Hi All: As promised, I’ve now got the answers to a number of questions that you all submitted to Renni Browne by posting comments on this blog a few days ago.
As most novelists know, Renni Browne is the co-author of “Self-Editing For Fiction Writers,” which is the bible of self-editing for fiction writers. If there is any book that is required reading for a novelist, this is it. Renni is all the founder of The Editorial Department, a renowned team of freelance editors. Check them out to see the company that defines great editing.
Let’s look at a few of the questions you submitted.
It seems craft is like peeling the proverbial onion, always more to learn. How do I know when to quit revising?
Renni answered: Oh, dear. The answer to this one depends so much on your level of confidence. I can say that many writers get to an Aha! By which I mean, a stage where they have a feeling–however shaky, however fleeting–“This is good, this is what I was trying for.” If you get that feeling upon reading a heavily revised draft, stop messing with it. Also, professional feedback at this point can be invaluable.
Randy adds: There are two kinds of writers who have this sort of feeling–Freshmen and Seniors. It goes without saying that Freshmen who get this feeling are delusional. It’s a sweet delusion, of course. I remember thinking my writing was brilliant, Pulitzer-ready, staggering-genius work when I was a Freshman. It turned out to be crap, and I’ve never had that feeling again, but it was nice while it lasted.
Now Seniors will get a similar feeling, but it’s a bit more mature. It’s the feeling you get when you’ve hit a thousand baseballs and you whack one especially well, and you know even before you see it fly over the fence that you’ve parked this one, baby. It’s an intuition, and it comes from experience. Be aware that Seniors can also be delusional, but about half the time, they’re not. Hence the need to get a second opinion.
I love, love, love “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.” One area the book doesn’t cover, though, (and which I’d love to hear more about from Ms. Browne) is macro-editing. Are there any techniques or tips for large-scale novel editing? Tangled plots? Weak characters? Broken structure? I can really dig into scene-by-scene editing, but big-picture editing is a nightmare. I have a few novel-length manuscripts languishing on my hard drive because I don’t know how to tackle the large-scale editing needed to make them work.
Renni answered: Most writers don’t find books all that helpful in this area. What helps is feedback, and — it has to be said — by all means get professional feedback if you can afford it. At The Editorial Department we’ve been critiquing plot, characters, and style for $2.00 a page, making specific suggestions in all these areas, since I founded the company 27 years ago. If you can’t go this route, you may get lucky with a teacher, a writer, even a friend who reads a lot of fiction and is willing to tell you the truth as opposed to what you want to hear. Nonprofessional feedback is risky, though. Professional feedback is sought by very good writers (many of them published) for the most elemental of reasons: Your book is your child, and who among us can be 100% objective about our children? As an editor for T.E.D. I’m not doing anything different from what I did when I was an editor at Scribner’s or Stein & Day or Morrow in the 60’s or 70’s. But publishing house editors (with very rare exceptons) don’t do what I do any more. Manuscripts that need editing–which is virtually all manuscripts, especially first novels–just get rejected. And they don’t get rejected by the publishing editors, who never get to see them, they get rejected by the literary agents writers approach, knowing that publishing editors won’t read them unless they’re agented.
Randy adds: The first time I hired a freelance editor to work over my manuscript, I thought I couldn’t afford it. (This was my third published novel, so I had written my first couple and edited them with only the help from the publishing editors.) But what I discovered is that freelance editors are gold. I learned an amazing amount by reading those hundreds and hundreds of detailed comments from my freelancer. Since then, I’ve worked with freelance editors on virtually every book I’ve done. And a lot of my published novelist friends do the same.
Having said that, I’ll also say that on the macro-editing, I still get a lot of bang for my buck by using the Snowflake method to solve the structural problems. It is not unusual for me to revise my Snowflake through about four versions before and during the first draft of a novel. Then when I’ve run it past my freelance editor, I’ll tweak the Snowflake up again before I do any revisions. And after my publishing editor has given me comments, the first thing I do is revise the Snowflake again. (It’s much easier to revise a 40 page Snowflake document than a 400 page manuscript.)
We’ll continue tomorrow with more questions and more answers. See ya then!
