The Red Pen Rendezvous

I’ll let you in on a secret. I’m kind of a terrible writer. I spend way too much energy in pointless world building and back story, rely far too much on the luck of my characters, and have at least one adverb in every sentence I write. First drafts are always awful. Like wrap-it-in-a-plastic-bag stinky.

But I think I’m a decent editor. (Do let me know if that’s just not true. Thanks.) I can take that nasty first draft and make it substantially prettier with a bit of work. The fact of the matter is that I can pump out a first draft in a month or two, but I spent usually two to four months cleaning it up. Me and the red pen get mighty cozy in that time.

A big part of the cleaning process is trimming the fat. I have a decent nose for fluff and I’m getting better at cutting it out. I’ve cut out conversations, chapters, whole families, even entire story lines. And what makes this ruthlessness possible? Having very clear knowledge of what my story is.

If I don’t have a solid sense of where my characters are going and growing, it’s hard to know what’s pointless and what’s integral. Mentioning that your main character is scared of cats could be absolute fluff. Or it could be vital to understanding the story. (It could explain why she chokes up at the pivotal moment, dropping the entire cast knee-deep in disaster.) The key is knowing the difference.

For first drafts, I don’t imagine it makes a huge difference if you’re a pantster or a planner. Just getting your story onto paper (screen?) is the main battle. But once you have that first draft, I personally have to be able to look at the whole and see a definite plot arc. And once I see that plot arc, I have a much better sense of what belongs and what doesn’t. Anything that doesn’t directly propel my protagonist in the pursuit of her goal doesn’t belong. This takes a special brand of brutality. It’s taken me more than a decade to shed the extraneous, and I’m still in the process of it. But if you don’t have a clear story, it’s harder to tell what’s necessary and what’s not.

Other things I find myself editing for…

Adverbs. I am an adverb fiend. Whenever I’m going through a draft, I pluck out about three of four adverbs and then it’s about right. Don’t get me wrong: adverbs are great. But not that great. They’re great like salt is great. A little sprinkling enhances the flavor. A big dump makes the soup nasty and your kidneys cry.

Pronouns. I know who’s talking in my head. But I don’t necessarily translate that onto the page. I use ‘he’ when there are five guys talking instead of using a name or some other marker. Or I just don’t mark at all, leaving the reader to guess. And anything that pulls the reader’s thoughts out of the story is a bad thing.

Lack of emotion. My characters do things and they frown and stuff. But I’m really terrible about actually conveying what they feel. People are constantly asking, “How did she feel about that? What was she thinking when blah? Why was she making that face when whatever?” They ask these things because they want to connect with the characters and I am giving them nothing to connect to. Because I am lame. And it makes me sad.

Bull puckey. Sometimes you write something and then you read it later and realize it’s completely unbelievable. Deus ex machina. Total character 180. Ridiculously good luck. Whatever. (And I’ve done all those things. Repeatedly.) This stuff is the product of lazy writing. I want to drag my characters from point A to point B and I don’t want to put the effort into getting them there believably. Don’t do that, writers. If we want readers to invest their time, money, and heart in our books, we have to be willing to invest our own. Don’t be lazy.

There are lots of things that I need to clean up, but these are the main perpetrators. What do you find yourself editing? What are some other things for budding editors to watch out for?


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