Thursday, March 25, 2010

Mary's interview with Sherry Lewis on Self Editing

Self Editing – Now your baby is done, how can you edit anything out, isn’t it perfect the way it is?

Mysteries and Margaritas welcomes, Sherry Lewis: multi-published author of contemporary romance, romantic suspense and time travel romance for Harlequin & Jove. Writing as Sherry Lewis and as Sammi Carter, she has written two traditional mystery series for Berkley Prime Crime. She is currently working on a third. She is a frequent guest speaker for writers' groups, and has taught writing workshops for more than fifteen years. She will help you understand what you need to do to polish your story for submission or know when it’s ready to go to your editor, clean.

Mary: Thank you for agreeing to our interview. Would you please give us a bit more about your background and any other places you can be found?

Sherry: I’m delighted to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

All my life, I wanted to write novels, and I played around with writing for most of my life. I started and stopped over and over again. I wrote several hundred beginnings and no endings. Finally, in 1992, I decided I either had to get serious or stop talking about it.

On September 23, 1992, I made a personal life decision to write every day for a period of 5 years. If I hadn’t “made it” by then, I’d quit for good. My definition of “making it” was to be supporting myself and my kids (I’m a single mom) with my writing. I had no idea how unrealistic that goal was when I made it, but I sold my first three books in November 1993 and quit my day job 4 years, 1 month and 6 days from the date I made that vow.

Since then, I’ve sold roughly 30 books, give or take. I love speaking at conferences and say yes whenever I can, and I teach writing classes online at  My author web site is at

Mary: When do you edit? Do you edit as your write, or do you finish the first draft and go through and edit then?

Sherry:  I do a little of both, actually. Usually, I write a scene, then revise it at least once before moving on to the next one. I write in chronological order because the change in motivation or reaction in a scene can change the course of an entire book, so I can quickly box myself into a corner if I try to write out of order.

I keep writing that way until I hit a block, which I usually do at least twice in every book. I’ve found that a block usually means that I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere. The first time it happens, I print out everything I’ve written and I read (revising, tweaking and polishing as I go) from the beginning to find where I made my mistake. Once I’ve found my wrong turn and fixed it, I write from that point on, revising all the scenes that must be changed as a result of the fix, and keep going until I hit the next block.

At that point, I print out everything I’ve written since the last block – the last place I knew for sure everything was working well. Again, I read, revise, tweak, and polish until I find the wrong turn, and I repeat the process.  I call this writing in waves, and it’s proven to be the most effective method for me.
Mary: How do you manage to objectively take a step back from your work to see your work through the eyes of an “editor”?

Sherry: The ability to be objective about my own work is a writing muscle, just like any other. We all have it, but if we don’t exercise it, it will be weak and flabby and ineffective. First, I never edit on my computer screen. That’s where I create, so I don’t allow my internal editor to sit there. When I revise, I use hard copy and I move to a different location. I’ve done it so often now, it immediately signals my brain that I’ll be using its logical internal editor side rather than its flower-child creator side.

Once I’m in place with hard copy in front of me, I have a mental dialogue with myself during which I tell myself over and over that this is just a story. I have no emotional connection to it. I don’t care anymore about it than I do about anyone else’s work. I tell myself that I’m going to read it as if it were someone else’s story, and I’m going to mark anything that makes me pause, even for a fraction of a heartbeat.

I work hard to break my emotional connection to the work because my emotion blurs the edges. Letting emotion play a part in the revision process is like putting a soft focus lens on the camera—it hides the wrinkles and bags, and makes all of my words look pretty.

We spend a lot of time in the romance writing world talking about our dreams and the books of our hearts. My dreams are important to me, and my books are very close to my heart. But there comes a time when it’s necessary to put the dreams away, block off the heart, and just get to work.

Mary: Do you have a formula that you go by, or is every edit of a manuscript different?

Sherry: Every edit is different. Some books are much easier than others. Some come to life only after a very slow, painful process. The only thing that remains constant is that I am determined to do whatever it takes to make the book the very best it can be before I submit it, even if that means rewriting it a dozen times.

Mary: Does there come a time when you’re so used to your editing and writing style that there is only a little polish to do to your manuscript before sending it to you editor? Or is it a major editing chore every time?

Sherry: See the above answer   Several years ago, I was in a store and I saw a book by an author I used to read automatically. I thought, “Hmmm, I haven’t read anything by her in a while. I wonder why.” So I bought a book and took it home, and discovered why within just a few pages.

My biggest fear as an author isn’t that I’ll never hit the NYT list, or that I’ll never be a big name, but that I’ll reach a point of success where I begin to believe my own press and then I’ll get lazy. I’m terrified of that happening, and I want to always be stretching and growing as an author, so I really hope I never think I’m at the stage where I only need to put a little polish on the manuscript. If I ever feel that way, I’ll know that I’m either lying to myself or I’m not growing.

Mary: There was a workshop that a well-known author made the statement ‘Don’t worry about the grammar, editors are looking for that break out story. If you have that, edits will clean the grammar.’  Is this true? How perfect does an editor expect your work to be?

Sherry: I didn’t read the comment in context, so it’s hard for me to say I agree or disagree with the point she was trying to make. One thing that saddens me about our world today is the lack of grammar skills among those who are trying to write. Words are our commodity. We ought to respect them enough to understand how to use them properly.

