Lessons from Editing a Novel

A great editor is like a two-star Goodreads reviewer who tells you everything that didn’t work in your novel and why, but also bothers to mention the glimmers of potential that bumped you up from getting one star.

Well, sort of. The point is, a great editor doesn’t hate or gush, but gives constructive, actionable feedback. The Vermilion Riddle is my first completed novel, and it’s also my first fully-edited novel. I would not have made it to publication without a fantastic editor. Michelle Levigne was much kinder than a two-star reviewer when she first told me she loved Riddle and believed in its potential, but it needed work. She showed me exactly what the shortcomings were, and gave me a chance to revise. I’ve learned that I thrive best with that kind of feedback – not a formula for how to fix something, but a pointer to the weak spots I can hone in on.

Long story short, I spent a year revising based on her feedback, and Mt. Zion Ridge Press is now publishing my book! I’ve worked with Michelle to tweak and finalize the manuscript over the months, and I wanted to share some of my key learnings.

Successful foreshadowing makes readers say both, “Oh, duh!” and “I didn’t say that coming.” I haven’t read a lot of writers who could do this well (myself included). Michelle calls these foreshadowing moments “jalapenos” – use with discretion, sprinkle them lightly, but give readers some taste of what’s to come. This framing helped me a ton, and I tweaked a lot of the foreshadowing components as I edited. Since I already had a draft complete, I knew exactly what the climax looks like, so I could go back and find places to insert little hints. I imagine this is necessary for a lot of writers. It’s hard to get all the details and finesse right the first time, especially if you’re building up to some kind of a reveal. I’m not even a “pantser” (someone writing by the seat of their pants). I plot ahead, but foreshadowing is more easily added in reverse. Good foreshadowing should land us somewhere between “Agatha All Along” (sorta obvious) and Cap’s BFF killing his other BFF’s parents back in the day (okay, am I gullible, but I didn’t see that coming). Sorry, when I can’t think of good literary examples, I default to Marvel.

Make sure characters actually do things that are in-character, not simply because it moves the plot forward. Don’t force character actions because some huge event has to happen, otherwise the story doesn’t work. I fell into this pitfall when I knew I had to manufacture a critical character encounter. I imagined the scene before I ever put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) on this story, and that blinded me from seeing my characters behaving totally irrationally. An editor can spot this pretty easily. Michelle asked me why there were no guards in this very dangerous campsite, and why the characters were sleeping on a riverbank when they had nice, warm cabins aboard their ship…? Well, shoot, because I had to force a meeting! A good question to ask as you cross-examine your story is, “Does it make sense she’s responding this way? Or making this decision?” It needs to make sense for the person, not just for the plot.

Build the world, not just parts of it! One of the main things I did in my first major revision was flesh out the world of The Vermilion Riddle. Many fantasy writers naturally go heavy on world-building, but it’s not second nature to me. I like exploring characters, and I realized that came at the expense of their world – it was too thin. Michelle told me the world felt empty, outside of the few places my characters visited. I would not have spotted this clearly on my own. While I think I could give that feedback on someone else’s story, it’s hard to see the forest from the trees for my writing. The first thing I did before starting revisions was build the world more fully for myself, even if I wouldn’t feature all of it in the novel. (I’m not Tolkien, guys). But just knowing more about the cultures, religions, and government empowered me to sprinkle in references in dialogue or bits of backstory. A savvy reader can usually tell you when a world feels rich and real or not, but I needed to learn, as a writer, what evokes that sensation. I think of Narnia – Lewis wrote with less than a tenth of the detail Tolkien used in Lord of the Rings, but he still made the world feel rich and expansive. There’s not a singular way to do it. Sometimes, it’s just a brief, tantalizing line here or there – but an invested reader loves those. It’s the stuff of great fanfiction spinoffs! 

Photo by hannah grace on Unsplash.

A Quiet, Creative Journey: Part II

Over two years, I wrote one of my more transparent posts about my writing journey. Forgive me for momentarily quoting myself:

I also finished my first-ever novel-length story, a fantasy, at 98,000 words. (I was curious how that stacked up against typical novel lengths, so as a point of comparison, I found the first and shortest Harry Potter book was 77,000 words and Order of the Phoenix was the longest at 257,000 words. Maybe that one could’ve used more editing). I vacillate between thinking I wrote something half-decent and thinking it’s total rubbish. Regardless, I’ve started the process of querying agents, which is like an alien world I’m learning about.

