Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Editing yourself, Part Two

Barbara here. Two weeks ago I posted a blog describing my own, very personal process to editing once I've typed “The End” on the soggy, barely coherent 90,000-word mess that constitutes my first draft. Because I'm basically a pantser, there are a lot of plot holes, character inconsistencies, and dropped threads to be fixed up before the book makes much sense at all, and this macro-editing has to be addressed first. That lengthy, unwieldy, and challenging process was the subject of June 1st's blog.

This week's blog is about fine-tuning. I call it micro-editing, because this is the point where I examine the text page by page, line by line, and word by word. Naturally, because plot holes can trip you up in the most unlikely places, I keep an eye out for any remaining big-picture problems, but I am mainly concerned here with the power, precision, and economy of my prose.

Aline's Monday post about the difference between printed and on-screen reading is relevant here. To get the big picture of my novel, I always have to print it out to read and to make my changes in pen on the hard copy. I then transcribe those changes back onto computer and reprint it for the second go-around, and the third, etc. I do some tightening and fine-tuning as well during this process if the problem leaps out at me (if, for example, I use the same word three times in one paragraph) but my mind is on bigger things.

Once I have a fairly clean, final “big picture” copy, I read it through on the screen. As Aline says, the screen focuses on details without the distraction of the whole, and so I can examine my work one sentence at a time. I check for redundancies and superfluous words, for those silly extra adverbs and adjectives, for clumsy constructions and words that clang when read together. I look for length of sentence to ensure variety, chopping some up and combining others. Language should create a rhythm that draws the reader on rather than stopping them short.

Also in this micro-editing, I look at how effectively and vividly my words create images. I bear in mind the key points to good writing; show, don't tell, describe like a painter, not a photographer, remember the five senses. A few evocative, defining details will capture a character and setting far better than an exhaustive description. All this fine-tuning is done directly on the screen.

Once the manuscript is the best I think I can make it, I let it sit for as long as I can, which is sometimes only a few days, so that I have relatively fresh eyes for my last read-through. In hard copy. A final polishing, and it is ready for my beta readers. The advantages and disadvantages of critiquing groups is a topic in itself, but the group I use—my good friends The Ladies Killing Circle—are all experienced writers with novel series and/ or short stories of their own, and quite a lot of practice with an editor's pen. Because we have worked together a long time, we trust each other to be both honest and helpful, and I know that each brings a different perspective to the table. Some catch the character weaknesses, others the overall "feel" of the book, others the logic, the language, etc.

Each sends me back a list of comments, all of which I take seriously as I weigh their value and consider whether and how to address them. All writers, but particularly mystery writers, need objective input because, after a dozen or so rewrites, we are too close to the story. We don't know whether the ending is too obvious, the clues too obscure, the motives clearly enough explained, etc. Having beta readers who are skilled as both writers and readers, but also respect your style and don't try to rewrite your book for you, can strengthen your story tremendously.

By the end of this intensive process, what started as an incoherent muddle should be ready for the editor. Hopefully most of the hard work is already done.

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