Two pitfalls of editing your own story
I’ve worked as an editor on all sorts of documents for way too many years to mention. But it wasn't until I started writing romance stories that I finally understood how hard writing well, creating stories other people really want to read, actually is. Not sure why I thought it would be easy. But boy, did I make some embarrassing mistakes in my first romance story. Some I immediately picked up when going through the editing stage. Others crept through numerous edits without notice.
Anyway, this article discusses two of the major pitfalls I encountered while editing my story. I'll also make some suggestions on what you can do to avoid these happening to you.
Pitfall One: You can't see your own mistakes
Yeah, you'd think this was kind of obvious, but it isn't. Because it was like I'd suddenly gone blind. Pesky little (and not so little) mistakes just seemed to disappear into the ether, hiding in plain sight, blending in better than any chameleon.
So, why can’t I see my own mistakes? I should be able to, right? I am an editor, after all.
The only explanation that makes sense is because it’s my story. I know what I mean. It’s right there in my head.
So, it doesn’t matter how careful I am, I still see what I expect to see. I’ll always see ‘through’ even if I spell it as ‘though’. Spell check won’t pick it up. Both are correct. But one is the right word, the other totally wrong. And most of the time I don’t even see that pesky missing r, no matter how many times I go over my work.
I know I’m not alone.
Thank goodness for my amazing beta readers and detail-oriented friends who are willing to read and correct my work. Because I now know I simply can't edit my own work; that silly little mistakes will slip through. This doesn't mean I won't edit my work, because come on. I'm an editor. It would be impossible for me not to do this. Nor am I saying editing your own work is a Bad Thing. It's not. I'm just acknowledging I can't do this successfully - or to my high standard - without someone else giving my story the once over.
So, what can you do to make your manuscript as error-free as possible?
Leaving things for a while does wonders.
When you come back to your writing after a year, a month, or a week or so, you’ll view your words like any other reader. That’s because the time spent away from your wonderful story gives you the new perspective you need to “see” your mistakes. And the biggest caveat ever is this: make sure you spend enough time away from your story that you've forgotten all about your original intentions. Yep, might be difficult to do, especially when you're under a deadline.
Ask that annoying friend and/or relative who always points out all the errors in road signs and shop windows to help.
Sure, they’ll be as smug as all get out highlighting your mistakes while you’re hiding in the corner, rocking back and forward, groaning loudly. That’s fine. Thank them politely, even if you are imagining the best way to horribly maim or destroy them.
Embrace the Read-Aloud function in Word.
Yes, I know it’s the most boring electronic voice you’ll ever encounter, but hearing your words read out loud uses another part of your brain. A practical example: In my last novel, I used this before sending it off to my critique partner for comment. Low and behold, I discovered an embarrassing number of mistakes – from missing commas and full stops right through to wrong or missing word/s. Even after all that, when my critique partner read my story, they still found four or five errors, so it’s not totally foolproof. Even so, four or five small errors over 75,000 words isn't too bad.
Pitfall Two: You're often blind to what's really going on in your story
This all about the theme, the underlying message; the idea behind your story; it's "aboutness". It's the real heartfelt things your characters have to discover and overcome within your story. It's the way what your story is about that determines how your story unfolds; which means the plot, the way the characters behave and everything in between. And it's usually your theme that makes your story connect so well with others.
My main problem is how I go about writing stories. You see, I come up with a thought, or a scene, or something, and immediately begin to write. No plan. I simply begin. As I continue, I get to know the characters, and allow them to take me on a wild journey mining the depths of their inner beings. Creating a first draft is the only time I’ll ever have god-like superpowers, but it sure doesn't give me any clarity about the underlying theme. That little nugget seems to love hiding out in my subconscious.
So, when it came to editing my first romance, I floundered. I mean, I knew it wasn't quite right, that something was missing. But I had a hard time defining, let alone discovering, what that 'thing' was. So, the first thing I should have done was discover what my story was really about. Of course, I didn't.
Now, you might think you know what your story is going to be about before you start writing it, but what if that changes? What if you can't recognise that's happened? What do you do then?
You see, I thought my first romance was all about finding "home" - a place to belong and be accepted. It wasn't.
It wasn't until after I gotten to know my characters inside out that I finally worked out it was about acceptance. My heroine has always believed she didn't deserve love, so she had to come to terms with accepting herself before she could find love. Surprisingly, my hero also thought the same thing - he didn't deserve love - but for completely different reasons. So his journey was about forgiveness - and about accepting his actions, along with what happened next.
It wasn't until I was half-way through the third draft that I discovered this! Yep, I'm quick off the mark...not! But eventually, the penny dropped. And then everything changed. The way I approached the story; the way I wrote the characters; and even the ending drastically changed. All because I now knew the real reason why my characters were acting and responding and being the way they were.
