Category Archives: Editing

Jazzing up the Editing Process

Hi all!

Goodness…the holidays and the New Year obviously swallowed up the SisterMuses! We have both been busily writing…just invisibly. I am feverishly working on The Artifex (Book III of the Silesia Trilogy), which will be released on August 31, 2013. J. Leigh is immersed in the world of The Madness Project, which she plans to release on June 1.  It looks to be an exciting year for the SisterMuses!

Today, I’m over at Engelia McCullough’s blog guest posting about the editing process. If editing always gets you down or you feel daunted by that phase of your literary journey, head on over here for some easy ways to take the sting out of the process! Thanks, Engelia, for hosting me today!

Happy writing (and editing)!!!

S.K.

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Formatting Your Print Manuscript

Well, here we are…almost a week into NaNoWriMo…and I have zero words on my NaNo novel.  At this point, it’s a NO novel.

Ha.

But it’s for a good reason.  I’ve been getting The Lords of Askalon all ready to go to press.  Formatting, my friends, formatting.  And that’s our topic for today.  I’ll lay out some general rules of thumb for print formatting today, and then I’ll run through a checklist for reviewing your print proof later in the week.  Then we’re on to ebook formatting and proofing.  We’re working on something extra special for the ebook formatting tutorial…stay tuned for that! 🙂

So let’s get on with today’s topic.  And I will strive throughout to use the generic terms “book” or “manuscript” instead of “story” or “novel” because formatting applies to any written work — fiction, nonfiction, or poetry.

Reading (even if it’s on an e-reader) is a visual process.  Our goal is not only to produce a work that is riveting and inspiring (engaging the imagination), but also one that will delight the reader’s eyes.  Formatting your manuscript may seem like the most brainless part of putting your project together, but it’s essential for a number of reasons:

  1. Poor formatting makes you look like a total amateur and discourages readers from buying and reading your work.
  2. Poor formatting distracts from your manuscript by drawing constant attention to itself
  3. Depending on the type of project, formatting can actually contribute to the meaning of the work.  This is especially true for poetry, but font choices can add visual reinforcement to your book’s identity.

Your work represents a lot of hard work, and you should respect it and yourself.  When you dress for a date or an interview, you try to look your best (I hope).  First impressions, as they say, are everything.  I was a judge again this year for a self-published book contest, and formatting is one of the very first things I look at when I open my box of submissions.  Some manuscripts were incredibly professional: beautiful paper quality, excellent font choices, perfect margins and spacing and text layout.  I couldn’t wait to dig into those.  Then there were the Others.  One manuscript looked like the author had printed it out on a dot matrix printer.  (If you don’t remember what a dot matrix printer churns out, go look at this example.)  It was double-spaced and used courier font…it looked like a rough draft or a school project, not a professional piece of writing.  (Sadly, the writing was no better than the formatting.)

Here’s the point: the manuscripts that looked professionally put together made me want to read them.  The Others?  Not so much.  And I certainly wouldn’t shell out $9.95+ for a print book with hideous unprofessional formatting.

Sometimes, bad formatting is like cheap cologne.  It’s not immediately, shockingly apparent.  It smells okay in the bottle.  But God forbid you actually spritz some on before you head out the door.  The more time passes, the more bothersome the smell becomes.  No one notices your new bag or your incredible smile.  They just smell that cheap cologne.  Annoyingly imperfect formatting is exactly like this.  It limps along for a while, but grows increasingly irritating to the reader, who eventually tosses the book aside.  She loses her grip on the story because all she can think is, “Why are there so many spaces between paragraphs?  Why is that margin so huge?  Why are the chapter headings in a different place each time?”

Here are a few easy steps you can take to avoid the cheap cologne effect of poor formatting:

1. Choose an appropriate trim size.  Take a look at some of your favorite books in your genre.  Most trade fiction books, for example, are not 8.25″x11″.  5.25″x8″ or 6″x9″ are much more common choices.  If you’re writing a cookbook or a nonfiction book, a larger trim size might be appropriate.  Children’s books are something else again.  Look at what’s out there, find a professional example, and imitate!  No shame in that!

2. Follow the template or formatting instructions provided by your chosen press. CreateSpace, for example, has downloadable templates that are already proportioned to your chosen trim size – taking all the guesswork out of margin sizing, header organization, and the like.  You’re not cheating if you use a template.  You’re saving yourself a lot of pain and tears, trust me.

