Editing a la Susan Spann

The brilliant Susan Spann (website and Amazon page) generously shared her editing process last month (Sept. 2017) with us lucky attendees at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers conference in Denver. Susan is an attorney specializing in intellectual property – another of her conference sessions focused on what to look out for in an agent or publishing contract – and an author of a mystery series set in 16th-century Japan starring a master ninja and a Portuguese Jesuit priest.

She stressed that this is her process – it works for her; if it works for you, great; if not, don’t do it this way. Before she starts, she spends 3-4 months reading and researching the world of the novel, and creates a brief outline of the 5-act structure and the events that occur on-stage and off.

Her process resonated with me in part because it ‘s similar to what I used to do while writing government reports in my previous career. We called it multi-pass editing, and the idea was that you’d:

1 – Get words on paper. If you don’t have anything to work with, you can’t make it better.

2 – Review the draft for content. Is the right information in the report, is there anything in there that doesn’t need to be, are the ideas adequately explained, using clarifying examples where needed, and is the information presented in context?

3 – Do another pass for organization. Does the report use headings and good paragraph structure, and does the information flow logically; can a reader skim the report and get the gist?

4 – The next pass was for style. You’d look for connections and transitions, active voice, clarity, conciseness, and any jargon that had snuck in.

5 – The last pass was for mechanics, like spelling, punctuation, grammar, and any errors you tend to make.

After we’d done everything we could to make it a good report, we’d pass it along to our in-house reviewers, editors, and quality control people, similar to fiction writers’ alpha and beta readers.

Susan’s approach seems familiar:

First draft: 

  • Unfiltered draft, written with the aid of a 3-page bullet point outline. She looks at the outline at the beginning and end of the day, but not while writing.
  • She writes on a device called an Alpha Smart Neo that only lets her see three lines at a time, for distraction-free writing; she downloads to Word every night.
  • No deleting anything till the draft is finished. Fix in editing is the mantra.
  • Set a word count goal.  Figure out your baseline – how much you’re currently writing in a day. Make that your goal till you can do it consistently on however many days a week you write. Then reset your goal to something attainable but that will push you, and stick with that till you can meet it consistently. Repeat. Using this approach, she went from a goal of writing 15 minutes a day, 200 words, to her current 6,000 a day in 4-5 hours.

    You have to touch the wall every day.

  • Don’t measure your speed against anyone else’s. She does her first draft in about 10 days now, but see above bullet for where she started out.
  • Write every day. She requires herself to write an hour a day, although she usually does more.
  • Stop for the day right before the cool thing happens, not at the end of the scene.
  • If you get stuck, think “what’s the least plausible, but possible in this book’s world, thing that can happen here?”

    Celebrate everything!

Second draft: 

  • She spends 2 1/2 months on this draft, editing 2-3 pages a day at a pace of about 2 hours per page. She doesn’t do a complete read before she starts; just starts at the beginning.
  • Focus on structure, plot/subplot, world building, big inconsistencies.
  • Remove unnecessary characters; maybe combine characters who fill small roles
  • Remove scenes where nothing’s really happening, it doesn’t advance the plot, or it duplicates another scene. Think about what information was gained in the scene and where else it could go if you delete it. Save deleted scenes in a separate file.
  • Make sure the character’s actions make sense. Is there a good reason they’re chasing down a killer instead of staying home and eating tacos?
  • If you notice a grammar mistake, typo, etc., fix it, but don’t look for them.
  • Put a square bracket where you need to research something, figure out how to fix something, or check internal consistency.
  • Make notes at the end of the manuscript of things you need to think about more. If she thinks the reader would have a question, she puts it at the end.

Third draft: 

  • Research and detail insertion. Take care of all those square brackets.
  • Make the characters distinct.
    • Every character gets something that sets them apart, as recommended in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. This could be a physical characteristic, a typical gesture, etc.
    • Make them sound distinct. Add their inner dialogue. With every line of dialogue, ask what they’re feeling (or what they want others to think they’re feeling), and how their gestures or movements convey that.
  • Triple verify everything you find on the Internet. Email experts; go to the place, stay there, and talk to people
  • If you have characters from a different culture than your own, research until people in that culture say you got it right. If you can’t do it justice, delete it.
  • Reverse engineer any subplots. Fill any holes in the plot.

Fourth draft: 

  • Add the chapter breaks.
    • Put the break where the reader will want to turn the page, not where they’ll want to put a bookmark in and go to bed.
    • She goes to the 5th page, scans the action to see where a break should go. If there isn’t a good place, she keeps reading. If the natural break isn’t till page 8, she cuts 2-3 pages out of the chapter so she can break it on page 5 or 6. Whatever chapter length works for you, be consistent.
  • Look at the chapters individually:
    • is there a beginning, middle, and end?
    • is there conflict on every page? You can add tension by making a character obstreperous, not necessarily related to the master story arc.
  • Make sure the dialogue is snappy.
  • Make sure the changes you’ve made haven’t messed up something else

Fifth draft:

  • First polishing draft
  • From here on, read the draft out loud. You want it to read smoothly, and reading out loud will also help develop your writing voice and lyricism.
  • Look for grammar, sentence structure, and voice.
  • Look for echo words that you’ve repeated over and over. Use the thesaurus to fix this, but watch out – some words are so high-impact you can only get away with using them once in the whole book.
  • If you fix something in a scene, go back and start reading 2 paragraphs earlier. It’s like smoothing a tablecloth, where you can create more wrinkles.

Send the draft to your alpha and beta readers. Her alpha reader is her son; her beta readers are her critique partners. None of them sees the draft until this point. Tell your readers to crush the manuscript with a mighty hammer. There’s nothing they can tell you that will be as mean as what someone will post on Amazon.

Sixth draft:

  • Integrate your readers’ comments and do a second polish.
  • Pay attention to the comments:
    • Even if reader has it wrong, there’s a reason they had the question, so look at why they had that reaction, and figure out how to change.
    • The change needed may not be what the reader suggests. Their question might be triggered by something you did earlier. Talk to them, ask why they had that reaction.

This is where she sends the manuscript to her agent. She has an editorial agent, so her seventh draft is integrating her agent’s comments.

If the process sounds grueling, I’m sure it is, based on my past experience writing and editing reports. But it makes sense, and I believe if I try to follow Susan’s process for editing my novel, I’ll end up with a much better final product than I’ve ever accomplished before.

What do you think? Do you have an editing process that works for you? Please share in the comments below!

Website image photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

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