I’d finished the first full draft of my paranormal romance. I was ready to send it to an editor before I inundated the agents of all my favorite writers. I was terrified to show it to a professional.
What if it wasn’t good enough?
But at the same time, having my full share of healthy self-esteem, there lurked in the shadows of my mind—a hope. I hoped it only needed a final polish. I didn’t expect my first complete manuscript to rival the works of Ernest Hemingway, but maybe Meg Cabot.
Turns out: first drafts rarely need just a final polish. And that’s okay. It’s a process. As writers, we know what we meant to say, so when we read our work, we have a tendency to see what we meant, and sometimes that’s not what’s actually on the page.
That’s why we need another set of eyes. Someone who knows what to look for. Someone who can help us improve our writing. Someone who will always tell us the truth.
Yes, I know Sylvester Stallone wrote the screenplay for Rocky in three-and-a-half days. He’s an outlier. Maybe you are, too. Not me.
Five things I learned from that first edit
- Kindness from an editor is crucial. At least for me. I don’t respond well to criticism (who does?), and I certainly wouldn’t respond well to criticism that’s delivered unkindly. If the editor had been unkind, I probably would’ve stopped writing then and there. I was tempted to, anyway.
- Even the kindest criticism can hurt a sensitive heart.
- I learned that my particular type of story (paranormal romance) needed an antagonist. Apparently, tiny obstacles that the protagonist overcomes by way of little effort and chance just weren’t enough. Two of my beta readers told me the story needed more conflict, but I figured they just didn’t understand my writing style and the happy (i.e. boring) story I wanted to tell.
- Stories need specific structure. This one still hurts my head sometimes.
- A good story can need a lot of fixes and still be a good story. It’s worth saving.
Six things I’ve learned since then
- Metaphorical skin does thicken with practice.
- Good editors truly want to help you. Great editors also want to teach you. Learning to look at things objectively (after being offended, annoyed, and frustrated for a few minutes) helps the process and gets everyone to their happy places much faster.
- Repetition of comments (example: One adjective adds power to a noun. A second adjective cuts that power in half. This lesson comes from Sol Stein, who’s dubbed this guideline One plus One = ½. Or: Avoid minimizers like began, start, a little, almost, nearly. If he began to walk, he walked.) are meant to teach—even when they feels like there’s a different goal in mind.
- Without conflict, stories are boring, and readers quickly lose interest. When Teresa first told me that my job was to make my protagonist the piñata and get myself a pile of sturdy sticks, I laughed. Then my heart broke a little. I liked my protagonist. Why would I want to torment her? But I did it, and I saw the character grow and the story get stronger. Now I get out the Louisville Slugger.
- Take the comments at face value. With my first edit, I read questions as insults and reprimands. For example: Why did Gracie do___? Was interpreted as “This is wrong; it doesn’t belong here. You’re an idiot.” What she really meant was, “Why did Gracie do___?” In determining why Gracie did whatever it was, she could help me make it clear for the reader and fill in any plot holes that didn’t lead to that reasoning. Or, if necessary, she could help me see the way to have Gracie take different action.
- Ah yes, action… “Break this up with some action,” was frequently noted in my original manuscript. When I read action, I thought of a fight scene or an over-the-top adventure. The reality is that action can be as simple as setting a cup of cocoa on the table. It would be better, though, if the favored mug missed the table, splattering ceramic shards and sticky brown liquid all over the heirloom Persian rug.
The lessons keep coming
I had already taken a Writer’s Digest online workshop. And I’d read a lot of writing books. They told me what to do, but not how to do it.
That was the difference. Teresa taught me how to do it.
Example: Twist clichés
Straight up clichés are a no no. (Writing no no is probably a no no.) Twisted clichés, though—those can be clever and excellent. I love reading twisted clichés, and I had a couple in my manuscript that came naturally to me, but how could I come up with one when I needed it and literary lightning wasn’t striking. (See what I did there? It can be that simple.)
Teresa gave me an exercise to teach me how to do it. Sure, it was extra work, but it paid off.
The same goes for anaphoras (ana-whatsas?), periodic placement, and so on. These are the things readers notice, even if they can’t articulate what they are. They enhance readability and make sentences pop.
Using an editor’s suggestion doesn’t make you less of an author. Teresa suggested four words for my protagonist to think: My dignity and all. She knew my character perfectly. That sentence epitomized my character’s state at that moment. But the words were hers. I felt like using it meant that I didn’t write the book. I learned that you can take a suggestion from your editor or even a turn-of-phrase you heard on the bus and use it. As Nora Ephron has famously said, “Everything is copy.” What you can’t do, is plagiarize. There’s a big difference.
Now when I turn in work for an edit, I’m still nervous and feel somewhat intimidated, but it’s a muted version of those things. I know that any feedback is given to make my work better. To make me a better writer. In the end, I can choose what to keep and what to change. I can agree to disagree (cliché alert) or I can play around with the suggestions to see if there’s another way to do it. One that will improve the work and improve my skills as a writer.
I feel like I’ve gotten a one-on-one education in creative writing.