Thursday, February 26, 2015

Editing for People Who Hate Editing

Since I wrote my posts on how I drastically upped my word count and plotted my novels, a lot of people have been asking me to do a post on editing. I can totally understand why, editing can be very intimidating. I actually used to dread edit time because that was when I actually had to deal with all the problems I'd been putting off while writing, not to mention that by the time I'd read through my book the requisite 5 times it took me to finish an edit to my satisfaction, I invariably hated it.
But after 8 finished books, I've come around to a different way of thinking. These days, editing is probably my favorite part of the writing process. This is partially because all the planning I do means I have far fewer horrifying messes to deal with in the editing phase of things (yet another benefit to planning your novel), but mostly it's because I started thinking about editing in a whole new light. A new light that I'm not going to attempt to explain in the hopes that others can learn from the years I spent banging my head against things.
So, without further ado, here is my take on the editing process, complete with the tools I build for each book. I can't promise it will work for you exactly as written, every author's brain works differently, after all. But I do hope it will at least encourage you to approach edits with a new frame of mind.
Disclaimer: Unlike my work count tips, which I think can work for anyone, this process is highly personal. If something I describe doesn't work for you, feel free to ignore it or replace it with something you find more useful. I offer these only as examples of methods I use to save time and lower stress during the editing process.

But Rachel, I HATE Editing!
I hear this all the time in a million different variations. Hell, I used to say this myself. Now, though, when someone tells me they hate editing, I answer thus: No, you don't.
Editing is writing. If you like writing, you like editing. Editing is just the part of writing that's at the end, meaning the problems you've been putting off tend to collect there, which earns it a lot of bad press. However, what most people fail to realize is that editing, like writing, is a skill. Like writing, it gets better and easier with practice, methods, and attention. But just as each pie baked makes you a better baker, each house designed makes you a better architect, and each book written makes you a better writer, so does each editorial process make you a better editor.
I firmly believe that every good writer can become a good editor if they're not one already. The same skills that make you a good story teller make you a good story perfecter, you just have to stop hating the process and start treating your editing like you treat your writing – something you strive to be good at, something you do every day, and something that you want to make a career out of. Because trust me, if you're a pro writer, you're going to spend a LARGE part of your career editing. A writer who ignores their editing skill is like a carpenter who can design and build a table but completely ignores the sanding and finishing. Sure it's a working table, maybe even a really nice one, but no one's going to want to sit at it and get splinters in their elbows. Editing is power, embrace it.
Ok, Ms. Smarty-Pants, how do I get better at editing?
The most effective way is to write a lot of books and edit them, though I admit that's not the most practical solution, especially for people trying to get their first book ready for sale. Another good way is to edit other people's work, though it can be hard to bridge the gap between finding someone else’s problems and solving your own. So, if you're in a hurry to edit your own work quickly and effectively, here's how I do it.
Rachel's Editing Process
Step 1: Changing the way you think about editing.
What is editing? This is one of those stupid questions I ask, but bear with me. When you're editing a novel, what are you actually doing? Sure, you're rewriting the prose to make it prettier and you're fixing characters and making the plot make sense and so on, but what are you really doing? What is the point of all this work? Even getting the novel ready to go to a publisher is still only a step, not the end goal. So what is the final destination of editing?
Answer: Reader experience.
When you write a first draft, you are writing a story. You're telling your character's tale, spinning your adventure, whatever. When you start to edit a novel, you're no longer just telling a story, you're getting ready to put on a production, to invite a reader into your world. Think of your book as a fun house ride. You might have built this funhouse based on your fantasies, but once you invite people in, it's no long your world alone. The world has to make sense to others, it has to delight and surprise and, most importantly, capture them. The readers might be drawn in by the glitz at the front door, but from the moment they set foot inside your domain, it's your job to keep them there.
This, for me, is what editing is about. You are no longer just getting words down, you're no longer asking “what happens next?” You're asking “how can I prepare the reader for what happens next?” and “how can I make them LOVE IT?” You're not just crafting a story, you're crafting an experience that you are going to share with each person who picks up your book. It is your job to make sure your plot and world make sense not just within the book, but in the mind of the reader. Your job to make sure your characters are engrossing, not just effective for your plot. Your job to give these people a reason to stay.
