Revising and Editing

These notes are only for those who have attending my Revising and Editing teaching session. Please don’t share them or post them elsewhere. Thank you.

Intro

If / when your books sell to a publisher you’ll have to work with the editor who bought it to make the book ready for publication. (Before this, you might also go through rounds of edits with your agent.) So, you’d better get used to revising and editing, and people commenting on your work. Embrace it. Everyone is only trying to help make your book better.

The usual process with working with an editor after your book has sold to the, is to have two rounds of edits. The first is called the structural edit. Here, your editor, as the name suggests, will comment on the structural elements of your novel: structure, plot, characterisation, pace, tone, voice, place. All the high-level things. They might email these to you in a document, have a phone call with you to discuss them, or have a meeting about them. You go away and try and respond to all their comments and suggestions. You don’t have to do them all. But if you reject any, I think you need to have a good reason why.

The second round of edits are called line edits. Here, it is assumed that all the big issues have been resolved and now the editor is looking at on a sentence by sentence level.

So, before all this, before your book is sold, before you send it off to agents, it is essential that you edit it yourself, and it makes sense to edit it in the same way: starting with a structural edit, and then a line edit. But you might need many of these – not just two rounds!

There is clearly no point in working at the sentence level until you have got all the major issues sorted, because that line that you spent an hour on might get deleted.

Start at a high level looking at things that affect all of the novel, and work your way down from there.

I’m what some people calla rolling-reviser. I edit as I go along. I cannot write my novels in one big splurge. I need to get to know the characters and the setting. My brain is always saying, wait, wait, that bit in chapter 2 doesn’t work now, how will that affect the next chapter you’re about to write? I have to go back and fix it. But when I’ve finished my ‘first draft’ – which might take me two years because I edit as I go along, then I will still do structural edits, and line edits. The editing process might be quite quick or they might take me six months. My process seems to be changing as I get to the end of book five. It’s taken me two years to write this ‘first draft’, but I don’t think there are a lot of structural things to change because I have sorted them out during the writing stage (including deleting whole chapters when I realised they weren’t working).

If there is a big issue with your manuscript, or it is very messy, you can open a blank page alongside your manuscript and write the whole novel again. You know the story and characters now, and you’ll be able to more easily spot and correct the mistakes.

The first thing to do is to leave a gap between finishing, and starting your revising / editing.

Then you can print it out and read it like a reader. Make notes on it, but don’t start to correct it until you’ve read the whole thing.

Structural Edit

I suggest you create a check-list of everything you want to look at in the structural edit. You can do the structural edit all at once, but I would also suggest going through your manuscript a new time for each item on your check-list. Really, it’s about checking and rechecking everything in your novel. Remember, each time you correct something major do a ‘save as’ and give your new version a number. And email it to yourself and save it in your preferred way – every day!

Here is a starter list for your structural edit, but you will need to tailor it and create one for your novel, because it is likely to have different or additional elements.

  • What is at the heart of your novel? What question(s) does it address. What’s it’s theme? Is this reflected in all scenes? If you know this, it will help with your structural edit because this can direct your focus. Can you write an elevator pitch for your novel? Your theme might come out of this.
  • Is the structure working? Does the climax come at the right time? Inciting incident? Hook? Do you resolve all of the story lines (or deliberately leave some hanging)?
  •  Are there any plot holes?
  • Is POV consistent?
  • Pace – does the novel start fast enough, is the ending slow enough?
  • Do all the main characters feel real? (Do they all have a tiny bit of back story / consistent mannerisms / way of speaking). Do they all have some sort of character arc – ie. They go through some change – esp. the protagonist. How are they first introduced? Search for their name and follow them through the story one character at a time.
  • Have you written your novel in scenes? Full dialogue and description or is there too much telling?
  • Do you have a good mixture in your scenes of description, exposition and dialogue?
  • Are you too much in love with your research? / Are things accurate?
  • Geography, time period, sense of place. Are all these made clear?
  • Breadcrumbs / clues / foreshadowing. If you have some twists or reveals in your novel, have you laid the groundwork well? What you’re ideally aiming for, is the twist to be a complete surprise but for the reader to go, of course!
  • If your story moves between different time periods / voices do you have the right amount of all of them or is one over-developed at the expense of the others? (You’re aiming for readers to enjoy all of them equally)
  • What do you want the reader to know / be guessing at any point in the novel? Readers will guess forward. Oh, I think this is going to happen next. Or this is actually that person etc. Can you mislead them?

Timeline

Create a timeline if you haven’t already (while you were writing). Here’s part of mine from the novel I’m writing now, but yours might have more characters or other things. (At the end of this timeline the dates are down to hours).

DatesNeffy’s ageNeffyFamilyWorld events
Feb 1993Neffy bornIn UK?  
19941Lives Greece  
19952Lives Greece  
19963Lives Greece  
19974Lives Greece  
19985Lives UKParents divorce 
19996   
20007  Millenium
20018Travels to Greece on own  

Bullet points at the beginning of chapters to answer chapter questions:

I will sometimes write a list of bullet points at the beginning of each chapter, making sure I can answer these questions. If I can’t, it needs more work.

  1. How does this chapter move the story along?
  2. How does this chapter develop character?
  3. What is the conflict in this chapter?
  4. What questions are raised?
  5. What previous questions are answered?

Exercise

As part of the process of critiquing other writers’ novels I have to point out the issues I have with it. I’m currently doing one for CBC, and I met on Zoom with the writer yesterday. Three of her chapters just aren’t scenes. They are all telling. But of the bit she sent me – the other six chapters are scenes and full of life, so she can do it. But when I pointed out that she hasn’t written three of them as full scenes, she could see exactly what I meant. It is hard to gain perspective on your own work, but it is good to try and spot these mistakes yourself. She also had big issues with POV, and the order of her chapters. I know some of you aren’t as far through your novels as others, but can you list five things that you think or know are wrong with your novel? Keep this list for when you come to edit when you are at the end, or if you’re still near the beginning can you try to correct any of these as you go along?

