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The Mean Editor

As an author I have a split personality. The writer side of me has the imagination and curiosity of a small child. I enjoy putting together the first draft. It’s like taking out a box of building blocks and experimenting until I build something beautiful. It’s fun to try different things, write scenes from different characters’ points of view, invent alternate scenarios, and different endings. When I’m finished I stand back and admire what I’ve created.

Then the editor side of me takes over. If the writer is the child, the editor is the adult. He’s a mean SOB. The editor takes the small child’s wonderful creation and tears it apart. If a chapter is too long, cut it. If a scene doesn’t work, out it goes. If a character doesn’t move the editor, the editor moves the character right out of the manuscript.

Info dumps? Back story? Don’t even go there. Adverbs? Forget it. Cute dialogue tags like “she opined?” Not a chance. Stick with “he said” and “she said.”

Through numerous rounds of editing the manuscript of my first novel, Small Change, it shrank from an unwieldy 126,000 words to 103,000 words. And the paring down process wasn’t just about getting the manuscript down to a publishable word count. There were scenes and chapters that I thought were clever when I wrote them. Upon further review, the clear-eyed editor decided to delete them. I reworked the first page and the opening chapter at least ten times. And then I lopped off the first four chapters after deciding the book started in the wrong place. The opening scene in my final draft wasn’t even in the first draft. I added it because it foreshadowed the first dramatic event in the story.

I cut anything that smacked of telling or rewrote it in a way that “showed” the scene to the reader instead.

What did I learn? These are some of the “big picture” (macro) issues to look at when editing:

  • Pointless dialogue. Dialogue should either reveal something about the character, the relationship among characters, or move the story along. Asking about the weather or how the other person is doing doesn’t belong in a novel.
  • Unbalanced scenes. Readers get bored with scenes that consist exclusively of dialogue. The same with scenes that are non-stop narrative. Writers need to strike a balance among narrative, action, and dialogue. Raymond Obstfeld’s book, The Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes is a great resource on balance in scenes.
  • Subplots that don’t connect to the main plot. Fiction writing experts say the longer a subplot goes on without connecting to the main plot, the greater the chances the reader will lose interest in the subplot, the main plot or both. Bring the two together.
  • Unnecessary scenes. Ask yourself this: what does this scene achieve? Is it really necessary to the story? Does it add anything? If not, it has to go.
  • Research dumps. You’ve heard the admonition against info dumps. Research dumps are just as bad. You may conduct exhaustive research on how a nuclear submarine works, but you will quickly lose your readers if you describe it in every detail. Include only those details that are central to the story.
  • Fantastic coincidences. Dean Koontz warned against this in his book on writing. Here’s one: a guy has a crush on a girl in high school and always regrets he didn’t pursue it. Years later, he finds himself divorced. On a trip to China, he runs into his old crush from high school, they hit it off and get married. Not likely. That’s what the reader is likely to think.
  • Bad endings. This is a broad category that includes the following: So what? endings, Happily ever after endings, Too neat resolutions endings, didn’t you (main character) learn anything? endings.

Often the writer feels so strongly about his prose that he cannot let anything go. That’s when the editor has to step in. You may read this and think to yourself, ‘Wait a minute. I’m the writer. I’m in charge. I make the final decision.’ I respect that opinion, but as far as I’m concerned, the editor side of me is the boss. He makes the final decision.

This dynamic changes when you submit what you think is your final manuscript and your publisher tells you to make some changes. In those instances, your publisher is the boss, though you should stick up for yourself if you feel strongly about your work.

Are you a mean editor? When there’s a dispute between your writer and editor sides, which one wins out?

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An Editing Checklist

Beginning writers tend to underestimate the time and effort required to edit and revise their novels. I know I did. When a writer finishes that first draft, he might think the finish line is within sight. In reality, he isn’t even close to finishing the race. With that in mind, here’s a handy checklist:

  • Write your book. Keep in mind it’s a first draft. You don’t need to strive for perfection. Get the story down.
  • Put it aside for four to six weeks and work on a new project.
  • Do a self-edit and make revisions. Pay attention to inconsistencies in the story, characters. Focus on the theme. How well have you developed the theme? Is it too obvious or does it come out through the story, setting and the characters?
  • Check your revisions. Do a read-through as a reader.
  • Give your work-in-progress to a trusted critic. Your critic should be someone who recognizes quality fiction and can offer an objective, independent critique. Better yet, give it to a couple of critics.
  • Make revisions based on the critiques, but remember, you are the final arbiter. You know your story and your characters better than anyone else. If every critic wants you to change something and it doesn’t feel right to you, the final decision is yours.
  • Hire a professional book editor and a proofreader, if resources allow.
  • Evaluate the recommendations of your editor and revise accordingly.
  • Do a final read-through with a hyper-critical eye.
  • Start on your query letter.

How long does the editing process take? It depends on a number of factors, including the availability and willingness of outside critics to review various drafts. And they must be willing to adhere to some sort of timetable. This is where it gets dicey—asking others to sacrifice their time to serve your interests.

The writer must be willing to invest his own time and resources during the editing process. I did seven line edits of my first novel. Each round of line editing took six to eight hours. It can be exhausting, especially when you’ve edited your book four or five times already. The writer must be willing to put in the effort.

I actually enjoy editing almost as much as writing, but I’m weird that way.

If you don’t have access to a writers’ group or a trusted critic, there are online critique sites. Most require the writer to edit the work of others before the writer is able to submit his own work. If you have the resources, you can take your work directly to a book editor, but make sure you have thoroughly edited it first. Book editors charge by the hour and writers shouldn’t spend their money paying someone else to catch errors they should have caught.

Some writers who have the resources hire both an editor and a proofreader. It’s difficult for an editor to concentrate on story and characters and on proofreading at the same time. It’s a good investment if you can afford it.

With the growing popularity of self-publishing, it’s incumbent on authors to make every effort to make sure their novel is as polished as it can be before publishing it.

What is your editing process? Do you use a book editor? What are the qualities of a good book editor?

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