Well, I didn’t end up with an agent for my novel, but I did sign a contract with a publisher! Thanks to the wonderful team at Mount Zion Ridge Press, my novel, The Vermilion Riddle, will be releasing in February 2022.

I’m amazed and grateful. It’s every writer’s dream come true, to imagine holding a copy of my book in my hands – and having it available for anyone to order. I also feel the weight of responsibility, thinking of putting my words into print. It really is Providence that I came across Mount Zion Ridge Press, a Christian publisher with a biblical worldview. I’m thrilled I get to work with them in editing my novel and making it ready for the world.

I was a reader before I was ever a writer, and stories can have a profound impact on our psyche. I think of what the best stories have been for me: a cocoon on cold nights, a companion on lonely days, an iron that sharpened my mind, a battle cry that gave me courage. I don’t aspire to bestseller status or movie contracts. I like my quiet, small life. But I do hope my story, though fiction and fantasy, honors the Lord and is a flicker of light in a dark world. If it’s a candle in the night for one person out there, that’ll be more than worth it.

So, what’s next? Probably to the horror of many introverted writers, publishing involves a lot of marketing. I’m looking into starting a newsletter, setting up a Facebook page, and yes, writing more on Pen and Fire. I’ll be working on manuscript revisions over the next few months with my editor too. She’s been a real gift to me already, and I can’t wait to learn more from working with an industry professional.

Also, if you like what you’ve seen of my writing, if you enjoy classical character-driven fantasy, if you’re my friend, or if you want to help out a stranger on the Internet – I have an opportunity for you to get involved! I’ll be looking to build a “street team” of early readers who can commit to reading and reviewing my book before release. You can also help me promote and spread the word to your social circles. Drop me a line if you’re interested.

Watch this space for more updates soon on my publishing journey and The Vermilion Riddle!


A Quiet, Creative Journey


Happy 2019! I know I’ve done a dismal job of blogging regularly, which I will try to improve upon. (I know what Yoda says about trying, but I have commitment issues and a day job). I did a fair amount of story writing last year but most of it was offline, and I prefer to use this space for actual writing instead of updates on what I’m writing. Unless something huge happens, i.e. I’m going to publish, I’m joining the Avengers, etc. However, since I’ve been quiet around here for awhile and we’re at the start of another year, I thought it’d be fitting to share a few highlights and reflections on the journey.

So, the highlights:

My science fiction / space opera novella, Pilot Tide, was a finalist in Rooglewood’s Five Poisoned Apples Snow White retelling contest. Even though I didn’t win, I got some great feedback from the judges, and it was just a fun story to write. I’m grateful to these contests for pushing me to create, with a deadline and a word limit. I’m also keeping an eye out for what I can do with this piece, because I don’t want it to die on my hard drive.

I published my first-ever piece in print and received an author payment for it! (Never mind that the $$ was about the cost of a salad where I live, and I promptly spent it plus some on buying print copies). While I prefer novels, I’ve come across some impressive flash fiction and I wanted to try my hand at it. I wish I discovered Splickety earlier; I just snuck into their last issue here. But it’s been reborn as Havok, an online flash fiction zine with a seasonal themes and a daily story. Check them out, especially if you like speculative fiction.

I also finished my first-ever novel-length story, a fantasy, at 98,000 words. (I was curious how that stacked up against typical novel lengths, so as a point of comparison, I found the first and shortest Harry Potter book was 77,000 words and Order of the Phoenix was the longest at 257,000 words. Maybe that one could’ve used more editing). I vacillate between thinking I wrote something half-decent and thinking it’s total rubbish. Regardless, I’ve started the process of querying agents, which is like an alien world I’m learning about.

My current project is expanding my Beauty and the Beast novella retelling, a sci-fi political drama, into a novel. It’s turning out to be a pretty unabashed mashup of things I love, i.e. literary references, Mission Impossible-esque suspense scenes, sarcastic androids, lots of Chinese food, the enemies-to-friends-and-maybe-more trope, and space. I feel like I’m just having a personal nerd-fest writing this.

