Editing is serious business!

I’m getting very, very close to typing those coveted final words on the most embattled, stubborn novel I’ve ever written. I am almost light-headed with joy at the thought of finally, FINALLY being done…

But, of course, I’m not done. The day after I type “The End,” it’ll be edit time. Worse, like all battle fields, this novel isn’t a pretty place. There are bits of abandoned plots, twists I totally forgot I was hinting at. All of this has to be fixed fast, and right. More right than fast, but still fast, because deadlines are closing in, and I’ve got another novel to get busy on. In short, it is time for SERIOUS BUSINESS editing.

Serious Business editing isn’t like my usual, in-novel editorial process, where I sit around and rewrite sections this way, maybe that way, until I’m happy.  We’re talking hardhat and waders, a bulldozer to bury the corpses of bad or abandoned ideas, and industrial superglue to stick the threads back together after I hack things to pieces. Since it’s on my mind a lot right now, I thought I’d lay out my novel boot-camp for you. Hopefully it’ll at least be entertaining in a schadenfreude kind of way:

First, I print out the whole book. On the cover page, I write my goals for this book. The short list of themes, elements, and plot twists I’m out to accomplish. Then, pens in hand and fresh notebook at my side, I start reading. I don’t do any rewriting here. I don’t mess with word choice or style. I’m looking for large scale problems – pacing, story, plot holes, dropped threads. Each of these is noted in the margin, and then in the notebook. I read it once as fast as possible, marking all the problems. This usually takes about 2 days. Once I’m done with read #1, my notebook is usually pretty full. My next task is to go through all these problems and try to solve them as elegantly and efficiently as possible. I also look at what areas are giving me fits and ask the tough questions, like do I need this section at all? Am I just writing to hear myself talk?

Once I’ve got a battle plan for solving my problems, I go back to the text and start making insert marks where the problem-solving changes will fit in. I cross out sections that get the ax, and make short, clear notes about what’s going to go there instead. I used to actually do these notes in the margins, but they tend to get very messy, and messy notes quickly become indecipherable notes. (After losing a good chunk of my notes on my first book, I switched to the notebook, which works better, but still isn’t perfect.)

So, short notes and another read through to try out the solutions in my mind. After this, I usually have a pretty good idea of what needs to change and how I’m going to change it, so it’s time to go back to the text, rename it as an edit file, and get to work actually making the changes.

This usually goes pretty fast when I know what my goals are, and soon I’ll have a new draft. By this point, I’m ready to hand it out to my most trusted readers (the people I can trust not to laugh at the awful word choices that proliferate on a first draft.) I used to slave away to make the manuscript read perfectly before this point, but that always turned out to be a waste of time. I’d work 2 days on one section only to have a reader point out I didn’t need it at all. Now I solve problems from the top down, largest first. Style and grammar are the very last things I worry about. After all, why fret over what may just get axed?

After I get my copies back from my readers, I look at the problems they marked and decide if they’re problems I need to fix. Sometimes I’m just not explaining things well enough, and the problem is more of a misunderstanding than a real plot issue. Other times, they catch me red handed in an act of pure idiocy. This is when first readers are truly worth their weight in rainbows. Once I’ve identified the problems, I decide how to fix them in the notebook, as before. Problem solving in the text only makes messy text and frustrating writing for me, notebooks are where it’s at!

Finally, now its time to edit in the traditional sense. As I’m going through and adding solutions to reader problems, I look at my text, fret with style, do checks for words I use too much, all that good stuff. This is the part of the edit that takes the most time because it’s the most nitpicky. When I finish this part, the manuscript is officially a final draft, ready for viewing by publishing people. This doesn’t mean it’s DONE. It just means I’ve got something that won’t embarrass me to tears when my agent/editor reads it. After all, my first readers already know I’m an idiot who can’t write, but my agent and editor are still fooled. I don’t want to blow my cover.

So, that’s pretty much how I edit a novel. It’s an evolving process, and I never edit any two novels the same way. Tell me, how do you edit your work? Do you have a process? I’m always eager to learn a new trick!

2 Responses to “Editing is serious business!”

  1. 1 Terri-Lynne
    June 12, 2009 at 8:32 pm

    I start the editing process while still writing the first draft, but only because I’m sort of insane. I print up each day’s work (usually a full scene/chapter) and do a hard copy edit. Sometimes I decide to ditch the whole scene. Sometimes I change a few words around. This step is more to help cement the story in my head so that I can move on the next day, either in a new direction or happy in the one I’m traveling. The good thing about this daily edit is that when I’m done with draft #1, it’s pretty clean. It allows me to concentrate on plot and pace and such during draft #2–because like I said, I’m kind of insane.

    Draft #2 is done hard copy. I do very little line stuff (I can’t help myself!!!) and mostly read and take notes. Once I’ve read through the whole thing and am either satisfied with all the threads and arcs and happy twists and turns or have changed them, I make those changes in the computer, bringing me to draft #3. This is when I make those changes deemed necessary in the notetaking phase of draft 2. Once I’m satisfied it reads well enough to spare my beta readers eye-splinters, I send it out to them and start something new.

    Once I get it back, I begin draft four, implementing changes suggested and agreed with as well as a spit and polish, line-by-line/read through. The book I finished in October took two years from inception to that final-ready-to-send-out draft.

    And now I sit and wait…well, that’s not true. I started something new the day after I finished. I told you I’m a little insane.

  2. June 13, 2009 at 8:10 am

    Wow, my process is nowhere near that detailed. That said, I’m realizing it is very intensive. I’ve been working simultaneously on revising Book 2 and writing Book 3 for the past week, and it’s not working; the frame of mind I need to be in to write fresh text is not the frame I need to be in for excoriating existing text. So I think I’m going to put Book 3 aside for a few weeks and concentrate exclusively on revising.

    My process is basically to jot down some notes about big things that need fixing — for example, I need to completely rework a critical scene, and remove another example of a character being an ass. It helps that my editor usually notes these big things too, though I often want to change more than she does. So I go straight to those scenes and rewrite them first, while my brain is “cold” and I can view the text dispassionately. Then I start rereading the whole text from the beginning, smoothing and polishing to make the new chunks fit stylistically. But honestly? I enjoy that part. That’s the point when I begin to feel like the book doesn’t suck, and maybe I’m a decent writer after all.

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