I don’t like editing as I write. I prefer to just plough through the story. I know that some writers like to go back to the last chapter and edit it before moving on. It gets them back into the flow of the story. At one point this approach sounded like a good idea to me, but unfortunately I would get so bogged down in editing I would never get to the new material, which is where I really wanted to be. Of course, my just drive on approach led to a 250,000 word first novel.
The copy you read weighed in at 116,000 words and is far superior to the 250,000 word version. Trust me on this. How did I cull it? It wasn’t my idea. When I first wrote Eternal Knight I was writing in the blind. I had no experience with writing and had no idea what I was doing. I just knew that I had a story that I wanted to tell. I read a couple of writing books and tried to do some self-editing. Not knowing any better, I submitted the 250k manuscript to a couple of publishers and was quickly rejected. I knew I needed some help, but I didn’t know what to do.
I was too cheap to seek out professional help. And, based on what little research I had done, I was afraid of being scammed. Help arrived in my classroom. One day I shared the fact that I was writing a novel with my ninth grade history class. A student chimed in with the fact that her mother was a published novelist, with something like five novels in print. I didn’t believe her until she sent me to her mother’s website. There she was—Ann Lawrence, author of paranormal and historical romance. I asked my student if she would put me in touch with her mother. It didn’t matter to me that she wrote in a different genre. I just wanted to meet a real life author and get the straight scoop on the whole writing gig.
A few weeks later I found myself in Ann’s dining room drinking tea and eating angel food cake. And she did exactly as I had hoped—she told me the ups and downs of the writing industry. She also offered to take a look at a few of my chapters. I had brought three along hoping she would ask just that question. As I was about to leave, she asked if I had thick skin.
She should have asked if I had a suit of armor. When I next met with her she decimated my pages. There was red ink everywhere. We spent some time going over the chapters, and then she told me that I had two choices: I could work at improving my writing, or I could quit. I told her that I wanted to get better and the next thing I knew I was in her critique group. The group consisted of four female romance writers and me. We met twice a month on Sundays at Ann’s.
Two of the women, Ann and Lisa, wrote paranormal and historical romance, genres not far removed from fantasy. Lena and Sally wrote contemporary romance, so we didn’t share much as far as genres were concerned. They both helped immensely teaching me the craft of writing. And I did the best I could reading their romance chapters. I knew nothing about writing romance, so I focused on character and story–the elements I was most comfortable with.
In my acknowledgements I called this critique group “boot camp, with cookies.” Each of the four drill sergeants helped me in distinctly different ways.
Sally Stotter (the Knife): My chapters would come back with huge red X’s drawn all over them. Sally, more than anyone, was responsible for knocking Eternal Knight down to 116,000 words. Over and over she would say to me, “this isn’t needed.” And she was right. My novel was filled with activity, but not action. Activity is just people doing stuff. Action moves a story forward.
Lena Pinto (the Grammar Queen): Lena taught me a lot about the craft of writing. Grammar, punctuation, mechanics—these are not my strengths. I still struggle with them.
Lisa (the Sniper): She showed me how important a single word can be in a sentence or paragraph. She wrote less on my chapters than any of the other critique partners, but she would change a single word and it would have such impact.
Ann Lawrence (the Master): I thought of her as the Master because she helped in all of the above areas. She was also wonderful at giving story advice. She has a great idea of what the reader is looking for.
Heck, I wasn’t even done with critique partners yet. The process of polishing Eternal Knight went through four phases. The critique group was the first of the four.
Just as the critique group was finishing its work on Eternal Knight, I discovered that another teacher at my high school, Mike Shultz, was a science fiction and fantasy writer. Unlike me, however, he was a published author. We got together and started critiquing each other’s work. He was just starting a new novel and I wanted some fresh eyes to take a look at my updated manuscript. As with my critique group, this was a chapter-by-chapter effort.
As a fantasy writer himself, Mike provided fantastic advice that really enriched the story. He helped with all elements of the novel.
For stage three of the process I wanted a non-writer (and someone who had never seen the manuscript before) to take a look at the work. I asked my friend, Kemp Brinson, to take a critical look at Eternal Knight. Kemp is well read, a lawyer, and very smart. I viewed him not as a critique partner, but as an editor. He has a wonderful eye for story and character and suggested many of the detail that make the world of Eternal Knight more real in the reader’s eye. I have a problem in that the images I see in my head don’t always get translated to the page. Kemp picked up on that and found a way to get those images onto the page.
The final polishing stage was the Beta Reader stage. I asked five friends and acquaintances to read the printed and bound proof copies of the novel. I told them that I didn’t want any story advice and that I didn’t want to know what they thought of the novel. All I wanted was straight up proofreading. They did a great job. By this point in time I had read the manuscript so many times I was blind to even the most obvious errors. I could barely stand to look at it any more.
I accepted the vast majority of them, although there were times when I stuck to my guns. For example, my first critique group was always encouraging more romance! But they wanted me to go places where I wasn’t willing to go. In Eternal Knight the really steamy stuff happens between the chapters.
You have to be willing to accept criticism. Otherwise, what’s the use of critique partners? If several people are telling you the same thing, maybe you need to step back, take a breath, and accept what they are saying to you. If you take the criticism personally the process isn’t going to work for you.
Eternal Knight was twenty-three years in the making. It was not an easy two decades. The novel was torn apart and rebuilt on numerous occasions, which meant that when it was all done is was in need of some serious polishing. I am expecting a much smoother path for the sequel. I have gone back to Mike Shultz for help in the planning and outlining phase, and he and two other friends will work with me as chapter-by-chapter critique partners. Once that version is done I’ll give the entire book to Kemp Brinson for a complete-book editorial work-over. To finish it off I’ll send the bound copy out to five proofreaders. At least that’s the plan.
I hope to have the sequel finished by June. Time will tell if this is hopelessly optimistic!
About Matt Heppe:
Matt Heppe lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and daughter. He teaches economics and military history, and in his free time does mixed martial arts. He is a United States Army veteran, having served in Germany and the Middle East as a UH-60 pilot. He is currently writing
the sequel to Eternal Knight.