How to be your own best editor: Part II

This is the second post about how I prepared my manuscript, Maids of Misfortune, for self-publication. In the first post I outlined the steps I took to develop the skills necessary to be my own best editor.

As I look back at this previous post I feel it is only fair to mention that those editing skills were already fairly well developed–as a result of getting a doctorate in history that required numerous rewritings of a 400 page dissertation and over thirty years of correcting student’s essays.

This post will look at the steps I took next to replace the editorial input I would have gotten if my manuscript had been accepted by a traditional publishing house. See earlier posts on Why I Decided to Self-Publish for why I didn’t submit the manuscript to an agent or the editor of a small press at this point.

It was June of 2009. I had a manuscript that had, over the years, been written and rewritten, as well as read and commented on by my writers group and a number of agents and editors. It was time for me to do the job of a developmental editor.

“A developmental editor works with a writer to improve the basic concept of the book, the way it’s focused and structured, the style and attitude of the narrative voice, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. In a non-fiction book they’ll help clarify and organize the ideas and information. In a novel, they’ll work on the plot, characterizations, dialogue, visual description, and literary style. It’s important to distinguish developmental editors from copy editors, who take a manuscript that has already been developed and correct the spelling, grammar, punctuation, and in some cases fact-checking.” AlanRinzler in Choosing a freelance editor

With all the rules of writing now refreshed in my memory, and all the comments that previous readers of the manuscript had made in front of me, as my own best editor I determined that I had four main tasks.

  1. Shorten the manuscript.
  2. Undo the effects of an earlier rewrite.
  3. Improve the romantic tension between the main protagonists
  4. Increase suspense. (library scene, each chapter end with hook, and better development of red herrings)

Task One: Shorten the manuscript

My manuscript was 119,000 words long at this point, and I knew from my reading about writing and my critical look at my favorite mysteries that this was too long for my particular genre (historical mystery in the cozy style.) Therefore, one of the major editing tasks I had was to shorten the manuscript.

As anyone who has bothered to read any of my blog posts knows-I am a wordy writer. I remember one of the first comments a reader of an earlier version of the manuscript made was that it sounded like something written in the nineteenth century. Not surprising, considering I spent nearly four years reading nineteenth century primary sources for my dissertation. I didn’t want to lose that flavor. I had, after all, written a novel set in 1879 San Francisco. But I knew that modern readers of mysteries expect a certain briskness to their narratives.

I first outlined the book I had written, breaking it up into 10 acts. For each act, I listed the existing chapters with brief descriptions of the action in each scene. I found that my acts ranged from 20 pages to 38 each, and my chapters ranged from 3 pages to 10 pages. My goal became to make the chapters more uniform in length and shorter over all.

In some cases this meant dividing chapters up when there was a logical break. In other cases I simply deleted large swaths of text (cutting out whole scenes or sections of dialog if they didn’t further the action). I also ruthlessly pruned historical detail if I felt it was there for no other reason beyond a desire to prove my historical expertise. (I hope to write a whole post on this in the future.)

I then went through each chapter, line by line, looking for unnecessary words. “I have a tendency to use the dreaded adverb,” the author ruefully admits. By the end most of my chapters were (in traditional manuscript formatting) 3-5 pages long and I had shortened the manuscript to 107,000 words. I had successfully gotten rid of 12,000 words or 9.9% of the manuscript. This was gratifyingly close the 10% that Stephen King, in his book, On Writing, recommends cutting when rewriting a draft.

Task Two: Undo an earlier rewrite

My first task was made more difficult by my second. In 2004, an agent who was considering my book asked me to rewrite the novel (written in the third person) by shifting from the dual perspectives of my primary protagonist, Annie Fuller, and my secondary protagonist, Nate Dawson, to the single perspective of Annie Fuller. (The details of this can be found in my post Why I Decided to Self-Publish: Taken for a Ride).

I had always felt that this change slowed down the pace of the narrative and weakened the development of the relationship between the two characters (see tasks number three and four!) I knew I wanted to go back to the multiple perspectives in my new version. However, this entailed not just rewriting two chapters but writing four entirely new chapters from Nate’s point of view–lengthening not shortening the overall word count.

However, as I hoped, when I no longer had to have Nate tell Annie in detail about all the things he had witnessed or observed or said it enlivened the dialog between them considerably.

This also helped me in my third task.

Task Three: Improve the romantic tension between the two protagonists

Maids of Misfortune is rooted in two distinct romantic traditions. The first is the tradition that can be found in the Harriet Vane-Peter Wimsey novels by Dorothy Sayers, where two protagonists develop a romantic attachment as they solve a series of crimes-often over several books. The second tradition comes from the light, romantic comedy of Georgette Heyer’s regency romances. I found that it is not always easy to meld these two traditions. Some of my first beta readers felt that there was altogether too much romance for a mystery novel, while others felt that there was not enough sex for a romance novel. I knew that my novel was first and foremost a mystery, and so one of my tasks in this final edit was to ensure that the developing romance didn’t take away from the tension of the mystery.

Yet, I also wanted those readers who liked romance to feel completely satisfied by the romantic arc of the story, and I wanted them to be invested in finding out what happened to the two protagonists in subsequent books. To this end I adhered to the old adage, less is more.

I had liberally used one of the standard devices for creating romantic tension- a series of arguments between the hero and heroine. But one of my most thoughtful readers had pointed out that there was a kind of repetitive nature to these arguments. I now went through these scenes, one by one, cutting out any scene or even bit of dialog that repeated points that one of the characters had made in an earlier scene. This permitted the nature of the relationship between the two protagonists to build and deepen, not repeat. It also removed a few more words from the total!

Additionally, I worked to make the sexual tension that underlay the romance more subtle, again—less is more. This required rewriting anything that felt like a romantic cliché-but also remaining true to the historical period (late Victorian) where the early dance of courtship within the middle classes was characterized by restraint, not excess.

Task Four: Increase suspense

The editing I did to achieve my first tasks went a long way to helping me achieve this last one.

The new shorter chapters, tighter dialog, and sparer language kept up the pace, which in turn increased the tension.

I also paid attention to comments from my writer’s group that the series of scenes where my protagonist snuck around a house at night were oddly lacking in suspense. I discovered that the whole time she was snooping, I had her ruminating about her feelings and speculating about things that had happened earlier in the day. Ho hum! I rewrote these scenes to focus on the present, describing what she saw, smelled, and heard while she was groping about in the dark, which produced a much greater sense of danger.

Finally, I checked every chapter ending, looking for ways to hook the reader into turning the page to the next chapter. I was amazed how often I had undercut what was a perfectly good chapter climax with some extraneous bit of dialog or action. Gleefully, I cut some more words from my total count, while ratcheting up the suspense.

One of the most consistent compliments I have gotten from people who have read the published book is how fast paced and exciting it is to read.

Conclusion:

When I was done editing Maids of Misfortune, for the first time in its long history, I was confident that it was as well-written as any mystery produced through the traditional publishing process. Now I just had to make sure it was sufficiently copy edited, so that minor errors (although found ever more frequently in traditionally published books) wouldn’t cause a reader to feel it had been unprofessionally produced. But copyediting, I knew, would require more than a single eye, and I assembled my own editorial board to provide this function. This will be the subject of my final post on being my own best editor.


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