Self-Editing (It’s Not Just for Polite Conversation)

I’ve read a lot of books on this topic, scoured blogs, took any and every class I could at conferences and workshops on the matter, but I always still feel like there’s vast room for improvement when it comes to editing your own work.

Part of the reason is that it’s incredibly hard after writing, rewriting, and rewriting again (times a thousand) to edit all of those words. Not because we’re narcissistic megalomaniacs and don’t think there’s anything wrong with our novel, but because there’s a true phenomenon that happens in our brains as we read (and re read, and re read again) our own work.

The human brain is complex and the way it takes in and interprets stimuli from outside is a complicated and delicate dance. If we were to notice every single thing in our world, we wouldn’t be able to exist in it. The noise, the colors, the sound, the smells are so varied and ever present that our brains would be in a constant state of interpretation that would cause us to vomit, or pass out. Or both. (Which is one of the reasons so many people on the spectrum can have a difficult time coping with crowded, noisy, overstimulating places). As a result, we tend to soften the edges of a lot of information, block it out, or keep it in the peripheral of our consciousness, allowing our brains to make up a great deal of what we take in, through context.

It can be the same as when we edit. We tend to be in a taking-things-for-granted-because-I-read-it-so-many-times-before haze. We coast over the words and retell ourselves the story we already know in our heads, rather than focusing on what is actually on the page.

You, the author who created this magnificent book, know what it’s supposed to say, you know what you meant when you wrote it. So in your brain, when your eyes pass over the words, it will fill in the missed words, ignore the double ones, and forgive the dangling participles because in your brain, it’s reading correct. Very rarely do we ever approach our own work as a completely new reader. It’s practically impossible to do.

Does that mean we shouldn’t edit? Fuck no. Unless you’re incredibly rich and can afford an editor to take your first draft to your final over the course of 9 rewrites. And if you are that author, why the hell are you reading this blog? This is for the poor, struggling authors who are trying to procrastinate their own editing by reading my blog. Not for big money-bag writers who bang out twenty political spy thrillers a year because they have a nanny, and a cook, and a dog walker, and a personal shopper, and a house cleaner…

Where were we—ah yes, self-editing. Here are some of the biggest tips that have helped me produce a much better final version (before I send it in to an editor for the one or two rounds I can afford).

  • Take it line by line, sentence by sentence. Is the structure sound? Does it make sense? Is it passive? Is it clear who is doing the action, who is in control of the perspective? Is there a random “pineapple” thrown in at the end of a paragraph?
  • Read it out loud. When all else fails, read it cover to cover, out loud. That’s when I find most of my mistakes. Or, if you’re not into that (or you live with people who aren’t into listening to you and by people, I mean cats) at least read aloud the passages, paragraphs and parts that feel awkward or over the top.
  • It’s not too late to kill some darlings. I have been known to cut out scenes/sentences/dialogue, in my final rounds that I knew didn’t belong but I clung to them like a freezing poor boy on the wreckage of the Titanic. Save them in a different file, but if you know in your heart it’s there to stroke your ego at your brilliant wordage but it’s not doing the story any good then show some humility and axe it.
  • Check your tense, check your POV, be consistent in those little things because they make a HUGE difference on whether or not your reader can follow the story and isn’t frustrated trying to do so.
  • Print it out. You can get a good deal at local or national printing companies (my local FedEx cashier knows me and it is so heartening every time she asks “new book?” and hands me the brown box of hope). Double sided, nothing fancy, cheapest version possible will still only set you back about $30 for a 250 page book. You will see things in ink that you cannot see on the screen, guaranteed.
  • Get a Beta reader or twelve. Yeah, it’s not really self-editing, but it’s part of the process that will help bring new eyes to your work. And usually it’s a low cost way to get a ‘real readers’ perspective on your work.

All right, that’s all I’ve got. Good luck out there. Don’t think this bullet list will take the place of a good professional round of editing, but it should help in your process. And maybe it can even help turn your first drafts into better drafts.

A Super Secret Guide to Finishing Your Damn Book. Part Three: The Down and Dirty of Feeding Your Creation to The Wolves of the World.

Hello, gentle writer. I suppose it goes without saying that after you’ve written your book and streamlined it into a gleaming beacon of fine-as-hell storytelling, you could easily stop reading this blog. You may even wish you could. But there is one more thing I’m going to need you to do…

Resist the urge to tuck that book safely away in a drawer.

