing. Sometimes I think writers use them to boost their word counts. Examples: begin, start, started to, almost, decided to, planned to, a little bit, almost, etc. Examples:

With qualifier: Mary felt a little bit out of place among the nouveau riche.

Better: Mary felt out of place among the nouveau riche.

  1. Weasel Words: These words are easy to spot. You can drop them and no one will notice. My high school English teacher told me that if you could replace the word very with the word damn, you didn’t need it. Other examples: really, well, so, a lot of, anyway, just, oh, suddenly, immediately, kind of, extremely, etc. I’m sure you can come up with your favorites.

With weasel words: Suddenly, she stood up and said, “Oh well, let’s retire to the drawing room and just stay out of his way.”

Better: She stood and said, “Let’s retire to the drawing room and stay out of his way.”

  1. Adverbs: I don’t hate adverbs, but they “usually” are unnecessary, especially in dialogue tags. Your prose should communicate a character’s state of mind without using a tag line such as the example below. Use search and find to look for an ly followed by a space or a period.

With adverb: “I’ll kill him,” she said ferociously. (Really?)

Better: “I’ll kill him,” she said.

  1. Extraneous thats or thens: Use the global search-and-find feature for the word that. If you can understand the sentence without it, you don’t need it. You notice I didn’t write, then you don’t need it. Both of these words are over used.

Writing is rewriting, and rewriting involves self-editing. It’s your job to turn in the cleanest manuscript possible to your agent or editor. Use the search-and-find tool to speed up the process.

Can you think of other ways you can employ the search-and-find feature in Word to edit your work?