If you missed part one of my interview with independent editor Lisa Rector, when we talked about using an independent editor for your work and what it means to reach the “third draft stage,” click HERE, then come back. Lisa specializes in late-draft writing, working with experienced writers in genres like fantasy, mystery and suspense to polish their work and make it publishing-ready. She owns Third Draft, an editing company in New York City, and frequently tours as an editor for agent Donald Maass’s Breakout Novel Workshops. Today, we continue our Q&A about the third draft, sagging middles, 11th hour checklists and more. Enjoy!
Interview with Lisa Rector: Part 2
Q: What are the most critical steps to take as you’re maneuvering through the third draft? In what order would you suggest taking them?
1. Get feedback from critique groups, mentors, professional writers and other members of the writing community. Be specific in your requests and look for consistencies among responses.
2. Learn to filter good advice from bad. Just because a character or idea is intriguing doesn’t mean it belongs in your book.
3. Distance yourself from the work. Put the manuscript away for a few days – or even a few weeks – you’ll likely return to it with renewed passion and a more objective eye.
Q: Are there any tips or tricks to make editing itself less “painful”?
LR: The thought of more work at this point can be crushing. It feels like a setback. It isn’t. It’s bringing you closer to publication.
Still, it can be overwhelming to focus on everything at once. I advise writers to edit with intention. One round may involve deepening motivation, another heightening tension or emotional complexity.
Editing has as much to do with finding one’s strengths as it does with eliminating weaknesses.
Q: Are there dangers associated with the third draft–like going too far with revisions and writing “new story” instead of enriching what’s already there? How can you catch yourself in this to ensure your edits are doing what they should at this stage?
LR: There is a danger in revising so much that you lose sight of what you wanted to say. However, the bigger threat lies in not taking the story far enough. After spending years developing an idea, some writers rush through revisions in a matter of weeks or think a few small changes are all that’s required.
Edits at this stage should heighten a manuscript’s existing strengths and eliminate anything that isn’t essential or compelling.
Q: Are there other pitfalls to watch for?
LR: In my years as an editor, I’ve noticed a common pitfall among writers of the third draft. They seem to be immersed in marketing, publishing, representation, drafting of new materials – everything but their novel.
Most authors are anxious to follow-up on connections made at writers’ conferences. They fear being forgotten, they’re unsure what else to do to improve the manuscript or they’ve made “the deal” with themselves to secure an agent or book contract by a certain date.
Those artificial deadlines often backfire. Every time a manuscript is up for submission it’s also up for rejection. Take the time to get it right.
Q: Is there a point at which revising is no longer beneficial?
LR: Revision is not always a matter of refinement; it may be indicative of a problem at the book’s core. If you’ve done everything you can to improve the manuscript and are repeatedly dealing with the same issues it may be time to seek professional guidance.
On Sagging Middles:
Q: What are the most common middle muddles you see?
LR: Too often I am invited into a world full of reactionary characters, predictability and small events. Nothing really happens. Characters simply bide their time until the climax of the story. They may progress physically but have reached an emotional plateau. Thus, the mid-section of most novels is plagued with low action and low tension. There is no longer a sense of purpose or urgency in what the characters are doing.
Q: What’s the easiest way to determine whether or not your middle needs toning?
LR: If you’ve run out of plotting options, have lost passion for what you want to say or know everything your characters will do through to the end of the story, it’s likely the book needs shaping up.
Q: What kinds of suggestions might you offer a writer with sagging middle issues?
LR: Ask yourself what needs to happen in order to propel the story forward and how that’s coming across on the page.
Is there an identifiable turning point in each scene? Is there more a character could do to make this happen or to prevent it from occurring? If not, the following techniques may be helpful:
o Go back to the beginning and ensure that you’ve set more than one plot line in motion. This provides a place to work from in the middle of the book.
o Often people are just there to crowd the scene. Have fewer characters DO more.
o Take away what matters most to the protagonist (this can be temporary).
o Make the goals of all characters bigger, starting on page one.
o Have a character switch sides.
o Increase the level of danger, desire or necessity.
o It only takes one event to change everything. Identify the high-impact moment(s) throughout your novel that contribute to the outcome of the story.
Q: Terrific suggestions, thanks! Are you a fan of any particular writing exercises to work through low-tension scenes?
LR: We tend to rely on physical confrontation to create tension but subtext, emotion, dialog and body language are similarly effective.
To heighten motivation, focus on a character’s emotional response to other people, their surroundings, social climate, etc. I find this particularly effective when layering secondary characters. It also helps remedy “sleeper scenes” that involve eating, driving and characters whose lives are on hold until the next big external action.
Another favorite is the use of silence. Observe the body language of three people gathered at a table and you’ll immediately notice some sort of tension – a crossing or uncrossing of a leg, a body positioned more to one side than another. It forms in the small, intimate gestures that pass through the stillness of a scene.
With dialog it isn’t what a character says but how they say it that creates tension.
On 11th-Hour Steps:
Q: What steps do you feel writers sometimes neglect to take before submitting their manuscript?
LR: Dedicating themselves to that last 10%.
Make sure you’re really ready, that the manuscript is ready. It’s no longer enough to know where a book fits on the shelf. It’s important to know what you can offer with this book that no one else can.
Q: Can you offer an 11th-Hour Checklist (things you need to see in a manuscript before you feel confident it’s ready to go out the door)?
o Characters I care deeply about.
o Tension on every page.
o An engaging premise with sustainable conflict.
o An unusual approach or one that moves me in some way or forces me to look at things differently as a result of being on this journey.
o Dynamic storytelling/narrative voice.
o A fully 3-dimensional cast – including those in supporting roles.
o Multi-layered plot lines and plot twists which feel necessary rather than contrived.
o Escalating motivation and urgency until the very last page.
o Active exposition.
o Circumstances and consequences that extend beyond the protagonist and into a larger community.
Q: What sort of emotional steps might a writer need to take in the 11th hour before sending out their manuscript?
LR: The authors I know and work with, the ones who are truly successful, invest themselves wholeheartedly in each book. They believe they have something to offer readers – just like you. And they’ve learned to define themselves not through a single project but in the steps they take while building a career. They immerse themselves in the writing community. They learn from rejection rather than fear it. And they realize that at some point their job, as writers, is to send their ideas out into the world.
Readers will always seek good material. If you have one book in you, chances are you have dozens more.
Q: I’ve heard you’re starting a scholarship for young writers. Can you tell us more about it?
LR: In recognition of the talent of young writers world-wide, I am pleased to announce the Lisa Rector Young Writer’s Scholarship. The inaugural event will be held at this year’s Surrey International Writers Conference Oct. 24-26, 2008. A full 3-day scholarship to attend the conference, including workshops, meals and banquets will be awarded to a student demonstrating outstanding achievement or promise in the areas of poetry, fiction, non-fiction or screenwriting. Students must be between the ages of 12-18 at the time of the conference in order to qualify. Travel not included. The winner will be announced Oct. 1, 2008. For information and submission guidelines contact: or www.siwc.ca
Thanks so much, Lisa, for a great interview! (Especially because our computers did not want to play nice together! Thanks for sticking with it.)