Editing – the way I do it

It’s time to pull out my WIP manuscript and begin the editing process.


Nic McPhee, Flickr

Nic McPhee, Flickr

I shelved it  6 weeks ago  (I usually do this when I’ve finished writing a story) because I need distance, I need a break away and fresh eyes for when I return. Without a decent break, I can’t see my story as it really is, warts and all.


Teresa Robinson, Flickr

Teresa Robinson, Flickr


Firstly, I type out  and bullet point the main events happening in each chapter. Every event gets one line only. Each chapter gets its own page, so 20 chapters equals 20 pages. Print the lot off. Next,  I lay my 20 sheets on the floor in order. Then I read my summarised story through, looking for plot holes, or events that dominate and need to be pared back.  I can’t see the story as a whole until I’ve done this spread-out-on-the-floor-thing. Sometimes I rearrange chapters, putting them in a different order.

Toca Boca, Flickr

Toca Boca, Flickr

Next, I look at the characters themselves. The protagonist should have the biggest part. The others should be represented in order of importance. Is anyone getting too much or missing out? Are they all unique and distinctly different? Does each character have his own goals, motivation, conflict? Does each character grow and change by the end? Is the hero and heroine appealing, with decent character flaws (no sugar sweet characters for me)? Is the baddie, bad enough?  Do my characters act in a true-to-themselves way.

Nick Kenrick, Flickr

Nick Kenrick, Flickr

Next, I look at the phrases. Am I using fresh imagery and avoiding all clichés? Be on the look out for overused words, ideas and overused dialogue tags (he said, curling his lip, or she said, gritting her teeth). Is the dialogue snappy and does it have a natural flow?  Do I have a good mix of action, thoughts and dialogue? Be vigilant about showing rather than telling.

The ending. If you’re writing romance, you must have a satisfying ‘Happy Ever After.’  Do not end the book too abruptly. Romance readers like to enjoy a drawn out HEA. But, the reward must not be too easily won. It must be well deserved.

I’m aware that I haven’t mentioned spelling and grammar. By this stage I can’t see spelling mistakes or typos. If I was self publishing, I’d need to put the manuscript away again, for another few weeks break.  But if I’m going with a publisher, then I’d press submit, and hope to pick the typos up during the in-house editing process.

I know that this is a hell of a lot of work. But, each book needs to be as good as we can make it.


Courtesy of Live Life Happy, via Flickr

Courtesy of Live Life Happy, via Flickr

I’d love to hear about other ways to edit.



2 thoughts on “Editing – the way I do it

  1. Thank you. Very helpful. I always need editing advice.
    This is long but I couldn’t think how else to share it with you,
    This was editing advice I got at an SCBWI conference.
    • My name is Cheryl Klein
    • I’m an Editor at Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic Inc.
    • And this talk is titled “The Art of Detection: One Editor’s Tips for Analyzing and Revising Your Novel.”
    • Before you read this, you should download these two documents – the Word document; the PDF – print the pages out, if possible, and put them in numerical order according to the numbers in circles. (You will need to combine the two documents.)
    • You will also want a pen, and to have one particular Work-in-Progress in mind for some of the exercises.
    • Now, as the Sherlock Holmesians among you will know, “The Art of Detection” is the title of his as-yet-unpublished multivolume opus on the work of a detective
    • Actually, editing and detective work pull in opposite directions
    o Detectives work backwards from the evidence to find out the truth
    o Editors work forwards from the manuscript to make its truth all it can be.
    • But in the end, they both come down to paying attention to details that add up to an overall result
    • So just as a detective evaluates a crime scene and decides what action to take from there, I’m going to take you through my process as I respond to a manuscript
    o Reading the situation
    o Applying certain analytical techniques to figure out what’s working and what’s not
    o And then communicating those ideas to the author
    • With examples from a book I edited with Arthur, which will be out in stores next April—So Totally Emily Ebers by Lisa Yee
    • And some useful illustrative quotes from Master Holmes.

    • Before I get into the manuscript analysis, I want to offer five caveats:
    • 1. These are critical techniques you should apply only after you’ve finished your first draft and put it away for at least two weeks.
    o When you’re revising, you want to try to look at your book with objective eyes, as an editor or any casual reader would.
    o And the first best way to achieve objectivity is just to get some mental distance from the project; and the first best way to do that is time.
    • 2. Though of course editors aren’t wholly objective either—we approach a ms. with certain standards to which we want it to conform. I think a good novel is defined as one with:
    o Characters in whom the reader takes an interest
     Usually the reader will identify with the protagonist—but not always
    o A story in which things happen and change.
    o Good prose
    o A point to its telling
     We will discuss all these in more detail as we go along.
    • And when I edit a book, this is what I will edit it towards, and what all of the techniques I discuss will point towards.
    o The standards of literary fiction—which may or may not apply to your novel.
    • 3. Because every single book is different and needs different things.
    o An action novel needs a tighter plot than a coming-of-age story. A moody YA needs more character development than a middle-grade series.
    o Part of what we’ll be trying to do here is figure out what your book’s personality is and how to enhance that.
    • I call these methods of analysis TRUCKs—Techniques of Revision Used by Cheryl Klein—because they’re techniques that work for me.
    o I love lists and outlines because I’m a Virgo on the cusp of Libra, and they organize (Virgo) my extremely discursive brain (Libra).
    • 4. However, they may well drive you crazy. Feel free to pick and choose among them as your own revision style warrants, or depending on what you feel you need and where you are in the revision process.
    • Finally, 5. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. These are meant to be diagnostic techniques, not destructive ones.
    o You might run the outline or plot chart and discover your novel is working exactly as you want it to, and that’s great
    o Or it’s not working according to these standards but it feels right anyway, and right to your readers—that’s also great
    o But if you have a sense something isn’t working or isn’t as strong as it could be—or if you get feedback that something isn’t working, but you’re not sure what—hopefully these methods will help you identify the problem and figure out how to fix it.

