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MBM: Jessica Khoury on Editing


Today is day #5 of March Book Madness. If you’ve missed any of the other posts, go check them out. They’ve been awesome. Here’s the list.

          Lynn Wiese Sneyd: Thurs, March 8, Querying

          Tobi Summers: Tues, March 13, Plotting vs. Plodding

          JoLynne Lyon: Thurs, March 15, Marketing

          Cassie Mae: Tues, March 20, Editing

          Jessica Khoury: Thurs, March 22, Editing

          Tricia Pease: Tues, March 27th, Reading

          Sharon Belknap: Thurs, March 29, Reading

   (if it’s blue, you can click on it to go to that post)

Today Jessica Khoury is here, author of Origin, a YA dystopian novel coming September 2012 from Razerbill/Penguin. The cover is awesome and the synopsis is even better: 

Pia has grown up in a secret laboratory hidden deep in the Amazon rain forest. She was raised by a team of scientists who have created her to be the start of a new immortal race. But on the night of her seventeenth birthday, Pia discovers a hole in the electric fence that surrounds her sterile home–and sneaks outside the compound for the first time in her life. Free in the jungle, Pia meets Eio, a boy from a nearby village. Together, they embark on a race against time to discover the truth about Pia’s origin–a truth with deadly consequences that will change their lives forever. Origin is a beautifully told, shocking new way to look at an age-old desire: to live forever, no matter the cost. This is a supremely compelling debut novel that blends the awakening romance of Matched with the mystery and jungle conspiracy of Lost. (more details here.) Awesome, right? So I am uber-excited to have the uber-talented Jessica chat with us today on editing. 

Jessica: Thanks for having me guest post, Rebecca! It’s such an honor to be given this opportunity.

Gosh, I could write a book on editing. But I won’t, because so many already have, my favorite of which is Revision & Self-Editing by James Scott Bell, in the Write Great Fiction series. If you don’t have it, get it. If you have it but haven’t read it, read it. If you have it and have also read it, read it again. And always keep a highlighter handy because it’s stuffed with wonderful, concise advice that will change how you approach your first, second, or umpteenth draft. Most of what I know of editing I learned from this brilliant book, so if you seen anything here you want to explore further, Mr. Bell’s your man.

So there you sit. Let’s say you’ve got a first draft in your hands. It’s still warm from the printer. It’s beautiful. The day is beautiful. Life is beautiful.

But you open the first page and start to read. It’s like picking up a mug of freshly brewed hot Earl Grey and finding it’s left a stain on the coffee table. Because you start to think, Ugh… It’s horrible. I’m done. I’ll never write again. I’ll take up cross-stitching or the luge instead.

Well, don’t. One of Mr. Bell’s most priceless gems is found in the first chapter of his book, and it is this: Any problem can be fixed. Maybe your characters lack life. Maybe your plot is flat. Maybe the beginning is dull, the middle’s a muddle, or the end’s a disaster. There are oodles of way to approach these problems, and here are few ways you can start.

1) Wait. Give yourself some time away from your manuscript. Don’t jump straight into the editing the day or even week you finish writing. (I did this; the result was my sending off a manuscript to agents that was in dire need of help. I’m lucky it got picked up at all.) During this “cool-off” period, read a lot, watch movies or whatever, go camping—anything to distract you. Reading is best, in my opinion, because it not only steals your mind away from your book, it also gets you in the “reading” mood, so you can approach your book from the perspective of an objective reader more easily.

2) Listen to your gut. The more objectively you approach your manuscript—meaning you’re looking at it as a reader, not a writer, and that you’ve had sufficient time to “forget” the story—the easier this will be. Pay attention to your physical responses to the story. Yes, it sounds loony, but trust me on this. It works.

As you’re reading, recognize any moments when, say, your lips cringe or your abdomen tenses. These could be signs of something that’s not working. They’re the niggly little thoughts that signal a problem. Note the place it happens and see if you can figure out why it didn’t sit well with you. This is you listening to your subconscious, and it can be one of your greatest editing tools.

Often when I’m editing, I’ll ignore those tummy-turning sentences or the line of dialogue which makes my eyes wince a bit. Two, three, four times I’ll read the manuscript, and every time I’ll have the same gut response to those sections. And they don’t go away until I rework them. Often, if I persisted in ignoring my gut, I’d get my manuscript back from my agent or editor and—surprise, surprise—those same sections would be marked in red. And I’d facepalm and think Why didn’t I just listen to my gut in the first place?

3) Spice it up. There’s always room for a little more punch, a little more zing. Pull out the most tense, important scenes in the story and ask yourself What can I add to make this even more tense? What would make the stakes even higher at this moment?

Look at the dialogue. Ask yourself, What words can I omit or add to make the voices more distinct and real?

Look at the characters. Having trouble making someone likeable? Add a pet-the-dog beat, in which the character goes out of his/her way to help someone for no reason other than their own compassion or goodness. These are great ways for you MC to win the reader’s heart early in the book, whether they’re standing up for a kid who’s being bullied, stopping the car to move a hapless turtle off the road, or simply paying for someone’s coffee when the other person discovers they’ve forgotten their wallet.

Look at your descriptions and settings. Ask yourself, What details can I add to really make this place pop? Details are so important, and go so far in making a scene three-dimensional.

This list could go on and on; there are so many different ways to edit. And remember: editing isn’t just about slogging through page after page, circling misspelled words with a red felt pen. Editing is your chance to take your novel to the next level. Editing is where the magic happens. Don’t approach it with dread but with excitement. You’ve got a whole story here! The hard part’s over! Now’s the time for the fun, the spice, the glitter, the sharpening.

Have fun with it, and you’ll do just fine.

Bio: Jessica Khoury is of Syrian and Scottish descent, and was born and raised in Toccoa, Georgia. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English from Toccoa Falls College. Origin is her first novel. She still lives in Toccoa with her husband Ben, where she writes and coaches youth soccer. You can visit her online at, on facebook, or on twitter@jkbibliophile.

Rebecca: Love the tips, Jessica! Number two spoke loudly to me because I’ve gone through my current WIP hundreds of times (maybe not, but it feels like it), yet there is one section that makes me cringe every time. I keep thinking, No, I have to have it in there. I guess today I’ll be rewriting or hitting the delete key altogether. Or maybe I can spice it up. Nope. Already tried that. Delete key here I come. And I completely agree with what you said about details. We all love a book that becomes so vivid in our minds we can picture the whole thing–then we freak out when the movie doesn’t get it just right. (I’m hoping this doesn’t happen for me tonight at Hunger Games.) And it doesn’t even take lengthy descriptions to make it happen. Just vivid, powerful adjectives, smells, sounds, something. Spice it up, make it glitter. Love it. Thanks again Jessica for visiting us over here. We look forward to reading your YA novel, Origin, come fall. And again, if you haven’t checked it out yet, go. Now. Here. 🙂 How about you? What ways have you found to spice up your manuscript? Have you had that gut reaction to a particular scene? How have you upped the stakes in your book? Have you added Origin to your to-read pile on goodreads yet?


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