Self-Editing for Authors—Getting Rid of the Aww and the Awe

I often question my writing, judge my prose, belittle my word choices, and doubt my plot points. Some days I love what I’ve written.

The “disbelieving me” is in awe of the time and effort it will take to get from first draft to final draft. The “believing me” might think, “Aww, this is so good it doesn’t need to be changed.

No! To both.

I must self-edit.

I also must strike a balance where I am confident in my work but know it needs work.

Whether it’s the first time or the hundredth time, self-editing can be daunting. At least it can be for me. I stare at the monitor and all this little black shapes stare back at me. Just looking at them is exhausting.

I know myself. I self-edit differently than I write. I’m a binge writer, but a bit-by-bit editor. Not that I can’t, or haven’t, edited for hours, but I can also edit a paragraph, then leave for an appointment or to do the dishes.

Oh, who am I kidding? I do not stop editing to do the dishes.

But I do stop if I’m overwhelmed.

The key here is not to get overwhelmed.

First Drafts

My first drafts are embarrassing. I write in sentence fragments and run-ons. But what I have when I’m finished, I hope, is the beginning, middle, and end of a chapter, the right idea to build upon. I write light in first drafts. That means I know I’m going to go in again to flesh out ideas. Many of my friends write 125, 000 word first drafts they edit down to 90,000 words. My finished first drafts are about 50,000 words. I edit up. No matter how you work, some of these tips might work for you to take the sting out of first draft editing.

  1. Do it quickly. Later I’ll advocate stepping away, but with a first draft I want to capitalize on my momentum. I’ll write a scene or chapter and go back and self-edit the same day. Sometimes, same hour.
  2. Don’t look back. For this draft I just go back in and change things with no mind to what was there before. I don’t want to remember the dreck, I want to revise it.
  3. Dump what doesn’t work. I elaborate on my sentence fragments and cull my run-ons. I specific “something like purple but not” and write lavender or periwinkle.
  4. Decide what does works. Or what doesn’t. This is usually the time I get a gut feeling at this time if the names I’m using really works for me. I also get a feeling about characters and if I need them. I want to move forward writing about what’s necessary.
  5. Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. This is where I clean it up. No one’s cursing (well, maybe a little), but in a first draft I type so fast I don’t always use proper formatting. I want to GET IT OUT. So I go back and tidy up. Appearances are everything (you’ll see why later).
  6. Define the path. Is there a beginning, middle, and end of the chapter? If something’s missing I don’t write it, I make a note that it’s missing. Does the chapter ending leave a question or cliffhanger? If not, I consider how to make the chapter end so that the reader must turn the page. Have I buried anything in overwriting exuberance? (Who, me?)

My first draft isn’t really finished until it’s self-edited. Until I know someone else could read it and make sense of it, even with the weaknesses and holes. I call it my finished first draft. Before that, you don’t want to know what I call it.

Second Drafts (Or, to Infinity—And Beyond)

I have never counted drafts. Let’s say that with each of my novels (published, soon-to-be published, and under-the-bed) I’ve written more than two drafts and fewer than a hundred.

This, for me, is where fine-tuning begins and where I remember the best advice/joke I ever told my daughter.

“How do you eat an elephant?”

“One bite at a time.”

If I looked at a whole manuscript and imagined editing the whole thing on my own, I’d crawl under this bed I call an office and that would be that. But because I write, and edit, my novels a chapter at a time, at first, it’s more manageable to me. For the time being I pretend that’s all I need to worry about, which allows me to focus (ie: which eliminates panic).

  1. Print out pages. Whether I’ve written the whole book or not, I print out one chapter. If you’re not a paper person, this is where I’d use track changes.
  2. Get your hands dirty. Yes, I use multicolored markers. Yes, they end up on my hands. When I do Track Changes, I go into the options and make all the different kinds of changes different colors. Makes it fun.
  3. One Bite At A Time. I go paragraph by paragraph and polish so that what’s going on there makes sense to me, and is tightly written, but I don’t go overboard. This is where I’d rather have too much than too little. This is where I start my editing up.
  4. Read aloud. Especially dialogue. I tend to use characters’ names in dialogue until I edit it. I also use a lot of “Well.” Because, well, I just do.
  5. Lay it out. I look at chapters by laying the pages side by side on my dining room table. I look for visual cues. Do the paragraphs all start with the same word? (A no-no) Are the sentences and paragraphs the same lengths page after page? How long are your dialogue runs? These are things you can consider when revising, because variations make stories more interesting.

