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Six Easy Tips for Self-Editing Your Fiction

08/29/2013 02:42 pm ET | Updated Oct 29, 2013
  • Kristen Lamb Author, 'Rise of the Machines -- Human Authors in a Digital World'

There are a lot of hurdles to writing great fiction, which is why it's always important to keep reading and writing. We only get better by doing. Here are some self-editing tips to help you clean up your book before you hire an editor.

When I worked as an editor, I found it frustrating when I couldn't even get to the story because I was too distracted by these all too common oopses.

There are many editors who charge by the hour. If they're spending their time fixing blunders you could've easily repaired yourself, you're burning cash and time. Yet, correct these problems, and editors can more easily get to the meat of your novel. This means you will spend less money and get far higher value.

#1 The Brutal Truth about Adverbs, Metaphors and Similes

I have never met an adverb, simile, or metaphor I didn't love. I totally dig description, but it can present problems.

First of all, adverbs are not all evil. Redundant adverbs are evil. If someone shouts loudly? How else are they going to shout? Whispering quietly? Really? O_o Ah, but if they whisper seductively? The adverb seductively gives us a quality to the whisper that isn't already implied by the verb.

Check your work for adverbs and kill the redundant ones. Kill them. Dead.

Metaphors and similes are awesome, but need to be used sparingly. Yes, in school, our teachers or professors didn't ding us for using 42 metaphors in five pages, but their job was to teach us how to properly use a metaphor or simile, not prepare us for commercial publication as professional novelists.

When we use too much of this verbal glitter, we can create what's called "purple prose." This glitter, while sparkly, can pull the reader out of the story or even confuse the reader. A while back, I edited a winner's 20 page entry. The story began on a whitewater river and the rafters were careening toward a "rock coffee table."

Huh?

Oh, the boulder is squarish shaped!

Thing is, the metaphor made me stop to figure out what image the author was trying to create. If the rafters had merely been careening toward a giant flat rock? Not as pretty but I could have remained in the story without trying to figure out how the hell furniture ended up in the river.

I've read some great books, but as an editor, I might have cut some of the metaphors. Why? Because the author might have a metaphor so good I wanted to highlight it and commit it to memory... but it was bogged down by the other four metaphors and three similes on the same page. The other metaphors/similes added nothing... unless one counts distraction.

Go through your pages and highlight metaphors and similes. Pick the best and cut the rest. Look for confusing metaphors, like rock furniture in the middle of a river.

#2 Stage Direction

She reached out her arm to open the door.

Ok, unless she has mind powers and telekinesis, do we need the direction?

He turned to go down the next street.

He picked up the oars and pulled a few more strokes, eager to get to his favorite fishing spot.

We "get" he'd have to pick up the oars to row his boat, or that is a seriously cool trick.

Be active. Characters can "brush hair out of their face" "open doors" and even slap people without you telling us they reached out an arm or hand to do this. We are smart. Really.

#3 Painful and Alien Movement of Body Parts...

Her eyes flew to the other end of the restaurant.

His head followed her across the room.

All I have to say is... "Ouch."

Make sure your character keeps all body parts attached. Her gaze can follow a person and so can her stare, but if her eyes follow? The carpet gets them fuzzy with dust bunnies and then they don't slide back in her sockets as easily.

#4 Too much Physiology...

Her heart pounded. Her heart hammered. Her pulse beat in her head. Her breath came in choking sobs.

After a page of this? I need a nap. After two pages? I need a drink. We can only take so much heart pounding, thrumming, hammering before we just get worn out. That and I read a lot of entries where the character has her heart hammering so much, I am waiting for her to slip into cardiac arrest at any moment. Ease up on the physiology. Less is often more.

Get a copy of Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi's Emotion Thesaurus to help you vary physiology. Also, if someone's heart is pounding, that's ok. We assume until they are out of danger it's still pounding. No need to remind us.

Really.

#5 Backing Into the Sentence/Passive Voice

In an effort to break up and vary sentence structure, many writers will craft sentences like this:

With the months of stress pressing down on her head, Jessie started ironing the restaurant tablecloths with a fury.

Problem? Passive action. When we use the word "down" then "on" is redundant. Either she is ironing or not ironing. "Started" is overused and makes sloppy writing. That actually goes back to the whole "stage direction" thing.

Active:

Jessie ironed the restaurant tablecloths with a fury, months of stress pressing on her shoulders.

The door was kicked in by the police.

Police kicked in the door.

If you go through your pages and see was clusters? That's a huge hint that passive voice has infected your story.

#6 Almost always Use "Said" as a Tag

"You are such a jerk," she laughed.

A character can't "laugh" something. They can't "snip" "spit" "snarl" "grouse" words. They can say and ever so often they can ask. Said becomes white noise. Readers don't "see" it. It keeps them in the story and cooking along. If we want to add things like laughing, griping, complaining, then fine. It just shouldn't be the tag.

"You are such a jerk." She laughed as she flicked brownie batter onto Fabio's white shirt.

There you go, six easy tips for self-editing. We all make these mistakes and that's why God invented revision (that and to punish the unfaithful). If you can get rid of these common offenders on your own, then good editors can focus on the deeper aspects of your fiction.

Have you had to ruthlessly slay your favorite metaphors? Are you a recovering adverb-addict? What are some other self-editing guidelines you use to keep your prose clean and effective?

I love hearing from you!

This post originally appeared on Kristen Lamb's blog, www.warriorwriters.wordpress.com.