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This is what my desk currently looks like…
Because I am in the middle of massive re-visioning of my book.
Everyone has a process for this. A plan of attack.
Here’s what works for me.
- I print out the entire manuscript.
- I read the first 100 pages and make “macro-edits” with my red pen. Macro-edits are first impressions that I jot down as I read, like “this is too mechanical” or “awkward” or “why is this here” This is not the stage where I try to fix everything. This is the stage where I try to identify problem areas. (I try to do this all in one day)
- Now that I have an idea of what happens across those 100 pages, I go chapter by chapter and do “micro-edits.” Micro-edits are where I try to clarify problem areas and attempt solutions. I also apply Margie Lawson’s Master Editing checklist.
- After the first round of edits, I re-read the entire chapter as I type the edits in. (Step 3&4 can take 1-2 days because I like to let my edits breathe and my thoughts fully percolate before I make actual changes.)
- I print a clean copy and go over it again. Yup again. Because inevitably something bothered me and I couldn’t articulate it the first two times. But usually by the third go through, I can. Sometimes I’m still feeling dissatisfied. That’s when I add a fourth round. (This can take 1-2 days too.)
- If I cannot resolve something or explain what is wrong, I write a post-it to remind me to revisit the issue later and stick it over my desk.
- Then I move on to the next chapter and go through this all over again.
- When I hit the 50 page mark or an appropriate chapter break, I stop and print out those 30-50 pages. I paper edit them once. Then I re-edit as I type in my changes. (I try to take a 4 hour break in between. That lets my mind rest and also ruminate)
- Back to chapter-by-chapter edits.
- Once I hit another 50 pages, I do #8 again.
- I print all 100 pages and go over them with a pen. (In a day)
- Then I re-edit as I type those revisions in.
- I move on to the next 100 pages and repeat steps 2-12.
- I move on to the next 100 pages and repeat steps 2-12.
- Ideally, I have my beta readers and critique partner read the manuscript and get me feedback before step 16. But in a time crunch like now, I will power ahead. Big hug to my critique partner Katrina Bender for amazing & insightful feedback on pages 1-115!
- For my final edits, I reprint the new version of the manuscript and I go through it in 100 page increments. By now, I should have caught most everything so this is more of a copy edit round. I will still clean up issues, but hopefully I’ve taken care of most of them already.
I know this sounds really intensive, but it’s what works for me. It gives me confidence that I caught most everything. Right now it has to be done in 6 weeks. Eight weeks makes this more doable.
A long time ago, a lovely gal worked at a place that shall not be named. That place had policies but no procedures.
So the firm would put in writing that it would enforce it’s dresscode, but not actually explain how it defined dresscode or give examples of what was deemed appropriate and inappropriate.
The firm would state we will not violate laws. But not explain to the employees what the laws were, how they applied to the firm, and what the employees needed to do to make sure they followed the laws.
Policy without procedures is meaningless.
The same applies to writing.
We say show don’t tell. Great policy. But if we haven’t taken the time to explain what showing is and teach the person to identify what telling is, how in the world can anyone follow that policy?
What’s my point here?
Thanks for asking. Three things actually.
In order to teach self-editing, you have to pass on the procedures to writers. I’ve read books on self-editing that didn’t tell me how to replicate the process in my own work. Not very useful.
In order to be a great editor, you have to have not just understand policy but understand and execute procedures.
In order to give great feedback, you have to explain why the edit makes sense (mention the policy then explain the procedure behind the edit)
This is what I thought my draft looked like before I started revising. I thought every work counted. That every scene was as streamlined as it could be. That the manuscript couldn’t be tightened.
This is what it actually looked like. Way too many words. Some did very little. Some nothing. Throw away words and sentences. Even scenes. Gasp. I’ve cut 2000 words and I’m only on p.140.
You are only as good as your critiquers, your writing classes and your self-editing classes. If your critiquers all say your work is good. Maybe it is. Maybe it is ready. You can query it.
But after several rejections, maybe you might want to find someone with more experience to weigh in. I’m not saying hire an editor, but maybe ask a pubbed friend to look at the first chapter. Because whatever mistakes you made there, you made throughout the whole book. And the fat you didn’t trim away there is everywhere else.
I’m guilty of it. Every time I come back to a manuscript I thought was amazing, I am slammed by new issues. *Doink* I thought this was good? *Gasps and blushes* How did I miss this?
I’ve heard people say writers never finish books, they abandon them. But I’m wondering when will I know to let it go.
How do you ever know that a manuscript is ready?
The Most Important Thing About Revision?
Absolute honesty with yourself.
Know when you are settling for a good enough because you can’t come up with something better.
Good enough is great as a place holder when drafting, but when revising everything should be your best.
No settling, no ho-hum scenes, no walking the dog, no boring moments. None.
I’m taking a final pass through the manuscript I just spent 3.5 weeks editing. I did the editing at a 20 pages/day rate. I’m looking at this revision in 100 page increments.
