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Lori Handeland

In his book HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL II, James Frey refers to rewriting as 'Re-dreaming the dream.' We dream the dream when we write the first draft, but only those who are able to re-dream that dream can hope to achieve publication.

Self editing is a very important aspect of re-writing. It is the last thing a writer does before sending the manuscript off to their agent or an editor. I look at self-editing as a final housecleaning chore. Not a lot of fun in itself, but don't you feel good when you're done?

I always do a final edit with a hard copy. There are so many things you won't see by reading your manuscript off a computer screen--beside the problem of going blind from reading an entire book that way. The printed word needs to be read, as it was meant to be read, on paper, so you can see the mistakes--and hear any with your inner ear. There is a flow that comes with a well written, well rewritten, well edited manuscript that you can hear when you read it. You must also be able to see your work as an editor or agent will see it. Too much introspection or narrative all in a row with no breaks for dialogue or adequate paragraphing makes a reader skip ahead for some excitement. Sometimes you don't notice this until you read your hard copy in the self-editing stage.

In the self-editing stage, I ask myself the following questions.

  1. Are you telling instead of showing?

    • Showing keeps up your sense of immediacy and pace. The following is an example of the same passage from my next Love Spell release Dreams of an Eagle. The first is telling, the second, showing.
      Telling: Genny heard chanting. The wind rushed about her ankles. Lightning struck nearby. Thunder shook the yard and woke the dog. He snarled.
      Showing: The sound of chanting filled the yard, riding a sudden gust of wind that picked up Genny's skirts and swirled them about her ankles. The ground shuddered with heavenly thunder. Lightning flashed, close enough for her nostrils to flare with the heat. The dog started up from his sleep in the yard; a low, evil snarl erupted from his throat.

    • The only time when telling is better than showing is when you want the reader to experience the repetitive action in the same way your character does. For instance:
      "The nights were too short after endless days spent experiencing West Texas from the back of a horse." We don't show every day--we don't need to--they're all the same.

    • Remember the RUE rule--R.U.E.--resist the urge to explain. Show a character's emotions by his or her actions instead of explaining how they feel:
      Joanna was very, very angry.
      Should be changed to:
      Joanna slammed her palm onto the table. The china cup fell off the edge and shattered. She didn't notice.

  2. Are you establishing your character gradually and unobtrusively?

    • Avoid thumbnail sketches in the author's point of view whenever a new character steps into your book.
      Karen had a smooth walk and a jaunty way of talking that made everyone adore her.
      Instead use action, dialogue or the thoughts of others to characterize. In the following from my novel D.J.'s Angel, the hero sees the heroine for the first time:
      Despite the anger in the woman's stride, her face reflected no such emotion. Fascinated, Chris stared at her. Tall and lean, she carried herself with a confidence found only in women well able to defend themselves. Her russet hair had been cropped close to her head, short enough to remove the curls, but not enough to erase a natural wave. Fine bones defined a regal face that matched her bearing. Ivory skin that would have looked pale on someone else did not dare on this woman.

      She stopped short, just inside the door, and glared at her band of followers.

      "No comment," she snapped, staring down those who would have questioned her further. Surprisingly, the media backed off.

      In this example we get a physical description through the hero's viewpoint and a character analysis from three sources: his thoughts of her, her words and manner and the media's reaction to her. The description is worked into the action of the scene and the thoughts of a character rather than being apart from the story--extraneous information obviously implanted by the author.

    • Do you impart information on the character on a need to know basis? If the reader doesn't need to know--don't tell her.

    • Are your characters speaking information that they wouldn't normally speak to another person? For example:
      "Hi, Joe. I'm so glad to see you're not working at the wastewater treatment plant today. I suppose that's because of the beautiful, but unusual, 80 degree weather on a Wisconsin spring day."
  3. Is your point of view consistent?

    • If you decide to use more than one POV per scene, use them for longer than one sentence and make sure the transitions flow. Personally I only use one POV per scene to avoid this problem. I also feel that every time you change POV you lose the tension you've gained for that scene. But that's a whole other topic. For this topic, check to make sure you're consistent in the approach you use. If you notice the change or stumble over it, you can be certain a reader will.

    • Is your POV established in the first sentence of the scene?

    • When you describe the surroundings, are you describing them in words your POV character would use? Would a rough and tough 1800's guy think like this?
      He looked out over the gilded mountains and gave a sigh of ecstasy. He'd never seen anything so exquisite. Fushia flames shot from behind the indigo hills, giving voice to the advent of dawn.
      I don't think so. Not only must your dialogue sound like a character's words, but make sure the thoughts do, too. A western outlaw's view of Wyoming will be a whole lot different than that of a 20th century man.

