Saturday, February 27, 2010

How to Write a Novel 8: Revision and Editing

Quote: “Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.”
~John Updike

Song playing: Numa Numa by O-ZONE

Feeling marginally better today. Slightly more like a human being, and less like a dust bunny.

Still not feeling well enough to my brush hair though, so it looks like squirrels have been nesting in it. And ants have overtaken my desk, and keep trying to climb into my tea. Yuck! Although, it occurs to me that there could be worse ways to die than drowning in a sugary liquid. Like drowning in chocolate (yes, I am still taking Dayquil, why do you ask?).

I certainly appreciate the well wishing that I recover, but guys, it’s a slightly mixed message when you tell me how much you love me on Dayquil. Maybe that’s the key to success in writing. Drugs. Just kidding, I am totally kidding. I think you guys are noticing the difference between me, and me without my filter. Or maybe it’s the lolcats and fuzzy animals. I shall ponder this matter further. Perhaps Dayquil could be an exercise on how to find your voice, huh?

Today I will be talking (or typing if you want to get really nit-picky) about Revision and Editing. Another topic that strikes fear into the shriveled hearts of writers everywhere. But revision and editing can really be a make or break it for your writing career. You can’t bank on getting an agent that’s willing to coax you through the editing process, or pawning the editing off on an editor.

I have included pictures of cute baby animals to make the process easier.

1.Why Bother? Why not just hire an Editor?

Most of the time when a book gets published it don’t get a really in-depth editing job. The book gets a once over to make sure there aren’t any glaring typos that will embarrass the publishing house, and then off it goes into print. Frightening, huh? Then your book is published, out there in the world.

All those extra words in your rough draft, those spliced commas, the unnecessary dialogue tags, the gratuitous use of the semi-colon, the subplot that takes away from your story, the mention of the main character having blue eyes on one page, and green a few hundred pages, will be in your book, for the world to see. Think about how you’ll read it years from now and cringe, just as you cringe at the stuff you wrote in high school.

Hopefully now we’re all properly motivated to edit, right?

The point is you could have a killer idea, and an awesome query letter, but if your manuscript doesn’t shine like a teenager’s oily forehead then you’ll probably be rejected. Sure, there are some agents out there that might work with you to get the manuscript up to par, but ninety-nine times out of a hundred, they will simply say, “No thanks.”

It’s reasons like these you shouldn’t feel too paranoid about someone “stealing your idea”. There are a ton of ideas out there, but not everyone has the execution to pull it off, and write it well (and even if someone did steal your idea, they would still write it differently than you. A friend of mine and I actually plan to each write a book based on the same idea—even the same characters and general plot points to prove that no one can truly steal your idea). But if you really want to be obsessive over someone stealing your idea, that’s okay.

2. Distance. It’s not you, it’s me.

This sounds bad, but part of the Blogger Pledge I took was to be honest (what, you guys didn’t take the Blogger Pledge? To first do no harm? To be honest? To be prepared at all times?), so here it goes: I do my best editing when I am bored. It’s true! Don’t throw stones! I know I am supposed to gleefully skip to my desk at the thought of revision, and sometimes I do.

Sometimes I do.

But most of the time I would rather be doing something else. Like grouting the bathroom title.

I find my utter disinterest in the words helps me get some distant on the work. The times I am rabidly obsessive over the words on the page also helps. The only time I don’t edit well is when I really, really love the words on the page. It’s hard to find fault when you’re enjoying yourself.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love my story, and my characters, I still feel passion for them, but it’s not the same passion I felt while I was writing the book.

So the remedy is distance. Most people recommend at least a week, I prefer three months. That seems to be long enough that when I reread the manuscript I have forgotten large pieces of the writing. This is a good thing. It gives you the distance you need to read with a crucial key.

This is the process I use to revise and edit, but you might do things differently. Whatever works for you, so long as the book gets edited, right?

3. Thinking of You

(The writer, deep in the Revision trenches)

Most of this section came from Sol Stein’s Stein On Writing, and so far, this method has served me the best.

