Editing Is Writing

I am willing to bet that editing is what stands between most writers and their dreams.

The act of writing is romanticized at length in writerly circles, while talk of editing is typically met with derision, or at best, patience.

Editing is where the magic happens, people. Not all great writers follow this rule, but most of the writers that I hold in high regard are known to take significant time editing and perfecting everything they produce. Rothfuss, GRRM, Robert Jordan all fall into this category (at least I assume that’s what they are doing with all that time in between books). Even a writing-production freak like Sanderson has admitted that mastering the art of editing and revising is what propelled him from anonymity to the enormous success he is today.

Editing is where plot is perfected. It is the process by which characters of convenience become paper people with lives of their own. Pace can be fixed, molded to fit your narrative.

Here are a few things I include in my editing process that you may want to consider in yours:

  1. Cut >= 10% of your word count: many authors have vouched for this trick. I tried to cut on several of my previous edits, only to add more words in the name of clarity. Clarity in writing is of utmost importance and deserves an edit all its own, but when I did an edit pass with the sole purpose of cutting word count to improve pace, unnecessary words, sentences, and paragraphs started to jump out at me. I recently finished an edit pass and cut 17,500 words (12%) from my book! It took a great deal of work, but was a great experience. Precision is beautiful.
  2. Fill your plot holes: This is likely more of a problem for those who wing their books like I did with Ire. I ended up having to put A LOT of work into the book to correct plot issues and holes, and will likely never do that again. I recommend having at least some idea ahead of time of what your major plot points will be, where and how you’d like to build up to them and foreshadow, etc. But, even the best plot plan often changes, and making it bullet-proof is an opportunity that shouldn’t be passed up. This is also where smart Beta readers come in handy. Anything that any significant amount of beta readers come back with (or a particularly trusted reader) as a point of confusion, fix it.
  3. World Building and Character Elements: Writing characters is something I really enjoy and strive to do well. The danger of “knowing” your characters is that you (hopefully) write them well, but many of the endearing traits that make your characters interesting and lovable live only in your head or in your notes. Take the time to build character elements into the scenes that already exist, and to make sure that your character actions, dialogue, etc are all consistent. Similarly, this should be an opportunity to introduce any world building elements that are pertinent to your story.
  4. Read-throughs to improve flow, clarity, and continuity: The most time consuming edits for me are read-throughs, but they are also some of the most important. If your prose isn’t clear and doesn’t flow well, it’s frankly not worth reading. Everything is fair game here: grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, paragraph breaks, making your statements “active”, etc.

 

-SD

Plotting for Suspense

I have fallen at times into the trap of justifying plotting and suspense issues in my writing because some of my favorite bestsellers have the same issues. The problems with that line of thinking are many, but in general it’s never a good idea to ignore issues with your work just because someone else got away with it. Those bestsellers I referred to above have their faults, but they also each have great qualities that make them incredible books. Besides, a first book really needs to be as good as it can be to get attention above all of the great books being submitted to editors (or self published).

I’ve done soul-searching regarding suspense in my own writing, and here are some rules on plotting for suspense I’ve come up with for myself:

Set your stakes high and keep them high.

An interesting concept that I’ve come to understand embarrassingly late in the game is that plot isn’t all about action, or rather that action and suspense aren’t equivalent.

And lest my fellow writers think less of me as they assume I’m ignoring “suspense-fatigue” or whatever term you might want to use for unending suspense in a story, that’s not necessarily what I mean here. The point is that whatever suspense you create in the heart of the reader around your primary conflict should be kept in focus throughout the story, though fluctuations in suspense and action levels are necessary to create an engaging and enjoyable story.

Some of the most pointed (and correct) feedback I have received was about the main plot line fizzling out in the middle of the book. I figured that since my beginning and end were very related and resolve the primary conflict, the middle could wander a bit in the name of character development and world-building. But I was wrong. Which brings me to the next point:

Character development and world-building can and should happen during scenes that matter to the primary conflict.

