I’m back with more advice from the editor’s perspective for all you Nano people out there. So, this time I want us all to hop into the Orbit time machine. We have one of those. It’s how we know the future.
It’s December 1. You wrote like a madman all month long and now you have 50,000 words and a warm glow of satisfaction. You drank all the champagne and ate all the cupcakes and are ready to bask in the relaxing life of being an author.
So, what next?
First things first. Marathoners talk about a post-marathon exhaustion and depression and I hear the same thing from Nano people. It is one of the downsides about this approach—it’s great to get words on a page, but it’s important to be realistic about what you have on December 1, and, in short, what you have is a lot of work to be done. I’ve talked about that a little before, but I’ll say again here that the most important thing is to stay focused and remember that you’re well on your way. So, take a breather, and make a schedule that’s less demanding and keep the momentum going.
Now, once you’ve got a full draft, on to the fun part, and the part I actually know—editing! OK, so a few things to think about when you sit down to edit. And, once again, this is advice tailored for commercial SFF, which is a little different than if you’re trying to write a great literary masterpiece. Also a great literary SFF novel. Different genres, different rules.
[So many caveats and asides to be said here, so let’s pretend I said them all and you’re no longer mad at me and move on.]
Basically, when I’m considering a manuscript there are a number of factors to be considered. Most of the factors are pretty standard—it needs to be technically strong, good writing, sensible plot, consistent characters, etc. But there are a few things we look at that aren’t discussed so much but play a huge role in a book’s success. The strengths of one can balance out a weakness in others, but basically a book needs these four things to work.
We’re professionals. I swear.
Hookiness is basically your elevator pitch. This is usually thought of as something to be developed later; something layered on to your finished manuscript and used to convince agents and editors to take on your project. That said, it’s painfully transparent when the hook is constructed after the fact and really has no relation to the novel in question. An elevator pitch will get someone to look at your book. A good hook, on the other hand, will get them to read it, like it, and have the confidence that they can communicate what is good about it to others.
This does not mean your novel has to fit into a pigeon hole. “Jane Eyre with Vampires and Selkies” may be a remarkably efficient hook, but it is not likely to provide a deep and compelling narrative. However, Gail Carriger’s Soulless has a clear and immediate concept that is easy to grasp but provides endless entertainment and depth.
It also has to be said, that there are countless great, successful books whose core concept takes about three pages to explain. Like I’ve said before, all rules are there to be broken.
Pace-y-ness is not to be confused with plot or even plotiness. When you’re looking at your draft, think about the momentum of the reading experience. It doesn’t have to have a lot to do with what’s happening in any given moment, rather do you want to keep reading. If that answer is no, then I’d suggest reconsidering. To be clear, I am not saying that every scene needs to end on a cliffhanger or that there needs to be action all the time. Patrick Rothfuss has a pace-y-ness, a readability, and a draw to his writing. Dan Brown can go on for ages about what seems to be nothing and yet, there you are, frustrated as hell, but still reading.
It’s about keeping a momentum going and keeping a sense of interest. Description and exposition are essential to worldbuilding and, done right, they can create an irresistible reading experience. So, at every stage of your novel, have a careful think about not only what you’re saying but how and when you’re saying it. Is this really the right moment for the three page epic song about how the orc-king was slain by the heroine’s great great ancestor?
(pro tip: probably not)
Plotiness! Not to be confused with having a plot! All books have plot. Some of them have boring ones. Plotiness, insofar as this term is ever defined, is about having a certain interest to your plot, a texture to it that sets it apart from the field. It’s 2010—a basic 5 part plot structure probably isn’t going to get you very far. In fact, a simple reversal or a twist ending also probably isn’t going to get you far. Your plot, your sequence of events, needs to have a character that is original and dynamic.
The basic way to do this is to have a plot with lots of twists and turns. Surprising your reader can be a very effective way to keep readers engaged and coming back for more. This creates a sense of energy, excitement, and a modernity that is appealing. It’s also hard to do and is one of the trickiest ways for a book to distinguish itself.
But, my advice would be to think about the structure of your book. Is it purely linear? Is that the most effective way to tell your story or are you frontloading people with information they don’t need yet? Are there pieces you can hold back for greater effect later?
Awesomeness. Is your book awesome? Ask your significant other who’s read it six times. If he/she says no, next time don’t wake them up at 4 am when you’ve just finished a draft. Buy them something nice and ask again. Then ask your mother.
If you can’t honestly sit down and look at your manuscript and say “this is awesome,” then you’re probably going to need to rethink a few things. No one is going to be a stronger advocate for your book than you are. There may be highly trained more effective ones, but if you don’t have the conviction, then your book isn’t going to measure up at the end of the day.
So if you can’t say with a straight face “this book is awesome” then go out there and find the awesome, kill it, skin it, and bake it into a pie. You’re going to need it.
So, there. That’s what I have to say about the editing process. Obviously, all of this is to be taken with a grain of salt. Some of it may work for you, some of it won’t. What you do need to do is have a serious think about what kind of book you’re writing and what goals are important to you. And you need to be true to your voice. We receive a lot of books that are written cynically—sometimes by very good writers and very successful ones—and you can feel almost immediately when there’s the lack of honesty and enthusiasm in the writing.
All rules can be broken, all advice can be ignored, as I’ve been saying all along. But do so with your eyes open and in the full knowledge of what else is out there.