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  • Debra Stang

8 Tips for Editing Your Fiction Manuscript

I love being in that writing space when the words just flow. Sometimes it feels as if these characters given birth to by my brain have taken on a full life of their own and want to tell their own story.

And I'm cool with that. I know they usually do a better job than I do of defining their relationships and pulling all the loose plot ends together.

I have learned one thing, though. During the first draft, I send my inner critic on a paid vacation and let everything pour onto the paper. Then I set it aside for a few weeks.

When I'm ready to start editing and revising my work, I humbly ask my inner critic to come home and take over the process–and she is more than happy to do so. These eight steps she insists on following add strength and clarity to my fiction manuscripts. Maybe they will help yours, too.

1. Use a timeline. I use a piece of notebook paper, but one of my best friends who writes epics gets an entire roll of brown packing paper, spreads it out across the living room floor, and goes to town. A timeline can help you figure out what happens when in the story. If you jump around from scene to scene like I do, it can help you avoid embarrassing mistakes like Cousin Matilda, who tragically perished in an accident on Halloween, calmly joining the family for Christmas dinner.

2. Keep a small notebook for each character. As you write more and get to know your characters better, it's amazing how many little details change. I started my new novel, for instance, spelling my heroine's name "Kerry" and finished spelling it "Kerri." I've also changed eye color, hair color, favorite foods, and names of first lovers. I will say, however, that I'm not alone. In Stephen King's book, Cujo, King's heroine starts out with gray eyes that morph into blue eyes about halfway through the book.

3. Keep a sharp eye on dialogue. It needs to sound real, and it needs to do more than just convey information. ("Well, Mary, as you know, our mother died and we've been on our own for three years.")

4. Be ruthless with adjectives and adverbs. I'm not saying that you should omit adjectives and adverbs entirely, but if you're seeing a lot of words ending in -ly, you might want to check your initial verb and see if you can make it stronger. ("He ran swiftly" vs. "His feet flew faster than they'd ever flown before, and he didn't even pause when he reached the first few trees of the haunted forest.")

5. Check your facts. Yes, you're writing fiction, but that doesn't mean you don't have to know what you're talking about. J.K. Rowling, for instance, of Harry Potter fame created a complex magical world, but that world had rules and guidelines, and she was careful not to break them. I remember an entire book being spoiled for me after the author cavalierly assured readers that the University of Kansas was in Kansas City. The problem was, I happened to be attending it at the time, and as every Jayhawk fan could attest, the University is located in Lawrence, a 30- to 45-minute drive from Kansas City.

6. Justify the presence of every scene, sentence, and word. If you come along a passage that doesn't show character, advance the plot, or have some other lofty purpose, use your delete key. Use it no matter how well that passage was written.

7. Read it aloud. Reading your fiction aloud will help you pick up on areas that are awkward as well as on grammar and spelling mistakes you might not have noticed otherwise.

8. Pass it on to a beta reader or a paid editor. A beta reader is a writing buddy who is willing to look over your work for goofs. A paid editor does the same thing, except he or she gets pain. No matter how polished you think your manuscript is, have a second or even third or fourth set of eyes give it a look. You are so close to your work that there are bound to be things that you miss. (In my novel, Visiting Grandma, there's one section where I refer to "Battlesta Galactica" instead of "Battlestar Galactica." I still wince whenever I see that passage.

How do you go about editing your fiction manuscripts?  

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