First of all, yes, you do need to edit your story. Don’t listen to the little voice that tells you it’s perfect. The voice is lying.
There are a lot of good books out there about editing, and I think they do a much better job of giving you the real hard-core grammar and structure tips, so I will stay away from the technical issues and talk about editing from a writerly point of view. That is, fixing rough patches where your writing just stinks, adding length, shortening unbearably long sections, all the stuff that grammar-masters can’t help you with.
The most useful method of editing for me is self-editing as I write. This slows down the writing process a bit, but it is essential for my style of writing. I use a lot of tension in my scenes, one sentence building upon the ones that came before it until the scene comes to an explosion point. In a scene like that, you can’t go back later and change a paragraph here or there without a lot of sweating, because everything dovetails.
The way it works is simple: when I write a sentence or two, I stop and read the last two paragraphs down to the sentence I just wrote. Another sentence, I read it again. Another sentence, again. This way, I can tell instantly whether my scene is taking a stupid turn, or whether some dialogue didn’t work.
I supposed it’s the perfectionist in me, but this method has worked extremely well for all my years of writing. I study every sentence, every word; if it’s not just right, I cut it out and do it again. When I am finished with the scene, it feels solid and there is very little that needs to be removed or changed. Usually when we edit our stories, we only need to change one or two words every few pages.
This method may not be for all writers; I’ve read a variety of methods. Some people make their rough draft an absolute horrorshow mess on purpose, so they don’t feel intimidated by it, and then re-write the book five or so times. Others just hire a professional. I think of my writing as a kind of ‘prose poetry’ and I want every word just right.
In your final draft, the sections you should spend the most time and thought on is 1) your book title, 2) your first five pages, and 3) your last five pages. Many a reader picks up a book, opens it to the first (or last, or sometimes the middle) page, and reads the first paragraph. If they like it, they keep reading. If the writing is stiff, scared, tense, pretentious, high-handed, or in any way annoying, they immediately give up on the book.
Titles are the first thing your reader will see, and every reader will make a judgement call based on the title alone.
So many very, very poor books have been bestsellers merely because they had such a cool title. On the other hand, some very good books have never hit the big-time simply because the title was horrible. Did you know, for example, that the author of “Twilight” wanted to name her book “Forks”? Forks. As in the town, Forks. Who would read a book named Forks? Thankfully, one very skilled editor changed the title to Twilight, and you have an instant hit. (Which is funny, because for all I can tell, there is nothing having to do with Twilight in the entire book. Doesn’t matter, the name sold the book.)
Make mock-ups of your book cover. A bit of construction paper cut into the size of a paperback book should do. Use paint or markers to put one of your title ideas on each mock-up, make it look as much like a real book as you can. Now hang them on the wall, and stand back. Now, pretend you are in a bookstore… which book would you pick up, based on that title? Choose the one that grabs you, or keep thinking up new titles if none do.
Remember, a gripping and intriguing name is more important than accuracy. Honestly, if you can’t think of anything gripping that has to do with your book, just pull a really cool word out of the air and use it. Worked for “Twilight.” If it can somehow, by some stretch of the imagination, also somehow describe your story, kudos to you.
Your first page is (usually) the next thing your potential reader will examine. It should have a good ‘feel’ to it. Keep your language simple, words small and common. If a reader has to stop and struggle with a ridiculously long, smartie-pants word, he will stop enjoying the moment. Narrate in a quiet voice, but confident, and keep your writing very relaxed. If you writing ‘feels’ like the kind of person that people like to hang out with, people will keep reading. If the writing is self-conscious or nervous, they will stop reading.
Get right into the plot, don’t try to impress anyone with your skill. Nobody is reading the book to find out what a fantastic descriptive writer you are, they just want to know that there is a story that might be fun in there. I’ve heard that if you don’t somehow bring up your Villain or Plot Conflict in the first page, you don’t have a first page.
This is why having your plot worked out is SO important. If you are having trouble with where to start your story, close your eyes and imagine your book: now pick out the plot. Just the plot, no extras. Just how does the Hero defeat the Villain, period. Now rewind to the beginning of the Plot thread itself; that is your start. You don’t need background on your character, how they met, etc.; you can add that later. It’s more intriguing to learn about a character as he lives through his plot than having a university course on “Fred” dumped in your lap from page one.
