When I finish my first draft, the first thing I do (after a gin and tonic!) is to print it out and put it in a folder ready for my first self-edit.
I go through the book line by line and work on structure, as well as character, plot and setting. After that is sorted, I will look at word choice and dialogue. Essentially, self-editing is a huge part of the writing process.
In today's article, Keirsten Clark gives some tips for self-editing essentials.
Every story needs a solid foundation, from there you can build upwards, tweak, pivot and rearrange. Without a solid foundation walls can become unstable, floors can shift and subside and vital pieces of the structure can fall down into places they’re not supposed to. The same can apply to our writing.
A solid foundation is one of the first things our editors look for as soon as they open a manuscript.
This helps them determine how much work needs to be done and how much more attention and care the manuscript will need to make it solid.
This article covers the essential underpinning of your foundation and how to address any potential issues you may have with it.
1. An Opening Chapter That Hooks and Engages
The opening chapter of any novel must work incredibly hard. We refer to this as the Hook and Engage stage. There are several aspects to the ‘hook and engage’ stage that once nailed will get your book off to a good start.
Open your novel with an effective hook
After the back-cover blurb and Amazon reviews, the opening chapter is the next thing an undecided but potential reader will look at – whether it is through Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ function, browsing in a bookshop, or as part of a free-chapter promotional giveaway.
This is your chance to hook the reader and engage them from the moment they start flicking through pages.
The Mid-Action Hook
The ‘mid-action’ start applies to both action-packed and quieter novels and doesn’t always mean mid-explosion or at gunpoint. It can mean mid-episode of something pivotal in the novel.
Starting mid-action is a great way to set the pace of a novel, however, and this particularly refers to a more action-packed novel, this must be used with care.
High octane action with very little context or knowledge of what is at stake or a connection to the characters may not always have the impact you want it to. Give the reader an exciting or enthralling mid-action start, but make it short and with impact. Then move quickly on to setting the scene and building a relationship with the reader.
The Dialogue Hook
This is controversial – we’re not saying it’s wrong and there are many instances where it has worked, but to make it work you have to play it very carefully. A lengthy two-way conversation where the reader doesn’t know the characters and doesn’t yet care about them can be very risky.
One leading line of dialogue or a snippet of conversation that sets the scene with dramatic impact can do really well, but, a lengthy two-way conversation, where the reader has to keep up and try to work out what is going on, can be frustrating.
Keep it short, but keep it loaded. Hint at things to come or throw an unsettling light on the opening that things may not be as they seem.
The Intrigue or Scene Setting Hook
Intrigue and mystery go a long way at the start of the book. A mysterious setting, an unusual situation, foreshadowing and a hint of things to come can all make the reader want to keep reading to find out more. The strength in these openings is what is implied and what is unsaid.
Have the confidence that your reader will pick up on your inferences and hints. Sometimes the greatest writing can come from what isn’t written.
Engage the reader at the earliest opportunity
Establish a Feeling of Place and Time
Set the tone of the novel and give the reader context to enable them to place the action in a place and in a time.
- Is it historical fiction set in the countryside, or is it gritty urban fantasy set in the present day?
- Can the reader tell this through description, style of dialogue, or the tone of the writing?
- Is it pacey, nostalgic or urban?
Set the stage for a journey that the reader will want to go on and move clearly forward in that direction.
Give the Reader High Stakes and Big Consequences
Fit the stakes and the consequences to the journey your protagonist is about to embark upon. Hint at an exciting end goal that the reader wants to move towards with the story. Hint at obstacles that will hinder progress towards this end goal whilst increasing tensions.
Set the Scene for Conflict
A good story is woven together with tension and conflict. It doesn’t have to be high octane tension and conflict – that all depends upon what is at stake and what the consequences are. Both internal and external conflict help the reader identify with and understand the protagonist or a situation they face.
Keep it balanced. If the conflict outweighs what the reader feels about the protagonist so far then you may be expecting too much from them too early on. Too much conflict and the reader will feel frustrated and disconnected.
Give the Reader a Character They Can Relate to or Understand
Whilst it is still early in the journey with the protagonist, the reader needs to feel that although they may not know the character, they want to go on a journey with them.
That doesn’t always mean they have to be likeable.
