READ LIKE A WRITER, EDIT LIKE A SURGEON
It isn’t a novel yet. First draft is complete, now the next step – the self edit. Shiver! It’s a herculean chore to turn a critical eye on a manuscript you’ve labored over so long and lovingly, but you know it’s imperative. You’ve got standards; you know you have to meet those standards before you turn your work over to the scrutiny of fresh eyes — editor or beta reader. You’ve lived with your story a long time. You know every character, each plot twist, every setting and every detail of conflict. Now you have to see the whole forest, not just each single tree.
The most common advice is to step away for a bit and let go. A week, a month, however long so the words to are new to you. I agree completely. The longest I’ve let work set is one year. On re-reading the manuscript, face flushing, teeth grinding at the lame ending, I placed it firmly in the back of my file cabinet. And I didn’t look back. I’m either a coward or I used the writer side of my reader’s brain to realize and accept all 92K words as well-intentioned practice. It was a good exercise, something to hone my skills. That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.
I don’t think there’s a book written that when read with a writer’s eye, doesn’t contain lessons. You have an ear for good writing – you’re a reader after all, so when you self-edit consider what you’ve learned to turn a laser eye on your own work. What is it that made a story grip and hold you? If the book bored you, why? Those stories that delighted you contain elements of craft you want to see in your own work. Those bad books contain pitfalls to avoid.
For me the not so good books hold the most obvious lessons. The tedious information dump, more information than the reader needs to know — makes you wish for some lively dialog to impart the stuff we do need to know. Setting descriptions so detailed you wonder if the book wasn’t produced by a Chamber of Commerce. Scenes, no matter how well written, that add nothing to the story. Dialog tags that tell us what emotions to feel. The dialog itself should do that. Repeated phrases, worm words, and worst of all, unlikeable characters we are meant to root for. I have to be shown a reason to care.
Every full-length novel you’ve loved has a voice pleasing enough to live with for a period of time — some books you just don’t want to end. The sentences flow smoothly, details are salted through out so they support the rise of the story arc. Settings come to life in way that makes place a solid, necessary character. If the plot is confusing at some point that confusion is cleared as the story unfolds – it’s that compelling voice that keeps us reading. There’s no unnecessary fat. The characters grow and develop in the course of their journey and while we might not always like them, we’re intrigued enough we must know what happens.