Thoughts On How To Edit Your Novel Part 2

Last week, I wrote down some thoughts on how to edit your novel. Since I’m still editing myself (it never ends!), I have more thoughts on what I’ve learned about the process that I’d like to share in hopes that they help someone else. Of course, everyone’s creative process is different, so do what works for you.

1) Editing takes time. This is perhaps the most crucial lesson I’ve learned from tackling my manuscript. Sure, you can write a first draft in a month or two, but fixing that draft is not easy. You will have to answer questions such as are you consistent? Do you switch days in the middle of a scene? Is your character wearing mittens and suddenly swaps them out for gloves mid-discussion with the abominable snowman? Those sorts of silly things.

Then come the more complicated questions like are your characters consistent? Do they seem to switch personalities part way through the story in a way that can’t be attributed to character development? In one of my drafts, a character ripped his jacket and I had him moaning about a replacement, which didn’t make any sense because he was ridiculously rich. So. Those kinds of things are important too. Character consistency also comes from examining if your character is driven by the same goals throughout the story or if their goals change they make sense.

And then there are more complicated issues like “I want a helicopter search party in the ending, but nobody can drive a helicopter/where does the helicopter come from/how does this scene fit with the others/is this even a good idea.” This sort of issue is difficult because it is vague. You can’t figure out how to write the scene because you aren’t totally sure what the scene is and how it fits with the whole novel. These are tricky. These issues take time to solve. You can’t just happily type in a helicopter search party in ten minutes if you don’t know what the heck is going on. Sometimes you have to think about what best serves your novel and although your instinct might be spot on, orchestrating everything together might only happen after days, weeks, or months of thinking it through.

Also, these character, plot, or general manuscript problems require solving like any other problem. It can help to treat them like a tricky question on your high school calculus assignment by which I mean try, try again, try ten million times, swear, crumple the paper in a ball, moan about how stupid you are – just kidding. That is not what I mean.

What I mean is, mull over the problem in the story. Scribble down a few solutions. Discuss solutions with another person if you’re stuck. If you get frustrated with the problem, put the manuscript away, do something else, get a good night’s sleep, and try again in the morning. Sometimes when I’m really stuck, I put my manuscript away for an entire week. This has never failed me. Once the week is over, I usually can solve the problem with a fresh mind. See my article on the importance of breaks during the creative process for more information.

2) Stuck about whether something sounds good? Read it aloud.

This method is kind of dorky and embarrassing, but sit alone in your room and read your work out loud. Things that are awkward and odd will sound strange and you can figure out how to fix them.

This is especially useful for dialogue. If you can’t say what you’ve written on the page out loud, neither can your character. Speaking your character’s lines will show you what works and teach you how to recognize their voice.

However, this method isn’t just limited to dialogue and is extremely useful for prose as well. The only thing I’ve found better than reading my own work aloud is having someone else read my work aloud. Hearing it in someone else’s voice makes repetitive words and awkward phrases that much easier to pick out. Of course, finding someone willing to read your full +50,000 word manuscript is a pretty tall order, so I mostly end up speaking by myself in my room.

I’ve heard that having the computer read it aloud for you also can work wonders. I haven’t tried this myself (the complete lack of inflection kind of scares me), but I’ve heard that it works for a lot of people.

Since this post is getting rather long, I’m going to stop here. Stay tuned for part three next week!

Thoughts On How To Edit Your Writing

As always with the creative process, there is no right or wrong way to go about editing. However, I’m sharing my thoughts on editing in hopes that they can help someone else. If you agree with me, great! If you don’t, that’s great too! Just polish your work to the best of your ability.

When I first starting writing as a kid, I thought that you whipped out a good first draft and then edited for spelling and then ta-da! You were finished. Although this might work for some school assignments, this is NOT how you edit a novel.

Of course, spelling and grammar are important. But when you finish the first draft of your novel, you probably won’t edit those at all for a long, long time. It’s more important to flesh out your characters and plot first and make them the best that you can. This is probably the hardest part about editing your own work: finding your story, staying true to it, and ensuring that it reads like a real book. It doesn’t make sense to waste time with the spelling and grammar if you’re going to rearrange and rewrite entire sections, perhaps even the entire novel.

I’m currently working on the fifth draft of my novel. Over the long process of this project, I’ve deleted entire characters, introduced new characters, and shifted the plot around adding more beef and tightening the themes. When I compare my current draft to the first draft, they barely resemble each other. Sure, the kernel of idea that lead to the novel is there in all drafts, but in very different guises. Of course if I’d planned my novel before jumping into the first draft this might not have been case. However, part of my writing style comes from spontaneity. Sometimes in order to write your novel right, you have to write it wrong first.

When I edited these drafts, I had to ask myself hard questions and rip open the guts of my story. I had to figure out what about the story really mattered. What was the essence of the story? When my reader read my story what did I want them to feel, how did I want them to respond? Readers are always free to feel differently, but it is worthwhile to consider your hypothetical audience and how you hope they’ll feel.

Some writers moan about “killing their darlings.” Each time I had to redo hours of work to rewrite a scene, delete a sequence of chapters, or think out a plot point that didn’t quite work, I didn’t feel devastated. Instead, I was happy that I was strengthening my novel. Once I uncovered weaknesses, they didn’t seem very “darling” to me anymore.

In terms of plot, if you feel that something is lagging or boring, it probably is. I’ve heard it said that each scene should have at least three purposes. So in one scene you could have something that advances the main plot, something cool about the setting, and some key characterization or relationship development for example. Any scene where your characters are doing nothing: brushing their teeth, staring at the wall, doing daily routine type things – combine it with something else or delete it!

It’s common to add these types of scenes, because you want to know everything about your character and show that they have a life like everyone else. However, art doesn’t mimic daily life precisely. Arts accentuates certain aspects to make a plot. Art flourishes on a bit of drama. It’s okay for your story not to read a hundred percent like real life. You want your novel to be exciting, to make your reader gasp in surprise, and to seem somewhat heightened all around.

The story structure of beginning, rising action, climax, denouement, and conclusion is in itself artificial. It’s your job as a writer to seduce your reader along for the ride. It helps to think about what you like in the books you read. How do you like these books to make you feel? What keeps you turning the pages? Now, I’m not advocating copying other writer’s plots. However, I am advocating copying the feeling you have when you read them through your own writing. How do you do this? It’s up to you.