First, I print the book out, and think about it. No, I don’t read through it, not yet. Have I been thinking about my main character these three months? Does s/he still seem as alive to me now as s/he did when I wrote the book?

If yes, then good. If not, then I might want to pay attention to the characterization in the novel. A good character will stay with you long after the book is over.

How about the villain? If you have a villain who is human, and not just a force of nature or the protagonist himself, have you been thinking about the villain? Does he haunt your dreams? Observe how popular some of the greatest villains still are: Darth Vader, Hannibal Lector. If your “villain” is a force of nature, do you still feel worried that you too might be caught in a hurricane? Beset by a superflu? If your “villain” is the main character himself, can you adequately explain without looking at notes or scenes why the character posing such a challenge to himself?

Now, think about the conflict. What is the main conflict? Can I sum it up in a short sentence? If not, you may be in trouble. At the heart of any book is a struggle, whether it’s between two people, man and beast, or man and himself. Which does your fall into?

Next, before even doing one read through of your book you sit down, open a new document, and figure out the following:

What is the most memorable scene in your novel?

What is the least memorable scene in your novel?

If you haven’t cheated and read through the book, you might have to ponder for a moment. Chances are, the scenes that have stuck with you for three months are the memorable ones. Which springs to mind immediately?

You are allowed to skim lightly through the manuscript (but no reading!) for the least memorable scene. Now look at the two side by side.

Normally, you can immediately see the difference. For me, the memorable scenes are the ones with the action, witty dialogue, heartfelt apologies, confessions, redemptions, and sacrifices.

The least memorable scenes are almost always the boring “So this is how the world works, Bob” scenes, or one that just seemed to exist to set the next one up. Once I started comparing these scenes right next to each other, it became clear why one of them was boring and the other was not.

Now, figure out exactly what made that memorable scene so memorable. Try to think of it beyond “Because someone is getting shot” or “Someone is dying a tragic death”. That’s the event of the scene, not the heart of the scene itself. Usually, the scenes are memorable because something life changing is happening, or there’s a lot of emotion involved, or the conflict is high.

If you can’t seem to figure out why that scene is the most memorable, come up with your next memorable scene. Maybe even a third. I wouldn’t go past three though, or you’re defeating your purposes. Compare them to each other. Usually there’s some common thread, individual to you.

In the book I am revising, for example, the memorable scenes that weren’t high in conflict had a sense of wonder, of discovery to them that resonated with me.

Now, figure out how you can incorporate one of these elements into your least memorable scene. This doesn’t mean jack the conflict and tension up to an 8 or 9, because that would be like pumping your book up with steroids, not to mention exhausting to read. If it’s a conversation, make it an argument. Make the character feel more, more hopeless, or happier. In my example, I injected that same sense of fascination and wonder that was present in the memorable scenes. Maybe you could sharpen the inner conflict more.

Sometimes, the answer is to cut the scene, and move the bits of information in that scene somewhere else. Or you could combine two wimpy scenes to make them one uber scene of awesomeness.

Because that’s your next job. To find the next least memorable scene.

I know this probably sounds really complicated and scary, but I really enjoy this part of the revision process. Once I had a bar, a set of standards for each scene in my book, it became clear what I needed to cut, what I needed to fix, and what was working. I then applied that to all of the scenes in the book, until they were all interesting in some way.

Again, this doesn’t mean injecting your novel with steroids, and jacking the conflict up. Sometimes the “fix” for a boring scene was to make it quieter, less dramatic, the revelation more internal.

I also like to rate the scene, with a one for the least amount of conflict, to a 10, with the most emotion and conflict possible. I then go through my scene list, and rate each scene. I make sure the numbers rise and fall. You don’t want too many 4’s right next to each other, because it has a numbing effect, and you don’t want too many 8’s right next to each other because that is exhausting.

The exact level of tension and conflict your scenes should be at is different for each author, and even each book. You need to figure out what is working the best for your book. Don’t feel bad if your book doesn’t have exploding cars and zombies in it. This doesn’t mean your book is boring. A scene rated at 8 might be the scene where your character reveals she’s pregnant. It’s all relative to your novel.

