I am slowly but surely building a novel from my messy draft. Some days I only have time to edit a few pages – slim progress on what seems like an impossibly large job. But even pyramids were built stone by stone, so surely I can finish a book the same way.
There are writers for whom editing is not such a huge task. The talented ones who revise as they write, creating draft manuscripts that are almost ready for submission.
I am not one of those.
I make no corrections while I draft. I rarely reread a single page and I don’t even write them all the first time. If I can’t work out a scene, I insert an asterisk with instructions to my future self [*introduce football team; Max annoys coach and gets detention*] and I move on. I don’t pause. I know my story is being chased by a scared and lazy perfectionist who’s certain to destroy it if she ever catches up. (It took many unfinished novels to learn to stay ahead of her.)
As a consequence, I spend three times as long revising as drafting. I’ve developed a revision to-do list to help me.
1. Read the manuscript for pacing and impact.
I read the entire book in one or two sittings and mark anything that rushes, drags, or feels inauthentic. I note unclear motivations, aimless characters, dull narrative, factual uncertainties, etc. But I don’t rewrite yet. I want a feel for the book as a whole, what works and what doesn’t.
2. Write a 1-sentence summary of every scene, who’s in it, and how many pages it takes.
This allows me a view of the book’s skeleton, to judge if it’s sound. If a key confrontation takes two pages while a digression goes on for ten, it needs fixing. If a minor character appears in every scene while the hero’s best friend barely shows, it needs fixing. If the plot pauses for several scenes, if the summaries don’t fit together logically, if it tells a story that’s not the hero’s story, or if the solution to the conflict is just plain stupid when reduced to its bare bones, then it’s really broken.
3. Rewrite and reduce (and sometimes recycle) one scene at a time.
I address everything I noted under step one and more. For each scene, I try to ask: Does it move the plot forward? Does it pull in the reader (via the hero’s point of view, with action shown not told, and steeped in the right mood)? Does it leave me wanting more? Is it necessary and interesting or can it be condensed or deleted?
Beginnings need special consideration (Does the story really begin on page one or should I cut straight to page ten? Are the conflict and solution hinted at?), as do endings (Does the hero solve his own problem? Is it inevitable and yet surprising?). And somewhere in there I ask: Does each character have a unique consistent identity?
4. Cut as much as possible.
About 10% of any draft can be cut through improved sentence construction and word choice. But more is often required. Entire scenes and characters may have to go if they don’t bring something new and critical to the work.
I’ve read drafts in which the central story is buried under background information or irrelevant asides, and where the simplest action like crossing a room is lost in a detailed description of the floor plan. This is information a writer must know to work out plot and character, but the reader doesn’t need it. It derails the story and dilutes its impact.
For me, cutting requires several readings, a fearless heart, and a clear sense of what the book really means. I sometimes have to pretend it’s someone else’s book so I can dish out the tough love required.
5. Polish until you can’t polish any more.
I go through the book over and over, to check grammar, vary sentence length, cut adverbs, replace vague verbs and nouns, insert a little style, ensure consistency, etc. I read it out loud (or listen to the computer read it). I put it away for a week before polishing it some more. I keep making improvements until I read it and say, “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
That feeling doesn’t last long. But if I get it in the mail quick enough, I’m on my way to a whole new story. Then it’s back to the very first stone.