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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Editing in the Line of Fire


Boom! Crash! You just got another scathing critique.


Every author has been there at one time or another, cringing as the critiques come in. Tearing up in denial as yet another rejection letter lands in our in-box.

You can commiserate for hours with other authors over the plebeian who tore apart your four beautiful pages of narrative and called them boring.

You can laugh at the beta-reader who said your main character just wasn't believable.

You can doubtlessly ignore the incautious person who told you during their reading of chapter five that they were bored with the book and not interested in seeing the rest.

Fools the lot of them!

You, of course, know that the book really gets good in chapter ten, that the main character has a fascinating twist in the closing lines that makes everything before that come into focus, and that four pages of narrative are PERFECT for setting up a poetic resonance within the layers of your artistic endeavor.



Back to reality!

Getting feedback and criticism on your work is part of having a successful career as an author. Go ahead, track down any living author, corner them at a conference, and ask them if they've ever had negative feedback.

Did they ever get a rejection letter?

Did they ever *gasp* edit????

Horror of horrors! They did!

So will you.


Step 1: Know your story
If you don't know exactly what you want your story to be by the end of draft one you need to sit down and work this out before you proceed. Know what your goals are. Know what your themes are. Know at least what basic shape you want your story to have and what genre it's in.

Step 2: Toss the Trash
If you know what you want, you know what comments aren't going to work.

If you're writing a serious horror piece and someone suggests the killer and the MC ought to have a party date and an erotic fling on-screen you can say no, unless you happen to like that kind of horror.

If someone wants to rewrite your paranormal vampire work with unicorns and maidens and spaceships, it's okay to tell them you don't see your work going in that direction.

Remember: It's your book. It's your Voice. The core has to stay yours.

Step 3: Saying Goodbye
Once you've tossed the trash you're left with a pile of comments and nitpicks that um, trash, your work...

Those four pages of poetic narrative about rolling hills and mountain vistas? It's probably going to get tossed. Read through, weep, and then cut and paste.

My secret is that I don't delete my favorite lines, I save them in what I call the Slush Pile for my stories. A turn of phrase that's just too cute, a poetic interlude I loved, whatever it is that needs to go can be kept... just not in the original manuscript.

Step 4: Tightening the Core
Once you've ruthlessly cut the flab from your work you have the oh so fun job of tightening what's left. And just like a good workout, this is going to hurt.

You'll need to go line-by-line through your manuscript and put every sentence under the microscope. Do I need it? Do I love it? Can I not live without it? (See last weeks post on how to do this)

On your first pass you might consider cutting everything that doesn't work and then going back to smooth things over.

Step 5: Step Back

Editing is intense. Give yourself a mental vacation from the editing for a week before you move on.

Step 6: Read Through and Smooth the Wrinkles
After you've taken your vacation, in whatever form it's been, go back and read through the full manuscript.

Smooth out phrases that jar you out of the narrative.

Touch up minor plot flaws.

Highlight areas that you think need to be firmly established in the reader's mind.

Step 7: Enter the Ring for Round 2 (or 3, or 4, or....)
Once you've done all you can it's time to hand the manuscript back to your critters, beta-readers, or editors.

Double-check to make sure you've addressed everyone's concerns. Either you've fixed the problem, or you tossed that comment in the trash. Either way, it's crossed off.

No crying!

Hand that manuscript back over. Get your rear end back in the chair. And start working on your next project while the beta-readers do their work.


  1. LOVE THIS! I particularly like the first two steps--because too often it feels as if people think they have to change *everything*. I killed a manuscript once through over-editing--I took so many suggestions that I lost my own voice. I also--I realize now *hindsight's 20/20*--that I didn't really know my overall goal of the story, either.

  2. Liana, thank you for these tips. I often worry about how I will handle the criticism that will accompany the completion of the current WiP, and this is a great place for me to start when I prepare myself for those ... well, ahem ... attacks.

    Thanks again! Cheers!

  3. I think I prefer to give revisions to NEW beta readers... no preconceived notions. Unless there's a specific section at issue, in which case I've been known to hand over a chapter rewrite and ask, "did I fix it?"

    Good tips!

  4. Absolutely great post! It is so hard to take on those scathing reviews, but they do help us in the end.

  5. It's funny, because I think I do all this stuff and I go back and read something afew weeks later and I'm like, "Hu? How did I miss THAT?!" Does editing ever end?

    I thought "Incoming" was a baby post.

  6. Anita- I wish! Baby is scheduled for an early arrival Friday morning. Or, I'm scheduled to report to the hospital at 5am on Friday. How long it takes for baby to start being an independent human being is, as yet, undecided. I'll put up pictures on the Friday Random after he shows up though :o)

  7. Great post! Sometimes crits can be overwhelming, but if you step back usually you can find the things that really help you.

  8. Love the picture to go with the post. It does feel like that sometimes. And I liked what you said: "No crying"... or (might I say) "No whining!"

    Off topic, I like the style of this post. It's very you. Very down-to-business. Tells things like they are. Excellent (*)