    • So, to begin:
    • As Holmes says: “We approached the case, you remember, with an absolutely blank mind, which is always an advantage. We had formed no theories. We were simply there to observe and to draw inferences from our observations.”
    • Step 1 in any editorial process: Read the book.
    • I read through the manuscript and make notes of my impressions every step of the way.
    o I’m bored
    o Love this
    o Where is this going?
    o Hmm.
    • Incredibly advanced and sophisticated editorial thinking, as you can tell
    • But this is a really important step, as this is the only time in the process when I’ll approach the book as the first-time reader would: “with an absolutely blank mind, there to observe and to draw inferences from [my] observations.”
    • And what I am doing with the “bored, love this, hmm,” etc., is tracking my emotional reactions to each scene, sentence, and word.
    • Then when I finish the novel and look back over the whole thing, I try to judge whether I was having the right reactions
    o By “right” I mean the reactions the author intended me to have at each point in the book
    o And whether those are the right reactions for me to have given the content and audience for the book
     For instance, if I am really grossed out by the description of the disembowelment of Mr. Fluffy in a picture-book manuscript—that may be just the reaction the author intended me to have, but that does not mean it is an appropriate reaction to try to evoke in a picture book for children.
    o I also try to judge how the reactions add up to achieve the overall effect of the book.
    • And if any of those reactions don’t feel quite right, then I know we’ll need to do some editing.
    • A brief digression on editing
    o When we’re looking at writing, we editors are basically nothing but nerve endings: constantly quivering, relentlessly responsive.
    o We’ve developed this responsiveness through years and years of looking at manuscripts, good and bad, and figuring out what makes the good ones work, and how the bad ones can be fixed.
    o And then articulating our reactions and analysis to the author in a way that is hopefully useful to him or her
     Though often articulating the problems is harder than identifying them in the first place!
    o Most authors don’t have these extreme sensitivities.
    o So with the TRUCKs, I’m trying to put forth the techniques I use to help me analyze my reactions, so you might get a sense of where those reactions are coming from.
    • In the end, the goal of my first reading of a manuscript is to find answers to two questions, which will help me focus and shape my response:
    o 1. What is the story?
    o 2. What is the point?
    • The answers to these two questions will be my guidelines for the rest of the editorial process, so I’m going to discuss them in more depth now.
    o I feel a little odd putting these questions in a specific order because they are both essential, and so deeply entwined I consider them both at once. But since I can’t talk about them both at once . . .

    • Question Number One: What is the story?
    • If you’ve seen me speak before or you’ve read my website, you’ve probably heard me go on about Action Plots and Emotional Plots.
    o The Action Plot of a book is simply the external action or conflict that the characters experience. A great detective solves the case of a haunted house on a lonely moor. A team of heroes journeys to Mordor to get rid of a ring. An orphan boy goes to wizard school, where he makes friends, flies a broomstick, and discovers a whole lot of backstory.
     If you break it down to its most basic elements, Action Plots usually fit into one of three categories: Conflict, Mystery, or Lack. (You can read more about all of these in my talk “The Essentials of Plot.”)
    o The Emotional Plot of a book is the internal action, or to be more specific, the moral and emotional development of your characters as a result of the external action.
    • Both Action Plots and Emotional Plots revolve around change: a conflict being settled; a mystery being solved; a need getting fulfilled.
    o Things are different at the end than they are at the beginning.
    • So we might restate Question Number One as “What changes, and how does that change happen?”
    • You remember I told you to have a completed project or WIP in mind at the beginning here.
    • Quickly now—in thirty seconds, no more—I want you to write down the central Action Plot of your book, in two lines at most. Go.
    o How many of you found that easy?
    o How many found it really, really hard?
    o How many aren’t sure they got it right?
    • Sherlock Holmes says, “Nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person,” and the same is pretty much true for a story.
    • Look at what you just wrote. It ought to be a sentence where your protagonist is the subject and the action regarding his problem is the verb.
    o At a summer camp for juvenile delinquents, Stanley digs up a long-buried mystery, eventually earning friends, self-respect, and a fortune that helps his family
    o Claudia and Jamie run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they discover a mysterious statue that might have been sculpted by Michaelangelo
    • For SO TOTALLY EMILY EBERS, I might say:
    o In a series of letters to her absent father, Emily Ebers deals with moving cross-country, her parents’ divorce, a new friendship, and her first serious crush.
    • One easy way to determine what your central plot is: Look at the climax.
    o What gets resolved there? Is that the conflict or situation that occupies most of the action of the book?
    o Do all of the developments of your story ultimately lead to that ending?
    o If not, then maybe you need to adjust either your climax or your story.
    • (EMILY, like STANFORD before it, has several climaxes, because its multiple plotlines each need individual resolution.)
    • Once you have that down, you have just completed TRUCK #1: Write a two-line summary of the plot of your book.
    • And in terms of making revisions, these two lines are useful because it gives you a focus: This is your narrative backbone, this is the change you have to accomplish. Everything else is embroidery.
    • And it can prove useful in many other ways as well
    o In query letters and at conferences when you’re pitching
    o In copy blurbs when you publish it
    o At family reunions when people ask you “So, whatcha writing?”
    • Several of the TRUCKs we will discuss are basically expansions of this two-line story summary in greater levels of detail.

