Basic story editing

career indie author

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This is a Career Indie Author post that won’t go into the book, because it’s about basic story editing.

This came about after reading a genre novel that was by someone who’s written a half-dozen of them. I hadn’t read anything by him before, but the description snagged my interest so I threw a couple bucks his way.

Within two paragraph, I found an editing error. Within a couple more pages, another one popped up. By that time, I grabbed my notebook and kept track.

Because what interested me about the novel was that there were a lot of different problems with it. The story was fine, the characters were well-drawn and motivated, and there were action sequences that were exciting. But I kept getting caught up by the problems, and the idea that “this could be a great CIA post.”

The most common advice about revision falls into two camps: those who write the first draft, let the manuscript “cool” for several weeks, and then look at it with a fresh eye, versus those who rewrite as they go. In the first case, you end up with a messy first draft, but its complete and that’s heartening. In the second method, you might head off a disastrous turn in your story, and you’ll end up with a MS that has some polish on it.

You have to find out which way works best for you, but it leaves unanswered the question: When you’re editing, what are you supposed to look for?

In “On Writing,” Stephen King devotes several pages to his process. He picks the book up after six weeks and rereads it. He covers the bases: the big stuff like character motivation and plot holes, and the details like pronouns with unclear antecedents (if you can’t tell who’s saying what, that’s what he means), deleting all the adverbs he can, and asking “is this story coherent?) The section starts on page 212 and it’s still worth rereading.

I checked my shelves to see what else you can learn. “The Handbook of Short-Story Writing,” volume II, asks if you’re showing instead of telling, and gives this great example:

The giant looked around the room. When he saw the English boy, he got angry and bellowed a threat to eat him.

“Fee, fi, fo fum. I smell the blood of an Englishman. Be he alive, or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.”

Far more evocative, right?

The authors of the piece, Judith Ross Enderle and Stephanie Gordon Tessler, also advised cutting out the “mundane so-whats,” the long passages of the characters doing mundane stuff, like driving to work, pouring a drink or trying to go to sleep. If the passage is not going to end with a bang (about to turn into the parking lot, the car is smashed by a runaway bus) or if it doesn’t otherwise move the plot forward, cut it down to a sentence.

They have a lot of advice about making sure the scenes end where they should, that they’re fully developed, that transition sentences and clauses are in place, and that all of the loose ends are tied up.

But more to my point, they have very specific advice that any new author can apply and improve their prose 100 percent:

1. Eliminate pet phrases and non-descriptive words. In the novel I read – the author’s seventh published work – I found these: things, rather, just, started (as in “he started to walk”), fairly, went, immediately, quite, and relative (as in “the explosion faded and there was a relative silence.” Instead, describe what the characters are hearing.)

2. Beware of awkward sentence structure. This usually happens when clichés or odd word choices are used. “Something snagged her gaze” bugs me. Gazing implies a steady look. A snag is a sudden interruption. You can’t snag something in the process of being steady.

In fact, you should be wary of using eyes in general. Yes, it’s our primary sense, but the reader should be made aware of the action, not the organ that receives it. Describe the result of the action, not the action itself. (The book also had “with fire blazing in his eyes,” which made me wonder how he could see around the flames.)

3. Eliminate as many of the “he saids – she saids.” Better still, use them only when you have to. You know when: if it’s unclear who is speaking, or if there are more than two people in the conversation.

In the book, I came across this: “They’re coming,” she stated, snapping the binoculars shut.

What if she said: “They’re coming,” she snapped the binoculars shut.

One fewer word, but a smoother sentence. Multiply that over the length of a book, and that’s a lot of words the reader didn’t have to yawn over.

More Things to Check

Misspellings and Missing Words: These are the toughest to root out, because your word processors spelling and grammar checker will not catch all of these.

For example: “a hint closer to you” is spelled correctly, even when you meant to write “a bit closer to you.”

Then there were the missing words. These were most often found in the middle of sentences, and they are easily missed because — and this is an important observation that all writers must understand — readers tend to read at the edges.

When we read a word, we focus more at the beginning and the end.

When we read a sentence, we focus more at the beginning and the end.

So when my author wrote, “He strolled up the side of the building,” it’s easy to miss the “to” that belonged in the middle, even if you did wonder how he turned into TV’s Batman.

Editing Checklist

So, to summarize, here’s what you can look for during an editing draft:

* Missing words

* Misused words. If you’re not certain, look it up.

* Cutting “he / she saids.”

* Confusing pronoun use.

* Cutting or modifying adverbs.

* Mundane descriptions that can be cut.

* Repetitive phrases and non-descriptive words.

* And, of course, the big stuff: character motivation, forward plot movement, and logic holes.

This is not intended to be complete list, but it’s a good start on basic story editing. Keep track of what you find on each pass. The more editing you do, the easier you’ll find your weak points and cut them out. What you’ll have left will be a clearer and stronger expression of your vision.