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Saturday, September 15, 2012

"The End" is only the Beginning

            You’ve stayed up late and gotten up early, bleary eyed or teary eyed you’ve typed until putting that final period on the last chapter. Maybe even typed the words, “The End.” And now, behold, wonder of wonders, you’ve written your story. Whether your followed your outline and knew every step or dug up your story like a fossil, piece by piece as you go, this is it. It’s done. Good for you! Sit back, relax, go out to dinner or throw a party or whatever you do to celebrate. You wrote a book. Congratulations! Be proud.
            Because even though your story is complete, your manuscript is only halfway done. Perhaps a third. Every writer, no matter how brilliant or inspired, is still a flawed human and has made a plethora of mistakes in their first draft. And that’s fine. There are going to be spelling errors and typos and issues with grammar and placement, and a great deal of the book which doesn’t actually need to be there and drags your story down. Not an issue. You have done your job as a writer so far- you got the story down. That was the goal and you made it.
            And if writing the story was your only goal, then go ahead, be done. But if publication and authorship are what you want then you need to be prepared to finish the work you’ve begun. Editing is not the glamorous or exciting part of writing, but if you love your story and want to share it, editing is inescapable. And it should be. This is the part where you get to refine your ideas, correct your mistakes, and lovingly or grudgingly chip away the rough parts until the masterwork underneath is clear and unblemished. You owe your story that level of love, just like you wouldn’t deny your children vaccinations just because getting shots hurt.
Take a break. Walk away from your manuscript for a few days, even a few weeks. Let it fade to the back of your mind while you do other things. Read books. Go canoeing. Do whatever else it is that you love to do so that your manuscript is not the freshest thing on your mind. Then you’re ready to being editing. “Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing gaily out of the house in your underwear,” said Patricia Fuller. Dress your manuscript in its very best, black tie if you can. Do your first edit yourself, with the door closed. Read your manuscript all the way through and make notes. Don’t stop to correct things here. You need to get the feel of your story as a story, as one complete whole, rather than the piece by piece uncovering or the line by line of the outline.
You will notice things that you’ve missed, or failed to put down. Character motivations or foreshadowing that need to be there and aren’t. Important plot points that got missed. You’re not allowed to be upset with yourself over these omissions, because they weren’t the focus. You were supposed to write the story. You did. Now you are fixing it. Be proud that you’re catching your mistakes, not angry that you made them. This is the time to fill in gaps, make tweaks, add more foreshadowing and even begin to understand what you’re trying to say with your work. The theme of your story is rarely something you start with. Usually is something you discover along the way.
Once you’ve read it from beginning to end, you may go through it with your notes and start changing things. Fill out characterizations and motives. Tighten the storyline up. Figure out what matters to the conflict and what was written just for you. This isn’t editing for grammar or spelling yet, although now please feel free to correct any of those mistakes you find. Once you’ve done that, you can start on the next part of editing: trimming off the fat.
            Dr. Seuss famously said, “So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.” The first thing that should be cut is unnecessary words. I can make that easier for you right now. Open your document and go to your “Find” feature. Enter the word “very.” Unless it is in dialogue and spoken by a character who loves to use hyperbole, delete it. Every time. Nothing is ever very anything. It either is or it isn’t. Her eyes aren’t very blue, they are dark like twilight or bright, Caribbean water in pools. Two different colors, both of them “very” blue. Show, don’t tell, right? Get rid of very.
            Then search your document for words ending in “ly.” Brightly, gratingly, grudgingly, angrily, these are all adverbs. They modify verbs. Don’t modify your verbs if you can help it. The use of words that end in “ly” are a sign of amateurish writing. Stephen King in his “On Writing” book has an entire section about the evils of “ly.” Why is it evil? You’re just trying to be specific in your writing. You’re trying to tell your readers how he said “Back off.” He said it menacingly.
            You tell me which is more effective. Number one: “His eyes narrowed and his upper lip curled up in a snarl. ‘Back off,’ he said.”
            Number two: “‘Back off,’ he said menacingly.”
            Find those words in your manuscript and get rid of them. And you don’t even have to follow the example of number one. If you’ve already established that the character who is speaking is a dangerous person, then you don’t need to say that they do things menacingly or dangerously or angrily- your reader knows. Dialogue tags, those things you type to let your reader know who’s speaking, should be limited to “said,” “asked,” and maybe one or two more, like “mumbled.” If you are going to use a word that ends in “ly,” and everyone does because every writer writes to be understood and lives in fear of being misunderstood, keep it to any time a character says or does something that is out of character. And even then it isn’t really needed, because another character can react to let the audience know the speaker is acting out of character. Use adverbs like you would scotch bonnet peppers- not at all, unless you have to.
            Then identify lines, scenes, and even characters that aren’t vital to the story. Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, and Howard Tayler have all counseled writers to “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, kill your darlings,” which means that no matter how much you love a scene or character or even a particularly clever line, if it slows down the story it goes. Don’t delete them! Highlight them, cut them, and paste them in a document called “To Use Later,” or “Future Awesomeness,” or something. They don’t have to be gone, they just don’t fit here. It’s hard. Have you ever tried to lose weight? It’s that kind of hard. But it’s just as important and worth it for the results. Maybe more.
            And once you’ve gone through your book and cut it back and fixed the gaps and straightened out the story, go through it one more time. Line editing is dry and boring, but this is where you actively seek for grammar and spelling mistakes, errors in attributions, pronoun confusion, and punctuation mistakes. Don’t trust autocorrect or spell checkers, because words that are spelled correctly may not be the correct word. “Whether” and “weather,” for example.
            After that, you have two choices. You can begin to submit to agents or editors because heaven knows you’ve done enough work, or you can give your manuscript to a freelance editor and pay them to look it over. The bonus here is that they will catch mistakes that you did not, and your manuscript is fresh and new to them. If something doesn’t make sense in the story, they’ll catch it when you didn’t because you have all the information in your head. It was obvious to you, not them. And that’s good, because it helps make your story stronger.
            When you’ve finished editing your book, you may not feel like celebrating. You may feel like sleeping for a month. But what you have now, this rough cut stone you’ve polished into a gem, is more than a story. It’s a completed manuscript. This is vital in the publishing business because an agent or an editor is going to pay more attention to the line in your query that specifies “The completed manuscript is X pages, and has been polished and approved by freelance editor X.” I added italics for emphasis; don’t actually do that in your letter. Since every word in the query counts double or even triple, adding words that tell the editor or agent you are a serious and professional writer who is willing to put in the work breaks you out from the pack. And anything that breaks you out as a professional is memorable and worthwhile.
            And above all, your story will be better for it.


  1. This TERRIFIES me. I'm careful in my writing. I already only put in information that I feel is important- whether that is to the plot or to define character relationships or the culture or whatnot. The thought of taking things out because it's "not needed" makes a lump rise in my throat. It makes me nauseous. I suppose I'll eventually have to face it and suffer through so that my book is worth reading. But I am scared and I'm not ashamed to admit it.

  2. Being scared is nothing to be ashamed of. However, you don't need to worry about editing yet. Don't worry about what belongs and what doesn't, because you are still uncovering your story. Keep working on it, and once the story is told you can go back through and find the bits of bones that don't belong. Authors are often guilty of repeating themselves- some parts of the theme or story are so important to us that we say them over and over. We can take out some of the repetition. But again, worry about it later. Find your story first.