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How to approach it.
There are as many approaches to editing as there are writers.
Some people like to revise as they go - so called ‘rolling revisions’ where they revisit the previous day’s work before starting the next.
I tend to do this because I have a terrible memory and rereading and reworking the previous day’s work reminds me of the voice of the story and where I am in it. However, avoid this if you are a perfectionist as you may well get lost in ‘the eternal editing loop’ and never move on to another scene or chapter.
The alternate and complementary approach is to leave all the editing until after the draft is completed.
The advantage of this is that
You know the general direction of the story and can edit accordingly. The need for large scale structural edits are more obviously spotted. Time can otherwise be wasted fixes scenes that are subsequently excised.
It is often easier for many people to operate in ‘creative’ uncritical mode for writing and then to switch to critical editorial mode later in the process.
If you write out of order, as many people do, the business of honing the story is better done when all the key scenes are in place.
Many people do both.
You can also have an iterative approach whereby you look the manuscript, go back to key chapters rewrite, then again look at how that fits with the manuscript and rewrite again. Many people do this too. Find a way that works for you.
It is also normal to switch between a powerful sense of creative self belief and abject despair: your psychological response to your draft often bears little relationship to its effectiveness. It helps to separate the task from your feelings about it.
FIXING THE BIG STUFF
Fixing the Big Stuff
Whether you indulge in rolling/piecemeal revisions or not at some stage you need to look at how the whole piece works in its entirety once you have a completed draft.
In order to do this you need to acquire some emotional and critical distance from the work.
This can be achieved by:
Leaving it in a drawer for a long time and coming back to it after you have cleansed your palate by writing something else and/or forgotten about it.
Giving it to someone else you trust. Seeing the mss through their eyes can often be uncomfortably revealing.
Creating distance by using plotting diagrams to picture the whole thing. I explain my version of this in my planning section. You can do the same thing with chapter summaries/post it notes or by using some novel writing packages like Scrivener, which allow you to see the overview of scenes and chapters.
Write a short synopsis of the novel. You may take several attempts to do this. Write one of 1,000 words then 250, finally try to summarise what the story is about in a couple of lines. This then becomes your litmus test - how do the chapters/scenes in the novel serve this central idea? (If they don’t perhaps they don’t belong in the book.)
Tricking yourself. I don’t generally let work ‘rest’ I print it out and attempt to read it as if it were someone else’s novel. I turn my critical faculty on and write general notes to myself about what doesn’t work. Changing the font, colour, fontsize of your mss often helps to see it differently. I try to read mine at a single sitting so I get an immersive reader’s experience.
If you need a professional eye, take a look at the bookdoctor section of this site or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I can help.
What are you looking for?
When you read your work through you need to ask yourself some very basic questions:
1.Are you telling the right story?
Sometimes you tell the story before or after the real story. It is a horrible situation, but be honest with yourself - is the story you have decided to tell the best story? Be bold and brave and change it, if it isn’t.
2. Are you telling it from the right perspective, POV, in the right tense? Is the tone right?
Sometimes you realise that Jane’s story is best told by Jane rather than by Peter, her largely absent boyfriend, or the other way around. Perhaps your tone of comic mockery is unsuitable for a dramatic tale of love and loss. If your first person present tense narrative would be better as a third person past tense tale, be bold and brave and change it.
3. Are you starting in the right place?
Even if you have picked the right story, have you chosen the right entry point? If you begin with an arresting scene that doesn’t fit the tenor of the rest of the story, maybe think again: eg If an elegaic story about the growing relationship between a man and his dying mother begins with the murder of the next door neighbour, you may mislead and irritate your reader. Maybe your story would be better told backwards from the chronological end to the beginning? On the other hand, maybe you have started too far back in the chronology of the story with your protagonist’s early years and nothing interesting happens till they are ninety four. Maybe you should begin with the inciting incident?
If you have begun in the wrong place be bold and brave and change it.
4. Does it make sense?
This is a tricky question to answer and requires a certain amount of painful, objective assessment of the work.
a) Are there any plot holes?
Write down the plot in simple terms. Really? Would that happen? Have you provided the reader with enough detail to make her believe it? Do the subplots intersect properly?
How does the plot build? Is there enough of it?
What is the ‘inciting incident’ that initiates the plot.
If you are uncertain about plot - look into plot archtypes. What kind of story is it?
b) Do characters behave as they would behave or as the writer has made them behave for plot purposes? Do they have actual motives? Credible relationships?
Do clever people do stupid things for no good reason or stupid people, clever things? Is there some obvious thing they could have done to solve the problem and no real reason for them not to do it? There are a number of plots which wouldn’t exist if characters actually spoke to each other. If they don’t, there has to be a good, credible reason that is clear from the narrative.
Look at your cast list. What are their motivations? Are they evident in the text even if they are not explicit? Consistency is a different issue, but if character suddenly change their behaviour or outlook within the story are the reasons for that present within the narrative? If they are to be inferred, is the reader led in the right direction?
c) Are all the scenes in the right order? Does the reader know the right information at the right time and is information witheld at the right time to create tension/meaning?
This is particularly an issue when you write out of order, change your mind about the thrust of the novel half way through or have edited the piece so many times you have lost track of the overall narrative. Writing a chapter summary or using a plot diagram should show this, but if it doesn’t, think about who needs to know what and when within the story and then work out when the reader needs to know what when. Reconcile the two. This might involve moving scenes or simply changing when information is revealed.
Further, if you are trying to tell a story partly through the juxtaposition of scenes - is that working? Is the balance, order and tone of the scenes succeeding to produce the desired effect?
d) Is it exciting/funny/moving/scary/ whatever you had intended?
