Surviving a Story Edit Critique

I recently took the opportunity to support Mark Stay during his Unbound funding project. I was already interested in the book “The End of Magic,” a fantasy novel, and I had intended to pledge at a lower level, maybe splurge and get a hardcover instead of a paperback. Then I scrolled down a little further and found the option to have him read my manuscript which, at the time, was about three-quarters complete. It was much more expensive than I intended to spend but much cheaper than any story editor I had seen. After checking with my wife, as any good husband would, I committed.

I spent the next couple of months finishing the manuscript and performing the first set of edits. I wanted to make it as much of a finished product as possible – epic fail by the way. It was the first time I was able to finish a project, and my first attempt at editing, so I invested in the paid version of Grammarly. I have found it to be a great application though far from perfect. It is excellent at highlighting where you missed a comma and is decent at identifying typical grammatical errors including pointing out where you have repeated words too often. I will post a more detailed review of Grammarly at a later date, but in short, I can tell you it helped me.

My secret hope was similar to many who have done this for the first time, a beaming response, with comments like “change nothing it’s perfect,” and “I have included a link to an agent that wants to represent you.” It was the same part of my brain that starts spending the lottery money I plan on winning. The other side of my brain had quite a different perspective. It was sure that Mark would give up halfway through, unable to make heads or tails from anything I had written. “I’m sorry, I just can’t waste any more time on this,” I would imagine him saying. “You should give up trying to be a writer.” It wasn’t the first time I had people read my writing, and there were a host of people who thought it was great, all avid readers, all highly intelligent, and all of them were people I respected. None of that mattered while my first baby was under the scrutiny of a person who did this for a living.

The results were more than I could have hoped for, minus the lottery fantasy.

Mark ran through the hundred thousand words in about two weeks, and his edits came in two files. One was a readers report where he gave a synopsis of his thoughts on characters, style, and suggestions for the next rewrite. The other was my “inked up” manuscript, which had a lot of comments, pointing out both the good and the bad.

So without going into the vast number of individual errors that I made, including a massive overuse of the words ‘obviously’ and ‘apparently,’ as well as a tremendous amount of mansplaining that I wasn’t even aware I was doing, (sorry ladies) here is what I learned. There were the usual issues of over-explaining especially during fight scenes, extreme overuse of pop culture references, and inconsistent use of the third person narrative that occasionally slipped into first-person. I was trying to write it in a close third person as was done in the Wheel of Time. I always liked how Robert Jordan was able to show the world through each character’s eyes without the use of first-person. Needless to say, I am not there yet, and my first rewrite will be to change from third to first. I have attempted a few paragraphs to see how it feels, and it was like putting a pair of shoes that finally fit properly.

Mark also highlighted where some of my scenes could be more impactful by providing some set up in earlier chapters. He pointed out which characters worked and which appeared as little better than cardboard cutouts – my words not his. My prolog was exciting but confusing since it created a massive divergence in characters from chapter one. Both he and my wife – my primary alpha reader and overall spirit guide – had the same suggestion to improve not just the prolog but the overall impact of the book. As they pointed out this glaring oversight, my reaction can be summed up in one word, duh.

This markup is gold to me, pointing out where my exposition has gone into a droning monologue that is lulling my readers to sleep, showing me not just where I tripped up but the shining points where I stuck the landing.

I have gone over the whole thing several times, and I will go over it many more. I can picture Mark reading it, “No, no, no, where are you going with this? Ah yes, see? Perfect that was all you needed to say, get rid of the other crap!” Steven King’s first newspaper editor said it best; “I just got rid of the bad stuff.” I will be using it going forward as my roadmap, my guide akin to Indiana Jones’ notebook, showing me where my personal traps are, and how to navigate around them. My biggest ah-ha in this experience was the critical need for outside review and the lack of being able to follow rules that I have heard multiple times.

If the last twenty years has taught me anything, it’s that I don’t know everything, in fact lately, I feel quite the opposite. I have found, at least with myself, that the more you think you know, the less room you have for growth. It’s like placing an empty bottle top down in water, the air in the bottle prevents water from entering. The same scenario exists with your ego, preventing knowledge from filling you. The best writers never believe they have all the answers, acknowledging that their most recent books are always better than earlier ones. Every author I have heard interviewed can tell you, for each of their books, what they did well, what they could have done better, and are now taking steps to improve. The air in my head took twenty years to dissipate, but it needn’t take you twenty years to get there. You only need to pop the bubble of your ego and allow someone else’s knowledge and experience to flow in.

