Steps to Editing

Last week we discussed revision, so today’s blog post is covering editing. Revise first then edit because in revision you may add entire scenes or completely delete some, and if you edit first, you’ll be wasting your time and have to do it over again.

By now you should have already revised a few times, and you’ve reread your manuscript multiple times. You’re likely tired of looking at it and can’t find anything wrong with it, but you know it’s not perfect. Now you think fresh eyes should look at it, so you call for a beta reader or ask someone you trust to be honest and has a good grasp on English to read it for you and give you feed back. However, there’s something you need to do before sending it to anyone.

One of the last things I said about revision was making sure every scene and chapter is absolutely necessary for the story and advances the plot. Now, this is where revision and editing almost seem to be one and the same. Once you’ve determined that every chapter you have in your story is necessary, it’s time to break it down even further. Is every paragraph necessary? Is every sentence essential? Is every word crucial? You should know why each word is included in the story. If you can take it out and the story still makes sense, then it’s insignificant to the overall story and likely redundant.

Determining this prior to allowing anyone to see the story means you have a firm grasp as to why this happened and not that. Once I let someone read a story of mine, and she came to a part when Lorrek revealed how he knew Mordora’s secret. My beta reader said the reader should see Mordora’s surprise in that moment, and it would have been an easy fix, but I explained the pace of the story and how that moment was focused on Lorrek—not Mordora. Lorrek already knew she would be surprised, so he didn’t have to see it, and he was giving her a chance to recover before turning around to face her. The reader catches all this by his attitude but can tell by Mordora’s guarded responses that she was unnerved but tried to pretend otherwise. This is how I wanted the scene to unfold, and my beta reader backed down when I explained to her the fundamentals of that moment. I have found most people will back down when they realize you have thoroughly thought through everything. Does this mean you don’t ever need to consider what they say? No. Always consider what anyone says because it might be a better idea, but if you disagree with the idea, then at least you know where you can stand. Some people might insist you change it to their preference, but be wary of those people.

So before you let anyone read it, you need to know why you wrote everything you did—everything. Why is this editing and not revision? Because revision works more on a larger scale whereas editing is more like looking at your story through a microscope. However, as I said, this is where the two stages collide. Some may call it revision, others might say it’s editing, but it’s the transition process to stricter editing.

Now, one more thing you should do prior to letting new eyes see your story. Go back through it and view the sentence structure with critical eyes. Are you using proper grammar and punctuation? If there are grammar and punctuation rules you don’t fully grasp, now is a good time to master those by either looking it up online or contacting those who know the rules and explain them well enough. This could be a family member, a friend, or online writing friend, or writing group. There is no shame in asking for clarification. We live in the era of the Internet, and that is a wonderful tool. Writers should be supportive of one another and helpful, so if you encounter unpleasant responses and are discouraged and intimidated, I’m sorry for experience. Just know no all writers are like that.

So go back through your story and look at grammar and punctuation and any form of redundancy you might find. You want your writing to be tight. For instance, writing ‘young boy’ is redundant because boys are always young. Or even ‘looked up at the sky’ is repetitive because the sky is always ‘up’—unless you’re upside down in which case it’s good to clarify. Or ‘black darkness’—darkness is always black. To write more concisely, consider purchasing the book ‘Write Tight’ by William Brohaugh, which you can purchase on Amazon here. It’s an easy read and a short book, and at the end of the book it contains a list of redundant phrases that will make you laugh because it’s common sense if you really think about it.

With editing, remember, regard each paragraph, sentence, and word, and make sure they are absolutely necessary to the story. Then dig deeper to consider your use of grammar, punctuation, as well as locating any redundancy in your story. And yes, you may go back and forth between editing and revising because you might have realized during the editing process that you have a massive plot hole you need to fix, so you shift gears and revise. That is all right.

Also, every time you are changing the draft drastically, create a new document, and copy and paste your manuscript, and move everything to that new document. This way you don’t lose anything you might like in the original as you’re redoing things.

NOTE: As you’re going through all of this so very carefully, keep in mind the dialogue is an entirely separate creature. Punctuation might be different there, and word usage might be repetitive or grammatically wrong because that is how the character might speak. Am I justifying people speaking wrong? No—I hate it when I hear it, but unless you have a character who can correct the verbally erring character, if that’s how the character speaks, then you might have to let it go. Simply make sure it’s because the speech pattern of that character rather than an error on your part.

