Wednesday, April 27, 2016

"Real" Editing

Now for the Real Editing

The first read-through of a first draft can be a jolt. I don’t know about other writers, but I sometimes come across intriguing threads that I never developed. I may have a vague recollection of what triggered the idea, but just as often my reaction is, “What was I thinking?” It’s fine if I realize the thread doesn’t fit what the book became. I simply extract the thread with great care (think of the game of Pick-up Sticks), and make sure I haven’t left loose ends.

But sometimes I think the idea should have been developed. In that case, I stop and think about the ramifications on the completed book:

1) Will incorporating the thread resonate throughout the book? Does it require a complete rewrite? If so, do I have time to make it work?

2) Does it change the intention? Is that a change that I’m happy with? Will I be disappointed with the book if I don’t do it?

3) Will the new thread strengthen the book? If I can’t answer that question, is it something that might be more suited to another book in the series? Is there a less disruptive change I can make that will get the same point across?

If the answer is that I think the book will be better for incorporating the stray idea, I make notes on how to weave it in, and continue reading. I’ve had the spooky experience of thinking I didn’t work a thread into the story, only to find that I did, and that all it requires is some judicious adding or subtracting of sentences to make it stronger.

In this edit, unless I think the book is a complete failure, I don’t make more than cosmetic changes. For example, if I find a paragraph that is weakly developed, I might rewrite it. But mostly I make notes to remind myself where I need to take a hard look at some section I’ve written. The notes can be anything:

11) Miss X doesn’t pop off the page. Why?
  2)  Do I really need the scene with the pig?
33)   Have I sufficiently researched how this kind of autopsy would proceed?
  4)  Does this character come across the same way she did in Previous books?
I 5) Is the action in this section realistic? Is the language going to offend anyone unnecessarily?

I also take note of scenes that I got caught up in. Sometimes that means the scene really works. But sometimes it means that I think I’ve made the scene work, but actually my vision of it is what drives my reading of it. I note that I need to go back and read those scenes dispassionately, making sure my words match what is in my head.

And after this read, I hope I have a few more days to let the manuscript rest, to give my subconscious time to tell me what I still need to do. Next week: the writer’s group.

Book recommendation:  The Steel Kiss, Jeffrey Deaver. I like Deaver’s writing. He writes a good, solid thriller, without reverting to the kind of outrageous, over-the-top action that puts me off in some thrillers.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Editing Interrupted by Life

First draft written, I know that the next draft needs work and am ready to look at it critically. I've taken time off to let the manuscript settle in, and now it’s time to start editing. Uh, oh. Not so fast. Clouds on the horizon in the form of jury duty--a case that will last three of the precious six weeks I have set aside for editing. Three weeks of 9-5. Three weeks of unexpected duty.

It doesn’t have to be jury duty; it could be anything that suddenly makes your editing life a lot harder. A parent gets sick and you have to fly across country to take care of him. Your house floods. You get a horrible cold. It can be anything. Bottom line: Life intervenes.

When I set out to edit a first draft, I like to read the manuscript all the way through to get the overall picture of what needs to be done. I jot down ideas as I read, but basically I want to experience the story the same way a reader would. But reading beginning to end means I need a big chunk of time to get the continuity (or lack of).

Being on a jury, there’s no way I can get a chunk of time to do that read unless I’m willing to get up at 3AM and read until 9AM or start reading at 5PM and stay up until I’m done.  Or I could wait until the weekend, which means giving up days I had counted on for editing.

So it looks like I’ll have to approach it differently, or tell my editor that I need extra time. I’ve never failed to meet a deadline, and I don’t like the idea of doing so now. I suspect what I’ll do is forego the full-time read through and instead read in chunks. Not my ideal, but then nobody gets their way all the time.

The important thing in this post is to realize that not everything goes according to plan when you are writing. On the writing side, you can get bogged down in research, or your editor has concerns about some part of the book, or you aren’t satisfied with it and can’t figure out why. And then there is the “life” part. Lots of things can go wrong and throw you off, but the professional writer has to figure out a way to muddle through. Of course I’m not talking about a major setback—death, health issues, or disaster. I’m talking about those little bits of life that make you veer off your perfect plan.

I’m writing this in the jury room. Those of us on the jury have been here all afternoon waiting to be called to the courtroom. It’s interesting to see how many people don’t do much of anything when the time stretches out. I’ve been reading Jeffrey Deaver’s The Steel Kiss, and finally decided that at least I could write a quick blog.

