Tag Archives: self-editing

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Self-Editing Techniques

We know the shapes of our narratives, and we also know our own voice and style. So our stories are likely to make sense to us, regardless of whether they make sense to others.

On Monday, I wrote about my recent editing experiences and the new challenges I’ve faced helping authors improve their work. Today I would like to continue in a somewhat similar vein with a post about self-editing.

Editing our own work can be incredibly difficult, but it is also a skill we can hone. Let me be absolutely clear, though: No matter how good we become at editing our own work, we still need outside editors. No one – NO ONE – is so good at writing and self-editing that they can get by without an editor. None of what I’m about to suggest is intended as a replacement for the editorial process. Rather, self-editing is a tool that will make subsequent editorial relationships easier and quicker. Every problem we catch on our own is one fewer we need to hash out with an editor. Put another way, the cleaner our manuscripts, the easier it is to navigate future edits and revisions.

So with those caveats firmly in place, let’s look at a few things we can do to improve our self-editing.

The biggest problem we’re likely to encounter in editing our own work is our familiarity with our stories and our writing. We know what we’re trying to say. We know the shapes of our narratives, and we also know our own voice and style. So our stories are likely to make sense to us, regardless of whether they make sense to others. Our prose is likely to be clear and coherent to us, even if it’s clunky or sloppy to others. As a for instance, have you ever omitted a key word from the sentence, and then read that sentence again and again and again, each time inserting the word in your own head so that you fail to realize that the word isn’t there on the page? Only when another reader comes along and says, “You know, you’re missing a word…” do we finally realize there’s a problem. In the same way, we can often come up with plot points that make perfect sense in our own thinking and remain utterly opaque to our readers.

Thus, the secret to successful self-editing lies in creating as much distance as possible between the writing process and the experience of reading our own work. We want the material to feel as fresh, as much like the work of another writer, as it can.

How do we do this? I like to create distance between the writing and editing experiences using several tools: time, format, medium.

Time is pretty simple, but let me back up briefly to say that I tend to write relatively polished drafts. That’s just the way I work. I want the wording of my first draft to be as close to the final version as possible, so I clean things up as I write. That said, though, once I finish a section of a draft, I don’t go back and edit until I complete the entire book. Any edits I think of along the way, I jot down in a separate file. And then I continue writing. As I said in a post a few weeks ago, I don’t retreat into edits because for me momentum is everything.

Once the manuscript is done, I stick it in a drawer (in a figurative sense) for at least four weeks. I prefer six. And yes, when planning my work schedule and juggling deadlines, I factor in this resting period. During the interim I work on other things, ideally something in a different world or series. That way, when I come back to the piece all those weeks later, it’s fresh. I won’t have forgotten it – that’s too much to ask. But it won’t be quite so familiar.

Format is a bit of an inconvenience, at least for me. I write at my computer. Everything. I can barely hand-write a shopping list anymore. And so I am used to looking at my manuscripts on a screen. Ideally, I then edit with a pencil on a paper copy of the book. Now, I understand that printing our manuscripts is a pain in the butt. It’s time-consuming, paper and ink are expensive, and there are environmental factors to consider. But the fact is, if I write on my computer and try to edit on the computer as well, I miss stuff. When I read the book on paper, I see things I would otherwise skim over. If you are in a position to print out your books I recommend doing so. You’ll be amazed at the difference it makes.

Medium is easy, although you might want to do this one in the privacy of your own home. We write our books in relative silence (though I do often speak as I type, particularly with dialogue), and we can read and edit them that way as well. Or, we can read them aloud. I’ll admit that at this stage of my career, I rarely print out manuscripts. But I ALWAYS edit by reading aloud. I see the page differently when I treat it as a script, catching mistakes I’d otherwise miss. And more to the point, when I hear the book, even in my own voice, I become aware of things that might escape me in a silent read: clunky transitions, words and phrases I’ve overused, stilted dialogue, and a bunch of other problems. Seriously, reading a piece out loud might leave you hoarse and exhausted, but it’s invaluable as a self-editing tool.

There are other distancing techniques that can help as well. For instance, if you write every day in the same spot in your house or in a library or café, trying editing elsewhere. That change in venue can make a difference.

