Saturday, August 2, 2008

Editing 101

by Darlene Ryan

Winners! We put all the names in my lucky Law & Order hat and we have two winners. Winner of The Right to Write and chocolate is Elise. Winner of Murder is Binding, Demons are a Ghoul's Best Friend and chocolate is Jen. Ladies, please email your mailing addresses to darlene at (change the "at" to @) Thank you everyone for your comments. Come back tomorrow to talk about finding the time to write and for two more giveaways.

Step One:

Write the dang book. The entire book. All the way to the end. Finished. Done. Completed.

Step Two:

Go back and read Step One. Finished means the whole story has been written, not just the beginning and the ending, and some notes about the abyss known as the middle. All of it. It doesn’t matter how badly it’s written. You can’t edit what hasn’t been created.

So you’re working on the book. What happens if a third of the way through you suddenly realize Rick should be Rhonda? Or the cabin where you set the story needs to be by a river instead of a lake? Keep going making the change from where you are forward. From now on Rick is a petite blonde who hides tofu ice cream bars in the freezer and can’t walk in high heels, instead of a six foot three African-American with an addiction to Boston cream donuts. And from now on the cabin is next to a rushing river, swollen with the spring run-off, instead of a lake so still the surface reflects the trees like a mirror. On an index card or a notepad write a reminder: Chapters 1 – 6 change Rick to Rhonda, Chapters 2 – 5 cabin on river instead of lake.

Step Three:

Once a book is finished I try to take two or three days off before I start any editing. That breathing room helps me look more objectively at what I’ve written. When I’m ready to edit, the first thing I do is look at my notes and see what things I need to fix. This is the point at which I go back and give Rick a sex change, turn the lake into a river, and do any foreshadowing I forgot in my outline.

Step Four:

I like to do my actual editing on a printed copy of the manuscript—for some reason I catch more mistakes on paper than I do on a computer screen—but before printing anything I run a spell check to look for grammar and spelling errors. And I use Word’s Find feature to search for words I tend to overuse, like very, just and almost.

Because I’m always looking for ways to use less paper I print this draft out on what I call scrap paper—pages that have already been used on one side. Then I sit down with my copy of the manuscript, a pencil, and a notepad.

As much as I can, I like to make all my notes on the printed copy of the manuscript. The one exception is notes about any new scenes I need to write. I’ll mark the manuscript where a scene needs to be inserted, but notes about the scene go on my notepad. For example, let’s say I decide I need to add a scene at the end of Chapter 3 that shows Rhonda’s fear of heights. In the manuscript, at the end of the chapter I’ll write “A.” On my notepad I’ll write A again but with an explanation: Scene with Rhonda in the attic showing her fear of heights. If I need to add another scene it’s labeled “B” and so on.

Step Five:

Once I’ve been all the way through the manuscript it’s back to the computer to write any new scenes and type in all my revisions. When I’m finished I run spell-check again and print out a new, corrected copy of the manuscript. This copy I read out loud. It’s the best way I’ve found for catching mistakes. I make corrections on the pages as I read and then on my computer copy.

Step Six:

I only use this step when there’s something that bothers me about a book. Maybe it’s just one scene that reads “wrong.” Maybe it’s an entire chapter. I copy the pages into a new file and send it to my friend Susan with a whiny email that says, “This sucks. I’ve forgotten how to write and I’m going to Wal-mart to apply for a job.” In a couple of hours I’ll get an email back written in the same tone one would use with the very young, the very old, and the very deranged, with a reminder that a blue vest would not flatter my figure and a suggestion such as, “Do you have to kill this character?” or “The transition between scenes was a little abrupt.”

And I realize she’s right. (She always is and I always smack myself in the forehead and think, why didn’t I see that?) I fix the problem scene, make sure the pages are numbered properly and everything is formatted the way it should be, and then send the book off to my editor.

Now right before your manuscript leaves your hands or your computer on its way to an editor, you may be hit with the urge to read it just one more time. I know a writer who ended up re-reading the first chapter of her manuscript twelve times looking for errors.

(Okay, that was me.)

Have confidence in your ability and try not to give in to the feeling. The best advice I've ever heard about writing came from Billy Crystal's character in Throw Momma From the Train: A writer writes.

For a list of more workshops to inspire you visit: Paperback Writer

There are two giveaways today. One for inspiration and one for entertainment.

To inspire you: The Right to Write by Julia Cameron and a Laura Secord frosted mint chocolate bar.

And to entertain you: Murder is Binding by Lorna Barrett and Demon’s are a Ghoul’s Best Friend by Victoria Laurie and a Laura Secord premium white chocolate bar.

(Disclaimer: Lorna Barrett is a writing friend. She's done a great job with Murder is Binding, the first in the Booktown series. Even though I know Lorna--and her alter ego, Lorraine--if I didn't like the book I wouldn't say I did.)

If you'd like a chance to win one of these two giveaways, make a comment on this workshop (or just say “Hello” in comments) before eight PM eastern time today, August 2, 2008. The munchkin—who cannot be bribed, even with chocolate—will draw two names from everyone who comments. The draw is open to anyone, anywhere, even if you’ve won something here before. Good luck.

If you haven't checked out the Forgotten Books Project stop by this coming Friday and read more about my favorite forgotten series, Meg O'Brien's Jessica James mysteries, and then look through the archives for more books you may not have read but probably should have.


Jen said...

Howdy! My own writing doesn't extend past my blog, but I sure did enjoy your workshop! :)

Anonymous said...

