Once past the happy clappies of finishing a draft, it’s time for a reality check. Few publications worth bothering with have an acceptance rate above 5%. Most are considerably lower than that, as shown by the statistics on the Submissions Grinder. Sending out a merely good story won’t get a sale. It has to stand out from the pack. There are a great many imponderables, such as whether your transcendental mermaid story happened to arrive in midst of a glut of transcendental mermaid stories, when the editor last ate or whether his girlfriend made him sleep on the sofa last night. There’s nothing we can do about any of that. The only thing under our control the quality of the story, and editing is how we push the quality as hard as we can.
A round table discussion among some of the more prominent science fiction and fantasy editors shows they’re not all looking for exactly the same things, but the theme that keeps coming through is that the quality of the story matters.
Editing works at several different levels. At its broadest, there’s still work to do on the story structure. At its narrowest, it involves getting all the apostrophes in the right place. I’m going to stick to the approach rather than the details because there are whole books on the details. I can recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne, Dave King and George Booth. There is a newer edition, but I haven’t read it so can’t honestly recommend it.
Something else I’m going to leave for now is the story opening, which is so important it will get the next two posts to itself.
If I try to edit at all levels at once, I get overwhelmed and end up doing none of them properly. I find it works better to break the process down into three stages and do one at a time:
1/ Putting in: Make sure everything that needs to be in the story is in the story.
2/ Taking out: Take out anything that doesn’t need to be in there.
3/ Red pen time: Tidy up the language.
Is everything in the story that the reader will need to follow it? Given my rule of explaining nothing in the first draft, the answer should be no. Now is the time to look at how much explanation the reader needs, and where it needs to be fitted in. It’s much easier to do this now, when I can see the shape of the story and how it can be moulded, than when I’m still sculpting it.
What really needs to be in the story is one of those nebulous questions that varies from one story to another. Is everything that needs a description described? Is there enough foreshadowing to ensure important developments don’t come out of nowhere? Are the reasons behind the character’s actions clear to a reader who doesn’t have access to my thought processes?
The last one is often the hardest to nail down. When I get to the stage of receiving critiques on a story, I often find that some people will say they can’t understand why a character did something, while others say I over-explain it. It puzzled me for a long time until noticed a common problem with stories I was critiquing, which was a tendency to shy off making direct statements in favour of alluding to them. As soon as I saw the pattern, I realised I was doing it myself. I decided it’s better to risk the inelegance of a direct statement than risk losing a substantial number of readers. The trick is in making the direct statement from the viewpoint’s mind or through dialogue, not in beating about the bush to avoid making it at all. My principal now is that if something is important, it needs to be clearly stated once, and once only.
My first drafts are bloated. They have consecutive sentences saying the same thing. They have characters thinking about their actions before doing them, when the action alone would demonstrate they must have thought about it. They have the same thing described two paragraphs apart because I forgot I’d already said it. I can see where I stopped one day and started the next, because I wasted a couple of sentences to get back into the action. I repeat images and conspicuous words because something that came to me in a blaze of originality got stuck in my head and popped out again a few paragraphs later. Through critiquing, I know I’m in good company.
Once I’m happy that everything is in the manuscript that needs to be there, it’s time to take a chainsaw to the manuscript and get rid of everything that doesn’t need to be there. I’ve been known to cut the word count by 20% at this stage, without losing any part of the story. That tells me that had I put it in front of a reader, they would have found the pace excruciatingly slow. A story should be no longer than it needs to be, otherwise the reader starts skimming and then they’re lost.
The red pen
Make no mistake, use of language matters. Not many publications do much editing so they’re looking for manuscripts that are publication ready. Not that it matters much, because unless a writer can master language to tell a story, it won’t get anywhere near publication. If that’s as self-evident to you as it is to most writers, you’ve probably been tidying up as you work on the broader issues. It’s hard to resist, but too much focus on language in the early stages of the editing process risks distracting from the broader issues.