3. Choose an appropriate text and title font.

  • Consider the type of book you’re writing.  If it’s trade fiction or nonfiction, you’ll want a clear, neutral font for your text.  Palatino Linotype, Times New Roman, Book Antiqua, Garamond, Georgia, Bookman Old Style are all possibilities here (though this isn’t an exhaustive list).
  • If you’re writing a children’s book, you could choose a font that’s a bit more whimsical, but remember that if your font is too crazy, young readers (your primary audience) will have a hard time with it.
  • Courier is fine for a screenplay.  It is not fine for a novel.
  • Your title/heading fonts can be a bit more fun, and should reflect the book’s subject and genre.  A calligraphic script, for instance, might work well for a romance or historical fiction work.  Remember the cardinal rule of moderation: running totally wild with font choices marks the book as amateurish.
  • Don’t choose too many fonts.  If you want to choose more than one font, one for the text and one for chapter headings/page numbers/headers should do you just fine.

4. Single space your work.  Use a hanging indent (not a tab) to set off your paragraphs — don’t add an extra space between them.

5. Be consistent.  Fonts, margin sizes, indents, headers, page numbers…all these should be exactly the same throughout.

6. Don’t box in your text with borders. This might sound like a no-brainer, but I have seen manuscripts where this is done.  It’s highly irritating and distracting.  If you want to mark your chapters with a symbol or a glyph that has significance to the story, that’s fine – just make sure it’s proportional to the text.

7. Justify your text. Be sure to set your word processor to break words across lines so that you don’t have weird spacing.  Also make sure to select widow/orphan control so that you don’t have straggling bits of lines on an otherwise blank page.

Ensuring proper formatting before you send your manuscript off to press will save you a lot of time and trouble in the next step: reviewing your proof.  Remember, you are working for visual simplicity and clarity.  Make it beautiful – your work deserves it!


Editing Focus 4: Syllabic Editing

Okay.  So.  Long overdue editing blog post: check.

This is the last Editing Focus blog post we’ll have for our Fall Blog Fest…so…hope you enjoy it!  It’s my personal favorite, as far as annoying things like editing are concerned.  😉

Syllabic editing isn’t something you’ll hear talked about a whole lot.  I first heard about it from the amazing writer/teacher/mentor Dave Farland, who has really taught me so much about the business and the…well, business…of writing.

So what is syllabic editing?  It sounds mystical and amazing, so what exactly does it involve?

Quite simply, it’s listening.  I’m not trying to be flippant.  Writing is an oral and an aural art.  Most of us, when we read, do at least some amount of subvocalization.  We listen to stories as we read them, even if we’re not reading them out loud.  But more than that, we notice things like rhythm and cadence and musicality — it’s just our nature.  Our brains are designed for that.  Just think about how most storytelling has been done throughout human history.  It was an oral art before it ever got written down.  Language is meant to be spoken.  And it’s meant to be beautiful.

When we look at syllabic editing, we’re actually focused on a couple of things.  One is flow, and one is conciseness and focus — on the level of the sentence, not on the level of the story.  I’ll look at the conciseness issue first.

Here we’re actually looking at the sentence and saying, “Am I conveying this idea as clearly as I can in as few words as I can?”  Now, this doesn’t mean we have to strip our style down to postmodern minimalism or anything, unless that is — God help you — your true style.  I’m also not saying you should excise every single adverb or adjective.  But it does mean you can get rid of useless words that tend to clutter up the stream, like little dams that choke up and bog down the story as you try to drift through it.

For instance, if you have two characters in conversation, you don’t need to say: “Bob smiled at Anna.”  You can just say, “Bob smiled,” unless it’s absolutely crucial to the story that the reader knows he’s smiling at Anna — for instance, if Bob has a phobia of smiling at people but for some reason smiles at Anna just now.  You see.  Cutting out those two words is a syllabic cut.  You’re trimming down the number of syllables so that what is conveyed is what is most important.

I think a lot of this kind of editing comes from accommodating editors/publishers who insist on a certain word count for submissions.  So, if Publisher Bob only accepts manuscripts up to 100K words and your masterpiece is 110K words, well, you need to find 10K useless words to scratch.  But even if you’re self-publishing, you should go through your manuscript with the same brutality….err…..care.  Set yourself a word limit and then find all the places where you can cut.

Limits are a lot like deadlines.  They can be incredibly powerful motivators.  And the best thing is, the tighter your manuscript is, the better it is.  Always.  Trust me.  You might make a macro cut — like excising a whole scene — that you later regret, but I’ve never come across a situation where I regretted cutting out “at Anna.”

Now, the other part of syllabic editing — and the part I think is the most interesting — is what gives that first part a positive quality, so that you’re “adding by subtracting,” as they say, and not just subtracting.  In other words, you want your prose not only to get from Point A to Point B in the most concise way possible (for your particular style/tone), but also to get there as effortlessly as possible.  And I mean effortless on the part of the reader.  A well-made movie doesn’t draw attention to itself on a mechanical level, but lets you simply live the story.  Likewise, a good novel should sweep the reader along without giving them any reason to stop and say, “Wait, why did he write that sentence like that?”