Also, you might absolutely love what you’ve written and think it’s perfect, and therefore you can justify everything you’ve written, but keep an open mind. In another post I will go into more detail of the etiquette of beta reading and receiving feedback and how to apply it to your work, but for now I wanted to make clear that I am not promoting hardheadedness and absolute stubbornness when multiple people tell the same writer there is something wrong with their story. If that many people say the same thing (howbeit vaguely at times), you should seriously consider what they’re saying—not because everyone’s ganging up on you, but because there is something wrong that even they might not be able to put their finger on but can sense. It is your job to knuckle down and be objective as you try to determine the source of the problem.

Next week we’ll discuss an approach to proofreading.

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A Method of Revision

Last Saturday I hosted a Facebook event discussing approaches to revision, editing, and proofreading. If you were unable to attend, I will dedicate the next few posts to discuss those three different topics. Before you send your work to any editor, agent, or publisher, it is important to go through the steps of revision, editing, and proofreading. “But that’s what editors are for!” Yes and no. Editors edit to the standard of the market, but if you do everything in your ability to make their work easier, they will love you. Besides, it is the responsibility of a writer to improve their own work and not depend on others until absolutely necessary.

First up is revision.

When I decided to attend university, I did so with one reason in mind: learn how to revise and properly edit. Several of my classes were workshops where I had to evaluate others’ work and have my own work assessed. Although the class itself didn’t teach a method on critiquing, I learned my style of critiquing. By learning how to assist others, I discovered how to see the faults in my own writing and to address them.

With revision, it’s about gut feeling. First thing you need to do is reread what you wrote. Don’t try to fix anything during the initial reread. However, if something doesn’t feel right, highlight it, and make a note of what you think your initial gut feeling on the matter. I’m currently rereading the fourth book in my historical fiction series, and notes look something like this:

…In the council hall Baldwin conversed (NOTE: suddenly Baldwin is in the council hall when he was just on the wall?) with his war council over the finer points of the plan when a trumpet sounded.

It’s as simple fix that requires adding a few lines to clarify the transition of the scene without making Baldwin appear to be a teleporter in the medieval times, but I’m not focusing on fixing the problem right now. I am trying to get an overarching view of the story.

When rereading, ask yourself questions. When you come across a part that makes you think, “Wait—what?” Then record your puzzlement. Example taken from my book:

Even Countess Agnes (NOTE: was Agnes here all this time? Insert her presence earlier) gave her son a strange look along with all the other war council members, and she wasn’t in the discussion.

Now, when you reread everything and took notes, open a new document. Title it something so you can differentiate between the two drafts. Since I tend to write book series, each series gets it own folder, and within the folder, each book gets its own folder, so I title my drafts something like, 3Draft4thBook. That way when I go to that book’s folder, I can just look at the number of documents I have saved there and the numbers and immediately tell how many drafts I have and pick the latest one instead of hunting down the most current one in a file containing 25 different drafts of the same book.

Once you have the new document open and ready to go, select from the beginning all the way down to your first note. Copy that then paste it into the new doc. Then tackle the problem that you had noted. Doing it in chucks like this helps you not feel so overwhelmed when your story is 100-600 pages long, and you also don’t have to worry about messing up or losing any sentences you liked because you always have the original document elsewhere.

What happens if the note I made tells me I need to insert a scene earlier on?” Skim through your draft and determine where would be the best place to insert such a scene if you haven’t determined it already. This can be difficult especially if your scenes are tightly knit together, but it’s worth loosening a few knots to make the story better. However, instead of trying to untangle that mess and make it work immediately, open yet another document. Here, just write that scene out unrestricted as you imagine it. Once it’s written, take it back to where it should go in the novel and smooth out the transitions If the new scene isn’t working but is causing even more problems, consider removing it. This is when revising feels a lot like being a surgeon—opening parts up to arrange, insert, or remove different parts.

During revising, organization is key. If your story is over a hundred pages, you are dealing with a leviathan, so you need to keep track of what you’re doing and take a methodical approach. Otherwise, you can get overwhelmed, and you don’t know if you’re making any progress at all because it feels like nothing has changed. It’s better to take smaller steps and make definite progress rather than take everything in running strides while making little or no absolute progress.

