Monday, September 22, 2008

Welcome Guest Blogger- Maggie Toussaint

Life's funny, isn't it? One day you are blogging regularly, the next an entire week flies by and you're left thinking, "Where did that week go? It was here a minute ago."

So, it's been busy up here in the vast Canadian landscape, and an entire week was swallowed by the time bandits. Plus I've had a friend visiting for the past several days and we have been very busy goofing off.
Now, when we were last on the blog we had a great introduction to the levels of editing that can be done by a professional editor. Great stuff! But, how can we, as writers, self edit to our greatest advantage? Enter Maggie Toussaint and her article on how to build a better story using the skills and craft of editing.

Let's meet Maggie:

A scientist by training, a romanticist at heart, Maggie Toussaint loves to solve puzzles. Whether it’s the puzzle of a relationship or a who-dun-it, she tackles them all with equal aplomb and wonder. Maggie’s cozy mystery from Five Star, IN FOR A PENNY, is about a terrible golfer trying to save her best friend from a murder rap. Her three other published works are romantic suspense books, one of which won Best Romantic Suspense in the 2007 National Readers Choice Awards. Her day jobs include freelancing for a weekly paper and leading a yoga class. Visit her at

Build a better story through editing

Edit mode. Some dread it. Some embrace it. Bottom line is that we all have to do it, even seasoned pros. Most authors follow a systematic process while editing their works of fiction. Here’s what I do, though it is by no means the only way to polish your work.

Elements of good writing must fit together seamlessly. Here are a few considerations: smooth transitions, character-specific dialogue, layering action tags to show the story, reducing backstory to non-impedable bits, and strengthening point of view. The nuts and bolts of character arcs and plot have to mesh too.

For me, editing comes down to layers of the book. First I check to make sure the story underpinning is strong. Once I’m satisfied, I make adjustments to the top layer. Both levels of editing help make your story and your voice unique.

Plot secures the story foundation. Reduce your story to one question. Mentally ask this question of every scene in your book. If you can’t come up with a related answer based on the scene’s content, you may need to strengthen your plot. Scenes and chapters should build upon each other.

Next, step into each POV character’s head and read only their scenes in the book. This tightens voice and eliminates repetitions. For the story to work, the main character(s) must change in some way over the course of the book.

When the plot and character arcs are satisfactory, turn your attention to the finer points. At first glance this may seem overkill, since the story already works, but this extra editing stage can make the difference between a rejection letter or The Call. Don’t skimp on effort here.

Editing books and editing systems abound. I’ve had great success with Margie Lawson’s EDITS system ( and with Browne and King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and Roerden’s Don’t Sabotage your Submission. Whatever system you decide upon, one of these or some other method, stick with it. Iron out exposition, telling scenes, clunky dialogue, droopy pacing, generic settings, and clich├ęd emotions and you’ll have a story that leaps off the pages.

Afterwards, let the book rest. The interval of rest is dependent on how long it takes you to view the book objectively again, whether it’s a week, a month, or a quarter of a year.

Finally, read your story aloud. Though everything seemed perfect before, this auditory stage can identify things you might have otherwise missed.

Although edit is a four-letter word, it can make a huge difference in the quality of your writing. Well-edited books separate professionals from amateurs. Good writing rises above the slush pile and ultimately attracts the kind of attention every author covets – publication.

I so agree with Maggie. Editing, like writing, is a stewed dish. You can't rush it, rather you need to take the time, not only to perform the work, but to let the whole thing simmer together over time before you revisit it. Fresh eyes are important! I was e-mailing with my NYC editor and she had to deliver the "bad" news that we would have to delay starting work on my novel for about a month. While we were both a tiny bit bummed about that, she pointed out that this afforded me more time to step back from my book and be able to come to it with fresh eyes once the process began.

Being able to distance your self emotionally from your work may sound difficult, but it is a crucial step on the road to being published. Writing is, above all, an intellectual pursuit.

I bid you good writing.


Diana Cosby said...

Maggie, wonderful post. I second your comment on Margie Lawson’s EDITS system. She's a tremendous teacher. For me edits are an amazing time. This is where you take the story clay and mold it into the powerful story with tremendous impact.

My sincere best to you!

Diana Cosby
Zebra/His Captive/Alexander MacGruder
Zebra/His Woman/December 08/Duncan MacGruder

Morgan Mandel said...

I'm constantly amazed at how many silly mistakes I find when I edit my books.

It's worth doing more than once.

Great tops Maggie.

Morgan Mandel

Judith Leger said...

Edit. Definitely a four letter word for me. Have to do it even if I don't wanna!! Wonderful words of advice on editing.

Wishing you the very best!!!

Judy Griffith Gill said...

I heartily agree with all you've said, especially letting the story "rest" for a while. Often, we so cramped by time and deadlines and the dire necessity to get that book onto the editor's desk we don't build that time into our planning. We should all try to attain that goal.

Anne Carrole said...

I like Margie's system too. But still don't find editing half as enjoyable as the actual writing-LOL

Debra St. John said...

Maggie, thanks for sharing your editing tips and strategies with us. That is always the part of the process that seems to me to be the most tedious, but really needs to be done carefully with attention to detail. I like your layered approach!

Faith said...

Terrific post, Maggie. And I want In for A Penny too! Time, need more time, lol.

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hi Diana!
Thanks for stopping by to comment. I'm looking forward to the release of your well-edited book, His Woman in December.

