The Editing Monster Hit List

At long last, I’ve compiled into one comprehensive list all the steps I take when editing. 

The problem is I keep misplacing the damned list. By posting it here on the blog, it will be a lot easier to find than sifting through nested computer directories, so…let’s hear it for public archives. 

Heed all warnings. Your miles may vary. Take what you like and burn the rest. Ad infinitum.

Zero Draft Editing

I tend to begin with a zero draft (also known as the brain dump, the vomit draft, the throw-something-at-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks draft). My only focus on this draft is to get the idea out of my head and onto the page.

I perform next to zero edits on this draft. Pretty much zilch. I generally draft in Scrivener, then backup to MS Word, so I’ll add page numbers and a table of contents. Then, I shove it in a mental drawer and I don’t touch it for *at least* six weeks.

First Draft Editing

I work on the first draft to drive the story towards cohesiveness. The goal of this draft is to fill in any holes and clean it up well enough to send to my development editor. I search the Zero Draft for “fix this” notes, any missing scenes or incomplete transitional breaks, etc. 

I want the story to be as complete as I can make it, but I don’t get too invested in making it perfect, so I’m not stripping adverbs or assessing overall sentence structure. Basic formatting, complete from start-to-finish, with basic spell-checking, but that’s it.

Then, I ship it to my development editor, and ask her whether or not the story sucks. 

Second Draft Editing

By this point, I’ve got a stronger, cleaner draft. The plot holes have been fixed, the story itself has been solidified—I’m closer to the delivery target, whether that’s publication consideration or web posting or sending to my list. 

Now, the editing gets interesting, with four sub-categories that must not be skipped.

1. Overarching Checks

  • Stick the intro landing: Start strong by establishing scene, creating  conflict and/or generating mystery.  Whenever possible, CUT exposition (move to later).
  • What’s vital/integral? WHAT must the reader know WHEN for the story to move forward?
  • Genre promise: What’s the core genre of this story, and what elements must be present? Are they all accounted for?
  • Keep antagonist active: Keep in mind what the antagonist is doing in the background, even if it’s never explicitly stated in the text.
  • Deliver promised elements: No disconnected endings. No loose ends. No plot holes.

2. In Each Scene

  • What’s new: what events/actions in this scene can only happen here? Why is this scene important?
  • Character motivation: what does each character want? Who/what is the opposition? Who wins/loses, and what comes next as a result?
  • Simplify descriptions: what would the POV character notice, and why? What details don’t matter and can be removed?
  • Protagonist agency: what action does POV character take that changes the scene’s outcome?
  • Reader engagement: what should the *reader* feel in this scene?
  • Sensory pass: check for see, hear, feel, taste, smell and sense integration.

3. Comprehensive Chapter Checks

  • Print out, red pen: at least once with every manuscript, no matter the length, print out each chapter and walk through it with a red pen.
  • Fight scenes: Eliminate tech jargon, work backward from desired injury/outcome, remember to incorporate character POV fear and limitations, avoid punching, remember adrenaline aftermath.
  • Love scenes: romance, desire, emotion, sensory elements, heat
  • Up/down rhythm: If possible, adjust chapter wins/losses and ending up/down beats
  • Kill scene breaks: whenever possible, transition to next scene instead of breaking flow of text.
  • Relevancy: if this whole chapter was cut, how would the story suffer? How could I make this chapter someone’s favorite in the whole book.

4. Final Checks

First, a word about the “filler word” lists. These are the empty words that dilute meaning and must be removed. 

This part SUCKS. I cut corners *every* *single* *time* I get to this stage because I’m so damned tired of the manuscript. And the list just gets longer the more I write.

Doesn’t matter how I feel about it, though, because this stage absolutely tightens up the writing. With each manuscript, though, I get a little better at making sure this gets done.


