I deleted two chapters today and I feel good.
Okay, not great, but good. No writer likes to delete their words. We want to think that everything we write is amazing when we write it and worth reading … but it’s not. I’ve never been afraid to slash and burn, but too many writers I’ve talked to are scared to death. They either think they’re amateurs who don’t know what they’re doing if they have to cut something, or they think they’re idiots who can’t write. Or — worse — they think everything they write is brilliant and if readers or New York agents don’t see that, then they are the problem, not the writing.
The truth is, every author worth her salt needs to know how to self-edit. Whether that means cutting whole chapters or tweaking a scene, it’s all important to crafting the best story for readers. Not every word you write needs to stay on the page. Not every chapter needs to be in the book.
There are two forms of self-editing. The second I’m not really going to talk about. That’s the line-by-line editing. When your book is complete, you go through it front to back and “massage” the text. Cut paragraphs, maybe scenes; rewrite dialogue to sound natural; fix repetition and find better ways to say something. Sometimes, completely rewrite the book. That’s all necessary. But what I really want to talk about is developmental self-editing. And this gets tricky.
I don’t plot. I don’t have an outline. Unfortunately, my publisher requires me to write a synopsis summarizing a book I have not yet written. I truly suck at this. I can come up with a good idea, but it’s always vague, and completely dependent on my characters — who I don’t know until I start writing.
The book I’m working on now, currently untitled, is the second book in my new series. Earlier this year, I wrote a 5 page synopsis. It focused mostly on the set-up and the major conflicts in the story, though I didn’t have a resolution (other than the bad guys get caught.) For the last two months I’ve been writing and re-writing the opening chapters. I’ve had a really hard time because while the core story works–and I really love it–the set-up wasn’t working.
I interviewed two experts — a wildlife biologist and an environmental sciences professional — and realized that one of my biggest problems wasn’t the plot but how the story initiated. The spark. The scene that excites my readers into wanting to know what happened. I had made some faulty assumptions and I think, subconsciously, I knew they were faulty. But there were a few other problems with the opening chapters:
- I started at the wrong place in the story. I needed a prologue. To those who don’t like prologues? I don’t care. This book needs it.
- I started with the wrong viewpoint character. Not only that, I needed a completely innocent and fresh set of eyes, so-to-speak, viewing the pivotal lead scene. Someone innocent but knowledgable — yet not a professional anything.
- My core plot worked, but the set-up didn’t — because of what I learned from the experts.
The first point is personal preference. I wanted to show the scene that jumpstarted my investigation, and by necessity it had to take place in the past. My book focuses on an undercover FBI investigation in a small mining town in Arizona. The prologue is not a red herring per se, because the events are important to the story, but they’re important for reasons other than what readers and my lead characters think. I generally refrain from labeling a scene set in the past (in this case, six weeks) as “Chapter One” because subconsciously, I always think “Chapter Two” needs to happen concurrently with or immediately after “Chapter One.”
On the second point, I decided that a mentally challenged but competent character would view the inciting event that leads to my FBI investigation. I needed someone who wouldn’t automatically be believed, but who could be trusted for at least telling the truth — at least by an important person who knows him. I have written mentally challenged characters in many of my books — including my very first book THE PREY, and most recently POISONOUS. I volunteered with emotionally disturbed children when I was younger, and know many families with a “slower” child or other relative. I love writing about them in an honest and emotional way, and this opening scene practically screamed for a character like that. Now I’m in love with Billy and I will cry if my editor doesn’t love him too.
On the third point, this was a problem because I wrote a damn synopsis. I was trying so hard to stick to my core set-up, but it wasn’t working. It was going to be convoluted, no matter how cool it was. The story itself is the same … but the way my FBI team gets involved in the investigation is completely different. And now, it’s so much better.
I was lucky that I really only had to add the prologue and rewrite the first chapter. Yes, I cut two chapters that are no longer needed, but I have other chapters that only need light editing, so it’s not like I’m starting new. But now that this is done, I can make forward progress on the book and not keep rewriting the first hundred pages over and over and over …
I’m often asked how I can tell what needs to be fixed before the book is done, especially since I don’t plot. For me it’s about enthusiasm for my story. When I came up with the original idea, I was really excited. But as I got into it, it wasn’t working — it fell flat. I went back and wrote FIVE different opening chapters — different viewpoint characters, different times, starting with the bad guy, then Kara, then Matt, then a new character, then a secondary character — and nothing felt right. Then I talked to my brother-in-law, the wildlife biologist, and he said one thing in our hour long conversation that took me in a completely different direction … and I wrote the prologue. Completely new, but those five pages excited me like nothing else. I’m eager to write, which tells me I’m on the right path.
My general rule of thumb is: if I’m bored, my readers will be bored. If I’m excited, my readers will be excited. And now, I can’t wait to dive back into the story.