‘Fire Walls’ and Editing Epiphanies

I’ve hit the ‘fire wall’ of the editing stage. And no, I’m not talking about my super not-so-secret computer ninja that fights off all of those pesky viruses that attack my computer from the myriad of research sites I’ve visited (I’m just saying, some don’t seem sketchy until you’ve visited the home page. Then that back button can’t be hit fast enough). No, what I’m talking about is a phenomenon that all writers, nay, all creators, will inevitably face. It’s that phase where you look at your work, read through all of that time and effort, all of the blood, sweat and tears that you put into your project- and you want nothing more than to toss it into a fire pit and light it up. Dance through the ashes wearing nothing but your war paint.


They say its natural to question the validity of your work, that this stage is all a part of the process. And while I appreciate the sentiment, that doesn’t make it any less frustrating to look back on my old projects and attempt to sift through them, to pinpoint the elements that just don’t feel right. I don’t even know where to start. After the past few weeks, I am pretty sure my face will be permanently pinched in this position:


I will admit, I was discouraged. After all of this time, how could my writing still feel so sub-par? I know what makes a good book, I know what that spark feels like as a reader; so why am I still unable to capture the magic and portray it the way that I want? Or am I just being too hard on myself? I wont know, because I wont let anyone read it until I’ve given it the green light (are you starting to see my never-ending vicious little cycle here?) It wont be good enough until someone can tell me how to make it better, and I will never let them read it until I’ve made it good enough. I am Sisyphus pushing my boulder with pure dedication.

In an effort to keep myself from hitting that delete button, I decided to look at this problem from a new angle. I’ve been working really hard with my writing, attempting to hone my skills and get better. I plug along every day, even when I don’t have it in me. I started putting myself out there and writing this blog- which has done amazing things in terms of discovering my own voice in my work. These projects that I am currently editing: they’re older. In fact, the one I’m in the process of slogging through right now is several years old, it was one of the first full novels that I finished when I got back into my writing. So instead of being frustrated with how sub-par it feels, perhaps I should be proud of how far I have come.

Reading through my old work shows me that all of these miniscule steps I am taking every day are actually paying off. I am making progress and I don’t even realize it. I am able to see where my voice feels forced, where the story doesn’t flow, where the word choice is too stiff. I’m finding elemental issues that I hadn’t noticed on previous revisions. Through my efforts I am becoming a better writer. And while that means that I will have a bit of an uphill battle waiting for me during these editing forays, I cannot forget that they are difficult because my writing levels are surpassing my previous skill set.


I am not the best writer that I can be, not by a long shot. But I’m getting there. So instead of being frustrated, I am going to be proud. I will open up that old document and tear it apart with gleeful abandon. Because I know that it will be better, because I know that I am better.

Sorry friends, the bonfire is canceled for today (although I am sure I will attempt to re-schedule it in another week or so when I start in on editing the next novel).


Introductions: Hook, Line and Sinker

Introductions are the most exciting and ultimately terrifying of the literary endeavors. There is a firmly held belief that without imbuing the essence of a meteor shower into your first few lines, your manuscript will summarily find its new home in the overly-inhabited trash pile of the publisher. I disagree with this sentiment, primarily because I firmly believe that by now they have fully embraced the art of recycling.

How do you make your own beautiful creation stand out like a beacon of hope to prospective readers? I’ve never felt particularly qualified to answer this question. After all, its not exactly like I’ve got a slew of best sellers standing proudly at attention while bearing my name. No, I do not have that. But then I realized that I have something else, something better. I am an avid reader- one of those book junkies you hope to hook on your opening line, fiercely loyal to my favorite authors and quick to recommend their newest work. What could possibly make me more qualified than being a proud member of what is ultimately the target audience?

I believe that there is something universal that all agents, publishers and readers are looking for when they peruse the pages; they want to find something honest, original and brave. The best work will keep your mind reeling and your fingers feverishly thumbing through the pages. In your first chapter, you need to catch their attention and give them a reason to stay. Think of it like an appetizer, giving them a taste for what the kitchen has to offer. But how do you get them to stay?

There are a thousand theories on the do’s and don’ts of a first chapter, a lot of it can be pretty conflicting; don’t open with a dream sequence, don’t have too little dialog but also don’t open with dialog; don’t open with a character’s thoughts. Now, while there may be some level of merit to some of these ‘rules’ in regards to specific publishers, I’ve never turned a book down because the character had a dream on page one. I think a lot of this has to do with the context of the story, and while you should perhaps be cautious using different techniques, I don’t think there are any automatic disqualifiers. So instead, I am going to focus on the style of the first chapter as opposed to the concrete content.

