“Perfect to Me”: How Self-Editing Can Take Your Novel to the Next Stage

From Writers Helping Writers:

Part of the trick of hiring an editor is knowing when your manuscript is ready to hand over to them. There’s no point submitting a draft that you already know has POV issues or structural problems. The ideal situation I like to be in when I deliver my manuscript to an editor is that I think it’s perfect. Of course, it never is, but “perfect to me” means I’ve done everything I know how to do. That way, the editor will teach me something.

There are three main types of edits: developmental, line, and proofreading. At each stage, an author can do a lot of self-editing to create a “perfect-to-me” manuscript.

The Developmental Stage

A developmental edit tackles big-picture issues: plot, structure, characterization, point of view and the like. It can be hard to see where a novel isn’t working on a substantive level. Sometimes you know it’s not working but can’t figure out why. In both cases, I find it helpful to work through structural exercises.

List the major structural elements that should appear in a novel and fill in the blanks. You can go as basic as three-act structure (inciting incident, midpoint, climax, etc.) or you can get more detailed with something like a Save the Cat beat sheet. It amounts to the same thing: a novel must build momentum and it does this by hitting certain pivotal moments. If while doing this exercise you discover you’ve skipped a step or two, that’s probably where your problem lies.

Literary agent Hannah Sheppard boils this process down to a single sentence: When A (inciting incident) happens, B (character) must do C (action) otherwise/before D (catastrophe). Try filling it in. If you can’t, you’ll know there’s a problem.

One of the most common developmental issues I encounter as an editor is the protagonist’s lack of a strong, measurable goal. This goal needs to power the main character through the whole manuscript. One way to test this is to write a synopsis of the novel. Yuk, I know. A synopsis shows flaws. It’s a scary process. If you can’t boil your story down to a few pages that clearly trace a protagonist’s quest for a goal, you’ve got trouble.

Another thing a synopsis will reveal is causality (or the lack of it). If you find yourself connecting plot elements with the words, “and then,” (as opposed to “but,” or “therefore”), your story won’t be building the momentum it needs to hold a reader’s attention.

Has your protagonist done something at the end of the novel that he couldn’t have done at the beginning? If not, you have a character arc issue.

I could write an entire piece on point of view—and indeed, many editors have. Go read a few of them. I will say one thing here. It seems like it would be easiest to write in omniscient so you have access to every character’s thoughts. In fact, it’s the hardest POV to master.

Don’t be tempted to add new business to a novel to solve an existing problem. Often, you simply haven’t delivered on the promises you’ve made.

Most clients I deal with believe one developmental edit is all their novel needs. In fact, it takes several passes to wrinkle out developmental issues. Writing a novel is (or should be) like building a house of cards. Remove one card and half the house topples. Developmental edits are hard for that reason. As soon as you solve one problem, you’ve created five others. You should not expect this to be a quick and simple job. Most writers are in too much of a rush. Good work takes time. A novel benefits greatly from smoking on the shelf for a month or so after a major edit. Indeed, time might be the best editor of all.

Sometimes clients are tempted to skip the developmental stage. Because they’ve worked for so long on their novels and have used beta readers, they believe they can jump straight into a line edit and (bonus) save some money. Skipping the developmental stage is like building a house on sand. Even when I’ve worked for a year on a novel and finally decide it’s ready to send to my publisher, the first thing they do is assign me—you guessed it—a developmental editor.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

6 thoughts on ““Perfect to Me”: How Self-Editing Can Take Your Novel to the Next Stage”

  1. As the author of over 65 novels and over 200 short stories, I find it ironic that the author of the OP used “perfect to me” as a basis for it being time to seek input from someone else’s conscious, critical mind. If the writer deems a story “perfect,” why not publish it and let the readers decide?

    What is “perfect” for the author or for any other reader will not be perfect (or even enjoyable) for another. And what the storyteller believes is a flea-bitten, flawed old dog, another reader will find wonderful.

    Most writers claim to believe the old adage that writers are the worst judge of their own work. Yet they somehow remember that truth only when they perceive their work as good.

    Because of course it can’t possibly be good, not really, until they’ve paid someone to “fix” it and until they’ve revised and rewritten and polished it until it’s only a shadow of its former self and until some severely underpaid 20-something in New York drags it from the slush pile and gives it his or her blessing.

    Which usually won’t happen because New York publishers are looking for “unique, original works,” all the while encouraging writers to revise and rewrite and polish all originality and every squeaky ounce of what was unique out of their manuscripts. But I digress.

    Back to the adage that writers are the worst judge of their own work: When writers perceive a work as “bad,” they seem to forget the adage completely. How very convenient.

    I have been fortunate. In all my time as a storyteller, I have avoided the inanity of allowing even my own conscious, critical mind—much less anyone else’s—to subvert the creative process. My characters are living the story so I let them tell it. I am only their Recorder, a service I perform in exchange for them allowing me to race through the trenches of the story with them. I’m fond of saying it’s the most fun I can have with my clothes on.

    There is no perfection in writing. There is only “finished,” which these days, once the writer has shaken off his ego, he can follow immediately with “published.” Then the actual readers can decide.

      • Harvey, I admire your approach. But it ain’t for me. I’ve been a professional “creative” for 50+ years. And one thing I’ve learned in that half-century (yikes!) is to listen to others when the listening is needed. For me in this latest phase in long-form fiction, it’s having another professional look at my ‘semi-polished’ draft. Contrary to the OP, it’s certainly not “perfect,” but it’s got the main parts. And in every case, the Dev Editor has pointed out things that get the story closer to perfect. I’ve added and deleted scenes, re-written sections that were confusing, and changed characters’ names. E.g., I had a character with a name that I was sounding out in my head one way, which the editor pointed out was not how most people heard/read it. And they were right! Misunderstanding avoided.
        Anyway, like you conclude, to each his/her own way.

        • Hi Harald. In my comment, I went on far too long and to far greater depth than I should have. I was editing it when my time to edit expired.

          With regard to what you just now wrote, my only question for the editor you mentioned would be how could he or she possibly know how “most people” heard/read the character’s name? I think that’s my whole point. One opinion, no matter whose opinion it is, is still only one opinion.

          Re characters’ names, it’s completely out of my hands. Like all the real people I know, they are who they are. I increasingly feel as if I’m a very lucky guy.

  2. I zeroed in on the checklist, which can be useful, but what if that’s not the story you’re telling? One of the most enjoyable (genre) books I’ve read in the last year Goddard’s Hands of the Emperor, doesn’t fit it at all. It’s what the fallout is from a bureaucrat inviting the Emperor to a vacation. Goal, catastrophe? Nope. I’m not sure what it was, but it doesn’t fit that template. (I need to reread it.)
    The checklist tends to lead to cookie-cutter books (and movies) which are boring.

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