There is a saying in writerly circles, that a manuscript can reach a point where it’s been edited to death. The writer has produced so many new drafts that the life has been sucked out of the story, leaving nothing but a dry, cracked shell. Not even a shadow of the author’s original vision for the piece.
To prevent this morbid scenario, you must have a plan for editing to life. To start, it is a good idea to take a break from the story once you’ve typed END. Step away from it (still keeping it in your sights) and work on something new for a while. However long “a while” is will be different for each person.
The longer I refrain from working a story, blocking its outlet, the built up energy creates illumination. The brighter it shines, the more clearly I can see into dark corners of the story that need rearranging, redesigning, or recycling. This is macro editing. When a true lightbulb moment occurs, I will apply the revision to my manuscript and then let it all simmer again.
Once you feel there is nothing more significant you can do in terms of macro editing, you enter the dangerous territory of micro editing. The project has officially exhausted you (you just want it to be done already!), and because you narrow your focus down to the minutiae, you start seeing more that is wrong with your work than what is right. You can easily lose sight of what got you excited about it in the first place.
Micro editing is where manuscripts are either murdered or are given vibrant new life. All the major cuts have been made. All the major holes have been filled. This is where characterization is whispered rather than shouted, where descriptions are sprinkled rather than dumped, where foreshadow is carefully planted rather than pounded into the wrong soil.
The number one thing in any novel–any genre, any type–that gets me to keep reading, is characterization. A unique premise will initially get my attention, but that readerly excitement can disappear within the very first chapter if the characters aren’t up to snuff.
I’ve found the following tips and resources to be extremely helpful to my own editing process.
- The Bookshelf Muse’s Character Trait Thesaurus
This blog is run by two adept novelists, and features unique writing aides like a Setting Thesaurus , an Emotion Thesaurus , a Symbolism Thesaurus , and many others. The Character Trait Thesaurus  spotlights individual character traits (i.e. modest, charismatic, impulsive) by defining it and applying it to literary examples. It then goes a step further and shows what pitfalls to avoid through cliché, and even offers ways to twist a stereotype. Links to all thesaurus entries are in the sidebar.
- Craft Books, Articles, and Breakout Prompts by Donald Maass
Not exaggerating here. I didn’t even slightly understand what the word characterization really meant until I was introduced to Don’s wisdom and advice. Read read read the following. You’ll never look at writing the same way again.
Breakout Prompts 
- Reenactment and Observation
One of the best ways to learn is through hands-on experience. If you have a family member who is willing to reenact a scene with you, this is especially helpful in exposing stilted dialogue. It can also show you where you may need to add pausing and certain actions, or where the best place would be for interior thought without it feeling like your viewpoint character just mentally stepped off-stage and left the other guy shaking his head in confusion. Why are you spacing out, we were in the middle of an argument!
Observation of people who don’t know you’re watching, or don’t care (within reason, of course–I’m not suggesting we all become creepy stalker peeping Toms), is especially helpful in pinpointing mannerisms and quirks that can add rich depth to a flat character. Most often, the people I observe are family members, close neighbors, and co-workers, aka people I see on a regular basis by simply living my life. I also have the privilege of working with the general public, so whenever I notice a stand-out trait on a person, I bank it until my next writing session.
For example, while working on a novel last year I noticed someone who blinked in rhythm. Pause. Blink blink blink. Pause. Blink blink blink. This was exactly what I needed to add to one of my characters to make her more blatantly odd. According to everyone who has read that novel thus far, it worked.
These little details are a big part of what brings characters to life, makes them interesting and worth reading about.
- Avoiding Cliché Like
Unless a character is meant to be cheesily stereotypical in some way, there is no excuse for using uncreative, tired clichés in your prose. It is quite possibly the most effective way to kill a story. Conversely, using rarely-seen or never-before-seen phrases and comparisons in your narrative presents the viewpoint character as unique. Alive. The reader will be more likely to follow an innovative character.
If I catch myself typing a common cliché, I either come up with something better right away, or leave a blank spot in the sentence so I can fill it in later. Avoid cliché like a Coke rocket.
- Random Page Analysis
When you know you’re close to done, enter the total number of pages of your novel into a random number generator. Each number represents a page of your novel. However many you want to analyze is completely up to you.
Print out the pages that you randomly selected and study each one on its own. Are the characters alive on that page? Do they stand out as unique in some way (either through dialogue, quirks, viewpoint, etc.)? If not, revise. Then apply what you’ve just learned about your prose to the rest of that scene in your document, or to the rest of the novel if necessary. This exercise is both effective and addictive. Feel free to indulge.
Has anyone else tried these tips and resources? What were your results? Do you have anything to add to this list? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
photo courtesy of Michal Marcol