On January 24, 2014, Eliza asked this important question: Anyone have tips on editing? Whenever I read over my stories, all I can pick out are the things I did wrong. Paragraphs that I can delete, plot holes that need to be stitched up, scenes that just don't make sense. But once you remove the awful parts, how do you shine it up and make it pretty?
E.S. Ivy wrote this in response: Maybe the following suggestions would help:
- check the dialogue, is it entertaining? Do the characters’ personalities show? Can you add humor in them?
- check a scene with your mind’s eye. Can you really "see" it? Can you add touches of description here and there?
- the important parts, the ending and climax etc.: are there places where you could foreshadow them?
I agree, except that I’m not always on board with foreshadowing. You can read my posts on the subject.
Negativity is built into revision by definition. We’re hunting for problems so we can fix them. Still, revision is my favorite part of writing, the most positive as far as I’m concerned. Once my plot is set, then all I have to do is make it better, make it shine.
For this post I’ll be writing about the polish, which involves the little adjustments we make after the major flaws have been cleaned up. If you're interested in other aspects, check my earlier posts on the subject.
What I do the most is cut. The process is like sculpting in marble: We chop away at the stone blocking our image, and, as the chips fall, the beauty is revealed.
Here’s a sneak preview of the first paragraph of Stolen Magic. I don't know how to indent, so I'm italicizing, but it isn't italicized in the manuscript. First is the paragraph I sent my editor after her intial round of edits:
As if she were narrating a mansioner’s play, Elodie spoke across the strait, “And so our heroine--” she blushed at calling herself heroine “--young mistress Elodie, returned to Lahnt, the island of her birth. Five weeks earlier, she’d departed, a humble farmer’s daughter, but now, unexpected by all, least expected by herself, she’d become–“ As the deck of the cog groaned behind her and the sour odor of rotten eggs reached her nose, she continued in her thoughts: Our heroine had become traveling companion to a noble ogre and assistant to a detecting dragon.
Below is the paragraph I sent her after the second round. My editor didn’t ask for these cuts. Read it and then I’ll say why I made them.
As if she were narrating a mansioner’s play, Elodie spoke across the strait, “And so our heroine--” she blushed at calling herself heroine “--young mistress Elodie, returned to Lahnt, the island of her birth. Five weeks earlier, she’d departed, a humble farmer’s daughter, but now, unexpected by all, least expected by herself, she’d become–“ She broke off as the deck of the cog groaned behind her and the sour odor of rotten eggs reached her nose.
In the first version I reassured the reader so that when the ogre and dragon appear, she isn’t worried. But I want her to worry! Why is the deck groaning? What’s causing the stink? These aren’t big anxieties, and they’re quickly put to rest, but still I’m eager to offer that tiny thrill.
Also, as I cut, the pace picks up. As long as I’m not deleting anything crucial to the story or to the development of my characters, a faster pace is an improvement.
Yesterday I received the copy editor’s response to the manuscript, and without prompting I made another slight change. See if you catch it. Here’s the paragraph again:
As if she were narrating a mansioner’s play, Elodie spoke across the strait, “And so our heroine--” she blushed at calling herself heroine “--young mistress Elodie, returns to Lahnt, the island of her birth. Five weeks earlier, she departed, a humble farmer’s daughter, but now, unexpected by all, least expected by herself, she has become–“ She broke off as the deck of the cog groaned behind her and the sour odor of rotten eggs reached her nose.
Do you see? I changed to present tense in the narration, which seems more natural, more like the narrator of a play. If the copy editor or my editor disagree, I’ll be informed, and then I’ll decide.
(If I were changing the tense in the whole manuscript, that would be an important change, but here the story continues to be told in the past tense.)
These are the kinds of itty-bitty adjustments I’m thinking about at this point. Another one is word repetition, which my editor and copy editor are good at noticing. I’m getting better at it, too, and studying poetry has helped. The reader may not notice the repeated words, but she will probably glide along more smoothly without them. Going the other way, however, sometimes we want to repeat, for emphasis or rhythm. We may even create a repetition as we revise, for those reasons.
Obviously, the repetition of some building-block words--like the, he, she, it, and, and or--can’t be avoided and don’t need to be. But I do check to make sure I haven’t started sentence after sentence or paragraph after paragraph with the same one of any of them.
Name repetition is another kind of repetition that I look out for. For example, have I repeated my MC’s name three times in four paragraphs and it’s irritating? Can I replace one or two of those times with he or she without confusion?
A mistake I often make is taking actions or ideas out of order–in a small way. I just corrected an example of this in Stolen Magic. In the narration I’m revealing that Elodie and her friends are traveling by oxcart, and I explain who’s in which cart, and then, boom!, there’s a sentence that jumps ahead to camping for the night. It looked okay; they do camp. But it’s bumpy, so I moved the camping to the end of the mode of transportation.
We also need to look at word choice. Is this the right term to nail a feeling, a description, an action?
Am I weakening my prose with hedging adjectives. For example, the dragon emits an unpleasant sulfurous odor, which Elodie gets used to and even comes to like. But I had her almost like it, which doesn’t take a stand, so I got rid of the almost.
And of course, we have to clean up any niggling grammar errors, anything that might confuse a reader.
Here are three prompts:
• When my editor at the time wanted me to write The Princess Tales, she sent me several chapter books to read to familiarize myself with writing for that age group, which is younger than the full-length novel crowd. To really get inside the writing, I retyped one of the books in its entirety, absorbing vocabulary, style, sentence length. This exercise was more useful than simply reading the book, or even rereading it several times. So pick a book you love, one you think is well-written, and copy out, say, two pages by hand or on a computer. If you have time, do it twice. If you’re having trouble picking a book, may I suggest Charlotte’s Web, because the writing, in my opinion, is splendid? As you go along in whatever book you choose, ask yourself questions about why the author made the choices he did. You may find you disagree about some of them. That’s fine. You’re entering into a conversation with a book. Cool!
• Using my suggestions and E. S. Ivy’s, re-revise a page or two of a story of yours that you’ve already gone over. Is it “shinier” when you’re done than it was before?
• Your MC is in her room, suffering from the results of a very bad day caused by her own actions. She’s antagonized her friends and her family; someone is in the hospital because of her; and whatever else you come up with to increase her misery. A being (elf, fairy, alien, mad scientist, whatever) enters her room and offers her a do-over. She accepts, of course. Write the day as it played out originally and the do-over, and make it come out worse the second time, but not entirely because of her this time.
Have fun, and save what you write!