  4. Are your dialogue mechanics sophisticated? (reflect adequate knowledge of proper writing technique)

    • Avoid 'ly'.
      . . .she snapped, angrily.
      If you're snapping, you're angry. Look for the verb that will get your point across without needing an adverb to qualify.

    • Get rid of any attributions unnecessary to understand who's speaking.

    • Use 'said' whenever possible. It fades into the background and is ignored by most readers.

    • People cannot snort, laugh or grimace words.

    • Try using action to tell who's speaking instead of attributions.
      'Just leave me alone.' Genny turned away with a swirl of her skirts.

    • Remember ellipses . . . are for gaps and dashes for interruptions.

  5. Have you checked for breaks?

    • Read your dialogue out loud to make sure your characters aren't talking on and on. Most people don't. Except when giving speeches.

    • Look for passages that run for more than 1/2 a page--too many words without dialogue will loose readers. The reader feels lectured to, crowded. A page without white space is visually uninviting. A reader will skip to a place with less text looking for some action.

    • Paragraphing can add tension to a scene. A one line paragraph can make an important point. This is an example from FULL MOON DREAMS, my July Love Spell release:
      The guilt over Peter's loss haunted John still. Moments before they'd marched off to war with the 26th Wisconsin, John had sworn to his father he would watch out for Peter. And he had, throughout countless small battles and skirmishes with no names. They'd even survived the blood bath at Gettysburg. John dreamed about the battle yet: the screams of the injured and dying within the surgeon's tent where he worked, the canon fire and gunshots on the hills and forests outside the tent, the horrible silence when the fighting ceased and so many thousands lay slaughtered. He and Peter had survived every battle, still John had returned home without his little brother. He hadn't seen Peter since Lee surrendered to Grant and everyone went home.

      Everyone except Peter.

      That one sentence paragraph shows a lot about John's feelings for the loss of his brother.

    • Just as short paragraphs add tension, paragraphing less frequently creates a more relaxed mood.

  6. Have you checked for unintentional repetition?

    • Do two chapters accomplish the same end?

    • Is a character described more than once?

    • Is the same word repeated too closely together? More than once in a sentence or in a couple of sentences.
    • Are you using common redundancies we've come to gloss over in our language. gathered together, sank down, climbed up, widow woman--and countless others. If one word will do it, use one.

  7. Have you checked for sophistication throughout the novel?

    • Check action clauses that use 'ing' or 'as.' For example:
      Disappearing into my tent, I put on jeans.
      This is impossible. 'Ing' or 'as' clauses indicate parallel action. Make sure the two actions connected by these clauses can be done at the same time.

    • Remove all the its, thats, was's and hads you can. They weaken your narrative. You can't take them all out, but if you remove the ones you can, you'll be ahead.

    • Remove 'ly' verbs and replace with action words. For example:
      Angrily she set the plate on the table.
      Change to:
      She slammed the plate on the table.

    • Beginning a sentence with 'there' makes the sentence wordy and weak. For example:
      There was a man with one blue shoe and one brown shoe standing at my front door.
      Change to:
      The man standing at my front door wore one blue shoe and one brown shoe.

    • Do you have:
      • Too many italics?
      • Too many exclamation points?
      • Too many metaphors?
      • Too much profanity?

      These items are most effective when used sparingly. Use them too often and they lose their impact.

  • Have you checked your general mechanics?

    • Check spelling with a spell check. If you don't have one, get one.

    • Make sure you are using the right form of the word.
      • their/there/they're
      • its/it's
      • who's/whose

    • On a final read through check for:
      • Two periods per sentence.
      • Two spaces between words.
      • Words your spell check missed. For instance, you've typed 'her' instead of 'here.' Your spell check won't get this because 'her' is spelled correctly, even though it's not the right word.

      I'd like to suggest the following resources, which I used to compile this speech:

      • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Rennie Brown and Dave King
      • How to Write a Damn Good Novel and How to Write Damn Good Novel II, James Frey
      • Laura Baker's Style articles in the July, September, November '95 Romance Writers' Reports.

      Self editing involves an ability to look at your work with an impersonal eye. For some this can be difficult. The best thing to do is to let your completed manuscript sit for a month, then go back and do a final edit. Time and distance can give you a clearer view of your dream. Always remember that the best books are not written, they are re-written. Also remember that books are never bought unless they are submitted. So do your rewriting, your self-editing and when you feel you've done all you can--send that book in and let me be the first to say--good luck.

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    © 2008 Lori Handeland