Two hundred yards north of my office, a failing fence line from the original ranch marks the beginning of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land that runs unimpeded to the next state. Several hundred thousand acres provide habitat for bear, mountain lion, elk, deer, turkey, fox, and only God knows what else. It’s really a wild wonderland out there.
Two months ago, pops of rifles being sited in for hunting season rolled up the small valley I see from my office. The season is tiered, with the most difficult hunts first: black powder (the old muzzleloaders used by those wanting an authentic experience); bow hunting; and lastly, rifle. Concurrent with the pops, vehicles appear along the interstate highway as it crests the pass; hunters scout game and stake territory for their annual adventure.
It’s important to note I don’t know a single hunter in our valley who hunts exclusively for the fun of it. They eat what they harvest. Share it with friends and family. It’s not a mad rush for a nice set (“rack”) of antlers on the wall, but rather a tradition that yields a healthier alternative to meat purchased in our local grocery store. (We won’t go there.) My family doesn’t eat venison (deer), so we don’t hunt it. Fortunately for the elk, which we love, we’re on the wrong side of the valley because they prefer high timber on the nouth-facing slopes that catch most of our summer rain.
But it’s interesting that our yard traffic increases as hunting season escalates. More does and fawns (full of energy because they’re big and strong now) visit. A bachelor party of six young bucks dropped by last week before an unleashed neighborhood dog chased them away. The daily migration of cloven beasts becomes a parade I enjoy when movement catches my eye.
Every once in a while, a truly amazing creature saunters confidently through the meadow. Full of his manly self, ignoring his lessers, I’m convinced these loner bucks know they’re safely on private land. Each one hangs out for a few days until someone bigger pushes him over the ridge into harm’s way.
The blaze-orange dots—hunters—bobbling on the dangerously sloped mountainside two miles north have no idea what’s ten feet outside my dining room window. But the deer and I watch each other for a few minutes before I resume my work, and they finish mowing the last of the summer lawn.
For the past year, I’ve been on an adventure to publish. The journey, like those of so many authors, started in childhood. Neighbors say I’d sit under an elm tree in the back yard, with pencil and notepad in hand, writing. I wrote through school before ending with a marvelous career in marketing/advertising. And during the snowiest winter on record (in a VERY snowy place), I wrote a manuscript, then stumbled into a series of opportunities that resulted in a very fine literary agent and visibility in publishing houses whose names you’d recognize.
As of today, I have one manuscript ready to go (which means hand off to a traditional publisher or self publish) and another in its final self-edit. From here, that second manuscript will move to an insightful conceptual editor for thorough review. And then I have decisions to make before picking up the third manuscript again.
Since there’s a vast difference between editing a press release or brochure and editing an 85,000-word document, I asked a question of other authors represented by the literary agency that represents me: what is your single strongest editing technique? I share their responses below, with my great thanks for their generosity. (What an amazing group of people! I am honored.)
THIS IS IT: READ IT ALOUD. Oh, yes, indeedy, this works. This is your takeaway from today’s blog. The process is as slow as cold molasses, and you need to warn everyone in your household that you’re not losing your mind. But hearing my written words, particularly dialogue, has highlighted my “literary fat,” as well as unearthed problems with idea progression. I know these manuscripts so well that I sometimes make assumptions about what the reader knows. That’s a big mistake and this technique goes a long way toward correcting it.
READ ALOUD WITH DIFFERENT VOICES. One suggestion was to read each character’s dialogue in a different voice. Doing so has helped me spot characters whose linguistic tempos, speech patterns, and vocabularies should differ more than they do. So I’ve been able to refine characters by reading in “their” voices. And as a result, I’ve made each a little more distinct—a gift to my readers that will enable them to bond with the characters more easily.
READ FROM THE BACK FIRST. I’ve actually combined this with reading aloud. I started with my last chapter and am slowly and methodically moving to the beginning, chapter by chapter. Not only does this help me approach the end of the book “fresh,” but my enthusiasm for the closing of my manuscript—it’s climax—has increased, and I’ve spotted opportunities to make it better. I am convinced my entire manuscript will benefit from my reading back-to-front.
RECRUIT THOSE BETA READERS! I am a huge fan of healthy distance. I have three Beta readers ranging from early twenties to mid eighties. I know they’ll highlight individual issues and respond to different passages as they live the adventure with my characters.
Do you have a favorite self-editing technique? I’d love to hear about it.
Every summer, the ranch-gate culvert housed a den of foxes. We’d see them shortly after we arrived in late May, then hear them for three months as they circled the house after nightfall, yipping and howling for attention and food. (The nocturnal symphony included yodeling coyotes, one mountain lion roar, and unidentified noises guaranteed to scare the bejeebers out of visiting city kids.)
