Is it possible to over-edit? Or, is there a point where the story is unsalvageable?
Editing is like sharpening a knife. You hone the story like you would a blade, but if you overdo it you’re no longer sharpening the blade but actually weakening it.
When you’re editing there’s eventually a matter of diminishing returns regarding the time you put into a draft and the quality of the final story. At a certain point, the time that it would take you to read the entire book isn’t worth the handful of changes that you might be making.
For me, as an artist (read—annoying, neurotic, perfectionist) that’s a hard line to draw, and admittedly, I tend to keep going over my work again and again until I’m convinced that it’s the very best I have to offer.
In my view most people don’t need to worry at all about over-editing. They don’t spend nearly enough time on the editing in the first place.
There’s no point at which a story is unsalvageable, but most people aren’t willing to take the time to make the major, or in some cases seismic, changes that would be necessary to tell that story well. It might take less time to start over or write a different story entirely.
Telling a great story always requires five things: the inevitable movement of the story from the origination to the resolution (that is, every event is caused by the one that precedes it), believability, escalation, motivation, and surprise. Apart from grammatical errors and copyediting, these areas are the biggest problems most stories face.
So, it’s vital that as you work on your story, you continue to ask:
(1) Inevitability: Are there gaps in narrative logic? Do things happen for no reason—other than that I think they need to in order to make my outline work?
(2) Believability: Is everything that happens believable even if it’s impossible? Does the character act in a way that’s consistent with his or her core attitudes, desires, inner turmoil and outer circumstances?
(3) Escalation: Are the stakes being raised? Is the danger becoming more imminent or more unstoppable?
(4) Motivation: What drives this character to act? In other words, what does the character want more than anything else? How far is he or she willing to go to get it? Is every action that the character takes sufficiently motivated by the story events?
(5) Surprise: Do the scenes, the acts, and the story as a whole end in a way that people won’t see coming, but that also follow inevitably from what precedes it?
If you continually ask yourself these questions as you’re working on your story, you’ll find less need to have to start over, or get to the point at which it’s not worth your time to rework the story to salvage it.
Your assignment this week – (should you choose to accept it) is as follows:
Read the first chapter of your work in progress. Search first for the obvious grammatical errors. Look for chatty spots and tighten them. Then apply the above 5 steps to your work. This is hard. You’re required to be critical of the work you do. But it’s worth the effort.
It’s a scary thing – the one sheet. You’ve either never heard of it or you’re unsure how or what to do to prepare one.
The one sheet, also known as a pitch sheet, is just what the name says. It’s one simple page with the pertinent information an agent or publisher needs. When you’re gearing up for conference season and your manuscript is polished and ready for presentation, it’s important to have a one sheet handy.
It’s been said, a writer should be able to bolt out of a dead sleep and recite their elevator pitch. A one sheet is a nice back up to help you make your presentation to an editor or agent smooth, concise, and impressive. Once you’ve totally blown publishing professionals away with your pitch, they can carry your one sheet back to the office and have all the valuable details they need to contact you and request the proposal and manuscript.
A one sheet should contain the following information:
* Genre, word count, and if the manuscript is complete or estimated time it will be finished (i.e. Historial Fiction, 90,000 words, completed)
* Targeted audience (Women 25-40, Young Adult, etc.)
* Two or three short, knock-out paragraphs about the book that makes those agents hungry for more (think back book text).
* Professional Bio – Remember make it concise, relevant, and professional. It doesn’t need to contain every writing credit you’ve ever done. Only what is
current and creditable. Show your personality and flare but don’t over do it. Editors don’t care if you have six dogs and nine cats.
* Current, high-resolution photo – Investing in a few professional shots is well worth your money. It’s much better than you on the beach, in shorts with
frog-eyed sunglasses – cute but not professional.
* Website and contact information. Please, please, please, if you don’t already have one, get an email that contains your name. Don’t give a publisher your family fun email address (email@example.com). A) They would not open a return email from an off-the-wall email address for fear of cyber attack or shady content. B) They can’t connect you to jellyjaws. Again, cute but not professional. If you have an agent, you’ll use their contact information.
Pare this information down to the sharpest and tightest writing you can do, place it nicely on the front of ONE SHEET and you’re ready to roll.
We were working our way through The Red Badge of Courage when our high school English teacher, Mr. Johnson, decided to read aloud to us. A Sebastian Cabot look-alike and a bit of a thespian himself, Mr. Johnson had my rapt attention as he read the words at the end of Chapter 9 about the red sun pasted in the sky like a wafer.
I might have overlooked that sentence if I’d read it silently to myself. But Mr. Johnson’s elocution changed everything. From the look on his face and the sheer joy in his eyes, I suddenly knew what it was that turns white-bread writing into prose that is rich and weighty.
Similes and metaphors. The comparison of two unlike things that helps the reader see something familiar in a new and unexpected way. The use of this kind of imagery is the key to good writing.
