Editing 101

I think one of the skills all writers need to have is the ability to edit their own work. This isn’t to replace professional editors, freelancers, or your critique partner. It’s to help them help you better. Because when you’re trying to help someone, little things really add up and get in the way. For example, and the most obvious one, grammar mistakes. An occasional mistake is understandable, but every single line? No. It is not time well spent for your CP or editor to have to stop every three minutes to fix things you should have already fixed yourself. The only time it’s okay is when it’s just your CP and it’s first draft material and you really need to know if something is working or not.

There are many benefits to being able to do this yourself, but I will only list one: in cases where you HAVE to depend on yourself because you can’t find anyone (or they’ve flaked on you), the thought of sharing your work paralyzes you to the point you can’t function, or you’re a starving artist and editors cost money, which you have none. People like this especially need to know how to aim a wide-scope critical eye on their work. Because they have no one else to do it for them. After all, you can’t wait around forever.

This excerpt is from novel #9 Dark was the Night. Chapter 2, but should have been Chapter 1. It was the last novel I wrote before I figured out why I sucked so bad and started working so hard to remedy my flaws. I edited this extensively, but I badly needed to rewrite it from scratch, I just didn’t know that at the time. I wanted to use an even more horrible example, but I’m too lazy to type something up and the purpose of this is to show you awesome folks how I rip my work apart. I can find help now if I really need it, but I couldn’t in the past. So, maybe it seems mean. But if anyone can beat me up, it’s me because at the end of the night, I think I’m awesome. ^_^

Raika hurried into Lincoln High under the pouring rain. She closed the umbrella and carefully shook out the excess water before hanging it in her locker.  Here would be a good time to add some descriptive details to ground the reader in the scene. Right now, this girl could be in any high school in the world. There’s no sense of what time of day it is, what kind of school it is, or even if she’s alone in the hallway or not. Two girls,It really isn’t necessary to say this, we can tell their genders by their names. her friends Connie Davis and Pauline Newgrass, ran up to her screaming.
          “How was it?”
          “How much fun did you have?”
          “What was it like working with Bruce Waverly? Is he even cuter in person?”
          “Did you hang out with him a lot?”
This is what I call “talking head” syndrome. It actually works for this part of the scene because it gives the sense that they are talking at the same time and bombarding her with questions, so we’ll leave this alone. 
          Raika held up her hands to silence them. “You guys, I just got back, like this is an example of author intrusion. I happen to say “like” a lot in real life. Raika isn’t as ditzy as me, so it’s really not necessary for her to say “like” here. this morning.”
          “Well?” Connie blinked at her expectantly. “You can’t keep us hanging. We’ve been waiting months!” Okay, so Raika has been gone.
          “It was great,” Raika said casually.Really don’t need this adverb here. It’s obvious from what’s she’s saying that she’s glossing over the what they really want her to talk about.“I had fun. The weather over there was really nice for this time of year.”
          “Raika!” Pauline stomped her foot. “Nobody cares about the weather. What about Bruce?”
          Raika rolled her eyes. “Yes, I hung out with Bruce. But he’s not at all cute. He is the biggest jerk and conceited and arrogant. And selfish. And his muscles are way too big. They’re like like again all massive. It was kind of scary.”
          Connie laughed and flipped her blond curls over her shoulder as they walked down the empty hallway to class. Now I mention the hallway is empty. Should have mentioned that before. “He sounds wonderful!” At this point, I’m noticing an overuse of exclamation points. Stop it.
          Raika sat down and pulled out a notebook. “Polly, can I borrow your notes?” What notes? This is very generic. But the good thing about this sentence is that we learn Raika calls Pauline “Polly.” (Which is a horrible name, but that’s irrelevant.)
          Pauline rummaged through her bag and pulled out a large binder. “I made copies for you.” Still very generic. And more talking head syndrome. Only this time, we need to fix it. We don’t know what class they’re in, what the classroom looks like, what subject Raika is getting notes on. WHY she’s getting notes in the first place. Yes, she’s been gone, but WHERE? Also, while I think it’s obvious from this that Polly is smarter than Connie (because I wrote it), that is not in any way, shape, or form clear. I know this because I haven’t given the reader ANYTHING to go on. We don’t know what she looks like and so far her “voice” is almost identical to Connie’s – they could be the same person. We can’t tell them apart. And this is a characterization issue and a big reason why sometimes getting feedback on a first draft is a good move to make.
          “Thanks, you’re a princess.”
          “Uh, Raika, there’s something we should tell you before you go running amuck around town at night,” Pauline said, readjusting her designer glasses.
          Raika looked up from her notes. Okay, this is driving me crazy. WHAT NOTES and why does she need the?. They say she’s been working, but that tells us nothing. “Like what?”
          Pauline shot Connie a hesitant glance.
          “Police have been finding dead bodies in the alleys,” Connie said.
          “What’s so strange about that? It’s happened before.” This is an interesting look into Raika’s personality. Dead bodies and she doesn’t care? Doesn’t even blink an eye.
          “All kinds of bodies,” Pauline explained. “Cats, snakes.” She paused. “Bears.”
          Raika’s eyes widened. “What?”
          Pauline counted them off on her fingertips. “Dogs, monkeys, lions, and of course, people.”
Okay. This is roughly 300 words. From this we can tell a few things off the bat. There are overall issues with setting, characterization, description, and point of view. We can assume it’s from Raika’s POV because we start with her. But there’s no voice. The reader would like a sense of who this person is that they’ve just been introduced to. We can’t tell anything about Raika from this except she might care about her grades, she’s a girl, she could care less about dead bodies, and she’s been away and around some guy named Bruce. I’ve given you no reason to care about her.
We need to think big picture when we edit and during one of those edits, we need to look at our stories from the eyes of the reader. If you didn’t know the backstory and who your MC was, you have to ask yourself if what you’re writing is getting the point across. This isn’t. Let me fill you in. Raika is a naive 18 year old high school senior and aspiring Puerto-Rican American actress. Her parent’s are filthy stinking rich and she goes to a high school full of other over-privileged rich kids. She’s been away shooting a movie in Belgium alongside one of the biggest playboys (and douches) in Hollywood. Connie is not an airhead, but she’s a super shallow C student and has been friends with Raika since middle school. Pauline is an A student, has short brown hair and bangs. She’s irresponsible but informed and a classic case of nerd who’s cool by association. She’s been friends with Raika since third grade.

