Self-editing mambo

I like to dance so I label some aspects of writing as if they were dances. Silly, but it brings a certain humor to often arduous tasks. Right now, I'm doing the self-editing mambo which means I'm reading the first draft of the book I've been working on. I don't know if enough time has passed yet to allow me to see the book with all its boo boos. I will probably read it then put it to rest again while I work on something else.

If you're just beginning as a writer, you may not know what I'm talking about. Allow me to explain because self-editing isn't something that is often presented by published authors. I’ve heard many speeches about characterization, plotting, scene and sequel, and all the other elements of dramatic structure, but only a couple come to mind about self-editing. The first was given at a conference by Joe Blades, then an “ordinary” editor at Ballantine who became a “power” and has since retired I believe. The other was by my friend, popular romance author Barbara Dawson Smith.

These two workshops singularly helped me hone my ability to spot common errors such as misspelled words, wrongly-used words, and other frequent typos, as well as inconsistencies, awkward phrasing, stilted dialog, misplaced modifiers, and so on - in my own writing. Spotting these problems in other writers’ work is easy. Seeing them in your own, well, to illustrate my answer - that’s a hoarse of a diffrent choler.

Why don't I see that I wrote: hoarse instead of horse, misspelled different, and wrote choler instead of color? Why do sentences like this appear in manuscripts: John and Mary, using there whipps, raced toward each othr;, jumping on hirdles and weeping stoned fences. A gremlin sneaks into your office at night and edits your file then prints another copy and destroys your perfect one! Sorry. I wish I could say the gremlin theory is correct, but....

In the white heat of creativity, all we are concerned with is putting words on paper as fast as our flying fingers allow us. Because we know what the correct words are supposed to be, we are blind to anything that doesn't match the finished script in our brains. Then, we go back and revise. Then we polish. Still, we overlook typos and other errors because our brain knows what is supposed to be on the page and that’s all it sees - not what’s actually there.

Remember in Jurassic Park where the computer is programmed to verify that (I forget the actual number, let's say 100 animals) all the animals are in the park? Well, when the animals start reproducing, the computer does not register that there are more animals. It has been told to verify that 100 are there so that is what it does even though there are now 120.

Our brains are like that. Our mental computer knows our beautiful, moving story in all its glory with reams of conflict, unforgettable characters, scintillating dialogue. When we read our copy, our brain verifies that the printed page matches what's in our head even when it doesn’t!

Of course, you can show what you wrote to a writing friend who will immediately circle, in red, all the errors and then proceed to bleed all over your deathless prose, writing such phrases as: "You misspelled forty-seven words, including your own name; you have dangling participles, misplaced metaphors, and are totally lacking in scene logic. And you don’t even want to know what I think about your heroine who starts out brunette and ends up a blonde without the benefit Clairol®.”

So what’s the answer? You can’t depend upon the kindnesses of friends all the time. You must develop the ability to see your own mistakes. You do this by putting time distance between you and your finished copy. A week after writing a scene, you can read it and easily see you wrote about stoned fences (were they on heroin or crack?) rather than fences made of stone.

Always allow yourself time to rest your manuscript after you complete it. You’ll be amazed how the mistakes leap from the page. Yes, you're impatient to get it on some agent or editor's desk, but, trust me on this, you'll just be shooting yourself in the foot if you mail it before its time.

Many years ago there was a commercial for wine with the tag line: "We'll sell no wine before its time."

As a writer, a similar policy is good: We'll submit no manuscript before its time."

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