What a difference.
I see my repetitiveness. I see when things aren’t advancing. I see where I lose interest.
None of this is acceptable. All of it needs to be addressed.
But it’s only by admitting to myself what I don’t like and when something doesn’t settle right that I can begin to push my book toward it’s very best incarnation.
James Scott Bell is my hero. An electrifying speaker. I picked up his book at the Writer’s Digest Conference a few months ago. He takes a page-turning, straight-forward approach to revision and self-editing in his book, Revision & Self-Editing.
You forget you’re reading a book because you’d swear he was right there breaking everything down for you. His conversational tone totally won me over.
An accomplished writer, he’s living the dream. In this book, he shares his knowledge on revision. He’s not kidding about providing techniques that transform your first draft into a finished novel.
After each chapter, I felt my brain smoothing out with new insight. By the time I finished his book, I understood what was wrong with my first manuscript.
I applied what I learned to the book I have slaved over for 2 years. A book I knew was complete. A book I’d queried and gotten full requests on.
In four days, I cut 6,000 words.
Mr. Bell gave me the tools I needed to see what wasn’t working in my manuscript. I’m eternally grateful to him.
This is a reference tool that is chock full of useful techniques, concepts, and real life examples to guide me throughout my writing career.
One of my favorites?
The Neil Simon note saying, I can fix it. Which reminds me ANYTHING CAN BE FIXED.
Isn’t that a phenomenal concept? All the bad parts of my novel can be worked out. Once I know they aren’t working. How empowering.
Revision & Self-Editing are tackled separately. The Self-Editing subsections covers such major points in the novel as: Character, POV, Plot & Conflict, Scenes, Dialogue, Show vs. Tell, Setting and Description. The Revision section covers similar points and provides a Revision Checklist.
This book is a must buy for first time and accomplished authors.
If you are going to pick up one book on revision and self editing. THIS IS THE BOOK.
Sunday at the Writer’s Digest Conference, James Scott Bell gave another riveting presentation on learning how to love revision.
His argument is that if you know what you are doing and have enough tools to do it, revision can be fun and creative. After hearing him speak, I’m a believer. I purchased his book on Revision and Self-Editing.
He takes a systematic approach to revision (in a similar way to his approach to plotting). Much like war, strategy is an important part of winning the battle with revisions.
He has three rules:
- Finish the novel
- Learn the craft
He believes that the act of completing the novel teaches the writer so much. But then the writer must revise in order to learn how to revise.
His rules are:
- Write hot and revise cool (write like a Hawaiian shirt and edit like skinny jeans)
- The first draft should be passionate and dance out of your mind
- So let it out. Push the limits, knowing you can scale back later
- You can revise as you write, but try to keep it to a quick edit of the past day’s work and then moving forward to the next day’s writing
- At the 20K word count, step back and ask:
- Is the main character sympathetic or possesses connectability?
- Are the stakes high enough?
- Is the confrontation element fully justified?
- Take a break from the manuscript. At least 2 weeks-1 month.
- And comes back as a reader. Pretend to pick it up for the first time. Do a first read through with minimal notes. Read like a reader NOT an editor. Get through the entire novel in 1-4 sessions, making minimal marks in the manuscript as you read.
- Checkmarks indicate that the story is dragging
- Parentheses mean the sentence doesn’t work
- Circles in margin for where material needs to be added
- Question marks to denote confusion
- When finished reading, asks if the story makes sense.
- Not just in terms of the plot threads tying up, but do the characters behave as people should act?
- Look at scenes from the viewpoint of each character and have them make the best move for himself because each character has his own agenda
- Any coincidences that help out the plot are removed. Readers want a character to solve a problem with her own ingenuity
- Examine if the stakes are high enough. Looking for death of some sort (physical, professional, emotional). Examine the protagonist’s inner tension in scenes
- Does your main character jump off the page. Readers want characters they haven’t seen before in subtle ways. Readers want a protagonist they can follow through death struggle. Someone they can worry about
In the drafting and editing process, create off-page scenes, playing out how a character will react to certain things. This allows you to get to know your characters and understand their inner workings. To find their emotional depths.
Then outline book with a scene breakdown of what is written to use during editing. Revise the outline multiple times to account for any changes that should be made to the draft after your reading. This outline will be the basis of the second draft.
Work on the outline with the goal of making the story breathe and move. To create an emotional experience for the reader.
Dialogue is the fastest way to improve a manuscript. It is a compression and an extension of action. Keep in mind the agenda of the speaker.
Characters with different agendas = constant friction
Then move onto the polishing
- Scenes openings should be reviewed. Depending on pacing, you may open with action, dialogue, or setting scene
- Make sure opening scene has a hook
- Look at chapter endings–usually a paragraph can be cut to “snip at the tail” and give the story forward momentum
- Compress dialogue
Thank you Mr. Bell for another stellar craft lecture.