All in all, some of my key takeaways:

Half the battle of writing is perseverance. I made a resolution in 2018 to finish that novel after tinkering with it for a few years. I’m done now. It may still not see the light of day, but at least now, there’s a non-zero probability it might. I write very slowly, and it can be hard to see the glorious end (it felt that way a few chapters in, at the halfway mark, and even coming to the final chapter). But every bit is progress. I learned to think of each chapter as a meaningful vignette that could stand on its own: each one needed to have its own kind of impact, whether it was in quiet character development or high-stakes action. In that way, each chapter felt like the birth of a mini-story rather than a mere tick mark in a long slog to the finish line.

The discipline of writing demands balance. As much as I joke that I’d throw in the towel on my current career if I could publish a bestseller, I don’t think I would. I’d go crazy writing full-time. I write in spurts – most recently, I spent an afternoon at the library, lost in a short story I was working on. If someone stole my stuff, I may not have noticed. Then, I go a few weeks without time or motivation to write. And I’m grateful that I can’t sit around, paralyzed, waiting for inspiration to strike. I need to go to work and be productive. I enjoy writing as side pursuit, where it’s one, but not the only, outlet for creative energy. Also, I have found that as much as good books have taught me about sharp writing and human hearts, I have learned more through experiencing life in the world – through soul-baring hours of conversation, tasting foreign cultures, navigating office politics. More than handbook theories, a real, earthy zest for life gives a writer a fuller voice and better stories.

Everyone says writers need thick skin because you’ll get a lot of rejections. Honestly, I think stepping out your front door in our crazy world requires thick skin. But point taken. Rejection always stings, but I probably haven’t felt that to its greatest extent because 1) I haven’t submitted that much writing to that many places, and 2) I’m not depending on this to pay any bills. It’s less the rejections, and more my limitations, that have been teaching me humility. It takes maturity and plain life experience to be capable of writing certain topics well. When I was working on my fantasy novel, there were many moments I felt like I was writing out of my depth, wrestling with how to handle certain themes or relationships and do them justice. Give me twenty more years of life on earth and I could probably do this better. A realistic acknowledgment of what I’m capable of and not is humbling. Though I would never have the audacity to say (or believe!) that I have some story or idea inside me (an average, twenty-something girl who used to win a lot at Never Have I Ever) that is genius, I find my inherent pride grasping for that greatness.

But for the most part, I’d be pretty happy if I wrote something enjoyable and not cringe-worthy. Plus points if it makes you think a bit or inspires you a smidgen. I’m not going to be Tolkien, or Lewis, or Jane Austen. Even a hundred years won’t fix that, and that’s totally fine.

In the end, I write for the thrill of it. A few years ago, I wrote this in my journal: “I once used words to soothe my loneliness. I once used words to prove my worth. Today, I want to use words to set the world ablaze with the glory of eternal things.”

Okay, I occasionally get overly dramatic.

But I still resonate with that. I have learned that our employment of words is a stewardship. Like an adept swordsman can use his skill to either cut down or defend the weak, a wordsmith wields similar power. Words weave stories, and of the many reasons I am convinced about the truth of the Gospel of Christ, one of the main ones is the power of story. We did not come from a vacuum, sprung into a meaningless existence. God has made us for Himself, and the stories we tell, though tarnished by our sinfulness and framed in the context of the Curse, still echo His eternal story: creation, fall, redemption, renewal. Some of our stories are more original than others, but they are ultimately all remixes. Only God creates ex nihilo, and we are imaging his inexhaustible creativity in our finite imaginations, building from the dirt and words and reality He has given to us.

So what’s your story?


Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

An Assortment of Unspoken Words

Can you piece a life together from the words that go unsaid? Sometimes, I think the things we never say—because of missed opportunity, fear, or delayed realization—define us more deeply than the words we bring into the world.

An experimental drabble. Undefined mixture of fiction and reality. Take it however you will.