    • Before we go on to that, though, I want to think about character:
    • Your main characters don’t have to be wholly likeable or admirable, but they have to prove themselves worthy of the reader’s interest and time.
    • And they have a very limited time and space at the beginning of the book in which to do so.
    • So, TRUCK #2: List the first ten meaningful things your protagonist says or does.
    o Viewed objectively, out of the context of the action, who does that character seem to be? Would you like him or her? Or at least be interested in what s/he’s going to do next?
    o That is who that character is to the reader.
    o If your character flops down on his bed first thing and says “I hate Smallville. There’s nothing to do in this town!” that character is a whiner. And while we might sympathize with him, he’s not that easy to like from the beginning.
    o On the other hand, if he is first seen building a raft out of driftwood to float downstream and get the heck out of Smallville, then he’s creative and resourceful and will probably be someone the reader wants to follow
    o If he’s not sounding like someone you’d want to spend time with—then consider bringing out more of his positive qualities upfront.
     Humor—even sarcasm—creativity, kindness, can-do spirit, unique take on the world, original observations
     Energy, in general

    o Now we’re going back to expanding on that one-line summary of the story
    o TRUCK #3: Write the flap copy for your book.
     Flap copy, as you know, is a two- or three-paragraph summary of a book’s events
     The difference between actual flap copy versus what you’ll produce for this exercise is that yours should not include adjectives or try to be clever.
    • Just try to write what happens in the book in about 250 words
    o Not what you want to happen, or what you think should happen, but what actually does happen in the draft you’re working with.
    o Generally this includes
     the opening situation
     the inciting event of the action—the thing that gets the story started
     at least one action your protagonist takes to follow that up, setting up the conflict or mystery
     the stakes
    o Flap copy generally does not give away the ending, but for the purposes of what you’re doing here, I’d include that too.
    o And when you’ve done it, congrats—you have a draft of your first query letter.
    • More than that, you’ve had to identify all the things I listed above—the opening situation, the inciting event, the action, and the stakes.
    • Now think about those features of your flap copy. Are any of them missing? Or do they not feel as strong as you’d hope?
    • Was there any point at which you were writing the copy when you were surprised the story took the turn it did? Where it deviated from what you thought should happen in the novel, or what you wanted to have happen in the novel? How does that feel to you now?
    • Please look at handout #1 from the Word document. This is one of my flap drafts—I call them “flapdoodles”—for SO TOTALLY EMILY EBERS.
     What should you notice here?
    • Opening situation
    • Emily Ebers is having a bad summer. Her parents just got a divorce.
    • Inciting event
    • Then Emily meets Millicent Min
    • Action of the protagonist . . .
    • Er, ah: “Life getting back on track”
    • Stakes
    • Emily’s life and happiness, implicitly
     What’s missing or feels weak?
     In this case—there doesn’t seem to be much action of the protagonist, honestly.
     But that’s fine, because this is a very domestic book, built entirely around its characters’ relationships and speech. For the first half of the book, which is more or less what flap copy covers, Emily is a victim of her parents’ betrayals. Her journey in the book is discovering and coming to terms with those betrayals, and deciding on her own reactions—that’s the action that the flap copy doesn’t get to.
     However, coming to terms with something doesn’t make for the most exciting flap copy. And so:
     Please look at handout #2 from the Word document. That’s the final flap copy.
    • This reworking was Arthur’s idea, and it was a great one, because it really highlighted the strength of the book: Emily’s funny, strong, dynamic voice.
    • We knew that was the great draw of the book—perhaps even more than the plot, since many readers would already know Emily’s story from STANFORD and MILLICENT.
    • So that’s what will appear on the inside jacket, come next April.

    o Expanding further on that 250-word summary, let’s move on to
    o TRUCK #4: Outline your novel.
     Sit down with your book, go through it chapter by chapter, and write out a one-line to one-paragraph summary of each chapter’s events.
     Make it even more detailed if you like and go scene-by-scene. But I would start out chapter-by-chapter to keep the focus on the big stuff.
     Try to include the key information included in each chapter—if you have a mystery, note the places you’re laying clues; if it’s a romance, the major steps in the development of the relationship.
     What this lets you see is development:
    • Do the plot events follow each other in a logical physical and emotional order?
    • Is all the information there? Is it where it needs to be for the greatest plot and emotional impact?
    • Do thoughts or events repeat themselves?
    • What is your main character doing all this time? Is he at the center of the action?
     Look at each plotline or subplot individually.
    • How does each one develop? Do some plots disappear for a long time?
     Please look at handout #3 from the Word document: the preliminary outline for the second draft of SO TOTALLY EMILY EBERS. (I didn’t do one for the first draft.)
     A few things to notice here:
    • July 19, July 21, and July 23 are all dates marked “MM talks to Alice.” Probably Lisa was trying to establish how well Alice (Emily’s mom) and Millicent were getting along, and excluding Emily.
    • The problem was, I got this point very quickly, which means I felt bored by the time we got to July 23.
    o I asked Lisa to cut July 23 in her revision.
    • Another example: What happens June 22? (EE starts volleyball)
    • She meets Millicent at practice on the 26th; then when iss the next time we hear about what happens at volleyball? (July 24)
    o So I suggested that Lisa add a few more brief scenes or updates about what’s going on at volleyball throughout. This gives the volleyball plot continuity and makes it feel more like Emily’s real life.
     Finally, look at August 1. Just in that one day, there’s seven actions: “EE goes to the dentist, argues with Alice (who is still a hippie), self-tans, sees SW and MM at the library, goes to Maddie’s, gets a postcard from Dad, and fantasizes about his visit to Rancho Rosetta”
    • As a reader, I found it really hard to figure out what was most important in that chapter. What was I supposed to focus on there? What should I take away?
    • I asked Lisa to simplify it.
    o Now take a look at handout #4, the outline of the second draft with my suggestions.
     I went over these ideas in much more detail on the actual manuscript, but this was a quick way for Lisa to see the book and the ideas as a whole.
     You see I suggest adding references to volleyball, and there’s a little bit of rearranging at the beginning
     July 19 is interesting: That’s where Emily was telling Millicent the story of how her parents met, when Alice was a reporter for Rolling Stone and she was sent to interview Dave “the Dude” Ebers.
    • Fictionally, Emily’s telling the story here worked to reinforce the relationship between Millicent and Emily, because we saw them sharing confidences, and show us what a natural romantic Emily is—both good things.
    • But Alice told Emily the story later in the book when they were taking a walk together, and that served to show the slowly thawing relationship between Alice and Emily, and Alice coming to terms with her divorce.
    • But readers didn’t need to hear the story twice. So we weighed the value of Alice telling it to Emily vs. the value of Emily telling it to Millicent—
    • And we finally decided to cut Emily’s telling, as we had enough other examples in the book of the girls’ friendship and Emily’s romantic nature.
    • Make sense?