Final Drafts

Final drafts take many forms. I have final drafts for my critique partner, then for agent, and then final drafts for my editor. If you’re not hiring an editor (silent scream) and you’re self-publishing then your final draft is for your reader.

For me, this is the detail and danger zone. This is where I nit-pick and where I usually am convinced that all my time and effort and energy has resulted in a big pile of poo. Luckily, this is normal. And that’s why I start with the hardest thing of all.

  1. Step away. Unless I’m right up against a deadline, I leave the manuscript untouched for days or weeks if possible. This provides perspective. If I have an epiphany (in the shower or while driving, ‘natch) I write it down but don’t open the Word doc.
  2. Go slow. When it’s time to get back to work, I start again by tackling one chapter at a time. I read for content and clarity. I circle or highlight what I need to come back to.
  3. Be honest. I note overused words and clichés. No one is above using them. Now is the time to get rid of them. Then, I do a search for any crutch words. Every writer has them. I use “and” more times than should be legal. I also make note of lingo and colloquialisms that might not work if the publication of the book was delayed, or if someone reads the book in five years. With backlists readily available as ebooks for both traditionally and self-published authors, this is a real concern. Here’s a list of “banished words” from Lake Superior University. This is a list of overused words and phrases at Write Divas. I’m not affiliated with either site, but these lists are comprehensive and helpful (and fun to read).

The best thing about self-editing, is that it’s not the end – it’s just the beginning. This is how I get my writing ready for others to critique and edit it. Yes, at some point, it’s finished, but you shouldn’t be the only person editing your work if you want it read by others. If you want people to pay to read it.

Beta readers and critique partners, agents, and editors will not only help your story, but their feedback will bolster your ability to self-edit in the future. Self-editing is the gift that keeps on giving.

By that I mean giving us headaches, some heartache—as well as the opportunity to be the best writers we can be.

This article was first published in Write On, the magazine of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association (not affiliated with my WFW blog, although I am a founding member of the WFWA organization.)  You’re not a member of WFWA? Check it out here

Have you read the early praise for THE GOOD NEIGHBOR? Click here!


Beyond Coffee & Chocolate: 4 Things To Remember While Editing Your Novel

As most of you know, I’ve been editing The Glass Wives for a while now, and since I’m ready to move onto the next step of the publishing process, I thought I’d share with you some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.  I’ll be honest, this presentation came complete with sounds and narration, which I recorded and tweaked for about four hours until learning you cannot upload a PowerPoint with sound to YouTube and then put it on your blog.  Whatever.  Just imagine the sound effects. I’m sure you’ll do a better job than I did.  

The most important thing is that I’m passing along these tips, silent as they may be. 

Amy xo

No one is asking you to consider certain changes because he or she thinks those changes are going to make your novel worse – because if that’s the case, you are hanging out with the wrong people. It doesn’t matter if it’s a critique partner or a freelance editor or the editor from a New York publishing house.  Their job is to give you suggestions, ideas, and direction so that you can make your book better.  You. Nothing anyone suggests or even tweaks, changes the fact that it’s YOUR book — so go for it. Put your ego aside if it gets in the way.  Heck, tell your ego someone cares enough to want you to have a better book.

Writing a novel is serious business.  If it doesn’t pay the bills, you want it to pay the bills. You can get all caught up in I’m-a-serious-writer stuff and forget that it’s PERSONALITY, together with experience, perseverance, and talent, that enabled you to write the very book you’re editing.

And you have to admit it’s pretty funny that writers can make a living and not get out of their pajamas.  Or so I’ve heard.