The point is, you want your writing experience and critical reading experience to have as little in common as possible. Anything that makes the manuscript feel fresh and unfamiliar will contribute to clearing your perspective. And that, in turn, will allow you to see and fix issues you might have missed.

Best of luck, and keep writing!

(Not So) Quick-Tip Tuesday: Ups and Downs in the Writing Life

I’ve published nineteen novels, written lots of short stories, and (for those who like their cautionary tales with a dollop of irony) even co-authored a book on writing. And here I was, totally enamored of a manuscript that had deep structural issues. I should have known better.

Writers tend to want to share on social media when things are going well. We love to trumpet our happy news, and I’m certainly no different.

There are sound reasons for this. One is purely professional: It helps our careers to focus on the good stuff, to show the world new cover art, or to announce an upcoming release, the sale of a book to a publisher, an award nomination or great review from a major journal. Publicizing these things contributes to what the industry refers to as “buzz.” We want people to talk about us, and about our work, for the right reasons.

There is also a purely human reason: As I have said many, many times, writing is a difficult way to make a living. It can be frustrating, even demoralizing. We do much of our work in isolation, struggling with story lines and character arcs, and it can seem, at times, as though those tidbits of good news come all too infrequently. So, when things do go well, we want to shout it from the rooftops. And when those disappointments come, we tend to keep them to ourselves.

Which is why this is such an unusual post for me.

I’m dealing with a professional setback, and I believe it’s worth discussing publicly, because it represents, in many respects the very essence of what a writing career is like. Now let me be clear: In the larger scheme of things, this is a minor reversal, a tiny blip in the course of my career and something I will address and overcome quickly. But it certainly knocked me on my butt for a few days.

In December, I turned in a manuscript to my agent. This is a new project, the first volume in what I expect will be a time travel/epic fantasy trilogy (or more). In my excitement, I announced on Facebook and elsewhere that I had completed the book. I’m pretty sure I said at the time that it was the best work I had done to date. I’ve since been working on the sequel, and just last week I announced, again on Facebook and elsewhere, that I was 50,000 words in to book two.

The day following that most recent announcement, I received editorial notes on the first book from my agent–the terrific Lucienne Diver. And she tore the book to shreds. Poor pacing, lack of tension, slow development of my plot, flaws in the logic of my narrative that seemed to make things far, far too easy on my characters. There was more, but I’ll stop there because, you know, pride.

As you might imagine, I was devastated, and here’s why: A) She was right in just about everything she said; and B) I had thought the book was great and I couldn’t begin to imagine how I could have been so wrong. I’ve been writing professionally for over 20 years. I’ve published nineteen novels, written lots of short stories, and (for those who like their cautionary tales with a dollop of irony) even co-authored a book on writing. And here I was, totally enamored of a manuscript that had deep structural issues. I should have known better.

I wallowed in self-pity and woe-is-me histrionics for a couple of hours, and then called my wise and wonderful friend, Faith Hunter, who basically said, “Yup, happens to all of us. Get off your ass and fix it.” Which was perfect.

Because it does happen to all of us, and it points to several lessons that every writer, at every level, should keep in mind.

First of all, every manuscript has flaws. Actually, I would go further: Every published work has flaws. I have yet to read a perfect book, and I doubt very much that I ever will. This is why we revise and edit. This is why we send our books to beta readers and friends and agents for feedback.

This is also why every book needs a good editor. I don’t care who you are: J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, the next World’s-Best-Novelist, or the next Self-Published-Sensation. Whoever you are, or think you might be, you need an editor. I fancy myself a pretty decent self-editor, and with some books and stories I am. But I can only see so much in any of my own work. I am too close to my own creative process, too close to my own narrative assumptions. I can’t possibly anticipate every potential issue.

Yes, it’s hard to hear from someone we respect that our book, as it stands right now, is not yet ready for publication. Lucienne’s notes hurt. Each criticism felt like a kick to the gut (or a few inches lower); taken together they left me bruised and bloody. (Figuratively speaking–my agent is tough, but not quite that tough…) But taking such criticism and using it to improve the work in question lies at the very heart of what it means to be a professional writer. If we can’t abide critiques of our work, if we can’t step out of ourselves enough to see and accept and correct the mistakes we’ve made, we don’t deserve the privilege of telling stories for a living.

