I just finished the first draft of my YA Fantasy manuscript based on the ancient Mayan culture. (And inspired by an episode of Ancient Aliens!) I thought I’d let you in on the editing process as I experienced it this time. If you’re a writer, maybe you can glean some tips and ideas from my process. And perhaps even feel good about yourself as I reveal how bad my first drafts are!
After I typed “THE END” (Okay, I didn’t actually type that. I typed hashtags. The End just sounds more poetic) I let the MS rest for a day or two. Ideally I’d let it simmer longer, but I’m inpatient and have some time to kill right now, so I dove right back in.
My word count prior to this edit was 79,000 words. Word count after edit is 77,000.
The manuscript was started on March 21, 2015 and the first draft was completed Jan 2, 2016. Though there were about 4 months in that period where I relocated and worked on another MS. So I’d estimate 5 months working time on this.
This story is told in present tense with 2 POV characters– a girl who lives a primitive life in a valley and a boy from a more advanced civilization who lives on a mountain. That’s all I can share right now. Oh, there’s kissing. I can share that.
After I read through and tightened the MS overall, I went back and took advantage of that ever-so-amazing FIND button. Bill Gates (or whomever) deserves all the accolades for that little thing. It is my best editing friend. (Besides my crit partners, of course!)
I utilized FIND and REPLACE in 3 different instances. Two character name changes and one name that I inexplicably decided to spell differently throughout the MS. (Ah, such is the life of a pantser!)
For this manuscript, I researched the ancient Maya people and culture. I tried to get as close to possible to authentic Mayan words or Mayan-sounding words without offending the Mayans who are still living today. As a result, I created 29 “magic” words and added them to my Word dictionary.
My last step was to go through and use that FIND button again, searching out those pesky FILTER WORDS and CRUTCH WORDS.
Crutch words are words the author uses often. I usually have 1 or 2 words that creep into manuscripts without my permission. In this case, I used a lot of “beautiful” and “strong” in the first draft of this MS. This is not surprising as these are the most prevalent words the 2 main POV characters use to describe each other! They’re still in there, but I managed to trim them down and use other descriptors like gorgeous, stunning, rugged.
Filter words are words that don’t add anything to your sentences. They often appear in manuscripts because people use them in their daily vernacular. But they serve no purpose and slow down the action.
Below are some common filter and crutch words and how I fixed them are:
- Really – This word crops up when I tried to put emphasis on something. Oftentimes I can find another word that conveys the feeling I want. I used it 22 times in my MS. I narrowed that down to 9. Here are some examples on ways I axed “really.”
PRE EDIT: She steels herself for some really bad news.
POST: She squares her shoulders, steeling herself for bad news.
(I also got rid of the unneeded “some” in the first sentence. Now the sentence is more fluid, plus it shows action.)
PRE EDIT: We have the map and it doesn’t really tell us which way to go.
POST: We have the map and it doesn’t tell us which way to go.
PRE EDIT: This guy is really getting on my nerves.
POST: This guy is unraveling my last nerve.
- Very – Another word that adds nothing. You can get rid of the ‘verys’ by coming up with a more descriptive word to use.
For example: I changed one character from “very pretty” to “stunning.” Another character went from being “very tired” to being “exhausted.”
- Begin/began to – I went from 21 instances down to 7. The remaining 7 were times when the character actually started to do something, but was interrupted. Make your characters act, not begin to act.
PRE EDIT: The villagers begin to panic and scatter.
POST EDIT: The villagers panic and scatter.
(Because if you are panicked enough to scatter, you’re not going to stop, right? You’re going to get the heck out of there. Beginning to panic and scatter implies the villagers will run a few feet, then stop for some reason.)
- Probably – Similar to “really,” using “probably” slows down the action. Your characters should act with purpose. “Probably” shows they’re guessing or unsure. If that makes sense for the character, then it’s okay. Otherwise, you don’t need it. I went from 12 to 2 “probablys”. Both rmaining cases are the POV character being flippant and sarcastic, as his personality dictates.
