Million Dollar Instincts

I hate editing. I like it about as much as I like cleaning the bathroom, but it has to be done. Plus the end result is always so shiny and fresh. In this writing journey, there’s something to be said about trial and error. It’s a writer’s best friend.

In The Creative Writer’s Survival guide, author John McNally said “If you want to be a writer, you have to love sentences.” At the time, I scoffed at the thought. Who cares about sentences? It’s the story that matters. Fast forward twelve months later. Ask me the question again, do you love sentences?

YES. Along with paragraphs and clever phrases. I’ve come to love the craft of writing as much as the story. Reading new authors work, has opened my eyes to a new form of entertainment.

Good stories largely depend on the sum of its parts. Then there’s the often quoted rule, “The first chapter needs to hook your readers.” Guess what? Every chapter needs to hook your readers.

How does that knowledge translate to editing your own story? A good story shouldn’t just hook the reader from the beginning, if I can jump in at chapter eighteen and become engrossed, then I’m probably going to read the rest of the story.

As for tips on editing a story, it’s possible you already have a process that works for you, but you haven’t identified it yet.

I stumbled upon my editing process after a lot of research and a lot of error. I’ve tried scene and sequel outlining, flash cards, highlighting the hard copy. But there was one thing I always did, but didn’t label as editing. After I wrote a first draft I’d go back to the sentences or dialogue I was tickled pink about. I’d gush about how wonderful this piece was and dream about being on Oprah’s couch (this was when Oprah still had a couch). Unbeknownst to me, my sub-consciousness was signaling that this is the best part of the story.

Once you’ve identified the parts of your story that you love, then we come to EDITING. I know it’s a seven letter swear word, which I often procrastinate on (just ask my Scribophile groups). But editing doesn’t have to feel like nails on the chalkboard, if we let our instincts drive the process.

I used to do it instinctively, then I read a bunch of rule books that turned the process of editing into a Nightmare on Elm St. But now I’m starting to realize the process doesn’t have to be that hard.

Here’s my own step by step process for editing.

  1. Map your chapters

Drop the paper bag and quit hyperventilating. I know it sounds super complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. My map is a simple excel sheet. I put the chapter, the word count and a brief description of what happened in the chapter. It’s usually one or two sentences.

Don’t skip this step. I know it seems tempting, but this is a crucial part of the process. After you’re done with your first draft you’re going to need a map of your chapters. It’s easy to think you can keep all of the details of your story in your head, but unless you’ve got a photographic memory, I suspect you won’t remember everything.

I don’t want you to end up like me, taking two years to edit a story. That’s not a pretty picture. Especially when the relatives start asking you, if you’ve wrote any new novels lately.

  1. Go to your happy place.

It’s fun to edit the stuff you’re in love with, so start there.

Peanut Gallery: But we need to start from the beginning…

Sure that’s one way to do it, but it’s guaranteed to stuff you full  of anxiety. Next thing you know April has turned into August and you still haven’t edited that thirty-five hundred word short.

  1. List the happy places.

By now the parts you love are saying what you envisioned. You’ve described their hair color, given them some clothes, changed their names, cause they sounded like brother and sister at one point (we’re writing romances, people).

Make a list of all the chapters or scenes you like. This step is crucial. Once you know what you like, getting those ugly stepsister chapters into shape will feel easier.

If you’ve mapped your chapters, you can mark the ones you liked.

  1. Identify the happy

So what is it about these chapters that make you dream of being on the New York Times Bestsellers list?

You might look at your map and notice some trends. Do the chapters you like, have shorter word counts? It might mean the action was quicker there. Now you’ve got your first clue: pick up the pace.

  1. Talk to the stepsisters

Once you’ve identified what you like about your happy places, it’s time to make a list of the chapters you don’t like. The ones that make you shut the computer down and confirm “being a novelist isn’t going to happen.” Or if you’re like me, you look at the computer and say, “Someone’s been playing around on my laptop. Who wrote this?”

Peanut Gallery: Now that we know which chapters need work, can we start from page one and edit this story?

Nope. Follow your instincts. Often times you’ll have solutions for random chapters, if you force yourself to edit in a linear fashion, it becomes a chore again. Let your instincts guide you. Pick the ones that have crystal-clear solutions and work your way down to the ones that you don’t have a clue how to fix. By the time you get to the hard ones, your instincts will most likely have a plan mapped out for you.

Your killer instincts are the ones that started the story, and they should be the ones to finish it.

About The Author

E.M. Youman is a freelance writer from Oakland, CA. Some of her short stories have been published by Black Cat Press, S/tick Magazine and IFF. When she’s not writing fiction, E.M. Youman, works at an independent record label and runs a music blog. She has a B.A. and Master in Communication and is currently working on her first romance novel.

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