A New Year’s Resolution to Edit the Right Way

I just wrote a blog post for my website about how I improved as a writer in 2011, but it might be helpful to also write a post about how I can improve on what I did wrong in 2011. The good news is that even when we do things wrong in writing, we’re still learning and growing. The difference in doing things the right way is that we learn and grow faster. I’d like to make 2012 a better year than the last by doing my best to do things the right way.

I could easily say that I didn’t write enough, but couldn’t we all? One area of my efforts that took the most time away from writing, and which could be improved in 2012 is how I novel edit.

Here’s my problem: I’ve written two novel first drafts, and both ended up being dumped. The first novel has been trunked and the second was just rewritten. I like the rewrite, but I don’t want to do that again.

This most recent novel needed a rewrite of the first chapter, which led to the next three chapters, and then kept going as I fixed piece after piece that either didn’t fit or needed improved until I kept only 800 words from a 115k draft. I did cut it to 73k, and don’t expect to have so much fat with this draft, but I want to see if there is a way to edit that doesn’t lead to a rewrite.

I took Holly Lisle’s How to Revise Your Novel to workshop my first novel, but after a year of note taking, notecard making, and scene breakdowns, I decided my work was best spent revising my second novel. In order to take less time than a year, I broke down her program from reading the novel for each of the 12 steps of observations to one pass noting plot, character, science, and politics/religion. This took me two months and my notes totaled over 50k words.

I had a good idea of plot, character, etc, but once I started writing, I couldn’t bring it back on track.

One train of thought is that I have learned how to write a better story, and that is why it needed rewritten.

Another train of thought is that I didn’t have the right preparation in note taking so that before I started writing, I knew what to write and where to take it in order to fit it back in the mold.

I suppose it could be both. I’m going to start the editing process next Monday. Any suggestions for how to proceed so that I avoid a rewrite?

About Timothy C. Ward

Timothy C. Ward is a Hugo nominated producer for Adventures in SciFi Publishing, who has been lost, broke and surfed with sharks on the other side of the world. He now dreams of greater adventures from his keyboard in Des Moines, Iowa. This summer he released two novels: his second Sand Divers book, Scavenger: A.I., where two parents use an ancient technology to fight a reproducing A.I. while trying to resurrect their deceased infant; and Godsknife: Revolt, an apocalyptic battle for godhood in the rift between Iowa and the Abyss.

12 comments on “A New Year’s Resolution to Edit the Right Way

  1. Step 1: Forget about the “writing,” meaning the prose (basic structure, grammar, strength of prose, etc.).
    Step 2: Focus on the essential story elements. Does the plot move quickly and logically, and finish with a satisfying bang? Do you give the reader a moment to come down after the bang — a denouement?
    Step 3: (Related to Step 2) I assume you already have an outline, but now is the time to flesh it out a little more. Include a few sentences for each chapter, describing the central conflict and how it advances, key character development, special notes on setting, etc.
    Step 4: With an expanded outline in hand, do you see anywhere there’s a hang-up? Something missing, where you need to add details? Something excessive and unnecessary that slows the story development, whcih you should cut? Do your characters appear as real, living, breathing people on the page?
    Step 5: After, and only after, you’ve completed that content edit and feel good about the story flow, start the line edit. Pick apart every paragraph, every sentence, every single word — one word at a time. Focus on these 3 key elements: Show, don’t tell; Make every word count (trim the fat); Keep it strong and direct.

    See how easy that is. 🙂 Yeah… right! I only edited my novel about a dozen times, and while I don’t recommend you torture yourself as I did, THIS is your last chance to solidify your first impression with readers. Don’t skimp on it, which I know you won’t.

    • Thank you so much, Lane. Great advice. I’ve got an outline along these lines already for most of it. So, it looks like step 1 is to finish that outline, then go to step 4 and cut as I see fit. It will be hard waiting a week to do this, but thankfully I have short stories to keep me occupied.

  2. I think that you work best writing without huge pressure to finish 50K words in a month. Both novels you had to scratch or revise was started with Nanowrimo, and I am wondering if taking more time to write would avoid have to rewrite altogether….idk?


