Manuscript Editing Jumpstart – part 1

You’ve finished your draft manuscript, now what?
Today’s guest post comes from Melanie Cecka-Nolan, editor of the New York Times
Bestselling Illuminae series by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. Melanie has been with
Penguin Random House since August 2012 and is currently Associate Publishing
Director of Alfred A Knopf Books For Young Readers.
You vs. Your Revision
A colleague recently showed me a greeting card that depicted a stick-figure drawing
of Thelma and Louise, arms raised to the sky, as their little stick figure car drives off
a cliff. (Look it up on IMDB if you’re not familiar with the movie…it’s a classic.) And
that, in a nutshell, is what the revision process can seem like—a whole lot of anxiety
over feeling out of control and wondering whether you’ll ever land where you want
to. Sure, you’ve written a manuscript and you think it’s good, but how do you know?
Is there any way to assess what kind of polishing it needs?
Every writer has different strengths and weaknesses, and my job is to look for the
weaknesses and help the writer figure out how to approach their revision. To be
clear, I’m talking about substantive editing with the overall story in mind. Our
copyeditors then address the nitty-gritty of grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. (all
the stuff I’m really bad with!). Some of my authors are masters of
characterization—you feel like you’re hanging out with a good friend who’s telling
you their inner most secrets. But, maybe the plot drags a little. Other authors may be
geniuses with world building, and I find myself hanging on every last word because
it’s so rich and inventive…but the dialogue sounds robotic. My job is to identify
those Achilles heel in the story, and suggest how to make it stronger through
revision. And believe it or not, a great revision starts with doing absolutely nothing.
Don’t. Touch. Your. Manuscript.
…at least for a little while! Why? Because if you’ve just finished drafting something,
chances are you’re too close to it to be able review it objectively. So let the document
sit for a few days. Or two weeks, or however long you can bear to be away from it. I
can almost guarantee that when you go back, you’ll spot all kinds of things that you
didn’t notice earlier.
Start big picture.
It can be tempting to look at a sentence and think “aha! I know a better way to say
that.” Resist the urge. Revision on a sentence-by-sentence basis has its value—but
not at first. Instead, I look for the bottom of the iceberg, the BIG things that are
preventing the manuscript from being as successful or as satisfying as it could be.
Generally speaking, it comes down to pacing, plot, characterization, or voice (and
sometimes all four).
  • Pacing is the internal motor—how fast or slow the events of the story are unfolding, and how that aligns with the story you want to tell. If it’s a thriller and the first 50 pages are poetic landscape descriptions, a reader’s attention might wander. Or, maybe your character’s dog gets hit by a car, she loses the diamond earrings she snuck from her mom’s jewelry box and her young sister reveals that she’s anorexic—all in the last 15 pages of a 350 page manuscript. I’d be inclined to say the pacing feels uneven, with too many critical events coming too late in the story. Try to be aware of how heavy (or light) your foot is in the story’s accelerator.
  • Plot is all the happenings that initiate the story and that carry the characters (and reader) through to the end. A plot might be linear, taking you from points A to B to C. Or you might introduce subplots—little storylines that don’t stand independently, but might help underscore bigger themes or events. Although this is oversimplifying the example, I sometimes find myself saying to an author “there’s too much going on,” or, conversely, “there’s not enough happening.” So here’s a tip: your book might not have a table of contents, but if you’re focusing on plot, you might consider writing up a TOC purely to record what’s happening. Notice any bunching up of events? Or chapters where the characters are talking or moving around, but nothing essential is happening? This can be a good way to take measure of the pacing, too.
  • Characters are the tour guides of the story, and there endless ways to use them. A first person narrator (“I” POV) puts the reader directly into the head of the main character, which can create a strong sense of immediacy: what happens to the character can feel like it’s happening to the reader. But sometimes third person (he, she, they) works better. It allows the writer to have distance from the characters, and to show readers things that the characters wouldn’t naturally be able to offer on their own. And of course, regardless of the point of view, the best characters grow and change, and ultimately affect the course of the story through their actions. To write awesome characters, you have to know them deeply. Some authors make lists of character traits, while I’ve seen others create Pinterest boards to Pin all the ephemera that reminds them of their characters.
  • Voice is the microphone you give to your characters and the story—and sometimes there are shades of the writer’s personality in it as well. In the best of all possible worlds, the voice reflects the characters and the circumstances, and aligns with your intended reader. So if I’m reading about a 10-year- old boy, but the voice sounds like a female adult, I will flag it for the author because chances are that the phrases or observations won’t ring true based on what I know about this kid.
Any one of these four narrative devices could easily be the basis for a deeper
revision. But if you think of them as a wellness checklist, they might help you
identify what aspects of your story is in great shape, and what needs work.
You may find out more about the unique editorial process for Gemina, a more visually
complex book than traditional fiction, in Melanie’s guest post on The Perch, here.
You may read more about Aimee & Jay’s top reasons for writing with a partner in their guest post for the daily fig, here.

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