Heyo! Welcome to today’s Monday Muse! I am C, your intrepid guide for this particular adventure. Let’s get started, shall we?
My favorite parts of the writing process are the planning and editing phases. I genuinely dislike drafting. I know, that’s a bit weird for a writer to say, right? A writer who hates, you know, the actual putting down of words on paper (or, well, screen)? Can you even call yourself a writer if you hate the act of creating?
Yes. Yes, I can. Because writing isn’t just drafting, it’s the whole shindig from the tiniest nugget of an idea to the time you finally let go and stop tinkering with the damn story because, for God’s sake, it’s done! (Which is a very important part of the process, you know. You do know that, right? As much as I hate Frozen–and I loathe that movie with the fury of a couple thousand supernovas–I’m going to borrow from Elsa and say: let it go. Also, no, I won’t take my own advice and let my hatred of Frozen go. The hatred fuels me.) And, long parenthetical done, everyone is doing to have different strengths and weaknesses on that list of ‘writerly’ things. Am I saying drafting is a weakness of mine? No. I have no weaknesses and I’m perfect and you can’t prove otherwise, dammit!
I mean, yes. Not because I write crap first drafts but because I don’t write crap first drafts. I can’t write crap first drafts. It’s not because I’m some super amazing writer who needs no editing because I’m flawless (well, yeah it is, but shhh), but because I can’t, well, let it go.
But when I do finally get through a draft (which takes, on average, two years so at least I’m not George R.R. Martin yet), I am in my damn element. Because I am a damn fine editor. It comes from being a judgmental bitch. OK, no… it comes from my always being very aware of flaws. In everything. And, after several years of practice, I’ve gotten to the point–finally–where I can understand why something is a flaw. Do I break grammar rules for effect? Have you seen how many sentences begin with conjunctions? I LAUGH in the face of not beginning sentences with conjunctions. So, yes, I break grammar rules for effect. But I can also tell when it doesn’t work for me.
So… what are some of the tools I’ve developed (or completely stole from other people and worked into a routine) for editing that work out for me? OK, here we go:
(No, I won’t put a Joker .gif here. I’m resisting.)
- Reverse outlining. I was explaining this to a buddy… yesterday, actually. Which is probably where the idea to write this came from. Reverse outlining is a great tool for both plotters and pantsers, though I think plotters get an extra boost from having an initial outline to compare to. I did a lot of reverse outlining in school because, frankly, when you’ve written ten papers in two weeks, they sometimes start bleeding together into a single mega-paper that consumes your soul and haunts you in your sleep. Basically, reverse outlining is exactly what it sounds like: you outline after you’ve written your draft. Each section (in papers, it’s typically paragraph, but chapter or chapter section for fiction is probably better) gets its own place in the outline. You detail the ‘thesis’ of the section and then note your support. In the end, you can see exactly what it is you’ve written. This is very helpful in finding structural flaws in your draft. The key to a good reverse outline is to be real. Don’t give yourself the benefit of the doubt or include your intentions. Just outline what’s there. If you’re an obsessive plotter like I am, you’ll have your initial outline to compare the new one to and you can see where you broke with the plan or maybe forgot to include something important.
- Note cards. This is how I structured all my papers. (Yes, I did learn all my structural editing tricks in school. You write a lot of papers as a history major. So, so many papers.) Very often I did this even before I drafted, but I often did it again once the editing process started. (Note: this was only if I managed to get my paper done more than a few hours before it was due. I wasn’t some go getter; I wrote a lot of papers the night before they were due. Which is probably where my need to plot came from, really; if I didn’t know where I was going, I wasn’t going to get anything done in time.) You take your outline and you create note cards from it. Major plot points, character arcs, subplots, important worldbuilding details you need to reveal, stuff like that. And as you move the cards around based on your reverse outline (structural changes, etc), you can see how that messes up the details and the order. If you move plot point A to where plot point C is, how does that affect Character 1? You get a physical, visible means of making sure everything lays out properly as you re-structure your draft. Then you can create a new outline based on these changes and that outline is what you work with for your first round of edits.