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hi Morgan,

There's so much to keep track of, I have to do much more than once!

Thanks for stopping by.

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hi Judith,

I'm glad you liked the edit-being-a-four-letter-word thing.

Thanks for stopping by.

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hi Judy Griffith Gill,

I'm always in a rush to finish a story, which makes no sense. After spending months to frame out the story, you'd think I could pace myself, but there's an internal clock that ticks away and makes me ready to put it all behind me. Taking that time out is necessary so that you can have a cool head for another read-through.

Thanks for stopping in.

Maggie Toussaint said...

Anne Carrole,

Margie Lawson's system is what finally applied direct first aid to my weaknesses. Taking the story a layer at a time helped me see the places that needed strengthening.

And yeah, I agree with you, that don't-look-down first draft is great fun to write.

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hi Debra St. John,

I didn't think any of this stuff up. I just sat down like everybody else and figured out what helped. There are so many good books on editing and so many great resources that everyone should be able to find a system that works for them.

The trick is to take the time to figure it out...

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hi Faith,

I wish I could afford to give my books away. You'd be at the top of my recipient list. Thank you for your help editing another of my books, Seeing Red, for Freya's Bower.

Faith has a great loop for editing and several books on the subject as well. Check out her group at

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Maggie
Very interesting and informative post.

Old Fogey said...

Nice tips, Maggie. Most of us are like the commenter who said she loves the original writing. That's exciting. We have to learn to make editing exciting. I learned from an agent, Joshua Bilmes, who made me cut almost 100 pages and some beloved characters out of a book. I ended up with a much better book and, at long last, the ability to ask the questions: Does it advance the plot? Does it develop the central characters? If not, out it goes no matter how clever.

The other great piece of advice I got was to trust the reader. This helped me avoid being repetitious and has made my stories much leaner.

And yes, the Roerden book and the self-editing books are very helpful. So is Hallie Ephron's book on writing the mystery.

Thanks for sharing with us.

Christina Phillips said...

Great post, Maggie. I was lucky enough to attend Margie Lawson's workshop at the RWNZ conference this year, and her EDITS system really struck a chord with me! (several chords in fact!!)

Deni Dietz said...

As Maggie's Five Star editor, I can guarantee her system works :)

Here's another "trick." If your character's name is John, do a search-and-replace and change it to something like Bruce (same for Mary/Ethel). Then, when you read the ms, Bruce [or Ethel] will leap off the page, and 50% of the time you'll find you can substitute "he" or "she."

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hi Margaret

Thanks for dropping by with a comment.

Happy writing to you!

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hi Old Fogey,

(What a handle! It made me smile.)

I'm one of those odd ducks who has both strengths in both left and write brains. I enjoy conjuring up a story from nothing, and then I also enjoy the editing process.

I don't have any good advice for you on how to make editing more fun. Unless you were to think of it like Drivers Education. Sure you already know how to drive (or write in this case) but the Drivers Ed course is a mandated refresher/primer to get you where you need to be.

Have a great day!

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hi Christina,

Margie Lawson's EDITS system helps my writing, but it also appeals to my arts and crafts muse. I enjoy color coding my words, and looking for a pleasing balance of colors on the page.

Enjoy your week!

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hey Deni,

How fun that you stopped by! Thank you for the ringing endorsement, and I'll return the compliment by saying it was a pleasure to work with you.

I like the tip you had about morphing the character names into another more unusual name so that it jumps out at you. Very good tip indeed.

Have a nice day!

Kelly McCrady said...

Awesome post, Maggie. I, too, am a Margie Lawson convert, LOL.

I am also a professional editor.

But it still holds true that editing someone else's work is far easier than editing your own. I'm a big believer in reading dialogue out loud. My favorite tightening text trick is using the highlight function to find overused words, punctuation, phrases, etc. Cut distancing by hunting down words such as thought, felt, realized, noticed. Stay deep in your character's POV!

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hi Kelly,

Thanks for your supportive comments. I've searched for overused words to, using the "Find" feature. Another way to find out how often you use a word is to tell it to find the "word" and replace it with the "word". Hit "replace all". The net effect is that nothing changes in your manuscript, but you get a count total on the occurrences of that word.

Have a great week.

JacquelineSeewald said...

Wonderful advice! I always have to remember to set work aside and not to send it out immediately. The edits are what mark writing as professional.

Jacqueline Seewald
Five Star/Gale hardcover
Wheeler large print

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hi Jacqueline,
Thanks for your comments about editing. It's so tempting to just drop something in the mail. I was out today at the Sheriff's office and just learned another trivia fact about the casual uniforms. I absolutely have to splice that in my story in progress, and I've already gone through a two-week wait on that one!

Marvin D. Wilson said...

First time on this blog, found you from your post on the Write Publish Market Yahoo group. Great blog and good post! I'll be back for sure.

I've become a student and avid advocate of self-editing. Stephen King's "On Writing" helped me a lot, as well as Carolyn Howard Johnson's "The Frugal Editor." I do the King thing re: set the just finished ms aside for a good length of time (min 1 week, a month is better if you have the patience) and then get out your literary knife and CUT. Final draft should be at least 10% less words.

Marvin D Wilson
Avatar Award-Winning Author -
Blogs at Free Spirit:
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Maggie Toussaint said...

Good advice on cutting the final draft, Marvin. Best of luck with all your writing endeavors.