Even in those first couple of hours after I received Lucienne’s notes, as I cursed and flailed and did more than a bit of whining, I also started to ask myself the questions that would move me beyond this setback.

Do I still believe in the novel? Yes, I do.

Do I still love the characters and the world building? Yes, I do.

Am I still satisfied with the prose? Yes, I am.

Can I do what’s necessary to improve my story and make it worthy of those elements that remain sound? You bet your ass I can.

I already have ideas that will allow me to correct much of what my agent found lacking, and I sense the stirrings of additional ideas that will overcome the other problems. I know I can do this. I’ve fixed flawed novels before. Nineteen times, to be exact.

I’m eager to repair this book because I do love elements of it so much. I want to see it in print. I want all of you to read it. And you’ll have that opportunity, because I have no intention of giving up on the project.

I’m a writer. This is what writers do. We write, we revise, we polish, we publish. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Keep writing. Enjoy the process, in all its frustrating, harrowing glory.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.

Quick-Tip Tuesday: More on Self-Editing

This is still the work of an inexperienced writer. Comparing The Outlanders to the work I’ve done more recently, I still cringe a little at the habits of that younger me. But I also see growth, a writer beginning to master elements of his profession.

And, to my surprise, I see as well things that I need to be reminded of today as I think about where I ought to go next with my career and my craft.

Today’s Quick-Tip Tuesday post at Magical Words again discusses my revisions of my first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle, and what I have learned from that younger version of myself. It’s not just a matter of correcting youthful mistakes; at times, I’m finding that I need to emulate more some of the things I used to do. Sounds interesting, right? Then read the post! You can find it here.

The Re-Release of My First Novel

To fans of the original, thank you for the support you’ve shown me over the years. I couldn’t be more grateful. To those coming to the series for the first time, welcome. I hope you enjoy reading these novels as much as I have enjoyed revisiting them.

Children of Amarid, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)Nineteen years ago, I realized my lifelong dream of becoming a published author of fantasy with the release from Tor Books of Children of Amarid. I followed that up with the second and third volumes of my LonTobyn Chronicle, The Outlanders and Eagle-Sage, books that would win me the Crawford Fantasy Award and establish me in the business.

I have always loved these books, and yet, as I’ve moved forward with my career, I’ve also been aware of their flaws. They were passionate and decently written, but they were also plagued by many of the problems endemic to first novels. For years, I’ve wanted to go back and edit them.

In 2005, they went out of print. Eventually, the rights to the books reverted to me, and at last I was able to revise them. This month, the long process of preparing the books for re-issue finally comes to fruition.

Children of Amarid, art work by Romas KukalisI’m delighted to announce that the Author’s Edit of Children of Amarid is now available from Lore Seekers Press in ebook format and trade paperback. The book bears the original art work by Romas Kukalis, as will the subsequent volumes, which we hope to publish in September and December respectively. I have not changed the story in any way. The plot twists, characters, world building, and magic system all remain as fans of the original novels will remember them. But the prose has been polished, made leaner and more concise. The result is a novel that reads as I wished it had all those years ago.

To fans of the original, thank you for the support you’ve shown me over the years. I couldn’t be more grateful. To those coming to the series for the first time, welcome. I hope you enjoy reading these novels as much as I have enjoyed revisiting them.

And finally, to those attending ConGregate in High Point, North Carolina next weekend, please come to the Friday night book launch. My book will be one of several feted that evening.

A Quick-Tip Tuesday Post on Self-Editing

I’ve noticed an incredible amount of extra verbiage in my early books — filler, if you will: superfluous words that add little to the storytelling, but clutter up my prose. For the wordiness-intolerant, these words are as unwelcome as, well, Wonder Bread at a luncheon for the gluten-adverse. How much is “an incredible amount”? In Children of Amarid, book I, I cut 20,000 words without touching plot, character, or setting.

It’s another Quick-Tip Tuesday over at the Magical Words blog site. Today’s post is about self-editing, and specifically finding ways to tighten up our prose. I’m editing my first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle, for re-release later this year, and I’m doing a LOT of cutting and tightening, so this is definitely on my mind right now. Find out what I’m thinking as I edit my work. You can read the post here.

Enjoy, and keep writing!