I’m not saying all these details need to be included in the first 300 words, but did you get ANY of that from the excerpt above? Anything at all? Other than big important douche bag, that is. I didn’t think so. 

So what needs to be included in this opening – Raika’s been away shooting a movie with a big Hollywood name, she’s greasy rich, feels super safe, and has been friends with these girls for a long time. 

I’m not even going to harp on the fact that if Raika’s been away, she doesn’t need Polly’s notes because she probably had a tutor since finishing high school is something she cares about.  And like, why she going to school when she’s jet-lagged? A better way to start this scene is to have Raika meet them after school in their usual hangout and start over from there. Or better yet…take school completely out of the equation. Because this is the ONLY scene in the entire story that takes place at school. This could be like summer vacation before they all go their separate ways. And if you knew anything about the story, you’d know, like I do, that that scenario would be perfect for the story. 

But these are classic mistakes I used to make ALL the time:
-Not paying enough attention to detail
-Not filling the reader in on what’s going on
-Not describing things enough/painting a picture/grounding the reader in the scene
-Floating head syndrome
-Every character says “like” like, all the time
The biggest issue, specific to the above example:
-There is no voice. 
It comes in later, but it’s nonexistent now. You can’t have voice showing up later. It needs to show up now. People need to know who they’re reading about now. They need to care NOW. Or else, they’re not going to keep reading.  
See anything I missed? 

