Several weeks ago when Elizabeth Burton of Zumaya Books and I were working on the final edits of my novel, I commented on how interesting the process was and what a good experience this would be for my creative writing students. Liz generously offered to make a cyber visit to my classroom and offer comments on the beginning chapter of a fantasy novel called Ruination written by Justin Johnson, a student in my Writing for Publication class. The session provided a fascinating look into the way an editor thinks and resulted in some wonderful advice for writers in general.
When Liz first agreed to visit, she asked for three chapters or 50 pages, her general submission requirements. She explained that she likes to look at this much work because writers often begin their novels in the wrong place–the best beginning may well be later in the novel, further into the action.
The editing session was organized through Google documents so that my class could watch live-editing and Justin and I could chat with Liz through a window that opened on the side. Students watched on a screen in front of the room or on their own laptops.
Liz offered advice that ranged from thinking in terms of the character at all times to making the writing itself more effective. Writing should be descriptive, but never bogged down with too many details. Liz commented, “Essentially, never include anymore than is absolutely necessary to keep the action going.” Readers, she noted, don’t always like character descriptions–just hints so they can fill in the blanks.
She offered similar advice for keeping the story moving. Start with action and stay with it, she advised. “Wordy,” she cautioned, “always waters down the drama.” Keeping description simple, she pointed out, can be more powerful than using a lot of words.
Another point of advice–be selective about how much information you give in a single dose. “Maintain point of view,” she said, “by remembering you’re thinking like your character. Beware of doing info dumps where they aren’t appropriate.” Background can be worked in slowly. There’s lots of time in novels. Keep character in mind at all times, even down to that basics of word choice. A determined woman wouldn’t “find herself” somewhere, Liz noted.
Liz also gave suggestions for improving writing style. “The one piece of common wisdom you can bank on is avoid -ly adverbs if possible.” She also suggested never using “self” pronouns unless absolutely necessary. A hole can’t fill itself up with anything; instead, it is filled.
Justin at one point jokingly commented, “I don’t like the English language anymore.” Liz immediately responded, “Nobody does. The others are so much easier because they’re purebreds. English is a mutt.”
And while the editing process can be painstaking and sometimes frustrating, at the end of the session Justin also discovered one of the rewards–a series of compliments from Liz about his work in general and an offer to “talk.”
Justin described the session as being more informative than he ever could have imagined. “It made me see my work in ways only an outsider looking in could have seen it,” he said. He especially enjoyed Liz’s mixture of constructive criticism and humor. “Overall,” Justin said, “this editing session practically tripled my college education.”