The reader must understand their motivations, be curious about their journey or want to see more of who they become. The reader will start to care about the consequences they face and become invested in the story.
2. An Impressive Writing Style
Good writing is essential for a writer. But it sometimes surprises people that it doesn’t mean that you should use long words and laboured or flowery writing. In fact, sometimes less is more – the simpler the better. But there are two key areas that indicate a writer’s skill when it comes to their craft.
The art of ‘show don’t tell’
‘Show Don’t Tell’ is one of those phrases that has been repeated so many times that it has become clichéd. But, it is still a big problem for many writers.
The very essence of ‘Show Don’t Tell’ is ‘showing’ the reader what is happening by allowing the events to unfold in front of them rather than ‘telling’ them in a form of second-hand narrative summary.
Show the reader the details of the scene as it happens, place them in the midst of it all and allow them to see with their own eyes and draw their own conclusions.
We are not saying that you should always be ‘showing’. There absolutely are times when it is more appropriate to ‘tell’, but start to recognise those scenes where it is key to pull the reader in and get them experiencing the scene with the characters. Give them smells, textures, a close-up on actions – hands shaking, beads of perspiration – things that you would only know about if you were really there.
Convincing dialogue doesn’t just mean correct punctuation and formatting (although that does help), it also means avoiding some of the traps writers fall into such as clichés and idiot speech (speech used unnaturally as an info dump just to get a message across to the reader).
Dialogue in fiction should have a purpose. In its very simplest form dialogue helps to create tension – one person wants one thing, another wants something else.
Tension is key when writing dialogue but that doesn’t mean it should be loaded with tense moments. That means it should ebb and flow, peak and trough, and it should help to vary rhythm and pace. Intersperse dialogue with action to help break and hold tension where it is needed.
3. Forward Momentum and Pace
Every protagonist must have a clear end goal. Whether it is a physical action-packed goal, an emotional goal or a journey of character development, the protagonist must be working towards something – whether consciously or known only to the writer.
This is where writing with intention and purpose comes in. Every word you write, every piece of narrative or dialogue, every event must in some way contribute, either directly or indirectly to moving towards this goal. The feeling of forward momentum comes from a purposeful plot with very little digression from its path.
Pace tends to refer to the speed and rhythm through which the novel is moving towards its conclusion. Pace carries the novel forward, but it shouldn’t be at a constant breakneck speed, nor should it move at a snail’s place.
There should be variation in pace throughout and that means there should be faster-paced episodes interspersed with quieter episodes. Dialogue should break up lengthy narrative and a sagging, slow middle should be avoided by remaining focused on the end goal.
4. The Right Amount of Character Backstory
The inclusion of too much character backstory can alter pace and flow. Backstory is a tool for the writer rather than an essential part of the book for the reader.
Knowing your characters inside and out, including their history and their ‘why’ is key for the writer, but this inside knowledge alone will help to shape your characters through your writing and doesn’t need to be explained to the reader.
In some cases, absolutely, there are times when the reader needs to know something about the character’s past, or their ‘why’, but this is all done through carefully seeding the relevant information throughout the novel, either through action, dialogue (but be careful that this doesn’t turn into idiot speech) and reaction.
You will be surprised at how much a reader picks up from reading between the lines if you have the confidence to allow it to happen that way.
5. A Strong Narrative Voice
Voice is how we deliver our narrative in a way that is unique to us. Voice is what is said in the white spaces on the page.
A skilled writer should be able to translate his voice to paper allowing the words to lift off the page and come alive in the reader’s head. We always say this, but we love the image — a truly distinct voice sits just to your right, crouching just behind the book you are holding and tells you the story whilst you read.
Some people say voice is something you either have or you don’t, but we believe that voice can be discovered and developed. It comes from practising your craft, feeling natural in your writing skin and not allowing yourself to feel straight-jacketed into a specific style or structure.
It is something that comes when you allow your writing to flow without constraint. It comes when you just write.
Keep practising, keep trying out different voices and eventually, you will find your own.
What are your favorite self-editing practices? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Keirsten Clark is the founder and editorial director of writing.co.uk – a literary consultancy specialising in providing editorial feedback and manuscript assessments for writers who are either self-publishing or looking to publish traditionally.