Note: I know in the original outline this day was called “What Comes Next”, but as you’ll see, I changed it for a good reason.
I’m assuming that for this last week of FiYoShiMo your manuscript is done, or nearly done. “Nearly done” is at least 80%, for the sake of today’s topic.
Oh right, this is the final week of FiYoShiMo. And today we’re talking about revisions and editing. Yes, we’re going to talk editing on the editor’s blog. Weird, I know. But we’ll get through this together. I have confidence in us. And in your friend’s mom.
The First Thing I Look For When I Edit –> Consistency in Names
Technically, the first thing I do with a manuscript is read it all the way through, just to make sure it’s complete and to see if there are any giant glaring errors or red flags that prevent me from going forward (see below).
For the moment, let’s assume the story is complete and there aren’t any huge problems. I read it through, probably in chunks over the course of a workday, or printed out and triple-spaced while I hang out on the couch with a cup of tea and the dog.
Depending on the length or complexity, that read can take between a few hours or a few days. During that reading, I make a list of all the proper nouns – character names, location names, object names. Then I go back to the MS on the PC and count the number of times each name shows up. If character A is named “Tom” 390 times (I’m making up numbers), but then turns into “Steve” 1 time, I know to flag it. Likewise if a named thing (city, power, object, whatever) changes names, I know it gets a comment.
The Second Thing I Look For When I Edit –> Arcs
Every character of substance in the MS should be on a journey, from a start-state to a changed-state. And their progress should be trackable, not necessarily quantifiable. I don’t need to see 3% growth every chapter like the character is a mutual fund, I need though to be able to see the character moving in some direction based on their actions, philosophy, motivations, and intent.
Then I make sure the plot goes somewhere, and that the characters intersect with that plot. A plot that doesn’t move, or it slows down without reason, or characters that don’t engage with the plot (or just in general) all get flagged with comments.
The Third Thing I Look For When I Edit –> Sentence Construction
We all fall into patterns when we write (or speak). When you start seeing someone use “really” (it’s my example) in paragraph after paragraph, and then you notice that every paragraph happens to be three lines long, and that each line has a comma followed by an “and” … and that there are more “I” in the sentences … You see where I’m going with this?
It’s a function of the fact that I’ve been doing this over half my life. I see patterns. I like patterns. They’re very telling. Was something written by a man or a woman? Have they gone to college? How much? Are they a parent? Is this their first book? What bad habits do they have? These are some (but nowhere near all) the questions I can answer by reading the first few pages. (Ask any client of mine, they’ll tell you about it)
Sentence construction can also lead to problems in grammar. Incorrect tenses of verbs, misused punctuation, weird structure, and spelling all get checked at this point. Comments begin to swell here if they haven’t already started to.
The Fourth Thing I Look For When I Edit –> Character Engagement
Okay. There’s this thing called a “Mary Sue.” Maybe you’ve heard of it. Maybe not. It’s used pejoratively to describe any character who is too perfect and goes unchallenged regardless of situation. It comes from Star Trek fan fiction (seriously), and involves a lot of wish fulfillment or the projection of a “strong” character who can handle everything.
Maybe you’ve been to the movies lately, and seen the Internet burble forth some applesauce that a certain female character in a very successful space opera franchise that involves a distant galaxy in the past with laser swords is a Mary Sue, because despite having a limited character history, she seems pretty capable in any circumstance. (I danced around some spoiler stuff there)
She isn’t a Mary Sue. She’s just a character who’s capable of doing stuff. Compare her to pre-existing characters, she’s pretty much on par.
No, this isn’t where we’re going to talk about how “it’s about time for a woman to be strong”, because that’s not what FiYoShiMo is all about, we’re just looking at how the character is going to connect to the audience. This character in particular DOES connect, and I think will continue to do so in subsequent films. In this regard, her gender is not relevant, since she’s not a character with an active sexual agenda, and she’s demonstrated to be an equal or peer among the non-female cast.
Does that address the charge that she’s not challenged by circumstance? Not entirely. I can answer that though by saying this: We didn’t expect the other protagonists to be out of their depth, and we never claimed they were Marty Stu (the male equivalent of Mary Sue). Being a “fish out of water” doesn’t mean a character is a quivering mass of incapable gelatin, it just means they’re in a new circumstance, and the only thing they can do is apply the skills they do have to their new situation. It’s what a character does, regardless of gender.