12 Responses to Editing 101

  1. This is an excellent breakdown of your first chapter and super nice of you to share it with us. I should dig around in my old stuff because I know I'm guilty of similar crimes. 🙂 And I agree, being able to edit our own work to a certain extent is important. I gave my first ms to my editor too early and she spent a lot of time correcting silly stuff that I could/should have corrected myself. I felt terrible about that because she could have spent the time concentrating more on the story/plot/characters, etc. Live and learn I guess. Thanks for sharing, Krystal, though now I want to know why there were dead bodies turning up. (:

  2. Oooh, you're brave putting this up here, I don't know if I'd be able to!I know I've often told the story of how I totally cut the first 2.5 chapters of a novel after writing them. It's scary, but it needed to be done!

  3. ^_^ I actually really like this story. I sent it out, though I probably shouldn't have, and did garner a few real rejections from agents I've discovered later don't usually do that. The dead bodies subplot was almost comical, in a good way. It's funny because it added comic relief at the same time it was freaking people out. 🙂

  4. Cutting stuff is always scary! I always save a copy of my first draft. It makes me feel better. Lol! The original handwritten version of this chapter (which was chapter 3 at the time!) was a nightmare. *sigh* The things I know now…Lol!

  5. It's sad, when a mother has to speak the words that condemn her own son. But I couldn't allow them to believe that I would commit murder. They'll put him away now, as I should have years ago. He was always bad, and in the end he intended to tell them I killed those girls and that man… as if I could do anything but just sit and stare, like one of his stuffed birds. They know I can't move a finger, and I won't. I'll just sit here and be quiet, just in case they do… suspect me. They're probably watching me. Well, let them. Let them see what kind of a person I am. I'm not even going to swat that fly. I hope they are watching… they'll see. They'll see and they'll know, and they'll say, "Why, she wouldn't even harm a fly…" LOL! all original content i might add. ha ha.:0)

  6. Having never edited one of my novels (I know, I know- what am I waiting for?) I can't comment on what you missed but I can tell that you've obviously learned quite a lot already. Being able to separate your voice from your characters voices is hard because your voice comes out so naturally. I struggle with that myself, even in my short stories.The devil in the details: this is something that's high on my priority list at the moment as I've gotten several comments on stories I opened for critique lately telling me in no uncertain terms that I was telling rather than showing the story. I've been using word count and other constraints to try and get the details out and make my story telling voice shut up for a while. Should be good practice for when I finally edit one of my novels.As for pacing, I think you pared down the details we really need well. You're right- we don't need to know about the friendships, how long known eachother, what their grade point averages are- yet. We need to know about the absence and the dea bodies which are (I assume) instrumental to the plot. I think there's time to build the character's voice, though we do want to make some things clear from the get go through their word choice, how they carry themselves, and how they interact/react to the world.Great points here, thanks for the lesson!

  7. Never!! o_O Lol! It took me a way long time to do more than proofread. And I still have to watch out for little things that are my voice specific, but it's improved a great deal. I catch most of it as I go now. 🙂 It is hard. I think it's why I like to write characters that are so unlike me so much. It makes it a lot easier.

  8. You gotta be ruthless when editing. Now that I'm (still) editing my MS, I feel bad for making my beta read the second draft, which wasn't nearly as well written as the third one, even before I started editing. I'm definitely guilty of a lack of description to ground scenes and floating head syndrome.

  9. Totally ruthless. ^_^ I'm always on the lookout for floating heads. I like to talk. I get carried away sometimes. Lol! I know what you mean about drafts. Despite my best efforts, there's just no way to get it awesome in a couple of passes. *sigh*

  10. I have a problem with setting too. And I think it's because I don't notice all the little things myself IRL. I mean, I only notice the things that interest me and it reflects in my writing sometimes. I try to be conscious of that now but there's no telling until I get beta feedback.Good luck with your revisions!

  11. I know right. I read something once about how waiting in line somewhere is a great opportunity to check out your surroundings when you're a writer. When I'm stuck in line that doesn't even cross my mind! I do that at the airport constantly though and make up little backstories for people. It's super fun. Lol!

Hi! ^_^