The Book That Ruined My Life

Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King

The post title might be a teensy bit melodramatic, but I wish it were more for effect than it is. I’ll try to briefly explain. If you have written a book and not yet been published, or you self published, please stick with me. Learn from my pain, I beg of you.

What Happened

I finished the first draft of my novel at the end of last September. I sent it to my first round of beta readers and immediately started on book two. The book two draft was done in January, and I’m almost done with three. All of these novels are in the hands of at least one beta reader, and the first one has now been read by about ten people.

With each new reader, I’ve received helpful feedback, which I’ve implemented. I also hired a friend who was an English major to help me whip my grammar into shape. I read Yagoda’s and Strunk and White’s style manuals and spent weeks hunting down adverbs and killing them.

I really felt like the manuscript for the first novel, at least, was in good shape. I wrote an agent query letter that I felt confident about and thought in a week or two I would have the novel polished enough to send it.

This week at the library, I was perusing the 808 section to see if there were any other writing books I might like to read. Since I’m revising, I went ahead and checked out Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I thought there might be a couple of things I might have missed, which I could fix quickly before I sent out my manuscript at the end of July.

I read it in less than 24 hours, and then I really wanted to go have a good cry. The book had driven home a very humbling fact:  for all the efforts of the previous months, my writing was still amateurish. I realized my manuscript was nowhere close to being ready to send out. I needed to do extensive rewrites–like line-by-line, might be just as easy to start with a fresh Word document, kind of rewriting.

The Problem

My novel has multiple problems, but that’s not the problem. I’ve read extensively about new authors and the common mistakes they make. One that I’ve heard repeatedly is that new authors often think they are the exception.

Exception to what? You name it:  rejection, the time and effort it takes to be successful, that their first drafts are crap, etc. I read this numerous times and thought, “Well, that’s dumb. Why would anyone think that way?”  Even while I was thinking this to myself, another part of me was thinking, “But my first draft is pretty good. I have some stuff to fix, but my betas like it.”

Wrong. My first draft was crap. Did it have a lot of potential? Yes. Did it have the makings of a great story with interesting characters? Yes. Was it still crap? Absolutely. Was I an exception? Nope.

I needed to assume that I was like every other newbie author and  that I was going to make every newbie author mistake. If I think I know what I’m doing, I probably don’t. However, if I assume I’m an idiot and research everything, I might get this right.

My Secondary Problem

After my biggest problem dawned on me, I realized I had a second one that had contributed to the first. Who was I getting my information from? When making decisions on how to edit, whose advice had I taken?

My readers’, which is fine–I needed that. Then I had consulted other writers, both those just starting out and the books of those who had been in the game a long time. Again, this probably didn’t hurt.

Plus, I had my English major friend, right? She was great for grammar, but she had never edited fiction before, only academic work, and that’s a whole different ballgame.

So whose expertise hadn’t I consulted about editing fiction? A fiction editor. Sure, I’d read On Writing. Who hasn’t heard of Stephen King? Have you heard of Browne & King? No. Well, let me tell you about them.

Renni Browne and Dave King are both professional editors of fiction whose combined years in editing exceed my age. They wrote a book that chapter by chapter, page by page ruined me. They opened my eyes to the problem, but they also told me how to fix it.

I hope one day I can meet them. No, not to punch them, no matter tempting that was a couple days ago. I want to thank them for challenging me to be a better writer.

Buy the book. Read it. Cry. Revise.

My Seven Deadly Stylistic Sins

Seven Stylistic Sins

When I first started writing fiction, I didn’t understand why authors often only publish a book a year, two if they’re prolific. Several of my favorite authors publish even more infrequently than that, much to my chagrin. I can write a first draft in three months easily. What takes so long?

I started revisions. Now I understand.

Editing is taking FOR-EVE-R. Okay, it’s been six weeks, but it feels like an eternity. Part of the problem is that I have made a lot of common newbie errors that aren’t just in a scene or two, they’re pervasive. In hopes that I might save others from my revision torture, I thought I’d list the top seven mistakes that have sucked up the most time.

