Tuesday, June 12, 2018

How to Edit Your Novel

Congratulations! You've finished writing your novel. Now it's time to celebrate, to treat yourself to a reward -- and to think about edits.

Writing the first draft of a novel is a huge accomplishment, but it doesn't mean you're finished. Think of a complete draft as an important milestone rather than an endpoint. Edits can be just as challenging -- and sometimes even more challenging -- than the initial draft.

Edits are just as important, too. You've spent a long time on your manuscript, but it's bound to have numerous flaws, from plots holes to typos. If you want readers to love it as much as you do, you need to make it shine.

Here's a step-by-step guide to editing your own novel.

1. Put it aside for a while.

You're too close to your manuscript to see its flaws. Put it aside for a while so you can look at it with fresh eyes. During this time, you can start plotting your next novel, work on smaller projects, or even take a break from writing to, I don't know, spend time with your family or whatever.

2. Tackle the big issues first.

Sometimes editing your novel means rewriting it. You may need rearrange chapters, add or delete characters, cut scenes, add subplots, rethink major plot points, and more. It may sound overwhelming, but if your goal is a book that readers will love and that you can be proud of, it's worth it. 

Check the plot. You should be able to answer the following questions fairly easily. If you can't, you might need to do some major revisions to clarify and strengthen the plot. 
  • What is the inciting incident (the event that gets the story started)?
  • What are the major plot points that increase the tension and up the stakes?
  • What is the climax?
  • What is the resolution?
  • What is a one-sentence summary of the story? A one-paragraph summary? A one-page summary?

Check the characters. You should be able to answer these questions for the main character, as well as the villain and supporting characters. If you can't, figure out how to strengthen your characters.
  • What is the character's goal?
  • What obstacles does the character face?
  • What are the character's strengths?
  • What are the character's weaknesses?
  • How does the character grow and change over the course of the novel?
  • How is the character more than a stereotype?
  • How do the character's actions contribute to the story?

Check the pacing. You don't want to bore the reader, but you need to spend time on character development as well. Go through you manuscript chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene, and page-by-page.
  • Do all chapters and scenes contribute to the story?
  • Is there tension on every page?
  • Does the type of tension vary? (Sometimes it's action, sometimes it's relationship conflict, etc.)
  • Are any of the chapters or scenes boring? Either cut them or make them interesting. 

Check the world-building. You want your world to be believable.
  • If this is fantasy, is the magic system consistent? Make sure you understand the rules and limitations of the magic system. 
  • If this is science fiction, have you researched the science behind it? Grab some books or talk to an expert. You can take some liberties with the science, but you don't want to say things that are flat out wrong. 
  • If this is historical fiction, have you researched the period? You need to know as much as possible, from the food and clothes to the class structure and religion.
  • Have you fact checked other elements? For example, if you're writing about an FBI agent, you need to understand how FBI agents work. Do the research. 
  • Is the world developed enough? Add enough detail to make it come to life.
  • Have you avoided infodumping? Weave details into the story as they come up naturally.

Check the length. Both readers and publishers have certain expectations for the length of a novel. When assessing your novel's length, look at the word count (not the page count).
  • How long is your manuscript?
  • Is this within the accepted range for your genre? 
  • If your novel is too short, think about how you can develop it. Don't just add fluff. Develop characters and the world. Add subplots and obstacles. Make the story richer. (I offer more tips on fixing short novels here.)
  • If your novel is too long, think about how you can cut it. This might include cutting whole chapters, scenes, characters, and subplots, as well as individual words and sentences. (I offer more tips on fixing long novels here.)

3. Tackle the small issues. 

Once you're satisfied with the big-picture elements, it's time to look at the details.
  • Is the dialogue natural? Characters should not engage in unnatural conversations just to inform the reader of important facts. Also make sure that characters speak in ways that make sense for their background -- a child should not sound like college professor, for example. 
  • What are your crutch words? These are words that you use too often -- words like really, just, and definitely. Search for them and delete them whenever you can. 
  • Is the sentence length and structure varied? Avoid starting too many sentences with "I" or the character's name. 
  • Do you avoid using distancing words like "feel" and "see"? For example, instead of saying the main character saw something happen, just say something happened.
  • Are you using strong nouns and verbs? The goal isn't to show off your vocabulary; it's to use the most precise and evocative word possible. 
  • Is the punctuation, spelling, and grammar correct? Get a grammar book if you need to.
  • Have you corrected the typos? You may have an easier time spotting them if you change the font or read it aloud. 


4. Let it sit before going over it again.

You're back at step one. You're too close to the manuscript, so put it aside for a while. 

During this time, pay attention to any nagging thoughts you have about your manuscript. This could be a sign you need to do another round of revisions.

If you're happy with your revisions, go over everything one more time. Big revisions can create inconsistencies and redundancies, so make sure you fix them.



5. Get feedback from someone else.

There's only so much you can do on your own. Show your manuscript to a critique group or beta reader to get more feedback. 


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