Likewise, once I'd finished writing my romantic suspense, Captured (not yet published), I realised it was all about loyalty. It took me much less time to come to that conclusion, thankfully. But nevertheless, knowing the theme, the message, the idea behind the story made me sit up and take notice. And, with just a few simple tweaks, I was able to concentrate on ensuring that theme - loyalty - was central to everything my hero and heroine did.
General tips for editing your own manuscript:
The first thing you can do is ask that annoying question all two-year-old's seem way too familiar with: why? Have a notebook beside you as you go through your first draft. Every time you come across something that happens, ask why. Why did grandma's photograph cause such a reaction? Why was the neighbour poking around in the rubbish bin? Why won't the hero talk to the heroine? Then start on the how questions. How did grandma's necklace end up in the trunk? Who put it there? When, and why? How did Great Aunt Peggy become entangled with the baddies? How did the hero know the heroine needed him right at that moment?
You get the gist. Ask questions. Note them down in that handy little notebook, and then make sure every single one of them are answered as you work through your story. If you find some that don't have an answer, then you better write a scene showing how that came around or what happened or whatever is needed to fill the gap.
And these questions might just lead you to discover what the hell your story is about, too. Yay! Then, it’s a matter of going through your questions, and your draft, to ensure the underlying theme is there in every scene, in every action and reaction, and pushes your characters towards that satisfying ending.
The next thing you can do is look carefully and specifically for inconsistencies within your story.
Here, I'm talking about things like one moment a character has blue eyes, half a book later they turn into brown. Or at the start of the book your heroine is nervous and timid and ten pages later she won’t back down from anything. Or her name changes from Sally to Sandra part way through the story. Any of these things are surprisingly easy to do. And it isn't until a friendly editor like me points it out that you realise what you've done. Don't. Look for the things that don't make sense and change them as soon as you find them.
Another thing that might help to ensure your story works - as in makes sense and is logical - is creating a scene map.
This is particularly helpful for those who think visually, where one scene leads to another. You don’t have to do this before you write your story. In fact, sometimes it’s better to do it after you’ve finished that first draft.
Basically, you create an outline of your story: what happens, who’s involved and the time it happens – something especially useful for time-critical stories like crime or thrillers. Be brief; and get to the heart of each scene. Noting why it’s in your story can help, too. (And no, 'because it's a beautiful scene' isn't a good enough reason. Sorry.) Outlining your story like this certainly helps to ensure your story flows and moves along at a pace appropriate to your theme and genre. It also helps make sure you're answering all the questions your story raises. You know, all those ones you discovered while you read through your first draft. Anyway, creating a scene map will soon make you realise which scenes are essential, and which aren’t. Adding, deleting, and moving things around becomes much easier, too.
For example, in good enough for love I have a much-loved scene where the hero stands by his parents' grave pondering his life choices. It never appeared in my first draft. He just went off and did his thing, without explanation. As I was mapping my story, I realised he was at a major turning point in his life. It’s where he finally comes to terms with his past and decides he’ll confront the heroine no matter what. And that meant I needed to add a scene so my readers could get inside my hero’s head, to see and feel his emotions while he was making this crucial decision. Including this one scene eventually made the whole story so much more satisfying.
For those who think more literally, try creating a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of your story.
Like the scene map, it’ll show when things don’t make sense; or stuff just happens; when your character acts inconsistently or oddly. Sure, it’s a lot of work, but well worth the effort.
When I tried this with Captured, I hadn’t finished writing it. So, of course, I had no idea how it was going to end. But outlining the story chapter-by-chapter did highlight everything that needed fixing to make my story flow logically and believably. I also planned an ending I was quite happy with. Right up until my characters took it into their heads and demanded something completely different...
Editing your story is something you need to do. But it's not something you can cut corners with either, no matter how tempting that might be.
But you also need to understand your limits as well. If you don't feel confident in your grammar, if you want someone else to take a look at your story structure, or the ensure it's as error-free as possible, then you might need to hire someone to do that for you. These are not skills every author naturally has. Some do, others rely on professionals to do this for them. So can you. Because, if you're anything like me, where quality is important, then spending time and effort making your story the best it can be will never be a waste of time...or money.
Of course, being an editor, I recommend you engage someone like me, especially before you self-publish your story. In any case, I've written a whole article about how to choose an editor, one that's right for you if you want to know more.
I also recommend obtaining a critique partner or joining a writers group. Not only do they cheer you on, but they also help you see where your strengths lie, and where you can do better. You learn a lot by reading other people’s writing; especially when you're expected to give intelligent and helpful feedback. Your critique partner or writer’s group should honestly and fearlessly give you suggestions for improvements. They should support you and encourage you to do better, to strive for your best potential.
Finding a critique partner or writers group, one you can trust, isn’t easy. So, keep at it until you find the right fit for you and your style of writing.