Is revision the time I should work on improving the quality of my writing?” No—actually, it’s not. Okay, yes you can, but that is what the Playground Experience is for. If you aren’t confident in your own writing ability by the time you have a story you want to publish, then you should go back and study it closely and ask yourself, “Why am I not happy with it?” You might be naturally insecure and require a lot of outside approval on your work before you’re confident in your writing ability, but it does need to come from within. You need to have written the best you could at that time as I said in my previous post, and you need to know that you did your best instead of just skimming over the description, dodging the dialogue, brushing over the character development, and not really diving into the heart and soul of the plot of the story. If you know you gave it your all, and you know you didn’t try to take the easy way out, then be confident. Your writing (and mine!) will always need improvement. The writing style of every single writer in the world must continue to improve, morph, and develop. Otherwise, it becomes old, dull, and boring, and you always want life in your writing, and the only way to live is to continue exploring and learning.

So should you focus on the quality of your writing during revision? If you’re unhappy with a scene and think you can write it better, then rewrite it. If you’re uncertain about a scene and think you can write it better, then rewrite it. If you’re uncertain about a scene but don’t know if you can write it better, try rewriting it but don’t lose the original version of the scene. All these rewrites should be in an altogether different document than the actual draft.

One final note because this links with editing, which we will discuss in more detail next week. As you’re revising, determine if each chapter is important. Does each scene or chapter advance the plot? What is the reason for each one? If you were to take out one chapter, would the story be crippled and limp along, or would it run smoothly even in the absence of that chapter? Every chapter and every scene must serve a distinct purpose for the story and not merely ‘character development’. This is why developing character throughout the story is better than devoting a single chapter just for character development. It’s like this, if Hancock hadn’t asked Katerina to look into the situation about Armistead, Katerina wouldn’t have gone to Zizka. If she didn’t go to Zizka, Zizka wouldn’t have told Draven to fix the situation, and if Draven didn’t send people to fix it, the reader wouldn’t have found out what was really happening, and so on and so forth. Every scene builds upon the last, and the story is constantly moving forward. If you have this, the story structure will be very tight and concise, and that is what you want.

So with revision, always reread your work first, take notes, then tackle it one section at a time. You may have to remove parts of the story, insert new parts, or arrange parts altogether. Be patient with yourself, and make sure each chapter and each scene moves the story forward.

Now, there are different ways to approach revision, but this is one way. Perhaps you will find it helpful. Next week we’ll discuss editing.

Always Try To Write Your Best

I’ve discovered one unchanging fact about writing: it gets more fun the more you do it. Every time you write, it should be your best piece. You should only ever have one worry as you write it, “How am I ever going to top this?” But as quickly as you think that, dismiss it and keep on writing—laugh like a manic as you word the perfect lines and twist the events flawless to your plan.

If you give it your all, it won’t let you down. It will keep you engaged, and it will amaze you—if only given the chance.

I’ve heard writers say how it’s their goal in life to write ‘this specific story’ and that’s it. Once they write it, they would have reached their lifelong goal and their calling as a writer is over. Some reason it reminds me a lot of marriage—some people think all will be perfect and complete once they’re married, and they live their entire single life trying to find The One, and once they’re married they’re left holding the pieces and having no clue what to do from there.

To those writers to tell me that, I look at them and think, “They won’t influence the world of writing much. Their single book probably won’t stand the test of time. It’ll be lost and forgotten in the volumes and volumes of books.” This is not a concern of mine. If that is all they wish to do, that’s their business.

However, if you long to be a real writer—one who turns out lots of books every year—you need to think differently. View every book as an opportunity to get better at some aspect of writing.

For me, for the longest time I wanted to perfect a readable and enjoyable form of description and dialogue. Once I did that, I wanted to capture the essence of a unique character and portray them accurately on paper. More recently I’ve been trying to perfect the antagonist and make them realistic so that the reader can sympathize with them and maybe even view them as the protagonist. Another time I decided to see what happens with a huge cast of characters without any getting cast aside.