So, look.  The goal of syllabic editing is not to go from, “Bob wandered in meandering lines through the cool autumn mist with a slow, steady stride, drinking in the intoxicating scent of coming snow in the wind” to “Bob walked home through the mist.  It smelled like snow.”  Fewer syllables, yes.  Better writing?  No.  Now, “Bob wandering through the cool autumn mist, etc.” is not really good writing either.  It’s actually kind of awful.  But to correct it, you want to listen to the way the sounds fall on your inner ear, and go from there.  Test out your potential revisions.  Taste them.  Roll the syllables around on your tongue, and find the one that packs the biggest punch.

My Bob sentence above has a major problem.  It stutters and gasps and falls on its face.  My mental tongue trips over the syllables.  The words don’t sound right to me.  Reading them makes me wince and take out my mental red pen.  So how would I fix it?  Well, for one thing, watching out for prepositional phrases is usually a good place to start.  If you’ve got a sentence that strings together more than two prepositional phrases in a row, or maybe three at the most, you should look at restructuring the sentence.  “Should” pretty much meaning “must” in this scenario.

So.

Bob wandered in meandering lines…

Okay.  I don’t need to put the “meandering lines” bit in there.  It’s superfluous.  I already know he’s wandering, which suggests he’s not walking with a definite purpose.  So, SLASH. Continue reading


How to Listen to Your Beta Reader

Both J. Leigh and I have had two insanely busy weeks — doesn’t that always seem to happen right in the middle of huge and important projects?  And it’s obvious that I “missed” my self-imposed publication deadline of October 4 for the release of Lords of Askalon.  Part of that is life getting busy — and it’s a luxury (and a curse) of being self-published that you set your own publication schedule.  But the real reason why I put off releasing the book is that I took the time to listen — really listen — to J. Leigh, my beta reader.

But what does that mean, exactly — listening to your beta reader?  Doesn’t it mean just approving all those deletions and additions in Word’s track changes feature?

No.

Don’t get me wrong.  Track changes is fabulous for collaborative work like this.  And for incorporating line edits, it can save a lot of time and trouble.  But you don’t just give your beta reader carte blanche to rewrite your manuscript.  Instead, you need to internalize the criticism and use it to make your story better.  Let’s look at how this could play out, using Dr. Banner/the Hulk from the movie The Avengers (disclaimer: this is purely a thought exercise):

BR: I really want to see the Hulk become more thoughtful as the story progresses.  He should start moving from “Smash everything because it’s there” to “Smash the enemy because I recognize they’re my enemy” by the end of the film, because otherwise he’s just not very sympathetic or heroic.

Writer: Ah, I see your point.  Hmm.  I know!  If the first time the Hulk becomes the Hulk it’s purely a response to stimuli — uncontrolled and destructive and scary — and then later Dr. Banner chooses to become the Hulk to help his friends, that might convey this change in his character.  That means I need to rework this first scene a bit…and really need to highlight the shift in this later scene…and…

Edits like these are macro edits, and they take more time to “fix” than word changes or tense agreement fixes.  You have to take what your beta reader tells you — i.e., the Hulk (even for a big guy) is flat unless we have him develop as a character — and figure out what needs tweaking to make your story really successful and satisfying.

Remember, one of the most important things your beta reader does is to go through your manuscript like a reader.  You want your story to be satisfying to your readers.  If your character has hit a developmental plateau that’s becoming endless and therefore boring and unsatisfying, you want your beta reader to convey this to you.  If your plot has a massive hole in it, thus making the story boring and unsatisfying, you want your beta reader to say so.  And then you need to listen!   Don’t say, “That’s hooey.  My story is perfect just the way it is.  You’re wrong.  I’m right.”

If criticism of your work makes you cringe and feel ill and strikes at the very core of your being, then you’re in the wrong business.  And if you can’t take the criticism of your beta reader, then don’t even consider actually publishing your work for the public.  Take criticism as an opportunity to improve, not as a personal slight.

So, really maximize the usefulness of having a beta reader by discussing his thoughts on your work.  How did this scene work?  Could this other plot arc be a problem?  Was this shift in character convincing?  Is the ending a total flop?  Is the climax intense enough?  Don’t just cut and paste his line edits into your “finished” manuscript.  If you’ve gone through the trouble of asking for a beta read, then make it count.  Take your story from “just okay” to “awesome” by listening to what your reader tells you and considering how best to adjust.

Your readers will thank you for it.


