Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
October 2017

Cut Out All the Bad Parts

If you’re worrying about how to edit a manuscript and feel overwhelmed by the lists of all the things you need to make better, either from an editorial letter or from a list on the internet, let me simplify it for you. Editing is taking out all the bad parts and then adding in new good parts. If you’re lucky, there are more good parts already in the book than there are bad parts that need to be taken out. Unfortunately, even if I’ve sold a novel, this isn’t always true for me. Still, whether I do revision chapter by chapter or more wholesale, it’s always helpful for me to clean out the chaff first. Then I can write little notes to myself in brackets [add more examples here].

I often move the “bad parts” to another document just in case I end up needing them again (I rarely do, but it happens). And to tell the truth, a lot of the revision process is an emotional one. I have to let go of my attachment to old words and also let go of the need to be a “good writer” who doesn’t need to delete long sections of a book she’s already written and sold. Some manuscripts, I have more attachment to old words than other ones. Some I read and think—how did I ever write this in the first place? How can I be so bad? Other words I recognize are good, but just not right for this place in the manuscript. And sometimes I have to throw things out because the book has changed directions completely.

Once I get past that emotional part, cutting is easy, frankly. I can do a lot of the cutting in a full novel manuscript in a couple of days. If that doesn’t work for you because it’s too big to contemplate, then do it chapter by chapter. I like to do it all at once because it feels like a cleanse. Once the bad parts are gone, I take a breath of relief. Maybe it’s because I’m afraid of people seeing all the bad parts, and once I’ve deleted them, I have less fear of embarrassment.

The more difficult part of editing comes in the second step, which is to add more good parts. I feel emotionally heartened when the parts remaining are all good. I wrote good stuff before, so I can write good stuff now.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by editing, remember that there are stages of mourning when you receive an editorial letter.

The first stage of an editorial letter is denial. This means that I don’t look at the editorial letter or even admit to myself that I’m going to have to open it and do a lot more work. My subconscious knows it’s there, but I need time to get up the courage to look at the letter. For me, this stage lasts a couple of days, even up to a week if I’m trying to finish something else before I get started.

The second stage of an editorial letter is grief. I’m a terrible writer. I’ll never get anything published again. I don’t think I ever want to write anything again.

The third stage of an editorial letter is anger. How dare an editor tell me that I need to fix that much stuff? Who does the editor think she is? This is my book, not her book, and I know it a lot better than she does. I know it’s good. It might need a few typos to be fixed, but nothing more than that.

The fourth stage of an editorial letter is acceptance. Yes, it turns out that this book needs some help. I don’t know if I have the energy or the skills necessary to manage it, but I can at least start with something small. That sentence right there, on page three. I can work on that. And once that is done, maybe I can work on a full paragraph there.

The fifth stage of an editorial letter is relief, maybe even joy. My editor was so right! She’s brilliant. I’d be nothing without her.

As you’re working on adding new stuff in, I beg you to consider that simpler is better. That might be part of the reason you had to cut out so many things before.

Yeah, it sounds like a weird thing to say when I’m writing mysteries, which are supposed to be full of twists and turns. But if you want the twists to really matter, you want to make sure that you don’t have too many of them. And yes, you can have too many. Too many muddies up the story and makes it less clear.

I’m not saying that you should write characters who are stupid or who do the most obvious thing all the time. I’m not saying that your plot should move in the most obvious direction. But the story itself should be simple. It’s one reason that you hear people in the business emphasizing “elevator pitches” (which I hate, BTW). But you should be able to explain your story in simple terms. It shouldn’t take an hour for a reader to understand why your story is one to pick up and read. The truth is, if you can’t explain in one sentence (or possibly two) what your story is about, most readers are just going to put it down without giving it a try.

They say that all the stories have been written already and we’re just doing retellings. That’s not a bad thing. What that means is that you as a writer are drawing on the works of thousands before you. You’re just honing and refitting stories for the present day. But the emotions, the arcs, the surprises and betrayals, the characters—they’re all simple. Not stereotypes, don’t get me wrong there. I don’t want you to write stock figures into your stories. But real people with real relationships. Mothers, fathers, spouses, rival siblings—these are old stories. People have always been people and I think they always will be. Our motivations are pretty simple. We want wealth and power and love.

Think about your characters. Are they going to touch every reader because your readers know people just like that? What about the plot? Can you explain it in a sentence or too? Are you working too hard to put in extra dressing when you should be doing the opposite? Get down to the simple parts of the story and you should be good.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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