by Robert K. Lewis
“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”
As I finished up the latest draft of my current novel, I got to thinking about my editing process and how it’s changed and morphed over the years. I first have a confession to make: I’m fascinated by editing. Love it, really. There is this one moment that I’ll always remember as a writer. I was sitting at a table in Caffe Trieste in North Beach, pouring over a printed-out copy of my book, and as I worked, I suddenly realized that I’d turned a corner in my writing process because I now hated first drafts and had fallen in love with the editing of the draft. After all, first drafts are only there to be edited.
So, since it’s a topic near and dear to my heart, I thought I would talk about how I edit, and how I’ve heard other people do their editing.
The first time I go back to edit, I’m looking at the big picture (which is very Sol Stein, btw). What are the big changes that need to happen? Where does the story sag? Where is it strong? What plot choices work? Which do not? I will at this point make a cover sheet for each chapter, listing what characters appear, along with a brief overview of what’s going on. I then lay the ENTIRE book out on the floor of my office. Here’s what it looks like.
Yes. It’s a mess at this point, and it’s ALL on the table as far as I’m concerned. I’m married to NONE of it. I’ll rearrange chapters, take a part from one chapter and move it to where I think it would work better. I’ll toss entire chapters or storylines. By color-coding the characters (Hey, I’m a visual guy, what can I say?), I get a very good idea of when and where they pop up. This is the big work. The heavy lifting.
After I’ve done the next draft, I then add looking at the language and sentences into the mix. Here is where I will probably start at page one and work through to the end. I’m trying at this time to get a sense of the rhythm of the book. I’m still, at this point, staying loose and fluid with it all, ready to go back to the heavy lifting if necessary, or maybe follow up with a weak thread that needs reweaving, or even starting to look at word repetitions that piss me off, etc.
I may do a couple drafts this way, working from the beginning to the end, honing as I go. It’s laborious, yeah, but… this is the way I work. And really, since I love to write, it doesn’t feel nearly as laborious as it sounds. I love the journey, you know? Your mileage will vary, natch.
From here, I then become a miner of sorts, delving further and further down, really focusing in at the sentence level. Here I’m trying to make EVERY sentence sing. Seriously, if you think you can get away with a few bad ones, well… have you ever NOT noticed the turd in the swimming pool? Exactly. That’s how those sentences will stand out, trust me. Every.Sentence.MUST.Sing.
When am I done? Ah, well that’s the question that every writer asks, and none really know the answer to. Me? I just feel it, inside. I just know that it’s time for me to let the book go.
And so, here some tips that I’ve come across over the years that I want share with you. I’m sure that some of them, or maybe all of them, are known to you, but that’s okay. Maybe it’ll just reinforce your own way of doing things. I’d love to hear about how you do your editing!
1. Be flexible. When you’re just starting out at writing, you have a tendency to treat every word as sacred, every plot choice as carved in stone. This is natural. It takes some guts to admit that you were wrong. I have to tell you though, that in that first draft you just completed? It’s a 100% certainty you were wrong, probably in many, many places.
2. As I mentioned earlier, in the early stages, make a cover sheet for each chapter listing the characters and plot movement. Find a color-coding system that works for you. If it’s at all possible, lay the book out on the floor to get “the big picture”. Doing this helped me to see that one character in my latest had entirely dropped out of the book early in the second act, only to reappear late in the third. That led me to re-evaluate the need for that character, and also got me pondering other possibilities for that character.
3. Work from the macro, to the micro. This is Sol Stein’s advice, and it’s certainly good enough for me (see my rec of his book below). Be brave in the early stages. Toss what you love, fix what you hate.
4. When you’ve moved to the sentence level edits, read your book in reverse order, from the last page to the first. The problem with editing is that we KNOW the story, and get carried away with it. This leads to missing key issues and errors. However, reading it in reverse page order will help with fixing bad sentences and grammar. It takes the ego out of the equation.
5. I’ve also found that ping-ponging around the book from chapter to chapter (chapter 3, then go and do chapter 37, etc.) helps you stay out of the book and enables you to better see how a chapter is flowing, how it begins, how it ends, etc. Doing this led me to discover that most of my lead-off sentences were almost identical, and I always ended a chapter with a single line of dialog. This technique is just another way to keep you OUT of the story and focused on plot, characters, and sentences.
6. Finally, and I can’t stress this enough: read your story aloud to yourself. It all sounds great, in our head. This is natural, as these are OUR words. WE created them. However, when you read your book out loud, THEN you get the sentences that are laborious, the ones that will trip you up, cause you to go back and read them again. And hey, if they trip YOU up, and you created them? Then they’ll most definitely trip up someone who bought your book.
If you don’t listen to anything I’ve said here, please at least listen to #6. It’s really a great help. And it’s not like you have to be all Shakespeare and stuff, either. You can say it softly to yourself, at your desk. Sure, your spouse or partner or whatever might think you’re crazy, but you’re a writer, yeah? You’re already crazy!
To end, I want to give you a list of what I feel are some of the best books out there on editing your own work. This is not the end-all of lists, by no means. If you know of a book on editing that rocked your world, let us know in the comments!
Self Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King This has to be at the top of the list. Simply put, the best one out there on the topic.
Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing, by Claire Kehrwald Cook A much more academic feel than Browne and King’s book. This one is more like taking a class in editing your work, and that just ain’t a bad thing.
The Artful Edit, by Susan Bell Chock full of examples and strategic tips. Short, and too the point.
Stein On Writing, by Sol Stein I always find a way to recommend this book, whenever and wherever I can. It deals with the entire writing process, however part VI of this wonderful book deals with revision, and Stein gives you an awesome way to edit your novel, rather than just starting at page one every time you start a new draft. For myself, there’s a part of me that likes starting at page one sometimes, knowing there’s a lot of hard work ahead. But, I’m a masochist that way.
Heck, I’m a writer, right?