Being the Editor

To those of you who have just started NaNoWriMo: Yay for you! Kudos for every word! If you have questions as you chug along, please post them here. I probably won’t get to them quickly, but other writers likely will. Break a leg—but no fingers or hands!

On October 27, 2020, Katie W. wrote, How do you get better at editing? I ask because one of my WIP’s is my late grandmother’s novel (I mentioned this back in June, asking how to blend our styles), and I really, really, really want to do a good job on it. My grandfather is so proud of what she did (some of her shorter stories won awards) and I want to make him proud, too. But while some of the work that needs to be done is fixing consistencies in POV and deleting infodumping and such, it’s around 175,000 words, so it really needs some major shortening. The problem is, when I’ve tried to do things like that on my own work, I mangled it until it only made sense to people who already knew the characters, and I can’t afford to do that here. Any advice?

A short back-and-forth followed.

Christie V Powell: Using beta readers should help with taking out relevant information, especially if you can find new ones each time who haven’t read the story before.

Have you considered splitting the story into two or three books? You’d be able to keep more of your grandmother’s work and still have a good-sized book. Would the structure allow for that?

Katie W.: Beta readers would definitely help, but I’m not sure I could find enough of them willing to take on the whole thing. And I don’t think I can split it. It’s long, but it’s all one story, if that makes sense. There’s a side plot about the MC’s parents that I might be able to take out, but I haven’t actually finished transcribing the story from my grandmother’s notebooks, so it could be absolutely vital to the climax or something like that. I have about three-fifths of the story, but I haven’t been able to go back and transcribe the rest of it. Not like that absolutely has to keep me from working on it. By this point, I’m starting to think it’s just a convenient excuse.

I’m very aware that Katie W.’s question came in a year ago and she may have completed the revision. If so, how did it go? How much did you cut? What strategies worked for you?

Before starting the editing, we might revisit the short stories the writer (Katie W.’s grandmother) completed. How long are they, for one thing? Do they tend to be almost novellas? How resolved are the endings? What did she seem to delight in writing? And any other questions that suggest themselves. We should write down our questions and the answers we come up with.

We can also think about what she said about her writing. We might ask other people as well as consulting our own memory. What seems to have been most important to her? Character? Plot? Setting? Theme? We write this down too.

When we go into her manuscript, we can keep these matters in mind.

As important as everything else, we have to remember that we have our own esthetic. We can’t become the original writer because that simply isn’t possible. We need to respect the artistic choices we make that arise out of what we like, what we think is interesting, exciting, and pleasing. We aren’t destroying. We’re respectfully shaping and adapting the manuscript. Later, someone else (your granddaughter, Katie W.?) may want to take the work in another direction.

Next, we might start on the manuscript itself, but before we do, this is important: Unlike almost everything else on the blog, we’re not editing our own work. The process is different. If we’re editing a living writer, we don’t want to be mean, but we owe it to that person to be honest and follow our truest ideas in the changes we make, even if we suspect they may not be welcomed. If the writer is absent from the process, there may be other people who are emotionally invested, but we still can’t let things stand that don’t serve the story.

Our first step can be to create a few new documents:

  • A chapter-by-chapter synopsis.
  • A list of characters with a brief description of each one and their role in the plot.
  • A timeline.

More are possible:

  • A paragraph or two about the themes as we understand them.
  • A plot summary in a paragraph or two.

Once we have these, we linger over them. We ask questions—and write them down along with possible answers: Do we need every chapter? Can some be combined? Do some plot or character developments repeat unnecessarily? Do we need every character? Can a few be combined? If the plot can’t be summarized in two paragraphs it may be overcomplicated. Can we simplify it to give it more force? Is the timeline stretched out? Can we compress to provide more urgency?

On a more general level: What did we admire? What did we not like? Were there places where our attention wandered? Was there too much telling? Not enough showing? Or were there spots where the showing could be summarized by telling? Does some description go on too long? Dialogue too?

However, even in a manuscript that’s too long, there may be places that we need to expand. If the story demands it, we have to do it. Take a deep breath.

My most helpful teacher when I was starting out, Margaret (Bunny) Gabel (who retired long ago), used to say that a book should be is long as it needs to be. Some are very long—David Copperfield, Moby Dick, The Da Vinci Code—to name just three.

