By Amy Brown
Until an author has the good fortune to land a publishing contract and an editor or, as many advise—the good sense to hire an editor—most of us need to become very good at being our own editors. I have worked as an editor as well as a writer of non-fiction (journalism and business writing) all of my career which has helped me look critically at my own work. Editing fiction, I’ve found, is a more nuanced process. Here is how my inner editor gets to work on strengthening my manuscript.
First drafts: Don’t write and edit at the same time. Write a chapter, then the next day go back and do a quick review of the most recent chapter. Make some general notes, not a line edit, i.e., it would be good to expand here and there. Reviewing the previous day’s work pulls you back into your story so it is easier to move forward.
Hone your opening: You’ve heard it before but the first two and last two chapters are the most important you will write—the first two especially. Get that hook in the first sentence. Revise and edit until you get it right. How do you know if beginning doesn’t work? A writing teacher once told me to have something happen immediately. Start the book 20 pages after you think it should start. It’s tempting to begin with a lot of exposition, “let me set the scene and present the character’s background.” This doesn’t work because life doesn’t work that way.
Ensure a character arc: Your readers need to attach to your characters: undeveloped or flat characters won’t do the trick. Even if the character is an anti-hero, there must be some characteristic that attracts a reader and makes them care enough to follow the journey. A character arc is equally important: ensure a midpoint in their development, an inciting incident, a conflict. Use this arc as an outline or diagnostic tool when you edit. The character must show some kind of growth or change by the end.
Staying in character: Avoid head hopping—that is, being inside more than one person’s head in one chapter (I am currently writing a YA novel with four main protagonists, often in the same scene—avoiding head hopping in such a structure is hard). But if you are inconsistent about this, you’ll confuse and potentially lose your reader.
Dial up the dialogue: Getting dialogue to sound natural, authentic to each character and serve the purpose of moving your story forward is a challenge. Fake dialogue is a no-no. Read your dialogue out loud. Avoid having dialogue just to provide facts. Make it sound natural. I highly recommend eavesdropping. I do it to pick up the nuances of teen dialogue, even if it means eavesdroppingJ. Even tape it on your phone. Figure out the cadence your characters would have until it becomes natural to you. Keep dialogue tags simple, “he said”, or “she said.” Make sure the identity of the speaker is clear in every piece of dialogue.
Tracking tenses: Another possible quagmire. Choose the tense that comes naturally to your story and stick with it. If you change tenses, make sure you’ve corrected everything before you submit it anywhere. Writers often trial tenses before they find the one that best suits that piece of work. Write 500 words in one tense, then try it in another tense.
Around the world: In my current novel, three of my four main characters are from different European countries; a secondary character is from the Middle East. Writing characters from different cultures who have different languages or accents is a definite challenge and if it is not your own culture, do your research. When you first introduce a character, make sure that accent is evident, and then once in a while, introduce a phrase in dialogue so that reader is reminded of that accent again. If foreign words are used, one way to approach it is, “In French, she said to me…”
Sharpen language: Avoid modifiers like “very” and eliminate groups of two or more adjectives. Avoid adverbs (which end in “ly” ). Use the active rather than passive tense, i.e., instead of “She commanded the attention of the room,” the better sentence is “I felt her presence before I saw her.” Keep an eye out for awkward phrasing, ie., “She put the shoes on her feet,” as opposed to where? Use this “as opposed to…” phrase as a test to weed out unnecessary obvious things. Be careful using technology references; use generic terms when possible, i.e., cell phone, car, laptop or computer. Beware two words that mean the same thing: “She grinned happily.” Never use the ‘s’, i.e., “towards,” or “backwards.”
Other common errors: “Farther” is physical distance; “further” is a dimension of time. Affect vs. effect/Beside and besides/Lay or lie/Who and whom/There and Their. Learn how to use commas, ellipsis and an em dash properly. Consult the Chicago Manual of Style or your preferred grammar guide.
Make description count: Make sure you’re not accidentally writing a laundry list, i.e., “She walked into the classroom wearing a white T-shirt, blue jeans and red sneakers” doesn’t give the insight into the character or scene that this alternative would: “In her white T-shirt, blue jeans and red sneakers, she was the only student not wearing a uniform.” Don’t give a driver’s license type of description of your character. Your reader wants to see and inhabit a place. Describe it as you were walking into that situation. Explain without seeming to explain.
Weed out repetition: We all have favorite words or image. You can do a search and replace when you notice this, but some of this will go undetected as hard as we try. An editor can help with this.
Simplify, simplify, simplify: It is tempting, especially as new writers, to overwrite. Make sure you take time to streamline your work. For example, one does not “ascend a staircase,” and if your character decides to lie down, don’t have her “recline.”
A satisfying ending: The end of story is as important as the beginning. You may have loved a movie right until the end, but if you hate the ending, it’s the worst movie you’ve ever seen. This doesn’t have to mean a formula of hero wins the day or the villain dies but some conflict has to be resolved and loose ends tied up. Make sure you have a resolution to the plot and the emotional arc of your main characters.
If there’s one editing rule of thumb that should guide you above all: don’t let your reader fall out of the dream of the story you’re creating. As you revise and revise again, look for moments where your own attention flags. Choose some valued beta readers to read the manuscript, to report back when they “fall out of the dream,” and ask them to be honest with you. Consider their feedback carefully; look for common themes and weigh it against your own gut feelings about what you need to do to make your fictional world soar.
Devote enough passion and dedication to your editing and you’ll reap the reward of satisfied readers—and just maybe that agent or publishing contract.