    o Moving on to TRUCK #5: The Plot Checklist
     Please look at handout #5 from the PDF or on my website for a blank checklist (it’s linked through “The Essentials of Plot” talk there).
     This is something I developed for a talk I gave earlier this year for said talk
     And basically it asks explicitly all the questions we’ve been broaching implicitly here
    • Is the action driven by the characters, particularly the main character?
    • How does that action develop?
    • What are the stakes?
    • Do things change?
    o Once you have that, again—are your answers satisfactory to you? If not, how can you strengthen them?
    o I didn’t run this on EMILY while editing it because I hadn’t invented it yet!
    o But I did it just for this conference—and it was hard
    o It’s based on Aristotle’s Poetics, and designed more for novels with a single straightforward storyline than the web of relationships we have here
    o But it helped me because it made me identify the kind of plot I had—a Lack, where Emily Lacked a true understanding of her relationship with her father
     And the story of the novel is her getting that understanding and coming to terms with it.

    • So you’ll see the checklist ends with our second major question here: “What is the point?”
    • “The point” of a book is its guiding idea or theme
    o The truth you want to communicate to readers
    o The emotion you want them to feel
    o The concept you want to explore in your story
    o The answer to the question “What is it about?”
    • Points fall into two related categories
    o The first is what, if you’re being incredibly reductive, you would call the message or moral of the book—what we’ll call the moral point
     I’d like to say—I do not want books with heavy morals, like “Hey, kids! It’s fun to share!” or “Now look what happened to Timmy with the light socket!”
     But rather the thing your characters learn in the course of the action.
    • If you asked Jane Austen the question, “What is it about?”, she might say “It’s about pride and prejudice and the stupid mistakes smart people make when they allow those emotions to get in the way of seeing rightly.”
    o The second kind of point we’ll call an emotional point: and that’s the emotional effect the book has on the reader
     If you asked Dav Pilkey, “What is it about?”, he might say, “It’s about giant flying toilets that attack the earth and using the word ‘poop’ as often as possible.”
     Why? To make kids (and the author) laugh. That’s an emotional point—something your readers feel in response to the action
    • And both of those answers are just fine for the books they’re writing and the audiences they serve.
    o Not every book has to be deep. Not every book has to be funny. Not every book has to make you cry. Not every book has to be Harry Potter.
     In fact, I don’t want to see “Harry Potter” again in a submission.
    • Yes, certainly, I want my books to give as much delight and sell as well.
    • But the point of that book has already been made. And the book itself has been written and published and is done.
     I want to see the thing you want to think about, how you would tell the story of a boy coming of age in a time of war.
    o Every book must do two things.
     One, fulfill the reader’s expectations for it given its provenance and genre
    • A literary novel has to have beautiful writing
    • A mystery has to have a crime, clues, and a satisfying answer.
    • A Dav Pilkey book has to have giant flying toilets
     And two, give pleasure to a reader
    • Besides the writer. And the writer’s mother.
    • But that pleasure usually starts with the writer.
    o Don’t stress yourself out about it, really. Find the point of the material you’re working with and the story you’re telling, and go on from there.
    • So now, you have your pencils at the ready, your WIP in mind, and the question “What is the point of your book?”
    o 30 seconds—go!
    • All right, how many of you found that easy? Or really, really hard?
    • This is TRUCK #6: Answer the question “What is it about?” with a one-sentence thesis statement for your book.
    • If you’re struggling with your story, come back to this thesis statement
    • Because if you can identify what your book is about or for,
    • you have an idea both to work towards and to judge the content of your story against.
    • In terms of something to judge your story against—suppose Dav Pilkey interrupted the latest Captain Underpants book with a serious interlude where Harold and George met a Holocaust survivor
    o The Holocaust is an important topic. But it is not what the Captain Underpants series is about, and its utter seriousness does not belong alongside the tale of giant flying toilets from Mars.
    o So I would advise Dav to edit that.
    • In terms of an idea to work towards—as the action in your story unfolds, the main character should discover the point you’ve identified.
    o Every plot development in the first half of Pride and Prejudice serves to establish Elizabeth’s pride and prejudice toward Darcy
    o So when Elizabeth learns that he’s actually a good guy, she recognizes the point: how she hasn’t seen rightly and that’s she just made a big mistake
     So when the main character gets the point about pride and prejudice, so does the reader. Good work, Jane.
    • Do all the developments of the action plot inevitably lead your main character to discover the point you have in mind? Or do the developments add up to something else?
    o If the answer is “something else,” you can change the plot, or you can change the point. That’s a decision you have to make.
    o I was working with a talented writer earlier this year on a novel that had great characters, a strong story, original magic–but something wasn’t connecting.
    o And finally I returned it to her and I just said “I’m sorry, but this seems flat to me. I’m not getting the point you’re trying to make.”
    o She told me that point—her thesis statement–and we put it together: The problem was that her main character knew that truth from the beginning
    o So the novel wasn’t about her discovering the truth, but just a constant reinforcement of that truth
     which wasn’t as interesting since it wasn’t a change
    o So the author went back and changed her point to fit the story, I think. And she’s revising the book along those lines.
    • If you have a rash of subplots—what is the point of each of the subplots? Do they support or offer variations on the theme set forth in the thesis statement? Or do they have nothing to do with that thesis statement? Do any of the points repeat each other?
    • Now if you can’t create this thesis statement right off, if you didn’t have a vision for the book particularly when you started it or you can’t say what it’s about now . . .
    o Well, sit down and sort that out.
    o What ideas in the book get you most excited? Which conflicts thrill you most? Or which characters interest you most? What inspired the book in the first place? Come back to that, and see if you can use that to help you winnow down your material and find yourself a point.
    o After all, as Sherlock Holmes says, “It is of the highest importance in the art of detection to be able to recognize out of a number of facts which are incidental and which vital. Otherwise your energy and attention must be dissipated instead of being concentrated.”
    o That’s really the point of the point exercise—to figure out what’s the most vital thing you need to communicate to your readers, so you can concentrate building your story around that.
    • With SO TOTALLY EMILY EBERS, Arthur and I felt strongly that the book was about trust.
    o To quote from our first editorial letter for the book, “how you can trust others, and then what happens when they prove untrustworthy; and trust in yourself and who you are, no matter how others fail you or make fun of you.”
    o So we used that word as our guide in checking over the plot
     First making sure that Emily’s level of trust in each character was firmly established for the reader, and why she had reason to trust them so
     Then knocking them down one by one—which ended with the confident Emily losing trust in herself.
     And then seeing how she acted when that trust was gone
     And how she rebuilt her relationships after that.
    o I found out later that Lisa’s guiding word for the book was “abandonment,” which is the betrayal of trust, so we seem to have gotten it right.

