I’m Lea Wait, I’m an author, and I have a confession. I really don’t like writing.
Now, that doesn’t mean never, and it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop. I just mean that for me the most difficult and frustrating part of writing a book is sitting (ass-in-chair) and grinding out the first draft. Assuming that life doesn’t always allow for writing time every day (there is that laundry, and those appearances, and all those holidays …) and that an average adult mystery has 75,000-80,000 words, that’s a lot of sitting and stressing time. On a first draft I try to write 7-10 pages a day. Some do more; some less.
But the reward? Editing. I LOVE editing. It’s like smoothing the edges of a sculpture, or rounding out the depth of a hole, or adding just the right spice to the soup.
Right now I’m editing a manuscript that was rejected several time. It has a fast plot, interesting characters … but I’ve realized it needed a different voice. And more layering. So I’m happily in the depth of editing right now, wondering why I didn’t see those problems before. Usually I catch them before an agent or editor has said “no.”
So how do I edit? I read first for plot; second for character; third for facts; fourth for rhythm; and fifth for grammar and spelling. And then I read for plot again.
Here are a dozen things (big and little) that I check for.
1. Character names. Make them easy to pronounce. And no characters should have names that sound alike, or that start with the same first letter of the alphabet.
2. Time lines: List the dates/days covered by the manuscript (including backstory if necessary) and confirm that all the characters can be where they’re supposed to be given that time frame. That an eight-year-old wasn’t alive during the Civil War. That you haven’t skipped days. And this is a good time to check weather, too … consistency is important. It can rain on a sunny day … but if it does, there should be a reason for it to rain. And have you set the book at the right time of year? Does geography or weather influence the plot?
3. Voice, Tone and Point-of view. Is there one voice? Two? Is the voice you’ve chosen the best one to tell the story? Is there any “head hopping,” between characters? Can the reader identify characters by the way they speak? They shouldn’t all sound the same. (Rhythm is important here.)
4. How many layers are there in the story? The obvious one (e.g. solving the mystery) is one. But what personal relationship development is there? What have the main characters learned about themselves? Is there a theme to the book as a whole? Can anything be added to flesh this theme out?
5. How does the manuscript look on a page. Are there too many long paragraphs? Too much unattributed dialogue?
6. Search out and kill repeated words. Use new ways to say what has to be said. Eliminate words like “there” and “things” and those words (all authors have them) that are used too often. (Two of my personal over-used words are “just” and “really.”)
7. Look for adjectives and adverbs, too. Adverbs should be used only on rare occasions. Kill them, or replace them with action verbs. Kill long descriptions and strings of adjectives.
8. Edit your manuscript on the screen. Then print it out, take a red pencil to the pages, and input those edits. The print it out again, and this time read it all (yes – all of it) out loud. Amazing what changes you’ll make while reading the words out loud.
9. Fact check. Historical facts, sure. But also little things. If your hero hates squash in chapter 5, he probably won’t order it for dinner in chapter 37. Check food. Clothing. Do they reflect your character’s choices? Why? If there isn’t a reason for the heroine to wear a purple dress, then why mention it? If you’re poisoning someone … how does the poison taste? (Yes; I’ve tasted the ones in my books.) If something tastes awful, would it be credible for your victim to eat/drink it?
10. Timing. Action keeps people reading. But a book can’t be a series of car chases. (Pretty boring.) And even if the book isn’t a mystery, tension should be throughout the book — in actions, in dialogue, in relationships, in anticipation.
11. Secrets. Everyone has a secret, right? So should every character. The reader may never know all of them. But you, as the author, should. And if secrets are revealed … to whom? Why? How does that change the dynamics of relationships? Actions?
12. Point to the Hole. Is there any part of your plot that is logically questionable? Any special knowledge your heroine has to have acquired? Acknowledge these … and feature them before they come up in the plot. Your hero learned martial arts as a child. Your heroine speaks Spanish because she was an exchange student. Uncle Max loved to collect books with leather bindings … but couldn’t read small print. That’s why the secret map was found in one of his books, and he didn’t know it was there.
Returning now to my editing …. do you have any suggestions to add to my list?