Wait! Don’t Kill That Darling! The REAL Skinny on Self-Editing from Samuel Park

Today we're getting a free editing class from college professor and critically acclaimed literary author, Samuel Park. So get out your WIP and try these ten steps. I think you'll find them enlightening. I did. And think of the money you'll save on editor's fees.

Obviously his method works. Here are a few samples of the kind of praise he’s getting from literary superstars:

 “This Burns My Heart is quietly stunning—a soft, fierce story that lingers in the mind. Samuel Park is a deft and elegant writer.” —Audrey Niffenegger, NYT bestselling author of The Time Traveler’s Wife

“Writing prose with the beauty of poetry, Samuel Park traces a young woman's journey to hard-won maturity, alongside the meteoric rise of post-war Korea, in a novel which shines with eloquence and wisdom.”—David Henry Hwang, Tony-Award winning author of M. Butterfly

“Samuel Park's astonishing novel, This Burns My Heart, provides mesmerizing perspective into the life of a Korean wife and lover.”—Jenna Blum, NYT bestselling author of Those Who Save Us

From Good to Better: 10 Tips On Editing Your WIP
By Samuel Park

I’m a big believer in revision. In fact, I think that’s one of the biggest advantages that writers have over artists in other fields. Filmmakers can’t shoot film endlessly, but writers can edit a manuscript to perfection for years. I know writers whose first drafts are spotless and ready to be printed and bound, but I’m more of a reviser, and for me, the revision process is when the manuscript really comes together. Still, every writer dreads the moment when she gets a list of comments from a writer friend. Here are some things I keep in mind whenever I need to implement those changes. These are tried and true tips that I’ve used over the years that can take your WIP from good to better.

1.     Do Listen to the Smart People Around You

My personal philosophy is that as a writer, my responsibility is to write a book that a lot of people will want to read and enjoy and want to recommend to others. I feel like I’m in the business, plain and simple, of providing pleasure and joy. So if I’m not doing that to the friends offering feedback—who are, in fact, my first readers—that is a sure sign that the manuscript needs more work. They’re only the first in a long line of people I have to please: my agent, my editor, my publisher, my publicist, trade publication reviewers, book bloggers, newspaper reviewers, magazine writers, and finally, and most importantly, the readers! That is a long chain and a lot of people. So in order to get to the buying readers, I have to make each person in that chain love it—and I have to start with the friends giving feedback, and so I take their reactions very, very seriously.

2.     Ignore Bad Advice

This is the exception to the item above: If someone gives you feedback that doesn’t seem to be coming from a place of love, ignore it. Completely. Don’t even think about it for more than a second. As important as it is to implement and use feedback from readers providing constructive, helpful criticism, it is very important—for one’s soul, for one’s future as a writer—to ignore feedback that is not intended to help but to hurt. Be alert to it and do not let it interfere with the good work of improving your manuscript.

3.     Focus on Different Things During Each Pass

I recommend doing one whole pass based on a single aspect of the manuscript you want to improve. For instance, doing a revision based on making the main character stronger—and that’s all you do. Don’t worry about the other characters, the language, the plot. For that pass, just focus entirely on that one character—her development, her dialogue, the descriptions of her. I’ve gotten a lot of praise for writing from a female perspective in my book—people respond uniformly positively to the heroine Soo-Ja. This is partly due to the fact that I spent one long revision period focusing entirely on her. Later, you could do a revision focusing entirely on cuts, or a revision focusing primarily on descriptions.

4.     Trust the Reaction, Not the Prescription

Sometimes your early readers will point out a section that needs work, and then offer a solution. 9 times out of 10, they’re wrong about the solution. They’re right in their reaction, and they’re right in that that aspect of the manuscript may need doctoring. But what may need to be fixed may not even be in that chapter. It could be something that wasn’t addressed earlier on in the story. That section may actually be work fine, and may not need changes at all—what may need to be fixed is the pacing of the section right before it.

5.     If you Think It, It is So

If you think you may need to change something, but aren’t sure, it probably means that you do. The thought alone—the hunch alone—is enough. You may debate with yourself, Well, maybe it’s fine, maybe it’s working, I’m not sure if I should change that. Well, merely the fact that you’re thinking about it means that yes, you do need to change it. If the scene was working or was perfect as it was, the thought wouldn’t have occurred to you. When in doubt, work on it.

6.     Don’t Kill Your Darlings

This is a fascinating phenomenon that I’ve observed: while most of the time your early readers are 100% right about what’s not working on your manuscript, sometimes they want you to cut out exactly what’s best about it. I find that really fascinating, and I don’t know why it happens, but it does. Maybe the parts of the manuscript that are the most personal, original, and fresh, also happen to feel the most foreign, self-indulgent, and unnecessary. I’ve had this happen on a couple of different manuscripts, and fortunately I hung on to the passages, which turned out to be the ones that, post-publication, were the ones that people most liked and were most representative of the book. In one case, the passage that the reader wanted to cut out was the exact reason why I wrote the book in the first place!

7.     Ask “What If”

What if the heroine of the story at one point ran into another character she does not normally interact with? One of my favorite scenes in my novel, when the main character meets the man who is courting her sister-in-law, was not in the original draft. The scene ended right before his arrival. I thought, what if the scene continued? What would happen? What happened really surprised me—I didn’t even realize I needed that scene, and now I can’t imagine the book without it.

8.     Do More Research

If you’re unsure how to make edits on your manuscript, try doing more research. It will probably trigger new thoughts, and help you think of new layers to add to the story. In my mind, in order to create output, you need to provide a lot of input (new inspirations, more information). Personally, before each edit, I feel the need to replenish first by taking in more ideas, more inspiration—the same as when you’re writing the draft.

9.     Don’t (Always) Read Out Loud

I hear this all the time: read your writing out loud when you edit. Indeed, it helps catch redundancies, and makes the prose tighter. Reading out loud also helps you notice mistakes that look “invisible” in print. But ultimately, there’s a very mysterious alchemy that happens when you write something down, and then someone reads it on the page. Writing is not really that oral, otherwise novels would sound like blueprints for performance pieces. If you take out too much language—language that would not normally be spoken—you may take out the very ligaments and joints holding together your sentences. Just because it feels awkward saying it out loud, doesn’t mean it necessarily feels awkward reading it silently, in your head.

10 And When You Get Stuck…

Sometimes an editor or agent asks you to make some changes, and you find yourself unable to think of how to approach it. My suggestion, a trick I learned from a writer friend of mine, is to pick ten separate paragraphs and add two sentences to each. It is easy, doable, and effective.

Originally born in Sao Paulo, Brazil to Korean parents, Samuel Park moved to the United States at age fourteen. He went to high school in Southern California, in the South Bay Area, and then studied at Stanford University, where he graduated with B.A. (with honors) and M.A. degrees in English. He has a Ph.D. in Literature from the University of Southern California, and his scholarly writing has appeared in journals such as Black Camera, Theatre Journal, and Shakespeare Bulletin. He is currently an Assistant Professor of English at Columbia College Chicago.

Samuel Park’s novel THIS BURNS MY HEART, chosen as an Amazon Best Book of the Month, is now out. It has also been selected by booksellers as a Great Read Indie Next List Pick, and rights have recently been sold to Germany and Norway. Learn more on his website: www.samuelpark.com and follow him on twitter at @SamuelPark_


So what about you, fellow scriveners? Are any of these tips new to you? They were to me--especially the not killing your darlings part. And learning that it's good to listen when critiquers see a problem, but generally ignore their solution. Interesting about not reading aloud, too. 

Do you have any questions for Samuel? Or any personal tips to share for self editing? 

Labels: , , , , , , ,