This editorial pass is all about concepts like Mary Sues. Does Character A (and B and C and however many more) feel realistic and could a reader connect to them? Even if they have powers or abilities or stuff that the reader doesn’t or couldn’t have, is there some avenue for the reader to invest?
The Fifth Thing I Look For When I Edit –> Good Parts
I realize that I’ve spent about a thousand words talking about how I look at the wrong stuff. But even the manuscripts I send back to authors saying, “This needs way more work”, it’s not all bad. There are good ideas, they might just be poorly expressed. There are good characters, they just need more developing. There are good things. I do call them out in separate comments. They’re worth mentioning.
There are additional passes for dialogue (does it sound like a person would say this?) and pacing (how quickly does the plot happen, is it sensible), but I could spend another thousand words detailing all the different passes I can do, or I can talk about the big giant red flags.
THE BIG GIANT RED FLAGS
No one is perfect. No draft is perfect. Mistakes happen. There are plenty of chances to change things, plenty of chances to make new decisions. A writer is never without options. And that’s all important to remember when these red flags come up.
Red Flag #1 Dull characters doing dull things for no discernible reason.
We all get a good laugh out of how Seinfeld was a “show about nothing”, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Your characters should be sufficiently developed that they can do stuff and we figure out why they’re doing it. Ideally, they’re doing whatever they’re doing because the plot requires these things get done, or because the character believes that they need to do them so the plot can get done.
The good news is that you can fix this by making the character(s) and/or what they’re doing more interesting, and the motives for doing whatever clearer. Yes, it requires you to make some decisions, so maybe don’t do this while you’re shotgunning cold medicine, but this is fixable.
Red Flag #2 A plot that gets resolved too conveniently.
The saying “No driveups in the third act” works for a reason. The later you introduce something into a story, and the more that thing does to resolve the story, the less satisfying the story becomes. This is why it’s so important to build the characters and their efforts over the course of the story, not just reach some arbitrary page number or chapter and dump the big action in there.
Don’t rob the reader of the satisfaction of the ride the story takes them on.
Red Flag #3 Dialogue that sounds like it came from ransom notes fed through a paper shredder, then Google Translate, then shredded again.
People talking is supposed to sound like people talking. I don’t care if those people are aliens or robots. Or sentient yeasts. If you want the reader to connect to them, the character(s) need a bridge to them, and how they speak is ONE of the ways you build that bridge.
So read your damned dialogue out loud. Then let someone else do it too.
Red Flag #4 Unnecessary and confusing elements that are just there to show to someone (no idea who) that you (the writer) are “good enough” to be a writer.
Ever want to watch me lose my shit? I mean, as much as a guy with a heart condition is medically able to freak out? Show me writing that’s embellished with flashy, poorly crafted, even trendy elements.
Look, just because ((FAMOUS AUTHOR NAME HERE)) writes ((FAMOUS STORY)) this one particular way, does NOT mean you have to write your story that way. Yes, really. Even if you and AUTHOR are in the same genre. I swear.
You’re good enough to write. I know this, because I’ve got your manuscript in front of me. You made it this far. Your “good enough”ness is not in question. Don’t listen to the fuckstains and dipshits who convinced you that you’re only good enough when your book is on some store’s shelf. You get to decide what success is for you. Always.
And that also means it’s your decision as to how you tell your story. No, I don’t mean you get to invent a new verb tense or poorly break all the rules. I mean you get to do your best, inside (and outside) of the rules, to the best of your ability. Tell your story your way. Your best way.
I’m going to always advocate that once you’ve gotten the manuscript written, and you think it’s complete, get an editor to look it over. No, not your friend who you have lattes with while your kids eat their socks, although she can read it too, but I mean AN EDITOR. Someone with training who can take your MS from where it is to where you want it to go.
It’s not a sign of failure that you need to ask for help. It’s a sign of strength, recognizing that you’ve gone as far as you can, knowing what you know and doing what you do. To take those next steps, you need help. So get some.
Tomorrow we’re going to talk about series, serials, and how to tell a story across multiple parts. I look forward to seeing you back here for that.