Hi Everyone! I’m on the road with Mr. Don (the most romantic man in the world), traveling to our winter home in South Texas. And as usual I’m not only dealing with spotty internet but also the Mother of all editing deadlines, so I thought I’d post part of a presentation I created for RWA-Australia. A subject near and dear to my heart:
How to Edit for Querying Success! Or, How to edit your work so it sparkles… (before you submit to a publishing house)
As an Acquisitions Editor, I look for quality, passion, a story that will absolutely sweep me away. I want that alpha hero who isn’t perfect, the strong yet flawed woman who will complete him, and I want them to be brave enough and smart enough—and in love enough—to save each other. Along the way I expect a riveting tale I can’t set down, not even long enough to use the bathroom.
Piece of cake, right? Well, sure! With the right author and the absolutely right manuscript, I always get my book. There’s a formula to editing, a pattern and a process. Once you figure it out, and then apply it to everything you write, you’re more than halfway there.
But one thing you can’t do is cut corners. That never bodes well for you or your manuscript. Whether you plan on querying a traditional publisher, an agent, or trying your hand at self-publishing, you have to do the work. You owe it to your book as its creator and you definitely owe it to yourself as a writer of talent who deserves to be heard in the published world. So . . .
You’ve just written ‘The End’ on a manuscript. Maybe it’s your first. Maybe your tenth. You’ve been toiling for weeks, months, searching for the words that tell the story you just know will be a bestseller. Your friends are in awe; your family can attest to your neglect of them while you closeted yourself away and typed your fingers raw. This is your dream, your destiny, your future. All you ever wanted, there on the pages of your literary ‘baby.’
Ready to send it to a publisher, or an agent? Ready to push that baby out into the world? Of course not!
Uh-oh, I’d wager your face fell as you read those three words (plus exclamation mark). Because you had the online dictionary open as well as a Thesaurus and possibly a Manual of Style as you created your story, right? Therefore, You Have Thought Of Everything.
My darlings, you still are not ready.
Because you cannot final-edit as you write. It’s just about impossible. When your head is in create-mode, it’s creating. It looks for the blossom, not the stems, of that flowering bit of pretty on your keyboard. But pruning those stems will get you a publisher, right along with the flowers. Well, the stems, the flowers, a heavy dose of nourishing dirt (hard work and perseverance), and bright, fabulous sun (luck). You need it all to succeed. It’s not enough to plant the seed. Dearest Writer, you’ve got to Weed to Succeed.
So, there you are, staring at a document packed with ‘The Pretty.’ Your sole job now is to polish, sharpen; improve what you already have. Does it seem like a daunting undertaking? It really isn’t, you know. But it does take forethought, common sense, and even more of that flowering creativity, to make your magic words really pop. To properly achieve polish, you’ve got to be willing to understand your own weaknesses and find ways to kill them deader than dead. Then plant over the dead stuff to make what remains even better, more fascinating. More powerful.
And guess what? I’ve got some ideas for you. Cool, huh? Together we can make a knock-‘em-sideways Pretty that will sit up tall in its foundation and make a publisher take notice.
It all starts with restructuring your structure.
Once your work is completed and ‘The End’ in place, take a day or so to pat yourself on the back, go out for a celebratory dinner/drink, enjoy knowing you jumped a hurdle so many writers struggle with: actually finishing the story. It’s not always the easiest thing to do, for writer’s block is everywhere, waiting to pounce.
Having had my share of partials languishing on my keyboard, I can tell you typing ‘The End’ has its own measure of success. So, you’re already ahead of the game. My first bit of editing advice is always the same: give yourself time away from your work before you dive for the edits. Your eyes and your brain both need a break.
Once you’ve cleared out the happy, let’s go digging for weeds (that editing stuff). Your first tasks will be easy. I call this, “DIE, REPEAT WORDS! DIE!” They’re inside The Pretty, clogging it up, I promise you. Ask any author I have edited and they’ll most likely roll their eyes and tell you how I chased after them with a knife, threatening to stab every ‘that’ I saw unless they did it first. Okay, guilty. ::grins::
I’m pretty much murder on repeat words and phrases. Nothing flattens an author’s creative voice worse than those repeats. They need to be the first to go. Make a list, run a global search on each, and get rid of them. Biggest and most frequent offender: the dreaded ‘that.’ About 90% of the time the word isn’t necessary. Chop it out.
Other repeats to look for: so, was, little, bit, then, take, came, went, looked, stepped, moved, saw, watched, felt/feeling, rather, somewhat, large, but, small, up, down, over, under, just, though, however, because, very, really, truly.
