Second day into nano and I’m on 3038. I’m happy, considering I started on a different story from what I ended up with. Being jobless certainly has its perks … including time to write blogs 😀
Here I am, as promised, with the second bit of learning from the con: self-editing. The panelists were Danny Birt, Scott Edelman, Aly Parsons and Alan Smale. They talked about the wonders of editing and I’m very pleased to hear they share my horrors and frustration on the process. They opened up the discussion with this question: how do you know your story is done? The answer is alas, you never do. But take heart, if you do it right, chances are it will end up better. Here are some of the things you can look for when polishing your story.
1. Crutch words and expressions
If you’re like me, you have favourite words, expressions, turn of phrases you use over and over. Sometimes unwittingly too, damn brain. Try to get to know what yours are, and, as much as you can, remove, modify or vary these throughout your prose. I know I’m addicted to eyes, for example, my characters always glance and stare and have something in their eyes; my descriptions always visual. So when I edit, I want to cut down on the glances, go sparse with those ’emotions’ in their eyes, and use other sensory details to describe the setting. Other typical crutches are attributions; cliches; adjectives; unnecessary words like ‘rather’, ‘quite’, ‘suddenly’ or actions like ‘pause’, ‘look’ and ‘sigh’; and weak sentences with ‘seemed’, ‘began’, ‘started’, etc.
2. Sentence and sentence structure
Review your word choices and similes. Know that some words may have double meaning and you want to be sure when/where best to use them (ie. Still can mean ‘unmoving’ and ‘as previously’, be careful that you don’t throw readers off by placing them close together. Some words may have particular emotional/cultural connotations, be aware of those) One dude in the panel talked about ‘Emotional truth’. Ask yourself, does this sentence really describe what the character feels or do I just write it that way because it sounds cool? Do they make sense? Am I really depicting the right kind of moment or am I just being fancy with my descriptions? Look out for long sentences or even short ones. Know when and how to use them (ie. Short and succinct may work better with action scenes; long windy ones may be for humour).
3. First and last
We all know first and last chapters are the most important in a book. These are what readers remember: the first may determine whether or not they will continue reading; the last determines whether or not they will recommend it to other people. Same goes with first and last sentences. And these are not usually the best on first draft (or if they are, then you’re absolutely awesome or lucky). Always go back and make them count. Get the hook right. Get the emotional impact right. Be as honest and ruthless as possible with them.
4. Rhythm and flow
Sometimes the most flawless writing isn’t so much in the technically correct or wonderful descriptions, but the smooth rhythm of your sentences. Those that flow seamlessly will not feel like you’re reading, rather, you’re in the scene with the characters. Pauses and awkward sentences may often disrupt the reading experience and you want to avoid it as much as possible unless you deliberately want to catch readers’ attention. One of the ways to smooth these out is to read it aloud. Yes, even novels (Catherynne Valente said so and I love her style, so I believe her) You’ll usually not know you need to tweak a sentence or word or even paragraph until you stumble when you read it.
5. Show vs. tell
You hear this all the time. I don’t believe you have to show everything, sometimes telling may be more effective. But it doesn’t hurt to look at your sentences in relation to your scene and ask yourself: is there a better way to describe this? Instead of saying ‘he is insane’ perhaps you can more effectively (and powerfully?) get the message across by saying ‘he screams and chucks tantrums for no reason’. Ask yourself what you want to get across or what reactions you wish to draw from your readers. Try to maximise the impact by describing what happens.
6. Mix ’em up
If you have blocks of narration, look at breaking them up with dialogue and vice versa. If you have described the colour of something you may want to add other details next. (ie. If the sky is blue and the grass green, his shirt should be loose rather than red).
7. Know how you write
Be familiar with your writing process. If you’re like me, who write down anything and everything in my head on the first draft and worry about cleaning the mess up later, you may look at places to take away words, sentences, paragraphs or even whole scenes when you edit. Think about your plot, your story, and decide what is absolutely necessary and what isn’t, to discard. If you tend to write less, try to look for places where things may feel vague. Sometimes as the author you already know that everything and anything, but they’re in your head. When you find those places, spill the details out: explain, elaborate, extend. If you don’t know how you write, get your stories critiqued by your friends or critique their stories. Peer review is the best way to learn about your process and how to effectively self-edit.
So there you go. I’m editing my current project… for the thousandth time, it feels, so I thought these reminders were timely. I hope you find them useful.
For those of you nanoing, have fun and best of luck. For others, happy writing (and editing)!