    • You remember, way back before I started digressing on outlines and thesis statements, that I said I was reading the manuscript. Then I told you my reasons for doing so based on theory—the story and the point.
    • Coming back to practice: Once I’m done with that reading, I sit down and immediately write out my first impressions: what stuck out most in my mind, what was terrific, what needed work.
    o Please look at handout #6 from the Word document: My freewriting notes on the first draft of SO TOTALLY EMILY EBERS.
     Like all of Lisa’s novels, Emily Ebers is a book about relationships, and the plots are in the relationships
     So you can see I talk about relationships first thing: That the Millicent-Emily relationship wasn’t working for me. Why? It seemed dutiful rather than truly felt.
    • I take these notes and the analysis I did of the story and the point, and I keep thinking about and writing about and refining those things until I have a coherent list of problems and suggestions.
    • At this point, I often try to call or have lunch with the author to discuss these things now that I’ve thought them through
    o This is great because I get to hear the direction they’re thinking, their answers to these questions
    • And then I turn my notes and their responses into an editorial letter.
    o The goal of an editorial letter (especially on the first draft) is to confirm and refine the Big Things: What this story is about, who the major characters are, how the central Action Plot works.
    o I try to identify the problems I see and sometimes offer solutions, though sometimes I leave the author to work it out for herself.
    • I believe the great detective has a word for us here: “In solving a problem of this sort, the grand thing is to be able to reason backwards.”
    o What was one of the key problems I identified in my first notes on EMILY? (Millicent and Emily didn’t seem to be connecting.)
    o But what is the point of the book? What is it about? (Trust.)
    o Therefore Emily and Millicent have to connect for the plot to work.
    o So reasoning backward from that . . . how do we make them connect?
     As friends have connected through time immemorial
     Conversation and emotions—Lisa showed more of the dialogue between Millicent and Emily, particularly some moments that showed Millicent’s vulnerability
     A common enemy—Lisa beefed up the character of Julie, the witchy volleyball captain, and made her teasing of both Emily and Millicent more prominent
     Shared activities—you remember that the outline mentioned scenes at the Rialto and the recycling plant? Lisa added those in the second draft.
    • They’re both cool things that Millicent introduces Emily to—thus reinforcing the idea that Millicent is a neat person to know
    o You can look at handout #7 from the Word document to see Arthur’s and my letter addressing these questions.

    • The author gets my letter and revises the book
    o This can take anywhere from one month to five or six, depending upon the amount of work to be done, the book’s schedule, and our personal schedules
    • Then the manuscript comes back to me, and I repeat the process all over again
    o The first draft, we tend to try to fix the overall story, character, and point things
    o The second draft, we’ll focus more on individual scenes—making sure they add up, that everything is necessary, that the pacing is right, all that
    • And on the second and third drafts, I’ll do in-depth line-edits.
    o The line by line, or even word by word, review of a manuscript
    • The same way we discussed the most basic qualities of a good novel above, we can come up with basic standards for good prose
    • Goal is perfect match of style and content
    o And that is what I edit toward.
    • Style has five essential qualities
    o Strategy for communication that serves the point of the novel
     Also known as “voice”
     This is a whole other talk by itself.
     Encompasses tone, vocabulary, rhythm, point of view
     Most crucially, it reflects the point of the novel
     Compare these two paragraphs from great literature:

    The evil of the actual disparity in their ages (and Mr. Woodhouse had not married early) was much increased by his constitution and habits; for having been a valetudinarian al his life, without activity of mind or body, he was a much older man in ways than in years; and though everywhere beloved for the friendliness of his heart and his amiable temper, his talents could not have recommended him at any time.