    • Yes! No more NaNoWriMo! I’d like to shout that to all writers from the mountaintops, but I appear to be in the minority.

      I believe NaNoWriMo develops all the wrong habits in writers (aside from actually writing, of course), and then leaves them frustrated when the work they create is substandard and needs so much more work — often more than if they’d just taken their time and done it right in the first place.

      No more NaNoWriMo! 🙂

  3. Good point, my gorgeous and wise wife. I have a few more months to contemplate if I’m doing nanowrimo again, though at this point, probably not.

  4. My first novel came without any notes and, oddly enough, very little of what I would call “re-writing.” This could be because I tend to write spare first drafts and add details later.

    My second novel was more complex – four viewpoints, two timelines and a final convergence of characters that had to work just right. That needed more solid outline and planning. I learned that after I finished it, naturally, because the first novel hadn’t worked like that.

    Your novel sounds incredibly complex. I’m guessing the work for you will have to come at the beginning as far as plotting goes. Keep in mind, though, the best laid plans can meet up with a fabulous spur of the moment idea, so don’t make your fences so high you leave no room for “fun.”

    I tend to chuckle at you a lot, Tim, because of the continuous appearance of the words “right,” “correct,” “best” and their ilk in relation to writing in your posts. Writing is a skill, yes, but it’s also an art form. The only “best” story is the one you’re working on right now. Do it, finish it and move on. You’ll make mistakes, yes, and some of them will be SO OBVIOUS after they’re made, but you can’t avoid them, no matter how many rewrites you make. Please listen to a recovering perfectionist and spare yourself a trip to the looney bin. 🙂

    Inward and upward. The journey is the reward.

    • Thanks, Robynn. I will not make my fences too high, and I understand that there is no exclusively “right” way. I just like to posit “right” ways so that you get a good chuckle, and to incite conversation for or against. I’m not sure what you mean by “spare first drafts.” When you say that my work comes at the beginning, do you mean before I start writing or the beginning of the edit? I guess they are equal as far as work. I lay out a good deal of plot points, but wrangling in all the spur of the moment ideas is also very time consuming.

      Thanks for your encouragement.

      • *chuckle* I’m laughing more at me than you. I have issues with doing stuff the “right” way. Writing is one place I try to let it hang out more.

        My first drafts tend to read like scripts. Lots of dialogue, a few action tags, and a general forward momentum, so if I head the wrong direction, normally I only have to give up some fun arguments between characters instead of completely rewriting an entire culture or swapping loads of prose from “here” to “there” where it makes more sense.

        For you, the trick may be balancing the fun of writing your story and the work of guiding your story into the places you want it to go. For example, when do you include the entire back story of the current emperor’s birthright fiasco (I made that up. I don’t know that you have an emperor)? Do you write yourself a little short story to keep in your notes and refer back to when you need some juicy bit to balance a scene, or do you work it into a current scene and just make a note of what you put down? You’ll be keeping notes either way. Unless you’re an idiot savant, you’ll have to. No one can remember every detail, especially when you’ve rewritten them four to six times and changed your mind on what they are a couple dozen more.

        I recommend finding every way you can to make it fun while keeping as organized as possible. Novels get messy very quickly. I keep an outline as I go to remind me of what went where and a separate file where I track people and things I may want later, including other books.

        I’m sure Iguana and Ren (at least) have made software suggestions for doing this very thing, but turtles are slow to change and generally hate learning new software,

  5. Art. If too much thought and not enough heart is put into it…it ceases to be…art.

    Enjoy the creative parts of writing. Remember this, Tim.

  6. […] came from Lane Diamond of Evolved Publishing. You can read his whole comment to my post, “A New Year’s Resolution to Edit the Right Way.” The part of Lane’s advice that really helped today was: Step 2: Focus on the essential story […]

  7. […] to make notes on chapter summaries. Lane Diamond gave some great advice in the comments of my post, “A New Years Resolution to Edit the Right Way.” The last few weeks have been centered around editing my short story “The Mess I’ve […]

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