But by the same token, I think some people obsess over things they don’t need to obsess over. No matter how hard we try to make our manuscripts perfect, they’ll always contain mistakes. If we wait to submit until the mistakes are all gone, we’ll never submit.

It’s also possible to revise the life right out of a very good story, and I would strongly caution against doing that.

Mary: Are there any tricks to cut done the process? A formula you can follow the first draft so the polishing process is easier?

Sherry: I do a lot of pre-writing work, from characterization to working out conflicts, to plotting a vague organic road map to follow as I’m writing, to structuring my scenes using Dwight Swain’s Scene and Sequel methods. They’re tried and true methods for me, and without them my work is rambling and weak and unfocused. They’re not shortcuts by any means. They’re simply tools that make my work stronger and better.

Mary: You give workshops on this subject, what else can you tell us that these questions have not covered?

Sherry: Though most of us who are actively and seriously pursuing a career in writing are born with talent, we need to acknowledge that none of us is born with pure talent.  Every one of us has strengths and weaknesses.  Some people have a natural ear for dialogue but struggle to write sensory texture.  Others are great with motivation but struggle to write consistently.  Others are very strong on conflict in narrative but their dialogue is weak.  Others might be strong on pacing and weak on characters, or the other way around.

Acknowledging your weaker areas is essential to revising your manuscripts prior to submission because you have to clear away the big stuff before you can focus on the details. If your conflict is weak, trimming away the excess verbiage isn’t going to turn your manuscript into a publishable novel.  Strong conflict won’t make up for characters nobody cares about.  A killer plot isn’t going anywhere if your dialogue is contrived.  Some of us write snappy, witty dialogue and avoid conflict like the plague.

Whether we’re talking about revising by scene or the entire novel, I suggest focusing on your weakest areas on your first pass or two through the manuscript since they’ll take the most work. Critique groups work for several reasons. A good critique group can help us see our weakest areas, and can help us grow stronger in them.

Another value of critiques groups is that often we learn best by looking objectively at work we have little or no emotional stake in, then applying the lessons learned to the work we do care about. If you’re honest with yourself, and if you’ll let yourself, you’ll soon begin to feel when your words are working and when they aren’t.

One of the biggest mistakes a writer can make is hanging on to something that’s not working just because she once decided it sounded good.  Hanging on to the wrong thing leads to inaccurate emotion, which leads to unrealistic conflict, contrived motivation, and clichéd situations. Be willing to listen to your character’s truth, even if it means you have to throw away your favorite scene or section of a book.  Even if it means getting rid of a secondary character you particularly like.

If you insist upon keeping something in your book that doesn’t work through the revision process, you’ll end up with a highly polished manuscript that doesn’t work.

Revising isn’t just about having the skills necessary to write well, it’s also about knowing when to hang on and when to let go.

Thank you, Sherry Lewis, for being our guest on Mysteries and Margaritas.


Cassy Pickard said...

Sherry and Mary: Great conversation you two had going. I loved it. I'm going back to read it again.

Sherry, I look forward to the day I can say "published 30 books, more or less." I'm counting the ones in my files draws!

This is really great. Thanks so much. I'll be back later this afternoon.

Mary Martinez said...

Cassy I'm glad you liked it. I'm very lucky to have Sherry in my chapter.

Lindsay said...

I agree with Cassy on two points. One-it was a great conversation and Two-I'll have to go back over it again.

Anita Clenney said...

Fabulous interview. This was very insightful. I love plotting but get very frustrated with editing. I find it very helpful to see how others write, and I've found a lot of inspiration here.

Cassy Pickard said...

Sherry: Do you find in your editing that you have to change your plots much? I have found that as I go through I discover that I might not have enough emotion, or scenery description, or whatever. I think I'm talking about the layers that it takes to make something truly interesting.

Does that now just "come" to you given how many books you've written, or do you still need to work at making it all come together?

Kari Lee Townsend said...

Awesome interview Mary. Great insight Sherry. I love seeing how the whole process works for others. It help me in my own journey.

Mary Moreno said...

Informative and inspirational! Thanks to both Sherry and Mary for a great column.

Lindsay said...

I've found that if I edit what I wrote the day before I lose my writing momentum. I have to wait until the book's finished.
Sherry, you made an interesting point about reading an author you hadn't read in a long time, then realized why.
I don't care if I make the NYT list either. I just want to maintain a consistancy with my writing. With both my e-book and short I've gotten good press and even had the e-book nominated for an award. For me that sets the bar. I've got to reach, maintain and exceed that level.
Yeah, I'm a little afraid of the bar, that I can't reach it.
Do you find it easy to maintain the same level with all you're books?

Liz Lipperman said...

Sherry and Mary - awesome interview. Dialogue is my strongest suit, but I really struggle with sensory and scenery. The sensory I get, but a lot of scenery takes me right out of a story and is usually what I skim when I read. I hate it when I'm reading a great story and they stop to describe every piece of furniture in the room. I know this is a personal preference and I do try to put a few in there. When I connect with a good one, my CPs praise me like I was a child they're teaching!!

I love your hints and will definitely try some of them.

Thanks again for joining us on M&M.