Last week, I gave you the 7 steps to edit your novel and make it a sellable quality.
This is a subject that is so near and dear to my heart that I'm not through discussing it yet. And it's one that is vitally, critically, MAJORLY important. Mainly because editing is too often rushed through or skipped over entirely.
Not editing is, to me, like going through the difficult (and dangerous) work of jackhammering the rock from the mine, but not bothering to have it cut into a diamond and polished. What do you have? A hump of ugly rock that no one wants to look at. But chip away the rough parts, sparkle it up, and suddenly, you've got something highly valuable that's worth admiring. Get out your chisel, it's time to polish your gem!
Here is a review of the 7 steps:
- Initial Read Through
- Seek and Destroy Problem Words
- In-depth Word Analysis
- Read it Out
- Get Some Feedback
- Let it Rest
And now for a deeper look!
Step #1: Initial Read Through
Once I feel the novel is complete, the first thing I do (after my little happy dance) is an initial read through of the whole thing. I don’t edit much while writing because it messes me up and distracts me. Even if you do edit while writing (or write longhand, then type it up), this should still be step one, it’ll probably just be a cleaner step one.
What I’m mainly looking for is plot issues. Big things like unanswered questions, timeline consistencies, holes, and dull parts. I try to do the reading quickly, as much at a time as I can so that I can get as clear a picture of the work as a whole as possible. I don’t pay too much attention to the words themselves at this point, though I’ll fix a typo or clean up an awkward sentence if I think it needs it. This is where I’ll also add description or scenes that seem to be missing.
It’s important that this is step one because if you don’t fix the big stuff first, it’ll be harder later. You may have to do this step twice (or more). If you’re not sure about how the plot is holding together or you added or removed a lot, keep doing this step until you know it’s working.
Before I begin, I make a style guide (which is probably better done at the start of the novel writing, but I never remember to do it). The style guide helps me keep spellings and usages consistent. Things like character names, names of places, or unusual spellings. I also have a section for little details like “Owen has off Wednesdays and Sundays.” That way when I get to a Wednesday in my story, I can make sure Owen’s home and not skipping off to work.
I also make a list of things that are “out there.” By this, I mean dangling questions or bits of information that create a loose end, even a tiny one. It’s the “plant” part of plant vs. payoff. I make notes of the questions or information, then delete them once I get to the part where it’s covered.
What tends to happen while writing is that you have a scene, and a character does something or says something that creates a little, “hmm, why’d that happen?” in the reader’s mind. But if it’s not a major part of the plot, you might forget. For example, I had my character, Nora, ask Reece if he snored. This was an important question, but not critical to the plot. At the time, he answered her, but when he asked why she’d asked, she changed the subject. Reece won’t let that go. It’s going to nag at him because it’s a strange question, or was, in the context of their conversation. Problem was, I forgot all about it by the next time they had a conversation. I caught it because I wrote down “Nora asks Reece if he snores” on my style guide and realized, after they’d had many conversations, that this should have come up again, but didn’t. So I added it.
These are the loose ends that can be frustrating for your reader if they go unanswered. I’m sure you’ve read a book like that. This just happened to me recently reading The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. I liked the book a lot, but toward the end, she mentions something that will happen soon (don't worry--no spoilers). By the end of the book, the thing has happened, but she doesn’t share the outcome. Now, I’m left wondering, well, what happened there? She brought it up, she created the question in my mind, and she didn’t answer it. It’s one thing if you’re Joyce Carol Oates going for a “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” ending. Or even Rainbow Rowell doing an Eleanor & Park ending, where there is some ambiguity left for the reader to decide what happens. This wasn’t that. This was a minor detail that could have been skipped over all together. But she choose to bring it up. Then she forgot about it. Not cool. Don’t do this.
Part of the reason to read it fast and all at once is to help you see the character's voice. You don't want dialogue or actions that don't fit. Maybe your character started out a little differently, then changed as you wrote. You may have to fix up the beginning a bit to keep it consistent (but also remember your character should grow and change throughout the story). Keep an eye out for pov and tense shifts, too. These become more obvious when you read a lot at one time.
This step is a good place to do major changes. Play with character flaws or strengths, do timeline adjustments, add scenes or delete, etc. Hopefully you have a picture of the flow of the thing and which parts need to be sped up or slowed down, expanded or streamlined.
Make sure you've done this step thoroughly enough to know that the plot, timeline, etc. is starting to work before you move on to step 2: Seek and Destroy Problem Words.
Denise Drespling is the author of short story, “Reflections,” in the Tales of Mystery, Suspense & Terror anthology (October 2014) and “10 Items or Less,” in 10: Carlow’s MFA Anniversary Anthology (April 2014). You can also find her work in these anthologies: The Dragon's Rocketship Presents: The Scribe's Journal and Winter Wishes.
Hang out with Denise at her blog, The Land of What Ifs, her BookTube channel on YouTube, or on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, or Instagram.