Once those broader issues are covered, it’s time to get out the red pen and work on the line-by-line. It can be a metaphorical red pen if you’re working on the screen, but don’t scrimp on the metaphorical red ink. This isn’t the place to go into the nitty gritty of adverb and adjective use, dialogue tagging, paragraphing, etc. These things are covered elsewhere. For me, a lot of this stage comes down to being aware of my own verbal tics and correcting them. That’s where critiquing is necessary. I don’t have the perspective to see them for myself, so if I’m aware of them, it’s because someone has pointed them out to me.
Some examples are my tendency to use over-long sentences with multiple clauses separated by commas and conjunctions. At the red pen stage, I scrutinise any sentence with more than one of either and ask if it would be better to break the sentence in two. For example, a story I was working on recently contained this monster:
By the time they’d paid off their debts and the venture capitalists had taken their cut, his and Tia’s shares wouldn’t come to more than a few thousand pounds, which wasn’t much for three years work.
A quick chop turned it into the much more digestible:
By the time they’d paid off their debts and the venture capitalists who funded them, his and Tia’s shares wouldn’t come to more than a few thousand pounds.
I am regularly caught ‘filtering’, in which my viewpoint ‘thinks’ or ‘sees’ something that could just be said, because the reader already knows they’re getting their information through the viewpoint’s consciousness. Another recent first draft contained:
It was a simple fact of being a Wing, thought Persia.
This was over 1000 words in so if I hadn’t established Persia as the viewpoint by now, it would have been time to give up and go home. By now, the reader should know they’re in Persia’s head and doesn’t need every statement qualified to remind them of that.
It was a simple fact of being a Wing.
I’m painfully aware that I overuse the words ‘that’ and ‘just’. If I use a word processor to highlight one of those words, the document lights up like a Christmas tree. If you’ve been following these posts, you’ve probably noticed a few more of my tics that I’m still oblivious to.
I find it very helpful to make a list of my verbal tics, and refer to it at this stage. Everyone will have their own. Jim van Pelt is one of the few courageous enough to share his.
The most accomplished wordsmiths get hung up on the finer points of grammar and syntax sometimes. A useful resource is the Oxford English Dictionary, which lays out correct usage. Grammar Girl can be useful for the more obscure points as well.
Vary the medium
Editing is as iterative a process as developing the chronology. It involves reading the manuscript again and again. And again. Until you’re not sure if you’re seeing what’s there or what you took out two revisions ago. While it’s convenient to do most of the editing on screen, I find it valuable to do at least one edit on a printed copy with a literal red pen. It gives a slightly different perspective. I also find it helpful to read it aloud to myself, which helps to get a sense of where the language gets clunky. I know writers who swear by reading it on their phones because they find it helps to look at a few words at a time.
The purpose of self-editing is to push the story as far as you can. That is not the same as pushing it as far as it can be pushed. Constructive feedback will push it further, but the further you go on your own, the further the feedback will take you. So when is the self-editing finished? It’s possible to go on for ever, generating an infinite number of corrected drafts that may only vary by a word or two. There comes a point where it’s still short of perfect, but more editing isn’t getting it any closer. I stop when I can honestly say I’ve taken it as far as you can. If I catch myself thinking ‘oh, it will be fine’ about something I know in my heart of hearts isn’t right, I’m not finished. If I find yourself changing things and then changing them back, I know I am.
A great deal has been written about good story writing. None of it is gospel truth, but there are some things that are worth having in the back of the mind while editing. Mark Twain’s famous 18 rules bear attention even if the context, a critique of James Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer, is of no interest. Here’s Umberto Eco in a similarly puckish mood. Every writer should be aware of Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules, which tend toward the emphasis on dialogue that characterises Leonard’s writing.
Here’s Lee Child speaking to the Centre for Fiction, taking a characteristically wry take on Leonard’s rules among other things:
Here’s the subsquent Q&A section: answering questions from his audience.
It’s worth a look at the Turkey City Lexicon, which is geared mainly toward science fiction and fantasy but covers a lot of points that apply to any genre.
When, and only when, you’ve come down off the joy of finishing the first draft, get it out and start editing it. Follow the three stages in order: putting in, taking out and red pen. If you’re working on screen, go as far as you can, print it out and repeat the red pen stage. Then read it aloud to yourself, on screen or from paper.
Don’t try to do it all in one session. Put it aside for a day or two if you need a new perspective. Don’t stop until you are honestly sure you can’t go any further.