    “Give me bacon and eggs,” said the other man. He was about the same size as Al. Their faces were different, but they were dressed like twins. Both wore overcoats too tight for them. They sat leaning forward, their elbows on the counter.

     The first is Jane Austen, from Emma; the second Hemingway, from his short story “The Killers”
     The Austen rolls on and on, with beautiful balance and long words—appropriate for a novel about bringing things out of balance into peace and harmony
     The Hemingway is staccato, uneasy, quick—appropriate for a story about sudden violence disturbing the rhythm of everyday life
    o Your style should serve the point of your book
     If your main point is to entertain, you want to be easy to follow
     To thrill, you want to be tight and fast
     To tell the story of a simple country girl, you may want simple country language. Unless you’re making fun of her, and then perhaps you want fancy high-falutin’ language to point up the disjunction between your style and her life, and the life’s inferiority.
     And so on.
    o Quality #2 of good style: Rhythm
     The rhythm is the way the sentence sounds when it’s read aloud—like meter in poetry.
     That Jane Austen sentence is 73 words long, but because she breaks it up with commas, you have places to breathe and it feels easy to read.
    o Quality #3: Variance in rhythm and language
     Rhythm: If every sentence in a paragraph has the same length and meter, the effect is a bit stultifying.
    • Suppose we edited the Hemingway like this:

    The other man ordered bacon and eggs. He was about the same size as Al. They had different faces but wore the same clothes. Both wore overcoats too tight for them. They sat leaning forward with their elbows on the counter.

    • Do you see what I did? I took out the commas in the first, third, and fifth sentences.
    • It feels tenser—but not in a good way. More in a dead way.
     Language
    • Repeats words in close proximity to each other only by strategy
    • Again in the revised Hemingway: “wore” jangles there.
    o #4: Flow
     The narrative voice doesn’t jump from subject to subject without any connection or transition
     But rather it has a natural forward motion of ideas and action
     So the reader never says, “Wait, stop, where did that come from?” and gets broken out of the story.
    o #5: Originality
     A voice I haven’t heard before
     The narration doesn’t use cliches
    • “Trembling like a leaf,” “as luck would have it,” “bored to tears”—these bore me to tears
    • Sometimes characters will speak in clichés, and that’s fine as long as it’s intentional—that is, the writer is deliberately having the character speak in clichés to show us something about that character
     Though of course it’s better to have
     Original imagery and phrasing
    • I recently read David Levithan’s Wide Awake, which is a fascinating YA novel about civic responsibility (as much as that sounds like a contradiction in terms), and the main character loves American history and the Boston Tea Party. So when it’s time to rebel, he says, “Let’s throw some tea overboard.” I love that.
    • The best way to test the style of your work is TRUCK #7: Read it aloud.
    o You’ll be able to hear the rhythms and variance—or lack of variance
    o If you find yourself editing what you’re reading as you go along, write in what you’re saying, because what you’re saying truly reflects your natural voice.
    o Watch your own emotional reactions as you read—are you excited in the action parts? Emotional in the sad parts? Do you get tired or bored in any particular scenes? Maybe that’s a sign you can tighten them up a bit.

    • Good prose: Content
    o Written in voice
     Within the boundaries of what your narrator could potentially say or the reader would expect to hear
    o Makes steady forward progress
     Doesn’t repeat itself unless it’s necessary to make a point
     This includes restatements of the same thought:
    • Joey was speechless. Not a word came out. He couldn’t even open his mouth.
    o I think I get the point.
    o Shows, not tells
     Develops the emotion the character is feeling in the reader
     Does not just outright tell the reader what that emotion is (“I felt so sad”).
    o But at the same time, chooses dramatization wisely
     Telling is putting something in narration
    • Example: We talked about the concert next week.
     Showing is dramatizing it for the reader so it’s as if it unfolds before our eyes
    • Example: “Hey, are you excited about the MetroCards concert next week?” “Yeah, I can’t wait!”
     Showing has more weight than telling because it takes up more time and lays the situation out so readers can see it with their own eyes
    • As Holmes has it, “There is nothing like first-hand evidence.”
     But you don’t need to prove every single point to the reader, and if you do dramatize every point for the reader, your book will be very long and you’ll probably waste some of their time.
     Dramatize the things that matter most to your overall story and point.
    o Gets the details right
     When I’m line-editing, I’m also fact-checking things both within the manuscript and in the real world
     If Emily Ebers says she lives at 1350 Willow Tree Lane at one point, then gives her address as 1480 Willow Tree Circle at another, I’ll ask Lisa to confirm which one is correct
     Or if Emily suddenly decided to do a chemistry experiment and gave the boiling point of water as 160 degrees Fahrenheit—I’d say to Lisa, “You know, it’s actually 212 degrees. Would you like to revise this, or were you trying to emphasize how little Emily knows about science?”
     As Sherlock Holmes says: “Have you tried to drive a harpoon through a body? No? Tut, tut, my dear sir, you must really pay attention to these details.”
    • When I’m line-editing, I test every sentence against the question “What purpose does this serve?” (You can do this too—carefully—as TRUCK #8.)
    o If it’s not necessary—if it’s something we already know, or something extraneous to the story or the point, or if it’s not showing us more about the world or the character—I will often suggest cutting it.
    o If it is necessary, I want to be sure it’s phrased in the very best way possible to communicate the meaning to readers
    o Here’s an example that’s not from EMILY, but from the first draft of a translation I’m working on right now:

    Choosing this tiny, two-story Victorian with its dingy blue columns and faded shutters, wedged between two even more run-down houses, was especially odd since every business worthy of the name had long ago deserted the street.

