As I continue my series on the writers workshop and The Godfather, I’m going to take a look at editing. Ah, editing, the one thing many writers hate. And for good reason. It’s not fun to see your words get chopped up and cut out of your book. But any good writer knows the worst thing you can do is fall in love with your words.
Writers Workshop – Do I Need An Editor?
I’ve been reading a lot lately about self-editing. Hm, is this really possible? In my opinion, yes. And no. Sure, we all have to take our best stab at editing, but we also need experts. It pains me when I see so many writers say that they skipped the professional editing because it was too expensive or they disagreed with the editors or…or…or. My bit of advice, don’t skip it. Period. You will never catch all your mistakes. You are too close to your story. Get someone who is impartial, who understands not only grammar, but story structure, plotting and more to look at your story.
Writers Workshop – The Basics
There are some things that any author should do once they’ve written the end. First, put the book away for a week or two. Then come back to it for a fresh read. Obviously you want to look for grammatical errors, but focus on repetition as well. Do you use the same word or phrase over and over in the same paragraph or chapter? Do you have glaring clichés? Do your characters all sound the same? Do you fall into long paragraphs with little dialogue that cause your scenes to drag?
It may sound funny but I remember listening to Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Shutter Island and more) discuss how he edited his work. He read his writing out loud. And it’s true. If you try this, you’ll sometimes find that things will stick out to you that you didn’t notice before. John Dunning (The Bookman series) suggests writing with a pen and paper instead of at the computer to see if this makes a difference for your scenes and writing.
Writers Workshop – Show Don’t Tell
I’ve discussed this one before but it’s so critical it bears repeating. Your job as a good writer is to show the reader what’s going on. If you find that you’re explaining something to the reader, you’re telling them, not showing them. One of the best ways to get out whatever point you want is through dialogue. Not only is it a great way to show what’s going on, it can be compelling for the reader, and it allows you to develop your characters as well.
I love in The Godfather where Kay finds out that her beloved Michael is a murderer. It’s not done by Puzo saying Kay found out Michael was a murderer. No, there is a whole dialogue between Kay and Mrs. Corleone where she tells Kay to marry someone, that Michael isn’t the man for her anymore. This dialogue (along with the excellent character build-up) allows Kay to know that Michael is a murderer. So look for areas in your writing where your telling the reader the action and fix it.
Writers Workshop – Those Pesky Adverbs And More
Nothing can kill a story quicker than if you’re relying on adverbs and adjectives too much. I cringe when I see the dreaded -ly too much. Watch for too much description. Are your descriptions enough to create a picture for the reader, or are they so much that it takes away from the story (if you find yourself getting bored with your description or you’re skimming it, so will your reader – cut it down). Watch your verb tenses – don’t know if you’re correct or not? Look it up! Watch for the dangling participle: I saw the car peeking through the trees. The sentence is unclear: was I doing the peeking or the car? I like this one from Marika Josephson (eHow contributor): Lying out on the beach, the ocean was beautiful. It sounds like the ocean looked beautiful because it was lying on the beach, not because I was lying on the beach.
Writers Workshop – Point of View
The Godfather is great for this one. We get into the heads of a lot of characters. But Mario Puzo is careful not to switch the point of view within scenes (oh this is one that’s so easy to miss). If the Godfather is talking and thinking, it’s wrong to suddenly be in the head of Clemenza or Tessio and know what they’re thinking. That’s a big no-no. Don’t do it. I remember when I entered the second book I wrote into the Colorado Gold Conference. The feedback in a few places said POV. At first I didn’t understand what was meant. Then, as I studied what I’d written, I realized that for just one sentence, I’d switched the point of view. And it jarred the reader (who was a very good editor). Watch for this.
Writers Workshop – The Cutting Floor
I was struck by this one with The Godfather, specifically in The Godfather Saga, where Francis Ford Copolla edited the movies into one long saga and he added scenes that had been cut from the original movie. Here’s my take on it: there was a reason why those scenes ended up on the cutting room floor in the first place. They didn’t work. A great example is a scene where the movie director Jack Woltz pulls a young woman back into his bedroom. Unless you’ve read the book, you don’t really have enough context to know that he is essentially molesting an underage girl. It doesn’t work.
Look at your own writing the same way. Listen to your gut. If you find that you’re writing a scene and something about it doesn’t seem right, then it probably isn’t right. Look to see if the scene is really necessary to further your story. We writers frequently fall in love with our words, but we shouldn’t. What may sound like Shakespeare to us is crap that bores our readers. My advice: if what you’ve written doesn’t further your story (add to the plot, build on your characters etc.) get rid of it. There’s nothing wrong with a tightly woven story.
Writers Workshop – Myself As An Example
I’m getting the third Reed Ferguson mystery back from my editor this week. She had an interesting comment for me:
I see lots of improvements in your writing — a big portion of my markings this time are in the category of suggestions for smoother, tighter writing, not things that are black-and-white fixes. So, congrats. I’m really impressed!! … you know, however, that the pages will still be covered with markings, tho, yes???!
I’ve written a lot of books that consistently get great reviews and almost no negative reviews at all. And yet, even after all this time, I still need an editor to help me get them just right. And believe me, the pages will be marked up. They should be. Most of us can’t catch this stuff. We need a second (or third, fourth…) set of eyes to help us. That’s fine. It only makes us better.
Writers Workshop - The Ending
Make sure you have a compelling ending for your book. I want to write more about this, but I’ll save it for a future post, as I have some observations about the ending of The Godfather that brilliantly illustrate how a great ending impacts a book.
I hope this series has been helpful. I’ve specifically chosen a book that I love and used it as an example because I think it’s easier to learn if we can see how someone else has done a great job with a story. So, onward to your editing :). Until next time…