When Total Revision is Asked For
Editors: the bane of our existence, the light of our lives, angels and demons…but this is turning into a song lyric. We all know how crucial our editor is in helping us find our voice, articulate our story effectively, and catch what would otherwise be embarrassing faux pas. Like the time I had my heroine in leggings at the beginning of the love scene and zipping up her skirt at the end. Without editors we could end up with a whole slew of lines like:
“My Swedish grandmother would turn over in her grave if she saw me eating pickled herring for breakfast.”
“He was parked in a car…”
“His fingers wormed their way under the panties and tickled her yearning lips as he pulled them down.”
“Tristram watched with chagrin as Milo poured half an ounce of Tabasco sauce into her bowl and took a preemptive swallow of his beer.”
So what do you do when your editor says, “We loved all the words in your manuscript, but we were wondering, could you maybe put them in a completely different order?”
I’m reminded of Moss Hart’s autobiography, Act One. On the opening night of what would become one of his most successful plays, he realized that the whole thing didn’t work, and spent the night completely revising the play. You say, “Well if it was so great, why did it need revamping?” The more useful question is “Okay, fine. How do you do it?”
First, take a deep breath. Then take a long drink, scratch your head (or some body part), stare out the window, get up, sit down, vacuum, iron a shirt, stare out of the window (again), check the time, and tentatively edge a finger toward the keyboard. Blink twice and look at your manuscript with new eyes.
It’s amazing what you’ll see. Suddenly that precious scene that had you dabbing your eyes sounds too, too melodramatic. You realize that the beginning in no way justifies the ending. You haven’t actually said what you wanted to say.
Solution? Slash and burn, thin the forest, cultivate the plants and not the weeds, cut to the kernel of the story. Allow the characters to move like shadow puppets, first upstage, then downstage. You’ll see more clearly which one is important to the story and which one isn’t. Eliminate any side shows, irrelevant scenes, action that doesn’t directly relate to the narrative. Et voilà, your reader will stay up all night, breathlessly turning the pages, finally to lean back against the pillows as the rosy-fingered dawn tiptoes in, sated.
How to Saw a Manuscript in Half and Fool the Audience
Such dreaded words and hateful euphemisms are these:
“The story runs a little long and the pace is a little too slow. Could you maybe edit some of it out? You know, tighten it up?
“Sure, how much do you want me to cut?”
“Say, about half of it?”
One brilliant editor said, eliminate one of every three pages you write and you’ll have a work of art. We hates her.
We also know that the editor’s word is law, so we cuts. Here are some tips when charged with serious pruning.
I. Highlight a long sentence and look for unnecessary bits—the “that’s” for example. Like one of those word jumbles, try rearranging the words, making the construction active where it’s passive, deleting adverbs, eliminating self-explanatory stuff. Then read it aloud.
II. Look for unnecessary exposition—do we really need to follow the heroine down the hall, mentioning every door she passes? What is self-evident and what requires explanation? If her heart is pounding, do you have to tell the reader it’s “with fear”? Isn’t it obvious? If it isn’t, then you haven’t set the scene properly. That’s what your editor means by “show, don’t tell.” Your reader is not a nitwit (at least mine aren’t)—they know what sweaty palms and darting glances and crouching posture means—especially if it’s the guy in the hoodie standing next to them on the subway doing it.
III. When you’ve eliminated the obvious detritus, go for the subtle stuff. If the setting is the Caribbean island of Nevis, you don’t have to open every scene with “It was a sunny, sultry day in Paradise.” Ditto having your Aleut heroine mention that it’s snowing…again.
IV. Be specific: Your hero isn’t “very handsome.” He has “russet hair feathered with gold, the mysterious hazel eyes of a stalking tiger, gently tanned skin drawn taut over the arched cheekbones, a nose…well, the nose could use some work.”Alright, so it’s a little wordier than “very handsome” but don’t you just want to kiss him?
I did this for my latest release, Triptych, and managed to cut over 3,000 words! It tightened the story significantly and increased the pace. And if all those precious words on the cutting room floor bother you, remember, they’re all recyclable.
If you’d like to see how I did it (and comment on my success or lack thereof), why don’t you try my fourth romantic suspense novel? Set in Washington DC above the three rocks known as the Three Sisters, Triptych weaves three stories in and out of legend, modern romance and past intrigue.
Miranda Cabot lost all interest in love after her husband Edward crashed into the Potomac River rocks called the Three Sisters. Her sister Honor likewise prefers her tower and her writing. Not so the third sister Sybil, who longs for romance with a dashing Frenchman. She advertises for said hero on Craig’s List and is rewarded with the Chevalier du Bon Arnaque, who comes to Washington from Strasbourg on unidentified business.
Miranda and Honor believe the Chevalier is a crook and ask their neighbors Dieter Heiliger and his grandson Corey, to act as chaperones. With three beautiful, strong-willed women in a house filled with three handsome, virile men, the inevitable result is an intricate web of jealousy, sex, and intrigue. Who will end up with whom, and will the Three Sisters take another life as the legend calls for?
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Although M. S. Spencer has lived or traveled on six continents, the last 30 years have been spent mostly in Washington, D.C. as a librarian, Congressional staff assistant, speechwriter, editor, birdwatcher, kayaker, policy wonk, non-profit director and parent. Once she escaped academia, she worked for the U.S. Senate, the U.S. Department of the Interior, in several library systems, both public and academic, and at the Torpedo Factory Art Center. She holds a BA from Vassar College, a Diploma in Arabic Studies from the American University in Cairo, and Masters in Anthropology and in Library Science from the University of Chicago. She divides her time among Virginia, Maine and Florida. All of this tends to insinuate itself into her works.
Writing as M. S. Spencer, she has published five best-selling contemporary romantic suspense novels, Lost in His Arms and Lost and Found from www.redrosepublishing.com/books, and Losers Keepers and Triptych from www.secretcravingspublishing.com. Artful Dodging: The Torpedo Factory Murders, was released in April 24, 2012 by Secret Cravings. All four are available on Amazon, B&N, Bookstrand, and All Romance E Books. Losers Keepers and Triptych are also available in print.
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You can also visit my author pages at All Romance E Books, GoodReads, and Manic Readers.