Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Seeing Red

By Kelli Collins

Having been on both the giving and receiving end of edits, I know they’re usually a source of angst. But where most authors consider edits little red badges of failure, I prefer to see them as bringing me closer to books that shine like Kojak’s big, bald head. Edits should encourage, not discourage; they should be the deadliest weapon in your arsenal, not harbingers of doom.

The closer you are to your work, the more emotionally involved, the harder edits will be. Nothing you haven’t heard before. So how does one develop the resolve necessary for successful editing? That fabled thick skin that allows you to step back and view your work objectively? It starts with you—and it’s called self-editing.

I hereby bequeath to you my precious red pen, and empower you to use it with impunity. Heady feeling, ain’t it? There’s no end to excellent self-editing tips online, so no excuse not to practice it. The better you become, the less red you’ll see from your editor. Your chances for acceptance will increase. Your readers will thank you. Your characters will love you (they don’t want to look bad either).

To get you started, some of my favorite tips for authors (by no means a comprehensive list). Said in many ways, on many sites, by many editors:

1. Spellcheck, spellcheck, spellcheck. No excuses. It’s the number one reason for most of the rejections I hand out.

2. Take a break. Walk away. Just walk away! By the time you’ve typed “The End”, you’re about ready to bleed Times New Roman. Distance yourself a bit, work on something else, gain some objectivity then go back with a fresh eye.

3. Avoid info dumps. The first couple pages of your book are not the place for extensive descriptions and back stories for your characters. Reveal your characters and their stories gradually, in sensible places throughout their narratives.

4. Avoid repetition and over-description. If your hero’s eyes are green, search that word. If your heroine’s hair is red, search that word (and redhead, red-haired, etc.). You’ll be surprised how often you repeat yourself. Also avoid long strings of adjectives. “The six-foot-two, muscle-bound, hunkalicious, oh-my-god hot doctor walked into the room.”

5. Avoid crutch words that add nothing: when, that, just, really, very, suddenly, then, etc.

6. Read your book out loud. It’s a great way to spot repetition, run-on sentences, awkward structure and long dialogue tags. The words might look right on the page…but how do they sound?

7. Read backward. No joke. The last word in a sentence is often the most powerful. Do you really need the last word or three at the end of that sentence? “Dazzled by the creamy confection’s delicacy, she couldn’t get enough of it.”

8. If your publisher has a house style guide, learn it, live it, love it. Not published? Start with The Chicago Manual of Style, which breaks down all grammar, style and punctuation for you. Then build your own personal style guide, a checklist tailored to your personal writing habits, words you often misspell, rules you have trouble remembering, etc. (Mine is two full pages. It takes me an average of 6 minutes to search my authors’ books for each item on the list. I’m proud to report most have now pounded themselves into my head—but I still check them anyway.)

9. Don’t rely on crit partners to do the work for you. Most crit partners are friends, family members, fellow authors, etc., who likely have as much or less experience than you. And love them though we do, they often won’t tell us what we need to hear. They’ll tell us what we want to hear. Sorry; it’s the truth. Who wants to hurt anyone’s feelings (plus, most of us suck at constructive criticism)? If I ask my best friend what she thinks of the haircut I just gave myself, she’s never going to tell me, “It sucks. You look like a Dark Helmet from Spaceballs.” Even if my own mirror says my hair can now legally be used as a hardhat on construction sites.

10. Finally—write first, edit later. Resist the urge to go back and read each chapter upon completion. It’s the easiest way to get sucked into the tenth level of minutia, where you’ll remain for untold weeks or months in self-doubt hell. You’ll revise and revise and revise and…


Regina Carlysle said...

Love this post and I'm thrilled to know I already do most of these things. I'm never MARRIED to anything. If my editor needs something changed, I seldom have a problem. Reading a passage aloud is invaluable to me but it seems there is a certain cadence to words and if it's not there when reading out loud, I know something is wrong.

Debra Glass said...

I have always welcomed my editor's comments and edits. Her input does make my books shine! (TY KC!)

Anonymous said...

Regina, I love to read aloud. It's a huge help when I'm editing. Though my husband *does* think I'm slightly nuts.

Debra, you are indeed a model author. :)

Blayne Edwards said...

Number six, number six, number six.

If you can manage to make the book flow like a song then the reader can forget they're reading and lose themselves in the world you've created.

We all know what happens when a reader gets lost in a world we've created, don't we?

Anonymous said...

#10 is my biggest problem. I hate that I do it.

Also, I don't know what it is about sitting down and writing but my friends/family think it's the perfect time to talk to me. :/

Anonymous said...

100% correct, Blayne; perchance I should have moved that one higher up on the list?

Anon, surely your friends/family are trying to help, no? ;) I think everything works that way; it's universal law. Like when you wash your car and it rains an hour later...


Anonymous said...

I know I rely too much on crutch words, but it's good to have a reminder.

Danica Avet said...

This was a great, GREAT post. I've just finished proofreading my very first completed novel and I know I'll have to go back using the suggestions I read here. It took me several attempts over the years to write first and edit later, so I know that rule works. I actually finished something this time!
Very helpful suggestions.

Anonymous said...

You're most welcome, Danica. If I left anything out that you're particularly curious about, feel free to ask. And congrats on finishing your book!!


MsSnarkyPants said...

Great post! I'm doing a BIG rewrite of something right now. First thing to do is going to be a "Find" for every mention of eyes, I wanted to change the hero's eye color anyway. *silently shakes her fist at the golden eyed vampires in Twilight*

Anonymous said...

I have a question about POV. Is it frowned upon to alternate between 1st and 3rd person? For example: I think my story would work well in 1st person but the main character wasn't born when certain things in the happened. Is it possible to start out as the narrator and tell the background story then switch to 1st person or should I stick with 1st and just have people tell him what happened? I know I am a newb! lol

Jennifer Ashley/ Allyson James / Ashley Gardner said...

Terrific advice, Kelli. I am lucky to have a crit partner who never hesitates to point out problems, which is a good thing! I do like being edited, because as careful as I try to be, as anal as I try to be, I'm always going to miss something.

Anonymous said...

Hey Anon, great question. Most editors would tell you to stick with one POV; it can get confusing, fast, for the reader if there's a lot of switching. (Count me among the "most".)

Ask yourself why the history needs to be recounted; necessary to the story? If yes...

Can you employ flashbacks? If it's abundantly clear we're in a flashback, I'd allow third-person in an otherwise first-person story.

Can the character imply he/she's read or been told about said history, so he/she can then relay it to the reader in first person?

First/third has been done. It's just really, really hard to pull off *well* in a way that's not confusing for the reader. (Editor Meghan Conrad, for instance, has read third-person mysteries in which the author occasionally pops into first-person for the villain's POV, etc.)

I applaud your bravery! First-person itself is really hard for writers, let alone a newbie. Most are surprised how often they unknowingly switch to third. For a newbie to tackle both in one novel?

You're crazy, friend. And I like it.


Karla Doyle said...

A question regarding spelling... I am Canadian (eh) and up here in the Great White North we spell a few words differently from our best friends in the USA, such as favourite and colour, off the top of my head.
Would you suggest that I change words such as these to the American spelling if I'm submitting to agents/editors who are south of the border? (Had to throw that pun in there...)
Many thanks for your input!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. The editors I've worked with have taught me so much--wow, those words are inadequate. I'm just grateful. I'm dyslexic (yes, I know it's wierd that a dyslexic loves to read and write-lol), so I have to search for words like "form" which the spell check "sees" as correct when I meant "from". I used to have a person who read my manuscript to me aloud-wow that was great. Miss her. *sniff*