Keep your prose tight. This is the biggest struggle of the first chapter. Tight verbiage is the sign of a seasoned writer. We all want to show off our skills, to pull someone in. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of flourishing descriptions and intense back-stories. I strongly advise that you be sparing. You don’t need to explain your entire world in the first chapter; you can let the mysteries slowly unfold throughout your work. Don’t lay all of your chips down up front. Remember who you are and why you are writing this book. What is it about? What is your purpose? Hold on to that and do not lose your focus.

Ensure that your tense and point of view stay uniform. If you have a changing POV in your story, make it clear quickly who is speaking. I’ve read a book or two where I had no idea which character I was following for a few pages, and that can get very frustrating for a reader. You want your work to be smooth, to be concise and easy to follow. Unclear shifting of tense and POV will leave your reader confused, which doesn’t exactly entice them to continue on to the next page. Consistency will be key.

Introduce a strong character right away. The quickest way to get a reader hooked is to give them something to care about. Typically, this means that you need to give them a character that will matter to them. The main point here is to give them a character that feels real; one that you could picture living and breathing, a three dimensional being that draws them in. In my personal opinion, the focus should be more on their personality traits and how they are interacting with the world around them, as opposed to flower descriptors. Teach them about your character through movement; let their actions speak for them. You don’t have to explain that they have a chip on their shoulder, or that they would give you the shirt off their back- show the reader these traits, let them come to these conclusions on their own instead of having to take your word for it. After all, you created them- of course you love them. Let them fall for your creation too.

Be sparing with your descriptive settings. The main point to take away from this piece of advice is that you don’t want to get lost in your setting; unless your scenery is essentially acting the part of a character, it’s best to be concise. You can show off your descriptive prowess later in the story when your reader has a reason to care; right now, you still need to convince them to turn the page. It is easy to get lost in descriptors. I have put some books down simply because the explanations overpowered the story itself. If it’s not going to add to the scene, then perhaps it doesn’t belong there. Pack a punch with the least amount of details, get creative with how you describe your scene. For example; in Crime and Punishment, the scene is described in terms of the way that Raskolnikov resented the opulence of St. Petersburg. You were able to understand the setting through your character’s eyes in a way that helped lay the groundwork for the rest of the story. Describe without making it obvious what you are doing. It might be an excellent passage, but if it doesn’t add to the story, then you might need to let it go, or perhaps find a more fitting section for it to call home.

Choose your details carefully, create a sense of urgency. When you do use your descriptive words, make sure they pack a punch. Instead of saying that the bike was dusty from lack of use, show the reader the corroded metal and the blanket of unused cobwebs. Use imagery that will stick, something that will hold the attention. Amp up your word choice, step outside of the box.

If possible, attempt a mini plot. This wont work in every situation, but in some situations, having a mini-plot to delve through will give your readers something to sink their teeth into. It will introduce your characters and show how they handle tough situations. This could be something similar to a magazine excerpt with ‘false closure’ at the end. It will only be the tip of the iceberg, but it will show what your story might contain. Take Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, for example; the first chapter stood alone quite well, it introduced the setting and the life that Harry was going to have, it ended with ‘false closure,’ and it successfully hooked the reader enough to start in the Chapter 2 where the crux of the story began to unfold.

Be fashionably late to your own party. Begin your story as late as you can, as close to the drama as possible. You want your reader to jump in with a sense of urgency, you don’t want them meandering through page after page without a clear path. Throw them into the action just before the elevator door closes, right as the plane is about to take off, when the cab has sped by.

Conflict is the key. Bait them, give them a reason to see the story through to the end. Make them care about what happens. Make them believe in your characters the way that you do. And make them squirm a little bit. We all love a touch of conflict, a dash of drama- do not disappoint, give them a taste of what your book has to offer.

Be bold. Put your best work out there. Do not humbly introduce your story, do it with a flourish. Make it memorable. Have confidence in your work. Remember why you are doing this and show them.

Take my advice with a grain of salt, like I said- I do not have a number of best sellers behind my name. I am bumbling along like everyone else. What works for me or my pieces might not work for yours- that doesn’t mean that one way is right and the other is wrong; they are different creations in need of different elements. I am a reader, that is where my insights come from. I acknowledge the elements that I crave to read and try to work those into my own pieces. Do your own research to decide what works for you.

Pick your favorite books and find a common thread. What made you turn the page, what hooked you, what was it about that story that made it impossible to turn down? Read your favorite books and look at them with your writerly eyes. You might be amazed at the simplistic beauty that brought you back for more. No two stories are ever the same, therefore the advice to imprint on each project will not be universal. You know your style and your stories better than anyone. Make them shine.