  1.  Seem/Appear/Suppose/Guess. I seem to appear very wishy-washy when writing. I guess my characters should just do things instead of seeming to do things, I suppose. Yuck!
  2. There is/There are. Starting a sentence with these words isn’t grammatically wrong, but it isn’t precise or interesting, either.
  3. “It” as subject. You can use “it” as the subject and be perfectly fine, but often when I do, my “it” is very vague. For example, I had a few different variations of this sentence:  “It was getting dark.”  Twice I meant the sun was setting, once I was referring to the lighting in a room, and another time a character was blacking out. My “it” was so vague as to make the situation unclear.
  4. Pet phrases. I know I’m not supposed to use clichés, but there were certain phrases I used often enough that they got just as annoying. I didn’t notice them while writing, but when rereading my chapters over and over, they began to make themselves known. I think I used the phrase, “for a moment” at least once a chapter. I’ve started keeping a list of my pet phrases, so I can do a search for them.
  5. Telling with dialogue. My problem wasn’t so much with the dialogue itself as the mess I caused around it. For example, I knew I wasn’t supposed to write:  “Surrender or I’ll shoot!” the hero said menacingly. Menacingly is an adverb, and those are no-no’s. Instead, I’d write something like:  “Surrender or I’ll shoot!” the hero yelled. He shot the villain a look that was menacing. The second attempt is not any better than the first. I’m still telling you the hero is menacing without showing you the menace. As I’m editing, I have to change the line to read more like this:  “Surrender or I’ll shoot!”  The hero leveled the revolver to the villain’s chest and cocked the hammer.
  6. Preposition party. Prepositions are like rabbits for me. If I put two together in a sentence, before I know it, I’ve got three or four. I had one sentence with six. To say that things got ambiguous and hard to follow was an understatement. I’m trying to limit myself to two a sentence.
  7. Qualifiers, intensifiers, and other words that don’t add much. I had to spend four hours just on “just.”  Put this list of words into your Find command and squash them dead. Most of the time a simple delete was all that was needed, no sentence reworking necessary. Pretty, somewhat, a little, kind of, kinda, sort of, rather, arguably, slightly, very, extremely, really, completely, totally, absolutely, unbelievably, remarkably, literally (you probably used this one wrong anyway), particular, personally, frankly, to tell the truth, I’m not going to lie, actually, just, only, simply

What else should I be looking for?  Is there something you do repeatedly?  As much as I hate to drag out the revision process, I also want to do it right.  What’s your best editing advice?

Questions to Ask While Revising

Book cover of James Scott Bell's Plot and Structure

James Scott Bell’s book Plot and Structure has some useful information, but I would rank this one as more of library loan instead of a must own. Plot and pacing come more naturally to me.  Description and setting are generally my problems, so I ended up doing a lot of skimming. However, I did find the chapter about revision to be very helpful.  Here are some of the questions JSB suggests mulling over while editing:

Questions About Your Lead Character

  • Is the LC memorable? Compelling? Enough to carry a reader all the way through the plot?
  • Does this character avoid clichés? Is he capable of surprising us? What’s unique about the character?
  • Is the character’s objective strong enough?
  • How does the character grow over the course of the story?
  • How does the character demonstrate inner strength?

Questions About Your Opposition

  • Is your opposing character interesting?
  • Is he fully realized, not just a cardboard cutout?
  • Is he justified (at least in his own mind) in his actions?
  • Is he believable?
  • Is he as strong as or stronger than the Lead?

Questions About Your Story’s Adhesive Nature

  • Is the conflict between the Lead and opposition crucial for both?
  • Why can’t they just walk away? What holds them together?

Questions About Your Scenes

  • Are the big scenes big enough? Surprising enough? Can you make them more original, unanticipated, and draw them out for all they are worth?
  • Is there enough conflict in the scenes?
  • What is the least memorable scene? Cut it! Now we have a new “least memorable scene.” Consider cutting it, too.
  • What else can be cut in order to move the story relentlessly forward?
  • Does the climactic scene come to fast (through writer fatigue to finish)? Can you make it more, write it for all it’s worth? Set a ticking clock?
  • Do we need a new minor subplot to building up a sagging midsection? Do you need to cut a subplot to clarify a tangle of melodrama?

Questions About Your Minor Characters

  • What is their purpose in the plot?
  • Are they unique and colorful?

Ten Tips from Stephen King’s On Writing

I mentioned in one of my first posts that I’ve been reading a lot of books on writing and publishing that I hoped to put together into a separate writer’s resource page. That will still happen.  However, as I’ve been reading and taking copious notes, I decided I wanted to do more than just give a list of helpful books. I decided to do a series of blog posts that summarize some of the best advice and try to let you know if it’s worth reading the whole book.


The first up is Stephen King’s On Writing. I have to confess the only Stephen King I’d read up until this point was his column in Entertainment Weekly, which I miss greatly. I don’t know what his horror is like, but the man’s nonfiction is funny!

This book had been referenced in multiple other writers’ resources and on countless blogs, so I thought it was probably worth a look. On Writing has been out for thirteen years and my county library has five copies. I can’t renew it because there are two people on the waiting list.  Yes, it’s that good.  The book is half memoir and half practical writing advice, but all of it is fabulous. At the very least, put it on your must read list, but it might be one worth owning.  Until you can get around to it, here are what I thought were the ten best tips.

