Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Self-Editing: Learning to Trust Your Gut

Today I'm going to talk a little about editing.  Everybody go ahead and groan.  Get it out of your system.  OK.  Moving on.

Mind you, I'm not going to address proofreading, punctuation, or grammar mistakes.  We all know you need to produce clean, professional copy.  I'm talking about story editing that you can do yourself.  Yes, by all means, use an editor.  A good editor is priceless.  *waves at my beyond-priceless editor, Pol*  But before you ever hand your story over to that editor, it should have gone through extensive self-editing.  It should be the absolute best product that you can produce on your own.  You know... so your editor doesn't hate you 'n' stuff.

Shelf Time:

 The first thing you need to do when you finish a manuscript is give it some shelf time.  When you've just finished writing, you are way too close to the story to be able to see your own mistakes.  To some extent, you will always be too close, which is why you have beta readers and editors.  An author's mind fills in things automatically.  There is no way to not know what you know.  The best and only defense against this is shelf time.  Remove yourself from the immediacy of the story.  Let it sit.  Hopefully forget some things.  The amount of time required will vary from person to person, but I would suggest at least a month.  Lucky me-- I have a bad memory, so a month will do just fine.  While you wait, take a little time to recharge your creative batteries, if possible.  Or, if you just can't stop working (like some of us around here), stay productive by working on the cover, promo, or better yet, your next story!


Round One:

Think of this as all-important.  When you are alert and fresh, do your first read-through.  Personally, I don't spend a lot of time fixing things at this point, though I will make simple little fixes as I find things that irk me.  However, during my first read-through, my focus is on perceiving the flaws within the story.  Remember, you've got a bit of distance at this point.  Now is the time to see what is wrong.  Unless you plan on waiting months between each edit (which you might), you need to make the most of the first read-through.  Take a lot of notes as you read.  Write down everything that bothers you.  Everything.

Trust Your Gut:

Now we come to the heart of this little ramble, which is: trust your gut.  What, exactly, does that mean?  Well, you know how you're reading through, and you get to that part that you just don't love... maybe you're a little uncomfortable with it.  Maybe it doesn't grab you.  Maybe you know it's kind of canned, follows the same old formula, and it doesn't really have any life of its own.  It could be a line, or a whole chapter.  Then you look at it and you think "It's pretty decent writing.  There's nothing wrong with it."  And you don't really feel like rewriting that whole chapter.  Good enough.  Right?  Absolutely not.  Because if you feel that way about it, chances are your audience will feel that way too.  I will tell you the exact same thing I tell myself every time I feel the urge to pass one by:  Get off your lazy butt, stop making excuses, and put in the effort until the passage in question is as awesome as the rest of your book.  Lazy writers are not amazing writers.  And you want to be amazing, right?

Every Moment, Every Scene:

Yep.  Every moment and every scene should count.  If it's not amazing, fix it.  If you can't fix it, get rid of it.  Ask yourself why it's there.  What does it contribute?  Does it give the reader information, develop characters, etc?  Is there a way to work those things into another scene that is already up to quality?  Make sure that every single scene is the best you can make it.  This is one of the differences between writing a 5-star book and a "meh" book.  All of us should always be striving for five stars (especially if we ever hope to be taken seriously as Indie authors).


How I Learned All This:

When I was editing E, there were a few things I was OK with, but my gut instinct was shouting at me "Get off your lazy butt, etc."  Still, I thought it was pretty good.  And it was.  Pretty good.  But not amazing.  So I finished editing and gave it to my to-die-for editor, who read it, thought it was pretty good, and pointed out the exact scenes that my gut had already prompted me to rewrite.  Then he said "Get off your lazy butt...."  You get the picture.  Reluctantly, with a little prodding, I rewrote the things that still needed to be rewritten.  It was hard.  Some of it really gave me a run for my money.  In the end, the novel as a whole was soooooo incredibly improved for not suffering those few downfalls that would have let the story lag, or just wouldn't have done justice to key moments.  It's a solid story and the effort has paid off in some pretty good reviews.

Forging Onward:

 So now I'm editing the second book in the E series.  I've just come to this chapter in the middle that has some really cool ideas.  But there's something not quite right.  The writing is solid.  There are some interesting concepts, some nice action, great dialogue.  Nothing wrong, right?  Psh.  My gut says it needs to change.  I can't even put words to why it needs to change, but when I read it, I just get that uncomfortable feeling.  And since, last time around, 95% of the problems my editor found were ones that my gut had pointed out before-hand, I know that I need to stop and pay attention.  I need to listen to my instincts, push through the laziness, and hand my editor the best product I can create.  That leaves him free to find the things that I can't see, which is why I really need him in the first place.  Not because I'm a lazy writer.

Last Thoughts:

If you do this-- really pay attention to your instincts and put in the work-- your writing is only going to get better.  Now, as I always say, every writer's process is different.  You do what works for you personally.  So once you get past shelf time and a perceptive read-through, you will probably find your own path.  One thing I would say is just to be careful to find a balance.  You can over-edit and under-edit.  Yes, find those mistakes!  And please, I implore you, for all our sakes, do not publish until you have clean copy.  But as for the rest of it, you could spend twenty years editing.  My first novel is still not ready.  I started writing it in 2006.  Part of that is because it is a truly difficult story, which I won't get into right now.  Part is because I was still figuring out my novel-writing process, which caused some speed bumps.  But a large part is because I keep editing and editing and editing the damned thing.  At some point you have to stop and move forward.  Don't stall out.  Maybe you need to move on to the next book.  E is the third (and best) novel I've written.  It took me almost exactly eight months from the first word to the date of publication.  Yes, I have a full-time job to boot.  So, (trying not to go off on a big ramble), the point is that you need to keep your timing goals in mind, edit enough to make it amazing, but at some point, let it go.  (Or move on.)  It is never going to be perfect, no matter what you do, because perfect for one reader is not perfect for another, and vice versa.  Make it amazing, and get it out there.  Then do it again!

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