Sounds like we edit about the same way. I'm in the red pen stage right now and an awful lot of pages look like they're bleeding. Heck, if I read a page that *doesn't* end up red marks all over, I figure I'm doing something wrong.

The boring part is making all those red mark changes on the computer. Bleah.

Janet K.

Sarah said...

Great post! Have you ever tried to write a book without an outline? If you have, how did it turn out?

Elise said...

Hi Darlene,
This post is very timely since I'm trying to finish Step Four on my first completed manuscript.
Doing NaNoWriMo for four years taught me Step Two. As a perfectionist, that's been one of the hardest things for me to do. Writing a nonsense "novel" every November (last year was about aliens who stole the brains of teenagers) allowed me to get rid of my perfectionism and just write.
One thing you left out was the need to slash stuff that doesn't advance the plot or develop your character. On this time through (and it's not the first time I'm re-reading), I eliminated an entire chapter. I'm also being merciless in cutting excess verbiage out of scenes where I got carried away with backstory.
Thanks for the timely post,
PS: I agree about Murder is Binding. It's a wonderful book and I'm looking forward to the next book in the series. If by some odd chance I get selected to win the copy offered here, please draw another name since I already own it.

Darlene Ryan said...

Sarah, yes I have tried to write a book without an outline. It didn't work very well, in fact I never finished it. I'm just one of those people who work better when I've planned things in advance. My friend, Wen, can't finish anything if she outlines first. She says when she does she gets bored writing the book. However we both edit the same way.

Elise, good point. When you're editing you do have to cut things that don't advance the story. And sometimes I hate that. To make it easier for myself I have a file when I stick all that deleted writing. It's my way of pretending all my brilliant writing isn't really gone. :) Hmm, maybe I could shake all those deleted scenes together and see if they'd make a book.

paul lamb said...

I like your thorough, systematic approach to editing, with emphasis on the first point you make, of course.

I find myself doing a lot of this kind of thing during the whole writing process rather than exclusively at the end. I'm sure every write does something close to this.

I don't write from a formal outline, though I do know where the story begins and ends as well as key points along the way. I am experimenting with writing a synopsis before I start on each chapter, and I've found that this has boosted my productivity and confidence immensely.

Thanks for your insights.

Karen Duxbury said...

The hardest part is finishing that $!%#!# first draft WITHOUT editing. I'm afraid I'll always struggle with that. Once I am through, though, I edit the same way as you and find it works very well.

Karen D.
ps to Elise, Thank you for your comments on NaNo. Somehow I never thought about making it a totally nonsense novel. That should make it much easier to fight my self-editing demons.

Teagan Oliver said...

I'm always interested in the methods that other writers use. I agree that books don't write themselves and that unless you get the words on the page you have nothing to edit. I, myself, tend to edit a bit as I go, but mostly because I can't write every single day. I don't reread and edit from the beginning, but usually start a scene or two before where I am just to get myself back into the feeling of the book. I do use the tracking feature on word to see where I make changes and that helps greatly. Thanks for the great post. I look forward to reading more.

Teagan Oliver

Susan E said...

What I like about this is your brisk certainty when you make your first point. No discussion, no debate, if you want to write a book just plow through to the end. Of course your right, but all those side trips to polishing land are irresistably reassuring. See, I can make this better, see, this is worth finishing. Sometimes I think a writer's most important strength is ruthlessness.

Darlene Ryan said...

Karen, you are so right. Getting through the first draft without stopping is hard. What helped me get better at it was almost getting caught in a lie. I was at a workshop and all I had written was the first chapter of a project. We were supposed to have a completed manuscript but I'd missed that somehow in the workshop write-up. When the instructor asked to read the next chapter I was too embarrassed to admit I didn't have one so I went home and wrote the next chapter that night. No time to do anything but write straight through. And you can probably guess that he asked for another chapter and then another. I wrote five chapters that week. I learned that I could ignore my infernal/internal editor and I also learned lying comes back to get you!

Lonnie Cruse said...


I adore Julia Cameron's books, particularly THE RIGHT TO WRITE. I recommend it to all writers, particularly newbies. Great post. Did I win anything? Huh?

Anonymous said...

You've been comparing notes with my writing professors, haven't you, Darlene? ;) You've pretty much described my writing process...except for the part where my friend and I read chapters aloud doing voices for the characters and then gossip about them as if they're real people.

Darlene Ryan said...

Lonnie, you can't win any books, but if you can tell me what dulse is without googling it I'll send you some.

Amanda, I've decided to take your comparison to your professors to mean I sound smart, not boring.

Lisa Haselton said...

Great advice. I'm printing this out and forwarding to friends - better yet, I'll point them to this blog so they can read and comment on their own!

I currently suffer from the need to write a perfect story out of the gate, and, of course that never happens, so I PROCRASTINATE, or even better, I just keep rewriting the few thousand words that I do manage to get out.

I love Nanowrimo for the fact that I turn off the internal editor and just write. For November I allow myself to write crap, and it feels wonderful. Why I can't do that the rest of the year is beyond me, but it is ever so important, as you point out.

I even tell folks not to worry about editing since you can't edit what you haven't written. Yet taking my own advice isn't a skill I've mastered yet. :)

Thanks for the focus - it's quite timely. I just met Lorraine today and would love to read her books - and devour some chocolate. ;)


Sandra Parshall said...

I enjoy editing. It's writing a first draft that just about leaves me for dead. Once I have that big messy lump of story to work with, I breathe a sigh of relief (I did it! There's actually a story hiding in there somewhere!) and plow into the editing/rewriting enthusiastically.

Anonymous said...

Ha! I would never call you boring Darlene!

Besides, some of my favorite people are professors. :)