Armed with a Pen: The Editing War

You must view your work with the clinical eye of a forest fire: burn down the old to make room for the new. Unless you are descended straight from the muses themselves, the first draft is going to be a ragamuffin of a creation in desperate need of some TLC. For me personally, finishing that first draft is a mixed blessing; I’m elated that I actually saw the project through to the final sentence, and I am simultaneously terrified of the mountain that is now looming before me. The editing process takes up the vast majority of my project time; to use an over-worked example: if writing were an iceberg, the first draft would be the little blip on the surface, but the editing is the hulking beast just below the water line. Suffice it to say, it’s a large investment. I have never been able to take the image I have in my head and get it down on paper perfectly the first time. I don’t think I would trust anyone who could do something like that, it just isn’t natural.

I wish I had a series of masterful tricks and rules to impart on the best practices for the editing endeavor, but alas, I do not. I stumble through the process blindly, just like everyone else. It’s really just a matter of grit and determination. I do, however, have my own personal set of guidelines that I try to follow when I reach this stage of the game. I am not a pro, but thus far they have worked out well for me. Spoiler: it involves a lot of reading and re-reading.

If I had to condense my editing theories and boil them all down into one word, it would be: distance. There is nothing more important than giving yourself space to find perspective on your project. It’s more difficult than you would think; these stories take up our lives, we pour our hearts and souls into them, we string one word after another even when we don’t think we have the energy to complete one more sentence. So to take something that is so personal and try to view it with a clinical eye can feel next to impossible some days.

What, you may ask, is the easiest way to create distance between you and your project? Well, it is no different than creating distance between you and a friend (and no, I am not telling you to have a few too many drinks and decide to have an ‘honest conversation’ with your novel about the new man in it’s life). Time- that is the answer- time creates distance, its only natural. After I finish the last sentence on my novel, I close it up, and stick it on a shelf. Then I work on something else- anything else to get my mind off of the old project and immersed in something new.

In a few weeks, when I finally feel like I am ready to start digging down into the trenches, I will take it down, dust it off and crack the cover open. The first read through is going to be the easiest part. This first round is always where I get a feel for the way my story is presenting itself to the reader. I take care of any small corrections: spelling, grammar, name usage, etc. I also make a ton of notes on scenes that need to be changed, impressions that I get and new additions that have to be worked in. Personally, my first drafts always wind up feeling a bit too ‘fluffy’ for my tastes. So this is the point where I start modifying my word choice and adding some tougher scenes to force the grit to bubble to the surface. It’s always important to pay attention to the building blocks of your story and view how it unfolds to an outsider. I want to capture the big picture before I start tearing at all of the little pieces of my work.

The second round is where the true damage will take place. In round one I am merely an ember; in round two I turn into a raging fire, burning through my work mercilessly. Do not go into this task lightly, my friends. I come ready for literary war at this point. Never charge at that first page without being fully armed with your pen, willing and able to slash through the enemy letters without batting an eye, using copious sticky notes as your shield. This is where most words will be shed, each one fighting for their right to survive through to the final production. There can be no mercy when you are a warrior of the words; everything must have a purpose, the prose must tighten their ranks like the Spartans, each character must fall into their proper role, and all plot holes must be expertly paved over. You forge your work in the fire, making it stronger because of the trials it must endure at your hands.

I’ve found that a thesaurus will be one of your best friends at this stage, test your boundaries, pay attention to the connotation of your word choices, and whenever possible, condense. You can easily give a stronger emphasis to the underlying feel of your novel simply based on your word choice. For example: saying that someone is anxious will give you a stronger feeling than saying that they are very worried, the same way that saying you cherish someone gives you a warmer feeling than that you simply like or love them. Be intentional with the words that you choose, they will become your voice.

Pay attention to your characters and make sure that they remain true to themselves throughout the work, consistency will really give your novel the polish that it needs to become a believable piece. I go so far as to test the dialog: reading their quotes out loud to get a feel for how natural my word choice and inflections are. Are these things that you can actually picture your character saying or do they need to be changed? Do they have enough conflict? Never make anything easy for them; add some drama by strategically placing a few more problems for them to overcome.

When you are all done go back and do it again, as many times as you need. Keep tearing it down and rebuilding it until you feel like it has finally matured enough to stand up on its own. It’s not an easy process, and I know my system is a bit labor intensive; I’m sure someone else out there has a much easier way to go about this. But it’s always worked for me, and editing is one of those things that I firmly believe should not be rushed.

September is the month of going back; I’m pulling out old projects, dusting them off and pushing through until they feel ready. It is one of the most difficult parts of the process, but it is also one of my favorites. I love re-reading scenes that I once wrote, getting lost in a story of my own creation for a fleeting moment and rediscovering what I once loved about these characters. It feels great to dust off the pages and make them shine. I can only hope that the second, or third, or fourth draft will finally sound like the story that I had in my mind, the one that kept me awake at night before I was able to get it all down on paper.