Editing Focus 3: Line Editing

Sorry this is late in appearing, everyone…that’s what this annoying little thing called…”LIFE”… will do to a person.  O.o

So, I’ve been working on beta reading S.K.’s awesome new book, The Lords of Askalon (can’t WAIT for all of you to be able to read it!).  Beta reading for me is mostly line-editing.  However, since I generally only have time to do a once-over, I usually try to work in syllabic editing and at least some consistency editing (did you really mean “north” here???:).  But most of what I’m doing is looking at the mechanics of the writing, and making sure that the prose is as tight and vibrant as possible.  I promised to share with you my tips and techniques, so that line-editing can be a little less of a headache for you.  Here you go.

First thing’s first: whenever you’re going to do a significant edit on your book, SAVE A COPY OF YOUR MANUSCRIPT.  You don’t want to experience the horror of slashing all of Chapter 9 and saving over your only file, only to realize…”Oh no!  I really wanted to recycle that one passage into another chapter.”  Save it as “MyAwesomestNovel_EDIT” or something.  Then when you’ve got it edited to perfection, save it (again) as “MyAwesomestNovel_FINAL” or whatever.  I’m obsessive about that.  Any time I make significant changes to my story, I save a revision document.

Scanning Edits

Okay, this isn’t really a step one, but it’s kind of a….macro-y sort of line-edit, so I’ll talk about it first.  One of the first things I’ll try to do when I start editing is It’s basically a sort of page-scan.  This means that I’m not actually reading so much as doing a sort of visual pattern search.

For instance, I’ll scan over all the dialogue on the page.  If I see too many modifiers, too many dialogue tags, I’ll start slashing them.  This is one of my personal banes — using too many adverbs (he said thinly/ flatly/ harshly/ sharply/ gently/ whatever-ly), or too many descriptive verbs (he snapped/ laughed/ demanded/ lamented).

My general rule — if I were to have a rule — would be to see no more than one or two of either of these things on a page, or per chunk of dialogue.  I prefer when action frames some of the lines of dialogue (He shrugged. “Who cares?”), rather than dialogue tags.  Then you can use context to identify the next speaker…except where you need to introduce a newcomer to the reader.  So:

Bob and Milo sat quietly for a while, constrained in uncomfortably close quarters.  Milo sighed and fidgeted.
“Where are we going?”
“I have no idea.  No. Idea.”
George glanced at them in the rearview of his Mini.  “Chill out, guys, we’re just going to grab some donuts!”

Now, that does the trick, right?  Right before the dialogue starts, we’re talking about Milo, so we can safely assume that he’s the first one to speak.  Then, Bob has to answer, because he’s the only other character we know.  But I can use an action frame to introduce George — and also to start solving the mystery of why Bob and Milo are feeling so uncomfortably constrained squashed.

So if I’m scanning the page and see several lines of dialogue that elaborate too much, I’ll start cutting.  I’m exceptionally brutal about this, because, as I said, it was the bane of my writerly existence for years.

ALSO.  Don’t be afraid of the word “said.”  It’s perfectly fine.  It doesn’t always need to modified, either.  I’d say…35% the time you don’t need anything modifying the dialogue.  25% of the time, just say said!  25% of the time you can use an action frame.  15% of the time you can use a colorful “speaking” verb, like “demand, snap, whisper” etc.  Anyway, different people have different preferences…just watch out for going overboard in any direction.  ALL of these are problematic:

“I went to the store today,” George said.
“That’s nice,” Bob said.
“I went to the store yesterday,” Milo said.

AND:

George frowned and slammed his hand on the door.  “I went to the store today!”
“That’s nice.”  Bob’s face lit with a malicious grin.
Milo squirmed, nervous.  “I went to the store yesterday.”

AND:

“I went to the store today,” George whined.
“That’s nice,” Bob sneered.
“I went to the store yesterday,” Milo announced.

But this is sort of better (if we can salvage this idiotic dialogue…):

George speared a glare at Bob. “I went to the store today.”
“That’s nice.”
“I went to the store yesterday,” Milo said.

You get the idea.

Also in the scanning edits, I watch for snippets or phrases that might tend to get repeated overly-repeated snippets or phrases.  This includes phrases like: shrugged, frowned, shook (his) head, sighed, grimaced, groaned, etc.

Generally I don’t want to see more than one character doing any of these things more than once in any particular scene…or at least make sure that you give some solid distance between instances.  If everyone’s constantly shaking their heads and nodding, I’m going to assume they are Bobbleheads.  And yes.  This is one that I have to be extra-careful about, because I do it a lot.  It’s especially hard if you write in fits and starts.  If you don’t make sure to reread your previous few pages before starting again, you risk repeating phrases that you didn’t remember using.

