Welcome back to my series on how to edit your manuscript! This is where I suggest how to edit your manuscript in preparation for either self-publishing or querying.
Remember, there’s no one way to edit. If you’re already doing something that I’m not mentioning, or you do something differently, why not suggest it in the comments below?
This third week as about the things that are incredibly important, but a step down from plotting and big cuts. These are things that you will need to look for not only in the first draft, but in all subsequent ones, hints that are better taken onboard over time than ones you attempt to do all at once.
Without further ado, let’s get started on a few things that every author, at some point, is guilty of.
There is nothing you want less than characters that feel like, well, characters.
That means your characters must be internally consistent. They need to do things for a reason. Now, the reason can be something like boredom, the reason can be inner torment, the reason is that someone told them to and they don’t have a valid objection so they did it, okay fine, but there must be a reason. Much like in theater, characters must spend more time reacting than acting.
Whatever you do, the reason your characters do anything should not be because of plot. Ever. (Hermione forgetting the invisibility cloak in the Astronomy tower, I’m looking at you.)
This may mean you need to do some research. If your character is an abused person, make sure your character is acting like abused people do. Go through papers and studies, sure, but also read blog posts to hear real people using their own words to describe these situations. Draw on experiences you’ve had, but recognize they’re not universal. Every case is different, even if every case isn’t that different.
Motivations like “it seemed interesting” or “I was bored and horny” are fine so long as they fit the personality you have established. Anything is fine, really, so long as it’s consistent.
Your people should talk funny.
Repeat after me: your characters need to sound like real people. Imperfect grammar is part of that, colloquialisms are another, contractions a third. But mostly, your people must talk like people talk. That’s what makes them feel real.
The vast majority of people do not throw out million-dollar words twice a sentence. Yes, it is lovely to say that the clouds lowered on the horizon, but who actually does? Confine it to the narrator or make sure you’ve got the sort of character who can drop crap like that without batting an eye. And trust me, it’s not the poor street kid, or the moody teenager. To broadly paraphrase PG Wodehouse, “What the eff are you supposed to do when someone says ‘the stars are god’s daisy chain?’” Make fun of them, that’s what.
To remedy this, go to a room that’s away from others, but not so far away that they can’t hear you, and start reading your dialogue aloud. Are you cringing from saying it too loudly because your character just swore a lot, or because they said something that sounded really stupid to your ears, the sort of thing you wrote in your diary in middle school in a fit of rage over the injustice of math homework? Does your character sounds like he’s lecturing the reader? Does she sound super, super fake? Change it.
Would you tell us your character is going to the bathroom?
No, you wouldn’t, unless it’s really, really important. For example, your character is giving a drug test, or they have dysentery. Bathroom time is important then! But otherwise? For god’s sake, just don’t.
The same goes for anything else. I assume your character eats, breathes, sleeps. Briefly mention it if you feel it adds– “Breakfast had been hours ago, and hunger was making me cranky”—but otherwise, we’re fine. Seriously. Grocery store trips, bill paying, we don’t need to see those in detail.
Except…we sort of do.
I am far more impressed by a book that transitions by having someone’s checkbook balancing interrupted than someone being pulled out of their fluffy bubble bath. One person is real, the other is a slightly weird fantasy creature. Toss those details in whenever details are called for and don’t clash. I have personally never met anyone who stress-ate an entire tub of ice cream, but I’ve met plenty who take that extra serving of pasta when they’re lonely. Avoid clichés to find the truth.
There’s a lot of advice that would have you cut all that. “Erase anything not totally essential to the plot!” they cry.
Rather, I’d say pare it down to a sentence here or there. This stuff is flavor, the vanilla in the cake. You need it, we need it too. (“Or would you not rather have your precious little ingénue?” “Senora, no…”)
Stress is Stressful, and so should it be.
There are several authors I read where, though I love them to death, I think they’re awful at writing grief. Why?
Because all their tragic scenes are too short.
Sad scenes are hard. Let’s all get that out of our system now. Actually moving someone to tears is one of the most difficult things that you, as a writer, can do. Because the only thing worse than a sad scene that gets cut off? Is the one that drags on for too long.
Let me tell you right now, I doubt it’ll be too long. But they’re usually a bit truncated.
The trouble is that we don’t write in real time. In the time it takes for me to type out every action you use to sit down and watch TV, you’re halfway through a sitcom and I’m dragging woefully behind. So when you write a sad scene, the time it takes you to write it might make you feel that your scene is just right when actually it’s not nearly enough. Luckily, editing is the perfect place to fix that.
Read through the scene without making any changes. By the end of the scene, are you feeling sad? Tearful? Depressed? Or do your feelings stop at, “Gosh, this character sure is sad?” If the latter is the case, extend the scene and make a mental note to repeat the process during your next editing pass. Yes, I said future passes, why are you giving me that look?
Don’t kill your words for being words.
There are lists out there of words you should not use in your manuscript. And rather than being awful, horrible words like frock and coy and meaty (ugh) they’re innocent little things.
That. Said. Walked. Sat.
These lists would have you purge these words from your manuscript like fleas from a bed.
Like “Kill your darlings,” it’s not the advice that’s wrong, it’s how it’s applied. So I’m going to give you a metaphor to help you know when to start pruning words for simply being themselves.
Pretend your words are hyperactive six-year-olds the day before Christmas vacation. Do you lecture them to use their indoor voices? Or do you just keep them off the light fixtures?
Now the six-year-olds are your words again, and apply that philosophy by only going after the most grievous offenders; the rest will be fine.
As you read through your manuscript, you will naturally see trends. You will realize that you use the word big too much, or that everyone gets called a phony (Holden Caulfield, Jesus Christ expand your vocabulary.) Start noticing them, crossing them out, and substituting a new word or phrase for the tired ones.
On the next pass, you will automatically do the same with different words as they begin to stand out. And so on and so forth until things look pretty smooth.
Do not simply use a lists like I’ve described as a lawn-mower. You need said and sleep and face, not quizzed and slumbered and countenance, not unless that suits your voice and you have already used the simple words on the same page. Do not execute simplicity because a list tells you to. It’s a list and it doesn’t know your book.
Now, if you can do all that, if you can make your characters sound like actual people and cut the fluff without removing reality and if your stressful scenes raise your own bloodpressure and all the words seem evenly allotted…
…and your plotting is smooth and does not wander and your grammar and punctuation and spelling do not totally suck…
…are you done yet?
Next week will be all about how to know when you are done in my fourth and final installment on how to edit a manuscript.
Have any hints you want to share? Questions that need answering? Are you in the middle of editing and just want to say how you’re doing? Leave a comment below or give me a shout on my Facebook page.
Thanks for reading and see you next Monday!