Tuesday, January 31, 2017

WRITING YOUR NOVEL: Part 3- Slash & Burn (Editing Your Brick into a Book)

Editing your novel
Cut those unnecessary pages and let them fly!
So you've written a novel. Now what? Time to slash and burn....

There once was a photographer who continually submitted the same photo to a magazine despite repeated rejections. Finally, the editor wrote her back and asked, "Why do you keep sending us this photo even though we've told you over and over we aren't going to publish it?"

"That one?" she replied. "Because I had to climb a mountain to get it."

I was taught this anecdote in Creative Writing 101 and it still creeps into my mind every time I sit down to edit. Sometimes you work your ass off on a particular chapter or scene. The idea of just tossing it away like it never happened is almost unbearable. But if you are honest with yourself, and you know it isn't good enough for your project, you just have to let it go.

Slash. Burn. Move on.

Already in this blog series about the novel writing process, I've established that naming yourself a novelist is one of the official symptoms in the American Psychiatric Society's DSM defining insanity, that pre-writing is crucial (and even fun), and that the ultimate goal of your first draft is to write without abandon, to hell with how it sounds.

Now comes the real magic: editing.

Editing is the stage where the chicken scratch that was your rough draft starts to become the calligraphy that will be your finished novel. It's exciting, really, as you get to watch your masterpiece improve every time you open it up.

People ask me how many drafts I go through when writing a novel. It seems non-writers have this idea that you write through a novel beginning to end once and its done. It goes to the publishers as is and hits the shelf a month later. What most people don't understand is that the actual writing, the first draft, is but a mere crumb of a much-larger process, and a writer really shows his mettle during the many overlapping stages of revision. It is hard for me to say how many "drafts" I go through because each pass through the book often entails layer upon layer of editing. Instead of singular drafts, I like to call them "draft cycles."

Here is an example of the draft cycles I endured during my last manuscript:

1. First Draft
Plowed through it and didn't stop to look back. (see part 2 of the series: Surviving the First Draft)

2. Character-by-Character
Since this novel was multiple point-of-view, I broke apart the chapters and flattened it according to character, combing through each character's entire plot arc before moving on to the next. The result was quite shocking. It exposed holes like vast canyons and laid bare how I was using certain stronger characters to prop up weaker ones. I wanted each character to be equally textured, and each of their narratives to force the book's pages to flip like leaves in a howling storm. I took notes about what I liked and disliked on a big picture level and ruminated extensively on how I could maximize the good and minimize the, well, not so good. I expanded their backstories, which helped bring greater depth to each of their stories. Then after implementing my new ideas, I went through and polished their story from start to finish.

3. Chapter-by-Chapter
Putting the book back in its proper order, I focused on each chapter, individually, first reading straight through then sitting back and reflecting and taking notes. What was good about it? Not so good? I forced myself to come up with five "bold ideas" that could make the chapter better. No idea was too crazy or too experimental. Though more often than not only one (or sometimes none) of these ideas ended up landing in the chapter, pushing it to at least five forced me to consider possibilities that hadn't yet occurred to me. After this "brainstorming" session, I went back and implemented the best ideas and followed that with another polishing copyedit from start to finish.

4. Paragraph-by-Paragraph
This was a tedious one. I split the book up by paragraphs and turned the entire text red. I then analyzed each paragraph individually in random order, turning completed paragraphs back to black. Looking at each paragraph randomly ensured I was focused only on the writing from a sentence and paragraph level and not thinking (at this point) about big picture issues, like plot and character, things I should have already fixed. I made a goal of 20 paragraphs a day and created a spreadsheet so I could enter how many paragraphs I completed and watch it spit out a slowly growing percentage of how much of my novel I had edited (yeah, my brain works like that). Once my whole manuscript was black again, I put it back together and went back through the whole novel yet again from the beginning and polished it off so the newly editing paragraphs flowed together smoothly.

