Monday, October 31, 2011

Writers, How Do You Find the Diamond In the Rough Draft?

As I'm working on editing Toren the Teller’s Tale, I’m reminded of an old joke:

How do you become a millionaire?

Step one: get a million dollars. . . .

Becoming a great author is a little like that. Step one: write a great book. But it’s also a little different, because that really is just the first step. After that comes editing, usually lots and lots of editing. 

Some writers hate editing, but I actually love it. I love fixing stuff, and that’s what editing is all about: fixing your current draft to make it so much better. 

A recent Twitter chat for writers asked, “How do you know when your manuscript is ready?” My answer is that it’s never ready, because you never stop growing as a writer. Tomorrow you’ll probably learn something you didn’t know today. But at some point you have to say, “This is the best I can do right now,” and that’s when you send it out into the world. 

You could always hire a good freelance editor or book doctor: someone with a better understanding of what sells and years of experience at a traditional publishing house. But you can’t really learn from your own mistakes if you have someone else fix them for you. And you do want to learn. You want to be able to see the things an editor would fix, so you can fix them yourself or avoid them altogether. Here are some tips to get you started:

12 Tips for Polishing Your Novel

1. Learn to read analytically. Read a lot of books in your chosen genre. Ask yourself what you like and what you don’t like, where your attention is grabbed and where it lags, and what the author is doing to make you feel these things. It’s okay not to like something popular or even a classic. The only thing you need to figure out is why you feel this way. Then you can apply what you’ve learned to your own writing. Because if you don’t like that it took the writer three chapters to get his story started, why would another reader like that in your book? You can also analyze other forms of storytelling, like movies or TV shows. Ask yourself why something was done and how it affects you, the audience. Then ask how you can apply that to your writing. 

2. Read books on writing, style, and self-editing. The two I think every novelist should have are Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Browne and King, and The Elements of Style (4th Edition) by Strunk and White. The Elements of Style is the simplest, cheapest, and shortest book on things like punctuation and syntax; but if you find it too dry, some writers prefer Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Truss, which is longer but more entertaining. The Chicago Manual of Style is considered the best style book, but it’s expensive. The Associated Press Stylebook is cheaper and a good alternative. Some rules differ from book to book, so whichever style choice you make, be consistent. I also recommend The Comic Toolbox by Vorhaus and by Maass for tips on how to write a compelling story.

3. Join a critique group. Once you’ve internalized all you’ve learned from analyzing stories and reading books on writing--and you’ve applied that to your work--your manuscript should be ready for a critique group. Of course, that doesn’t mean you are. It can be hard to hear what others think of your precious baby. But you do need to develop an emotional distance from your own writing. Remember that you didn’t write your book for you; you wrote it for your potential readers. A critique group is your chance to see it from a reader’s perspective. Don’t respond to a critique, except to say thank you, and do ask questions in a non-confrontational way if the critique isn’t clear. Never forget that it’s your story, and only you can make changes to it. Use the advice that resonates with you, and forget the rest. Another great thing about joining a critique group is that it lets you hone your analytical skills. I think I’ve learned more in critiquing the works of others than I have in getting my own work critiqued. If you can’t find a spot in a good critique group, you can always create your own. That’s what I did. I advertised online on the SCBWI boards, and my critique group, the Fantasyweavers, was born. Most writers’ conferences also offer professional critiques for a fee. If you’re lucky, it could be the best thing about going to a conference.

4. Aim for clarity above all else. Writing is a form of communication. If you aren’t clear, you haven’t successfully communicated what it is you wanted to say. Rewrite it. Don’t write in an effort to impress the reader with your literary prowess. Keep it clear, simple and focused, and your reader will get what it is you’re trying to say.

5. Establish visuals early on and keep them consistent. As a reader, I hate to have to erase the image I’ve already painted in my mind because the writer failed to tell me something twenty pages earlier. I once read a book where I thought one character was white, only to discover in the next book in the series (yes, an entire book later!) that he was Chinese. This is true for characters and settings. Think of it like a movie, and start with an establishing shot. Let the reader ground himself in your story. It doesn’t have to be detailed, but if you let the reader fill in the blanks early on, don’t fill them in for him later in the story.

6. Make sure you have a beginning, middle, and end. Is there a hook on the first page, something the reader needs to know and won’t find out unless he reads the book? Do you raise the stakes in the proceeding chapters by giving the main character more obstacles to what he or she wants to get, obstacles that are related to whatever the hook or central conflict is, not just random obstacles that have nothing to do with them? Is the resolution of the story’s central conflict satisfying, and does that resolution come from the main character’s own choices and actions?  It doesn’t have to be a happy ending, but it does have to be a resolution that puts an end to whatever the central conflict was. Romeo and Juliet ends with the main characters dead. You can’t have a more final resolution than that.

