Category: editing

What Made Harry Potter Tick for You?

As you might know, the current book I’m working on is something I’ve been describing as “Harry Potter meets Ocean’s Eleven.” I finished the first draft, but the way I draft (at the moment), I end up with a very rough version of the story by the end of that first draft. (I’ve tried plotting. I’ve tried not plotting. These days, I’m resigned to the fact that it feels like I relearn how to write a book with each new book. Different stories call for different approaches. I do think I’m getting better at it as a whole, but it takes a ton of work, regardless what I do.)

In any case, this time around it’s been closer to the experience I had writing Vodnik: I had a general idea what I wanted the book to be about, and then I dove in writing. The characters were already pretty much set in my mind, but the actual plot was very loose. So there are quite a few times when I’d change direction in the middle of the book. Instead of going back and fixing everything to smooth it all out, I barrel forward. Momentum means a lot to me during that first draft. It’s how I get a sense for timing and the general pace of the book. I have to experience it to know if it’s working right. But that means that once the book is finished, I need to do a lot of smoothing before it’s ready for anyone else to read.

In other words, even after that first draft, the book is really only complete in my mind. I have to go back and make the rest of the novel match what ended up happening in my head.

Long story short, I feel like this book has the Ocean’s Eleven part of the equation down better than the Harry Potter part. This isn’t to say that it’s perfect yet–this is just the first draft, after all–but the bulk of the plot is focused on heists and cons, so it’s natural that my attention focused on that side of the puzzle. Now what I want to do is make sure it also feels like a school book. Yes, the setting is a school, but physical descriptions have always been something I’ve struggled with as an author. I have to go back after the fact to make things come alive, because at first all I really care about is what happens next.

So I’m going to reread the first Harry Potter to get a sense for what Rowling was up to. She managed to do an awful lot in that first book: introduce the magic system, the school, and a slew of characters–all while weaving the main story throughout it: Harry’s confrontation with Voldemort. In the end, you walk away from book one feeling like you’ve been immersed in Hogwarts. I want that feeling, but with my own school I’m describing.

What will I be looking for? Specific things. Nuts and bolts things. How many times does Draco appear in scene? How many classes are described in scene? How many are summarized? What subplots did Rowling put in to give the book its school flavor? Things like that. I’m not doing it to copy it–I’m doing it to understand the balance effort that went into it so that the end result was . . . Harry Potter.

With that in mind, I’m curious to hear from all you Potter fans out there. Just in the first book, what was it that really stood out to you? What made the book tick? Why did you love it? What do you remember most about it? Again–just the first book here. No fair jumping ahead to others. What made Hogwarts come alive? Any bits of opinion and information will help me when I start the reread, likely tomorrow.

(For now, I’m rereading the first draft. So far, I’ve been very pleased with it. Yes, there are some bumps and rough edges, but there have also been a few rock solid scenes I just loved. Always a nice feeling when you come across that in your own writing . . .)

In any case, comment away, and thanks in advance!

Revising: Knowing When to Stop Cutting

I’m finishing up the last few chapters of my revision of THE MEMORY THIEF right now, and I’m very much in “cut” mode. I realize that I have a tendency to write more than is needed in my prose, so I typically go over what I’ve written and try to cut at least 10% of whatever’s there. It’s scary how easy it is, really–and it helps in a whole lot of different ways. First off, it helps me be less repetitive. When I’m cutting, I notice tons of places where I’ve said the same thing twice–just in different ways. Or where I have the action repeat itself. All of those things can just get snipped. I pick the description that’s strongest, and that stays.

Then there are the junk words that I pepper throughout my writing. The “justs” and the “thats” and the “thens.” Those all can go. Same with a bunch of adverbs that snuck in when I wasn’t looking. Cut cut cut cut. Passive voice needs looking at. Descriptions need tightening. And all of it’s for the better.

In the end, I believe it makes a big difference. The pacing feels tighter. A book that was 48,000 words long is suddenly 42,000 (roughly)–that’s a chunk of words, really.

