First thing’s first . . .
Let’s get one thing straight: editing is not for the faint of heart. It requires you to admit that parts of your novel either don’t add up or add up too much. Word count could present a problem or characterization or plot or dialogue . . . The list of what might go wrong is almost endless. The good new is, as much as your characters stole the story from you, injecting it with their voices, this is your time to steal it back – just not too much. At the heart of editing/revision problems is author intrusion, that little egoist voice that says, “Hey, remember me? I’m the author. Don’t forget! I’m the one who makes this story amazing!”
Or sucky depending on how much you, the author, interfere. While we’re at destroying illusions, let’s clear up another issue: this work is not your baby. Treat it so this and you will refuse to see that your precious spawn has bulbous eyes, a bumpy, crooked nose, and bloated cheeks.
To the plastic surgeon it goes
Other than actually forcing your butt in that writing chair, the editing/revision process is vital to producing work that shines. It’s strenuous, defeating, and in the end, glorifying. But it’s never perfect. This is a hard one for me and as a result, it’s my mantra for success. No piece of writing will ever be perfect, but it can be perfected to the best of my ability at this very moment. That’s the best anybody can ask for – the job done with the talent provided. If every agent/editor rejects it, there’s always another book to write, another story to tell, but for heaven’s sake, just get it out there! Just like over-spoiling a real baby creates a demon-child later on, babying your book will result in the creation of a self-absorbed gnashing, greedy monster that absorbs much of your time and energy (which you should be funneling into your next manuscript). We’re all guilty of not being able to cut that cord, but if you want to save yourself some misery, go ahead and snip. Edit. Revise. Submit. Write another book.
One more tip: I find a pot of tea or coffee immeasurably helpful. Music that induces alpha waves – those that help us focus on a singular task – will also ready you for your task. That, combined with a clean, quiet workspace, should get you off to a smooth start.
- Emotion Thesaurus – does the emotion fit the scene and can it be stronger? Can’t put words to how your character is feeling? Browse the emotional thesaurus, provided by The Bookshelf Muse , for inspiration. She has several other useful thesauri.
- Does the scene have an expressed purpose, leaving the reader with a question or a sense of immediacy?
- Is the POV established immediately at the beginning of a new scene? Are you head hopping?
- Is the POV character’s name used seldom, replaced by he or she when suitable?
- Is the POV consistent and/or the change reasonable and subtle?
- Could the scene benefit from narrative summary (beings slowed down)? Or should you use dialogue to speed it up?
- Is the voice of the scene consistent with the mood/reactions of the POV character?
- If the scene is action oriented, have you provided narrative distance? With an emotive scene, narrative intimacy?
- Are there overused words chapter to chapter, or paragraph to paragraph?
- Are there unnecessary words such as “that” or “of” that could be deleted without notice?
- Lay vs. Lie (or any other commonly confused words)
- Does the reader have a sense of time from chapter to chapter? (ie, when a new chapter is begun, is the reader disoriented being thrown into a new and unexplained scene?)
- Are unusual or descriptive words used correctly?
- Are gerund (-ing) phrases kept to a minimum and seldom used to begin sentences?
- Can long sentences be fragmented into two sentences? Does this read better?
- Are fragments kept to a minimum and used to full impact?
- Are place names spelled correctly throughout? Character names?
- Are beats varied? Are they used after every piece of dialogue? If so, trim. Beats, though telling, are interruptions.
- Does your dialogue agree with your explanations of character reactions? Tell and show; there’s a reason why babies cry when one smiles but speaks to them in a stern voice.
- Do you overuse adverbs? Does the dialogue really need the explanation provided by adverb? Be careful not to erase “how” a character said something when it cannot be conveyed through dialogue (the hearing adverbs: softly, quietly, etc.)
- Are your speaker attributions too varied? (i.e., she cried, he demanded, she begged)? Said is often, though not always, best.
- Are characters’ names repeated in dialogue? (“I don’t know, Harry,” said Sally. “Well, I don’t know either, Sally,” Harry said.)
- Does your dialogue sound stilted? Unnatural? Real dialogue includes run on sentences, fragments, contractions, can be ungrammatical at times. Thoughts are not always finished.
- Are your sentences varied in length?
- Do you lean upon a particular plot device or cliché? Be honest. Are you using it as a crutch?
- Are plot details/points consistent and foreshadowed so explicit exposition isn’t necessary?
- Is the time frame chronological, or if not chronicle-oriented, does the sequence of events make sense?
- Is the plot driving toward some climax, chapter by chapter increasing tension and leading the reader to the inevitable crescendo?
- Are locales used consistently and don’t suddenly change in description or place?
- If fantasy/sci-fi/paranormal, do magical based systems make sense? Do they follow the rules established at the beginning of the book? Do you give the plot/characters an easy way out? Have you perhaps become a lazy writer with the plot?
- Have you followed up on plot elements? If not, is this a purposeful maneuver for more impact later on?
- For the elements you spring on the reader as a surprise, have you weaved it into the plot without putting obvious emphasis on it?
- Have you mislead your readers to conclusions but not cheated them?
- Are character names consistent throughout?
- Are the character’s motivations consistent and true throughout?
- Does the character wallow about decision making to the point of annoyance? Does each chapter bring the character either closer to resolution, or closer to a complication that eventually creates a resolution?
- Is there character tension that engages the reader to wonder how the character will resolve his/her dilemma?
- If a romance is involved, do the h/h have sexual and emotional tension?
- Do your characters’ looks and/or personality quirks develop through showing and not telling? For example, are these traits shown through action, reaction, interior monologue, and dialogue?
- Is dialogue believable? Are the characters speaking for themselves or speaking for you as the writer?
- Do your characters experience the world mostly from their dominant sensory perception? Sight, taste, touch, sound, smell.
- Do your characters always/often agree or do they misunderstand each other? Don’t go crazy here but misunderstandings are the stuff of tension.
- Have you resisted the urge to explain?
- Do you have a bad niggling feeling about any part of the novel and think it can be greatly strengthened by revision or rewriting? Don’t be lazy. Fix this part.
- Do you outline too many mundane details in character actions? I don’t want to hear about loading the dishes, washing the laundry, etc. Neither does anybody else. Unless it’s significant or integral to the plot, it creates boredom.
Still need more help?
- Read the manuscript aloud and see what sounds awkward. Chances are it will sound awkward in the reader’s head too.
- According to Browne & King, the writers of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (a wonderful resource), the most common cause for flat dialogue is formality. People don’t talk that way; neither should characters.
- Watch out for repetition in words and interior monologue/dialogue. Trust the reader to understand what you are trying to convey instead of beating them over the head.
- Do you have a good balance of dialogue, narration, and interior monologue? Depending on the book, you may rely more heavily on one or the other, but you still need balance.
- Does your narration, interior monologue, or dialogue stretch on, uninterrupted, for paragraphs? Few things make the reader groan so much as dense, page-long paragraphs.
- Try highlighting or bolding the beats in a scene. Are they overused? Few in number? What happens if you (temporarily) delete some or them all?
- Re-read a novel that kept you up all night. Take out your pencil and determine why: pacing, deft characterization, etc. Try figuring out how to make your work stronger by employing some similar strategies.
- Are you trying to show off? Displaying your extensive knowledge for archaic words? Wanting to sound clever? Your reader will likely see through these conceits. Just write; your talents will shine through when you don’t force them.
Well, there it is! I hope you guys find some use in this checklist. It’s the one I’ll be using when I sit down next month to gut my latest ms. If you have any suggstions, don’t hesitate to leave a comment. I might even add it to the list.