Do you have rules for your own self-editing sessions? Can you suggest some I ought to apply?
Editing a manuscript that I wrote some time ago has actually turned out to be quite a bit of fun. The story’s there, almost solid; now it’s time to make sure nothing in my style, my pacing, my voice, keeps it from getting across. Line-editing this novel is a lot like cleaning out a closet and finding out which of my old treasures really are treasures and which ones are junk.
And the thing that’s great about cleaning up the text of your novel: it’s not quite as likely as a closet to get cluttered again.
Actually, “self-editing” is a little bit of a misnomer. A lot of what I’m doing as I revisit the manuscript of my long-shelved “Sarah” novel is responding to the comments and suggestions of my wonderful Green River Writers critique group (see here, for example, to learn more about how and why they’re wonderful). But at the same time, coming back to my writing after a hiatus changes the way I see and hear it. Distance makes the heart grow smarter? Or am I just hearing myself through other people’s ears now?
Since those of us who want to be read (and published) need more than anything to know what we sound like outside of the wind cave of our own brilliance, I hope I’ve assimilated the collective wisdom of my writing group, in which people just plain tell me when I’ve made them start checking the number of pages to see how much more of my brilliance they have to take.
1) Whenever you enter a character’s soul, keep an eye out for exits. This dictum is closely related to that ubiquitous adage, SHOW, DON’T TELL. I’m a sucker for the long inner monologues in which the character rows readers through the jungle of her psyche, taking them up and down intricate, sleepy tributaries of self-analysis, where lovely metaphors drip off trees like exotic orchids and the heady scents of my verbal genius finally lull everyone to sleep. (Sort of like this passage. :-))
The solution? Dramatize! Girl, don’t let Sarah tell us how she felt about her ex-husband, Eric, whom she suspects of having murdered their child. Show Eric acting in ways that stoked her suspicion. Let her speak her resentment that he seems to have taken over her daughter’s affection—to him. In other words, write scenes.
I’m making myself look for blocks of text where there’s no dialogue, where there’s only one person’s voice on the page, where no one performs physical actions. Or, conversely, where one or two lines (“I realized my daughter had started ignoring everything I said”) encapsulate rich opportunities for getting readers involved in the sensory moment. Sometimes moving the story along means summing up hours of action with a single sentence. But not when what’s being skimmed past is central to character development and drama.
2) Opt more often for direct language. Are you listening, Me? In reading others’ writing, I actually more often see a sort of opposite problem: not enough effort to search out a fresh way of describing, a lively verb, an original—and apt—metaphor. Yet there are those of us who have the over-writing virus. We can’t stand to just say what we mean when an ornate metaphor will do. Sometimes those metaphors, clever though they may be, serve more to dilute the emotion than to fuel it.
3) Cut things that “take readers out of the story.” Not every thought that passes through a character’s mind really advances the plot. Is there value added in that nice touch that you, the writer, have come up with to illuminate a character? Do readers really need it? If it really adds information they don’t already have, maybe. But if it just confirms what they’ve already figured out, or tells them something that’s not really going to affect the outcome of the story, cut! E.g., it’s great that your heroine preferred gray kittens to orange ones. Do your readers have a reason to care?
4) Resist the temptation to tell readers things they already know. For example, if you’re going to establish an emotion through backstory, visit that moment once and make it count. After that, allude, don’t retell. A corollary to that dictum: it isn’t necessary to find three ways to describe things when you make it perfectly clear the first time.
Here’s an example from my draft that I think illustrates my commission of all these sins and my efforts to uncommit them this time around. (And I’ve even made more cuts in the process of pasting the passages into this post.)
Context: Sarah has just heard racing footsteps and shouts, heading down the hall toward her office where she sits behind a closed door, entering semester grades on her computer:
I could have just sat there. All common sense, all the weight of my history, told me to sit still. But no. I set down the paper, pushed back from my desk, turned from the sleeping screen of my computer. Made the fateful choice of stepping out of my office and into Tommy Pierce’s path.
She slammed into me, a hard dark missile, on the surface a painted hoyden, in tights and a dismal T-shirt, her hair a nettle-garden of jagged purple spikes. But tears were melting the Bride-of-Frankenstein make-up, and under the sooty wash her cheeks, wan but downy, made me think of a young bird soaked black with smothering oil. Her shriek collapsed like glass shattering, and maybe I was the only one close enough to hear it die to a sob.
She wheeled away, fighting, but I snared her shoulder, spinning her to face me. Holding onto her was instinctive. The others came thudding toward us, Davenport in the lead, a round little man in a pale blue shirt that tended to gape, puffing and snarling. “Wait’ll I get my hands on that little devil!” Not adding my voice to theirs was also instinctive. And so was kicking my office door open behind me and swinging her around and inside.
I shut it with my shoulders seconds before Davenport could wedge a pudgy elbow in the crack. The squirming girl in my arms reached up to rake black-and-blue nails across my face. I dodged. She wrenched away with a gasp and fell against the computer, knocking it out of sleep and into a frenzy of error beeps, all the open programs sorting through the keys she had hit for coherent commands.
I reached for her but she rolled away, scrambling to her feet. Lila’s perpetual-crisis screech made the door rattle. “Sarah! Sarah! What are you doing? Let us in!”
I ignored her. The girl was inching backward again, hyperventilating now, the light from my lamp glinting on a minefield of silver rings and studs. I was used to kids frantic for grades but not to this stark-eyed terror. My rote teacherly speeches, the careful depersonalized authority with which I talked about academic expectations, would not serve now. I tried to think where she was, though I hadn’t a hope of going there to save her. “Tommy,” I said.
Here’s the revision.
All common sense, all the weight of my history, told me to sit still. But no. I pushed back from my desk, turned from the sleeping screen of my computer. Made the fateful choice of stepping out of my office and into Tommy Pierce’s path.
She slammed into me, a hard dark missile in tights and a dismal T-shirt, her hair a nettle-garden of jagged purple spikes. Tears melted the Bride-of-Frankenstein make-up; her cheeks under the sooty wash made me think of a young bird soaked black with oil.
She wheeled, fighting, but I snared her shoulder. The others came thudding toward us, Davenport in the lead, a round little man in a pale blue shirt that tended to gape, puffing and snarling. “Wait’ll I get my hands on that little devil!” I kicked my office door open behind me and swung her inside.
I shut it with my shoulders seconds before Davenport could wedge a pudgy elbow in the crack. The squirming girl in my arms aimed black-and-blue nails at my face. I dodged. She wrenched away with a gasp and fell against the computer, knocking it into a frenzy of error beeps.
I reached for her but she rolled away, scrambling to her feet. From the hall, Lila’s perpetual-crisis screech made the door rattle. “Sarah! Sarah! What are you doing? Let us in!”
I ignored her. The girl was inching backward, hyperventilating. The light from my lamp glinted on a minefield of silver rings and studs. I was used to kids frantic for grades but not to this stark-eyed terror. I tried to think where her head was, though I hadn’t a hope of going there to save her. “Tommy,” I said.
And what always strikes me after making this kind of edit—more than 100 words shorter—is how little I miss my flourishes after they’re gone.