The last five pages are vital, and the Plot is just as important here. This may sound too obvious to state, but the book must come to a conclusion, much like the concluding statements in a lawyer’s argument. It can’t just peter out and stop because you run out of ideas, it has to actually have a firm, full, complete, fulfilling END that means something, that completes the Plot, that is just as tied up with your Conflict as the first five pages. Your last five pages have to put the final punches in, reveal the final secret, and show the reader why the victory was sweet. If the reader doesn’t come away feeling as if together himself and your Hero have accomplished something, if all the loose ends aren’t tied up (unless it’s obviously the first in a series), he won’t be happy with your book, no matter how good the beginning and middle was.
Editing the rest of the pages between the first and last is the easiest part of editing. Most of it is just seeing what is really there, not glossing over it in your mind because you are so familiar with it. Have someone read it out-loud, preferably someone who has never read it before. We had our computer read our whole book out-loud to us, using built-in voice software (we have Macs, they come standard with this feature). This was fantastic: we were able to hear every single repeated word, every single spelling error instantly because the cruel computer would read what was there, not what we THOUGHT was there.
Prepare to have your nifty cool names butchered. But keep in mind, that is what is going to happen when other people read those weird names. Can you handle having everyone mispronounce your cool names? If not, change their spelling.
The computer-voice was really dull and boring to begin with, so sections that were boring became unendurable. We simply could not sit through them, and made notes right there to cut those out. Sections that seemed funny when written became really long, drawn-out, and boring as all get-out when they were actually read, especially by a computer that won’t skip over the boring parts, but will drag you right through them. You might discover that what you thought was funny… isn’t. Cut it out; dumb scenes that don’t actually accomplish any purpose are not needed. They just clutter up the story.
But even with the boring computer voice, other parts that were genuinely funny, or a really good description, still held our attention when read this way. You know it’s a really good scene if the computer reads it in drone-voice, and you still laugh. Having the computer read our drafts yielded such bountiful results that we instantly made it a mandatory step in our self-editing process.
There is one final step. Once you think your story is done, put it away for several weeks until the memory of it grows fuzzy and you cannot remember everything exactly anymore. Work on a different story or project. Then read it again. Once you put distance between yourself and the story, you might be astonished by what you find. It might be a lot better than you thought — or a lot worse.
You will notice what wasn’t well explained. If you find yourself skipping paragraphs because you want to get on with the story, take a very close look at those paragraphs you skip over. A good story will keep even the author engrossed with every single paragraph. If you are skipping parts, your reader will too: that means those paragraphs are unnecessary and need to be eliminated.
Less is more. When you have gotten done with your book, sit down and just imagine it from start to end. There are going to be parts you just don’t remember. They didn’t stick in your head, and were not memorable. CUT THEM OUT. Be merciless. Do not allow their little voices to plead “But I’m a good description!” Ignore them. “But I’m such witty, funny dialogue!” Yah, but the characters are talking about French Fries for four pages! Cut the scenes if you can’t remember them, or if these sections have nothing to do with plot or character development. Only the stuff you can remember after you haven’t read your story for three months is worth keeping.
Basically, cut this thing down to the bone. Make it skinny without making it a zombie. Lean-ness means the difference between “exciting” and “boring.” Too much fat, boring to read through. Lean, it goes fast and the reader never gets caught on blobs of filler. The leaner a story, the better. Unless you are like my brother, and you write like a a computer technician, using only the exact phrases necessary to describe any action. But since most of us have a problem with making a book bloated, rather than making it too thin, I’ll stick with the cutting advice.
Fight scenes should be short and sweet, but not so short that there is absolutely no description of what is going on. Think of a fight scene like a fast brush painting. A few lines that describe the situation, brief to give the reader that dizzy sense that things are going fast. Use small words and short sentences; the longer the sentence, the slower the reading feels.
One further step is to give the whole story, or alternately just the first three chapters, to an outsider; someone who strikes you as the kind of person in your reader market, preferably not someone who knows you very well. (Relatives will say they love it just because they are kin. But the guy at the laundromat or two cubicles down at work will be objective.) If you are really lucky, they will give you objective criticism; don’t ignore it.
And last of all, if something is nagging you saying “it could be better,” listen. Don’t insult your readers by thinking, “there’s garbage on the market, and IT sells… so what does it matter? They won’t notice, what I wrote is better than that trash.”
First, never treat a reader as stupid. If you do, the reader will finish the book FEELING stupid because he was treated that way, and that’s purely insulting. If you treat a reader as smart, he will finish the book feeling smart (even if he didn’t understand half of what he read) and that will leave him with a warm happy feeling.
Second, if the story is not finished, it’s not finished, so don’t get in a big rush. Go back and finish it. Doing it right may take you far longer than you wanted, but it will produce work that will last longer than you will.