I'm editing the manuscript of my last client right now, as editing proved to me very painful because I'm such a perfectionist. I've been told I'm very good at editing, as good as a pro (which made my jaw drop, because I'm a total rookie), and I made money. I could continue making money editing, but it's not what I want to do. I want to write books and publish books and make money selling books, so I have deleted the editing page from my site, and I have only one client left (and after that zero).
It wasn't even worth the money for me to continue doing it because a lot of work I was getting wasn't ready for editing—it badly needed several more drafts. At first I thought it was an exception, but the more work I took on, the more I saw how half-baked most of it was. Hence, my pain and the wish to just DAMN REWRITE IT ALL. The pain was palpable, and it taught me valuable lessons. I'll share them here with you (and bookmark this post so I can remind myself). If you're an experienced writer, you'll be bored to tears ("Jeez. Come on. Been there, done that."), so skip it. But if you're a newbie and want to self-publish or query agents, read on. And if you find it helpful, send me coffee.
PLOT / PLAN / STRUCTURE
Whatever method you use to organize your manuscript, you better organize it so your plan can fit onto one page. Yes, a short summary of what your book is about. This applies to fiction and non-fiction both. Without structure you're fucked. You have to see your own logic behind all this writing. If you can't, your readers won't either. They'll get confused and set the book aside. Confusion is your enemy number one. Art is art, but business is business. And writing books that sell is art plus business. The business side of it demands that your book makes sense. So before sending your manuscript to an editor, roll up your sleeves, sit down in front of one piece of paper and write down what your book is about, covering EVERYTHING IN IT. Can't do it? Too bad. It needs another draft, and another, and another, until you can summarize it on one page. (Or, in reverse, plan first, then write according to the plan—that's what I do now.)
Yes, editors fix your bad grammar as they go along. Yes, after the structural editor is done with your story, and even after the copy editor is done, and after the line editor is done, you can have a proofreader read it and fix whatever was left, so why bother doing it in the first place? Because good grammar is part of your toolbox. If you don't know when to use "which" and when to use "that" and what's the difference, it's like you're a carpenter who doesn't know a nail from a screw. Reading work that's grammatically sloppy is painful. Make it as clean as you can before sending it to your editor. Your editor will love you for it (and will still find more mistakes—editors are very good at that).
I've read everything from stories that happen in a complete vacuum (you can't tell what time of day it is, what month, what year, what city/country/planet, NOTHING) to stories that are so embellished with setting descriptions that I had to cut out whole chunks to speed the story up (or, rather, to get to the bloody story already behind all these pretty landscape descriptions three-pages long). Your best friend is research. Do your homework. Again, I'll shout, "DO YOUR HOMEWORK!!!" The editor can't do it for you. This is your story, you know it best. When you write it and create the setting, you rely on three research resources: memory, fact, and imagination. Some things you remember, some things you Google or visit the location in person, and some you imagine from scratch. To create a believable setting you must use all three. What do you remember about the place? Not everything, but little telling details. A few are enough. What can you find out about the place? And how would you imagine it if you were in it? Do this work, and your editor (and your readers) will thank you.
Man, I don't even know where to start here. Sometimes it's so bad, I want to shoot myself. (It's easy for me to say when I'm on the other side; I know how hard it is to see dialogue flaws in your own writing). Here, two easy things to remember: layers and beats. Write this down and hang it in front of your computer, or your writing desk, or wherever it is you write.
There are two layers of dialogue (and sometimes three and more, if you're a pro and know how to do it): what's being said on the surface and what's actually being said underneath. Most beginning writers just write the dialogue "on the nose." Two lovers meet. "I love you!" he says. "I love you too!" she says. The readers close the book and throw it against the wall in disgust. Why? Because these is nothing to read about—nothing to guess. We read for the pleasure of uncovering the meaning of the story. The surface, when crafted well, sucks us in and lets us glimpse the mysteries underneath—the true story. So dialogue has to reflect that. "Your shoelaces are undone," he said. "Let me tie them for you." "After you're done, can I untie them?" she said. "Just to watch you do it again?" Okay, this is some nonsense I just came up with on the fly so it's not a stellar example, but here two people are talking about shoelaces, for Christ's sake, only they don't. They talk about loving one another.