  • Editor/Beta reader: For development editor, get feedback on overall story (plot, characters, etc.) For beta reader, ask ABCD (what’s awesome, boring, confusing, or disbelieving—meaning, what pulls them out of the story?)
  • Filler word and crutch phrase lists: Allot time and don’t skip; go through *entire list* to trim excess, even if it takes multiple sittings.
  • Tighten writing: at minimum, search for “line widows” to find opportunities to trim words.
  • Kindle pass: send doc to Kindle; make revision list
  • Final notes: make sure every last revision note is integrated into manuscript

The Final Draft

At this point, the story itself is finished, and these final checks ensure the cleanest manuscript possible before submitting for publication consideration, self-publication, or posting.

  • AutoCrit pass: Mandatory check of adverbs in dialogue, overused words, phrase frequency, cliches, and redundancies, at minimum.
  • Read aloud pass: If changes are made in a line, go back to its beginning and resume.
  • Final spelling/grammar check: watch out for AutoCorrect bullshit and make sure names aren’t botched.

And then, my friends, it’s DONE! I ship that thing wherever it’s supposed to go, and get on to the next story.

How does your process vary? Hit me up on Twitter @virginiablk517 and let me know! And if you want to read one of my latest stories, check out my lesbian paranormal novella UNSEEN, available here:

Playlist – The Improbability Volumes

Are You Still Talking About That Crazy Thing You Did?

By now, I’ve screamed enough from the rooftops about National Novel Writing Month. (No-way-near-humble-brag: this year was my second official NaNoWriMo.  Once again, I made it to “winner” status by achieving the goal of 50k words in the month of November.)

Improbability’s final count was around 56k, and for the whole month, I listened almost exclusively to the same music.

As always, for a story of this magnitude, I created a playlist to help set the mood for the daily word output, but I also had another ace up my sleeve – someone else’s playlist.

Since Improbability is a futuristic enemies-to-lovers romance as well as a spy-vs-assassin suspense novel, setting the mood was crucial. I needed a dark tone, but one that hinted at possibility – something sexy but not mushy, and futuristic but not cheesy.

I ask a lot from my playlists.

“Dark tone” crossed with “futuristic” equated electronica. Sexy without mush meant slower beats but no flowery violins, and “not cheesy” meant that I needed to stay away from the ’70s sci-fi synthesizer sound.

Start With The Bones

I started with my primary protagonist, the ethical hacker working for a government agency, newly transferred to a field assignment. Logically, this led to coding mixes on YouTube inspired by THE MATRIX. Within minutes I’d found a coding mix with killer Matrix-inspired visuals and a playtime that clocked in at over two hours.


(If you play this while you read the posted drafts, you’ll be immersed in the world I imagined as I wrote it.)

In The Car, At The Library, In The Shower

Most of these songs ended up on my own personal mix as well. When I’m working on a project, I obsess on it, which means I need a portable version for the car, or my phone, or wherever I am – and I’m not always plugged in enough to play YouTube.

This list contains singles from several different artists, though one entire soundtrack was nearly ideal for the mood I was trying to create – “Halt and Catch Fire” by Paul Haslinger.

Everything else is listed below, but there are two standouts. Trentemoller’s “Take Me Into Your Skin” and Blank & Jones “Florent 2 A.M.” were the sexiest tracks on the list, and absolutely the environment for the shift in the sexual dynamic for the two main characters. (The first encounter between Denna and Katja is edgier than this, and required something more tense – Reznor and Ross’ “Intriguing Possbilities”.)

The rest of this list:

  • Trentemoller, “Evil Dub”, “Like Two Strangers”
  • Colin Stetson, “Like wolves on the fold”
  • Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, “Complication With Optimistic Outcome”
  • Solar Fields, “Outlined Surfaces”, “Insum”
  • H.U.V.A. Network, “Indigo Room”
  • Charlie Clouser, “For Alaska”
  • Gus Gus Vs T-world “Anthem”
  • Mega Drive, “Converter”

On to the next story…and the next playlist.

Give the gift of romance –  give BIG CITY BLUES to your favorite lesbian fiction reader!

Writing Soundtrack: Cher, Janelle Monae and Lesbian Fiction

While every one of my stories begins differently, each of them only reaches an end because of one action completely devoid of writing: every story has a soundtrack.

