Barbara Kingsolver said something that I found very interesting at our conference in Lexington, Kentucky a few weeks ago. She said she loves the editing process and that if it were up to her she would never stop editing one of her books. While I’m not sure that I would go that far, I can relate to the idea. There is something strangely satisfying about going through a novel you’ve written. You get to remember the good parts (“Oh, I remember writing that…It’s still pretty damn good”) and you get the satisfaction of adding onto underdeveloped parts or squeezing in new details that maybe you didn’t think of at the time you were writing it. If books are like children, and most writers say they are, editing is like taking your child and saying “hmm…let’s make him a little more athletic” or “let’s give him green eyes instead”. Basically, editing is like the movie “Gattaca”, except different. Really, really different.
With that in mind, what are some good details to assess during the editing process? Here are a few that came to my mind, but I’d love to hear other ideas.
1. Are Secondary Characters Given Their Time to Shine? I’m currently writing a sci-fi/dystopian novel in which The World Cup (yes, the soccer one) determines how vaccination is delivered in a post-apocalyptic world that is ravaged by disease. This is the first time I’ve written in this genre but I did make a brief foray into fantasy and one thing the two genres have in common is that the character possibilities are rich and virtually limitless. I’ve gotten kind of crazy with characters because every new scene requires that I construct people to occupy those scenes and sometimes those characters end up being far more fascinating than I’d ever planned.
I won’t give too much away (you’ll have to read the book) but my point is that I have worried that audiences might latch onto a secondary character and be disappointed when that character suddenly goes missing. There are only so many arcs I can tie up with a pretty little bow in the story that I’ve set out to tell and the result is that a few secondary characters have fallen to the wayside. If you’re writing and you suddenly discover that you like one of your secondary characters more than your protagonist, consider why that is and how you could possibly show off more of that character. I find that one characteristic of a great character is that they’re easy to write. Oftentimes, the dialogue will just flow. Better yet, sometimes the dialogue of other characters flows better whenever they’re speaking to that character. Pretty astonishing.
Oh, but where was I? How do you make readers happy? Well, I know what I’ll be doing: Writing a sequel. I’ve fallen so in love with a couple of characters that, even though they only exist for a chapter or two in The Last Cup, I’m already planning how to incorporate them more into the storyline of a sequel. It gives readers added incentive to pick up the first book and gives them hope that a character might not be truly lost. My only problem now is what the hell to call a sequel to a book named The Last Cup. The NEW Last Cup? The Last Cup II: Balls Out? Return of the Last Cup? I’ll think of something.
2. Could My Language Be Better Richer?
Another aspect of any first draft that can fall short of high standards is language. You know how it goes. You’re busy trying to crank out that first copy and all you’re focused on is getting words on the page. They may not be the words that resonate in the depths of your soul, but their words and they get your message across well enough. Basically, those words are placeholders to come back and tidy up later. Except you don’t. If you’re like me, you’ve been guilty of letting those words just sit and rot, and you know you’re not happy with them, but you just can’t quite come up with how to fix them.
Well, never fear. The editing process is here. Don’t settle into the easy groove of searching for simple typos. Ask yourself how you can really breathe life into your words. Can you say something in a way that no one else has ever said it? This works especially well for clichés. We all know how much agents hate clichés, so why not try to convey an idea in a manner that no one else ever has? I’m not saying this is easy, because it isn’t, but it is something that great writers must master. You want to know what loosens me up? A nice glass of wine. It makes me feel more “writerly” and it also shakes me up enough to make my tongue try things it wouldn’t otherwise. As always, I also recommend to read a page from one of your favorite writers before you dive into edits. Just one solid page of great writing can completely change the way you approach your edits.
3. Could My Beginning Be Stronger?
I’ll probably write a thousand entries on this single point in the years I plan to commit to this blog, but enough cannot be said about strengthening your beginning. Some of this importance goes without saying. In this e-book world in which we live, downloading a new book by an unknown author is a bit like going on a blind date and that first chapter is going to give the reader a fairly good idea of how hot your book is.
You can find my original thoughts on first chapters here and here, but the first few chapters of your book are definitely worth spending a little extra time on. Now, I’ve had a few conversations about “the beginning” with other writers and I wanted to weigh in on a few things. Kicking things off with a great beginning does not just mean taking the first half of your climax and pasting it onto the beginning. Sure, that might be a great way of throwing some action into your first chapter but it’s also a fairly cheap tactic and most agents will pick up on that if you try it. When I think of great first chapters that stand alone from the rest of the story while also being absolutely essential to it, I think of the shocking first chapter of “The DaVinci Code”. Your first instinct might be to begin with several chapters of bland exhibition and character development but your book really needs more of a punch than that.
And whatever you do, avoid an information dump. Don’t throw loads of background and history into the first chapter. Only tell the audience what they need to know to get through a given chapter. A great story teller knows how to save everything else.
4. What Would Improve My Locations/Settings?
Something else that can become lost in the editing process is location and scenery details. Now, my advice is to tread lightly here. Your scenery is like a garden and you should only grow it up if you’re absolutely sure the reader needs to see it. Don’t build gardens just for the sake of having them. I think science fiction and fantasy are the best places for scenery growth, because you’re trying to introduce readers to a completely new world that you’ve developed. Chances are that the objects and creatures that occupy that world are far different than what the reader expects and building a scene. The first time I tried to write fantasy, though, I dwelled on these details for far too long and even painted imagery that wasn’t particularly interesting.
That may be why that book ran 300,000 words. Yikes. Oh well, I was young and stupid. At least I didn’t waste a lot of time trying to get that published.
Also, avoid chewing on the weather. Don’t treat your reader like a stranger standing awkwardly in an elevator with you. The reader doesn’t care that there’s a storm or if the sun is shining, especially if you promised murder and suspense on the back cover. One point that tons of agents make is that you should never ever mention the weather (unless, of course, the weather is absolutely relevant to what is happening or your protagonist is a vampire meteorologist or something…note to self, write “vampire meteorologist” book. Call it “Partly Cloudy with a Chance of Fangs”.)
5. Does The Story Lose Anything Without This?
Finally, don’t fall so in love with your story that you become afraid to trim the fat. I always try to shoot for 80,000 words for all my novels but during the drafting process I shoot for 85,000 words so that I can say what I want to say while knowing that I have PLENTY of room to snip a bit off the top. Whenever you have the opportunity to remove paragraph that are A) non-essential, B) uninteresting, and C) not especially well-written, GET IT OUT OF THERE. You don’t have to tell anyone. I won’t tell anyone. No one will ever know.
My book Naked in Korea was the perfect place to learn how to trim. Being a memoir, the book is full of little observations that didn’t seem nearly as profound the second time around. I also tried to keep that book as funny as possible and found that a fair number of my jokes fell flat after revisiting them several months later. SNIP. Sure I put a few new jokes in—there’s nothing wrong with spicing things up—but for the most part I tried to shed what I could.
I had another point to make on this. It was a really good point, but I lost it. Don Draper would say that if you have an idea you should always write it down ASAP. I didn’t. So, here’s Don Draper being suave and pontificating on life. Enjoy.