This is my editing mindset. Every change I make from here on out is for the reader. I've found thinking this way can take a lot of the tediousness out of editing. It also helps me pull back from the story to see its flaws. After all, this isn't just my story anymore, it's a production I'm putting on for a world wide audience with my characters doing the acting, my descriptions forming the scenery, and my plot making the audience gasp.
I hold out my hand to the reader and say, let me show you something amazing. The reader grabs hold, and off we run down the path into worlds that don't exist. Editing is perfecting that path. I told you it was awesome.
Step 2: Editing Tools
Overblown rhetoric aside, let's get down to the nuts and bolts of the business. When I finish a book, I usually wait one night and then jump straight into editing. Some people like to wait, but I'm impatient and prefer to strike while my understanding of the book is still fresh. This is a very personal choice, do whatever feels right for you.
The first thing I do in any edit is to identify what's wrong with the book. The reasoning behind this is the same I used to up my word count: knowledge. Just as you write faster when you know what you're writing about, you solve problems faster when you know what those problems are. Simple, right?
But identifying what needs fixing in a story is actually a lot more complicated than it sounds. Usually, I can pull the first several right off the top of my head, but there are many other problems that run too deep to see after only one draft. These are the problems I have to hunt, and for that, I use three tools – a scene map, a time line, and a To Do list.
The Scene Map: If you've read my post about how I plot novels, you already know what this is. A scene map is just a very quick jot down of what happens in the book broken up by chapter. As an example, here's an entry from the scene map for the first chapter of the book I just finished editing:

Ch 1 (7452)
  • D gets Caldswell tip from Anthony
  • D goes to star port, checks the tip, sees the Fool
  • D has her interview, impressive, gets the job
  • Basil takes D on the tour, we see R, job is laid out
Very simple, very short hand. You're not writing a synopsis here. The point of the scene map is to be a guide, literally a map to what happens in your book. Why do I do this? Well, when I finish a novel, there may be scenes back at the beginning I haven't looked at in months. A scene list helps me refresh my memory for what I actually wrote while at the same time helping me see the big picture.
Also, with a scene map, identifying plot lines becomes very easy. I often print my map out and highlight the scenes in different color markers to denote what plot lines they touch – love story scenes, main plot scenes, secondary plot scenes, etc. This lets me see visually how my book is put together. That may not sound like your thing, but I highly suggest you try it at least once. I think you'll be surprised by how useful it can be.
Finally, a scene map lets me easily jump around my book, a benefit that will become apparent shortly.
(Silly but Useful Tip: Notice how marked the chapter's word count at the top? I do this to make sure all my chapters are roughly the same length. Since I have Scrivener which already lays this info out for me on the manuscript page, I don't really need to do this, but if you're not using Scrivener I totally recommend marking your chapter word counts somewhere so you can spot any anomalies. If you have one 4k chapter and one 8k chapter right next to each other, for example, the 8k will feel like it's dragging no matter how good the tension is. Always good to keep an eye on these things.)
The Time Line: This is just what it sounds like. After I jot down my scene list, I make a time line of all the relevant events that happen in the novel (plus before and after, if needed). Once I've got those down, I go back again and add in what all my characters were doing at those times, especially those characters who are doing things “off screen”.
I usually draw my time lines out in my notebook, and I never draw them to scale. This timeline is less about showing the relative distance between events and more about keeping track of what happens when, who's together when, and where everyone is when important events occur (and, thus, how much these absent people could be expected to know about said important event at what times). So really it's more like a time and space line, but you get the idea.
Why waste effort on a time line now, especially if you already made one during the planning stage (which you can totally update and use, by the way)? Well, making a time line forces you to think about where everyone actually is, what they're doing, and why. Just the act of thinking about this will often reveal problems in your book that you never even noticed. 
If a scene map is a map to your book, a time line is a fault finding device for your plot. It can also help point out places where the action is too loose or too tight, identify where tension might be lagging, and show when a character's been out of the picture for too long (my villains especially seem to spend a lot of time sitting around. This is bad, characters with enough motivation to be antagonists do not sit on their hands).
It doesn't have to be the best drawn time line in the world, but remember that even though you're the only one who will be looking at it, do you really want to use a crappy tool? Of course not. Take the time to do it right and you'll find your time line has all kinds of unexpected uses.
The To Do List: So now that you've built your scene map and your time line, it's time to start putting your novel through the wringer to squish out the problems. Every problem I find, I put on a To Do list. I use a sheet of notebook paper for this, but you can use anything you want. The important part is to make sure the list is somewhere you can easily access it, because you're going to be adding to it a lot.
