Your manuscript is done, or at least it’s done-ish. It’s in decent shape; your characters are original and behave in logical ways, your storyline has a clear beginning, middle and end, your point-of-view is consistent, and your dialogue sounds authentic. And yet… in some hard-to-define way, you know it’s not quite right. It seems a little unpolished, clunky, unsophisticated. It doesn’t read like a professionally-edited novel.
This is where a comprehensive knowledge of advanced self-editing techniques will save you. Everything I’m going to address here is covered more elegantly and in much more detail in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, an indispensable book by Renni Browne and Dave King. Their advice is essential; every writer should read it and take it to heart.
Because concrete examples are always useful, let’s look at a short paragraph from the first draft of my in-progress novel, Preppies of the Apocalypse, and then let’s hack it to pieces:
With one final concerned glance at Valentine, Ivy left the operating chamber. The hallway was cold and deserted. She sat down on the floor of the hallway, leaning her back against the cold earth wall opposite the entrance to the chamber. She couldn’t see the operating table from her vantage point, but she felt she should stay as close as she could. Just in case things went wonky, she wanted to be nearby.
Well. It’s got some problems. Let’s fix them, shall we?
First and foremost: Repetition. There are under a hundred words in that paragraph, and yet I managed to repeat “operating”, “chamber”, “hallway”, and “cold”. Ditch the duplicates. Also, “she felt she should stay as close as she could”and “she wanted to be nearby” both say the same thing; it’s only necessary to make that point once.
Second: This chapter is told from Ivy’s perspective, and thus all the interior monologue is hers alone. Since we’re already inside Ivy’s head, writing “she felt” and “she wanted” is unnecessary and only builds distance between Ivy and the readers. Eliminating those phrases bridges that distance.
Third: “leaning her back against the cold earth wall” is weak, because: a) it sticks that bit of action inside a dependent clause, and b) it suggests two separate actions are taking place simultaneously, i.e. she’s leaning while she’s sitting. This was not my intention: she sits down, then she leans. Getting rid of the dependent clause adds clarity and strengthens the sentence.
Fourth: Word choice. I’m on the fence about “wonky”; it’s a fun word, and I’m using it correctly, but my gut tells me it’s too flippant for this situation. “Vantage point” is dead wrong: It suggests a position with a view, whereas Ivydoesn’t have a view of Valentine from where she’s sitting. Ordinarily I’d consider “things” too vague, but in this case, Ivy’s not just worried about Valentine’s surgery going awry; she and Valentine are stranded in a dangerous land, surrounded by vicious supernatural creatures, and she doesn’t have a firm grasp on their situation. The fuzziness of “things” seems apt here.
Here’s what the paragraph looks like after applying those fixes:
Ivy glanced at Valentine one final time and left the chamber. The hallway was deserted. She sat on the floor across from the entrance and leaned her back against the cold earth wall. She couldn’t see the operating table from here, but at least she was nearby in case things went wrong.
The changes are subtle (and I’m not going to argue that either version is super-awesome), but the revised version reads better.
Notice that every sentence has been altered from the original. Is this usual? Sadly, yes; in all of my novels, the percentage of sentences that remain intact from my first draft through the final rewrite is… zero. Self-editing is a meticulous, tedious, brutal business… but it’s also essential for turning out the strongest possible version of your work.
When struggling actress Charlotte Dent is cast as a leggy killer robot in a big, brainless summer blockbuster, the subsequent hiccup of fame sends a shock wave through her life. The perks of entry-level celebrity are balanced by the drawbacks: destructive filmmakers, online ridicule, entitled costars, and an awkward, unsatisfying relationship with the film’s fragile leading man. Self-aware to a fault, Charlotte fights to carve out a unique identity in an industry determined to categorize her as just another starlet, disposable and replaceable. But unless she can find a way to turn her small burst of good fortune into a durable career, she’s destined to sink back into obscurity.
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Genre - General Fiction, Chick Lit
Rating - PG
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