     What is the point of this sentence? What’s the key information it’s meant to convey? (The Victorian house was an odd choice for the buyer to make)
     That’s what I want to put the emphasis on.
     The best way to emphasize something in a sentence or a paragraph is to move it up front.
    • Remember when you did topic sentences in school? How the first sentence in a paragraph establishes your thesis, and the rest of the paragraph goes on from that or supports that? The same rule applies to fiction. The first sentence in a paragraph—or even the first phrase in a sentence—ought to give a sense of what you’re talking about and the circumstances in which the action is taking place.
     So the translator and I vastly reworked this sentence to get:

    It was an odd choice of location for a bookstore—a tiny, two-story Victorian house with dingy blue columns and faded shutters–especially since every other business worthy of the name had long ago deserted the street.

    o An improvement, right?
    • This is where the detective’s work and the editor’s are most alike: All about paying attention to details.
    o “It is, of course, a trifle, but there is nothing so important as trifles.”

    • If you’ll take a look at the PDF packet now, we’ll look quickly at some edits to the first scene of SO TOTALLY EMILY EBERS

    • First draft (labeled #8): There aren’t a lot of notes here because we don’t do a lot of line-edits on first draft—too much can still change storywise, so it’s not worth putting in the time just yet.
    o Arthur commented on the “pee your pants” paragraph
     Peeing your pants is intrinsically a little gross, right? And on the very first page of the book, we readers don’t know Emily well enough to go there with her, so it put Arthur off (me too, I admit).
    o I commented on the fact that Dad ought to know who Emily’s best friends are, so if Emily has to tell Dad her best friends’ names, that makes me not believe in Emily’s closeness to her dad.
     But the point of this book, as we said earlier, is Emily recognizing that her closeness with her dad wasn’t all that real. Thus the reader needs to believe it at the beginning, and I asked Lisa to change this.
     On the other hand, we needed to establish the girls’ friendship upfront for the reader, since friendship is also an important theme of the book, and so . . . Watch for this sentence in future drafts.
    • Second draft (#9): First, note the changes Lisa made here. She cut the pee your pants paragraph; added the line “I know you can never remember my friends,” then described them; and added the paragraph about the Elmo tape recorder on p. 2.
    o That was a direct result of our discussion about Emily’s relationship with her dad—the Elmo recorder establishes their closeness.
    o On the other hand, the “never remember my friends” line undercuts that closeness, so I asked Lisa to consider dropping it.
    • Running down through the other edits on that page:
    o “The only other time a teacher . . .”: Remember what I was saying about topic sentences above? The first scene in a book serves as sort of the topic sentence of that book, as it establishes the narrator, the setting, and the main idea quickly for the reader.
     Therefore you really want to stay focused in that first scene, especially early on. Here the anecdote about a teacher we don’t know and who will have nothing to do with the action of the book interrupts the establishing process, so I asked Lisa to cut it.
    o “I began bawling so hard . . .”: Basically the same problem as “pee your pants” above; I don’t know and love Emily so much at this point in the book that my fondness for her overcomes my disgust at her telling me about her boogers! Better to cut.
    o “Girls, go directly there!”: This was a case of misplaced dramatization, as the point of this scene is showing the reader how close A.J. and Nicole and Emily are, and therefore how sad Emily will be to leave them. Given that, Mrs. Spence is important only because she sends the girls out of the room—we don’t need to hear her words directly. Cut.
    o “That makes seven years of best friendness”: To the explanation on the page, I’ll add that as a paragraph of solid description, this stopped the action dead—not something that should happen in the first scene! So I asked Lisa to establish the girls’ characters through their dialogue rather than their appearances, as the dialogue reinforced the girls’ friendship, thus serving the point of the scene.
    o “When I got home from school”: This created a transition from the school day to evening at home.
    o “I packed my Elmo tape recorder”: Again, just moving the important information to the front of the sentence.
    • Third draft (#10, back in the Word document):
    o Again, note the changes Lisa made from the previous draft: Besides the little corrections, she replaced the physical description of the girls with emotional dialogue binding them together (using the Mr. Kinnoin anecdote that had been in that first paragraph), and added the line about the hamster, which flows nicely into their all crying again and “beyond ultimate sadness”
    o So we’ve gotten the content in such strong shape that my edits here are really coming down to individual words and little tiny emotional reactions, as you can see.
    o I suggest running the first two paragraphs together because (1) You don’t want to give readers a place to stop until they’re thoroughly hooked in the book; and (2) ending the paragraph with “teachers aren’t supposed to cry” makes that thought sound really important and pithy, and while it is funny, the emphasis here should not be on the teacher or thoughts about teachers, but on Emily’s sadness at leaving her friends. Putting those two paragraphs together changed the focus of the paragraph to just that.
    o Here I suggested adding “After we stopped laughing” for the same reasons we added “When I got home from school” above: It created a transition from one setting (or in this case, emotion) to the next.
    o Both “Trembling” and “recalled” sounded out-of-tune with Emily’s slightly dizzy voice, so we cut them both, which with “recalled” necessitated some word juggling to avoid repetition.
    o The “It is beyond ultimate sadness” paragraph: This was something that the reader could understand by this point without Lisa having to state Emily’s feelings outright, so we didn’t need these three lines.
    o And the last two paragraphs are again just perfect.
    • And that is more or less the way it appears in the final printed text, in #11 in the PDF.