I like to think that this is something I understood when writing this book, but again I think at times I confused suspense and continuity of primary conflicts with action. This forced me to rework or completely eliminate some scenes while editing. Therefore my mistake wasn’t (I hope) in the writing of the scenes themselves, but in the architecture of those scenes. Which is pretty embarrassing considering my whole professional life is centered on comprehensive processes (and I think a story and a process are very similar). So this was a fantastic lesson for me to learn for various facets of my life.

*I also want to call out that delayed suspense works, or is at least generally accepted in books with multiple POV’s like Game of Thrones and Wheel of Time because suspense is preserved (if done well) for each character in the story, while the reader skips to other characters and usually different stories, or at least different views of those stories. It does not work as well in books like mine where the vast majority of the book follows one primary character.

Secondary-level conflicts and story lines should be woven around (or intersect with, depending on how you want to visualize it) the primary conflict.

Because I am a nerd, I visualize this as oscillating signals, where sub-plots interact with the primary plot to form a cohesive and fluid combined oscillatory signal. If the plot lines are not aligned properly and on the same scale, it will result in a disjointed story. See visual example below.

The point is that the red line is the sum of the other two lines

Foreshadowing is your friend.

The only thing I have to add to the discussion on foreshadowing is that it doesn’t need to be complex and difficult to implement. It is generally just a matter of being conscious of your plot points and ensuring that you have a “beginning” to every conflict in which you resolve something important to your characters. For example, I’m writing an “interlude” scene to build reader connection with a character who is important to the protagonist but doesn’t appear until the very end of book 1 (and spoiler alert, he dies).

 

 

Finishing Books and Other Stuff I Like

I just finished my book… again. There will be plenty of tweaks to make still, but I’m starting to look forward to when my agent will submit the manuscript to publishers. It may still be quite a ways out depending on how we feel about the current state, and there’s no way to know how it will go. But here’s one author’s account of how the process went for him.

That type of contract would be a dream come true. It will allow me to make writing my primary pursuit sooner rather than later, and start pumping out books like crazy. I hear of authors like Sanderson and Larry Correia writing 2-3 books per year, and that sounds freaking awesome. I’m fairly certain that I can produce at or near that level if the finances are there to free up the time.

I’m doing what I love, obsessed with quality and success (ask my wife, apparently it gets old), willing to put in silly amounts of work, I signed with a great agent who not only knows the book business but is a great resource in improving the quality of my work, and most importantly: my wife is incredibly supportive. No matter what, I’ll make this work, and in five years I’ll have a solid writing career and several books “on the shelves”. The quality of the upcoming contract really just affects the number of books I’ll have on the shelves in five years, and how quickly I’ll be able to dedicate a large number of hours to writing all of the books that I’d like to write.

— Okay, now to ramble about some stuff I’ve enjoyed lately —

Speaking (or typing?) of Jay Kristoff, he’s an awesome person and everyone should check out his books and his blog – if you enjoy nerdy writing blogs. I received his latest book Illuminae as a Christmas gift (thanks Molly) and I’m really enjoying it so far. I’ll rate and review when I finish.

I feel extremely fortunate to have an awesome agent – Matt Bialer – who provides valuable feedback on my manuscript. I honestly don’t know what the “norm” is for agents, but he’s great. Assuming that one day aspiring authors read this, I’d highly recommend submitting to him. I hear his junior agent Lindsay Ribar is also awesome, but I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting/corresponding with her yet.