You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned I have read through the book at this point. That’s because I don’t want to get “cold” on my manuscript, where I read the thing over and over until all that precious distance I had is gone. I find it easier to do this scene tweaking when the book isn’t fresh in my mind, but that might not work for you. Figure out what does, but don’t be afraid to experiment.

4. As the Reader

This is the point where I read as a reader. I print the entire book out, single spaced. I have my red Sharpie, and notes on the scenes next to me, get comfy, and read the book in one sitting if possible. I pay more attention to the overall story, and less the grammar and spelling. Sometimes, I think of a way to fix a scene I already had flagged as a “snooze fest” while doing the read though. I make my notes where it sagged, where I thought the character’s motivation needed to be clarified, overall impressions, and anything else I think might need work.

5. Start your engines!

Now I start the revision. I save my rough draft (you owe it to posterity), and open a new document I title Initials of Book Draft 2 (so, Heart Shaped Box would be HSB Draft 2), copy paste the entire thing, and save. Now I can tinker with the draft to my heart’s content, and if I make a big mistake, it’s not like I’ve lost the text.

This is where I do things a little strange. Even though I already have the second draft saved in a separate Word document, I find I work better in small pieces. So with the mangled manuscript and the scenes notes on my desk, I copy one or two scenes into another Word document, labeled Scene Editing 1 (the number goes up as the numbers of scenes increase). For me, it seems less intimidating when I am just working with one or two scenes at once. I highlight the entire Scene Editing document, change the font to something large and clean looking. Currently I am using Franklin Gothic Book. Then I space after every paragraph and line of dialogue. My friend did this when she edited a scene for me, and it made a huge difference. The paragraphs stood by themselves, so I could edit them easier.

Now I rewrite what I need to using my scene notes. If this was a boring scene, I spiff it up. I also do a little bit of line editing, even though I won’t start the major line edit until much later. The way I see it, I might delete an entire scene or chapter. Why bother with line editing until you know it’s going to stay?

But a little editing can’t hurt, just to make things tighter. So I do a word search for all the words I overuse. This is much easier to do to two or three scenes, and not the entire book at once.

For example, I love commas, and abuse them on a regular basis. I have recently fallen in love with the colon, and I am still trying that on for size. Common words I seem to feel the need to cram into my writing whenever possible:

*a little (people are always doing something, “a little”. She smiled a little, she hated him a little, etc)

*ah (as in, “Ah, I see what you are saying.” “Ah, I guess it’s over.”)

*well (“Ah, well, that’s done with.” See how I used both “ah” and “well” in the SAME piece of dialogue?)

*just (She just needed a little more time. Again with the two overused words in the same sentence. Look at the revised version: She needed more time. Much better.)

*that (I over use this word so many times it’s not funny. She wished that she never saw him. He knew that she would hurt him.)

So I do some minor tweaking, just to polish it up a bit, but I don’t spend hours on word order, and the nitty-gritty. Like I said, you never know what is going to stay and what is getting deleted, and you are more willing to delete a scene you DIDN’T spend three hours line editing than one you did. Just saying. ;)

I usually have three to four chapters per Scene Editing document, and number them accordingly. Also, after I have finished with the scene, I paste it back into the Draft 2 document, so as I work my way through the manuscript, Draft 2 is gradually replaced with edited scenes.

After I have gone through my entire manuscript and changed the stuff I KNOW needs to be fixed, I send Draft 2 to the cleaners, AKA the beta readers.

6. The Beta Readers

Some of you might have used beta readers before this stage, and if so, that’s fine. A lot of writers give the beta readers their first draft right after they are done writing it. I just prefer to fix what I KNOW needs to be fixed before I hand it off to someone else.

Chances are, if you know your middle sagged, your betas will pick up on it as well. So when they tell you, you’ll be thinking, “Yes, yes, I already knew that, what about the stuff I didn’t catch?” Even if you tell them that you already know your middle sagged, and to just ignore that, it’s going to be hard for them to do so.

I figure, why not take your first draft as far as you can, and then let the beta readers tell you what else needs to be fixed?