Also watch for consecutive sentences starting the same way.  If you’re scanning a paragraph and see: “He…   .  He…  .  He…”, then you have a problem.  Even worse would be: “He was… .  He was… . He was…”  AGH!  Death.  Try to avoid starting multiple sentences with the same word/grammatical structure.  It gets quite annoying.

So basically, this step is just my eye scanning over the pages, looking for things that are visually….disturbing.   You’d be surprised what you can catch this way, which you might not when you’re actually reading.

Continue reading


Editing Focus 2: Consistency

Yesterday, we discussed macro (Big Picture) editing, in which we ensure that all the story components do what they’re supposed to do and work harmoniously together.  Today, we’re going to concentrate on another aspect of macro editing: consistency.

Let’s use our same three categories — character, plot, and setting — to see what types of errors we’re looking to catch in this editing focus.

Character Consistency

In yesterday’s focus, we were editing for character depth and function.  Today, we’re editing for detail, voice, and point-of-view.

Detail Editing

Details are things like eye color, hair color, stand-out characteristics like moles or scars, and stature.  So, for example, if Lord Beardsley’s eyes are gray on page 10, then make sure they’re not suddenly blue on page 123.  If Bandit Bob has a scar on his right cheek, make sure it hasn’t moved to the left wrist twenty pages later.  (Reminds me of Young Frankenstein and the shifting hump).

The surest way to avoid this type of consistency trouble is to have written character sketches.  If a detail is important enough to include in your novel, it’s important enough to note in your character sketch.  If you notice that you have trouble keeping one character’s details straight and you don’t have a sketch, then make one as you re-read, jotting down details as you find them.  A running sketch like this will help you to correct problems you find along the way.

Voice Editing

Voice, even more than eye color or tattoos, is what defines your characters.  If your character has a distinctive dialect or way of speaking, then make sure that voice is authentic throughout the story. If you can’t write a certain dialect convincingly, then don’t even attempt it.  Better just to indicate that the character speaks with a heavy brogue than to do a lame job transcribing it.  Don’t start what you can’t make believable.

Voice consistency is also critical for POV, especially if you take up multiple characters’ perspectives throughout the story (as in alternating third-person limited or alternating first person POV).  In these cases, it’s essential that your characters’ voices be distinct and consistent, because otherwise your reader won’t know whose head she’s in.  And, if your characters all sound like carbon copies of each other, then it’s not only confusing to your reader, but boring. (Consider Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury for a stunning example of voice and POV.)

POV Editing

Let’s talk about POV.  If you start out with third-person limited POV, make sure you don’t switch to third-person omniscient in Chapter 10.  And remember, when you’re inside a character’s head, you can’t reveal details that he or she wouldn’t see or know, so you’ll want to be sure that things are revealed appropriately through action and/or dialogue.

Check also for those instances, especially in third limited or first person, where you might be tempted to have your character self-describe.  Most people don’t walk around thinking something like, “I’m five foot two.  I have mousy brown hair and glasses.  Gee, I wonder what’s for breakfast today.”   Instead, if you must have a character describe herself, try to work it into the action:

I stretched on tiptoe to see in the mirror.  Whoever had hung that darn mirror didn’t design it for someone five foot two.  I frowned and shoved my glasses further up on my nose, but there wasn’t a thing I could do with my hair.  Mousy brown and wild, it never would behave.  I fussed with it for a moment, but then my stomach growled.  I wondered absently what was for breakfast.

Make your narrative realistic and keep your perspective consistent.

Plot/Action Consistency

We’ve all read novels where there is a consistency glitch in the action.  Hopefully this isn’t an Epic Glitch — like the author forgot one of the main elements he’s established as necessary to the story’s climax. Make sure that whatever threads you weave into the fabric of your story are carried throughout — deliver what you promise.

Leaving Epic Plot Glitches aside, let’s consider a smaller, but no less annoying, consistency error:

Lord Beardsley gallops through the Dark Forest.  Suddenly, Bandit Bob steps out from behind a tree.

“Avast!” cries Bob. “Hand over yer gold!”

Lord Beardsley dismounts and strides toward Bandit Bob, brandishing his Vorpal Blade. “I will gut you like a fish, and then I will celebrate by laughing maniacally!” vaunts Lord Beardsley.

He gallops toward Bandit Bob on his Battle Horse.

Oops.

He dismounted, remember, and we never see him get back on his horse.

This type of error is easy to commit.  If you get up to get a fourth cup of coffee glass of water between Bob’s challenge and Lord Beardsley’s response, you may well and truly forget that he got off his horse to confront his adversary.