With that in mind, I have been searching for any methods of learning elements of the craft that I lacked. I have read reference books, listened to twelve seasons of Writing Excuses podcast, both seasons of The Bestseller Experiment, and many hours of The Creative Penn. The issues that Mark found in my work are the same points that were covered time and time again in these sources. These were pitfalls I was aware of, acknowledged while writing, and thought I avoided or corrected. I have heard how authors, in general, tend towards over description and would repeat things unnecessarily. Despite all of that, I did it anyway. What became blatantly obvious was that I could not edit my work, at least not yet. Maybe one day it would be a skill that I could hone, but for now, it would be like critiquing your Martial Arts form in the mirror, you can see that something is wrong, you’re just not sure what it is.

Now let me be clear, having someone critique your work is not an innocuous process.

You need to be in the right head space for it. Had someone delivered these suggestions twenty years ago, they would not have been well received. There were some notes that, if taken personally, could be cutting. My reaction back then would have been something like “you just don’t understand my writing.” Or I could have easily fallen back on the classic, “this must not translate well in the UK,” (where Mark hails from) the whole English humor theory. With my mind open, I actually enjoyed the experience. Mark has a way of using humor in his remarks, between them and acknowledging my own stupidity, I was nearly crying I was laughing so hard.

There was one key factor in the decision to purchase this service that we cannot ignore, trust. Leading up to this I had spent several months binge listening to the Bestseller Experiment – and if you haven’t figured it out yet, I highly recommend it- where every episode painted a picture of the kind of people the two Marks were. When one of their listeners achieved the goals stated in their public declarations or locked down a book deal of their own, the joy they both experienced was unmistakable. This more than anything made me confident that the suggestions he was making were focused on making the story the best it could be. If you are choosing to enter into this process find someone you can trust, whether it be through extensive research or referrals. I will add some links to the bottom of this blog as suggested follow-ups.

Okay, let’s wrap it up.

All in all for me the story edit process was an extremely positive one. If you go about it with the right state-of-mind, work with someone that you trust, and use it as a springboard to make your work the potential bestseller you envisioned, you will too. A good story editor will take your rough stone, show you where to cut and polish to reveal the hidden jewel to be cherished by any good agent, publishing house, or legions of fans. If you are on the fence about doing this my advice is this, do it.

Links:

Joanna Penn has a great podcast and set of books to help you with your writer’s journey. This link will take you to her suggested tools of the trade:https://www.thecreativepenn.com/tools/

The Bestseller Experiment: I have listed to many hours of writing advice from many sources, it was the two Marks from BXP that really put the fire under my butt that spurred me to finish my first novel. I highly recommend it. https://bestsellerexperiment.com

Karma in a Fish Tank

Lobster in a helo
The great terror of the deep.

My wife and I had been toying with the idea of a fish tank for years. We would get all the way to picking out a tank, the kind of fish we wanted, I would even come up with ridiculous ideas like putting into the wall. My wife would bring me back to reality with questions like, “if it was in the wall how would you feed the fish?” Don’t bother me with physics, I’m an idea man. Okay, probably not.

But a few months ago we finally took the plunge – see what I did there. We bought a thirty gallon half- round tank. What did you say? Start with a ten-gallon tank and make sure you can maintain it correctly? I scoff at such logic. No, we were going right for the big boy! We bought a bunch of plants both plastic and real, along with several things to put at the bottom of the tank, clashing an Asian motif with a military. The professional at the store who had years of practical experience suggested waiting a week before adding any fish to the aquarium, so we, of course, gave it a whole two days.

I know what your thinking but not all the fish died…immediately. They would go in waves – yup went there again- and we would replace them as they went belly up. After a few weeks of this we sustained our aquarium without further deaths for a few days so cried victory! We had even added a frog to the mix, and they were all getting along swimmingly – sorry I can’t help it, I’m a dad, bad puns are a requirement. So the obvious next step was to buy another tank, cause you know, now we were experts.