But the trick is that when you get down to it, there’s never a spot where you just have to stop. You can always say things in fewer words. Instead of having something happen in scene, you can put it in exposition. You can simplify the sentences. You can cut all the way to the bone, and then just keep on going. A 48,000 word story could end up a one page summary, if you get my drift. And clearly when someone’s wanting to read a book, they’re not in it just to find out what happened as quickly as possible. Much of the fun is the journey.

So you need to cut, but not cut too much. Keep the voice. Keep the things that make the story unique and fun. Some scenes might not do much to advance the plot, but they do tons to advance character or setting or description. So you’re in a constant state of deciding what needs to stay and what needs to go. That’s why I like the 10% rule. If I find myself going much over that, I take a look at what I’m cutting, and I try to ask myself if I’m cutting too much. If I’m cutting less than that, I’m almost always just being lazy–or it’s a scene I’d already worked on a lot.

The good news is that I usually only do this when I’m about done with a book. After I do the 10%, there’s not much more for me to do until I get notes from an editor (or my agents, if they still have things they’d like to see changed). So THE MEMORY THIEF is getting very close to being sent out to editors. Yay for that.

And in other good news, I’ve been thinking more about GET CUPID, and I might have come up with a way to really kick the book up a few notches. It’s an idea that potentially fixes one of the last big problems I know is present in the book. I’ve got some people reading it for me now. When I hear back from them, I’ll ask about this idea and see what they think. If it works, I might be revisiting that novel sooner than I’d thought. We shall see.

Back to editing!

Writer Q&A: How I Edit My Novels

Trevor Green over at Beyond Dragons and Wizards wanted to know a bit about how I go about the editing process. I thought this would make a great blog post, so I’m answering his questions for you all to see right here. Hope this helps some of you!

Q: First off, how long do you generally wait before coming back to a first draft? Do you wait until you’ve practically forgotten what the book is about, or do you just want to forget the sentence structure, etc.?

A: I give it a while, honestly. As long as I can. Back in the days before I was published and working on deadlines, I’d like to wait at the bare minimum for a half year or so, especially when I’m gearing up for the second draft. For me, second drafts still have a great deal of discovery left in them. Things aren’t nailed in place. I’m not worried about refining sentence structure–I’m worried about changing plots and characters. Massive, big changes. Because sometimes something looks great in an outline, feels great while you’re writing it, and then . . . isn’t great. Your writing group and alpha readers just can’t stand it. I like to have enough distance from the book to be able to tell for myself if I agree with them or not. When I’m still too close to the writing, that’s hard to do. I’m inclined to like it–I just wrote it. Also, I like to distance myself from criticisms. Just because somebody didn’t like it, doesn’t mean that it needs to change–at least not the way they said it should. Sometimes someone might just be noticing that something feels off. They think they’ve found the solution, but when you read it over yourself, you discover it’s something deeper that’s wrong, which is causing some symptom problems elsewhere.

Q: What’s the first thing you do? Do you read it through without picking up the red pen? Or do you dive in and just go for it? For that matter, maybe you do a lot of prep work: note cards, diagrams, character sheets, scene rundowns, etc. What works best for you?

A: I print that puppy out on paper. Then I grab a red pen and start reading. No character sheets. No diagrams. I toss out everything I’ve done, backstory-wise, and just read it like I’m reading someone else’s work. I note what works, what doesn’t. I write down ideas for changes. Where I get bored. Again–it doesn’t matter if I built the world a certain way in the planning stage. If it ain’t working, it ain’t working. I try not to be wedded to any one thing in the book.

Once I’m done reading and marking the whole thing up, I look over my comments. That’s also when I look over comments my alpha or beta readers had, as well as my writing group. I compile everything into a big honking TO BE CHANGED list, and I start going at it.

In many ways, I edit in layers. I’ll note that one character wasn’t strong enough, so I’ll go through and find all the instances that character appeared, and I’ll change accordingly. I’ll note that I need to add or change a subplot. I’ll do all of that at once, too. It’s just too difficult to go through and try and make all the changes chronologically as I go through from start to finish. I start to forget what I changed, and how I changed it. I keep my marked up copy of the book handy throughout all this, to remind myself not just what I wanted to change, but why.

