On Writing: Applying Peer Editing Advice

Per Stephen King in his book, On Writing, I always give the second draft of my manuscripts to at least five people, complete with a red pen and the instructions: "Hurt my feelings as much as you can." Once they return the manuscripts, I apply their changes—as I see fit.

I have discovered we writers need to exercise caution when applying our peers’ suggestions to our work. For instance, in my Out of the Shadows second draft, I killed off a particular character and received two separate reactions. One of my advance readers wrote, “You killed [him]? You [expletive]!” Another reader wrote, “I’m so glad you killed him. He annoyed me.” (You can see why you should never let just one person read your manuscript.)

I’ve also discovered your peer editors will often sense something wrong with a section and make a comment, but miss the true issue. If you receive five different suggestions on a section, you might have an issue your readers feel but can’t fully put their red pen on. An example of this recently occurred for me when my youth pastor, Tom Powidski, gave me one comment on the Out of the Shadows manuscript: "You use too much detail when you describe the Naval Academy, and it feels different from the rest of your writing."

Using the Naval Academy as a setting in a primarily fantasy book has brought me a huge amount of problems:

  • First, the Naval Academy never lets its freshman off campus except on Saturdays, and I need Tom off campus for Out of the Shadows to work. (Sorry, EC fans. Little Tommy turned 18 and goes by Tom.) Making the timing between Elysia and Earth work with Tom’s nasty class schedule required creativity, sweat, tears, and the occasional desire to draw blood.
  • Second, Naval Academy midshipmen have their own vocabulary, which makes writing dialogue difficult because each new word requires a quick definition in the narration. To strike a balance between authenticity and minimal word count, I chose to use only some of the lingo.
  • Third, the USNA is full of history and monuments. I want each of you to feel as though you've visited the Naval Academy after you finish Out of the Shadows–the same way I want each of you to feel as though you have traveled through in Elysia. Each of the monuments has a history and a purpose, and my admiration for our nation's military makes me just want to share it–to the extreme.

The moment I re-read “Chapter Three: Plebe Summer,” the first chapter that covers Tom and Earth, I knew my youth pastor was correct:

     On the bank of the Severn River in Annapolis, Maryland lay what used to be the United States Army’s Fort Severn. In 1845, Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft converted the fort into the Naval School. Five years later, the United States officially dubbed the school the United States Naval Academy. Over the centuries, the Navy added a boat house, state-of-the-art laboratories, and Bancroft Hall, one of the largest dormitories in the world with more than 4.8 miles of corridors. Bancroft housed all Naval Academy midshipmen, as they called their students, since its construction, making it a permanent memorial to the Academy’s founder.

In my quest to show my audience the Naval Academy and its history, I violated one of the most important rules in writing: NO INFO DUMPING! Seriously, what Out of the Shadows reader cares about George Bancroft converting the old army fort? Readers want to know about Tom O’Connor and Gabriella. I continued reading Chapter 3 and realized after the first paragraph, my description felt balanced…

…until I hit the next Earth section and discovered this:

     Tom and Jake ran outside into Tecumseh Court, or T-Court, a courtyard of grey brick where midshipmen lined up for formations. Two once bronze, now verdigris cannons called Mars and Venus pointed at each other from atop stone bases, guarding the courtyard’s entrance with eternal vigilance. Past the cannons on each side of the court, two flags flew in the breeze. One bore the red, white, and blue of the United States. The other, the navy-blue flag of the Brigade of Naval Academy Midshipman. Both flags flew at half-mast to honor the dead in the Cincinnati bombing. Haven’t seen them flying at full mast since I arrived, thought Tom.
     Just past the cannons outside of T-Court stood the statue of Tecumseh–a bronze replica of the figurehead of the USS Delaware, a ship the union scuttled at Norfolk during the American Civil War. The actual Indian was Tamanend, chief of the Delaware Indians. For some reason, midshipmen disliked the name Tamanend and after many nicknames including Powatan, Tecumseh–the war loving Shawnee chief–stuck. The old Indian’s head was shaved except for a tuft of it on top that fell down in spirals. A quiver of arrows hung on Tecumseh’s back–Gabriella’s favorite part of the statue. Tecumseh was a fellow archer.

(You should have read this monster before I took out all the description! Yes, I had more! And yes, Out of the Shadows has terrorists.)

I realized my youth pastor’s impression that I described the Naval Academy in too much detail was built upon my first paragraph, and then the next two introduction paragraphs in the next chapter. Fixing the problem would be easier than I originally thought.

Keep your peer editor's comments and suggestions within context. If you have done your job correctly as a writer, you will have touched your readers' emotions while dragging them on your journey. If you throw a paragraph that doesn't jive with the rest of your prose, and they will respond emotionally. They may not know what is wrong or why they don't like what you've written, and they might tell you something is wrong when the problem lies somewhere else. It's your job take their input, figure out the true issue, and fix it. (And I'll describe my fixes in my next blog. Stay tuned!)

Be sure to check out my new To Elysia and Back Again podcast every Tuesday! Click here for more information.

Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason, which is being adapted into a graphic novel series by Wandering Sage Publications, Inc., with Weston penning the script and KISS comic book artist, Adam Black, doing the art. Weston hosts a podcast on her To Elysia and Back Again blog, which can be downloaded on itunes. Click here for a complete listing of the To Elysia and Back Again podcast episodes. Weston is also the host of The Final Cut in Movies, an internet radio talk show about science fiction and fantasy movies on Ad Astra Radio, which can also be heard as a podcast on M. B. Weston's Podcasts site or on iTunes. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.

About M. B. Weston

M. B. Weston is an award-winning fantasy, pulp, young adult, steampunk, and paranormal author. Her attention to procedure and detail gives her works an authentic gritty, military feel that takes an adventure tale to the level of a true page-turner. Weston’s writing attracts both fantasy and non-fantasy readers, and her audience ranges from upper-elementary students to adults. A gifted orator, Weston has been invited as a guest speaker to numerous writing and science fiction/fantasy panels at conventions across the US, including DragonCon, BabelCon, NecronomiCon, and Alabama Phoenix Festival. She has served on panels with such authors as Sherrilyn Kenyon, J. F. Lewis, Todd McCaffrey, and Jonathan Maberry. Weston has spoken to thousands of students and adults about the craft of writing and has been invited as the keynote speaker at youth camps and at several schools throughout the US.
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