Sure, I haven’t perfected all of it, but because I write with that in mind rather than trying to write the most epic story of all times, the story always outdoes itself, and I’m always left to wonder, “How am I ever going to top this?” But I don’t worry about it. I just keep writing, and it keeps surprising me.

Always try to write the best you can, but keep in mind that the best will not be perfect (revision and editing are mandatory). Once you finish it then go back to it, you might groan and say, “I can’t believe I wrote that!” However, at that specific time in your life, with everything you were encountering outside of writing, it was truly the best you could have written. So keep that in mind, and do the best you can. Always try to keep writing fun for yourself because if it’s fun for you, it’ll be fun for your readers to read. 

New Project Writer’s Block

New Project Writer’s Block—what is that? It’s after you completed your latest project, and after you’ve celebrated such an accomplishment, but you don’t want to go back immediately and revise because you want to put a little distance between that piece of work and yourself. Instead you want to begin a new project. Something fresh—something exciting! Now is the time to put all those story ideas you got while writing your other project to good use!

If only you could remember them.

If only they were half as interesting now as they were when you originally got the idea.

Now you’ve opened a new document and find yourself staring at a blank page and blinking cursor. All those ideas you had back then don’t seem so enticing anymore. So you go back through your older files to find any story you might have left unfinished. Maybe you’ll be prompted to finish it now.

But still, you find yourself uninspired to write—unmotivated. If you had written every day from beginning to end of your last story, you probably feel like you ran a marathon and deserve a break from writing.

Now, this is where the danger of this Writer’s Block lies. The ‘New Project’ Writer’s Block can last a week, a month, a year, or even several years! How does this happen? Let’s break it down.

  1. Completed project means you deserve a break
  2. Enormous mental strain to build a new story/world/cast of characters is wearisome
  3. Uncertainty of which story to write next makes you indecisive and leery

All of these tie closely with one another. If you’ve completed a story, you don’t feel like diving headlong into another mess of conflicts to sort out through the process of writing. You don’t feel like discovering new characters, their personalities, habits, backgrounds, and their involvement with other characters. Even if you’re working on a sequel, restarting the writing engine with a new plot is tiresome. And when you’re tired, you’re not motivated or inspired to write.

Now, just because you’re not inspired to write, does that give you the excuse not to write? Say you take a break. What happens to your writing skills if this Writer’s Block drags on for a year or so? Will you be as sharp and on the ball as you would have been if you kept waiting every day?

“But what am I supposed to write if I don’t feel like writing?” Something—anything—whatever you can think of. It could be a journal entry or a poem, or you could try writing out one of those ideas you got while writing your other story. It might fall flat, but you might discover a character there or a unique plot twist you could use in another story. Go back to the ‘Playground Experience’ and focus on perfecting specific elements of your writing. It’s like having a toolbox. You might not need all the tools, but you want to make sure they don’t rust and dull from lack of use, so sharpen them, polish them. Write a one-shot specifically on creating a relatable antagonist. You never know—it might spark a fantastic idea, and you’re off writing a story again.

Ideas come from anywhere. That is why you have to explore and seek out new ideas, new concepts, new angles to old ideas.

In May 2013 I completed writing my medieval fantasy story. I had been writing 2,000 words a day since I got the idea back in January 2013. Five months later I was really worn out from that marathon of writing. Now, in June 2014 I finally discovered my next story and have been faithfully writing it. However, between May 2013 and June 2014—that’s a little over a year! What did I do in the meanwhile? Wrote—every day. I co-wrote numerous stories with writer friends just for the fun of it. Revised older work. I tried out new ideas hoping it would lead to my next novel. I kept falling flat on my face, but I pushed myself up and told myself, “Write at least 500 words a day—1,000 or 2,000 is preferable.” I didn’t write because I feared not to write. I just knew that if I didn’t write, I’d become irritable to be around. Writing is my way to express myself, my way to stay sane and to understand everything I encounter in life. I didn’t worry about beginning something I couldn’t finish because I knew it would come together in the proper time.

With any form of Writer’s Block but especially the New Project Writer’s Block, real life tends to get in the way, and we may be tempted to use this to justify not writing. Is this all right to do? No. If you’re a writer, you will write—maybe not a lot. You probably won’t like everything you write, but you will write.