Q: I know a lot of people talk about their tendency to change character personalities halfway through their first draft (I have a quote from Brandon that Isaac gave me last night saying just that), and I know I do that myself. How do you go about changing the previous chapters of that character’s personality? It seems incredibly tedious and overwhelming. Do you have any tips?

A: It is tedious and overwhelming. But it needs to be done. I typically don’t know my characters all that well when I start writing a book. By the end, I know them much better. By the end of the fourth draft, I’m an expert on all of them. It’s really not as hard as it seems at first, to go back and fix all the places where they’re inconsistent. Also, a big piece of advice I’d have for you is to not make the mistake of thinking your second draft will be your last. Vodnik went through at least six substantial drafts, as I recall. Revision is hard work. (That said, this only goes for me. It’s certainly possible the way you write and revise will be different. But I was really surprised by how much more editing and revising I had to do to get the book to a publishable level. Be prepared for that. Embrace it.)

Q: How many people do you think read your first draft before you begin hacking away at it?

A: Not a set number. As many as I can get to read it. These days, my agent for sure. A few trusted friends. My writing group. But the biggest one is definitely me. What I think of the book after I read it again–see the answer to question 1. I don’t think there’s a set number of people who have to read it. One or two great readers are much better than 10 or 15 okay ones. Who do you trust? Go with them.

Q: Do you do separate read-throughs for all the different things that need to be fixed (character vs plot vs pacing vs logistics vs tone), or do you try to manage them all at once?

A: In a perfect world, I’d do them all at once. In reality, I end up doing them in stages, continually improving different things with each pass through. Maybe I’ll get better at this and be able to take short cuts, but I doubt it.

Q: How do you manage and compile all your reader’s feedback? Do you combine them into one Word document as notes alongside your manuscript, or do you juggle them separately? Maybe you ignore them completely.

A: I keep them in whatever form I compiled them the first time. For people who read the whole novel at once, I keep their annotated copy. For writing group, I keep my notes on their comments. But all of that goes to the master annotated copy I make as I’m doing the read through. In the end, it all funnels to that single copy, and then I ignore the other notes, unless I suddenly forget why I wanted a certain change, or something like that.

In the end, editing is work. Very different work from what goes into the first draft. It can be really tempting to just give up on it and go write something new, but if you keep doing that, you’ll only be developing half of the talent you need to make it at a higher level. It’s going to take time, and it’s not going to be easy. But it’s definitely worth it. Also–remember to hold some fresh readers back from reading the first or second draft. Once you revise enough, it’ll start getting very difficult to know if what you’re doing is making things any better. That’s when fresh beta readers are an absolute must.

Good luck!

How I Managed to Lose Track of Which Revision I was Working On

The Maze Runner (Maze Runner Trilogy, Book 1)If you’ve been following my Twitter or Facebook feeds for the past day or so, you’ve no doubt noticed that I’ve been frantically trying to iron out exactly which version of Vodnik I was editing. Since it’s hard to describe the problem in 140 characters of less, allow me to give a rundown for you of exactly what went wrong.

For starters, realize that I’m an electronic hoarder. I despise giving up information, and so when I work on a book, I keep each draft saved separately. I mean, digital information takes up no space, so why not hold onto it? I save the drafts according to revision number. So I have Lesana 1.0 (that was the original codeword for the book, before it had a title), Lesana 2.0, Vodnik 3.0, Vodnik 4.0 and now Vodnik 5.0. (As I’ve said before, I might have missed a draft in the Lesana to Vodnik name transition, so it might be that I’m working on Vodnik 6.0 now. But who’s counting?)

I was true to this pattern until last September, when suddenly changes were coming in as I worked frantically to revise Vodnik and get it ready for potential purchase by Tu Books. I had my third draft and various copies of the fourth draft–each of them saved by date. Vodnik 9.28.10, Vodnik 9.30.10. Add to that the emailed files and edits Stacy (my now editor) was sending me, and there were a whole lot of Vodniks flying around. Some of the emailed edits were just for the first three chapters, and so there were partial files, too.


