You’ve finally done it. You’ve put in the time, the effort, the blood, sweat, and tears. You’ve come out on the other side victorious, the first draft in your shaky grasp. Creating an entire novel is a substantial undertaking. No doubt by the time you typed “The End” on the last page of your document, you were ready to take a break.
Taking time away from your manuscript, especially after an intense, no holds barred experience like the recent National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), is certainly understandable. In fact, most people consider it to be a necessity. There’s something about spending time away from a project that allows you to be able to see things objectively, and thus make drastic improvements in your first draft.
The idea of editing, however, is a daunting prospect to many writers. For first-timers, it may seem utterly impossible. You know that there is so much to do, but you can’t find a clear indication of where to start.
So, what should you look for when you begin the editing process on your work-in-progress (WIP)?
To edit a novel, you need to be able to look at your writing under a microscope to find everything wrong with it. At the same time, there are going to be problems you won’t notice until you hold it as far away from you as possible and take in the entire story as a whole.
So, let’s break the editing process into two parts. In this issue, we’re going to look at the little things, things you discover when looking under that microscope. Then in the next issue, we’re going to look at the big picture items that need to be edited. Each is so different, yet so equally important.
The first thing you need to look for when editing a novel is the presence of unresolved issues and plot threads. Of course, not every problem that your characters face has to be satisfactorily solved by the end of your story. However, unresolved plot threads have the potential to leave readers wondering why they were included in the first place.
For example, in Star Trek Into Darkness, Doctor McCoy is depicted chasing Captain Kirk down and forcing him to have a physical. He believes that there’s something wrong with the captain, and the results do little to comfort him. We rightly think, because of the emphasis placed on this plot point, that Kirk’s health will factor into the story. Unfortunately, it is never mentioned again.
Maybe you were setting up for some big subplot twist. Maybe your character raised a question that you never got around to answering. Whatever the case is, you have one of two options.
You can trim the loose ends out of your manuscript. If it doesn’t go anywhere, and it isn’t essential to the plot, then why keep it? Just trim the fat, and your story will be all the better for it.
You can edit the novel to provide a satisfying conclusion to the plot thread in question. Maybe your loose end was a genuine mistake. Maybe you really did have the greatest idea in the world, and there’s no way you’re going to pass that up now. In that case, you can alter the rest of the novel, inserting new scenes and moments that form a trail of breadcrumbs to the answer that your readers were waiting for the whole time.
Another thing you can look at when editing your novel is pacing. The act of pacing your novel is a tricky task that requires a great deal of finesse to do well. Although it’s something I’m giving attention to in my writing, I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on the topic.
The thing is, though, you can go slow. You can go fast. You can have it keep a frantic pace. Or you can draw out every detail, every set piece, every moment. Between the two, you’ll find varied opinions on which option is better. The answer, though, is fairly straightforward. Your pace should be whatever you want it to be. If you lean towards slow, detailed, drawn-out scenes, then that’s absolutely what you should write. If you enjoy keeping a quick, rapid-fire pace, then you should definitely keep doing that.
No one choice is going to win over every potential reader, but the thing is, there are potential readers for every choice. If you’re overly concerned with what you think your readers will want, don’t be. Write from your heart. Write what feels right to you, and your ideal readers will eventually discover you, stumble upon you, or have your book recommended to them by others.
The worst thing you can do is write in a style other than the one you enjoy working in. In that case, your work will become a hassle and a chore, and the result will be greatly joyless.
But once you choose how you want to write, then what can you do to maintain your pacing? Look for areas of inconsistency. Perhaps you’re writing with short, abrupt one-sentence paragraphs, then all of a sudden, you have an entire page of unadulterated purple prose.
Make sure you don’t slow down nor speed up unnecessarily. Use changes in pace as a tool to convey your story and hack the reader’s mind to bend it towards your will. If you want heart-pounding tension, you’re not going to get it like this:
He meandered into the field of tulips. The yellow and orange flowers stood in stark contrast to the white tulips that he was used to seeing in his own garden. The grass, only six inches tall, was just long enough to brush his ankles, yet not so long that the morning dew dampened the bottom of his pant legs.
It’s not very tense. It’s not very fast. And, for the moment, it’s not very interesting. Although the interest in a story is not dependent on the pace of your storytelling, if you want to increase the tension, then you need to write short, curt sentences.
He bolted into the field of tulips. One of the bulbs was crushed under his foot. He didn’t stop to examine it. He couldn’t.
The pacing in this second example is rapid and concise. It’s tense. It brings a feeling of unease to the narrative, as well as offering some foreboding foreshadowing in the form of a crushed tulip.
Remember, the goal of pacing is to set the mood for your readers. It’s to keep their eyes constantly flying from word to word to word, and at times to give them a respite. We all need a bathroom break every once in a while, after all, and an entire novel unfolding at breakneck speed all the way to the climax is simply exhausting.
In the next issue, we’re going to talk about the big picture items that you need to address when editing. Be sure to sign up for my free weekly newsletter to be alerted when it is released.