Especially with directional words up, down, over, under, you can clear out most. Think of it in terms of how the body moves. When you sit or sink onto an object, you can only sit/sink ‘down’ unless for some reason you want to specifically sit ‘up,’ (obviously you can’t ‘sink up’) in which case you are better served using ‘straightened in her chair’ instead of ‘sat up’ in her chair. In a bed it can go either way, your choice, sit or sit up. But if your character sits on a chair, they only need to sit. Same with stand. You can only stand ‘up.’ So your character only needs to ‘stand.’
Are you confused yet? Now you know how editors sometimes feel. But hey, look: easily 50% of repeat words already gone because you cleared out ‘that’ and its cohorts, plus ‘unneeded directional words!’ Excessive coolness.
Okay, you went through all those pesky repeats; now take out repeat phrases. Come on, you know they’re present and accounted for. When you’re creating, they are hard to avoid. Time to take them out. Many authors have what I call their ‘go to’ phrases, and there’s nothing wrong with it unless you overdo it. Like most things in life, overkill is worse than not enough, less is more. You get the picture.
So far editing has probably been on the boring side. Basic cleanup is never fun. Necessary, but never fun. What comes after repeat words? Usually pickier items such as checking all your ellipses, EM dashes, etc., to assure they’re correctly represented. If you’re unsure, that’s where a manual of style comes in handy. Refer to one often in your editing routine and you’ll never go wrong.
Other editing such as basic punctuation typos can be a lot harder to find. Authors often become ‘punctuation-blind’ because they’re been staring at it for a very long time as they’ve crafted their WIP, and the analytical section of the creative mind can only soak in so much before the brain rebels and tells you to take a hike. ::grins:: In which case, it’s a good time to step away again.
During the editing process you need to let your mind refresh itself, and there’s no better way than to do something else, non-writing-related. Never overload yourself in the editing biz, because it makes you sloppy and you’ll miss things.
Okay, let’s recap: repeat words are no more. Repeat phrases, ditto. You’ve gone over punctuation, EMs, ellipses, and other fun things. Feeling pretty good about the process overall? Fabulous. Because now it’s time to really dig.
Now you’re going to look at specifics, like POV. Always an exciting pastime, right? Right?
::crickets chirping in dead airspace::
I always lose them on the specifics, sigh. ::grins::
This is vital, and you’re the only one who can do it. It’s your baby, your task, and responsibility. Who knows your story better than you, at this point? Nobody. Certainly not the editor/agent/publisher you’re trying to attract. Right now you’re pretty much an email address in some future query letter. Tough but true. If you want to be more, your manuscript has to BE more, first.
So here’s what you do. Make a list of specifics. Correct POV for the scene/chapter, consistent tense, tight characterization, scenes that end on an upswing, chapters that end with a little cliffhanger. Fixing run-on sentences; completing fragments. Plot points that don’t hang in the wind without resolution, showing instead of telling, active versus passive voice. Action, action, and more action! Strong interface between hero and heroine. A strong supporting/secondary cast of characters. Solid set-up if you’re plotting out a series, for that second and third (or however many) of your series.
Are you world-building? Now’s the time to make sure you didn’t forget anything. Did you set your story in a real place? Make sure you did your research. Did you write a historical? Same goes; make sure your research is spot-on. Did you write based on an established legend? Fabulous. Just assure any deviation to the original legend makes sense within the world you have created.
Most of all, does your story move along, or does it lag somewhere? Just because your entire critique group assured you it moves along at a nice clip, doesn’t mean someone didn’t miss something. Believe me, a critique group or critique partner can miss as much as anyone else. And if the only ‘critique partner’ to see your work was your Aunt Martha or Cousin Trudy (or your mother/sister/hubby/son), then they don’t count. They love you too much to be objective. You need total and absolute objectivity right about now. Actually you needed it from Day One of the WIP process. Please don’t rob yourself of this vital process.
Dot those ‘Is’ and cross all the ‘Ts.’ Details, details. Don’t give a reader the opportunity to roll their eyes, huff impatiently, skip pages, find they have to hunt back through text they’ve read for extra details, or worse, toss the book in frustration across the room until it hits the nearest wall. Don’t give the reader a chance to do anything other than read with their jaw agape; so into your story they skip meals, forego sleep, miss an episode of their favorite TV show, drop the ball on getting to work on time, or possibly forget to change their undies, and all because they Couldn’t Put Your Book Down.
