Posts Tagged how to self-edit
You know the situation. A beta reader or editor says a precious part of your book has to go. You resist, strenuously. They fix you with an unforgiving eye and say: ‘kill your darlings’.
Sometimes we resist a change for good reason. The character/scene/description/flashback/whatever might be needed. It explains something, or adds resonance, or fills a gap in the story, though perhaps it doesn’t yet do its job. That’s fixable.
We also resist changes that will cause a hot mess, though we’ll probably make them when we’ve mustered the courage.
Those aren’t darlings.
What are darlings?
Darlings are things we cling to, with especial defiance, when we shouldn’t. They’re anything we’re keeping mainly because we like them, not because they are necessary for the book.
We all do it. We’ll do it on our first book and yea unto our umpteenth.
So why are darlings such a blind spot? Here’s my theory, from experience at both ends of the editing sword. Darlings carry emotional baggage.
- We might keep a darling because it’s based on something personal.
- We might keep a darling that’s totally invented, but it took a long time to draft or edit and because of that investment, it’s going in the goddarned book.
But look at those reasons. Are they about the reader’s experience? Or are they about us, the writer?
Assuming the beta readers are right, what are the options? Sit down, this is painful.
- Remove the darling.
- Change it so it better serves the book.
For some authors, the second option is every bit as scandalous as the first. And this is another way you can recognise a darling, should you wish to. It’s sacred. It must not be changed.
Truly I get it. A story isn’t a purely mechanical process, like building a bicycle. It’s a work of emotion too, a flow between the reader’s heart and ours. Our empathy, our gut quirks, give our book its distinctive life. All this is often beyond analysis. But our emotional contribution must be used carefully. Sometimes the most heartfelt parts of a book don’t touch the reader in the way they touch us. They’re muddling noise. Or embarrassing self-indulgence. Or boring. That’s what the beta readers are saying. They’re not feeling the vibe.
Still we resist. Dig our heels in.
I am NOT taking that out or changing it.
Loyalty to the darling runs deep.
It’s a tug of love. So here’s a more helpful question.
Which do we love better? The darling or the whole book?
It’s a hard call. I’m just as guilty as anyone of keeping stuff for bad, muddled reasons. You should see the outtakes files for my novels. But I’ve always found this: there comes a point where the manuscript seems to mature. When the book is working well, I appreciate what it needs as a whole. Then, I’m able to make the tougher decisions. I love the book more than I love a scene I’ve clung to for a long time, or a character or a description.
How you will know them
Here are a few more things I’ve learned about darlings.
They lurk in deep disguise. They often come from our very earliest workings on the book – for instance, a scene that helped us start the writing in the first place, or the first things we wrote about a character. They seem to be set in stone. But they don’t have to be. They might be scaffold – vital at first, unnecessary for the final piece.
A darling might come from our actual life, a secret ingredient of real experience or knowledge. This is another reason why they’re so hard to remove, because they are a kind of proof that we know what we’re writing about, that they came from something we learned first hand.Our vision and understanding of the book might be intrinsically tied to these darlings.
They once had an important purpose, but do they suit the book now? Has the book outgrown them?
These kinds of darlings don’t show their true nature until late on. It’s as if the editing process is a long relationship. In the first flush, we welcome everything we create for the book, especially the parts with the biggest life. (Darlings are often startling, dramatic, distinctive.) We’re discovering. From these, we might make numerous inspired and rewarding decisions. Those were important, but we don’t always need the material they came from.
I promise, because this always happens to me, that late in the process, you acquire a level of clarity and vision that will amaze you. When you’re very sure of the book, and of yourself in its skin, you’ll know when something no longer fits, even though it has been personally important to you in the book’s making. You recognise it strikes an unsuitable note, or tunes the reader wrongly, or muddies an important moment, or halts the emotional action. That’s when we can judge:
Which do I love more? This one precious part or the whole book?
If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.
I’ve had this interesting question from Jan.
A friend has finished drafting her first novel. She asked me to proofread before she sends it to agents. I explained she would up her chances if she got it edited too, so she asked if I could do that.
I’m reading the manuscript and have found what I feel are fundamental issues. For instance, I’m 57 pages in and nothing dramatic has happened, I still don’t know the theme of the book, or what any of the characters are driving towards. There is a lot of description, but I haven’t been able to discern its purpose.