    • For the record, all of those edits are the result of at least two and usually three reads of the manuscript
    o I read a draft once to form my reactions to it
    o Once more to write preliminary line-edits
    o Once more to put in final line-edits
    o And oftentimes a fourth time to be sure all of my notes are in tune with each other and with the accompanying letter
    • So if you ever wonder why an editor takes so long to respond to your submission—it’s because we’re putting in so much time on the books we already have!
    • (Though I’d like to note that the vast majority of So Totally Emily Ebers didn’t require as much editing as I did here . . . This was the first entry, so it was absolutely essential that we get it right.)
    • After I finish my line-edits, I write a cover letter that reviews the big things we need to concentrate on in this draft, and I ship the package off to the author
    • And we repeat this process until we get the book where it needs to be and I turn it in to the copyediting department.
    • Yay!

    • Now, not everybody likes revising. In fact, some people hate it.
    o It’s one of my favorite parts of writing, personally, because I’m a perpetual editor, and I always see things I can make better and deeper.
    • But if you are one of those people who hate it, I’d like to offer some ways to think about your edits, whether they’re ones you initiate yourself or ones recommended by your writing group or your editor.
    o 1. Remember: Everyone gets edited.
     Katherine Paterson? Edited. J. K. Rowling? Edited. Kevin Henkes? Edited. It happens to everyone worth reading.
    • (Anne Rice? Not edited. Tells you something, doesn’t it?)
    o 2. The edits are not a personal judgment on you or your authorial worth.
     In case it bears saying: Your editor does not hate you.
     Your editor does not think you’re stupid because your work needs revision.
     Your editor does not care if you make copyediting mistakes, and you do not need to apologize for them.
     Editors are interested in making your book work. That’s really pretty much the only thing we care about.
     If I identify a problem in a manuscript, the writer does not have to take my specific revision suggestion on how to solve the problem. I am fine with my suggestion being ignored.
    • BUT she does have to either fix the problem another way, or convince me it’s not a problem at all.
     An editor’s greatest joy is a writer who can recognize the weaknesses in her work and respond with a revision that addresses them.
    o 3. Speaking of which: It is perfectly okay to be upset about cutting things.
     If you receive an edit and think “No! Never! Mr. Fluffy has to stay!”, sit down and think why you feel this way.
    • Is it because you really love Mr. Fluffy as a character? Because you see him as serving an important function in the novel? Or because you spent five hours writing that scene with him?
    • If it’s important to you for a writing reason, look at why your editor suggests dropping him. Is there a way to solve the problem and yet keep him in the book?
    • But if it’s only important to you for personal reasons—like the five hours you spent on that scene—then you sigh and cut it with no kicking or screaming.
     Don’t waste your creative energy on negative emotion. Your first priority must be not your own experience or ego, but what’s good for a reader’s experience with your book. (This goes for the editor’s ego too.)
    o 4. And really, if you hate cutting that one line or plot development because it’s so perfect and you spent so much time on it, remember: It’s just disappearing from this work. It’s not disappearing from the world.
    o You can use it again somewhere else.
    • And this leads me to TRUCK #9: Keep a copy of everything.
    o This is probably obvious, but: Save every draft in a new file, or transfer anything significant that you cut to an OUTTAKES section at the bottom of your document
    o You never know when you might need the backup, or if you may want to add it again in revision, or when that one line will provide the title or the idea for your next book
    • Finally, whether you’re writing a first draft, editing an old draft, or about to send off a brand-spanking-new draft, try TRUCK #10: Give it time.
    o When you first receive editorial suggestions or come up with ideas for a revision, take the time to absorb them and think about them, so they can grow into the bones of the manuscript
    o Give yourself time to experiment with trying new things or directions
    o Time to make your work the best it can be.
    o Editors get suspicious when authors return revisions too quickly
     Because it usually indicates the author has made only surface changes—he hasn’t really thought the issues through.
    o If you print out a fresh draft of your manuscript and want to send it to me, please: Stick it in a drawer for a week and reread it then.
     If there are things that still need to be fixed, they’ll be more apparent when you approach them with a fresh eye than immediately after you’ve finished the corrections.
     And if it’s ready to go—it will still be ready to go in a week.
    • Or 24 hours, if you can’t stand to wait seven days.
    o And if I go to the trouble of asking for a revision of your manuscript, I’m not going to lose interest in it because you get it to me in four months instead of two
     I’d rather have an author who took the time to write a good revision in four months, than one who rushes it right back to me without doing the work.

    • So that brings us to the end of our parade of TRUCKs
    • I hope you have found things in it that will be helpful to you.
    • I said at the beginning that the editor’s work and the detective’s aren’t very much alike—and I stand by that.
    • But we are both searching for that elusive truth, in life or in fiction
    • Or the best of all, fiction that readers love as much as life, for all the truth it contains
    o Like Sherlock Holmes, if I dare call him fictional!
    • Holmes says, “What one man can invent, another can discover.”
    • And “My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplace of existence.”
    • I live for the great stories that lift us out of the commonplace of existence;
    • And if yours do that, I look forward to discovering your inventions.
    • Thank you.

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