An attentive read-through of your novel should allow you to catch these types of mistakes.  I hear you laughing to yourself, thinking that you’re not so inattentive as to commit such an egregious and ridiculous error.  Don’t consider yourself immune.  I’ve seen these glitches in professionally published (and presumably, therefore, professionally edited) books, where both the author and the editor should know better.  Be better.   Check for consistency!

Setting Consistency

Much like consistency in character detail, editing for setting consistency requires you to have a strong grasp of your world.  If  your culture doesn’t use electric lights, then you can’t have them turning on the lamp in Chapter 3.  And, on a “set design” level, if you place a fireplace on the west wall of the room, then it can’t be on the north wall in the next scene.

Sometimes we don’t completely think through the consequences of a setting choice.  They can be far-reaching.  For instance, if you place your characters in a world where they don’t have horses and have never even heard of horses, then you can’t have your characters use horse-y metaphors, similes, or turns of phrase.  Hamish can’t say, “You’re as wild as an unbroken mustang.”  He can’t say, “You can lead a horse to water…”  Be sure that if you limit your world like this, you think through the consequences.  Make your figurative language authentic to your setting.  It’s actually fun – it makes you stretch as a writer.  But it can also trip you up, so put this on your editing checklist as well.

Final Word

We’ve now finished our brief look at the process of macro-editing!  J. Leigh will take up Focus 3 and 4 (micro-editing) later this week.  (Remember, you don’t have to do these steps in the order we’re discussing them, and sometimes you have to do them more than once.)

Happy editing!!!


Editing Focus 1: The Big Picture

J. Leigh laid out our editing map very nicely last week.  Today, we’re going to consider Focus 1, what I call the “big picture” edit.  There are three levels present in Focus 1 — character, plot, and setting.

Character Editing

As we step back and look at the Big Picture, we need to consider how well each character performs his or her role in the story.  We’re looking here at character function and depth.

Character Function

Your characters are the doers and receivers of the action of the plot.  Main characters will be changed the most dramatically by the events of the plot, and they will also have the most impact on the plot direction — character development and plot arc are truly inseparable and interdependent.  So, when we edit for character function, we’re looking to make sure that a character’s arc tracks with the plot arc.  In order to check this, you might ask the following questions:

Is/Are your main character(s) the main character(s) throughout the novel?  In other words, do we follow Mr. X’s actions, thoughts, and emotions primarily throughout the novel, and does he have the greatest impact on the plot?

Do your secondary characters have clear purpose?  Secondary characters function in a novel by impacting the main character’s arc and/or by impacting the plot arc.  We care about them because they are important to our main character(s), not so much because they are important on their own.  Consider, for instance, Mr. Wickham in Pride and Prejudice.  We care about him first because Elizabeth cares for him and because he is tied to Mr. Darcy’s past, and then because his dastardly behavior (running off with Elizabeth’s sister) and Mr. Darcy’s role in its resolution crystallizes Elizabeth’s true feelings for Mr. Darcy.  Wickham isn’t really important on his own, but he is integrally important for the plot and for the development of our two main characters.

Character Depth

A character’s depth is very much tied to his or her function in the story.  Obviously, we spend the most time and energy on our main characters.  We explore not just their actions, but their motives for action, their responses to action.  We care about them as a “whole person,” you might say.  When we edit for character depth, we need to make sure that we have created a compelling main character.  The reader has to have strong feelings about him or her — love or hate.  You can’t have a successful main character if the reader could care less what happens to him.  We also need to make sure that the detail we give to our secondary characters is proportional to their role — they need to be detailed enough to perform their function in the story, but not so much that they start to rival the main character.

Plot Editing

When we edit for plot on the Big Picture level, we are looking for a tight, streamlined story arc.  Everything that is in the story needs to propel it forward, either by revealing your main characters or by advancing the plot.  A scene may be exquisitely written, but if it’s not doing one of those two things, it needs to go.  Remember, we don’t write in a vacuum.  You’re writing for your reader.  Your novel is like a train, taking your reader on a journey.  Your reader doesn’t want to get dropped off at the train station to wait for your plot to resume in twenty pages or so.  He’ll walk to the next track and pick up a new train.

Most of us start writing with at least a vague blueprint of our story in mind, and hopefully this blueprint becomes more like a detailed architectural plan as we dive into the world and the characters and the action.  Architects don’t add useless doors or windows to their plans; likewise, writers should make sure that their scenes lead somewhere.  

So, as you reread your story, do you feel the push?  Do you feel the plot moving you forward?  Do you feel like you can’t put your book down?  Like you have to read just one more chapter?  Like you can’t wait to find out more about your main character?  If there are spots where you get bogged down and bored, then take a good, hard look at those scenes.  Improve them or cut them.  Be ruthless.

