Thursday, March 7, 2013

Self Publishing post 2-Revisions and Editing

I'm going to start this with emphasis on editing. I don't want anybody putting the cart before the horse and starting on the submission process before they have a fully edited book ready to go.

The first rule of Trade Publishing is the same as the first rule of Self-Publishing: NEVER SEND OUT ANYTHING THAT ISN'T FINISHED.

This means before you do ANYTHING with your book, it is fully written, revised, as polished as you can get it, and as near to flawless as it is possible for one person to make your book. Trust me. You don't want rejections because "the premise has promise but it would take too much work to publish it". Which I've gotten. (I'm mostly sure these are form rejections, but that doubt is always there)

But where on earth do you start with editing? What does editing mean? What's the most important thing to focus on?

Of course, there's another side to learning how to edit on your own: You don't get screwed by asking the wrong person for help.

I had no idea what I was doing when the time came to revise my first manuscript. I would say learning how to edit is a little bit like learning how to walk. You don't even have a concept of what you need to do, or what makes a good book good. You're just sitting there wondering what books you can use for reference and knowing somewhere on the bottom of your mind that no book can really help you, it's all on you.

And so I made the biggest mistake an author can make: I let somebody else help me edit the book. There are a few major experiences I've had on this publishing road that make me feel vaguely dirty, and the Editor was one of them. One of the big watchdog sites is Predators and Editors for a damn good reason. I had no clue what I was doing, I had no idea how to vet, or that vetting was needed, or that I should be checking a track record, or that maybe, just maybe, I shouldn't be trusting an "editor" who was living on his fucking boat and bumming his internet off the local boat club. The good news is, this time I wasn't out any money.

The bad news? We'd done awful things to my manuscript without addressing any of its issues. And I got way too many ass-pats in the process. And the worst news is, if we hadn't agreed on an art-for-editing trade I would have been out a lot of money. A. LOT. OF. MONEY. Editors often charge by the page, and The Book at the time was 600 pages long. (190,000 words, I shit you not)

And so after six months of fucking around, I was back to square one: a red pen, a pile of books on editing, and a manuscript that wouldn't fit on one ream of paper.

So this, then, is the advice I wish I'd gotten four years ago.

1. Everything is connected.

There's a question that floats around writing forums about once a month. That is "What is the most important part of a story". This implies that the different bits of a story--character development, plot, rythem, flow, the actual words on the acutual pages--are independent things that can be separated from the story and/or altered without affecting the main story itself. But that's like asking what the most important part of the human body is. The answer is: All of it.

How do you apply this? Are you familiar with the term "Mary Sue?" You probably are, if you hang out in writer's forums the way I do. But just in case you don't, a Mary Sue is an extraordinary character lacking equally extraordinary circumstances to justify her existence. A Mary Sue is an indicator of issues with not just character development, but of issues with every other thing in the book. Things like a lackluster plot, an insufficiently developed supporting cast, and your own insecurities.

Yeah. I went there. And I'll go into that more as things continue.

When you're editing, your first job is to identify problems with the narrative. Frequently these problems ARE NOT THE THING ITSELF. The thing (IE Mary Sue) is usually a symptom of an underlying issue you haven't addressed yet. Your job is to begin educating yourself in what the problematic things are, and how to fix them. When you fix them, the revisions you make in the manuscript and narrative often fix the most blatant surface problems.

Watch good movies, watch bad movies. Read good books, read really, really awful books. Try to figure out what makes a good book good, and a bad one "Kill with fire". Try to see how everything connects.

2. When in doubt, throw it out.

 You have to kill your darlings. Usually, this means characters.

I like writing about people. My favorite scene in Blue Ghosts was when I sat Casey, Marco, and the rest of the gang on the floor of Marco's mod shop and just let them talk. I did not know, for example, that Tim and Abbey would have that love/hate relationship, or that Ero was going to be a fucking psychopath, until after I let them bounce off each other for a couple pages. But that's kind of why I write and it's definiately why I read.

And that's why I usually solve most of my editing issues by killing and/or removing most of the cast. Becasue my cast? It gets big. And I'll find that I've got two or three characters filling in the same "role" in the story, and that they could easily all be one person, and I would stop having to introduce character after character after character rather than getting on with the story.

The same goes with everything else. When you have an issue with something in your story, your first question should not be "How do I fix this?" Your first question should be, "Can the story I want to tell survive without this element?" If the answer is no, start looking at ways to fix things. IF THE ANSWER IS YES THROW THE DAMNED THING OUT.

The best thing you can do as a writer is make a list of your cast, either in your head or on paper (preferably on paper) and make a note about what "role" they fill in the story. If you have two or more characters filling the same "role", you need to pare that down to one. If you have several similar scenes in the same book (IE Narcissus in Chain's revolving door of rescues) dump all but one of the similar scenes and revise. If you have to introduce more than new character per scene? Toss all but that one new character. 

Ask yourself what that scene is doing for the novel. Ask yourself why X is here and not Y. Spend your first edit trying to find things you can throw out. Be ruthless. Your readers will appreciate it, and you'll probably get another novel out of what you've tossed on the cutting room floor.