I really want her to have the best chance, so how do I essentially ask her to rewrite from scratch? She’s proud of the manuscript; (she should be, she wrote 92,000 words and had the dedication to stick to it). I’m trying to work out the best way to approach the things that need fixing without making her feel like I’ve torn down her baby. What should I do?
I sense you feel this is an unusual situation. It is not.
With developmental editing, especially of a first novel, it’s not unusual for me to (gently) tell the writer they need to completely redraft.
First, let’s assume your friend chose you because you like her kind of book. That’s important. A reader who loves a racy plot in a weird special world won’t want the same things as a reader who loves the quiet ordinary, told in poetic clarity. One person’s paint drying is another person’s delight. So let’s assume she knows your tastes, and you know hers, and all is aligned.
Assuming that, you’re looking for exactly the right things. You’ve responded as a reader who should like the book. You don’t think she intends you to feel that nothing has happened, and that it seems to be aimless. You’re not engaged or curious, though you are eager to be.
Still, she’s written 92,000 words. And now you’re going to tell her to do it all again. How do you do that without apparently dismissing her achievement?
Writing is rewriting
Tell her that rewriting is normal. If she hadn’t heard of editing, she probably doesn’t know this. First-time writers are often so relieved – and rightly so – when they type ‘the end’ that they think the work is done. If they have heard of editing, they imagine a brief tidying of spelling and grammar, and perhaps a nifty rewording along the way. Far from it.
Jan, tell your friend it’s not unusual to need several goes at a manuscript before it’s ready for readers or an agent. Most first drafts are rough. Here are posts about a slow, multidrafting writing process. Some books need to find themselves as we write. I did 23 drafts of the novel I’ve just finished… Sometimes we add layers as we understand better what we’re trying to do – and that polishing is part of the joy. Sometimes, though, it streams out fast. We’re all different. Sometimes, we’re even different from book to book.
Writing is many skills
Here’s another thing to tell your friend. Writing is many skills and you can’t learn it all at once. Tell her she’s taught herself some excellent lessons already – persistence, finishing, a routine that allowed her to complete the book. Also description. Even if the description is not effectively used, she’s had to vividly imagine the scenes and the story world, and that’s a necessary skill.
But there are numerous other aspects to a good novel and now she has to learn those. How to structure a plot. How to create characters who are individual and filled with life. How to give information without beating the reader around the head. How to direct the reader’s attention and emotions.
Some are reasonably obvious. Some are so subtle that you don’t notice them unless you know to look for them. And they all have to work together, all at once. See my previous point about layering and redrafts. Those are the arts she now needs to learn.
Her book is not rubbish
Might she think you’re telling her to abandon that book? Not at all. Until she knows about these craft points, she doesn’t know the potential that’s in her idea. She doesn’t have to ditch this story; she now has to learn how to do it justice. To write the same book, but much better. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t, but she won’t know that until she tries.
Also, she’s not the first person who’s had to be told this.
We’ve all been through it. See How exactly do you learn to write professionally. Is she missing these craft skills because she’s never taken a course? See Can writing be taught. And should she feel foolish because she wrote a book without knowing how to? An editor wouldn’t think that. Look at Why your editor admires you, and why you might not realise this.
Oh yes. And we all get nervous about feedback. How to prepare for comments on your book manuscript.
If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, including my own (much drafted) third novel, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.
Last month I was preparing for beta reader comments on the manuscript of my third novel, Ever Rest.
I’ve now received them, so I thought it might be useful to write a follow-up post for how I tackle them.
I was very lucky – and relieved – that the verdict was overwhelmingly positive. The book works. Nevertheless, each reader found minor queries, which is entirely expected.
Some are easy to solve – a change of word or phrase. They won’t upset the flow. But some will be more disruptive, requiring explanations to be unpicked, dialogue to be altered, scene choreography to change. Those notes are more stressful.
But I have a strategy!
1 – Merge everything
My first step is to merge all the comments onto one Word doc. Not every query needs to be acted on, unless the reader is a specialist in a factual area, then their comments obviously have extra weight. But I pay serious attention if more than one person raises a particular problem.
Then I get to work. I split the edit into two phases.
2a – the factual and literal stage.
I chop in the new material, amend inaccuracies, add clarifications. Change events if necessary. I keep it rough and obvious. I change the text colour to red so I can instantly see it needs better treatment, like a sore thumb.
