Sunday, November 18, 2012

Honing Your Craft

by Jodie Renner, editor & author

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A small section of Jodie's bookcase

Want to succeed as a writer? There’s only one sure way: Roll up your sleeves, hone your fiction-writing skills, and start rereading and revising!
Ask any successful writer, and they’ll tell you that the first drafts of their novels were just the beginning, and that it was only after many revisions that the story and characters took shape to their satisfaction and they polished their writing style to a point where they could submit it to their agent or an editor, who then put them through several more rounds of editing before the story was ready for publication.
“Writing is Rewriting.” ~ Stephen King
For years, I’ve been helping writers become authors, offering concrete advice and guidance to take manuscripts up a level or three. I’m always amazed when occasionally someone contacts me about editing their novel, then gets offended when I suggest ways in which it can be improved. (Fortunately, the vast majority of my clients want to succeed and sell their books, so they welcome my suggestions.)
“Amateurs fall in love with every word they write.” ~ William Bernhardt
If you’re looking for someone to tell you your novel manuscript is perfect as it is, save your money and just ask your mom! (Or your spouse or best friend.) Authors of best-sellers aren’t afraid to admit that they revised their novel numerous times, often going through it and making changes thirty or forty times, then had agents’ and editors’ input and revised it again.
“Manuscript: something submitted in haste and returned at leisure.” ~ Oliver Herford
Maybe you’ve got a story you’re itching to tell and you think nobody should mess with it or tell you how to write it. That’s okay – get your story down first. But then, if you want to get it published, it’s important to be open to input and ideas on how to make it more compelling so it grabs the readers – and agents and acquiring editors, if you’re going that route. As you’re revising and learning, you’re honing your craft and getting closer to producing a best-seller. And you can always keep your early drafts, in case you want to go back to them, or pick out bits here and there to use.
“The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon.” ~ Michael Crichton

Remember, there are hundreds of effective, compelling ways to tell a story, and thousands of ineffective / boring / confusing ways to tell that same story.
“There is no way of writing well and also of writing easily.” ~ Anthony Trollope
If you decided to build a house and you’d never built one before, you probably wouldn’t just buy a bunch of lumber and start building it without first consulting experts, reading books, googling info, asking carpenter friends for advice, etc. So chances are high that you, as an aspiring author, won’t yet have acquired the skills to write a novel that sells, without doing some research into the fiction-writing techniques that make a story effective, compelling and publish-worthy.
“When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing.”  ~Enrique Jardiel Poncela
And as a freelance manuscript editor, specializing in fiction, that’s what I – and other editors like me – am here for: to point out not only your story’s strengths, but also areas that would benefit from rethinking, reworking, revision and maybe even – gasp! – cutting and/or rewriting. Writing workshops, craft-of-fiction resource books, and reputable blogs on writing fiction, as well as articles in magazines like Writer’s Digest, and of course freelance book editors like me, can all guide you and inform you of the latest effective fiction-writing techniques for crafting your opening, point of view, plot, characterization, dialogue, etc., with a natural flowing style and pacing that keep readers turning the pages.
“No author dislikes to be edited as much as he dislikes not to be published.”
~Russell Lynes

I find that I give the most advice and suggest the most revisions on the first few chapters (and prologue, if there is one), because the opening of your story is incredibly important. It’s what will make or break your novel. If the story hasn’t grabbed your readers in the first five pages or so, most readers will put it down and never pick it up again. In fact, if the first half page is weak, most agents or acquiring editors will chuck it. Your first page is critical – it sets the tone for the whole novel and introduces your protagonist and his dilemma – or at least hints at it.
“I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”  ~Elmore Leonard
A typical fault among novice fiction writers (even if they’re technically excellent writers and have published nonfiction books) is to spend too much time revving their engines at the beginning of their novel, setting the scene with description and providing background on the main character and his situation. Today’s readers don’t have the patience for all this long-winded meandering around and explaining at the beginning – they want to be swept up with your story and main character and his problems right away. You can always add in background details as your story progresses, on a “need to know” basis.
“I’m not a very good writer, but I am a good rewriter.” ~ James Michener
So if you’ve contacted me about editing your fiction manuscript, and I jump right in with advice on how to make your first pages more compelling and effective, which may well be to cut out all or most of your prologue and some or even most of your chapter one, don’t be insulted or alarmed. Remember that we both have the same goal in mind – to get your story published and read by a lot of people. So some deadwood may need to be trimmed at the beginning so you can start your story at a more compelling moment, with your protagonist, if not in hot water already, on the verge of it. Then you can work in that backstory little by little, as you go along.
“Sit down, and put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer.  But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity,
and destroy most of it.”  ~Colette, Casual Chance, 1964 

I find that typically, once the beginning is pared down to delete some of that excess description and “cut to the chase,” the rest of the novel goes much more smoothly, with way fewer major revisions.
“The wastebasket is a writer’s best friend.”  ~Isaac Bashevis Singer
An “okay” novel can often be turned into a remarkable one by:
~ Adding more conflict and intrigue. See my book, Writinga Killer Thriller – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction. 
~ Deepening the characters to make them more compelling. See Creating Compelling Characters.
~ Doing more “showing” and less “telling” (“Show, Don’t Tell”)
~ Revising stilted dialogue so it sounds more natural and authentic: Tips for Writing Effective Dialogue.

~ Writing tighter. If your novel is more than 95,000 words long, you should be looking for ways to tighten it up and shorten it. See my book, Fire up Your Fiction (Style that Sizzles and Pacing for Power) for lots of tips for eliminating flab and writing tighter.
“My first draft is not even recognizable by the time I get to the last draft. I change everything. I consider myself at Square Zero when I finish the first draft. It’s almost like I use that draft to think through my plot. My hard copy of each draft will be dripping with ink by the time I finish, and I’ll do that several times.” ~ Terri Blackstock
But you don’t have to take my word for it – there are all kinds of great books on writing and revising fiction out there, not to mention articles in magazines like Writer’s Digest, blog posts by writers, agents, and editors, creative writing classes, and writers’ conferences and workshops. See the Resources page of my website for a list of excellent books on writing fiction and other resources that I recommend to my clients.
Keep on writing! And remember, writing is rewriting! Or as my mom (and probably yours too) used to say, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
© Jodie Renner, November 2012
Also, see my articles, "How to Save a Bundle on Editing Costs" and "It's All About the Writing," both on Crime Fiction Collective, and Revising and Polishing Your Novel on this

Jodie Renner has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Writing a Killer Thriller and Fire up Your Fiction (Style That Sizzles & Pacing for Power), which has won two book awards so far. Look for her third book, Immerse the Readers in Your Story World, out soon. For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, her blogs, Resources for Writers and The Kill Zone, or find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. And sign up for her newsletter.











  1. Hi Jodie,
    An excellent reminder that drafts need revising.
    I've purchased your book "Style That Sizzles, Power for Pacing". I can't wait to read it and then apply your advice.

  2. That's great, Tracy! I hope you enjoy my book and it helps you hone your craft! And maybe when you finish it you might find a few minutes to write a review for it on Amazon!

    Keep on writing!


  3. That is a great post! My first chapter does get my characters into the action pretty fast but I think I need to cut some of the background stuff so I can get to the big boom faster. Thank you!

  4. Thanks, Stephanie. And remember that backstory halts the forward movement of your story, so it's best to include very little in the first chapter and marble it in as you go along with the rest.