- Read your work out loud. I do this one first because I know how I want everything to sound, and if anything sounds wonky when I give everything the cadence I want it to have, there’s definitely something wrong. Read it out loud like you’re staging a radio performance. Give everyone voices, make sound effects. The whole nine yards. (Don’t do this step in public if you want to be welcome back into public again.) This is where you measure what you’ve written against what you intended to write. So, again, if you notice anything wrong, you know it’s wrong.
- Have your computer read your work out loud. Nothing like a calm, dispassionate computer voice to take all the joy out of your life and your WIP. There’s no tone here. No intention. No humanity to affect your judgement of how something works or doesn’t. If it sounds funny here, it’s because there’s something inherently wrong with the structure. This is different from reading it with your intention because it’s something you might not pick up at all. It’s good for separating the work from how you know it’s supposed to sound and how it really sounds. And, of course, the sound of a book is vital. Even when we read to ourselves, books are not just a visual experience; we create the sounds in our heads. So it’s very important that the book sound right. There needs to be a good rhythm, a solid cadence. Your piece is a symphony other people will play in their minds; it’s up to you to write it as close to how you want it to be heard as possible.
- Read each chapter out of order. (Note: this should only be done when you’re editing for language, not for structure. I’d say this should be obvious, but I’ve met some people…) Sometimes reading something in order causes our brain to fill in details that simply aren’t there. And not just a missing word, either. I’m talking about within the chapter. Our brains create patterns and everything just falls into place… except it was never there in the first place. Or maybe it was, but it shouldn’t have been. Reading chapters out of order helps shake that complacency. The chapter stands on its own as a single element and not part of a larger narrative. Again, don’t do this for structural edits unless you know chapter ten needs to be changed because of something you did in chapter three. I’m talking about separating the narrative from the actual writing here.
- Edit backwards. Start from the end and examine each sentence and paragraph. This is great for line editing and the like because silly things like plot and characterization won’t get in the way of determining if each sentence is the best it possibly can be. Yes, you’ll need to go back and read everything in order, too, but you’ve already done that in Number 5. You check each sentence, then you check the whole paragraph. While this might create some polishing errors, you’ll need to re-read the thing in its entirely (have your computer read it to you again, as well) anyway. And this is the best–best, I say–way for making sure you’ve not misused a word or accidentally typed a homophone (hear vs here, for example).
- Every new draft gets a new outline. Editing is about being meticulous. So that means every single draft means doing the whole process over again. Outline, cards, reading outline yourself, getting your computer to read it for you (you might have to buy a program for this), reading it out of order, reading it backwards, etc. Then, once you’re on draft 9000 and ready to murder yourself, your characters, and maybe everyone else on the planet as well, you can finally get to work on the query and synopsis! Which are just delightful and not murder-inducing on their own at all.
Now. As for critique partners, Betas, etc. I find these to be really personal choices. Critique partners are great for having someone else point out flaws and giving you ideas of how to do something better. Because even with a great outline, sometimes what you’ve done isn’t the most effective. But I am someone who never, ever shows the first draft of something to someone in its entirety. Individual chapters here and there, sure, but never the whole draft. Well, except A, but that kinda comes with the territory. So my critique partners are always going to see the second draft. That doesn’t mean it’s any good, because my second draft doesn’t typically implement major structural changes; it just polishes the language into something readable. As for Beta readers, A and I didn’t let Betas see Killing Mercutio until the third, maybe the fourth, draft of the novel and, in the case of some chapters, the ninth or tenth. (There is one chapter that feels like it was written 1000 times. I’m still not entirely satisfied with it.) And if you’re going to self-pub, I still recommend getting a professional in before you pull the trigger and make the project available for consumers. But this is how I make my stuff meet my standards, so hopefully some of these help for you, too.
Also, buy binders. Scrivener and the like are great tools, but I heartily recommend going physical. There’s something about having note cards and outline in hand. Also, the red pen is a miracle worker, so get your first draft printed out. I do double-sided to save on paper (esp. since the first draft of Merc was something like 161,000 words or thereabout), but I cannot recommend collecting everything in a binder enough. It helps make things real.
Sorry for the length, but I figure I haven’t done a really long post in a while. I’ll be back on Friday with a book, or something. (I’m re-reading Middlemarch. I must stop. I can’t hide in 19th century England forever.)
ps- I don’t actually edit these very much. It’d take me all day to write them if I did…