She told me there were tears in your eyes at the end of the day. We were catty schoolgirls with masks over our hollowness before I understood—in the trenches of my heart, not just Sunday school—what it meant to be a sinner. I wish I knew where you were so I could tell you: I’m sorry. I’ve had my heart broken by grief, but I’ve learned that time mends wounds yet magnifies regrets. I can live with scars. It’s harder to think I’ve caused yours.

I am waiting for you to be the miracle story I tell. Will the scales fall off? I am afraid to say how I am afraid for you. You are my longest, trembling prayer, the one I never forget, the one that brings me to my knees.

You were the flesh-and-blood embodiment of Taylor’s music. She just wasn’t famous then and I was too scared to dream.

I looked through my old yearbook but it didn’t list your first name. I wonder if you’re still a missionary, or a teacher again. I wonder if you ever had a daughter, and if she turned out anything like me (I hope not, for your sake). Thank you for answering childish questions kindly, for giving me second chances, for teaching me about the assurance of salvation in a simple sentence. If we don’t meet on this side of eternity again, please wait to trade stories with me in golden streets.

Sometimes I hated that you couldn’t take anything seriously. But I wish we stayed friends, if just for the silly, stupid reason that I miss your jokes.

A Hard and Holy Thing

I know, I’ve been MIA for much of the month. The term March Madness is a very apt descriptor, and I’m not talking about sports. I haven’t found too much time to write, but I did put this little piece together for Rachel’s March chatterbox challenge. Please excuse any rough edges; this was written on a series of cramped flights and no brain capacity for editing.

This vignette actually follows on a Beauty and the Beast re-telling novella I wrote last year. I’m planning to offer a copy to any and all interested parties. More details to come on that. Until then, enjoy.

chatterbox: superstition

“So Lady Jiang, what etiquette must I maintain to prevent a galactic catastrophe?”

His tone, mocking and light, shook Maia out of her reverie. She pulled her gaze away from the foaming shoreline reluctantly and found his dark eyes. They gleamed with a rim of mischief, a foreign characteristic for his usually grim expression.

She scowled. “Don’t murder anyone before the wedding.”

“I’ve hardly ever been accused of that crime.”

A smirk teased at the corner of his mouth, and Maia could tell it contained equal parts jocularity and cynicism. Dark humor tinged his statement and they silently shared a moment of painful understanding before a chorus of laughter from the beach snapped the solemnity. Maia sucked in a deep breath, the smell of sea salt and tropics assaulting her senses.

“I’m sorry, Aiden.” She bumped her hand tentatively against his in the sand. “Baba always said I tell terrible jokes.”

His fingers snaked around hers. “Nah, you have a sound wit. Just poor timing.”

She laughed and cringed at the same time. “I do, don’t I? Everything is still awfully fresh. Stars, this is why I could never be a politician.”

“I have no idea why I asked you for counsel on etiquette.”

Maia thrust her elbow towards him but he caught her arm in a firm grip. They fell into a playful tussle and wet sand caked their limbs. After a few moments, Aiden locked his hands around her wrists and gave a slight shake of his head.

“I’d rather not see us on the news later.”

She raised an eyebrow. “You already know Maris Stella so well.” Sarcasm bled through her words, but she released her hold on him. Stellan news crews were banned from the Jiang’s private beach, but they were also notorious for acquiring intrusive footage.

They lapsed into silence for a while, allowing the roar and spray of ocean water to fill the stillness.

“Actually,” Maia began slowly, “Stellan wedding tradition is wrought with ancient beliefs, mostly inherited from Old China. It’s considered bad luck to see the bride before the wedding.” Her glance skated sideways toward Aiden. “Some insist on me wearing a particular veil from olden days to protect the royal family from any sort of curse.”

His expression indicated sufficient distaste. “Strange, how a culture can’t shake its superstitions, even decades after the technology era.”

“I don’t think it’s that odd. Science can never decipher everything, and I doubt most people truly want it to. There’s a beauty in the mystery. These myths are not only embedded in culture, but in the human psyche.”

Aiden cocked his head to the side and examined her. “A princess, soldier, bibliophile, and philosopher?”

The old, private joke echoed with warm familiarity. “And you have such impeccable timing,” she mumbled, a note of complaint creeping into her voice. “Who would have guessed—Aidan Hound, a jesting man?”