The second thing is beats. Every dialogue chunk has beats that are tiny emotional turns. She is angry, he is pleading. That's one beat. She is forgiving, he is lying. That's another beat. You can't repeat more than three lines of dialogue in each beat, or it gets boring. Like cake. You eat the first piece, you love it. The second piece is going slower. And after the third one you want to puke. (Well, this depends on the cake and the mood. Sometimes I can eat a whole cake alone. But you get the point.)
STYLE / VOICE
This is an elusive thing that's hard to pinpoint (and everyone loves talking about a certain writer having a certain style/voice, while the rest of us have no idea what they're talking about), but basically it's the absence of style/voice that makes the style and the voice yours. A paradox? Yes. So before you send your manuscript to the editor, cut out all "writing" from your story. By "writing" I mean all those spots where you were trying very hard to write for the purpose of writing, not for the purpose of telling the story. Every single word has to have a function. If it has no function—if it doesn't move the story forward—cut it. Don't rely on your editor to do it. The editor is not you. The editor has no idea what your style/voice is and how to make it shine if it's bogged down by all this "writing." So kill your darlings, kill them. Your story will only be better for it. And miraculously, as soon as you do it, your style/voice will emerge.
Plain and simple: study your craft. Study it until you bleed out of your nose and the rest of your orifices. This is your job as a writer. This is not your editor's job. You must be the master of your words, and that mastery has to show. if you stumble along without knowing where you're going or by what means to get there, your editor won't help you. Yes, your manuscript will be cleaner, but it won't excuse you from just throwing some shit on the page and calling it good. Good writing takes time. Very good writing takes a very long time. So take your time. Don't rush. Don't send half-baked manuscripts to editors. It's painful trying to get something together out of your boneless, sprawling prose.
Do as many drafts as you can until you think you've done your best. Often when you think you're really done, you're not. Not quite yet. I've edited so many manuscripts that could benefit from a few more drafts, that after a while I stopped being afraid to do more drafts of my own writing. I was horrified at the thought of my editor thinking the same thoughts I was thinking. Yes, sometimes you're so sick of your book, you can't write another draft even if the editor stood next to your writing desk while pointing a gun to your head. You'd rather die than write another word. In that case wrap up the bastard and move on. But often you can. Because the biggest problems of a manuscript that's very raw (your first or second vomit on paper) are the ones that editors will either ignore or try to rewrite and fill up with their own words, and when you get this back, you get upset because that's NOT WHAT YOU MEANT AT ALL. Well, of course it isn't! How would the editor know? It's bloody hard to guess at unfinished thoughts, unfinished sentences, and unfinished concepts.
This is sometimes the word writers scorn at, especially beginners. "I write what I feel, so fuck genres. I'm expressing my artistic self." Good luck selling your books. Unless, of course, you're writing it for your friends and family, or for your desk drawer. If you want to sell, and you're paying your editor to edit, your editor will try placing your book into a specific genre, to clean up the conventional scenes in your manuscript, to make sure it's accessible to its intended audience, and so on. Without sticking to genres, you're shooting yourself and your editor in the foot. Or in the head. Or both. So study your genre and then tell your editor where in the market your book fits (or doesn't).
OTHER LITTLE NASTY THINGS
Passive voice. Avoid it like a plague. Yes, you can use it beautifully, and yes it has its place. If you know what you're doing and have command of it. (And it's often necessary in stories, and adds beautiful dimension—again, if done skillfully.) But if you're just starting out, stick with active. "She clubbed him with a shoe," not "He was clubbed with a shoe." "He hurt" (hurt is a verb that describes the performance of an action, hence active), not "He suffered" (suffered is a verb that describes the endurance of an action, hence passive).
Cause and effect. So often these two are backwards. "He turned to look over his shoulder as she yelled at him and threw a frying pan right in his face." First something happens, then characters react to it. So, "She yelled at him, and he turned to look over his shoulder." See? Cause—effect. It must be in every sentence, unless, again, you know how to fuck with the structure in order to fuck with readers' minds and do it with skill.
Cliches is another one. Cut them all out. Replace them all with your own words. Please. Thank you.
P.S.: You owe me coffee, remember? If you found this helpful. But you must've, if you've read this far. SEND IT RIGHT HERE. And remember to subscribe to my newsletter to win a free paperback of your choice (I pick a winner every month—I skewer them on a spear with my eyes closed). And buy my books, read them and review them to death, then invite me to your funeral. I'll write you a good parting speech, I promise. It will be tear-jerking and dramatic, and your family will speak of it for years.