And now for the good news. At 4:20 we were called in and told our services were no longer needed. Oddly, several of us expressed some disappointment. We had already bonded. I liked the people chosen for the jury! But now the little glitch in my editing has been cleared and tomorrow morning I’ll begin reading the whole shebang!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


Last week I talked about recognizing the need to edit your work. This week I will talk about how to begin.

You’ve finished your first draft (at least you typed “The End”). Now comes the important second step:  letting the work sit for a while. I call this percolating, or maybe stewing, or maybe even agonizing. But it’s an important step, even if you only have a day or two to step away. There are a couple of reasons to let the manuscript sit. First, you are too close to the work. You have lived with the characters and the story for so long that it’s hard to separate what you know internally from what you’ve actually gotten onto the page. Sure, you’ve thought of several things you forgot to include, or you’ve thought of a nice little twist you can add. Take notes about these. But give yourself a chance to forget what you think you know, so you can go back to the work with a fresh eye. You need to be able to approximate the experience a reader will have when she reads the book for the first time.

Second, you need to give yourself a chance to celebrate and rejuvenate. Celebrate the fact that you have managed what millions or people dream of doing and never get around to—you’ve finished a book. I remember a bookseller once giving a talk in which he said, “It’s hard to write a book—even a bad book.” His point was that people should be kind to writers. My point is to be kind to yourself. You know there are some awful lines in your first draft. You know there are characters that haven’t come alive, there are scenes that don’t quite work, research you need to do to make sure you’ve got something right, and descriptions you have to include. But you have written a whole lot of words, and some of them are good ones. Celebrate!

As for the rejuvenation part, studies have shown that taking time off is good for people’s work. Their products get better, they come back with renewed vigor, and the end result is better.

During this time you don’t have to forget about the book. Things will pop into your head that you know you meant to include, new ideas will pop up, and you will question whether you actually wrote something that you thought you wrote. Take notes. Do a little research if you must. But don’t obsess about it. Let yourself have time to take a deep breath. Start notes for a new project. Take a real day off—go to a museum, or go shopping or to the beach, or to lunch with a friend. This will prepare you to soar when you jump off the cliff into the editing process.

Book Recommendation:  On the advice of fellow author Tim Hallinan, I read Dead is Better, by Jo Perry. What a wonderful book! It’s witty and wise, and sometimes poignant. It’s one of those rare books that made me think, “How in the world did she think up something like that!” As one of her quotes in the books says, “Even in the grave, all is not lost.”—Edgar Allan Poe

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Editing 101

Optimism vs. Pessimism

This post is a lead-in to the subject of editing. I finished my first draft this week and will soon begin the task of getting my golden words whipped into shape. It’s a process that has taken me a long time to work out—maybe longer than it should have. Part of it has to do with my attitude.

Someone recently complained to me that she had gotten a bad review. She quoted a negative line from a review by a well-known reviewer. I told her I didn’t remember that. So I went to the review site and looked it up. Sure enough, at the end of a long review full of praise, there was one line of criticism. In the next line the reviewer said that didn’t take away from her overall enjoyment of the book. And she recommended it.

I was surprised that she had memorized almost word-for-word the one negative line in that review. I’m not delving into the psychological reason for this. What I am interested in is the difference in outlook. I took the review to be positive, while she focused on the negative.

I have a lot of writer friends. It strikes me that there is a certain percentage of them who by nature look for the negative. And some who refuse to see anything negative at all. I fear that I am in that latter Pollyanna group, and I don’t think it’s any more useful than being in the Poor Pitiful Pearl group. In between are people who look reality in the face and benefit from it.

I'm embarrassed to say that when I first started writing, I always thought everything I wrote was terrific. I know others who have that attitude, too. Like many of them, I was puzzled why agents and publishers didn’t see the value in my work. Gradually I came to understand that I couldn’t simply pretend that there were no problems in my writing.

Now I keep a list of things to look for that I know are my weaknesses and that I tend to overlook in my excitement about having written something I like. I have a list of words I know are “place keepers,” words that I use to avoid digging deeper into the scene. When I go back through and find phrases like “this thing,” or the words “about,” or “just,” I am alert to what I’m skirting. I’m amazed at how often a scene suddenly becomes much longer because located the stock phrases I used to describe things that need much more attention. In my early writing, I ignored those warning words.

I’ve been in writer’s groups with people with the opposite problem. They can’t see any value in what they’ve written. When they revise, they often throw out the good with the bad. Although I have never had that problem, I suspect that they could find ways of alerting themselves so they will avoid throwing out the good with the bad.

I’m curious to know your thoughts on this subject. Do you consider yourself an optimist, a pessimist, or a realist?