Self-Editing Tip #1: Everything Needs to Go

I have somehow managed to make the time to turn my editing services upon myself, and there is so much more to learn that way. It surprised me, and then I wanted to share some tips to correct one of the largest problems I’m facing in my own work right now.

My fantasy novel Daughter of the Drackan is in its final stages of editing and proofreading before it goes to publication (the exact date is still a secret, but I can reveal that it will be this year.) I can’t say how many times I have gone through this novel with the same goal. This might be edit session #9 since I wrote the final ending in 2007. Hopefully the days of chewing on my lip and laughing at the writer of my past when all I want to do is tear my hair out are over. Because I am finally not convinced that this edit will be the last one, and that may or may not mean that it actually is.

I have shortened the monster by 67 pages and 9,500 words just in this round of editing, and find it a bit hilarious that I ever considered the book in its large entirety to be ready before. At all. Yesterday alone I deleted over 900 words, and have no qualms whatsoever about their shift into nonexistence. As my skills as an editor and an author have grown, I’ve come to understand the importance of the words we choose. Some of them mean absolutely nothing at all.

So here are some helpful questions to ask yourself when going over your own work. They can be difficult for an editor who doesn’t have a complete working knowledge of a piece of fiction, but for those of us writers who take what we put on paper (or computer) very seriously, these might help us not to do that anymore. And by this I mean that sometimes we write parts of a story for fun, a story that would be much better served without them.

  • Would the actual story be different if this section were cut out? I know that this sounds like a very simple question with a very simple answer. But I admit, I have found paragraphs and sections, whole pages even, that serve no purpose whatsoever other than to boost my word count ego. That is not always a good thing. I’m just hoping that I don’t find an entire chapter labeled “useless” as I move along (even though computers make it so easy to delete large chunks). As writers, we have so many scenes, conversations, and lives for our characters to play out rolling around in our own heads, and we want nothing more than to share them in the body of a manuscript. But unless those scenes or conversations further drive the plot or give initial insight to the character or a view into their growth, they serve no purpose. I was more annoyed after reading a particular section yesterday and thinking, ‘why was that in there?’ than I was with having to remove it. Yes, there are avid readers in the world, who consume words like food and thrive on a growing list of devoured books. I am one of them. But nobody likes to have their time wasted, or to be left in a story limbo where a little snack for words leaves them with no taste for more. For example: the scene where the protagonist takes a shower and thinks about how much fun it was to go to last night’s concert, which we already read about; the conversation little Billy has with the mailman every time they meet, when we’ve already heard it once; the explanation of how our heroine spent her time when ‘things go back to normal for a while’, after we’ve been shown the difference between her normal life and the conflict that turned it upside down. Large sections like this that repeat what the reader has already seen while trying to show the passing of time are a heavy, heavy burden on any story.
  •  Even though one or two details are different, have I already written essentially the same thing before? Also dangerous are the scenes that mirror already written scenarios with the exception of one or two minor details. If the old woman who steals silverware from the diner takes her business to the cafe down the block, do we need to describe that new occurrence in detail? If she does not meet a meticulous barista who finally calls her out, or has a sudden realization that she does not need to steal silverware, the duplication of her endeavors is irrelevant. The reader already knows that she has a problem with restaurants and spoons, and they deserve more credit for picking up on the old woman’s character the first time her habits are described. I ran into this issue yesterday working through my own novel. The main character is a wild, ferocious killer, whose upbringing (not to be revealed here) has ingrained in her an almost insatiable bloodlust. Sometimes that need is met by hunting wildlife. This part of her character was solidified very early on in the book, as was her physical strength and agility in multiple scenes. In this chapter, she has traveled halfway to the destination of her “quest” when she encounters a herd of animals that she’s never seen before, and kills one. Half of the chapter was a description of her doing this, and the other half was written from the point of view of a rancher who owns the animals. His perspective was important for forming the external picture of her character, and the encounter was relevant to the plot because afterward, the protagonist’s view of the people around her has begun to change. But the section from her point of view felt like reading something I had already written. So I cut the first half of the chapter, and I am happy to say there was no love lost.
  • Do my transitions from one scene to another with a long period of time in between flow well? This one is particularly difficult to do. I have seen a lot of writers struggle to show the passing of days, weeks, or months and still keep the reader engaged and informed. The easiest, and I think most obvious, way to show this is to start a new chapter, or a new ‘section’ with a single line of spacing in between paragraphs. Sometimes there may be a physical ‘break’ with dotted lines that break up the page in large chunks. Sometimes even moving from Part 1 of a novel to Part 2 alerts the reader that things are different, they are in a new phase of time or plot line. But what happens when the chapter is an entire chapter of time passing, of the hero’s travels on their quest, of watching one character or another’s transformation that is not instant? These are ‘big picture’ descriptions, and I, too, beat myself up over getting it right. But just like in real life, when weeks or months go by with no obvious action or dialogue that is worth putting into the story (refer to the first bullet point), something still happens. Individuals change in minute ways, come to introspective realizations, accept the current fate of their lives or resolve to change them. Long periods of time can sometimes be the best friend of a story, to back up the believability of both the plot and the characters. While it would be illogical for the hero to accept that the fate of the world rests on his shoulders (who would want to accept that right away?), over time, with the right clues and reminders, he may come to understand that there is no other option. I find that these passages are a unique opportunity to do a little bit of character analysis or internal dialogue, for the protagonist to reflect on what has happened or will happen and how they feel about it. And we have to be careful about how many of these sections we write, and how often, and how long they are. Going through my novel yesterday, I found that I had way too many of these in the heroine’s journey across a lot of space and time. The result read like I didn’t actually know what she was doing or where she was going, even though as the author I absolutely did. So I got rid of most of those little time-passing sections, and managed to find one that worked with my character’s realizations and attitudes about the things she saw: “She stopped far less frequently after that. She wanted to get to d’Nosch as fast as she could, but every new place seemed to evoke in her some hollow anxiety that she couldn’t place. It almost felt like recognition, but she had never been remotely this far west. It seemed the simplest explanation that the further she traveled, the more condensed the humans became. And the less they seemed to know about Menykh. Another week, and she came to perfectly flat and unnaturally short-cropped meadows.” The rest of the paragraph continues to describe the new place she has found, which is the setting for the next important scene.

I try to keep a sharp eye on my own work. The proofreading for grammar, spelling, and word choice is always a lot easier than watching out for relevant and effective content. With all of my pieces, whether short stories or novels, I try to bring as objective of an attitude as I can to then slice and dice what is the story, and what is just word splatter from my imagination. Most of the time it feels like I’m butchering the piece, tearing it up from the inside out to get to the guts of it, but I think that the more difficult it is to weed out the unnecessary prose and dialogue, the better the story becomes. And then, of course, I hand it over to someone else so they can tear it apart some more.

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