Setting Editing

In my post Dressing the Set(ting),  I made the point that the setting details you include should be functional, not just beautiful.  When you’re looking at setting editing on the macro level, you’re considering your world-building.  The reader needs a certain amount of detail in order to enter the construct you’ve created.  But too much detail all at once will make your novel a snoozer.

I’ve been trying to think of a way to describe the ripple effect that one good detail can have, and I’ve finally come up with one (and it’s a bit skewed, I admit).  If you’ve ever played Minesweeper, you know how you sometimes click on a square and it opens up a whole field?  Setting details should work a little like that.  They should unlock your reader’s imagination.

This is one of those points, frankly, where a beta reader can be supremely helpful.  After all, you know this world.  You’ve been living in it for months.  You can fill in the blanks without even realizing that there are blanks.  But if you don’t have anyone to help with this stage, then take a breather from it and come back to it after a week or so.

Big Picture Editing

So, now you’ve reread your novel with an eye on character, plot, and setting.  You’ve seen how these layers are fundamentally interconnected, you’ve eliminated throwaway scenes (thus making your more detailed editing easier) and you’ve conveyed your world with powerful details.  You’re now satisfied that your story hums on a macro level.

Congratulations!!!

You’re now ready to embark on Focus 2: Consistency Editing.


Preparing to Publish: Editing

As S.K. said in her last blog post, we’re celebrating the month of September with an in-depth look at the publication process.  Now, I’m going to assume that you have a finished manuscript.  Your story is complete.  Your characters are well-rounded and you’ve inflicted on them all necessary challenges and sufferings for growth and all that good stuff.  Your plot makes sense, has a good arc, interesting climax and satisfying denouement.  Now all you have to do is polish it up and get it ready for the press.

So that’s where we’re starting.  In this series, we’re not going to tell you how to write a novel or how to develop complex characters.  Maybe another time.  We’re just going to make sure the book you publish is the best it can be.  In this article, I’ll give an overview of the different stages of editing many writers like to follow, then in subsequent articles we’ll go more in depth about each stage and give practical h0w-to advice.

So, what are the main stages or types of editing?  I honestly don’t like calling them “stages” of editing, as if you have to follow them in order and do them only once.  Usually when I edit, I’ve got an eye on at least two of them.  Maybe we should call each of them an “editing focus.”  And they kind of range from macro to micro, so that’s the order I’ll present them.

Focus 1

This may or may not be a kind of “editing,” strictly speaking.  You know how I just said you’ve got a nice finished manuscript with good characters and plot arc and all that?  Well, the first thing you want to do is take a good long look at that manuscript.  You might even want to put it away for a week or longer before undertaking this step.  But the idea is, you look at all the elements of your story and say, “Is this the absolute best it can be?”  Is that character as interesting as possible?  Is that plot twist too predictable?  Is this character a cliche?  Is there enough detail in the world-building to make the setting come to life?  Is there too much, making the prose dull and boring?  Is that chapter 10 where Egbert finds the stray kitten really necessary to advance the plot, however attached I might be to the scene?

Focus 2

This is what is commonly called or thought of as “consistency editing,” and it’s pretty much the most macro-y of the macro edits, technically speaking.  In this focus, you will be rereading your manuscript from start to finish.  Basically, what you’re doing is watching for errors in consistency in your story telling.  This can be something as big as the story arc or as small as details like eye color.  You have no idea how easy these are to miss, and how annoying they are to readers.

Focus 3

The next focus is what you’ll hear editors refer to as “line editing.”  I’m kind of torn about whether this Focus should be next, or Focus 4.  Focus 4 is more of a stylistic edit, so I like to put it last because it doesn’t make sense to do stylistic edits on prose you’re about to slash from the manuscript.  However, line edits can catch mistakes introduced by Focus 4, so….maybe the best way to think about it is that you will probably end up doing two stages of line editing — one here, and one at the very end.  More on that later, though.

For now, all you need to know is that line editing is where you take a magnifying glass to your manuscript, line by line, and look for anything that can structurally weaken your story.  You’re looking for language misuse, grammar errors, punctuation errors, spelling errors, and even things like mixed metaphors or overused phrases.  I’ve got some tips to make line-editing less of a headache…those will come in a future post.

Focus 4

This focus is something I’ve heard called “syllabic editing.”  Here you’re going to be paying attention to the flow and sound of your story — how it strikes the reader’s mental ear.  Often times with syllabic editing you will be looking at tightening up your prose, cutting unnecessary words (hence, syllables).  But I like to think it has a poetic purpose too, not just smash and slash.  Sometimes you’ll end up adding words.  Sometimes you’ll cut and rewrite whole paragraphs…or even entire scenes…if they just don’t flow the right way, or convey the right tone.  A lot of times you will be looking at better ways to say something, if the original phrasing is too  bland or passive.