I’ll be honest, I’m not very good at taking short breaks during a long editing or writing day.  But, I know that no matter ergonomically sound your chair is, no matter how the words are flowing, it’s better for your body, mind and creativity to get your butt out of the chair.  I also know that it’s counterintuitive to the Butt In Chair philosophy of most writers.  But when you do take a short break (and I am getting better at it) may I suggest you do something you want to do instead of something you have to do.  You could check Facebook, Tweet this blog post, read a magazine, watch TV, water plants, play with one or more dogs who are lying on your feet, or have a cocktail or two.  Or the last of the Cherries Garcia.

Whatever works.

Editing entails a lot of sitting and typing and sometimes actual paper shuffling, and by day’s end my eyes are fried and often, the last thing I want to do is mastermind a meal.  Granted, I can whip up glory on a plate with frozen chicken, instant rice and pre-cut broccoli, but sometimes I don’t want to exert even that effort.  So I don’t. That, my friends, is what take-out, Lean Cuisine, and boxes of cereal are for.

The point is, if there is ANYTHING AT ALL you can put on the back burner while you’re editing, even once-in-a-while, it will make space in your head and time in your day for something else. For someone else.  Perhaps you’ll watch The Bachelorette with your 17-year-old, or help your 20-year-old choose which of his 57 White Sox t-shirts to give away.

And let’s face it, no one ever really suffered because they ate a bowl of Cheerios for dinner occasionally.  Or even twice-a-week.

What Do You Get When Two Writers Marry? A Great Interview!

Today is exciting – it’s a two-fer on Women’s Fiction Writers!  I “met” Denise Dietz (aka Mary Ellen Dennis) and her husband Gordon Aalborg (aka Victoria Gordon) when I interviewed Keith Cronin. Gordon was Keith’s editor for Me Again and contributed to the conversation in the comments section. Deni emailed me that they really enjoyed the blog. Ta-dah! An interview was born.  Deni and Gordon write mostly romance — but don’t get your I-don’t-write-romance panties in a bunch — I don’t write romance either. (See the tagline? That’s me!)  They offer insights and advice that span genres (’cause they don’t discriminate) and like Gordon says below, “A good book is a good book.”  Please welcome them to Women’s Fiction Writers!  Enjoy! (I sure did.)

Interview with Denise Dietz (aka Mary Ellen Dennis) and Gordon Aalborg (aka Victoria Gordon)

ASN: Since we’ve never had a dynamic duo on the blog before, would you introduce each other and your books to Women’s Fiction Writers?

DD: Gordon Aalborg, writing as Victoria Gordon, is widely credited as being the first significant male writer in the Harlequin stable of authors. His first Harlequin, THE SUGAR DRAGON, came out in 1980 and was followed by nineteen more before he moved into writing thrillers, then more romance, and eventually into book editing.

GA: Denise Dietz, aka Mary Ellen Dennis, is addicted to writing books. Reading them, too. Writing and reading and true love and chocolate; life doesn’t get much better than that—unless you are married to a macho Aussie/Canadian women’s fiction author or watching The Princess Bride while munching crème donuts. 🙂 Denise’s first book was a romantic mystery about diet club members getting killed off at goal weight (and eating as if their very lives depended on it).

ASN: What’s it like working in the same industry? Is it like having an in-house critique partner or do you keep your work and muses in separate corners?

GA: Every author needs a good editor, so we benefit from having that covered “in-house” as you put it. And yes, we critique each other’s work, at least to some extent. The best part, when we’re both writing romance, is the research

DD: Gordon’s office is upstairs, mine downstairs, and we often send each other emails that say, “Want to meet for coffee?” It’s terrific working in the same industry because we never run out of things to talk about  We do proof each other’s manuscripts. My favorite Gordon novel is CAT TRACKS, a gem of a book told from the viewpoint of a feral Australian cat (think: The Incredible Journey). I read the manuscript straight through while Gordon said, “It’s time for lunch, honey,” then “It’s time for dinner,” then “It’s time to go to sleep!” and, finally, “Do you need more caffeine?” To which I muttered, “Yes, please.”

ASN: Gordon was Keith Cronin’s editor.  A guy writing women’s fiction edited by another guy.  I feel the estrogen rising in the blogosphere!