Be honest. If it isn’t, what can you do to fix it?
i you are too wordy or insufficiently clear about what is going on. ie it is either underwritten or overwritten or perhaps a mixutre of both.
ii you have insufficient tension.
iii you have too much tension ie too much bad stuff/melodrama happens and it becomes tiresome.
iv you are summarising too much and not dramatising the action.
v. the story is too long with too many extraneous scenes.
vi the story is hard to follow because it skips around between time/place/pov.
vii you are too emotionally distant or to close to the main characters to elicit reader engagement.
viii you give away too much too soon and it is anticlimactic or you don’t give away enough early enough so nothing happens and then everything happens all at once.
ix the narrative floats and is not grounded in time or place or viewpoint.
5. Does it have the necessary narrative drive and pace?
A lack of drive and pace can be fixed by changing the way the novel is written sentence by sentence but, if the book is too slow and dull, take another look at the structure and the plot. Can you add in incidents that increase a sense of jeopardy? Should you take out scenes that are slowing the pace or rework or re site them? Scenes need to fit with what precedes and follows them. High action scenes might need to be followed by a shift in pace or serious scenes might need to be offset by moments of humour. Think about how the ordering of your scenes is serving your narrative aims. Be ruthless.
Some of this relates to narrative style and may be fixed by rewriting. At this stage, focus on the big issues of restructuring and rethinking character, plot etc Sentence level rewrites are for later in the process.
Essentially you can have problems with any element of the writing and all of them.
Don’t panic! If it isn’t working as it stands, it can always be fixed. This is the moment for realism and optimism. Deciding what isn’t working is an enormously important part of the business of editing.
If you think there is nothing wrong, look at it again - the chances are there are things that could be better.
Once you have fixed the macro issues then move on to:
FIXING THE NOT SO BIG STUFF
This is about looking for coherence and consistency across the piece in terms of:
The setting of the story - room/town layouts. It is easy to accidentally have a room morph from sitting room to bedroom, to have three lunchtimes in one day, to have a journey take a week one way and a few hours, the other. I always spell towns and places different ways - don’t do that. Also check things like the time of year of your action and make sure it fits with the flora and fauna mentioned in the piece.
This is also the time to research elements of the story you might have included, but not properly considered - the correct name for a partcular golfclub that your character might know and you don’t, the time of sunset in Greece in August etc; the actual length of the flight from x to y and likely stopovers. If you are world building, this is the moment to make sure all the details you have included hang together and to correct any ommissions or mstakes. If you are writing in another historical period/ made up world also check for psychological errors - self analyses that would be alien to a person of your chosen time, attitudes/words that are current but did not exist in the past.
Check character names are used and spelled the same way throughout. Make sure that people don’t change appearance/gender/name/height during the course of the novel unless that is part of the story. I have had myopic, glasses-wearing characters suddenly accidentally develop apparently perfect vision: it is easy to do. Make sure that characters are consistent in words/actions/ thoughts unless you want them to be inconsistent. If you have an unreliable narrator make sure that becomes evident in a controlled way or you merely look inept.
Remove misleading details that act as red herrings in the novel unless you want red herrings. Sometimes you mention a fact or give an idea weight in the text because you plan on using it later, if you don’t use it, get rid of it.
Prune sub plots/characters scenes that don’t add to the story. Sometimes the role played by two characters can be combined in one. Think about what serves the story you have written rather than the one you thought you might write.
FIXING THE SMALL BUT VITALLY IMPORTANT STUFF: THE WRITING
The big issues are to do with making the novel to work as a coherent narrative. Once you feel that you have the right scenes in the right places, you can start to begin at the beginning and hone each scene, paragraph and sentence.
1 All the questions you ask about the overall shape and structure of your novel can and should be asked of individual scenes. Do they begin in the right place? Do they contain the right balance of ‘in the moment’ action/dialogue and description, introspection, exposition. Do they fit with the overall tone of the novel and how do they work with the scenes around them. What are they achieving? What do they add to the novel in terms of plot, characterisation, tension building? How could each scene do its job better? Could you make it more vivid/exciting/shocking/ revelatory?
2. Once you are sure that each scene has the right dramatic shape and the right balance of component elements, think about the writing. Are you using the right register of language? Are your sentences over long, is your prose too purple or is it all a bit flat featureless and underwritten? Can you say what you mean to say more succinctly? Does each sentence have the right rhythm? Are ther too many long sentences together? Is the narrative dynamic or is there too much beautifully written prose that serves no particular function. (I like all my paragraphs to work hard, though you may take a different view.)
3. If you are going to use metaphors and similes, do they work within the narrative to illuminate or simply to decorate? I am not a fan of writing that is merely decorative, but again you may disagree. Either way, ensure that such devices are not working against the meaning you wish to convey and that the sentence might not work better without them. Remove all unnecessary words - if a word is not doing something useful in a sentence expunge it.
4. Check for all repetitions and accidental ambiguities, particulalry with pronouns.
5. We all have favourite sentence structures: I overuse ‘but’ all the time. Be aware of them and try to ration your useage. Avoid cliches and qualifiers. Avoid variations on ‘said’ unless they are helpful.
4. At every turn, think about the sentence as part of something bigger. Have you used the right words in the right order and is what you need to say best said in this part of the paragraph or somewhere else. How does each sentence work within the paragraph. This is an aesthetic judgement, but often it is a practical one: don’t tell us what your protag sees when she is through the door, before she has opened it. Chronology, sequencing and logic matter in the ordering of sentences and paragraphs.
FIXING THE MINUTIAE
Check paragraphing, formatting, spelling, punctuation.
Many copyeditors suggest reading the text from the back to the front so you don’t get distracted by the story. Look at each sentence in turn and check that it is correctly spelled and punctuated.
Don’t forget to check late amendments.
If you are submitting your mss to an agent/publisher/ competition check that you have followed their formatting specifications.
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