At this point, after running through all of these steps and doing a final line edit, you will be ready to prepare the actual manuscript file for the press.  We’ll be covering that whole process in future posts, too, so never fear.  In the next post, we’ll take a closer look at Focus 1.


September Blog Fest: Preparing to Publish

J. Leigh got us started with a bang yesterday with her fantastically funny (but sadly all-too-accurate) post on creating a YA cover for your novel.  If you haven’t read it yet, do.  Hopefully it will make you smile!

All this month, J. Leigh and I will be writing about the process of getting your manuscript ready for publication.  If you’re planning to self-publish, you won’t want to miss this series! And even if you’re planning to work with a traditional publisher, you’ll find lots of useful tidbits here on finalizing, editing, and reviewing your manuscript.

This week, we’ll talk about putting those finishing touches on your manuscript: editing techniques that will save you time and sanity, avoiding common editing pitfalls, and perfecting your prose.

Next week, we’ll focus on the pesky but necessary process of formatting your manuscript for both print and ebook editions.  Choosing a font type, setting the margins, and placing your page numbers may seem like insignificant details, but managing the visual appeal of your book is hugely important, especially for print.  We’ll also offer helpful tips for navigating the KDP and Smashwords formatting processes, which can be frustrating in the extreme the first time through.  Finally, we’ll address the review process: how to ensure that your print proof copy is gorgeous and error-free and that your ebook is digital perfection.

And then the grand finale…J. Leigh’s real post on book cover design!  We’ll also talk strategies for writing great back copy and for putting your best face forward (literally) with your author bio and photo.

Editing, formatting, and packaging…it’s the nitty-gritty of our writing profession, but that doesn’t mean it has to be  drudgery!  We’re planning some fun contests to liven up each week’s focus…can’t wait!

And last but not least…  We love all our readers, and we’re hoping to hit 200 blog followers this month!  So exciting!!!  You can help us by spreading the word and bringing a friend!  🙂

Happy writing!

SK


When the Going Gets Tough….

Bother.

It’s hard to write about not following your own advice, isn’t it?

In the last post, I made very true remarks about the importance and necessity of daily writing.  Slogging ahead.  No matter what.  Right?

Well…I got off my routine.  I realized that my July 4 deadline for Lords of Askalon was incompatible with producing a quality product.  Could I get it written?  Yes.  Would it be worth much? Probably not.  Leaving myself no time to work it over, to edit, to mull, to contemplate, to tweak…not good.  I think this really hit me when Brandon Sanderson tweeted that he planned 9 revisions for his new book.  Nine.  And he’s Brandon Sanderson.  And I wasn’t going to give myself time for one?

So there’s the reason for the new release date.  But on to the inevitable, awful consequence of this decision: I stopped writing.  I got caught up in other things.  Meaningful and necessary things, to be sure, but not writing things.  I let myself get caught, too, by the self-criticism monster that paralyzes all it touches.

The horror.

Today, for example, when I opened up my manuscript and got ready to write, I caught sight of the last scene I had written.  I promptly closed the window and wrote a journal entry instead.

One could make the argument that any writing is better than no writing, and I think there’s something to that.  But I don’t particularly have writer’s block…my huge and beautiful butcher-paper outline of this novel is pinned to the wall right beside me.  I know where I need to go, what I need to write.  But that last scene is so…flat.  Ugh.

Having a clear plot outline isn’t the same as having a strong sense of the characters, of their purpose, of the dynamics that guide their interaction.

Before I can come back to the story, I need to establish those things clearly for myself.  And work out nagging details like timeline issues.  For me, simply pushing through won’t do the job.  Will that method get the plot written?  Yes, probably.  But it will be as lifeless and sketchy as the outline on my wall.

So sometimes, when the going gets tough and your narrative feels flat, it pays to take a step back and consider a few things about the deeper structure of your story in general, and the characters inhabiting your world in particular.  Ask yourself:

  • Do you really know your characters?
  • What are their personal conflicts? (A character’s personal conflict is not necessarily the overarching conflict of the book.)
  • What drives your characters in their interactions with other major/minor characters?
  • How do these interactions meaningfully reveal their character arc?
  • How does each character arc intersect with the plot?  What events need to happen for that character to develop?

Once you find the answers to these questions and have a clear sense of each character’s purpose and role, you’ll see the life flowing back into your bloodless plot structure.

So…I’m off to reacquaint myself with my characters.  How will you move your story forward today?