Since then I’ve decided that similes and metaphors generally fall into one of three categories, two of which we want to avoid.
The first of these is the ho-hum sort. Most of these are boring simply because they’re clichés, used over and over again:
“She decided to run like the wind.”
“His anger reared its ugly head.”
“I felt like a kid in a candy shop.”
While legitimate images, they are the result of lazy writing, not to mention they’re also over-the-counter sleep aides. Guaranteed to make your reader’s eyes glaze over.
Then there are the huh? images. One day years ago my husband and daughter were at the bear exhibit at the zoo when three-year-old Laura blurted out, “He looks like a tomato.” Bob came home singing Laura’s praises for coming up with a simile, but I, ever the writer, was left pondering the connection between this huge black bear and a small red vegetable (or fruit, depending on which side of that argument you’re on).
Now, in case you think only a child would come up with something as incomprehensible, I recently read a comparison between a man’s face in the wind and a piece of veal cutlet on a chopping block. Though written by a published writer, it just didn’t work. I couldn’t see it. For a simile or metaphor to work, you have to be able to understand how the two images relate to each other, even though they’re different.
Finally, there are the a-ha! images. You know you have an a-ah! image when your reader says in delight, “I never thought of it that way but yes, I can see it!” You’ve offered an image that is fresh, imaginative, and vivid. And it makes sense as well.
Let me share with you three of my favorite a-ha! images:
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor….
– Alfred Noyes, The Highwayman (metaphor)
Gold and gleaming the empty streets,
Gold and gleaming the misty lake,
The mirrored lights like sunken swords
Glimmer and shake.
– Sara Teasdale, Spring Night (simile)
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
– Robert Frost, Birches (simile)
Can you see it? The road that is a ribbon of moonlight. The light that is a glimmering sword. The arching trees that resemble young girls drying their hair in the sun.
While these examples come from poetry, we can do just as well when we write prose. It takes an extra reach into the imagination and often a sacrifice of time and effort to come up with such imagery, but it makes for unforgettable writing.
Your assignment: Look through your work in progress. Where can you stretch your writing wings and deepen your imagery? Take one paragraph of your work, rewrite it, and polish it with new ways of saying old things. Once you’ve done this, compare your paragraphs and see which one you’re more inclined to read.
As writers, we must invest our time, effort, and money to learn all we can to make our work as excellent as possible. As you prepare for Boot Camp, here are a few tips to help you polish your manuscript and get it ready for submission.
WRITE WITH EXCELLENCE Learn the lingo of the writing and publishing industry. This will be very important when you converse with other writers and meet with agents and editors. Know your subject. Do your research and be sure to document your sources. Know how to: Hook your readers. Set the scene. Show—don’t tell. Use POV (point of view) correctly. Create memorable characters. Construct proper dialogue. Build your plot. Creatively use backstory. Write tight.
EDITING AND PROOFREADING ARE ESSENTIAL Whether you’re a new writer or seasoned author, catching pesky typos and using correct grammar and punctuation may make the difference between acceptance and rejection. Even with a great story, the little things can spoil our manuscripts. Take the following quiz and see how many little foxes you can catch. The answers will be available at Boot Camp.
1. The acceptable size and font for manuscripts is: 10 pt. Times New Roman, 12 pt. Times New Roman, and 12 pt. Verdana
2. A manuscript should be: Single-spaced Double-spaced Triple-spaced
3. Serial Comma Usage: True or False? All publications call for a serial comma if leaving it out could cause confusion.
4. One or two spaces at the end of a sentence?
5. Which word is correct in each sentence? Whose/Who’s turn is it to wash the dishes? My dad/Dad is a football fanatic. I asked mom/Mom if I could buy a new dress. Is this your/you’re wallet? If your/you’re late to the meeting, you will miss the keynote speaker. Stacy and Rick were going to their/they’re cousin’s birthday party. Its/It’s supposed to rain the night of the big game. Grace said, “To/Two/Too bad you can’t make it to the workshop this week.”
6. Hyphenated words are tricky. Some words are hyphenated depending on the usage. Which word/phrase is correct? (Example: Maxine’s manuscript was high quality. That was a high-quality manuscript.) Stephanie asked an open ended/open-ended question. Do you like suspense-filled/suspense filled novels? Research is time consuming/time-consuming. Audrey’s daughter is very self sufficient/self-sufficient Ben has a two-year-old girl/two year old girl/two-year-old-girl.
7. Confusing words: (Fill in the blank.) I am not letting you out of my _________ (sight, cite, site). My favorite _________ is chocolate cake (desert or dessert). You must _________ your classes at the writers’ conference (chose or choose). Mary was _________ her hands while she waited for the verdict (ringing or wringing).
The reason we do social media is to connect with our audience. And one of the best ways to deepen that connection is by hanging out with them on a blog. Because of that, I’m going to spend the next few weeks on blogging issues.
The first issue I want to talk about is the difference between a blog and a website. It’s important to know the terminology and be able to evaluate exactly what you need for your circumstances. Just like social media, blogging is not a one size fits all proposition.
