By Sammy Bina
Editing’s not my favorite thing,
Sad, I know, but true.
Rewrites make me happy
While editing often makes me blue.
Typos aren’t my forte
And lord knows my spelling stinks,
But even if the ms is okay
I’d rather someone else worked out the kinks.
Some people have one CP
And some people have four,
Me, I’ve got two that make me happy
And thanks to them, editing is no longer a chore.
Okay, so, clearly my poetic skills are not on the same level as Kat’s, but luckily this article isn’t about how terrible I am at poetry. It’s about one of our all-time favorite topics here at LTWF: editing! A blessing and a curse to us writers. It takes up so much of our time, and yet is often the most rewarding part of the writing process (I think so, anyway). Personally, I have a sick fascination with finding out how other people edit, and often find myself incorporating some of their methods into my own. Over the last year, I’ve really nailed down my process, and I thought I’d share it with you all in the hopes it might offer some suggestions to those of you feeling a little lost, or to anyone looking for a new approach.
We’re going to pretend I just finished the first draft of THE AGE OF NEVER GROWING OLD (which we’ll just abbreviate as TANGO), the manuscript I’m currently querying. It was roughly 75,000 words, and a total disaster as far as first drafts go. There was at least one chapter I knew is missing, some plot holes that stretched deeper than a black hole, and characters who lacked motivation. Or a definitive eye color. But, overall, the foundation I’d laid was solid. Even though I needed to figure out a way for all the science-y things to make sense, it wasn’t an impossible task. I printed off the whole darn thing, ran through it with colorful pens until it looked like a rainbow exploded all over the page, then went back to the document to fix all the typos and errors I found (typos get red, inconsistencies are marked in blue, things to cut are crossed out in green, etc.). And while that was all well and good, it was obvious how much work still needed to be done. Knowing I couldn’t do all this alone, I took the advice I found here at LTWF and got myself some critique partners. And I really lucked out because the girls who offered to help did a fantastic job; I can’t thank them enough for all the hard work they did.
One of the most useful tools I use for editing is google documents. Originally the three of us had to figure out a system for sharing files, and gdocs seemed like the easiest method. Plus, you can leave comments in pretty colors – who doesn’t like that? I sent off my manuscript, then sat around and twiddled my thumbs while I waited for my CPs to get back to me with their initial reactions. What came back was something like: “It’s good, but it needs a lot of work.” Which wasn’t surprising. I mean, it was a first draft. So I asked myself, what now?
Before I sat down to do any more writing, I ran to Barnes & Noble and bought myself a shiny new moleskine. I labeled each page with the chapter title, then began outlining what I’d already written. When I was done, I had twenty-seven pages full of plot. And once it was all on the page, it was easy to see what needed improvement. I pinpointed the plot holes, figured out where I needed to add more exposition, and found the scenes I needed to cut. I also spent some time working through some of the more confusing science-y aspects of the book, like…
There were also plenty of terrible sketches in which I tried to figure out where everyone was during a particular scene. But, since I can’t draw to save my life, I’ll spare you the horror. Your eyes might bleed.
Besides that, I also had countless pages demonstrating my poor math skills as I tried to figure out everyone’s ages (since people can’t die in my book, it took some serious work figuring out how old everyone was in relation to everyone else) and the plot’s overall timeline (which has become a staple for every project these days. I find them incredibly helpful). Pages were dedicated to physical descriptions, laws and government-related things, random facts, and loads of other nonsense that would eventually be important. There was even a rough map of the city (which you can’t see because, as I said, my artistic talents are pretty limited). Later on, I also kept track of how long the book was at the end of each chapter in comparison to the first draft. Which, granted, isn’t really important unless you’re trying to cut down a 150k novel, or bulk up one that’s only 40k. But I digress.
After all that outlining and planning, I sat down and went through the novel to take care of more substantial edits. I added in the chapter that was missing, fixed the inconsistencies, and deleted a few scenes. The emotional arc of my characters was a lot stronger, the plot more cohesive, and so I sent it back to my CPs. This is what they sent me in return:
Clearly, there was more work to be done. That whole bottom portion of back and forth color? That’s all debating the use of one word. (My CPs were very thorough.) So I read through their comments and went back to make the necessary changes. And then I made even more changes. But you know what? The more time I spent with the manuscript, the more confident I became. It was slowly turning into something I might want to see on a bookshelf someday. In the months and months I’d been working on it, I hadn’t gotten sick of it. I took that as a good sign.
Eventually I filled up that notebook. Every time I made a new edit, I made a note. Every time I changed a character trait, it had to be written down. If a building changed location, the drawing got scribbled over and redrawn. I find that I have to record everything I do on my after-the-fact outline, or I forget things, and then create more inconsistencies for myself. If you’re as forgetful as me, this may be something you want to consider doing. Sometimes I feel really OCD about it, but I’ve learned to deal 😉
After four or five rounds of this, TANGO was in the best shape it could be. My CPs were happy, I was happy, my thesis advisor was happy… life was good. So I agonized over my query letter and finally made that leap of faith and sent my baby out into the world.
There is something I’d like to point out, however. As the author, you have final say over everything. If your CP makes a suggestion you don’t agree with, guess what? You don’t have to change anything if you don’t want to. I’ve known some people who would take everything their CP said to heart, even if they disagreed, and their book suffered for it. So stick to your guns. If you like that kissing scene, but your CP doesn’t, you don’t have to get rid of it. Consider what they have to say, but if, at the end of the day, you disagree, the scene stays. It’s your right, and I want to make sure you don’t forget that.
TANGO went through four or five rounds of revisions before I started querying. I don’t think there’s a hard or fast rule for how long edits and revisions should take, so definitely don’t base yours on mine. But I hope sharing this with you has given you some new ways to handle revisions, and I wish you the best of luck! And if you have any questions, feel free to ask. I’d love to know how you guys edit, too!
Sammy Bina is in her last year of college, majoring in Creative Writing. Currently an intern with the Elaine P. English Literary Agency, she is querying THE AGE OF NEVER GROWING OLD, an adult dystopian romance, and revising DON’T MAKE A SCENE, a contemporary YA. You can find her on twitter, or check out her blog.