When I was young, I worked with a playwright who proudly proclaimed he wrote final copy. He typed out the play and when he took each sheet of paper out of the typewriter, he was finished with it. That was somewhat true, as far as it went. He handed the pages to others who retyped the copy into the proper format, correct the typos and spelling, and prepared it for printing. There were times they went back to the playwright and say, “What did you mean here?” or “Did you check that fact?” While he put out a tremendous volume of work in his lifetime, correction was still needed. Final copy? Close, but no cigar – and he really liked cigars.
A lesson every writer must learn is the absolute need to re-work your prose. The first draft is just that, a first draft. It should be followed by a second, a third…maybe a forty-sixth, if that is what’s required. As a good friend and fellow author told me about the writing process: “Bash it out and tart it up.” Get the first draft done, but then go back and improve the work. You should figure that the first draft is ten percent of the work, the visible portion of an iceberg. Editing is the ninety percent below the surface that keeps the story afloat. Many people who dream of being an author believe they can get the story down, send it to a publisher who will immediately love it, and then they’ll give it to an editor who’ll clean up the manuscript. Those people will always dream, but will never accomplish. The goal is to make the manuscript as perfect as possible before you think about submitting it.
A Mental Exercise
The only writing that’s set in stone is a motto carved on a building. Don’t become so attached to your words that you can’t eliminate them.
When I decided to focus on writing, I did a mental exercise. When I read novels, I’d look at how the author constructed the sentences and considered any different ways to phrase the line. Why did the author choose those words? Why arrange them that way? Could a change improve the clarity of the sentence? It’s a good start that you can then apply to your own writing.
It’s worthwhile as well to read books from previous generations to observe the differences and the similarities in their construction. Since my genre of choice is mysteries, I’ve read all the Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories, as well as books by Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler. I made my way through every color of the Travis Magee books by John D. MacDonald, and read the early work of Joseph Wambaugh that changed the way police work was depicted. I enjoyed the moral complexity and plotting of P.D. James, and read contemporary mystery and thriller authors like Sue Grafton, Michael Connelly, Nelson DeMille, John Sandford, Greg Ilies, Jonathan Kellerman, and others.
A great example of these differences and similarities is the work of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss adapting Conan Doyle’s tales of Sherlock Holmes to the modern world. Episodes like “A Study in Pink” and “A Scandal in Belgravia” keep plot points of the original stories, along with parts of the titles, yet they are thoroughly modern reimaginings. They remain faithful to the characters, but not moribund in history.
A Drafty Room
You’ve finished the first draft of your novel. Take a moment to savor the accomplishment. You’ve strung together 80,000 to 100,000 words and have a pile of 300 to 400 pages. It’s a monument to your stamina when you type “The End.” Fix yourself a drink – hard or soft, your choice – and toast your novel.
Then tear it apart.
If your manuscript is over 100,000 words, you’ll need to cut it down. If it’s substantially over that number and your name isn’t Diana Gabaldon, your publishing prospects are nearly non-existent. I did say nearly; Margaret Mitchell did get “Gone with the Wind” published, but only after 38 rejections. And rejection is never easy.
Start reworking your sentences and paragraphs. Is every word necessary? How can you make it leaner, clearer, more focused? Is your imagery sharp so it crackles with energy? Have you spent a long time describing a character in detail? If so, rip it out. A detail or two, mixed in with the flow of the story, is all you need.
When you’ve worked through the entire manuscript, set it aside for a week or two, then go through it again. I’ll use a piece of cardstock to cover the page so I can reveal the lines one by one. Focus on each individual sentence. The first question to ask is why that sentence is in the story. Can you cut it without disrupting the plot or the flow of the story? If you can, then cut it. Be brutal. It’s hard, because you’re invested in what you’ve created, but think of editing like sculpture. You cut away everything that’s not necessary to create the perfect image.
One pet peeve: homophones. I find myself gritting my teeth when I’m on Facebook because of the numerous people who don’t know the difference between their, there, and they’re, or who use it’s as a possessive. Homophones are the landmines of English. Be careful not to step on them.
Go through the manuscript again to make sure the story holds together. Then go back to rewriting the sentences. Once you can read through the manuscript and only make minor changes to what you’ve written, you’re doing well. But that’s only the first step.
Having a professional editor do a line by line edit of your manuscript is valuable, but also costly. Not all writers have a couple of thousand dollars of disposable income to afford that help, especially at the beginning of a career. There are, however, some online options that can help you, though you have to be careful how you use them. Best of all, you can try them for free.
Hemingway Editor (hemingwayapp.com) has a simple, color-coded format. It identifies adverbs, phrases with simpler options, and when you use the passive voice. It also shows sentences that are hard to read, and ones that are very hard to read. The program will give you a grade level rating for your writing. If you’re checking a novel, you’d want to go chapter by chapter at the most.
ProWritingAid (prowritingaid.com) is much more detailed than Hemingway. It lets you analyze what you’ve written through multiple filters such as style, grammar, readability, and pacing. It will search out clichés, overused words, pronouns, and there are other functions helpful to a writer. With the free version, there is a limit to how much you can analyze at a time.
Hemingway is an app that you can purchase and download, while ProWriting is an on-line subscription service. The weakness with both is that they look at writing in a generic way, and they can’t recognize exceptions. For instance, I had a character go by a nickname, and ProWriting highlighted every time it appeared as a cliché. You have to exercise judgment, but the programs can show you what you need to consider. But I’ve found them both useful and worth purchasing or subscribing.
Once you have the manuscript edited to the best of your ability, the next step is to call on others for help. This can be done through a critique group, or by recruiting people you know to read the manuscript.
Critique groups can be helpful not just when you’re finished with a manuscript but also with keeping you motivated during the lonely days of writing. On the other hand, the personalities and professionalism of those involved makes a big difference in the effectiveness of a group. Egos can get in the way. If you join a group, make sure you focus as much on helping the others as you do on seeking their help. It should be a mutual support group.
If you’re recruiting people to read the whole manuscript, understand that is asking a lot of them and let them know you appreciate their help. Be sure to acknowledge them if your work gets published. Each person has their own skills. Some may have expertise about parts of the story that can fill in gaps in your research. Others may be picky grammarians who will catch every mistake. (If you find one of these, treat them as if they’re as precious as gold, for they are!) Some will simply let you know if the story works.
Listen to what beta readers say, since they are like a preview audience for a film. They can help make what you’ve created better than what you could accomplish on your own.
Once you’ve gone through the extra ninety percent of rewriting and editing, you should know if what you’ve written is marketable. There’s no guarantee you’ll find a publisher. You may choose to go the self-publishing route as many do these days. But by going through this process, you’ll come to a better understanding of the craft, and the hard work involved in writing.