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!

2 thoughts on “Writer Q&A: How I Edit My Novels”

  1. Holy crap. This is the best advice I could hear right now. And I’m not even the one writing 🙂 Thanks for all the detailed answers. It’s really helpful to hear some of the nitty gritty people actually go through. I think it gets glossed over a lot. It’s getting me pumped to help Trevor with his edits!

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