Here are three Bible-based prompts:

  • Put the Bible story of the plagues on Pharoah into your own tale. Choose an Egyptian character for your MC, who could be someone in Pharoah’s family or a farmer or a servant—or someone else. God sends ten plagues. Meaning no disrespect, three of them involve insects. That’s a lot of bugs! Use as few or many plagues as you like to tell the story and keep it tight.
  • Noah is supervising the entry of animals to his ark. There are many more than he expected. He had no idea there were so many species. Rain is falling in fat droplets and the line stretches farther than he can see. What’s more, three people appeal to him to let them on, enumerating their blameless lives. Write the story.
  • Back to Noah for a contemporary version, which may involve a bit of research. The ark is moored in the port of Los Angeles, fully loaded with people and other animals but stuck in a supply-chain mess. Two hundred cargo ships are lined up ahead of them to leave the port.  Rain is falling. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I actually just finished editing the novel, and I actually didn’t cut more than a couple scenes here and there. A lot of modified paragraphs and deleted infodumping, but no major cuts. I actually had to add a couple of scenes to fill in gaps she either deliberately left unfilled, hadn’t figured out yet, or forgot to write, I’m not sure which. This is actually going to be more useful when I’m working on her second, incomplete, novel, which has the ends, but no middle. I have a vague idea of what’s supposed to happen, but this will help me make sure I know what I’m supposed to be doing before I start writing.

      • Probably middle grade and up, mostly because the MC is 26, it’s 125,000-ish words, has a subplot consisting mostly of flashbacks, and isn’t afraid of compound complex sentences. There are a couple battles and two murders that take place offstage, and an attempted murder that has its own scene, but it’s not violent by any stretch.

        Or do you mean who we’ll be sending copies to when it gets printed? The answer to that is family members we think will be interested, although we have the option of selling copies, too.

    • Whenever I want to stop, it’s usually because I’m stuck and don’t know how to go from one scene to the next or one plot point to the next. I also care too much about my first drafts looking like a real book, so what I do is place a group of three dots (I.E. …) in the middle of my page and call it a scene break. Later I come to these and decide if it actally works or if I need to add more.
      Other tricks:
      If it’s not exciting for you, it’s not exciting for the reader. Just write the interesting stuff!
      Don’t be afraid to change things halfway through if you find out something just isn’t working. My first NaNo I got four sentences in before I realized I need to start somewhere else in the storyline. When you’re halfway in the book and realize something isn’t right, write yourself a note for the next draft and move on like you’d already done it so none of your precious words are wasted.
      Make sure to take breaks whenever you feel like it so that you don’t get writer’s block. If I’ve been staring at my page for too long, my enthusiasm wanes. I need to take a break and get a snack, or, I don’t know, comment on a writing blog to get myself pumped again. : )
      I hoped some of this helped!

    • Ha, I can’t help you there! I tried to start and realized I had not done enough worldbuilding, so I changed projects. I also realized my life right now is not allowing me to write 50K words this month. I’m still writing, but I’m not worrying about hitting that goal.

  2. Hi! I’m pretty new to the blog, but I’ve been reading it for a little bit and love it. I just wanted to say thank you for giving us all this awesome writing advice and telling so many amazing stories. As a young writer, I really appreciate your advice. Good luck to all my fellow Wrimos!

  3. Any advice for naming characters? I have such a hard time doing so. I want names that reflect my characters and their cultures but aren’t too hard for the average reader to figure out how to pronounce. I’ll look at baby name sites or use names that I like in the past, or translate a word that describes a character and mash up a few different ones if necessary ( this is usually for the last name), but I still find it quite hard and I never really feel very satisfied with the names. Stories often revolve around so many different names, every character, and sub-character, every pet, school, town, street name etc.etc. Any favorite names, tips, or tried and true hacks for naming characters?

    • I will just kind of think about a type of name that would suit my character – for instance, when I was naming elves I searched up “hauntingly beautiful names” and “elfin names” and I found some great names for them. When I’m naming a place or thing I will usually search up what a word that describes what I want to name in a different language – e.g., when I was naming a very evil city in one of my stories I searched up “devil in other languages”. Hope this helps!

    • I keep a name bank of names that I like that fit the style of the book in question. With my first series, I chose names that reflected either the color or the ability that person has, so I’d collect names with one of those meanings. It’s also fun to think of variations when you’re doing a retelling. such as Landin for Aladdin or Callisto for Goldilock’s baby bear (Callisto is a bear from Greek mythology).

      Favorite websites: I’ve used when looking for names for people with Viking heritage. If you’re looking for historical meanings, the best source is behindthename. For searching, I prefer babynamewizard, where you can search for letter combinations and styles as well as more usual things. If you’re contemporary or historical, checking the social security association website is always a good idea. Nymbler is another fun one. You imput names you like and it suggests similar ones.