Let me start this discussion by stating—for the record—I’m not against websites. They’re a great thing, but they are a luxury, especially at the beginning of your career. If you already have one, great. Just make sure your site also has the option of blogging on it.
BUT, if you don’t have a site, or you’re thinking of upgrading to a website, these are some things to think about.
So, blog or website—which should a writer have? Today I thought I’d give you an easy way to decide which you should have and begin the evaluation process for your specific situation.
As many of you know, social media and blogging aren’t a one-size-fits-all proposition. Far from it! But the almost endless array of choices can leave anyone feeling uncertain what’s needed.
Before we get into the choices and how to decide, let’s make certain we’re all clear on the definitions.
The word itself is a relatively new invention. Its usage began in the early 80s and comes from the words Web andLog—Blog—and was originally envisioned as a sort of online journal. Occasionally I still run across someone who doesn’t realize blogs haven’t been online diaries for many years.
Having a blog used to be thought of as the amateur way to have an online presence. Again, this hasn’t been the case for quite a number of years. Many well-respected sites are in actuality, blogs.
Enough history, here is an up-to-date definition of a blog:
An online site, with regular, frequent updates that encourage interaction through comments and sharing. It can be a single-page site or a multi-page site. But its primary purpose is interaction.
In contrast, a website is much more of a static site, where much of the information remains the same. It doesn’t usually have a place for interaction—although there is almost always a contact form somewhere so visitors can interact if necessary. It’s almost like a yellow pages ad or a billboard.
A website can also be a singe-page or a multi-page site. But more generally it has several pages. Often times, one of the pages is a blog. Websites are most often built by website designers or those willing to learn HTML code. Even though a lot of folks use a template to build a website, they are almost always customized and use a lot more code specific design.
As you can see by the definitions, blogs and websites do tend to overlap in their intent. But, and this is VITALLY important to understand, they are not the same in the way they’re developed.
Take WordPress products for example. WordPress has a lot of great options, for blogs and for websites. But, blogs are built on the WordPress.com site, and websites are built on the WordPress.org site. Why two different sites? Because websites and blogs are very different in the way they’re constructed.
Think of WordPress like a car company—say Volkswagen. Even though the VW Bug and the Jetta are both built by Volkswagen, they are very different cars. A mechanic doesn’t fix them with the same parts or even necessarily the same tools. It’s the same for WordPress Blogs (the free version .com) and WordPress Websites (the paid version .org). Even more than that, just because someone has their own WordPress website doesn’t mean they know how to help you with WordPress blog. Be very careful here, the plug-ins are not always the same!
Generically speaking, a blog isn’t better than a website and visa versa. But specifically, there are times when one choice is better than another.
When to Build only a Blog
I recommend new writers always start with a blog and here are some reasons why:
They’re easy to work with. By that I mean, it’s easy to learn the basics if you stick with a reputable platform. I recommend Blogger, WordPress, or TypePad.
They’re free.Blogger is completely free. WordPress.com is free, but also has some upgrades available for purchase. AndTypePad has a small monthly fee, depending on which version you choose. It may surprise you to know that my favorite, hands down, is Blogger. Blogger offers more options for personalization and it has the added benefit of being owned by Google, so you get good search engine results if your site is well done.
They can be tweaked and changed as your career grows and focuses. Just because you begin writing devotions, doesn’t mean you won’t one day end up writing fiction. It helps if you don’t have to start over and build a whole new product.
When to Build a Website (with a blog in it)
I recommend an author with multiple books, and the means to pay someone to keep it up, invest in a website…with a blog. Now don’t get me wrong, I know a lot of writers who’ve built their own websites. Some of them like to tinker with code (not many) others just want to save money. Personally, my passion is writing, NOT website building.
Here are the reasons to build a website:
You are more than one person, commercially speaking. For example, my friend and critique partner Vonda Skelton, is an author, a motivational speaker, an actress, and a womens ministry leader. She needs a website to have multiple pages under each of the four categories.
You’re ready to have someone else run that part of your business and can afford to pay for it. Make sure you have someone who comes highly recommended and who has time to make changes you need in a reasonable time-frame.
You have multiple books and need more room to promote/engage your readers.
All of that said, even the biggest and best websites can benefit from having a blog somewhere within the site. In today’s publishing climate readers like to engage with authors. At this point, a blog is still the best way to do it.
Now it’s your turn. I’m going to cover a lot of blogging issues in the next few weeks and I want to make sure I get to the things that you want to know about. Please leave some things you’d like to see covered in the comments section below.
Don’t forget to join the conversation!
Edie Melson is a leading professional in the writing industry. She’s a sought after writing instructor; and her heart to help others define and reach their dreams has connected her with writers all over the country. She’s the co-director of the Blue Ridge MountainsChristian Writers Conference, as well as a popular faculty member at numerous others.
God asks us to ADVANCE not retreat. Writers ADVANCE!