Strands of consciousness
Just because the first draft is written does not mean that a writer’s work is done. That was not a lesson I savoured, in fact my very first “final novel” is still in that editing stage as I fumble my way around it. You see, I write the first draft in a methodical way and generally sparse way. I barely touch the surface of the character’s thoughts and motivations, which leaves me in the situation of rarely needing to cut down words (outside style) but rather add more. So, how is my process at this point?
The key thing is that I focus–more or less–on a single thing in each read-through. I know others have a nicely sectioned story where they need to go into something closer to line-edit immediately, but I don’t. Their approach is as valid for them, obviously, as writing is personal in a way that’s hard to fathom for those who don’t do, I think.
I won’t mention again how to do these read-throughs. I personally like to print it out and work on paper rather than the screen, but do whatever you’re comfortable with.
A caveat: Any grammar/style/passive voice/etc edits, apply mainly to the narrative. Dialogue follows its own rules. It doesn’t need to be grammatically correct, it doesn’t need to be coherent. As long as any changes are on purpose. Feel like breaking “rules”? Knock yourself out! Just do it in purpose. Have a reason for every rule you are breaking. You are the boss of your writing, and your style, and you owe it to yourself and your readers to make the best of it.
Also? These strands of editing are in no way a replacement for beta readers or paid editors. These are to help the editors to make the best of your manuscript without needing to wallow through a drudge of things you can fix on your own.
The first thing I focus on–after a time of rest of at least a week or two–is to read it as if it was written by a stranger. I don’t hate my work (generally), so I won’t suggest reading it as if your worst enemy wrote it, but I do suggest that you need to read it as if you’ve never read it before. This will give you the base to see where you’re starting the story too early or too late, and where information is missing.
If you are a pantser, I believe you will get some mileage out of mapping your novel against K.M. Weiland’s article Learn How To Structure Your Novel–In 5 Minutes. I generally use it set up the skeleton of plot/etc, and then check back once the first draft is done.
In summary, imagine the story as three acts and three plot points, with a quarter of the novel dedicated to the First Act (ending with the First Plot Point), another quarter leading up to the Second Plot Point (midway through the Second Act), another quarter leading to the end of the Second Act and the Third Plot Point (I tend to like to think of it as the lowest point), and then the final quarter is the Third Act. Even if you don’t use an “official” three-act structure, I find this useful as a mental structure.
At any rate, at the end of this read-through, you should have figured out what plotholes (if any) you have, if you need to rebalance sections by cutting out scenes or writing new scenes, or even new chapters. If you feel like fixing grammar and spelling as you do this, that’s fine, but don’t worry about sentence structure too much. Your focus should be on the story and making it coherent.
I tend to look for the following things:
- Are there scenes that needs to be added to flesh out characters/plot?
- Are any transitions (in particularly between scenes) too abrupt?
- Is it clear who’s speaking? I’m not talking about dangling participles here, but rather too many pronouns.
- Should any scenes be cut? Does the story start where it should?
- Is anything obviously inconsistent? Why is her pet poodle now a dobermann?
Now go on to fix the issues you found. To me, this is the fun part of editing, at least the first few strands.
I finished my first novel (the one alluded to above, not-yet-finished-editing) in November 2013. I used Scrivener (an awesome program!), which among its features has the ability to add labels to scenes. I’d marked each scene with characters, locations, and occasionally storyline strand. I strongly recommend this, especially if you have a way to filter out the non-relevant scenes. Anyways, back to Vendela and the Småty novel (first in a series).
Vendela is a fairly cold, calculating, emotionally distant person who doesn’t let much bother her. In the first act there’s a scene where we’re introduced to her ex who drunkenly accosts her and the guy (male main character Andrej) she’s with. This shooks her up, leaving her needing Andrej to defend her honour. … Wait, what? The hell did that come from? Yeah … That’s fixed now. Robert (the ex) is overall a good guy, and he’s certainly not abusive; he never was. Accosting her while drunk? Sure. But it left her unruffled, and a touch annoyed at Andrej for trying to fight her battles.
So, that’s what I mean about editing for character arcs. No matter if you’re writing the arc from a strict formula (I recommend K.M Weiland again for posts on how to write a good character arc), or pantsing it with a vague idea on where you want them to go, this step is actually several strands.
In each strand, read through the relevant character’s (major or minor) parts for tone and arc. Are you spreading the breadcrumbs of character history and such evenly? Are they suddenly acting out of character? Well, if they are, then either fix it to be in character, or to show why this is not out of character (or maybe to later give explanations, though if it’s this one, make sure you hint at that).