Mama Fox, whom someone named Fanny, was an attractive vixen, a fixture in our glacial-moraine valley. Her kits‚ goofy with spindly red legs and tall black knee socks, grew rapidly to mark the passage of a fleeting season. They were a tradition.
Foxes on this mountaintop where I now live are a half mile away, tucked in a ravine. Distant neighbors at best. But we have Isabella.
She is a graceful creature with the face of an angel. I first saw her bedded down four feet from me, on our east slope in a tight aspen grove. She enjoyed a sunny patch where 800 daffodils would bloom sixty days later. The tiny, spotted fawn had a perfectly symmetric white face, very unusual and distinctive. And her eyelashes would make a supermodel jealous. I could see them from the dining room! When I posted her photo, a friend said she was so beautiful that her name must be Isabella.
The early spring of her youth led to summer, then a less-brutal winter, and finally another warm season. I had forgotten about her except when I happened across her image during iPhoto housekeeping.
But after our fourth snow of the season, I pulled into the drive to find deer munching wildflower shreds. One looked up and—voila! The white face. The long lashes. The peaceful visage. She had grown from a beautiful fawn into a lovely doe. I got out and rounded the corner for a better look. She delicately nipped her way to the edge of the meadow, glanced at me over her shoulder, and sashayed down the hill.
Long live Isabella!
I’m editing manuscript two, arduously preparing for my next steps. I’d like to share what works for me during this most-important step of the publishing process.
- I don’t edit while I write.Writing and editing are two separate functions for me. I try to get the story down all at once, then sweep through it to find logic flaws, or passages that need to be improved. If I try to edit while writing, I hop down rabbit trails that detract from my storyline.
- I get healthy distance. Ideally, I leave a document for a month or two, then look at it with fresh eyes. Sometimes (and I hate to admit this) I don’t ever remember writing passages and dialogue! But my literary amnesia means I have the distance to see the document more like a reader or professional editor would.
- I read aloud. I really hate this tool, and Ranchman the Superhero always checks on me because he thinks I’m talking to myself for hours. But reading my manuscript aloud helps me hear passages that don’t flow, spot areas that don’t make sense, or discover chapters in which I assume the reader knows my story as intimately as I do. (I encourage you to close your office door so no one thinks you’re losing your mind.)
- I print the document. As an environmentally aware person, I limit myself to two printed documents, both double-sided. The first edit is double-spaced because there are usually many corrections to be made. The last edit is single-spaced—as I’d see it in book form. I catch SO MUCH MORE when I read my manuscript on paper. Maybe it’s generational…
- I slice and dice. If in doubt, I take it out. Every word needs to earn its right to be on the page. Kill the document—because I assure you, someone else will.
- I know SpellCheck is not bullet proof. Don’t just look for the red words during your edit because SpellCheck doesn’t catch homonyms, improper word usage, or missing words. If you’re so deeply in your self-edit that you’re glazing over, get up to do something different. A brisk walk, perusing a magazine, or making dinner works for me.
- I quit. At some point, I’m not making the document better, I’m just changing it. This is a very difficult line to recognize, but I watch for it and end the edit when I find I’ve crossed it.
Do you have suggestions about how to accomplish a self edit? I’d love to hear them.[subscribe2]
After hunting and fishing in Idaho, I returned to a quiet valley easing into winter after a too-short autumn. Blaze orange bobbles punctuate the mountainsides north of my office, although elk that descend these slopes remain hidden. Swirling clouds of yellow aspen leaves—great gusts lifting flutterers high above my roofline—pile into messy triangles against every vertical surface.
And a blue heron (a bird that’s considered a good omen in cultures across the globe, and one I see on our rivers when I fly fish), flew from the bottom of the meadow this week and landed on my office roof! I’ve never seen one within ten miles of this spot, so sat here, open-jawed, as it soared to its perch above my head.
During nature’s seasonal preparations, something more important occurred: little kids appeared en masse for our church Fall Festival.
I come from a big city, one of the nation’s largest. Words like neighborhood make me think of crime watch, and community means awareness. These terms don’t represent people, altruism, or relationships. Yet this little festival unites families from up and down my valley, crossing demographics, socio-economic status, and generations as if everyone in the thirty-mile crevice were related—and on good terms—in a place more Mayberry RFD than Miami.
The community is also young, so hasn’t developed the my-granddaddy-knew-your-granddaddy prejudices of more established places. And families are happy to be here, having migrated from somewhere else because this is where they want to try to make a go of it, and not because of tradition or habit.
There were no tribes today. Only community.
Dinosaurs and Darth Vader; hamburgers, Harry Potter, and hot dogs; pirates, pumpkins, and puppies. In the context of this place, there’s hope for a whole world beyond our valley’s peaks. Happy Fall to you!