GA: A good book is a good book and Keith Cronin is a unique and talented author. His splendid ME AGAIN is a genuinely unique story told in a way only Keith could tell it. I would consider it mainstream fiction with a decidedly feminine bias.

DD: Gordon was so impressed with Keith’s book, he couldn’t stop talking about it. So even though I didn’t do any of the edits, I definitely became part of the process. Gordon didn’t ask me for advice. As a women’s fiction writer himself, he really didn’t need any.

ASN: How do each of you define women’s fiction?

GA: Women’s fiction is, ostensibly, aimed at the female audience. Usually because the content involves “emotions,” but often just because the author is female and/or the major characters are female. Various sub-genres such as “romance” and “erotica” do little to clarify the simple fact that every reader has an individual taste. I loosely use the formula that Romance is all about feelings and emotions, Erotica is Romance with more graphic sexual content, and Pornography is (too often) poorly written erotica with too much sex and not enough emotion … or genuine story.

DD: Adding to what Gordon said, I believe women’s fiction needs a “growth arc.” And although it’s almost become what I call an “enigmatic cliché,” a women’s fiction author must “show” rather than “tell” (literary mainstream novels often “tell” and get away with it because they are literary mainstream novels ). What do I mean by show vs. tell? Here’s an example:

“I’m impressed with the work you’ve done,” said Mr. Boss.

John Hero smiled. “Thanks, sir.”

John had begun working for Boss & Co. 6 months ago. He had earned the nickname “workaholic” after his wife’s sudden death…

Okay…now try this:

“I’m impressed by the work you’ve done,” said Mr. Boss.

John Hero smiled. “Thanks, sir.”

His smile faded as he stared at Mr. Boss’s Wizard of Oz paperweight. He remembered how his wife had loved the song “Over the Rainbow,” how he had sung it to her every night as she lay dying, how she had said, “John, you can’t carry a tune in a bucket,” her voice a caress. There was no doubt in his mind that Laura’s sudden death had turned him into a workaholic…

The first way isn’t wrong. It’s just that I feel no empathy for John because the author told me about his wife’s death. Add the paperweight, or any personal detail from John’s POV, and I know the character better, feel his pain. Do you see the difference?

ASN: What is your best advice specifically for aspiring authors of women’s fiction?

GA:  Aspiring women’s fiction authors should remember that the name of the game is emotions. If the sad bits don’t make *you* shed a tear, you’ve likely done it wrong. If the sexy bits don’t turn *you* on, they likely will fail to do it for your reader, either. You need believable characters in believable situations, with REAL emotions your readers can share.

DD: Try not to make your characters TSTL (Too Stupid To Live) by sending them into danger without, at the very least, a rottweiler.

An aspiring writer needs the following “tools”:

1] Discipline

2] A loner’s temperament.

3] An unhealthy preference for the company of people who are imaginary or dead.

And be careful about a character dropping his or her eyes. They could get stepped on.

Gordon’s women fiction novels includeThe Horse Tamer’s Challenge (written as G.K. Aalborg), Finding Bess (written as Victoria Gordon) and Wolf in Tiger Stripes (written as Victoria Gordon). “Wolf” received starred reviews and was chosen as one of Booklist’s Top 10 Romances of the year. Gordon’s entire backlist, including Victoria Gordon’s 20 Harlequin Classic Romances (most set in Australia), are up at Kindle.

Writing as Mary Ellen Dennis, Denise received starred reviews for The Landlord’s Black-Eyed Daughter, a women’s fiction novel inspired by the poem “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes (with a happier ending ). “Landlord” will be out in paperback this August, along with an 1875 circus historical, The Greatest Love on Earth.  Mary Ellen’s Heaven’s Thunder: a Colorado Saga, published May, 2011, encompasses the Cripple Creek gold rush and the Ludlow Massacre (coal strike against John D. Rockefeller), with an emphasis on Colorado’s silent film industry, and is Denise’s all-time favorite women’s fiction novel. It took her 10 years to research and write her generational saga, and another 10 years to market it. Denise’s mantra: “If you drop a dream, it breaks.”