Once I've written out every problem I can think up or hunt down, I organize them by level of trouble they'll be to fix, starting with the largest and most complicated and ending with the smallest. See, editing is like cleaning a house. You know how you don't vacuum before you dust because then the dust will get all over your nicely vacuumed floor? Editing is the same. Solving problems is a messy business, and you don't want that mess getting all over scenes you've already edited. So rather than work linearly through a book from beginning to end, I work on each problem separately starting with the biggest and working my way down. More on this in the next section.
Step 3: Actually Editing
Making my tools and my To Do list usually takes me about a day. Once those are done and I have my list, though, it's time to get to work.
Fixing the big stuff
As I mentioned up in the To Do list, I do the bulk of my editing from biggest problem to smallest, not from first page to last. I do this because I don't want to make more work for myself by messing up already edited scenes. But while I think this is the smartest and most efficient way to work, I can completely understand why other writers might not want to edit things this way. Jumping to the middle of a scene can feel really disconnecting.
However, if you're working on getting better at editing and you haven't tried doing things this way yet, I do suggest you give it a go. The beginning of your book might feel like a natural starting place for your edit, but when you start at page one, its very easy to get distracted. Since you're following the story rather than your list, you'll be hitting the problems all in a jumble, and it can very quickly get overwhelming.
Going from problem to problem rather than from start to finish lets you focus on one thing at a time, thus letting you keep control, which is vital to a good edit. When I'm editing, I try to keep my focus pin point. I solve one problem at a time, and if I encounter new problems while I'm working, I add them to my To Do list and keep going. That is why I have a To Do list, it remembers to fix problems so I don't have to get distracted.
If you've written your novel well, your story will constantly be tugging you in directions other than the way you're going. As well it should, you wrote it be engrossing, after all. But the edit is not the time to get caught up in things. I use my scene list like an anchor to pull me through my To Do list, jumping from scene to scene until all the major items, the ones I started with and the ones I added, are crossed out. When I'm down to the dregs of nit picky pervasive problems (things like misspelled names or mismatched eye colors), it's time to move on to the read through.
The read through
By the time I've finished my To Do list, I've usually visited every scene in my novel at least once in the course of chasing down problems. Also, my novel is usually a MESS. The read through is where I clean things up. Now I start on page one and I start reading, cleaning things up as I go. I also keep an eye out for consistency issues, things I missed in my bigger edits, and of course, reader experience. The read through is where I try to really finesse the book. This is the part where I pour over sentences, bring out my hooks, and obsess over end of chapter cliff hangers. Fortunately, since I've already addressed all my big problems, I am free to do this without worry. The hard part is over and I'm clear to sweat the small stuff. It's a very liberating feeling.
Generally speaking, by the time I reach the end of my read through, I've found a few more items for my To Do list. If these items are small, I address them during the read through, but I try to save the big stuff for the end. Once the read through is done, I go back and fix everything that still needs fixing until my To Do list is now completely scratched out. At this point, my novel is officially edited, but there's still one thing left to do.
Activating the Reader Brain
My book is now about as good as I can make it. Oh sure, there are still things I can tweak (there are ALWAYS things I can tweak), but generally speaking I'm pretty happy with the whole affair. However, I don't send the manuscript off yet. First, I need to make sure I'm not deluding myself about the book being good. It's time for the final test, to read my book as a reader instead of a writer.
This is kind of a hard thing to pull off. After all, I've spent months with the story by now. The key is to find a way to trick your brain. I do this by putting my book on my Kindle. Since I do almost all my pleasure reading on my Kindle, this lets me disconnect from the part where I'm reading my book and actually get into the story for what it is. Also, since I can't edit the text at all while it's on the Kindle, it's easy to just relax and enjoy the story. Of course, I keep a notebook handy in case I do find things, but mostly I just read. Let me tell you, there is no better feeling than reading something you wrote and thinking “wow, this is actually pretty good!”
And that's a wrap!
If I can get through this point without any huge red flags popping up, the edit is officially done. Now, it's time to send the novel on to its next stage of existence. For me, this means sending it to my agent. For other people, it means sending it off to beta readers.