3. Words are important. Don't use them more than you have to.

You are not Ray Bradbury, or Robin McKinley. You are not Stephen King and (thank God in Heaven for this mercy) you are not Anne Rice.

Do not try to be them. And more importantly, don't try to use their words. Use your own.

My first draft of The Book was my attempt to be Ray Bradbury. I loved his halcyon green glaze, I read his poetry and my brain had tiny orgasms (Not catch and grab/but find and keep/ go panther-pawed where all the mined truths sleep. That is my favorite poem in the universe) and I wanted to write Just. Like. That. And so I wrote things that were fifty words longer than they should have been, wagging tails of adjectives that would have put a dog-show poodle to shame. And I had to go back through during the editing process and rip all of that back out. But then I was trying to be somebody else, and I'd have to go back in and rip all that out, too.

The Elements of Style is a book you should own multiple copies of RIGHT NOW. They say that if you can say it in three words DON'T USE SIX.  Figure out what you want to say, say it in as few words as you can, and then go back and take two or three more words out.

Your readers will thank you.

 4. Listen to your instincts. They don't lie.

I think my favorite part of editing The Book came early on, not too long after I met The Editor. It was, I think, the first time I excerted my control over The Book, because he got very mad at me for doing this and I didn't care.

There was an unresolved plot thread that I wound up having to tie up after the main character's story arc climaxed. Both the MC's climax and the book's climax were good and pulse pounding IMHO, but after the MC's climax had happened the book was emphatically done. Trying to get the energy and pacing back up to where they needed to be for the next scene was like dragging the bottom of a car across a ditch. I could hear the scraping every time I hit that scene. And I couldn't figure out what to do about it. I needed to tie up that lose thread, but I needed to tie up the main character's plot thread there as well.

And then I got the idea that fixed everything. Which was going to require an awful lot of work, but it did work. It solved the problem and it cut 2,000 words off the end of the manuscript.

This is a heart process, not a head process. When editing your brain will tell you that everything you've got is just spiffy, but your gut will be screaming NO IT IS NOT YOU IDIOT as loud as it possibly can. You'll get a headache, or eye strain, or become aware that your feet are cramping...or you'll groan and mutter "NOT THIS SCENE AGAIN" which is a big red flag that the chapter you are reading NEEDS TO GO AWAY NOW and you're just not willing to admit it. So a big part of editing is training yourself to listen to these red flags. Which is a lot harder than it sounds.

But if you're trucking along at a good pace and suddenly you feel vaguely nausious and have an overwhelming urge to go reorganize your sock drawer? You've just hit a big problem spot and you need to break out the red pen refils.

5. Your job is to fuck with the reader.

Oh, there are many nicer ways to say that, but none of them are quite so true. And let's be honest with ourselves, okay? If you don't have it that concrete going in? The product won't be as good coming out.

This isn't about you. This isn't about how you feel. This isn't about how much you like writing. This is about taking the reader's mind, tying it into little tiny pretzles, and then letting them close the book with a feeling of satisfaction and/or the violent urge to buy the next book NOW. 

Good storytelling is a subconsious art form. You distract the reader with the plot and you shove major elements of the plot and climax into thier subconsious like you're shoving notes under a locked door. You flat out lie to the reader. You learn how to use visual and spoken cues to develop a character AND YOU USE THEM. You show. You don't tell. Your first thought when considering a scene should not be "how good is this scene?" It should be "How is this scene going to affect the reader's perception of X, and is that a good thing when you factor Y into the account? And can I make them cry?" Your first thought, second thought, third thought, last thought, should be how the reader is going to see your book. Because from the first word to the last sentence your book will be manipulating their mind. And if you do not address every. single. little. thing purposefully? They're going to find other things that you didn't mean to put in there.

Stephenie Meyer didn't intend for Bella Swan to be a whiny spoiled brat, but she also didn't watch her character introductions and interactions as much as she could have. She wasn't trying to get HER image of Bella into the reader's head fast enough, and so a spoiled rotten brat is what we got.

The first thing you do with the first word is develop something you want the reader to feel. Introduce characters by packing their positive qualities into the first few moments. Have their first sentence be something that defines their character. The first moments a character spend in a new location should be charged with atmosphere and detail. Because if you don't do this? The reader is going to do it on its own. I say character development should begin with the first word, not because it is an ideal, but because that's when it does start. The reader is taking every word and storing it up to form the picture of your character, and if it's not something you intended as a positive it's probably going to be something negative.

Your goal should be to write so well that when your book ends on a cliffhanger, the reader throws the book across the room screaming "Fuck you author" at the top of their lungs, and then immediately runs out to get the next book, because they have to know what happens next. And the only way to do that is to polish until it is perfect and make sure that you've done every little manipulative thing you can to make your book a good one.

When you've trained your mind to consider every word, including words like "a, and, it, is, said, the" and "then", for its impact on the reader? You've finally started to learn how to edit.

It's down and dirty, but when it's done right the experience can be oh, so very pretty.  


  1. That is a very insightful article on the self-editing process. Would you mind if I shared it with my writing group? It's aimed at where some of them are at right now.

    1. Go right on and share. Education is what this post is here for.