Okay, last week was all about how to start editing; this week is the nitty-gritty as I show you how to edit your manuscript.
Remember, editing is one of those no-right-no-wrong processes. You might have a technique that differs vastly from mine, and that’s fine. But if you don’t have a clue, give this a try and see what happens.
You have your manuscript printed out, you have a comfy chair and a trusty pen. You know what length your novel should be versus where it is, and you understand that you are currently the best writer you’ve ever been, therefore well-qualified to tell past writer-self to sit down and shut up.
I’ll break down what you are fixing into parts.
Check your grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
I am not expecting you to be a whiz at any of those. Contrary to what some people would have you think, I don’t think you need to be perfect at any of those to publish for the simple reason that you will be hiring a professional copy-editor or going through a traditional publishing house that will hire the editor for you, hmm? (Yes, you are. Or you’d better be.) However, your writing should be reasonable.
That is to say, if you see a missed period, fix it (or take a pregnancy test). Watch for homonyms, for weird comma use. If you don’t understand apostrophes, now’s the time to look them up. Basically, make it readable to other human beings.
This should not take up a good deal of your time. If it does, may I gently suggest checking out a grammar manual from the library and spending some time with it? Or at least next time, before printing your manuscript, send it through the spell-checker and grammar-checker on Word. It’s not perfect, but it’ll help.
Grammar, spelling, and punctuation are what everyone thinks of when they think of editing. They are also the least of what you will be doing.
Pay Attention to the Pacing.
Events should be laid out evenly. To do this, I’m afraid I have no easy tricks to offer; I believe it is an instinctual thing. You will hear me make very few sweeping pronouncements about “how to do it right” on this blog, but hear one now: that instinct is developed from reading. If you’ve never read much, go do it now. Without reading, you cannot write. Period.
That said, you should be able to split your scenes into three types: places of dense action, conversation, and internal thoughts and non-exciting movement. Try to balance them. No good book is pure fight scenes, nor can it be nothing but talking. Thrillers have just as much action as romances; literary is not purely monologue.
Either make a mental note of what each scene is or keep physical log. If you realize that you have far more of one than another, find a way to change the scales. Too much action? Substitute in some introspection. Turn overly-long monologues into conversations. If they talk too much, make them do the thing they’re talking about instead.
Keep in mind pacing is not the same as time passing in your manuscript’s universe. Pacing is merely the flow of highs and lows. It should feel natural, and should build throughout the book to the final pages, where it crescendos and crashes.
Cut the Crap
Ever heard the phrase, “Kill your darlings”? This is both the best and worse advice out there. Best because it’s true, worst because some people seem to dedicate their lives to misinterpreting it.
“Kill your darlings” simply means: if a scene doesn’t forward the plot, get rid of it.
Or, if it is excessive for what it is, pare it down.
Sometimes this is easy. You don’t spend a chapter to tell us your character’s dreams every time he goes to sleep, you thankfully do not expect us to watch her go to the store. Simple, easy, got it.
Okay, now what about that really funny dialogue between the two guards where they joke about what happened last year at the Yule festival? Surely you can’t cut that! It’s funny!
This is what you should ask yourself: if I took out this scene, would I screw myself over in the rest of the book? If you answered no, away it goes.
And if that was all the simpler it was, we’d all be experts. The problem is, you like that scene. You love it, you want to keep it, and that’s why the advice is “Kill your darlings,” not “Kill the crap you are indifferent to.” The indifferent stuff is the easy part—you don’t bargain for it. But that lovely scene where she surveys her wardrobe wondering what to wear for tonight? You’re going to start going, “Well, really it’s essential, because it sets the stage, it tells us who she is, it’s all about the process she uses which tells us what she’s going to do next.”
Now, you might be right, so do this: copy the scene and paste it into a document marked “Manuscript extras.” If, fifteen pages down the line, you find yourself realizing that if you don’t explain how Monica’s blue sweater brings back feelings from second grade connected to how she met Elise and why she deeply hates her and is plotting to murder her, then fine, go put it back in. But if you never have that realization? In the “Extras” document it stays.
Use this method; it works. How do I know?
Because I cut an entire point of view character that way. In four hours, I’d not only put all his chapters into a new file, I’d gone through and repaired every single scene where we needed something that he originally told us. Just like that, 30,000 words gone, all begun as an experiment to see if I’d miss him. Turns out I didn’t.
Neither will you. You will cut those scenes, prune their echoes, and realize, hey, you never needed them in the first place! Yes, it hurts. You’ll get over it, pinky promise.
So to sum up what I talked about today, the three main things you do on your first edit are: pay attention to grammar, smooth your pacing, and cut extraneous crap.
But I said first edit, and main things. There’s more?
Of course there is! This is editing; there always is. Next week we’ll talk about cutting things that aren’t whole scenes, the ins and outs of patrolling your word usage, and making sure your characters are okay.
If you haven’t read last week’s post on getting started, now’s a great time to check it out. Or have a look at my post about the importance of hiring a professional copy-editor.
Any questions about the process? Want to share a tip? Comment below or ask me on Twitter!
And before I forget, this Wednesday I will be posting my recently published short story “The Foreigner’s Loneliness,” so be sure to read it. Thanks and see you then!