Your NaNo Novel Is a Hot Mess! How to Edit Your Book, by K. M. Weiland
Yay, you wrote a book! Now what are you supposed to do with it?
Writing a manuscript often feels like a sprint to a finish line–but then you reach that finish line, only to realize it’s really just the beginning! In many ways, completing a first draft is the easy part of the writing (what? no! yeah, sorry). The real business of writing begins with you have to sit down and figure out how to edit your book. Today, I’m going to show you how to navigate that potential minefield like a boss.
January is an apropos month to be talking about how to edit your book. For many writers, November was National Novel Writing Month, December was crazy, and now here were are in January–otherwise known as the Month of Good Intentions and Cold Hard Facts. It’s back to business in January, which means you have to face down that ugly NaNo novel you had so much fun with and figure out how to somehow turn it into a rock-solid story.
Back in September when I was prepping for a series of posts on preparing you write a NaNo novel, I asked you what subjects you wanted me to write about. Marc Middlebrooks wins for most memorable answer: Since I wrote my first novel, which I’m still wrapping up, I would like something like … Your novel is a hot mess – how to save it!
In my own writing, I wasn’t nearly as speedy as all you NaNoers (took me all year to write my whopping monstrosity of a 200k first draft for my historical superhero WIP Wayfarer), but since I finished it at the beginning of December and am just now diving into edits, I’m right there in the editing trenches alongside you.
Today, let’s consider what it takes to skillfully edit your book into something publication worthy.
Rule #1: The Mindset Is the Same: Good Editing Is Good Writing
First thing we’ve got to talk about is the fact that editing and writing are really just two sides of the same coin. Writers sometimes approach them as if they’re two different steps, and while they are, it’s important to remember all the same principles apply to both.
When it comes time to edit your novel, it’s the same song, second verse. With the exception of proofreading, there’s nothing you’re going to do or pay attention to during the editing phase that is any different from what you’re trying to do while writing the first draft. Hopefully, you were aware of good story principles (structure, character arcs, showing vs. telling, etc.) all the way through the writing of the first draft. If so, it will make your job much easier during the editing phase.
By the same token, now that you are editing, please don’t feel you need some kind of secret “editing sauce.” The same principles and techniques you used while writing your book are going to be your tools while editing. The only difference is that, during the editing stage, your brain is no longer cluttered with the desperate frenzy of getting those words out. Now you have the leisure and focus to concentrate on checking all these important story elements off your list.
Start With a Plan: Outlining for Revision
You should know this by now: I’m a planner. I outline everything–even revisions. The reason editing can sometimes feel so overwhelming is because we’re looking at the “big picture” (i.e., that sprawling, sloppy thing we lovingly call “our novel”) without breaking it down into smaller, actionable steps. Gaping slack-jawed at the entirety of your raw first draft is like looking at the feast provided Scrooge by the Spirit of Christmas Present and thinking you’re going to have to eat it all at one gulp.
I’m going to make this easy for you and tell you the first step: make a list.
Write an “outline,” if you will, for everything you know needs checked, evaluated, or fixed in your current draft. Put plot-specific items in chronological order, so you can address them scene by scene. Put overall considerations (which we’ll get to in more detail in just one sec) in a master list, starting with the most important and working your way down to the fine details.
Whenever I find myself overwhelmed by a necessary edit, the feeling is inevitably the result of lack of direction. Even ruthless critiques from beta readers become exciting when you have a plan for moving forward and making your story better.
7 Considerations for How to Edit Your Book
What follows is by no means a complete list, in part because every book (indeed, every draft) will have its own specific needs. But here is the basic master list of editing considerations I focus on when diving into the choppy waters of a rough draft’s first edit.
1. Single Out Your Tic Words
Let’s start with one of the smallest integers you’re going to have to keep an eye out for during your edit: tic words. These are words or phrases you’ve overused. Some will be your own unique pet words, which get overused in pretty much everything you write, but you’ll probably end up with some new words that you used to distraction only in this particular project.
While writing the first draft, I keep a running tally of words I think I’m overusing. This list will get added to as I’m editing and as my critique partners and editors report back to me.
Using your list, you can:
- Run a global search/replace in Word, replacing the suspect word with exactly the same word. This won’t change anything in your manuscript, but it will tell you how many times the word appears. On occasion, a word I think I’ve overused actually doesn’t show up that often.
- Once you’ve determined you have overused the suspect word, run another global search/replace, this time replacing the word with the same word but IN CAPS. This will force you to notice the word as you run across it while doing your other editing chores. You can pause, evaluate the context, and come up with an alternative for 90% percent of the occurrences.
2. Evaluate Your Word Count
Word count is a crucial consideration whatever genre you’re writing. Although it’s important to realize that a story needs to be exactly as long as it needs to be, make sure you’re staying objective about those needs. A word count that is either too long or too short can end up damaging both your publication chances and your readers’ experience. (Christine Frazier offers a free guide on optimal word counts for various genres.)