In summary, per character:
- Decide the plot points for the character
- As above, are there inconsistencies that needs to be fixed?
- Do you need to add/remove scenes to make parts of the arc more obvious?
Cut out filter words
You know the words. The myriad of “Just” and “So” that plagues your narrative. All the really, totally, etc. If you don’t know exactly which words you have issues with, I recommend finding good books/blog posts on it. I personally use Rayne Hall’s The Word-Loss Diet.
I put this before the next section because it’s an easy way to see the style cleaned up, and assuming you follow a system it’s fast as well.
Evaluate the usefulness of the scenes
This one’s hard for me. I always end up either cutting too much, or too little, because I’m eagerly trying to ‘kill my darlings’. When I read
every scene should fulfill a purpose for the plot I forget that characters are the most important part of the plot. Even a scene where they have coffee in a hotel might be useful if we find out that the main character is terrified of horses, something that only becomes relevant once the only option is to flee from Mount Doom mounted.
That said, do look at every scene and figure out the following:
- What does the main Point of View (PoV) want? (They should want something)
- Does the scene add to either fleshing out the characters (and not in the “info dump” kind of way), or further the plot?
First style/grammar edit
At this point, you should have the story down pat and can start looking at scene-level edits. I tend to start this off with using the ancient linux tool
diction to get wordy/misused phrases out in the open as well as basic grammar/spelling checks, before reading it through and marking things that stand out.
If you take nothing else with you from this article, take this:
Read your story out loud to get the melody. Especially if you have someone who’s patient with listening and can give you pointers if something sounds off. If you’re stumbling on words, mark them to be fixed in some way.
Since you’re reading things through, you’ll maybe also figure out issues in voice/whatever that were missed in prior steps. That’s fine, and I’d mark those as well.
Yes, I am giving this its own heading. I like to use the Linux tool
style, which analyzes the text for readability and sentence structure. It also has a setting similar to
diction, allowing me to get–black-on-white–a list of sentences written in passive voice. Now, here’s something important to keep in mind: You’re the boss of your writing, not some fancy automatic style analyzer.
Trust me, those two prior steps introduced a myriad of grammatical missteps and broke the melody completelly. Run the grammar-/spellchecker, and then read it through out loud, fixing everything the grammar/spellchecker didn’t catch.
The five senses and other parts of scenery
How many have you used? Keep in mind that to write a rich experience, you’ll want to utilize more than just sight and hearing. How does the floor feel under her feet? What does the air smell of? Can she taste anything? This may not need to be fixed in every scene, but I (personally!) would look into having at least three senses in each scene.
In dialogue, let the characters interact with the environment. Where are they? Let us know not by you stating that “the room was small with a table”, but by the character taking three steps and then sitting down, looking out the window. Yes, this is the old “show not tell”.
As an aside, this is actually why I struggle with first person narrative. My writing tends to be filled with
she pulled a hand through her oily locks and
he slumped into the hard chair, wincing at the loud creaking, which works fine in third, but makes the Point of View seem a touch too conceited in first.
Point of View
Since you’ve established what your Point of View is, now it’s time to get down and gritty and figure out on a scene-level if you’re headhopping too much. I’m not going to tell you howy you should organize your point of view(s), only that you should make sure the reader only gets what any given PoV should know.
If you’re like me, you’ve picked at the words in every read-through, but I like to have one that’s specifically for finding good words. Now, don’t tell me “there should not be any adverbs, because a strong verb is better than a verb + adverb!”. Sure, that’s true. That said,
he said quietly might not be the same thing as
. If he whispered, then sure, but if he just has a naturally soft voice, don’t write that he whispered.
I have a dictionary and thesaurus at hand for this. Not to play “hunt the weird synonym”, but because I love the melody of words. I may not always read out loud, but even writing this blog post I hear the words in my head. I spend far less time finding the perfect word in non-fiction, but in fiction it’s important.
Imagine three women in a room. One is demure, the second one is coy and the third is silent. Do they look the same to your minds-eye? They don’t to mine, but those words are synonyms. I like to get the general shape of the word (let’s start with shy), and then roll it and its synonyms around in my mouth, tasting the melody and examining the conjured images.
And that’s all! I will probably do a couple of more read-throughs, tweaking here, adding there, but once I’ve come down to this point, I’m figuring I’ll feel ready to … hide the novel in a cupboard and never think about it again, for fear of rejection. Okay, don’t do that last step, even if I will!