George R. R. Martin – So I’ve intended for quite a while to get actual reviews of his books up, but haven’t found the time. Wife, Baby, my book, work, and actually reading for fun (I’m still an addict) have all taken precedence. I’ll write an actual review someday, but for now let me just say that George is so damn good at what he does. All of his acclaim is very justified. I held off reading them for years because I figured that people only liked them because of the HBO series, and because he takes like 6 years to write each book and I can’t handle another multi-decade “wait for it…”marathon like the Wheel of Time ended up being. But I read the first book and was hooked. They are SUPER not family friendly, especially later books, but holy cow that old man can write. His world is believable and incredibly well thought out, his characters are “real” and unpredictable, and the storyline is somewhat predictable as an overarching plot, but everything in between is up for grabs. So if your soul can withstand a little (okay, a lot of) horrible language, check it out. ESPECIALLY if you watched the HBO series. I haven’t watched it but I guarantee the books are better. They are like the Bible for writers who want to learn how to handle a true epic fantasy series with tons of POV characters. Yeah yeah, I hear you bitching about how “nothing happened” and “all my favorite people died” and “the last two books weren’t as good”. Well, shut your mouth, because this crazy old man just did the literary equivalent of dunking over every other epic fantasy author ever, and sadly that includes Robert Jordan, as much as I still absolutely love the Wheel of Time. (Yeah, that’s right. I dare you to get that picture out of your head now. George RR Martin dunking on you. Flamed-out suspenders and goofy hat and all. And probably unholy amounts of belly sweat like this.) Even after killing everybody we cared about, YOU STILL KEPT READING, and you WILL buy the next book(s). He owned you/us. Pwned, even.

Phew, okay, breathe. Last, but certainly not least, Larry Correia. I saw him at Salt Lake Comic Con and thought he seemed like a pretty cool dude. And he pronounces his last name like “korea” and I’m pretty sure he knows he’s saying it wrong – it’s (Co – Hey – Uh) and you know it. Say your name right, LARRY! Own it, man. Anywho, that’s why I even remembered this guy. I’m not super connected with the fantasy world and still haven’t heard of a lot of great books/authors, but honestly I’ve been burned on a lot of books I’ve picked up that turned out to be really bad, though other people inexplicably like them. I won’t be specific about any of them, because that’s rude. Okay back on track. Long story short, Larry Corriea is an awesome writer, and the first book of his Monster Hunter International book is free on Kindle. Go get it. Now. Sure, his prose isn’t “refined” and he doesn’t “follow all of the rules” and his plot lines are “predictable”. But he is SO GOOD at building a good story, with great characters, and most of all – he KILLS at emotional and fast paced fun-readin’. And apparently this dude lives in my home state. I’m hoping to run into him and talk shop someday.

Alright, that’s enough for today.

-Scott

More Editing: Cutting the Flab, etc…

I can’t believe it’s been almost five months since I last posted on the blog. Not much of consequence has happened in that time, however, so I suppose the lack of activity here is justified. I’m not going to write a blog post just to write a blog post. But now I’ve re-submitted my book to my agent (Matt Bialer), so I’ll tell you a bit about what I’ve been up to.

I’ve spent nights and weekends for the last five months editing my book more. Much of the editing was spurred by Matt’s suggestions, and I’m very pleased with how things have turned out. I’ll try to hit on the major points that I’ve taken into consideration when editing through this last pass. Perhaps any writers reading this will find my approach and/or Matt’s advice useful.

  • Deepen the story – My agent called this “dropping more breadcrumbs” and this was one of my favorite pieces of advice he gave. With my first several drafts, I was so excited about the story surrounding my main character(s), that I missed the opportunity to build a deeper, fuller story by giving a peek into what other characters, particularly the “bad guys” are doing.
  • Cut the flab – My original manuscript was 684 pages long in standard manuscript format. My goal was to cut that down to 625 or even 600 manuscript pages. The primary reason was to improve the pace of the story, as this series (and particularly this book) are meant to be very action oriented, exciting books. The secondary reason for cutting is that apparently, publishers are more open to shorter books from first time authors. As a general rule this makes sense – fewer pages to edit/print, less money that goes into producing an uncertain product. But the strength of the work is my primary concern, and I hope that it will speak for itself.

