chicago daily law bul                                   

  • Read it out  loud.
  • Read it backwards.
  • Take out every word ending in “-ly.”
  • Review every use of “was.”
  • Spell check.
  • And though it  may be politically incorrect, every editor says it: “You’ve got to kill   your babies.”

In other   words, edit your work.

Writing 500   words a day for the past year, you now have 182,500 words — and you don’t   need half of them.

Novels, like   attention spans, are getting shorter, and while you probably need more than a   tweet’s 140 characters, the typical length for a debut novel by an unknown   author like you (and most of us) is between 80,000 and 100,000 words, with   80-90,000 being the most sellable.

If you’ve   skipped a few days, and find yourself at only 60,000 words, you may need to   do a little more writing — that number begins to look more like a novella   than a novel, and unless combined with a few stories, might be difficult to   sell. On the upper extreme, many agents will reject debut novels that   approach the 100,000 ceiling. (To be fair, there are some agents,   specializing in sci-fi and fantasy, who will seek out longer works, and   regularly accept 120,000-word first-time novels.)

Some classic writing about editing

“The   Fiction Editor, the Novel and the Novelist,” by Thomas McCormack — Since   1988, a standard reference for editors by the former editorial director of   St. Martin’s Press.

“The   Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers,” by John Gardner — A   classic handbook on the principles and techniques of good writing.

“On   Writing: A Memoir of Craft,” by Stephen King — Even if his is not your   genre, there’s much to be learned here. As one reviewer wrote, “Long   live the King!”

For now,   though, my assumption is you have too many words, and you are ready to do   your first edit of a completed manuscript. What to do first? Correcting typos   and grammar might be a start, and you might do that with your first   read-through. During that, I like to track my story lines, making sure the   chronology of events works in terms of which characters know what and when;   the unanswered questions in the plot are resolved; and I haven’t made   promises to the reader I haven’t kept.

Are there   characters that need further development? Have I gone deep enough into a   character’s emotional life? Plot lines incomplete? Ironically, before you   edit, you may need to write more!

The next   edit, a substantive edit, is not unlike getting a brief ready for the court,   both in terms of the clarity of your arguments and brevity. Look for points that   are made and remade more often than necessary. Look for unnecessary throat   clearing in conversations — characters can skip conversational formalities   that the reader is likely to hear even if you don’t put them on the page.

Look for all   the unnecessary adjectives and adverbs and replace them with strong verbs or   metaphors. Stephen King is quoted as saying, “The road to hell is paved   with adverbs.” When you spot an adverb in your writing, it might be   telling you that you haven’t chosen (exactly) the right verb.

See? I don’t   need “exactly” — it’s either the right verb or it isn’t. As a   lawyer, you know what it means when a client leans across your desk and says,   “I want to be completely honest with you.”

Seek out   “-ly” words (use the “find” on your computer) and test   your sentence without these adverbs: actually, angrily, carefully, closely,   completely, definitely, extremely, finally, frequently, happily, honestly,   lately, mostly, nearly, only, really, slowly, softly, suddenly, truly,   typically quickly, usually.

If you’re   left with a weak verb, consider replacing it. T.C. Boyle is the master of the   creative use of verbs, stretching them into new contexts where they activate   a scene. For instance, stars aren’t simply rising in Boyle’s work, they’re   “arching into the backbone of the sky.” Your character might have   walked down the hall, but a better verb — and maybe even a metaphor like   Boyle’s — would characterize his or her mood or condition: he/she stormed,   tip-toed, staggered, wobbled, caned, hobby-horsed, skated. But avoid using   “like a gazelle” and “like a drunken sailor!”

For even   greater impact, combine your strong verb with a metaphor that fits your   narrative voice and the tone of the story. For Boyle, a master of outlandish   vocabulary and wild metaphor, the days don’t “pass slowly” for his   character — “The days stuck to him like fly paper.”

Cut out all   the flowery language. The more in love you are with a sentence, the more you   know it has to go. “Kill your babies.” Why? Because they stick out.   They draw attention to themselves. Those precious sentences may be more about   you, the writer — Hey, look at me! — than about the story. (You might ask how   T.C. Boyle gets away with it — for now, the short answer is, your middle name   is not Coraghessan.) Every single sentence in your book must belong to the   story, forward the story, deepen the story — or it’s out.

These two   edits are just the beginning. You’ll need to come back to the novel after a   period of time and read it anew for clunkers that have snuck through and for   repetitions in sentence structure that have become dull. But for now, these   preliminary edits will help you hone your craft.

Think of it   this way: Once you’ve researched the law and the facts, you still have to   craft an argument, see how the puzzle fits together and how best to express   it. Right now, you have lots of words on paper, and you’ve got to shape them   and sharpen the sentences, word by word, and then the paragraphs, sentence by   sentence.

You’ve   written the words. Now craft the story.



1 Response
  1. RT – Short stories are very important. I wrote a column all about it at called “ Why Write Short Stories At All?” and I think it’s a great way to find your voice, to practice the basics of storytelling (plot, conflict, character, setting, dialogue, etc.) and to experiment. I equated it to running a marathon (novel) where you start with shorter distances (sprinting), build up your stamina (medium length running) and habits, and then eventually go for it. The pay-off is there for so many reasons. You get the thrill of completing something, if you fail it isn’t as big a deal, you don’t have YEARS invested, and you can take risks and try out new things 500 words, 2,000 words, or 5,000 words at a time. I really think it’s essential—if you spend three years writing, editing and submitting a novel only to fail, it can crush you. My first novel was TERRIBLE. It will never be seen by anyone. Short stories get your name out there, open up doors, get you paid, connect you to networks of editors, writers, and fans—so many reasons to write short stories. It’s been a very important part of my career. If I only had Transubstantiate, I wouldn’t have much of a career.