This one was smaller, a fifteen-gallon column tank but this one I will blame on my wife. She wanted a neon tank, and since I could deny her nothing, we got it. This one, having benefited from our vast experience, did much better. Only half died. So now your thinking, okay Bill, so where’s the karma? Patience, haven’t you ever heard of a backstory? So everything was going great, then we made a critical error.

While making our semi-daily trip to the pet store, I saw it. I yelled for my son and pointed to a tank, it is was a lobster. It was bright red and epic looking. This was why I got a fish tank, it would be the star of the tank, I had to have it. I called for assistance, and they bagged that bad boy, literally.

It was like an early Christmas, bringing this minor demon home to my awaiting tank. We dropped him in, and he floated to the floor like superman drifting down from the sky. It was an impressive sight, and the euphoria lasted a good five minutes. The next thing I knew my wife was yelling “It’s got the frog!”

My response was not met with thanks or enthusiasm. After all, this was a lobster at the bottom of a twenty-eight-inch tall tank that I needed a step stool to reach, and I didn’t think it would respond well to me tapping on the tank yelling “drop it.” Luckily it was inside an Asian – or maybe Egyptian- statue, so when my wife picked it up both lobster and frog inside it decided to let go. I was still banging on the tank so we really can’t be sure what ultimately made him drop the frog. Toad, aptly named after a Mario character, lost a foot in the altercation. We transferred him to the other tank, see the other tank wasn’t such a stupid idea, and a few days later was doing his impression of flotsam.

With the frog gone we figured our worries were over. After all, he was on the bottom of the tank, and the rest were free to maneuver in all directions. Like Khan, the lobster suffered from two-dimensional thinking. However, if Khan had the ingenuity of this friggin lobster the crew of the enterprise would never have made another movie. I’m not entirely sure that would have been a bad thing, except for IV but that is a whale of another story.  

He attacked several other fish including one of our biggest, an angelfish, which it used to take a little ride like Mary Poppins. I was alerted to this predicament by my daughter’s blood-curdling scream, to which my answer differed little from the from the previous incident. We decided that he needed to go, but I had just paid twenty bucks for this stupid, though very cool looking, lobster, so the solution was clear. We needed another tank.

Now that we had two count them, two working tanks a third would be no problem. This one we would populate with all aggressive fish who would be able to hold their own against the bottom-feeding beast of the deep. Off again to the pet store, or rather a different pet store to reduce the moronic looks we were getting to buy the twin brother tank to the one where we set up the neon fish. We dropped the devil spawn of a crustacean into the new tank along with several mean looking fish and watched with bated breath.

To my great relief, and shock, it worked. The tyrant had finally met its match and as each day marched on the only fish deaths could not be directly tied to big red. All was well with the little worlds under the sea, or rather tap water, that we had created. Or so we thought.

One morning I came down and started to make breakfast. My wife followed shortly after and while starting the coffee looked passed and into the dining room where sat the aggressive tank. “Oh crap, we lost another one,” she exclaimed, then followed it up with, “what fish is that?” I squinted from my position at the stove trying to figure out what the heck that fat pale fish was. My first thought was that the godfather of fish had really worked one over to the point of making it unrecognizable. I moved closer intrigued as one would be to see what Jason had done to the latest coed traipsing in the woods half naked. It took me a few seconds to put the pieces together as it were, it wasn’t a fish, it was the lobster.

During the night it had molted its shell, which I could just make out in one of the little caves at the bottom of the tank. What was left of its soft body resembled a piece of my favorite meal which is usually accompanied by a rare steak and a large bowl of melted butter. The other fish in the tank had indulged in their own feast, big red had no appendages left, and the biggest and baddest fish in the tank was still taking pot shots at it, apparently still hungry. The fantasy horror part of my brain kicked in, and I could see the one time bully now reduced to a weak, defenseless creature reminiscent of the poor unfortunate souls after Ursula had gotten through with them. I could envision the fish in the other tanks crowed to one side of their tank struggling to get a good view of the slaughter about to happen, pounding their fins against the glass while muttering “jus-tice, jus-tice, jus-TICE, JUS-TICE!.”

My deceased father’s words came to me then, the only sage advice on people management he ever gave since it was all I ever needed, “Be careful how you treat the people on the way up because it will be those same people that you’ll see on the way down.”