Writing Technique – Black Belt Manuscript Editing

samurai-swordWhen you meet twelve reputable agents in one afternoon and they all give you the exact same piece of advice, you kind of have to take notice.

It’s called Agentfest, an incredible afternoon in the middle of the incredible event called Thrillerfest. Three minutes of undivided attention to give an agent your pitch and hear the magic words – “Sounds interesting, send it to me.” Then line up for the next agent and do it again. I spent all morning getting help polishing my pitch with other writers, managed to talk to twelve agents in the afternoon, then slept for twelve hours. I kid you not, it’s an intense time.

I got eight positive responses, requests for partials or the full manuscript of The Night Nurse. An outstandingly successful day, I’d say. But all the agents – every single one of them – told me to take my story from 136,000 words to 100,000 or less.

I said, no problem. Be in touch in a couple of weeks.

Do the math. I needed to cut my story by almost a third. That’s a lot. In story-speak, that’s two and a half characters, ten scenes, or an entire subplot. Holy crap.

One agent, a delightful man named Bob Mecoy, gave me some sage advice. “Take a Sharpie to every line of description,” he said. “Polish what’s left to really bring out the story’s plot, character development, and themes. Then add back in the description that absolutely has to be there.”

Okay, that was good advice. I also found out that vigorous application of standard editing techniques helps, too. Here’s some of them.

How To Cut A Manuscript

Give your story the Mecoy treatment as described above.

Look at all those brilliant, illuminating, scintillating adjectives and pick one of them for the whole sentence or description. Better yet, kill them all in favour of the right verb.

Don’t belabour the point. If a character trait, plot point, or theme has been made once, don’t make it again. If your second mention of the point doesn’t make it grow or take it in a new direction, then out comes the sword.

Is that chunk of character history really necessary? You might love it, but if the reader doesn’t totally need to know about your character’s disturbed past, burn it.

Keep the end in mind. Your story has one overall thrust, one overall direction. Subplots can add colour and pattern to the weave, but if a scene or character takes the story off in a different direction entirely, that’s too much. That’s a distraction. Hit delete.

Each paragraph, each sentence, should move a character or plotline forward. If it doesn’t, it goes.

Give your baby over to someone else. I am lucky enough to be married to a detail-oriented prolific reader and writer with an analytical mind. When she edits my stories she sees everything I cannot. If you know someone who can really see your novel with the eyes of an editor, they will give you a second perspective on what needs to go and what needs to stay.

Getting It In The Bones

Some good stuff is coming out of this process. I can see how most of my cuts are making the story stronger and better. I can also feel that many of these editing tools are becoming ingrained in my thinking. They are becoming a part of the way I naturally write. Which means – hopefully – that novel 2 will be that much better out of the starting blocks.

My interested agents will have a damn good story on their desks soon. I’ll be diving into novel 2 soon, with a sharpened suite of editing tools at my fingertips. I’m pretty sure I’ll also stop writing at 100,000 words or so.


Loglines – Setting The Story Hook

hook the reader

It’s soon time for me to pitch my first novel to agents. In today’s fast-paced and overheated novel world, you realistically have about five seconds to capture an agent’s attention – not five pages, or one page, or even five paragraphs. Five seconds. That’s one sentence. One idea, one concept. One chance.

That’s the hook. The logline, they call it in the movie biz. And right now I am learning everything I can about putting together a good one. Let me share some of my research with you as I go.

25 words or less. The best loglines, so they say, are 17 words. Short, snappy, punchy in the extreme. Every single word must count, must ring. The logline is the ultimate reduction, the ultimate poetry.

What’s in a hook line, a logline? Simple – your good guy, your bad guy, and the conflict between them. But no, it’s not that simple. You need to add one more thing. Your logline has to have emotion.

In 25 words or less, you have to make your audience care about the good guy, and maybe even hate the bad guy. You have to put them on edge, or light up their curiosity, or make them fall in love, or get them scared. Emotion, that’s the key. Hook lines are far different than a plot summary. They are meant to go straight to the heart.

Don’t name your characters, that wastes words. Describe them. Your protagonist is a baker, or a student, or a swordslinger. Then give them an adjective – a reluctant baker, a fearful student, a diminutive swordslinger. One word about their profession or central trait, and one adjective. Do the same for the villain, and you’ve brought them both to life in four words or so.

Okay, so you have the good guy and the bad guy. Now put something between them. The conflict. The big thing your protagonist has to accomplish. The unique thrust of your story. The thing that makes it stand out from all the others, the thing that makes it shine. Describe the battle to be fought or the treasure to be won or the evil to be stopped in as few highly-charged words as humanly possible. Note I said, ‘or’. No room for extravagance here. Choose only one, only the central theme of your story. Then polish it till it shines.

There you have it. The beginnings of a great hook, a great logline, to capture someone’s attention and make them ask for more. If you have room within the 25 words, dress it up a little. Add some urgency. Add some of your story’s originality. Make it even more memorable.

Where can you use your hook? That’s easy – everywhere. As the first line in your query letters to agents and, eventually, publishers. In the elevator. At the conference table, the dinner table, the bar. Whenever somebody asks you what your book is about, the hook is what you give them. Then, once they’re hooked, you can reel them in with your pitch. (More about that one later.)

I found a couple of sites worth looking at for more about loglines. They focus on the film/script genre, but the advice is identical for novels, too. Check out How To Write Better Loglines, and 10 Tips For Writing Loglines.

Now get busy. Once you have a great hook, drop it in the comments section. I’d love to see it.

What’s that? Oh, you want to know what I’ve come up with? Thanks for asking. It’s still a work in progress, of course, but how about this?

A hotheaded massage therapist risks losing his friends, his profession, and his sanity to stop a killer nurse who is tired of running.

You can check out an excerpt for this novel here.

Published in: on May 31, 2013 at 5:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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