Can you also have a go at your elevator pitch? Sum up your novel in a couple of sentences, which also make it sound like you’d like to read it. This might help you with the theme, but also when you’re pitching and when you’re published, you’re going to need this so many times. People will ask, so what’s your novel about/ And they don’t want to sit and listen for ten minutes while you ramble on.

Our Endless Numbered Days:

When she is eight, Peggy is taken to a remote European forest by her father. He tells her that the rest of the world has disappeared. She isn’t seen again for another nine years.

Editing on the sentence level

Once you’ve done the structural edit, and you think you’ve got all the big issues sorted, then you need to do a line edit. Here are things you might want to look at. But you’ll also need to create your own check list.

  • Consider the first few lines of the opening of the novel. Is it intriguing? Does it set up story questions? Will the reader want to read on? Do the same for the beginning of each chapter.  
  • Consider the last lines / paragraph of the book and of each chapter. Do they end in a way that will make the reader want to read on? (Not always cliff-hangers, but something intriguing.)
  • Are your descriptions specific and vivid? It will create a much more vivid picture in your reader’s mind.

  • Here’s an example from what I’m writing now:

I didn’t want to be at home, I wanted to be at work with Popeye and the others. I dressed to blend in and went to the pub where I knew Larry drank and pretended to bump into him. I bought him a [a drink] [whiskey] and made him tell me what was happening at the lab: how the octopuses were doing.

This is such a tiny change. But for me it helps me understand what kind of person Larry might be – someone who drinks whiskey is possibly different to a person who asks for lager, or a cocktail…

  • Be economical. Less is more. Every sentence must be tight. What word does each sentence end on? Try to keep endings strong esp at the end of paragraphs – example:

‘We were in the storeroom at the back of the barn, behind the house. Maybe it was once going to be an office or a laundry but now it was filled with things that didn’t suit the main house, with its clean lines and minimalist spaces. A black chair on castors, a tall unit for CDs, a carry box for a cat that must have died a long time ago.’
Or
‘We were in the storeroom at the back of the barn, behind the house. Maybe it was once going to be an office or a laundry but now it was filled with things that didn’t suit the main house with its clean lines and minimalist spaces. A black chair on castors, a tall unit for CDs, a carry box for a cat long dead.’

  • Delete or change adverbs. Adverbs slow a story down, they’re often ‘fluff’ words, or not specific enough. Either delete them or change them into more specific verbs. Search for ly (although not all adverbs end in ly – almost). Circle each adverb. See how many you have. Too many?

‘The sitting room smells of furniture polish. There’s a large bowl of lemon bon-bons, powdery and brightly coloured on the small glass coffee table in the middle of the uneven semi-circle of chairs that are upholstered in a sturdy brown woven fabric. Two enormous pieces of startlingly coloured abstract paintings seem splashed onto the magnolia walls.’

There are 15 adjectives / adverbs in this paragraph. It’s a fine description of a room. But they clutter the writing up. They stop the reader from imagining it ourselves, and therefore it stops us being drawn into the story. If you don’t provide all the details, readers will create them in their minds eye and the story actually becomes more vivid.

Here it is again:

‘The sitting room smells of furniture polish. There’s a bowl of lemon bon-bons on the coffee table in the middle of a semi-circle of chairs. Two pieces of abstract artwork seem splashed onto the magnolia walls.’

  • Look at how sentences start and end. Do you have too many that start with I, or she / he? Rewrite starting with action. Vary length and complexity.
  • Do you have a writer’s tic? Try and notice and search for it. (My characters are always leaning.)
  • Aside from being mostly adverbs try and cut words that vacillate (quite, almost, slightly, partly) – be strong in your sentences.
  • Can each paragraph / sentence be orphaned? Not to actually standalone – they all need context, but are you proud of each one, nothing you want to change.
  • Fluff words. It’s easy to fill your writing with what I call ‘fluff words.’ I keep a list of them – words I know I reach for too often. And at this stage in my editing I search for them and change or delete them. Eg: A bit, About, Again, All, Almost, And then, Any. Fluff words  list http://www.clairefuller.co.uk/claire-fullers-fluff-words/
  • Finally grammar and spelling. If you struggle with this, get someone else to help you. Lots of mistakes in a submission will put an agent off.

And some tips to help:

  • Any tricky paragraphs that aren’t working, copy and paste them into a new document and work on them there.
  • Read the manuscript aloud, as you’re editing (to yourself, to an audience, record yourself and listen back, have someone read it to you (or parts of it)); Listen for the musicality in each sentence.
  • Read dialogue aloud without speech tags or incidental action. Does it flow? It is real for a novel (not exactly real life)
  • Print it out as a book (justified, single spaced, two pages to one A4 sheet); send it to your ereader (no idea how you do that); put it in a different font.  

Readers

You need someone else to read it before you send it off to agents, publishers or you self publish. It is not possible to spot everything yourself. You know what the twist or reveal is and when it will arrive.  you need a reader who doesn’t. See whether they guess it etc. Give them a list of questions that you want answered (only to be read when they’ve finished reading) Eg – did you guess the twist? Did you like this character? And you do the same for them. Someone you trust, preferably another writer, who will be honest with you. And you do the same for them.

Exercise

Get the pieces you wrote last week. Very quickly, have a think about which you like best. Discard this one. I want you to work on the other two. Can you edit them to make them better – either on the higher structural edit level, or on the line level. 5 minutes.