Unless of course, all you want for your book is for it to sit on the dusty shelves of your den and no other eyes need apply. That’s cool.

We probably didn’t want to read it anyway, right? Your story? The shining soul child of your imagination and hard work? The obsession that’s kept you awake at night and in the zombie zone of blank-eyed stares over your cornflakes, morning after morning while your brain builds the magnificent steel girdle of plot and your vibrant right hemisphere stretches the skin of detail and beauty across the iron bones to make something quite unique and amazing. Nah…We don’t want to see that. Who would?

Were you able to pick up on that sarcasm? It’s tricky in Cambria 12 font to really capture the essence of my meaning. Here, allow me be to be perfectly direct.

Show me your work! (Channeling Cuba Gooding Jr.—“Show me the Story!”)

It’s quite possibly the hardest thing you’ll ever do (besides killing your darlings? Why yes, even harder than that!) Being a writer is a parade of progressively harder choices and leaps of faith…but then again, so is life… hang on to your self-help hats here, she’s getting deep.

Yeah, it is scary. Because we’ve learned well by this point in our lives that when we put so much love and heart into our work it’s gut-wrenching to hand it over to someone who can’t possibly understand the grit and soul we put into it. They might misinterpret. They might not ‘get’ it. They might declare us wrong, or awful, or in desperate need to change our dreams.

Nobody wants to face that possibility. You are not alone in this fear. And let’s face facts; there are jerks out there. Legit, bonafide A-holes. Those that are quick to cut down creative efforts (especially when they get to hide behind the curtain of anonymity in some trolling-Wizard-of-Oz’s mother’s basement.) They LOVE to give a good criticism, because of their own fears of failure and are stung by the twinge of jealousy when someone else is bold and brave enough to create and share.

It’s a sad state of affairs but your work can become fresh meat for the slathering-mouthed, teeth-gnashers of the world.Wolf / Gray Wolf / Timber Wolf - eating White-tailed deer prey

You Are Not Alone. You aren’t the first they’ll try to tear down, and you certainly won’t be the last.

Do it anyway.

Why? Why torture yourself? Because, there are good people out there. People who love stories and story-tellers. People who understand it’s a process and that when you come to them with open pages and hearts that they are taking on a mantle of trust. Trust that they will be kind, but honest. That they will work WITH you to make the story better. They will point out things you’ve been too close to see. They will point out things they think could use clarification. They will show you the loosened bolts and torn canvas so you can repair your creation. They will point out the beauty, the grace, the delicate details that gave them shivers or tears and it will embolden your spirit to fight for your creature.

Sharing your book is a monumentally important part of finishing your book. It will teach you what you didn’t know about your writing. It will teach you what works, and what needs work.

My challenge to you, frightened artist cowering over your pages like a hunched Gollum in the dark defending a scarred band of metal, is to offer up your precious. The beauty and the joy of creating are in the sharing.

gollum

I’ve had my cut of criticisms, hard and dirty. Mean. Some of them made me wonder if the person had even read my writing or just made assumptions based on my genre and lack of MFA gilding. I’ve wanted to take match and tinder to 8 years worth of my life on the front lawn while screaming profanities in the general direction of certain publishing houses. But I didn’t. I cooled down and let myself say these words to my disgruntled brain.

bookburning

“What are they seeing? What is slowing my writing/impairing my message? What can I change while still being true to my work?”

Opening the wound is to lay your ego out on the ground beside your creature and do the work that needs to be done. This is not an actual child. It’s an idea. And all good ideas can always get better.

Find a group of friends. Start there. Start with those that love you. Move up to those that think you’re decent enough, but aren’t afraid to tell you what they think. Give it to a few discerning hard-asses. Each step along the way, refining and tweaking, without giving up your voice or the elements that make your writing yours. No one can take that, nor should you let them.

So that’s it. The third and nearly final part of this series. Next week I’ll wrap it all up with a handy and bulleted (we all know you love the bullet lists) list of how to query your work to someone who can serve as a gateway into the realm of publishing.

Good luck, kiddo. And if all else fails and you don’t know where to turn with your work, send it to me or another writer you trust. Nobody knows the soul struggle better than your own kind.