7. Kill your darlings. Some writers think this means you should kill off your favorite characters, but that’s not it at all. Everything has to be in your story for a reason. It has to move the story forward, set the mood, and/or give readers a deeper understanding of your characters. “Your darlings” refers to stuff you’re proud you wrote because it’s just so well written. If doesn’t have a reason to be in your story beyond being pretty, cut it out. Doesn’t matter if it’s single word, a paragraph, a chapter, or even a character (very often multiple characters carry out duties that could be better carried out by just one), cut it out. And if it really is that great, put it aside. Maybe someday you’ll write a story where it does move the story forward, set the mood, and/or give readers a deeper understanding of your characters. Put these darlings in that story, but not here.

8. Be flexible. A recent article in Popular Science pointed out that, since the Rosetta Stone, writing has become less and less permanent. We’re now writing in virtual clouds, for goodness sakes! It was a lot harder to change your words hundreds of years ago when it had to be written by hand on very expensive paper. Now it couldn’t be easier to do it on your computer. Try to think like an Improv actor. Sure, you wrote your scene this way, but what if you wrote it that way? When I was editing Why My Love Life Sucks: The Legend of Gilbert the Fixer, I often wrote several versions of different scenes so I could choose the best one. I would then move the other version into Word’s comments section, so I never really lost anything. (My daughter likes reading this version of the novel, which she calls the one with the “outtakes.”) Sometimes I’ll use the comments section to write down ideas for changes while I’m still writing the first draft.  It’s better than losing them because I didn’t write them down right away.  Give it a try. It could make your story a lot better, and you have nothing to lose, so why not?
 A “Scenes From a Hat” game from the Improv show Whose Line Is It, Anyway?

9. Make everything in your story matter. This isn’t the same as killing your darlings, although it might seem like it. This is about adding depth and meaning to the things that are moving your story forward, setting the scene, or revealing your characters. So how do you do this? I’ve found the best way is by making everything matter to your main character. If it matters to him or her, it will matter to the reader. There’s a huge difference between just any old rag doll and a rag doll your fifteen-year-old main character hugs when she’s lonely because it’s the best friend she’s ever had.

10. Show, don’t tell . . . except when it’s better to tell. Many beginning writers go a little overboard on the whole “show don’t tell” thing. There are times to tell and times to show. The important thing is to know when to do which. If your character is having an important discussion with another character, that’s a good time to show. If your character then goes home, eats dinner, goes to bed, wakes up when the alarm clock rings, eats breakfast, and does a lot of stuff that really doesn’t matter, that’s a good time to tell. “. . . she said, and then she turned around and walked away. The next day . . .” Bam, right into the next thing that matters. That’s the way to do it.

11. Follow all the rules? Um, no. This is related to show don’t tell, but it’s not just that. I think writers have to know the “rules,” because only in knowing the rules can you break them with good reason. One of the “rules” that drives me nuts is the one regarding incomplete sentences. Incomplete sentences can be very powerful in the right situations. The same goes for starting a sentence with a conjunction. There’s a difference between “Ashley looked up at the towering Ferris wheel” and “The Ferris wheel towered over Ashley. She looked up. And up. And up.” The latter gives you a better sense of how overwhelmed Ashley feels by how tall the Ferris wheel is.

12. Once you’re done, put it in a drawer for a month. Then go over the whole thing again, hopefully with more distance and a better, more objective perspective. Read it out loud. (After all, if it ever becomes an audio book, someone will have to read it out loud.) If you have text-to-speech software you can use, or you can transfer your book to your Kindle and listen to it, you should. Sometimes you’ll be able to hear things your eyes might miss, like a repeated word or sentence, or a typo. Printing your story on paper can also give you a different perspective. Again, if there are changes you’re not sure of, use the comments section in Word to jot them down. Try it both ways, and pick the one you like best.

This is certainly not a complete list of tips, but hopefully it’s enough to get you started. I know many authors do things quite differently. How about you? Do you have any editing tips you’d like to share? If so, I hope you’ll leave them in the comments section below. I’d love to hear them.


Billy Elm said...

I routinely read my finished ms out loud, but as Zoe Winters points out in Smart Self-publishing, an author knows where to place the emphases in his own story. She suggests instead that you have someone read your story to you. I haven't tried that yet.

Shevi said...

That's a really good idea. Of course, if you don't have someone who can do that for you, you can use text-to-speech software. I used Dragon Naturally Speaking sometimes.