Break out the red ink!

Editing.  We all hate it.  Who doesn’t?  Heck, even if it’s not difficult, it’s an admission that you need improvement.  Ouch.  My personal response is: Improvement?  Who needs improvement?

Immediately after that, one of my readers (usually a sister) points out that I’ve misspelled “imrpovement”.  Sigh.  So, I decide it’s time for the first edit.  It’s always the worst one, too, which doesn’t help.

The first edit is the one where you read back through your story for the first time.  It’s the one where you really just how bad that sentence actually sounds, or how much time you wasted on Character D, when she really wasn’t all that important to the story.

You’re first impulse is to sit down and begin marking stuff off, rewriting as you go.  This is both a good idea and a bad idea.  It’s a good idea, because you still remember what you were expecting to read, so you write that.  It’s a bad idea, because you are in editor mode.  The ONLY thing you should do in editor mode is fix grammar and spelling and make notes as to places that “don’t work”.

No rewriting while in editor mode.  It’s a bad idea.  Your internal editor is automatically seeking to tear apart the writing, searching for problems.  Creativity and repair is not your internal editor’s domain.  That belongs to the writer side of you.  So, once your editor has torn apart your first draft, it’s time to rewrite.

In rewrite mode, you are going over the places where the editor says “this doesn’t work, fix it”.  You look at it and say, “Okay, how do I recreate this, how can I build something better.”  You don’t criticize yourself; instead, you look at what didn’t work and learn from it.  Even this new writing won’t be perfect; in fact, it will probably need it’s own rewrite.  But it WILL BE BETTER than the original.

Now, with the improved version ready, see what your alpha-readers think of the new materiel.  Sometimes it hits the spot just right, fixing any problems plot-wise. Other times, they might say, “Well, it reads better, but it’s still not quite right……”.  On rarer occasions, they’ll say, “No, this isn’t right.  This scene is completely out of sync with the rest of the story.”

Regardless of the type of advice, now is the time to reread it for yourself, looking for new grammar and spelling errors.  With those out of the way, you need to take a serious look at the alpha reader’s suggestions and complaints.  Here is where it gets tricky.  A good author has to discern between genuine problems and reader’s personal quibbles.

This is where a large (or highly varied) alpha-reader base comes in handy.  If you only have a few alpha-readers, you probably don’t have enough opinions.  Even having a dozen or more alpha-readers might not be enough, if those alpha-readers have very similar tastes in their books.  With the opinions of the alpha-readers, you learn to see the real problems.  If you hear one complaint or suggestion over and over, you KNOW something is wrong.  It doesn’t matter what it is, if it gets multiple complaints, multiple times, saying PRECISELY the same thing, it needs to be fixed.

This doesn’t apply to turns-of-events in the plot that readers don’t like, such as a main character dying, etc.  This should go without saying, because a good character is always missed.  But it does apply to pretty much everything else.  If you put a cliff-hanger in a really bad place and keep getting complaints from your readers that it “throws them”, seriously consider either eliminating the cliff-hanger or softening it.

If you get complaints about “not enough world-building” or “to much description”, LISTEN!  Your readers don’t know nearly as much as you do about your world, or you may be boring them to death by telling them too much that isn’t pertinent to the plot.  If your readers tell you that some key piece of technology, magic, etc, doesn’t seem believable, you need to dig in, to try to make it as believable as possible.

If it’s tech, look up how the real (or closest example) thing works.  If it’s magic, figure out just the magic is supposed to be doing.  If you use magic to solve problems in your plot or logic, you’ve just turned your magic into a fancy toy.  If your magic isn’t useful enough to justify it’s place in the story, you’ve wasted paper emphasizing it’s purpose.

The old writing adage “kill your darlings” isn’t necessarily true, but at times it has it’s purpose.  As writers, we tend to spend time on those things that we are really proud of, or really enjoy.  Without proper restraint, those things can take up far too much space, to the detriment of anything else.  In one of my own stories, my enjoyment of history came to the fore, creating a one and a half chapter tale that was completely irrelevant and actually kind of boring.  After rereading, I discovered two things: 1.  the plot-line the tale was supplementing had been mostly replaced by a new plot.  2.  None of my alpha-readers liked it enough to comment.

I rewrote two whole chapters.  And got comments (and compliments!) on the new ones from every reader I had.  I kept the really good stuff, building on it, and told the historical tale in a very different, much shorter, way.  Around it, I built a whole sub-adventure, one which built up the new plot-line in a very exciting way.

So, listen to your alpha readers.  Listen to your guy.  Rewrite if it needs it.  Keep the good stuff, make it better, while adding all new good content.  It’ll hurt some, yes, but it’ll be worth it.  Your book will sound better, to you as well as your readers.  You’ll be able to hand it to a stranger without automatically wincing because you know you didn’t fix the problem on page 223.

Editing isn’t a writer’s nemesis, it’s his friend.  A friend you aren’t always happy to see coming, but one whose help you always appreciate later.

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