- Smile/Laugh/Nod – When I give you these numbers, you’re going to think I wrote a book about a bunch of happy agreeable people. That is not the case. I have a tendency to use smiling, laughing and nodding as place holders in my MS. This story has a lot of dialogue and a lot of characters. To break up the dialogue and show (not tell) who is speaking, I find myself letting the characters react to other speakers or events by smiling, laughing or nodding. Now that’s not a bad thing, unless it happens so much that all they’re doing is walking around like they’re on Prozac.
PRE EDIT: Corvus laughs. He approaches Araylee with a sneer, drinking her in with ruthless eyes.
POST: Corvus approaches Araylee with a sneer, drinking her in with ruthless eyes.
In my first draft, Corvus was reacting to something another character said prior to this line. He laughed about it, then went on to approach Araylee. But upon further review, his laugh did nothing to advance the action. The important thing is that he approaches Araylee, not that he is amused by came before.
PRE EDIT: He nods his head at me, then turns toward the Stargazer.
POST: He bows his head an infinitesimal amount, then faces the Stargazer.
Not only is the edit more descriptive, it shows the intent of the character. The POV character is implying that this character is doing the minimal amount as possible because he doesn’t WANT to nod his head.
PRE EDIT: I nod my head in understanding.
POST: I understand.
I went from 307 smile/laugh/nods to 68. (Because sometimes characters get to smile. Usually after the kissing.)
- Say/Says/Said –Ah, the dialogue tag. I can’t seem to get away from the dialogue tag in my first drafts. As I mentioned above, I have a lot of dialogue. When I’m drafting I don’t stop to think about how much I use them, but when I plugged “say” into my FIND search, I wanted to cry. 224 times I used say. After this pass, I’m down to 79. Because sometimes there really is no better way.
You can scrap say/says/said if there are only 2 speakers. Having a whole page of He said/She said is boring and redundant. Instead, use action to break up your dialogue.
If you need to use dialogue tags, consider other descriptive words. Words like: declare, admit, joked, replied, growled, hissed, sneered, etc… But be cautious about the tone of your MS. Using alternative words can make the MS sound stuffy or formal.
PRE EDIT: “Good evening Archer,” she says. She swishes her golden hair over her shoulders
POST: “Good evening Archer,” she purrs, swishing her golden hair over her shoulder, immediately drawing my brother’s eyes.
(Doesn’t that give you a much better idea of who this girl is anyway?)
- Feel – Feel is another one of my favorites during first drafts. Emotions are important, yo. And my characters just feel all over the place in my first drafts. But too many “feels” don’t actually bring the reader “THE” feels. Oftentimes it separates the reader from the emotion you’re hoping to convey. To say a character feels something is telling. Have them show their feelings.
PRE EDIT: I feel her apprehension in the air around us
POST: Her apprehension hangs in the air around us
PRE EDIT: I can feel Archer’s presence behind me.
POST: Archer’s presence trails behind me, like a shadow, dark and ominous
PRE EDIT: A feeling of obligation sets in my bones and dread swims in my blood.
POST: Obligation sets in my bones, dread swims in my blood.
I don’t even want to tell you how many times I used “feel” in this manuscript. Right now I’m a touch over 90 “feel/feelings.” My goal is to narrow that down a lot more before I submit this to an agent.
I hope my first draft editing can help other writers find ways to improve their own works. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but these are the tendencies I cling to while writing. All writers should take note of their own crutch words and filter words. Kill those little darlings!
Other common words to check for in your manuscripts.
That – almost never needed
Rather, quite, somewhat, somehow
Down, up – almost never needed. (As in: reached up, bent down. Just: reach, bend)
Think/thought, wonder/wondered – much like feel. Use action and descriptors.
Inhale/exhale/breathe – these are overused, especially in YA. And for the love of Bakab, the Mayan god of the Four Directions, do NOT have your character exhale a shaky breath they didn’t know they were holding!