With a new novel out recently, I’ve been attending lots of writerly events to promote my work and hopefully sell enough books to cover costs.
This is what I love about the writing journey. This is when you meet all sorts of interesting people and hear all kinds of intriguing tales. It’s an opportunity to grab a hold of life as it really is, instead of communing with figments of your imagination.
Which brings me to the topic of today. Words, precious words.
The other day I had a conversation with an aspiring writer. We were talking about the editing process and how I’d rewritten my book several times before deeming it fit to be published.
On my companion’s face was an expression of complete dismay. ‘But how could I destroy all those precious words? It took me so long to write them.’
My answer is this. Editing is not an option; it is essential. If your work is to shine, you must eliminate words that don’t pull their weight. Words are the primary building blocks of writing. Every word must count. Good writing is clean: no repetition (unless for effect); no sloppy adjectives or lazy verbs; use similes and metaphors sparingly and only if they add flavour to the scene.
Here are three handy tips for self-editing.
Tip 1: Read your manuscript from beginning to end.
Print out the manuscript or use a reading device that does not have a keyboard.
As you read, take a note of the sections that need surgery. If you find yourself getting bored, or if nothing happens, or if the scene or character does not progress the story, then it has to go.
Tip 2: Separate your characters and read each part in isolation.
This should be done at your computer.
Step 1: Save your original manuscript as a new file.
Step 2: In your new file, identify all the scenes and give each a name to summarise, e.g lost and found. Think of scenes as if in a film: as a discrete piece of action, or an interaction between characters, that happens in a specific time and place.
Step 3: Identify the point-of-view character whose scene it is. The point-of-view character is the one through whose eyes the story unfolds. You should limit yourself to maybe three or four point-of-view characters. Too many and you will confuse the reader. ‘The Scarlet Key’ has three point-of-view characters: Seth, Isla and Claude.
Step 4: Use ‘Styles’ to mark your headings. Use Heading 1 for scene name; Heading 2 for point-of-view character; and Heading 3 for a timeline identifier, e.g. Monday, winter, or date.
Choose one point-of-view character. Use the navigation pane to move sequentially between their scenes. Does their story flow? Are there overlaps? Are there inconsistencies? What is missing? Has the character changed unintentionally as the story unfolds?
Step 5: Repeat with the other point-of-view characters.
Tip 3: Stick to a ‘search and destroy’ strategy until you are done.
This is the most important part. Make notes about what needs to change, but don’t change anything until you have finished your mission. If you jump straight into line editing, you will become lost in a maze of words.
Schedule your ‘search and destroy’ to be done within a short specified block of time. At this stage you must move from what’s in your head to what’s actually on the page. Remembering what you have written is critical for identifying inconsistencies. Check basic things such as eye colour, age, height, spelling of characters’ names and where they live.
In the final edit of ‘The Scarlet Key’, I’d said in Chapter 2 that Isla’s mother had died at the age of eighty-seven, yet at the end of the book I’d said that she’d died young. Luckily it was an easy mistake to rectify.
Now, methodically go through your notes and fix the mistakes you’ve identified.
Yes, you will lose some of your precious words. But in their place will be even better words … and your story will really shine.