Sometimes, I can’t sink into the story enough to write it unless I’ve got the music firmly lodged in my head. Other times, the music calls me first – a particular song or melody will coalesce into a character, and I have to run to the nearest notepad or keyboard to get it all down before I forget.

Two fan fiction stories straight out of the “Lost Girl” series were an interesting dichotomy. “What You Want Now” was taken straight from “Here Comes The Night” (S5E07), which of course meant that Aaron Neville’s “Tell It Like It Is” played on a loop until the story posted.

That vignette (about 5000 words) was a deeper dive into Bo’s perspective and completely within canon, but her view only told one side of the story. The accompanying novella “What I Have To Do” had to be longer (over 60,000 words) because Lauren’s perspective on the series left way too much out of the story. Why on earth would Lauren choose the Dark? And since she did, how much of her story was left out? For weeks, I listened to Stabbing Westward’s “What Do I Have To Do” on a loop. (My daughter was not impressed.)

Which reminds me – when I’m writing, I play the associated mix all the damned time. While I’m writing. Driving in the car. Cooking in the kitchen. Playing in my head while I shower. The soundtrack is the story – when those characters walk through my head at all hours, the music plays along with them.

The original short story, “Grease Monkeys and Big City Blues” had four accompanying songs, but only one was the inspiration for the story itself.

“Meet Me In Montana” (Dan Seals and Marie Osmond) is one of those songs I hide that I love, but I know every word. That song is the starting place for both characters – Allison has a life she no longer wants, and Jane wants a life she’s never had. From the first moment at twilight in a small town, when Allison walks into a garage to the sound of a yodeling mechanic, until the final showdown in a small lakeside cabin, the story was about two people destined for a life together, but first they had to each acknowledge how much agency they needed to employ in their own lives.

The rest of the preliminary mix was filled out by “The Chain” (Fleetwood Mac), “Give In To Me” (Garrett Hedlund and Leighton Meester), and “Can’t Live Without Your Love” (Janelle Monae).

When I edited it for publication as BIG CITY BLUES, it acquired a fifth song. Jane’s lonely twilight on the ridge with a six-pack of beer where she sits trying to decide what to do next with her life was accompanied by Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home”. It was an homage of sorts to the final scenes of the film “Fandango” – the moment Kevin Costner’s character raises a beer to the sky to toast the sunset.

I wanted to capture the emptiness that yawned before Jane, her fear and indecision but also her hope that things could be better.

“Second Impression” had a more general soundtrack – ’70s and ’80s classic rock. The moment that Bo decides that she doesn’t know Lauren at all and feels compelled to fill in the blanks was against the backdrop of songs like “Jungle Love” by Steve Miller Band and “Stone In Love” by Journey.

My latest work-in-progress, “Nowhere Left To Run”, is a darker and more desolate tale of Bo’s origins and first meetings with Lauren and the Fae. While the mix includes artists like (believe it or not) Cher (“Young and Pretty”), the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (Piano Concerto Number 2), Ivan Neville (“Why Can’t I Fall In Love”), Lone Justice (“Wheels”) and Ryan Adams (“Wonderwall”), the story’s soundtrack is dominated by Adam Hurst’s melancholy cello.

In fact, though not Hurst’s work, there’s a ten-hour “sad cello” mix on YouTube that is the most common backdrop when I’m working on this particular story.

One anomaly exists to date. “Season Finale” is a short story that was accepted for publication as part of Sapphire Books’ FANDOM TO FANTASY Anthology. I made no mix – I swear I was channeling the characters and they were able to speak for themselves instead of communicating through music.

My alter ego is a performing singer/songwriter. Perhaps this is what makes it possible for music to speak for my characters, and for the music to become the fabric of the stories themselves.

For the writers out there, do you do this as well? What music inspires or accompanies your writing? And readers – does this music match what you imagine when you read these stories? If not, what songs do you hear?

Be sure to include a valid email when you comment. I’ll pick one at random and send you a free copy of BIG CITY BLUES!