For those of you who don’t know, a beta reader is someone who reads your rough draft and offers a critique. Now, while your mother will be a good cheerleader beta reader, normally you have to get someone who is impartial enough to tell you what sucks and what doesn’t. I suggest a variety of non-writers and writers alike.

The non-writer betas should be readers, and they can give you the insight of what your audience will think about your book. The writer beta readers will hopefully help you with the more technical stuff, and give you very specific feedback (the villain was too clichéd, the first chapter starts out slow, the ending was too abrupt). And hopefully, these betas are also offering you ways to fix the problems as well.

I prefer utilize beta readers who read in and out of my genre, urban fantasy/fantasy. Remember though, even if the person is your best friend, if they can’t stand your genre, they might not be a good beta for you. Someone who can’t stand detective novels isn’t going to magically love it just because you wrote it. It’s not that you can’t let those people read your book, but expect a more skewed critique. If you could find someone who might not LOVE your genre, but doesn’t mind reading it, that’s fine, and sometimes desirable. Those people can pick out flaws that someone well versed in your genre might take for granted.

Overall, remember you can’t please everyone. Try to take their critique for what it is, and NEVER argue with them, never try to explain away their complaints. This is how you drive them away. It’s their opinion, that you asked for no less. If you don’t agree with them, that’s fine, but thank them for their time, and think about what might have prompted them to say that in the first place. Maybe you might want to be clearer on the point they brought up. Especially if you seem to have a consensus, that everyone thinks the middle sags too much, chances are: your middle sags.

7. More Revision

Now you make the changes you think are necessary. Figure out how to pick up your dumpy middle, and make the motivation clearer. Whatever suggestions the beta readers picked up, thank your lucky stars for them, and put their suggestions to work.

These changes become Draft 3. I copy the entire Draft 2, paste it into new document, and make the changes they suggested. This is your Draft 3. Again, in case you make major changes that somehow doesn’t work, you still have your second draft to fall back on.

Now, sent it out again. I like to use my betas in waves. Depending on how many betas I have, I’ll send the book out to three people at first, even if I have a total of seven or so guinea pigs—I mean, beta readers. This means that the second round of betas are reading your third draft, the new, non-saggy middle one. Don’t tell them what other beta readers picked up, just hand them the draft and ask for input.

If no one comments about your middle, then you’re saved. If they do, ask them for suggestions, and try not to kill yourself. Remember you can’t please everyone and ultimately, you are the author, and you know what is best for the book. But make sure to check your ego at the door. If these people are all commenting on a plot hole, you can beat your bottom an agent will see the exact same plot holes (and maybe three more).

You can lather, rinse, repeat this stage as many times as you need to, but eventually you will have to get off the merry go round. I would suggest not making yourself insane over revision. No one is ever going to give you a clean bill of health, other than your mom perhaps. There will always be SOMETHING that could be better, could be fixed. Sometimes I rotate between the two groups of betas. So if the first group caught the saggy middle, and the second group said the climax needed more pizzazz (I like that word. I need to find a way to use it more often), give Draft 4, the one incorporating the changes from both rounds of beta readers to your first group, and ask them to comment. Hopefully they have had enough time and distance to catch something new, and comment on the changes you have made. Or you could give it to a third group of beta readers. Again, don’t mention all the changes you’ve made, and don’t mention the comments group two made. You don’t want to taint them with your impressions.

8. Line Editing

When I finally think the chapters and scenes are here to stay, then I line edit. I print out the double spaced copy, and tackle the manuscript one page at a time. Don’t be scared, I know that’s a huge manuscript staring you in the face. Just take it a paragraph at a time. Get that red pen out, put the first page on the table, shove the rest of the manuscript to the side, and edit, edit, edit.

*cut every adverb you can. A stronger noun is better than a weak noun with an adverb attached.

*Check for hooks at the beginning of each chapter, and questions at the end.

*cut the clichés, and the near clichés.

*Make sure the characters can physically do what you say they do. Ie: “Susan walked through the door as it opened.” I know you’re trying to be economical, but that is physically impossible.