It was very difficult for me to balance the need to cut scenes that didn’t advance the plot whilst retaining insights into the world and characters, but in the end I believe I succeeded, and it was the best thing I could have done for this book. My story-deepening (see bullet point above) bulked my story up to 720 pages or so, but from there I managed to cut the manuscript down to 669 pages. Not quite my goal of 600, but it was a net cut of over 50 pages after my additional scenes were written, and what’s left behind is a great story told with strong writing. (Though I may be a bit biased)

  • Development of secondary characters – This is an area that gave me a bit of heartache with Book 1. I really like my cast of characters, and each serves a purpose in the first book and in the story arc I have planned for the series/trilogy/however long this ends up being. However, in an action oriented book where I’m trying REALLY hard to allow readers to get to know and love my main character, Emrael, I find it difficult to develop secondary characters without giving them their own POV and page time, which would only serve to make my book even longer and slow down the pace. In the second book that I’m writing right now, I’ll be introducing more robust POVs for secondary characters and secondary story lines just because of the nature of the story progression as currently outlined, so I’ll be battling to keep the pace of the story strong while juggling multiple story lines. I’m shooting for about a 75% share of page time for Emrael in Book 2. I’d estimate his page time at around 85-90% in Book 1, so it’s not much of a reduction in his page time.

Last thoughts:

I continually evolve as a person and as a writer: my environment changes, my emotions change, the seasons change, etc. Consequently, I could hang onto this book forever, making changes and believing that I’m improving the book. Therefore, I won’t be upset when I get a contract with a publisher and they have their own feedback that will set me up for more editing. I want this book, and every book I write, to be the best it possibly can be.

That said, I’m very pleased with the state of the book as it currently exists, and I think you’ll like it too. I’m hoping to get it into your hands before too long. And by “before too long” I mean sometime around 2017. I still don’t know exactly what publishing timelines look like or when my book will be ready for that step. Fingers crossed.

-Scott Drakeford

Beta Readers

This has been a very big month. Early this month, I finally sent my manuscript to a small group of beta readers who had expressed interest in reading my book and giving me feedback. I’ve only received detailed feedback from one beta reader, but the opinions so far from those who have finished the book has been positive. It’s a very good feeling to have other people enjoy something that took so much time to build and write.

I chose to use 7 or so beta readers, all people I trust to give me honest feedback. They are also people who are at least passingly familiar with the fantasy genre and can thus give a solid opinion on how my book will be received by fantasy readers. Perhaps most importantly, I’m lucky to have beta readers who are extremely intelligent people who will be able to offer detailed insight as to why they did or did not enjoy the book and it’s various aspects.

I’m now just continuing work on the second novel in the series as I wait for more feedback from my readers. I’m also working on perfecting my query letter that I’ll send out to literary agents as soon as I feel the manuscript is in top shape.

-Scott

Review of “Act of War” by Brad Thor

I’m going to – finally – get back into blogging about my book (Draft 1 is done, I’m editing and should submit to agents soon), but for now I’m re-christening the blog with a quick review of Act of War by Brad Thor that I posted on Goodreads.

I’ll stop back in a few days to recount the last year or so of writing that I haven’t blogged about, including: meeting Patrick Rothfuss and two of my dream agents last October in Brighton, England, finishing Draft 1, the editing process and much more.

 

Act of War (Scott Harvath, #13)Act of War by Brad Thor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really like Brad Thor and his motivations for writing his thrillers. I love the plot of this book…every plot point is well thought out and realistic, not a “gimme” for his characters.

However: while this book still did its job and kept me reading all the way through, I’m not sure that would have been the case had it not been for the trust Thor had already built with the other Harvath books.

In this book (as in the last 1 or 2), action is often sacrificed for plot explanations or info dumps, and pacing takes a back seat to pages-long sermons. Though I agree with most of the libertarian patriotic leanings, it’s a little misplaced and obvious at times. And I felt that the POV drifted a few times, resulting in some confusion as a reader.

In brief, it’s still a great read for Thor fans, but I wish he would concentrate a bit more on his tradecraft or get his editor to actually look at the manuscript before publishing. Heck, I’ll edit it, Brad.

-Scott