For May, our Round Robin Blog is all about editing. All books go through multiple edits. What have your learned are your problems, and what irks you about editing?
There are several rounds of editing for any writer. Each serving a different purpose. For me, one kind of editing goes on during the writing of the story. I realize in Chapter 5 that the kid in chapter 2 can’t be five years old, he has to be closer to nine or ten so I go back to change it. Or my hero couldn’t have joined the Army in 2009 because based on his birthday, he’d have been fourteen when he went to West Point. Although some folk keep a running log for this kind of change, I generally take a moment to go fix it when I realize the inconsistency. In the writing of a mystery I might discover some clue that needs to be hinted at or foreshadowed earlier. Again, I could just keep a log and do it later, but I prefer to go back and fix it now because the story “feels” like it is flowing better when I know it’s been fixed and I know how I fixed it so references to that fix are more natural. The same thing would apply if I discovered that my heroine had some trauma in her past that informs her decisions and actions now. I feel totally compelled to haul out her dossier (a separate document) and add that whole sad, traumatic event, how it affected her then, how she overcame it, and how it changed her life going forward. Now I return to the point where I realized this lurking in her past and I have a far better idea what should be happening now.
My next edit/revision comes after my critique partner(s) have sent my chapter(s) back with their comments. They might find some inconsistency I missed, or ask a question I should have asked before because I have no idea what the answer is or should be. They also pick up things like passive voice, dialog that doesn’t sound right to them, backstory or info dumps, or characters who are acting OUT of character – at least out of character as I have portrayed them up to now. This kind of editing and revision might be after the entire book is complete, but for most of the critique relationships I’ve been in, this is ongoing while writing the story. I have to weigh their comments against what I know about my characters and my plot. Most times they point out things I should have seen but didn’t – a matter of seeing the forest for the trees, thing. But I might also dismiss a comment because I know it gets answered later, or because I know in my gut it does not fit the character or the plot. Critique partners also pick up on missing beats, confusing dialog – who’s speaking or acting. This could easily be fixed in the next edit and often is, but depending on where I am emotionally in my story, I might decide to fix these places now.
Then there’s the first big edit when I click on “Find” and look for all those pesky words I over use. Everyone has such a list. Mine includes anything ending with ING or words like really. was, well, said, and others. ING words mean the telling is passive and any time I can switch it up to active makes the writing stronger. Bret strode past the gas pump, instead of Bret was walking past the gas pump. A tall man wearing a Bruins jersey changed to A tall man in a Bruins Jersey. I was looking at my phone, placing a call… is much stronger if I punched in the number and waited impatiently. Of course, in this example I’d also change that waited impatiently which is telling into I punched in the number and drummed my fingers on the desk which shows action and impatience. The point of this exercise is to remove all those words and phrases that I overuse. And as a by-product see the weaker telling phrases and reword to show instead. This is where I look for all the grammar errors and missing or misplaced punctuation.
My books next go to a “Beta” reader. Someone I trust, who is comfortable being totally honest with me about their reaction to the characters, plot, dialog and action. It’s a fresh set or two or three of eyes reading for pleasure, not editing for errors. Then they give me more general comments. Along the lines of “I really liked the twins but to be honest, I can’t figure out why Bob did that. It’s just so out of the blue. A comment like this means one of two things. 1) I knew something about my character that I failed to give the reader a clue about, or 2) it was totally out of the blue and not consistent with the character. Other things a beta reader might say: “Teenagers don’t talk like Susie does in this book. You should spend an afternoon with a friend who has teenagers and listen to them talking for a while, then fix this.” Or “You put this character in the story who has Alzheimers and most of the time you did a good job of portraying what it’s like to live with someone like this, but in chapter 13 this woman remembers way too much detail about what happened the day before. Alzheimer’s patients can often recall details from forty years ago, but can’t remember what they ate for breakfast so this just didn’t work for me.”
Another thing both Beta readers and critique partners might say is “Where’s the hook?” I could have put this book down so easy, either at the end of a specific chapter or throughout the book. This means I have not thoroughly ramped up the tension in that chapter, or have not kept the tension and conflict growing throughout. I have not left an unanswered question at the end of a chapter or put my protagonist on the edge of a cliff so the reader is compelled to keep turning pages even when it’s one o’clock in the morning.
My biggest problem with editing and revising is I constantly see things I think I need to tweak. I do love my thesaurus and always seem to think there might be a better word for this particular place. Or my character is speaking and I keep rewording their dialog. Eventually I have to get tough with myself and just put the book to bed. Or more accurately send it off to my acquiring editor (for traditionally published books) or my copy editor for my indie books. Doesn’t mean I’m done yet because it will come back and there will be yet more things to fix. But by now I am so ready to move on, and might already be well into the next book so I’m far less likely to get nit-picky, and far more likely to just make the requested changes before sending it off for formatting and publishing.
So, what have I learned and what irks me? I’ve learned how to spot passive tense. Telling instead of showing pops out at me far easier now. I’ve learned to keep a running list of things that need fixing later if waiting won’t impact what I’m writing now. And the biggest thing editing has taught me is to ALWAYS have a Bible. Always have a list of characters with basic physical characteristics, family, friends, what car they drive etc. Even for a stand-alone because I don’t want my hero’s mother to have blue eyes and drive a red pick-up truck in chapter one and have gray eyes and drive a Camaro in chapter fifteen. Worse, I don’t want to get to chapter fifteen and can’t remember what some bit character looked like and have to go back, combing through 50,000 words or more to find the answer. It just makes life easier. Also, as I’m writing, if I add, or should say, AS I add characters in the process of writing, I go back and add that character to my Bible. I might not think he’s going to show up again, but if I didn’t add him, he surely would. It’s even more important to have a Bible for a series so all the main players, places, etc, are consistent. Another thing I’ve found is helpful, that I learned while editing is to have a time-line. So things fit relative to time. My characters are the right age, events in their lives are consistent with both the world they live in and their ages and any “real” events in the world are appropriately set in the story. (How many books have some connection to 9/11? Or other similarly familiar events need to fit.)
What irks me? Not a whole lot. Editing has always, always made my books stronger than they were before the editing at any stage in the writing. Editing is my friend. It makes me a better writer and my story more compelling. And Please! If you are an indie author – get your book professionally edited. Once you’ve spent so many hours, so much sweat and tears, put so much of your heart into this story, your eyes will betray you as you read over it for errors and you won’t see them. Nothing is more irritating that diving into a really great story with a compelling premise and plot and being constantly tripped up by misspelled words, errors in grammar and inconsistencies of character and time. No one has as much time to read as they’d like and with so many good books out there to choose from, they’ll put your badly edited book aside and move on. Worse, they likely won’t come back to purchase another one either.
Want to see how these other writers square up to the process of editing their books? Hop on over and check them out.
Dr. Bob Rich
Rhobin L Courtright