(You'll notice how I didn't mention beta readers before this, right? Well, that's because I don't believe in beta readers of any sort before I've edited my book at least once. First off, I think its rude to ask someone to read something as unfinished as a first draft, and second, if I rely on others to spot my problems for me, then I'm not growing as an editor or a writer. Finally, I think its a waste of an editor, both professional and beta readers alike, to have them catching the sort of huge, obvious problems found in a first draft. Save the fresh, foreign eyeballs for the problems you can't find yourself, anything else is a waste of everyone's time.)
The Wheel of Edits turns...
Of course, no matter how carefully I edit a book, it will still come back from my agent full of notes. Same for when it comes back from my editor. This is as it should be. If I could catch everything myself, we wouldn't need editors. Every time notes come back, I do my editorial process over again. I update my scene map and time line if needed, make a To Do list, organize the problems, etc. My books usually go through three rounds of edits before they enter official production – my initial edit, my agent's notes, and my editor's notes. I can't speak for other authors, but I think this is pretty typical.
A note for the first time novelist
With all the pressure on first time novelists to turn in a picture perfect draft these days, it can be tempting to edit your book over and over in a quest for perfection. Once I met a writer who'd edited her first novel thirty times! Not that I don't understand the impulse. After all, there are still things in the Spirit Thief I wish I could go back and change. However, there is such a thing as editing too much.
Every edit you do has diminishing returns. After a point, you're just moving words around and wasting your time. Sooner or later, you have to say goodbye and turn that sucker in. So if you don't have a publishing deadline yet, set one for yourself. Don't let your editing become an endless process. You've got a lot of books to write, after all. Don't let any one novel monopolize your time and keep you from writing all that you can write.
Step 4: Tips to a Happy, Low Stress, Successful Edit
Every edit is as different as the book it's trying to fix. Some novels come out almost perfect, others are enormous messes. Planning at the beginning helps, but it's impossible to anticipate everything. No matter how prepared you are, there is no avoiding an edit, which means there's no avoiding the problems, and frustrations, an edit brings. That said, here are a few general tips I've found that help 99% of the time.
#1 - Don't be too hard on yourself
I said at the very beginning that editing is a skill, and I've found that I'm a lot happier if I treat it as such. Editing is hard, especially if you haven't done it a lot yet. You wouldn't get mad at someone who couldn't play the piano perfectly after their very first lesson, so don't hate on yourself if your first edit goes less than smoothly. Don't get frustrated when you don't know how to solve a problem. Instead, step back and think of things in the bigger picture.
Most importantly, edit daily. Just like you write every day during the first draft, edit every day during the editing process. If you get stuck, move on to another problem, but always remember that you are practicing a skill, and unless you're a savant, you're not going to be great at it to start with. Have patience with yourself and your book. Don't give up. You learned enough about writing to get to The End, you can learn enough about editing to get your manuscript ready for publication.
#2 - Trust your instincts
If you care enough about stories to want to write them, you probably have good story telling instincts. You can't explain it, but you like some scenes better than others. Conversely, you might hate a scene and not know why. With the lack of any easily identifiable problem, it can be tempting to just ignore the nagging feeling and move on. Don't. You got your story instincts over years of exposure to the best stories our world can deliver, books and movies and plays that have survived not only commercial production, but also the test of time. Trust your instincts. If you dislike a scene, that means something is wrong. Go back and figure out what it is. Never put a scene you don't love in your book.
#3 – No problem is unfixable
There is no slog like a bad edit, and when you're first learning how to fix a book, there's no avoiding a bad time. I have never, ever been as depressed about writing as I got during the edits for The Spirit Rebellion. I'm generally a pretty happy person, but there were days I just didn't want to get out of bed because I couldn't stand to deal with stupid, unfixable problems any longer.
But no problem is truly unfixable. When you're writing a book, you are god. You can change anything, which means there is no corner you can paint yourself into that you can not get out of. True, finding a solution that works might be difficult, and you might not get the right solution on the first try, but it will come. You might need to cut off someone's arm to get there, but you will always reach The End if you are willing to open your mind, embrace your limited divinity, and think beyond the plot.
And that, in a very large nutshell, is how I edit.
Again, these are just my opinions on the subject. Every author operates differently, but I really hope you found something in all this that will help you with your own editorial process. Thank you for reading, and if you have comments about this post or suggestions for things you've found helpful, please leave them below. I love hearing how other authors work.
Thanks for reading, and as always, keep writing!
Yours sincerely,
Rachel Aaron