After the heat of creation cools, a discerning and dispassionate eye is needed. A writer has to wear the hat of editor to polish their work to perfection. On the cattle drive to market, the best stories are lean. The rest of the herd gets culled out by attrition. Entire pages may be casualties. Paragraphs may be left rotting in the cruel desert sun.
Prose can get ripped out of place like a bloody heart in the hand of the Terminator-—but as a self-editor, you cannot relent. An old proverb says: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” You do yourself a favor, beatting your writing like a red-headed step-child, bludgeoning it into shape. It’s kinder that you do it than to leave it to the editor you hope will publish your work. Like the song says: “Sometimes you gotta be cruel to be kind.” This is especially true when dealing with yourself.
As an editor, be prepared to read a story as if some unknown stranger had submitted it to you. Several edits will need to be done. Instead of reading and trying to catch everything at once, it’s easier to focus on a few things at a time. Here is a checklist you can use after you’ve run spellchecker and eliminated grammatical errors (Always your first step). Stories with obvious errors are rejected out of hand without even being fully read by editors that dislike wasting their valuable time.
1. Is there an absorbing opening hook? The best would be an action scene. Get the reader firmly on board the train before bothering to explain ANYTHING.
2. Is the “voice” of the writing smooth? Do sentences vary in length? Does sentence construction vary? Does the rhythm of words, the flow of sentences gently sweep the reader along, or are there overly complex sentences where the train of thought can be lost, where focus becomes uncertain.
You want the reader lulled into the world of your creation, to believe it real. This spell can be broken easily, especially if the reader has to stop to reread a passage for the sake of clarity. A reader must never be reminded that they are actually reading and not living out your story along with its main POV character.
Writers of Horror--ask yourself; am I trying to force mood and atmosphere, invoking horror through the language of my exposition? This is not the best way to go. Instead, let action, the events themselves, create the horror you’re looking for. Horrible scenes are scenes where horrible things are happening. In action scenes, use a stripped down “voice” that shows the scene. The scene will sell itself. Too many writers excessively emote through their prose and drive it into the ground, wearing out the reader. Always remember, less is more.
3. The beginning of a work should set the scene: telling a reader the genre; western, mystery, sci-fi, fantasy, historical novel…
The general mood of the story is set: light-hearted, grim, witty, fast-paced, introspective, whatever.
The main POV should be established. Characterization should start bonding the reader to the POV right away. We should be given a reason to care about our character, or if it’s a villain that's first highlighted, we need something to draw us into a fascinated voyeurism with his evil heart. A reason should be given why we will love to hate him.
The beginning of a work also needs to set up the major conflict. This is absolute in a short story, in a novel, a little time can be taken to show the challenge that must be eventually overcome, but something should be there to anchor the first few threads of plot. And there should never be so many threads that the main plot gets overwhelmed and hidden in the pattern.
4. Plot is the next element to look for on your editing checklist. Plot isn’t just things happening. A hat full of events isn’t a plot, no matter how entertaining, interesting or well-written. Without plot, all you have is a slice-of-life vignette—-not a story. You don't want action for it's own sake, but purposeful events that are interconnected and escalating in intensity.
The events of a plot are like dominoes in a line. They are all essential: if one is missing, the full cascade won’t be achieved. And the line needs to go somewhere. Each event needs to lead to the next, taking the reader straight to the climax. A novice writer may have a table covered with dominoes but have none of them in a row. A writer may have his line, but clutter the table top with extra dominoes that are outside the line and will still be standing once the cascade is finished. Such waste needs to be cut. Everything should advance the plot even if it does other things besides.
5. Perspective: am I using the senses and sensibilities of the POV character as a window to the story or am I standing off to the side as an invisible observer (narrative intrusion) telling the reader things? If this last is true , it’s a big no-no. Never tell what’s happening, but paint a picture with words, show it instead.
Do I know what each character wants and is fighting for in every scene. The old adage “Show, don’t tell” is critically important.
6. Am I rehashing old storys and plots, or really giving the readers a new twist on things. Do I know the market and what's selling? Do I care? Or am I writing just for me? To get published, know the needs of the editors out there, and meet those needs. If I am a doctor and a patient comes to me for an appendix removal, and I take out his spleen instead, I’m not going to be getting any repeat business.
Once established, you can write outside the box to your heart’s content. But if you only do that starting off, you may never market your writing and getting read and published is what writing is all about. To use a sexual metaphor: if you don’t write what others want to print, you’re only wanking-off when intercourse is possible.
In conclusion: chances are if your work is being regularly rejected, and you’re on top of all of the usual spelling and grammar errors people make, then you’re failing for reasons that are on this list. Be cruel to yourself, and you’ll get published: it’s okay to be your own worst enemy--the right way.