2b – the flow stage.
Here’s where I integrate the change properly, re-edit the scene, consider if the characters’ reactions should change, decide if there are more consequences to be stitched in later.
In phase 2b, I might decide that some of the 2a additions aren’t necessary. They might be too literal. Or they might need more oblique treatment. Sometimes a reader’s pain point is not caused in the place they registered it. Like sciatica, it might be referred from elsewhere.
This two-phase system allows me to give all the comments a fair hearing, to accept that something needs to be adjusted, without panicking about the wreckage it might leave, without worrying about the wrong things at the wrong time. It often brings me to better insights, to better understand what I’m making.
I’m just finishing phase 1. My manuscript now has new pieces, chopped in like rough surgery. But I’m excited about healing the joins. I know it’s now more authentic, effective, solid, reliable, which is what I want it to be.
PS I’m teaching a masterclass on back story at Jane Friedman’s online lecture hall! July 1st, book now!
PPS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.
How do you integrate reader comments? Share below!
‘Try to leave out the bits the reader will skip,’ said Elmore Leonard.
Sure, Mr L, but how do we identify them?
I thought about this recently when I read a manuscript that was heavy on technical detail. When I delivered my verdict – that many of these passages lost my interest – the author said:
‘I know what you mean – when I read other books on the subject, my eyes often glaze over at the technical passages.’
How interesting that he said that.
When editing our own work, one of the keenest senses we have is our gut instinct. Is it holding our attention? Or does it seem muddled, unconfident, lacking clarity? If we’re even just a tad dissatisfied, this means the passage needs more work.
This is a rule
There are few guarantees in making art. It’s hard to produce absolute formulae for what will work and what won’t. For every general principle – do show, don’t tell – there’s a valid anti-rule.
But this is one situation that does have an absolute rule.
Writer, if you are bored, the reader will be … oh do stay awake at the back.
This applies whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction.
So you’ve realised a passage in your book is boring you. Hooray. Now what?
How to not be boring
First, examine why you’re including this material. Is it out of a sense of duty? Is it an element you’ve seen in other books with a similar readership?
If so, do you have to be like those other books? Perhaps you do, and we’ll come to that next. But first, consider whether you could delete. Yes. Whip it out. Nuke it.
However, it’s more likely that some of this soporific sludge will be necessary for reader comprehension, or to maintain the book’s authority. What do you do?
The answer is obvious, isn’t it? You resolve not to be dull.
Realise this: you don’t have to try to be like the other books that bored you. You can offer something different or more interesting.
Channel your best bits
Look for other passages in your book where the narrative has a more lively spirit. That’s you at your best. Drink their energy. Often I find that an author who sends me to sleep in some sections is sparky and brilliant in others. They need to channel that all the time. Perhaps ask a reader to pick some out for you.
Next, rewrite your lifeless passages with the same outlook and voice. Had you realised your persona varied so much?
Channel a muse
Here’s another approach. Look at other books whose style keeps you unusually entertained. We all have writers whose style perks us up, even if they’re describing the colour of their socks. Try and say it the way they would.
Write for an unforgiving reader
Sometimes it helps to write for an imagined audience. In this case, imagine a friend who won’t tolerate much detail about your pet subject.
I have several pet subjects that end up in my books, and I’ve learned to apply the Husband Test. Husband Dave has a shrug level of interest in some of my deepest curiosities.
One example is the remnants of demolished stately homes. I could keep myself amused all day with them, looking for the lines of old walls in a cow pasture, a front door step half buried in grass, an ornate gateway that seems to lead nowhere. When I wrote about a particularly enchanting site in Not Quite Lost, I knew it would be easy to lose the reader so I kept Dave in mind as I edited. How would I get him interested in them? Something in these buried remains felt universal and exciting to me. What was it? I had to reach beyond my own intrinsic interest (walls! doorsteps! gateways!) to a deeper level (the sediment of passing time! vanished people!).
Imagine your least indulgent reader. Write as though you had to keep their attention.
Thanks for the sleeping person pic Sean Kelly on Flickr. Thanks for the sleeping people pic: Pixabay.
Over to you! Is this a problem you’ve identified in your own work? How did you overcome it?
PS There’s loads more on how to keep readers interested in my book on plot
PPS Speaking of edits etc, here’s what I’m working on at the moment