ML Eqatin says
I just bought Self Editing for Writers and am reading it. Renni is very concise. Ditto the ‘you can’t see your own errors’ line. I don’t think my method is duplicatable, here it is: I have 6 friends (plus the invaluable, easily-bored spouse) who give me blunt and brutal feedback. One is a lady I used to write grant proposals with. She’s really hard. One is a bookseller. Ditto, but when I read her comments, I have to remember that she will enjoy stuff too complex for the market. One is a librarian/ESL teacher. One is a technical writer who specializes in curriculum. My picky-picky 1930’s university grad English/history major Mom. (She delights in finding what’s wrong with my stuff, God Bless her.)
I use some of these as I write, and some for the finished drafts when ‘virgin eyes’ are needed.
The secret? Old, steady friendships where lots of give-and-take has already happened, and an eagerness on my part to hear about what they didn’t like. That’s the biggie– you have to really want to know what turned them off, and they have to know you want to know. If you can’t find that in your ‘free’ editors, then pay for it.
I hate to say it, but my critique group was almost useless. They liked everything I did.
So if you don’t want to invest money, but you have spent years investing in people who would be helpful in this area, call in your debts. One warning: if your writing is a misery to read, you’ll use up your ‘friendship capital’ pretty fast.
Paul D says
I am very picky about what books I buy because I don’t have a lot of money, so I borrow as many books as I can from the library to see how useful they are. I was only partially through Self-Editing for Fiction Writers when I knew it was a keeper. I’d also highly recommend all books from Noah Lukeman.
$2.00 x 490 pages? Pass the smelling salts!
Sheila Deeth says
I’d never thought about the difference between micro and macro editing. I was really quite pleased with the first draft of my first novel, and have micro-edited it a couple of times to improve it. But editing my second novel is going so much more slowly.
I followed your link to the snowflake (oh I loved that! Brought back such happy memories of teaching the snowflake curve to ten-year-olds in England). Thanks for helping me realize I’m doing something different this time, and it’s okay to take a different (or even a snowflake) approach.
Is that $2.00 a page for double-spaced or single spaced pages?
I’ve also heard advice saying not to get a professional editor because most books sell 500 copies or less. What’s your take on this opinion?
Mary E. DeMuth says
That’s where I’m at: the overall developmental edit of my next book. My guess is that SOTP (Seat of the Pants) writers like me get more comments about developmental issues than plotters, though this time around my issues centered around adding subtlety. That’s a tricky one, and I’m struggling with how exactly I add (or maybe better put…subtract) to create subtlety.
Trailing Mary’s heels on subtlety: When I read Noah Lukeman’s First Five Pages, the chapter on subtletly jumped out at me. Subtley, of course.
It’s fascinating to me to learn about this. As a reader, I’m so proud of myself when I figure the theme in a story, the more intricate, the better, and just for fun – us INTJ’s just love analyzing things – I try to see if I can articulate the theme of a book in a one sentence summary. That’s a way cool party trick.
It’s hard to gauge what the reader will pick up on though. As I attempt to pull out the patronizingly obvious stuff, I wonder if I leave out so much that it doesn’t make sense???
When I pinpointed the theme that ties my current plot and subplots together, in my notes to self, just below the theme at the top, I have in bold caps DON’T SPELL IT OUT. I need the constant reminder.
I’d like my readers to feel like they traveled and arrived at the destination, the theme, on their own. I know some readers never think twice, never get it…just as long as they got a good laugh or cry over the story. But for the ones who do try to pull out the meaning, I want them to figure it out, for their own sense of satisfaction as well as my own.
I echo Camille’s thoughts here, but also add a question.
I’ve read from some author’s quote that subtlty is not a thing that can be added in at all but has to be there from the start. This baffles me, because in sucessive drafts, I go from A) melodramatic drivel to B) emotionally honed action to C) tight, lean, and–somehow–subtle. But I can’t get to C without the learning of who the characters are in between and therefore being able to ADD that layer of subtlety. It often wasn’t even in the picture when I first started, or only in subconscious clues.
So can subtlty truly never be added? Or is that a bunch of hogwash?