  4. FantasyFan101 says:

    Oh! I love naming characters! Though I do have trouble with it too, I find Nameberry very helpful. It has an advanced search tool that gives you options like meaning, origin, and starting or ending letters. I also like to use Latin to name some places, or even just use root words and make up my own name based off it. Hope this helps!

  5. Hey! I need advice with one of the characters in my WIP, which is a dystopian series. Darya is one of my three protagonists and she’s VERY needy. The poor girl basically just wants love, and she goes through romances at an alarming rate which just makes her miserable. She falls in love with one of the other protagonists and gets really upset when he pushes her away for disrespecting his boundaries. Part of the plot is her growth as a character, but how do I make her at least somewhat likeable when she seems kind of mean, dramatic, and an emotional wreck?

    • There are two main things you can do to make a mean character likeable. 1) Tell it from their POV. Most likely, they’re not deliberately trying to be mean, they just don’t know better/can’t help themselves. 2) Have them TRY to be nice, even if they fail most of the time. Also, sympathetic backstories go a surprisingly long way.
      Now, because I’m a nerd, I have to bring up Last Airbender. Zuko is the PERFECT example of this. Yes, he starts out as one of the villains, but he’s not really evil, it’s just that he and the MC’s have conflicting goals. He’s trying to do what’s right, he just hasn’t figured out what that is yet. Because he shows himself to be capable of kindness, and because we know his story, we empathize with him even when he’s being obnoxious.

      • I’m trying to remember my first watch through, and I think the first time I really became a fan of Zuko was at the end of the first season when he revealed his backstory with his sister. We already knew about his abusive dad from his uncle, but at the end of the first season was when we heard it straight from him, which means we also got his opinion: that he’s facing his challenges straight on, that he’s not dependent on luck, that he appreciates having to struggle because it made him stronger. That’s when I really started believing that he wasn’t just a relatable bad guy, but someone I wanted to root for.

        • The first time I watched it, I kept thinking “This guy is an obnoxious idiot. Why am I so emotionally invested in him?” But I watched the movie first, so my perspective was a little different.
          And I do think the movie did a good job of making us care about him. Probably because they toned everyone down for the live-action. The TV show does get a little over the top sometimes.

    • She sounds like Anna from Frozen. Anna is super relatable because we know her backstory and why she does what she does. We feel bad for how she’s been treated, so that a lot of times we don’t even notice how manipulative and needy she’s being (if you watch her during “Love Is An Open Door”, she is pulling Hans around and engineering these “romantic moments” and he hesitates a few seconds before pretending to be in sync with her). She’s also incredibly optimistic despite being neglected, so we root for her and want her to find love. And, of course, the movie plays with tropes like crazy. She acts like we expect a Disney princess to act, and the romance seems to go the way we’d expect a Disney romance to go, so the audience assumes that’s what’s going on and are just as shocked as she is when things don’t go as expected.

    • Sounds a bit like Anne from Anne of Green Gables. Anne is very dramatic and needy. If I met her I would think she was annoying. But people love her, she is optimistic and maybe a little bit ridiculous, but she warms hearts, despite her deep desire to be fancy and proper and to have a bosom friend. So maybe give your character something we can love about her, something that we can relate to, be inspired by, or laugh at. Look at the stories you love and see how difficult characters are revealed and think about whether or not you like the characters and what their faults are.

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        Norman Rockwell said that if a painting wasn’t going well, he put a dog in it. If it still wasn’t going well, he put a bandage on the dog. An irritating character can be redeemed by taking care of someone else, human or animal. In ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, if I’m remembering right, Anne saves Diana’s little sister of brother from a bad case of croup.

    • Have her save somebody (or something). In Mrs. Levine’s book, Writer to Writer, she has a chapter about making your character likeable. Basically, she says to make your character save somebody, even if it’s just an ant. I’ve tried this method out for myself, and it really works!

  6. Hello!
    My name is Manon Hale and I’m an Illustration BFA student and my capstone project is based on For Biddle’s Sake, a long time favorite of mine!

    A few questions for you if you are willing to shed light on a poor art kid who is trying to write a capstone paper: I read that the story beats from For Biddle’s Sake are based on the fairy tale Puddocky, but a few very major things are changed, such as the witch being swapped with the loving-if-misguided Bombina, and Tansy falling in love with Parsley before she transforms back into a girl. I love these changes and feel like they bring the story to a whole new level and expand on the themes of love, beauty, and justice. What did you love about the original fairy tale and what was your thought process as you twisted certain aspects of it? Sorry that this is slightly unrelated to your post but let me know if there’s a better way to contact you.

    Thank you, and I am a big fan of your work!
    Manon Hale

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