*Cut the flab. Less is more. I am not saying strip the book of all adjectives and description, but keep it concise, interesting, and part of the characterization. If you can tell us what the room looks like from the POV of the character, all the better.

*try to make the verbs and nouns as descriptive as you can without being distracting. Difficult, I know. Basically, you want to tell us what happened as precisely as you can, without drawing attention to the word itself. We don’t want to see the words, we want to see your story. The litmus test for me is precision. I want to tell exactly what happened, but as unobtrusively as possible.

*read the book out loud. You will immediately hear any clunky or awkward sentences.

Lastly (that’s a word, right? The Dayquil is telling me it is), none of these “rules” should be followed off a cliff. Figure out what works for you. Just when all the writers in the world (they have secret conferences) all agree on a rule of grammar, some brilliant writer comes along and breaks it with great fan fair.

9. I Wish that I Knew What I Know Now

For me, editing is both a great pain and a great joy. I like to think of myself as a sculptor, and my rough draft as the vague outline of my statue.

It’s heartbreaking to come back to a draft, especially if you’ve put it down and written another book in the meantime, and realize the book isn’t as good as you thought.

“Rats,” you say to yourself, “I can write much better than this right now. This instant. I should just trunk this book, and start another one. I learned so much between writing this book, and now.”

But if you follow this line of logic and trunked the book, wrote another one, and let that one sit for a little while, guess what?

You’re going to be at the same place. Even if you type really, really fast and can hammer a book out in an month, and let the book sit for a month or two, that’s still a minimum of three months before you can edit that book, and for most people, that’s a lightening fast turn around. Usually it’s closer to 6 months to a year between the conception of the idea, and the point when you can sit down to edit the book. You will always look at your manuscript and think you could do better.

And you know what?

That’s the entire point of editing. You are supposed to see all the flaws, all the inconsistencies. No one produces a perfect first draft. No one. But that’s okay, because you are bringing the writer you are today, to the draft you wrote months ago. All those things you learned? The tricks and tips you picked up? You can now apply them to your rough draft. No matter how long ago you wrote that novel you can use what you know now to change what you didn’t then.

Isn’t that empowering? I find myself invigorated with that thought! It’s my theory that you could potentially take that awful first novel you wrote and revise it into something publishable.

Some projects, depending on the problem, might take longer to revise than others, and some will be more work, but if you really wanted to I don’t see why you couldn’t. You’d probably have to do a lot of rewriting and revision, but like I said, it’s possible.

Some drafts you have might be an easier edit, sure, but you can edit all of them. You can apply the knowledge you have now to the books you wrote years ago. Isn’t that great?

Again, let me stress everything I talked about is just one way of doing things, and you should find what works best for you. I also edited this post to death, but I am about to make myself crazy. So again, I shall blame the typos and run on sentences on the Dayquil.

As for me, I guess I should stop blogging about editing and actually do some.

What do you guys think? What is the best editing method for you?

(Thank you Wikicommons for the pictures)


  1. Wow, what a thorough description! I like the way you separate the drafts and then work on a few scenes at a time. I'm going to try that.

    The only extra bit I can add is to mention the AutoCrit Editing Wizard. I use it at about your stage 5. It helps me find all the overused and repeated words as well as slow-paced areas I've missed. I love actually makes editing bearable :-)

  2. Separating the scenes out a few at a time has worked wonders for me, so hopefully it will help you some.

    Ohhh, AutoCrit Editing Wizard sounds neat! I am going to have to try that out! Thanks for commenting!

  3. Great Post! Glad you're feeling better. I wholeheartedly agree with this part; "you could potentially take that awful first novel you wrote and revise it into something publishable." And even if not publishable--better.

    Writing is such a malleable art-form in that respect. The writer can always change what's been written. The sculptor has little opportunity to do the same; after so many alterations the stone becomes brittle, or is chipped away to dust. For a painter, the texture and color of her previous strokes will show through a new layer of paint.

    With enough diligent editing, a writer rarely ever has to "start-over". Isn't that great?