Worried about editing fiction? In one recent meeting of our writers’ group, several members were struggling with editing their novels.
A big challenge when editing is story flow. That is, avoiding lumps and bumps which stop the reader. It’s vital to avoid bumps on a micro level, when the reader has a “huh?” moment because he can’t figure out what you meant by a sentence, or on a macro level, when the reader stops reading because he’s bored.
Editing fiction: when should you edit?
NaNoWriMo is coming up again in November. One author said she still hadn’t edited her previous NaNoWriMo novel.
Try to do some minor editing while you’re writing; at the end of a chapter. Major editing happens once you’ve completed your first draft.
Here’s a minor editing example: let’s say that you’ve decided to call your main character Jasper, rather than Todd. You do a search and replace, and it’s done.
More minor editing: perhaps you’ve decided that Jasper needs to be a keen fisherman, because: plot. So you add a few sentences here and there in your first few chapters setting up Jasper’s love of deep sea fishing.
It’s also minor editing when a paragraph sounds weird as you’ve written it, so you move sentences around.
However, leave major editing tasks, such as deleting and adding scenes, until you’ve completed your first draft. At this stage, your novel’s done, you’re just making it better.
Here are some tips for editing fiction I collected from our discussion.
1. The backstory hunt: kill backstory, it’s rarely worth it
Backstory (what happened before your novel begins) is always challenging because it kills readers’ curiosity and thus suspense.
Resist the Impulse to Explain
New writers start off great. They get the woman in the trunk of the car (or create some other hot action which starts things off.) Then they feel they need to explain who the woman is, and how she landed in the trunk of a car. They go on for pages and pages. RESIST! Please do not do this.
For one thing, your readers don’t care. They’re in your story, because you’ve done a good job getting them to empathize with your heroine’s plight. They want to know what happens next.
Info dumping of backstory is a challenge for new authors, and some established authors too. Kill as much backstory as you can; it’s rarely worth it.
You probably won’t delete any backstory until you’ve finished your first draft. However, mark it in some way: turn the text red, or highlight it, so that you remember that it needs to go.
2. Lightly edit for story flow while writing, but don’t make major changes
I like to start the day’s writing on a novel by rereading the previous day’s writing to catch nonsense like calling a character by the wrong name, and similar. If I stumble when reading a paragraph, I edit immediately.
(If you’re struggling with naming characters, try these tips.)
Perhaps I’ve forgotten that Character A has a dog. Fido wandered through the first few chapters, but he’s gone missing. So I either make a note to mention Fido in additional scenes when it’s time for major editing, or I bite the bullet and do add a few sentences about little Fido immediately.
A tip: if you add a pet, do make the pet part of the plot. Remember Chekhov’s gun:
… if you draw attention to something, you will eventually need to reveal why it’s worth noticing.
3. When rereading, eliminate any “as you know, Bob” moments
Judging by the reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, many readers dislike repetition; it’s an insult to their intelligence. If you’ve told them that Tiffany is an accountant, they’ll remember.
So, when you’re lightly editing for flow, look for any “as you know” constructions, such as: “As you know Bob, my wife Tiffany is an accountant.”
Basically, avoid repetition. Nuke repetitions when you find them, in minor editing.
Of course, this doesn’t apply if you’re using repetition for a reason. You may want to mislead readers…
An example: you’re writing a mastery, and a strand of red hair has been found at the crime scene. You’ve twice said, deliberately, that Tom, your prime suspect, is bald. It’s a red herring, rather than repetition.
Enjoy editing fiction: you can do it
As our group’s discussion made plain, authors avoid editing because they’re uncertain; they don’t want to make errors.
Take heart. Once you start editing, you’ll discover that editing fiction is as much fun as writing it. Enjoy yourself. It’s your novel, so nothing you do is “wrong”. 🙂
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