He offered an almost roguish smile in return. “And what is your opinion on these irrationalities?”

“You’re just concerned I’ll wear that horrendous veil,” she grumbled, before a more thoughtful expression overtook her. “I don’t believe in the superstitions, because they’re marked with human design—too flawed, too predictable. Truth must come from a source beyond us. I think—I think truth should shock us because we would not imagine it ourselves. And yet, it would strike our souls and sensibilities with its utter veracity.”

A pregnant silence fell over them, punctuated only by the distant cry of sea birds. Maia felt her face flush from her short speech and Aiden’s gaze drifted off to the gold-scorched horizon.

“Your conviction should no longer surprise me,” he murmured softly, “and yet it does.”

She smiled tentatively, still unused to the sudden, vulnerable moments that would spring up unannounced between them.

“What do you think?”

“Terra is much the opposite of Maris Stella, though ironically, our world is behind yours in science. But Terrans largely believe technology like it’s a god. Superstitions are a relic of the past.” He paused, catching her hazel eyes. “Yet, like you, I don’t run with the popular opinions of my people. When you talk of truth—truth that speaks to human life and the universe—it must be a hard and holy thing.”

“I remember you once said truth was malleable.” Maia could not help but challenge him as the memory arose.

The corner of his mouth turned up. “As a politician, truth lends itself to creativity. As a person, I cannot afford that same mentality.” He glanced at her. “Besides, I was teasing you then.”

“I missed that subtext.”

“I haven’t the faintest idea how you could.”

The edge of her mouth tipped up into a half-smile. “Then, do you think truth is knowable?”

Aidan released a quiet groan, and as if in agreement, hi stomach growled. “Yes,” he affirmed, a tired spark in his eye, “but only after dinner.”

Where’s the Silver Bullet?

I think we are all secretly in search of the silver bullet. The cure-all, magical solution that makes us masters of our field, victors over our habitual struggles, at the snap of our fingers. We laugh at the idea publicly, but we still can’t resist those articles – “Do this 1 thing and transform…” or “The foolproof 3 step process to…” Oh, how those deceptively small numbers win us over. Unfortunately, nothing truly rewarding has a quick and easy fix, just hiding in a corner we haven’t searched yet. The same goes for writing. Hard work, sweat, and discipline lie at the core of the craft. Unpopular traits for lazy humans.

I considered the things that helped me grow most as a writer, and the two standouts are both lifelong disciplines. Sure, you can run a thorough grammar and spellcheck on your work, or attend a class or conference, or listen to a talk by a successful author. All of these can help. But the two unparalleled “teachers” I find the most value in and draw the most inspiration from are:

  • Life experiences. I don’t go out into the world in search of thrills, but living in a God-made world, loving and clashing with other beautifully complicated people, adventure inevitably knocks on the door. We see more of the world and more of our own human nature the longer we live and the more we experience triumphs and trials. Five years ago, I read enough books and heard enough stories that I could write heartbreak convincingly enough. (“Oh, your heart literally hurts and food has no taste and you are certain you will wither and die.”) Today, I can write it better. I haven’t compared the technicalities and descriptions from a previous and current work, but life experiences arm us with an arsenal of literary weaponry to come out firing. Five years ago, I could bluff onto the page. Now, I can bleed onto the page.
  • Books. Reading inspired me to write, and books teach me how. Read widely, and see what separates the bad from the good, and the good from the great. Just as we live more nobly when we surround ourselves with good company, we write more splendidly when we soak our minds in good books. In school, we all complain that we don’t truly understand the abstract material until someone walks us through a concrete example. Learning the rules of writing and classroom technicalities alone will never accomplish what the simple act of picking up a book can.

Speaking of examples, I think of Khaled Hosseini as one case study. He wrote The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and And the Mountains Echoed. He’s a doctor, not an English major, but he published three stellar novels. I love his work, and I think he’s a talented writer for a few simple reasons – he has a natural killer prose, his life experiences give him the ammunition for rich cultural tales, and he loves stories.

So don’t chase the silver bullet. Just live and read, then go and write.

[photo cred]