5. On Paper
Now that I had spent a staggering amount of time first looking at big picture problems, then gradually focusing on smaller and smaller portions, it was time to put it on paper and see what it looked like. Using a print-on-demand company (I used Lulu.com this time, though I've used others in the past), I designed a cover, formatted the book and printed a single copy just for myself. For the next week I waited impatiently as FedEx updates tracked the book's slow progress across the country. I was so excited the day it arrived, like a kid succumbing to the wondrous joy of Christmas morning. Holding the book in my hands, I felt closer than ever to seeing my idea a reality. I loved holding it, smelling it, flipping the pages with my thumb. But the joy was short lived and the time to start the next phase was upon me. I did something that felt like blasphemy: I wrote in the book. One page at a time, I read through, filling the blank spaces with ruthless marginalia. I slashed out extraneous lines, circled mediocre words, and generally exhumed a staggeringly numerous amount of problems that I was shocked still existed.Once the read though was complete, I went back and made the necessary changes. Then it was back to the beginning for yet another tedious copyedit to polish my changes.

6. Put it out there
Back to the POD company. This time I printed five copies and bribed five friends to read my work and give notes. Voracious fantasy readers were good, writers were better. People with editing experience were best. It was worth a small budget for Amazon gift cards or some other incentive (like beer) to ensure my editors were happy and well taken care of. As a starving artist, I hated spending money but I had to remember that if I were to pay a professional editor it would cost hundreds, probably thousands, of dollars. Once I collected this invaluable criticism, it was back to computer to implement the necessary corrections. I added scenes, slashed ruthlessly at what needed to go, and ended it all with, you guessed it, another cover-to-cover round of polishing.

7. The deep copyedit
By now I hated my book. I knew huge portions word-for-word, even caught myself quoting them at parties, only remembering after seeing the blank looks on my friends' faces that nobody besides me knew what I was talking about. I wanted nothing more than to be done with it and to submit it to the world and let the royalties pour in. Nope, still not ready. It's time for yet another draft cycle: the deepest copyedit yet. This was my last chance to polish it for the world. Knowing that prospective agents and editors would soon be reading the words, I found myself looking at it differently. How did I not see how cliché this section was? Or how prosaic that chapter had turned out? Verbs that needed to be sharp as a poniard were as dull as a butter knife. I performed a broad pass through followed by sickeningly time-consuming sentence-by-sentence edit.

This is just an idea of what I went through with my last novel before I started worrying about queries and agents (a process still in progress). You may find that some differing variation of this type of editing works much better for you. I would be happy to hear your ideas, things that I might be able to experiment with on my next process.

So how do you know when it is done? A great book on the novel-writing process called How to Write a Damn Good Novel said (and I'm paraphrasing), "You know you're done when you're so tired of your book even the very thought of opening it makes you physically ill. Any changes you make at this point won't make it better, just different."

So basically edit until your book actually makes you sick....

Thanks for reading this part of my Writing Your Novel blog series. If you enjoyed it, found it useful, or just plain want to hate on me, consider commenting or signing up for my weekly mailing list. Not only will I love you forever if you sign up, but I will reciprocate by reading, signing up for and actively commenting on your blog as well. I blog about everything from the novel writing process to horse gait and more.

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All writing is the original work of Brian Wright and may not be copied, distributed, re-printed or used any form without express written consent of the author. Find out here how to CONTACT me with publishing and/or use questions


  1. I work in "draft cycles" too, though I just call them drafts and periodically draw an arbitrary line between them. The term "draft cycles" is a great name for it.

    I love your idea of coming up with five "bold ideas" for each chapter. I hadn't come across that one before.

    I'm still working on my editing process, but so far I've spent a great deal of time identifying and fixing plot holes, and deciding my book is too complicated. One day I'd like to write a simple book. Ha!

    1. My strategy for editing is always evolving. But these complicated books can ending but being great! Thanks again for reading and commenting!

    2. I hope you're right. I'm trying to remove all the unnecessary complication, but it's tricky to be objective about what needs to be there.

  2. I agree. That's why I think getting other's feedback is so useful. I always feel too close to my projects to look at them objectively. The trick is finding people who are good critics.