Saturday, March 21, 2015

Editing Your Book - A Loathsome Task or An Opportunity to Make YourBook Shine?

You've just finished your first draft of the most amazing thing you have ever written and now it's time to edit.  You think, "this can't be hard, I'm a talented writer who knows what they are doing".  Then you start reading your work of art only to realize that your fast typing fingers have made weird mistakes that spell check didn't catch and there seems to be a few words missing that are important to the sentences.  That's when you realize, "Crap, now I have to pay attention to every letter on the screen to make sure that this book makes sense."  Welcome to editing your own book.

Editing is torture for most writers and not just because we see our errors or have to take time away from writing the next great tome, but because it is very difficult to review your own work.  You know the story, you know the dialog, you may have even acted out some of the scenes in your car or in the shower, and that is the problem.  You know what the story is "supposed to say", but your reader doesn't.  The reader has to rely on your sentence structure, your descriptive words, your story lines, and your plot twists to know what's going on.  If any of these elements have mistakes, the reader will be lost and confused, and ultimately give up on reading your masterpiece.  (We won't even mention the reviewers who will not be kind to your work of art.)

While it's suggested that you find a reliable editor, the reader still needs to review their own work before sending it off to someone else.  Even the editor needs to understand your objectives and goals.  They aren't miracle workers with crystal balls who can figure out what you "meant" to say versus what is written.

A book should go through at least three drafts according to time old traditions.  Personally, I edit and edit, until I'm happy with it.

1) Start with the first draft, where you write with wild abandon and let "future you" worry about the errors.  Creativity flows and the muses bow to your whim as you invent amazing lands and fantastical creatures.  No one in the history of time has ever written something this amazing!

2) Then comes the dreaded second draft, where "future you" kicks herself because your writing is riddled with problems.  You think, "Was I actually awake when I wrote this part?"  "It sounded so much better in my head."  "Was my brain impaired when I wrote, "The Quick Brown Fox Jumped Over the Lazy Dog" in the middle of the fight scene that I stayed up all night writing?"

You question "past you", who wrote with wild abandon.  "Why didn't you have spell check running the whole time?"  "Why didn't you pay attention to the grammar check when speeding through your action sequences?"  "Why in the world did your brain translate "don't" into "do", or forget that "your" and "you're" are two completely different words?"  It's frustrating to see these errors, but you must accept them and move on. 

The second draft is where you fix the structure sentence problems, the bad spelling, and the incorrectly used words, but most importantly, you have to deal with content of your story.  If you only edit using spell check and grammar suggestions, you are cutting out a crucial step. You need to ask, "Does the story make sense?" 

If you were smart when you started writing, you used an outline to set up your plot, your characters, your story lines, and your twists and turns, but even when using an outline, you tend to get caught up in the moment and write about too many extraneous details.  The problem is, while these bits are fun or entertaining, you have to ask, "do they enhance the plot and move the story along"?  If not, then these extraneous details need to be left behind.  The second draft is always the hardest because writers have to cut out parts of the story that slow down the pace, or take too much time away from the main idea.  This is the time make hard decisions.  You have to ask, "Does this paragraph match the tone of the scene?  Does it make sense or does it serve no purpose, even though it's funny?"  Writers complain all the time that they to chop their book apart but unfortunately, it's a necessary evil. 

Here are my suggestions for when it's time to make the hard decisions and remove content:

- NEVER enter this phase when you are tired, upset, or unfocused, because the results will be disastrous.  This is the book that you love.  When editing with unkind eyes, you may remove important details just because you are angry that you have to cut something. You may be frustrated with the process and chop out too much. Think of a rose garden.  Gardens need to be pruned to take away the dead leaves and branches so that the garden can bloom and live up to its fullest potential.  Gardeners take away anything that will harm the garden or keep it from being beautiful.  If they started hacking away at it without regard for the blossoms or the lush greenery, they will be left with a dead mass of thorns.  You wrote this wonderful tome; make it the best version possible, and edit with care.  Read the story paragraph by paragraph to see if its transitions properly.  If a paragraph doesn't fit or doesn't further the story, remove it or reshape it.  You want the best from your work, so take the time to cultivate your sentence structure, and review your story lines for timing and pace so that one part doesn't drag.  Make sure there is a flow that keeps the reader moving through the story.

