The fine-tooth comb of line editing
If you’re a parent with a young child, you’ve probably discovered the joys of head lice. Pesky little beasties, they’re ridiculously hard to get rid of. Even when you’ve blasted them with a cocktail of chemicals and raked out their eggs with a fine-tooth comb, they’ll turn up again out of nowhere.
What, you might say, have head lice to do with line editing?
In my experience, ridding your work of cliches, repetition, banal words, limp similes, and typos is as painstaking as zapping head lice … only a whole lot harder.
If you’re scratching your head over the line editing process, give my never-fail, fine-tooth comb method a whirl.
Step 1: Save your manuscript as a new file.
Better still, back up all your files onto another device. Do it NOW. Computers have a habit of crashing or being stolen or otherwise coming to grief. If you don’t have a copy of your fabulous work, you will be doubly sorry.
Step 2: Make a list of the words you routinely overuse or know to be lame.
The words on my personal lame-list are ‘very’, ‘always’, ‘like’, ‘really’, ‘just’, ‘quite’ … and so on. You get the idea. Everyone will have a different list of feeble or threadbare words.
On my lame-list I always include the word ‘like’ because I tend to write in similes. While a smattering of strong relevant similes can be short-hand to communicate meaning, weak similes smack of lazy writing. The best way of tracking them down is to examine every phrase commencing with ‘like’. Be prepared to make substitutions or to delete if your simile is trite or adds nothing new to the characters, setting or story.
Step 3: On your computer, turn on the ‘find’ function and zap those suckers.
The ‘find’ function will open a navigation pane with a search bar at the side of your screen. Methodically comb through your manuscript, examining one lame word at a time. Make adjustments as necessary. This may take some time, but believe me it’s worth it.
To keep you motivated, take note of the number of times each lame word appears – before and after intervention. This is easy: the navigation pane automatically counts them. The target words are highlighted in yellow throughout the document. Use the ‘up’ and ‘down’ arrows to move sequentially through your manuscript.
After my comb-through of The Scarlet Key, the number of times ‘like’ appeared in my 76,000 word manuscript reduced from 326 to 171. That’s about half! Not all were similes: ‘like’ was also used as a verb or formed part of another word such as ‘businesslike’ or ‘likely’.
To show how this strengthens the writing, here is a sentence from an early draft of The Scarlet Key. ‘The shopkeeper looked like a hippie and spoke like a yobbo.’
After my nit-pick of the manuscript, the sentence was rewritten like this.
The fellow behind the counter was a refugee from the sixties with long white hair tied in a ponytail, faded jeans, and a string of love-beads around his wrist.
‘What’ll it be, mate?’ His Aussie accent was as broad as the Nullarbor Plain.
Okay, grab that fine-tooth comb. Search and destroy those lame words. Your manuscript will thank you for your trouble.
Words, precious words
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.
Finding your structure
Writers often debate about the best way to write: plot-driven or character-driven.
Plot-driven implies vast sheets of butchers paper covered in post-it notes, or timelines nutted out on Excel or some other left-brain device. You know the story, you know the structure, you stick to it. Character-driven, on the other hand, implies unpredictability and writing by the seat of your pants, based on the whims of characters you’ve created.
Both approaches have strengths and weaknesses. So here’s the plan: why not do a bit of each?
For my first ever manuscript several years ago, I took the plot-driven approach. The piece was a sweeping family saga, based on extensive research, real people and real events. How else could I translate all that wonderful information into a story of hardship, migration, still more hardship, and eventual triumph? My timeline was my lifeline. I depended on it for everything. The plot was all there in perfect sequence, the way it actually happened. Nothing was left to chance. Nothing.
When I submitted the manuscript for professional feedback, here’s what I got.
Your characters are like cardboard cut-outs moving through a landscape. Your structure is so constricting, you’ve left yourself no room to move. Loosen up. Take your main characters out to the pub, get to know them, understand where they’re coming from.
Hoo-boy! All that hard work and I’d have to start again. (By the way, it’s still not finished. It will be, one day. It’s a piece I’m passionate about.)
For my second manuscript, which became Baby Farm, I tried the character-driven approach. Working with a group of other budding authors under the tutelage of a true professional, the writing experience was a sheer delight. What fun I had with those characters! I knew and loved them as if they were long-time friends of mine. We went to parties, got drunk, and on more than one occasion ended up in bed together.
So much for the first draft. When I read what I’d written several months later, there was no structure at all. Just three big characters who popped up willy-nilly, whenever and wherever they pleased. Back to the drawing board. Literally. I knew about timelines, I knew about structure. And this time I knew my characters.
The only thing to do was deconstruct the manuscript. On the computer I ripped it apart, cutting and pasting each character into a separate timeline. It hurt a lot, but it made it easy to see the problems. There were huge holes in the plot and times when major characters simply disappeared for chapters on end. Several weeks of rewriting later, I had three character stories of similar length that actually worked.
Reconstruction was the easy part. Take three strands of ribbon and plait them together.
For The Scarlet Key, the character-driven approach won me over, so that’s how it started. The initial problem with the first draft was its one-eyed point of view. There was no counter-balance. No yin and yang. I thought I’d finished until I attempted to do a character arc for my main female character. It was then I realised she didn’t have one at all. In fact, she was dead (she died in Chapter 1), yet the entire story was about her.
Tears of blood fell onto the keyboard. The entire manuscript was pulled apart. Now there is a structure that works along with several new chapters that had to be written.
Do-it-yourself structural editing.
What I love about writing crime mysteries is the constant interplay between the left and the right hemispheres of my brain. The trick is to make them work together.
The left brain gathers data, information and facts. For my current work in progress, I’m juggling three topics of which I have almost no knowledge. The greyhound racing industry, tattooists, and euthanasia. Hopefully, my left-brain research has come up with enough material to convince readers otherwise.
The right brain then takes all those facts and a large dose of imagination to come up with a cast of characters and the bones of a compelling story.
Character-driven is my preferred method of writing. For me it is important to know your characters as well as you know yourself. What they look like, how they live, what they like and don’t like, what makes them tick.
The best way of getting to know a character is to let him or her write their own story. This is great fun. It’s like being in an online chat room, except you are the only one who is there. The only drawback is that the story can get out of hand. Before you know it, you’re down a dry gully with no way back. Quite literally, you’ve lost the plot.
Re-enter the left brain.
Here’s today’s tip for ironing out a wayward storyline. Use your left brain and a left-brain tool. What could be more left-brain than Microsoft Excel?
Here are the steps:
1. Read and summarise the existing manuscript without line editing. This is the hard part, but it is essential. Most likely you’ll need to do some rewriting afterwards and your perfectly-crafted paragraphs may need to be trimmed.
2. Break your existing chapters into scenes. A scene is a sequence of action that moves the story forward. It isn’t a scene if you can’t pinpoint what happened, where it happened, when it happened, and who was there at the time.
3. Put your scenes into a spreadsheet. Label your columns like this:
Chapter Number; Scene Number: Point of View (POV); Day/Season; Date; Details.
Once you’ve set it all out in the spreadsheet, you can use the magic of Excel to manipulate the columns. For example, turn on the data filter to view each character arc, check the timeline or the sequencing of the chapters. In the example above, I’ve filtered for POV and selected the character Isla.
4. When you’re happy with the rejigged outline, copy into a fresh Word document. Put one line of the spreadsheet at the top of each chapter. Then copy and paste the original manuscript into your new framework.
So there you are … ready to write in a structure that works.