1. “If you write, someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.” This is not a practical tip of the craft, but an important life lesson King illustrated with a childhood story about a teacher that disapproved of his subject matter. Perhaps you aspire to write great literary fiction that wins Pulitzers, but I just want to write fantasy that entertains people. King writes what I have felt after receiving similar criticism for simply wanting to write in a genre that wasn’t considered high brow enough, “. . . in my heart I stayed ashamed. I kept hearing Miss Hisler asking why I wanted to waste my talent, why I wanted to waste my time, why I wanted to write junk.”

2. Perseverance. This is not something King specifically mentions, but you can’t read about his early years and not realize this was part of why he succeeded. He used to hang his rejection slips for his short stories on a nail. Eventually he had to switch to a spike to hold them all up. The first novel he ever sold, Carrie, was actually the fourth novel he had written, and he wrote it while holding down two jobs and helping his wife raise two small children.

3. “The road to hell is paved with adverbs. King seems to hate this part of speech in general, but he’s particularly against it in dialogue. For example:

“Put it down!” she shouted menacingly.

I winced as I read because I do this all the time. I thought I had a solution to the problem, and then I read, “Some writers try to evade the no-adverb rule by shooting the attribution verb full of steroids.” For instance:

“Never stop kissing me!” Shayna gasped.

Well crap. Now I’m in trouble. King’s point is you should have written the scene well enough via showing not telling that the adverbs and super verbs are unnecessary. A simple “she said” should do the trick. I had a beta reader tell me this already, but I was trying to ignore what I knew was excellent advice because it would mean a lot of revising. Dang it, now I’m going to have to do it.

4. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others:  read a lot and write a lot.” This piece of advice has been quoted in numerous other books, and it was a relief to me. I felt like the time I spent reading was time I stole directly from writing. King counts it as part of his daily working routine. That’s right, it’s work time. It doesn’t all have to be War and Peace, either. Read what you like, and often you can learn just as much from the terrible books as the good ones. If what you read just made you go “blech!” make sure you don’t do that yourself. Don’t neglect the second piece of advice, either. King says as a new writer you should have a goal of at least a thousand words a day and write six days a week. He reads about eighty books a year and writes two thousand words a day, seven days a week (even on Christmas and his birthday).

5.  You need a door. Your writing space doesn’t have to be fancy, and it doesn’t have to be absolutely silent if you work better with music, but it must have a door. You must close it. I write in a comfy chair in our living room. This space is rife with interruptions, and I keep telling myself I need to move to an empty bedroom upstairs. I haven’t done it, and if I’m honest about why, it’s because I kind of like the interruptions.

6. “What are you going to write about? Anything at all . . . as long as you tell the truth.” King talks about this at length and what it means, but the part about being true to what you want to write was particularly spot on:

“If you happen to be a science fiction fan, it’s natural that you should want to write science fiction . . . If you’re a mystery fan, you’ll want to write mysteries, and if you enjoy romances, it’s natural for you to want to write romances of your own. There’s nothing wrong with writing any of these things. What would be very wrong, I think, is to turn away from what you know and like . . . in favor of things you believe will impress your friends, relatives, and writing-circle colleagues. What’s equally wrong is the deliberate turning towards some genre or type of fiction in order to make money. It’s morally wonky, for one thing—the job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies, not to commit intellectual dishonesty in the hunt for the buck. Also brothers and sisters, it doesn’t work.”

7. “In real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character.” King reminds us that no one thinks of themselves as “the bad guy” or “the best friend” or the “whore with the heart of gold.” If we stop thinking of our characters in this way, we’re less likely to get “the one-dimensional dopes that populate so much pop fiction.”

8. “The first draft . . . should be written with no help (or interference) from anyone else.” This forces you to focus on telling the story, not fixing things based on criticism or slacking off if you get too much praise. It also helps keep the momentum going while you’re excited about what you’re writing. I’m not sure how I feel about this one. I’ve always had at least one beta reader giving me feedback as I write each new chapter. I’m willing to give it a try, though, and see how it’s different.

9. Let the first draft rest for at least six weeks. That’s right, six weeks. No rereading yourself, and if you give it to beta readers, they have to keep their comments to themselves for those six weeks. Start on your next project and don’t think about the old one at all. Once you’ve got six weeks between you and the initial frenzy of writing, you can go back and start revising for your second draft. You can be a lot more objective this way.

10. Second draft = First draft – 10%. King got this piece of advice written on one of his early rejection slips. He still adheres to it religiously. “What the formula taught me is that every story and novel is collapsible to some degree. If you can’t get out ten per cent of it while retaining the basic story and flavor, you’re not trying very hard.” I’d have to agree. In my own editing, I’ve found most of what makes my writing sound better is Strunk and White’s mantra, “Omit needless words!

Up Next:  Ten Tips from How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card