Here’s an example of Real Life getting in the way—just to show you I can relate to the struggle. Immediately after I finished my medieval fantasy novel in May 2013, my mom broke her arm in June 2013, and the very next day my sister with her three small children came to visit from England for the summer. That weekend my favorite cat had her first litter of kittens, and the next week my sister’s cat had kittens too. So we had two cats, eight kittens, three small kids, and somebody with a broken arm all in the house. The next week, my mom had surgery on her arm, and I was asked to stay overnight with her instead of my dad staying. On top of this, a good friend of mine had her first baby, but she was sick afterwards, so I was worried about her. Then my sister-in-law was also pregnant and had several false alarms which included me driving two hours to their place to drop off their other son from visiting with us only to be asked, once more unexpectedly, to stay the night with them in case my sister-in-law went into labor that night because they wanted me to watch their son. Then I had to paint and then repaint a room to prepare it for even more guests from England and help a sister pack up and move out of state. At last my sister-in-law had her baby weeks later, and I had to spend the night at their place again, and then finally everything calmed down by September.

This is what it’s like when Real Life interrupts. At times like this, it’s tempting to not write because it’s simply easier that way, but I knew I needed some form of normalcy in my life during this chaos. I brought my laptop or my Alphasmart NEO with me at all times, so I could write. While in the waiting room waiting for my mom’s surgery, I was the only calm and patient one in the room because I was co-writing with a friend. I was able to take everything in stride because I had taken the time to clear my mind, taken the time to see everything from the bigger picture like a story, and from the viewpoint I was able to remain calm.

Regardless of all this, did I get frustrated and discouraged due to the New Project Writer’s Block? Yes—plenty of times. I felt worthless as a writer because I couldn’t focus on any one project, and all the projects I was working on kept stalling. I was worried I wouldn’t find a new story that would propel itself onward with me hanging on for dear life to write it all. But then pieces started coming together—pieces from old, completely unrelated stories began to fit together to form this new idea, and then it took off, and that’s what I’ve been writing these last few months with no end in sight really.

Is there a way to prevent this New Project Writer’s Block? Well, I have a theory, but I have yet to get it to work for me. Maybe it’ll work for you. As you near the end of your massive project, before you complete it, determine what you will write next and prepare it. That way, once you’ve finished the other story, you can jump right into that one (maybe giving yourself a little break if you want). This hasn’t worked for me yet because I find myself unable to work intensely on one project while simultaneously outlining and world-building an entirely new endeavor. That is a lot of mental work, and you risk losing interest in your immediate story because the new one sounds much more enticing. You don’t want that. The readers can sense that in your work. That is why you must dedicate time to each story.

So, is there a solution? Again, if we had some kind of magic solution to any form of Writer’s Block, it wouldn’t be a problem for us anymore. The solution is unique to each writer and your situation. However, you need to determine for yourself what kind of writer you will be. Some have tried to write every day but find they can’t stick to it and end up loathing everything they write. To be honest, it’s hard for me to comprehend that, but I know it is a true struggle for some writers, and I respect that. However, be consistent with your writing if possible. If you have to go back and write fan fiction just to get through the dry spell of ideas, that is fine (write fan fiction for your own stories if you want. That’s always fun to do).

The key to overcoming Writer’s Block is determining exactly where you are in life and writing, recognize it for what it is, keep your imagination engaged, bounce ideas around with friends, and try to write something every day. What you write doesn’t have to be for anyone else’s eyes but your own. It can be random sentences in a notebook, a paragraph, a poem, a song, maybe even the rough sketch of an idea or an outline or even dreams you’ve dreamt. It can be a short story or a fan fiction story or something you co-write with someone. It can be a full novel or even a screenplay. And it can change from day-to-day until a story seizes your mind and refuses to let you go until you’ve penned it.

“What if that never happens, Kelly? What if a story never grabs a hold of me like that?” I wish I knew the answer to that, but all I can say is I’ve felt the same fear before, but a story always came. I just had to be patient for it. In the meanwhile though, you might need to evaluate why you write. If you know that, if you can lay hold on that, then nothing will tear it from you, and you will write.

This may not have given you the answers you were looking for, but maybe it gave you some hope. Keep daydreaming stories, keep listening and watching for inspiration every day around you, and keep writing. Turn that Writer’s Block into a steppingstone to your next great adventure!