Anyway, cut ahead four months. Stacy sent me a printed copy of the manuscript with her notes on it. I read that copy and made further notes on it. I took those notes, opened up Vodnik 4.0 on my computer, and started editing. Five chapters in, I realized there were a few passages in my electronic version that didn’t match Stacy’s printed version.

Not good.

I looked at Vodnik 9.30.10, Vodnik 4.0 emailed, Vodnik First Three Chapters–Bryce’s Edits. All sorts of Vodniks. And I compared them to Stacy’s printed version, but they just didn’t match up. Some versions had some edits but not others. Others had different edits. Some edits I couldn’t find in any of my electronic copies. It didn’t help that it had been four months since I worked on the book, so it was all murky in my mind.

Four hours later, I’ve finally identified the problem.

Vodnik 9.30.10 was the most recent draft of mine. I failed to save it as Vodnik 4.0 to make it the final draft. However, the first three chapters were further edited, and I failed to incorporate those edits into Vodnik 9.30.10. The final twist was that the version Stacy sent me didn’t incorporate those final edits to the first three chapters, either–they just incorporated her edits to my draft. I’d made edits to those edits.

Clear as mud?

Yeah. Now you have an inkling of how I’ve felt for the last two days. Now imagine this: you’ve discovered the error, you’ve figured it out, but you’ve already now made extensive changes to an old draft, and it’s going to be almost impossible to turn back the clock and figure out what other changes should have been made to that draft before you started changing it in the first place. Sheesh.

Thankfully, Microsoft Word has a very nice “compare” feature, and with a bit of electronic wizardry, I’ve ironed it all out. All is right with the world, and I can continue on my edit in peace.

Sick of hearing about this yet? Well you’re in luck–I’m sick of writing about it. Have a nice rest of your Wednesday, all. Back to the editing room I go . . .

Presidents Day Edit: Slash and Burn

Coleman Camp AxeAnd so the edit begins. It took me three hours today to get through the first three chapters. That’s not a terribly good sign, although I guess now that I look back at it, that’s just an hour per chapter. It felt like a lot more. Then again, I have 36 chapters, and 24 writing days (I don’t do Sundays) until my deadline. Once I’m done with the more global changes, I’d like 6 days or so of writing time to look at some smaller level issues–switching up word choice, tightening descriptions, etc.

There’s a lot still to be done. Kind of scary.

The trick at this point is that I’m really familiar with the material. It gets pretty tricky to know if I’m cutting too much or not enough. I know what I want the final product to look like–what sort of a feel it should have, what sort of pacing. But how do I tell if something is really boring, or if it just seems slow because I’ve read it so many times now?

You can always cut more information from a story, just like you can always add. If you keep cutting, Lord of the Rings turns into “Some small furry creatures didn’t like jewelry.” If you keep adding, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” turns into War and Peace. So what you choose to put in a story is just as important as what you keep out.

That said, in my read through of Vodnik this time, there were still chapters that thoroughly entertained me. I know those are working. I’m still quite pleased with the ending, and I’m strengthening plot lines in ways that I think will make it even better–strengthening the weak parts in the middle and tying the story together more. But none of that happens here at the beginning. Right now, the main problem is that the book takes too long to get to the good stuff. It needs to go faster. I started with 6600 words and ended with 5100. So about 23% cut, which should hopefully end up making that beginning whir along speedily. I’ll need to set it aside for a while and then read it again to see if it makes sense.

But then that’ll be my sixth time reading the beginning. When you start to doubt your doubts, you’ve gotten way too meta.

It’s at times like these that I’m really glad I have an editor.

And a wife who hasn’t read this book yet–so she’ll be able to read the beginning, and we can talk about it. Fresh eyes are always a bonus.

Anyway–enough. Today is a vacation day, after all. I’m heading over to a friend’s house to play Axis and Allies and eat too much food. Happy Presidents Day, all!

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