- When deciding if a chapter is working and progressing the story properly, read it through and think of it like stepping stones.  Start the chapter and see where each paragraph takes you.  Does each point of the story connect, or did the information fall off somewhere, leaving you stranded?  When a chapter isn't living up to its potential, it's time to re-evaluate.  Decide what information needs to be given and what points need to be highlighted.  There may be certain dialog that is critical or major character interactions the need to happen, but the structure isn't as tight as you wanted.  Maybe you've had too much fun with the dialog and things got sloppy.  I suggest using One Note, Word, or paper and pencil to jot down the objectives of the scene.  What needs to be said?  What needs to be done?  What critical plot points need to happen here?  Jot down only your important ideas.  Now, review them and rearrange them, if needed.  Change the order to create a better flow, or condense some of the ideas into the same paragraph, rather than taking multiple paragraphs and dragging out the information.  Once you have your structure, then add the fun bits back in.  It's doesn't have to be dry just because it's been reordered.

Example:  My Angel of Death wakes up to meet a boy whom he has never met before.  He has been captured and has lost hope.  The boy turns out to be more than just a kid off the street.  He has some knowledge of Death and knows more than he should about Death's world.  Personally, I had way too much fun with this scene.  Death is snarky and fun, and has some of the best lines.  My problem was, I couldn't convey all the information I wanted in a concise manner because I was having way too much fun watching these characters interact.  I finally had to sit down and reorganize my thoughts.  I had to state the key facts needed to progress the story and explain critical plot points while still having fun with the interaction between the characters.  It felt like a jumbled up mess, but once I came at it from a different perspective, I was able to get a handle on it and fix my mistakes.

3)  Finally, you have the third draft, where you are confident in your story line and have fixed most major pitfalls and mistakes.  The third draft is the polishing stage.  This is where you want your story to shine.  You need to do a final read through to eliminate any more sentence problems, or missing words.  When looking for the mistakes, give yourself time to improve on a word or a description.  During the first draft, you were were so concerned with your characters battling the giant monster, that you forgot to mention the color of the creature, or what it smelled like.  Clothing options, drape color, weather conditions, are small things that can enhance the reader's experience so that they can imagine exactly what you see in your head.  This would be an excellent time to pull out, or load, a Thesaurus.  Let your creativity from the first draft come through and "paint" your final creation with vivid colors and details.

Once the final draft is complete, ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS, have someone, or multiple someones, edit your work.  No writer will catch every error.  We are too close to it.  We will still complete the sentence in our heads without realizing that there is a missing "to, for, a, and the" in the sentence.  You need someone who knows more about grammar than you do, or who loves to read and understands the qualities of a good book.  Find a editor who is experienced in your genre.  Not every editor is the right editor for your book.  Find someone who will give you a God's honest opinion, but no matter what any of these people say, you have to be willing to listen to advise.  Again, as writers, we are too close to the story.  We have blind spots for our beloved works and sometimes we have to accept that something isn't working and be willing to deal with it.

After I went through MULTIPLE edits on my first book, I knew deep down the beginning wasn't as powerful as the rest of the book, for multiple reasons, mostly because the dangerous characters hasn't been introduced yet.  My friend, who is an AVID book reader, with strong opinions, read my story and the first thing she mentioned was the problem with the opening chapters.  I sat down with her and talked through her thoughts.  Some thoughts were her personal opinion, which I knew wouldn't detract from the book, but the parts that I felt shaky about, she agreed needed help.  After she left, I went straight to my computer and rewrote the beginning.  While the plot stayed the same, I changed the tone of the characters and tightened up a few things.  I took out some of the "fun" aspects that I loved, and made the hard decision to reshape the section.  I let it sit for months.  I wasn't ready to review it.  Finally, when I was in the right frame of mind to tackle it, I ran through it again and felt more confident about it.  I rounded out the tone by adding a short introduction of the one of the dark characters and stated very clearly to the reader what the main plot was, without giving away any details.  I felt much more confident about it in the end and was grateful for my friend's suggestions.

In the end, you have to be happy with what you wrote and be confident that readers will see the book through your eyes.  If you have doubts, ask for help.  Reach out to other writers for advise, or do more research on what you are having trouble with.  Find readers, reviewers, and editors that you trust to help you on your journey and be willing to accept that not everyone writes an award worthy story on their first draft.  It takes time, patience, and the willingness to change what isn't working.


Annelisa Christensen said...

Excellent advice! 😊

Flash Gordon said...

Thank you! What a great article. I totally going to share this.