Friday, June 1, 2012

What I Wish I'd Known Before I Began Editing

 I just finished editing the first novel I ever wrote for what I desperately hope is the last time. When I told my fantastic news to a couple of family members, their reaction was a small sigh and a fake smile. They didn't really believe me. Like an alcoholic who keeps promising that this drink is the last one, I've promised them over and over that this edit is the last one, and I'll never touch it again.

The last one.
However, every other time I finished editing, I felt unsatisfied. The ending was too trite. Magical elements were introduced too late in the story for reader comfort. I promised the readers a daring and adventurous heroine and gave them one who slept a lot and hid behind the men in her life. All the characters had my own annoying habit of explaining things 5 different ways before they felt satisfied they had made their point. I fixed problem after problem, and somehow managed to not suck the life out of the story.

The frosting on the cake was finding a name for my magical people. I'd been calling them fairies, for lack of a better word. But I hated it. It didn't fit, and I couldn't find anything better. Until I did. And suddenly the story started glowing and rising up in the air and doing magical things of its own accord. And it is done.

Personally, I love line-editing. I love to take a clunky piece of dialogue and polish it up until it sounds natural yet brilliant at the same time. I love to take a paragraph where all the sentences start with the word "she" and move them around like puzzle pieces until they all start differently. I love chopping up some sentences and spooling other sentences out so they aren't all the same length. But man, I wish I hadn't thought it was the first step to editing. All those wasted hours of my life!
What I wish I'd known about editing before I began:

1. Give it time to stew
In Nanowrimoland, they tell you to stop writing your novel on November 30 and not to open it again until January. I routinely break this rule, mostly because I also break another rule, which says to finish the novel by November 30. But I am a firm believer that a breather of (at least) a month before you start revisions is important. It will help you to approach the novel with an unbiased eye. You'll notice plot discrepancies more, and you'll probably feel much more pleased with the quality of your genius.

2. Look at your book as a whole
Make notes in a spiral notebook. Some people call this their novel's Bible, and if you are really good, you'll already have one. I'll never get to that point though, so I'm starting mine here.  

Jot down names of characters and the page they appear. Give them their own page in your notebook, and write down everything about them. (You'll realize things like: Oh my gosh! I forgot Trevor was 6'4 with blond hair and blue eyes when I started. By page 82 he's African-American and only 5'7! And why did I call him Geoffery on page 62?)

Notice if several throw-away characters could be combined into one much more interesting minor character. Are your characters as well-developed as you would like, and do they stay true to their personality throughout?

Make note of any plot threads you start, and make sure you wrap them up or get rid of them. Ensure you've given a rough frame-work for the rules of your world within the first couple of pages and then stuck to them throughout the rest of your story. Map all the story arcs in your notebook. Are all your details presented in the order you want them to be? Would any undeveloped storylines add texture and depth to your story? Is every scene necessary?

What is your theme? Even if you didn't start out with one, you've got one, and when you find it, things (like endings) might change. When I realized the theme of my book was "discovering inner strength," it changed my entire perspective about Jenny.

3. Make the changes to the things you noticed in step 2
This is a frustrating place to be, because, as every author knows, even the smallest changes make ripples through your whole novel. The find/replace feature in Word can be your friend, as long as it remains an acquaintance, and doesn't become your BFF. (The day I changed the name of my world from Terra to Masa was the day that "interracial" became "inmasatial").

If you decide to combine the father of one of your character's friends, the coach of the soccer team and the leader of the resistance into one person, not only do you have to make any necessary changes on every page of the book, but he's probably going to morph into a much more interesting character who demands his own chapter and keeps inserting himself into places he doesn't belong. Have fun with this! At the end of the day, if it doesn't work, you can always go back to an earlier draft.

I think this is the place where genius is unfurled. After hours of frustration, in one glorious moment you'll suddenly find it--that idea so marvelous, you can't believe it wasn't integral to the plot all along.

Or maybe not. Maybe you're already so organized that this part doesn't take long. As hard as this part is, I kind of feel sorry for you if you don't need it, because there are amazing moments here.

4. Allow it to rest again
Yeah, right. I can't do this step either, but I think it would help.

5. Read your novel. 
Keep continuity on the back burner--note anything glaring, but this time, you are reading for pacing, voice, and conflict. Is there a place where you are so bored you keep taking breaks to get snacks? Combine scenes, add a twist, cut stuff out. Make sure your conflict is as taut as it ought to be. Chances are, you can make changes as you go. If not, you should probably go back to Step 3.

6. Line-edit. Finally! 
Take action to make your first thirteen lines hook-y, clean, clear and crisp. Read your dialogue out loud and make sure it sounds natural. Worry about dialogue tags and whether they should be there or not. Whip out your thesaurus. Cut out some adverbs. Do whatever it is you need to do to make it shine. 
For more information, check out this post..

What tools do you use when you are editing your novel? 
Some people swear by hard copies, and they are particularly useful in step 3, when you might be shifting lots of things around and flipping back and forth. 

Personally, I love the track changes feature on word for critiquing. 

I found a fun web site called The Writer's Diet that checks your writing for word health. It checks for passive verbs, adverbs, words that are often unnecessary, like 'that', and more. When I checked out this blog post, I got a "Needs Toning." I did a Find search for the word "that" and tightened those sentences up. When I retested, it put me into the "Fit and Trim" category, which is a more contented place to be. When I entered the 5 pages of my novel, I got a "Lean" right off the bat, which made me very happy. All that editing must be paying off!

And here's the 50,000 dollar question...At what point in this process do you let other people help you critique?


  1. Congrats on finishing your novel!!!

    And thanks for the great editing advice. Letting it sit for a while is the hardest part for me, but I can see why that is helpful.

  2. That is great advice and just what I needed to hear to help me stay on track.

  3. Excellent article. And my $50,000 answer is: it depends.

    I've had a couple people "beta read" my book and provide feedback. I asked them (primarily) for big picture feedback. What works and what doesn't? Did the opening entice you? Did the climax satisfy you? What still isn't clear? How was the pacing, character development, world building? Was it something you would have regretted purchasing? That kind of stuff.

    I won't even begin the line editing and proofreading stages until I've finished editing for content. (The skill sets for the various types of editing are subtly different and they don't always overlap within the same individuals.)

    In any event, I find myself in complete agreement with your stated sequence. I used to believe spending time away from the manuscript was unnecessary. No longer.

  4. Great advice! I'm really pumped about doing my edits now! Thank you.

  5. Awesome, awesome post. I am using some of those ideas. Thanks so much!

  6. Reallly excellent advice. As for readers, I'm with Jeff - it depends. Dh reads everything in chunks (1st quarter, 2nd quarter) and always has excellent insight. Others, I don't give it to until I've got it in the best shape I can.

  7. Melanie, I'm in love with that Writer's Diet prose test. I way overuse 'to be' verbs, and it's fun seeing them stand out. Though I did compare an older story to a newer one, and was very pleased to see that my score had gone up rather than down!

    I love investigating secondary characters during my later drafts. Those often turn out to be some of my most interesting - and characters who might end up needing their own story later on.

  8. Personally, I find that when I first write something, it seems so brilliant that I feel like I ought to share it with the world. I've learned through hard experience that it's usually not so. When I give it a few days, I can't believe how many holes I find. So I don't like to send my manuscript out too quickly. But I do have a reader that can see the diamond glittering through all that imperfection, and I give my manuscript to her pretty early on in step 3. She believes in me so much that I have learned to trust her, and she can help me see flaws I might otherwise miss. Treasure people like that when you find them! And good luck with your editing!


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