At this point you should know your manuscript inside and out, have entire chunks of it memorized, and find it difficult to differentiate between your hero/heroine and real people in your life, because you have read through it A LOT. If you don’t know it, then start reading and remembering. You’re going to be chatting up your work so it’s best to know what you’re talking about. Your manuscript is more than a story ‘about a man and woman who . . .’ In fact, I’m going to advise against ever describing it to another person as ‘about a man and woman who . . .’ Your story is far more than that. Figure out its true purpose, its full potential, and go from there.
I’ll let you in on an absolute truth: no author in the world really wants to chop off a section of their work in the editing round and dump it. We might as well chop off a finger or a toe. We do it because trimming the fat and clearing out the chaff makes us stronger as a storyteller and gives our words power. We do it because every story drags, every manuscript either has too much of ‘Saggy in the Middle,’ or too little of ‘The Good Stuff.’
If we can’t take the process seriously and do right by ourselves, then why should anyone else? We do it to learn, uppermost. Every time that light bulb goes off in your head and you figure, “Wait. If I do this, then . . .” you have instantly improved yourself and your craft. Never stop improving yourself and your craft. First book, three hundredth book. Doesn’t matter. There’s always a place to improve. Find it, then do it.
All righty, then! Here you are, in a decent place along the editing path. Look at how far you’ve come since you wrote ‘The End,’ grabbed that celebratory dinner/drink/wild party, cleansed your creative palate in preparation of the editing process, then cracked those knuckles and dug in. You’ve accomplished a heck of a lot. I bet you’re done, right?
Nope. See, you knew I’d say that.
You’re not finished because you still have to read your entire work aloud. No, I’m not kidding. You wouldn’t believe how much superfluous stuff can be found when you read aloud. If somewhere in the process you have already read aloud, then you’re way ahead, and can use this time to indulge yourself in something that makes you happy, like chocolate. Or sex. Whatever. ::grin:: The rest of you, stay where you are, and clear your throats. Grab some water.
Do you have to read aloud? Of course not. Nobody can make you do anything in the editing process, not even me, ‘Bossy and Demanding Editor Person.’ I can only suggest, advise, urge, etc., and the rest is up to you. I will tell you I recently read my latest work aloud, found all kinds of fun things even though I’m an anal editor on top of being the most anal writer in the world, and now my finished work is So Very Pretty. It’s currently in the hands of another editor who’ll gorgeous-ize it up even more. That’s how the process is supposed to operate.
Let’s assume you read aloud, found more stuff, cleared it out, and now we have The Pretty. You made a list of places to send it. Boxed yourself into that query letter we talked about earlier. Are you ready to send it? Three chapters (or fifty pages) along with the query and whatever else fulfills their submission requirements?
Know what my answer’s going to be? Yep, that’s right. I’m going to give you more to do, because I’ll bet you haven’t written out a full synopsis yet. You might have created your blurb, I’ll give you that one. But most editors and agents will probably want a full synopsis. They’ll need to see where you’re going, how you get there; read how it ends.
Nothing beats a well-planned, full synopsis. If you already have one, then hugs to you. Just assure your full synopsis matches all the changes you just made in your manuscript, and you’re good to go. Ah, see? I can always find a hang-up or two. Sorry about that. But it’s for your own good, you know.
Another recap? Sure, why not. I just know, superb organizer that you are, you have been keeping a checklist of the process and have diligently crossed off each task as it’s completed. Are you finished yet? Gosh, I don’t know. Only you can answer that one. I suppose the question to pose is how you’re feeling about your work, its accompanying documents, and its readiness to submit.
If I could remind you of a single, final thing, I would say this: know your quarry! If you have done everything right and you query the wrong place for the genre you write, then what have you done except delay yourself? So double check. Make sure the list of editors/publishers/agents you want to query actually accepts what you write. Some editors might forward your work to another on their staff, but why take the chance? It’s easier to hit the ‘delete’ button on an email, than take the time to look up editorial staff and forward in a query to someone who deals with your genre.
If you adopt a Blanche DuBois attitude, and ‘always depend on the kindness of strangers,’ it’ll probably come back to bite you. Such is humanity. It’s just a little step of extra detail to make sure you’re only querying those folks who actually look for what you write. Take the step. And if a publisher or agency is currently ‘not accepting submissions,’ then heed the warning unless you have an ‘in’ with the company to begin with.
Final thought: do it right and you’ll advance the farthest. You might not make it all the way on your first attempts, but then again . . . what if you do?