Start by dividing your total word count into quarters (remember: the quarter marks are where all your major plot points should hit). You want your word count to be pretty evenly divided between the structural quarters, which means you can’t afford to delete or add the bulk of your necessary words in single quadrant. Strive to keep things even.
IF YOUR WORD COUNT IS TOO SHORT…
Consider character relationships and subplots. What can you flesh out to deepen your story? What parts feel “skinny”? Are any of your characters’ motivations unclear? Look at your scene structure and make sure you’re not skimping on any aspect, particularly the sequel/reaction half.
IF YOUR WORD COUNT IS TOO LONG…
On the macro level, examine each scene for integrality. Can you pull a subplot? Cut an unnecessary minor character? Do any of your scenes or characters feel repetitious? Can you combine scenes?
On the micro level, look for “fluff” words (such as “that”) or phrases that can be trimmed (such as exchanging “a lot of” for “many”). Make sure you’re not using two descriptors where one would do. Take a long hard look at dialogue scenes. Find the kernel of the conversation and eliminate all the throat-clearing, repetition, and build-up leading up to it. (Check out William Brohaugh’s great book Write Tight for more tips.)
3. Strengthen Your Story Structure
The best way to approach structure is before writing your first draft. If you were aware of your major plot points and other structural moments going into your story, chances are good you emerged with a first draft that, at the least, knew where it was supposed to go. In the editing phase, your job is to strengthen that structure by making sure all the pieces are in their proper places and doing their proper jobs.
Dividing your word count into fourths, as you did the previous step, will help you analyze the timing of all your major plot points. Paying attention to structure will also allow you to identify potentially problematic areas–such as the dreaded “saggy middle.” The middle doesn’t need to be a wasteland of pointless plotting. Make sure your Second Act is structured properly and you’ll have no trouble at all.
4. Strengthen Your Character Arcs
Character arcs are perhaps the most difficult element to get right in the first draft. Even if you’ve properly built the arcs to correspond with the plot structure, the actual progression of a character’s inner growth can get downright messy on the page.
Evaluate your character in each structural section of the story to make certain he’s at the right place in his arc. (If you’re uncertain of the building blocks needed for a powerful character arc, be sure to check out my series of posts on the subject.
5. Reinforce Your Theme
Structure, character arc, and theme all work hand in hand. You can’t make corrections to one without correcting the other two. Still, you need to evaluate your story’s theme objectively to make certain it’s pulling together with your plot and character. Although themes can (and should be) multifaceted, you don’t want to end up with a “main” theme that’s pulling in one direction, while the theme that’s being proven by your character arc’s Lie/Truth is pulling in a different direction.
For example, in Wayfarer, I started out writing what I thought was a story about respect (for self and others), but realized by the end I was really writing a story about the meaning of truth. These two subjects are by no means incompatible, but it’s now my job to make sure they harmonize as fluidly and powerfully as possible to create a single beaming theme at the story’s heart.
6. Edit Your Prose Line by Line
Most of the above is concerned with macro “content editing” that will affect and direct your story as a whole. Only once you have the frame of your house erected can you concentrate on the interior decorating. But don’t discount the decorating either! Great prose will set a book above its peers just as surely as great plotting.
Don’t just focus on correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation, but on the rhythm and flow of your sentences and the appropriateness of your word choices. Evaluate every sentence, every word. Are they saying exactly what you need them to say?[On her webpage, Weiland includes links to several resources “to get down and dirty with your line editing”:
- 10 Ways to Write Skinny Sentences
- Are You Guilty of These 8 Common Grammar Mistakes?
- 4 Methods to Invigorate Your Prose With Surprising Sentences
- Most Common Writing Mistakes: Choppy Prose
- Most Common Writing Mistakes: Is Your Prose Too Complex?
- You’ve Been Writing Sentences Wrong All Your Life! Find Out Why
- Top 10 Sentence Slip-Ups]
7. Kill the Typos!
Finally, you’re going to want to go typo hunting. This is the last step–like sweeping up all the sawdust after building that house. Although you’ll definitely want to correct any typo you spot during the previous steps, don’t make a point of hunting them down until you’ve finished your “big” edits. There’s no point in vacuuming if you haven’t yet finished with the mess. I only do two or three dedicated proofreadings during the entire life of a book:
- After my initial edits and before sending the manuscript to my critique partners and beta readers. This is a mercy proofreading really, so they’re not subjected to the sloppy remains of my own enthusiastic editing. I respect their time and don’t want them to have to wade through simple mistakes I should have caught myself.
- After my betas are finished with the book and I’m finished with their suggestions. This is way down the line, right before the book goes to my editor before publication. At this point, the manuscript has probably been through the wringer two or three more times and needs spruced up again–for my editor’s sake.
- Before publication. Obviously.
And how do I spot typos? I use a method that, in my experience, is 99% accurate. I upload my book to my Kindle Keyboard and use the Read Aloud feature to have my book read to me, while I read along.
Let’s sum up: How do you edit your book? If it was easy, you probably wouldn’t be reading this post. But if you break down the process into the above steps, you’ll find it’s much easier than you imagined to take that raw, hot mess of a first draft and turn it into something solid and even spectacular.