“I finally finished my ten-book epic fantasy series! Now I’m ready to start editing. How do I do that, exactly?” –The Next J.R.R., G.R.R., or J.K.
Woah! Slow down there, turbo. First of all, congratulations on reaching the editing stage! That’s a step that most budding authors don’t get to. But you’re looking at this the wrong way. I know, kid. I’ve been there. [Cue wizened wisewoman staring wisely off into the distance.]
Here’s a quote from Michael Chrichton, author of Jurassic Park:
“Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”
Did you hear that? Seven rewrites. I don’t exactly prescribe to that strict a code of rewriting. I consider myself accomplished if I make it through two drafts (my max so far is four). Rewriting is hard. Really hard.
But you can do it. When you’re ready to start rewrites, here’s your mission, should you choose to accept it, in seven easy steps.
1. Get your head on straight.
This is going to be a long, rough process, but instead of toughening up your skin, train yourself in Air Bending. Be like the leaf! Flow with the movement of the gates! In layman’s terms, be flexible enough to realize that your work is not carved in stone. Your manuscript ain’t no Ten Commandments. Your characters, your plot, and—most importantly—you are flexible.
2. Make a list
As I’m drafting, I like to write down everything that changes halfway through. MC’s name is now Sparklepuff instead of Glitterfabulousness? Bad guy turns out to be brainwashed best friend named the Winter Soldier? Cool. Now go through your list and revisit your manuscript, one item at a time. Adjust every plot point that the item on the list pulls. Cross them off when you’re done.
3. Sit down and read the b****.
Read through from the beginning. Don’t stop to make edits. Instead, try to look at it with new eyes. How will your readers perceive your story? Here are some of the main issues I see a lot while I’m critiquing a fellow writer’s work:
- Does the story start off too slowly? You might have to chop off the head of the beast, Ned-Stark-style, by a couple of chapters in order to grab readers’ attention from page one.
- Is there a major issue with your main character’s motivations? If you’ve got a lazy, reluctant fellow who is respectable and never likes to go on adventures, you may have to throw in a pack of dwarves to force him on his plot instead of letting him sit around eating fish and chips.
- Does your character get out of trouble on her good looks alone? Try making things a little harder for her. Force her to think her way out of it to ramp up the tension and make your character more believable.
- Still stuck? Read this book
4. Blackmail some beta readers.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: You’re too close to your work to pick out all its flaws. Readers haven’t been writing about the trials and tribulations of certain island where it’s easy to get LOST for six seasons like you have. Therefore, they’ll be able to pick out main flaws in your plot (John Locke was dead all along?!) that you wouldn’t otherwise see.
5. Kill your darlings.
I’m sure you’ve probably got a few flowery paragraphs in there that add nothing to your story, or a character who pops up only to say something witty once in a while. Remember how you’ve decided to flow with the movement of the story? Relax. Allow yourself, once again, to remember that your novel is malleable. Think of it as a chance to write the story again: Now, more streamlined than ever. Cut out the infections. Do whatever’s necessary not to let it die before it ever gets going.
6. Line-edit and proof-read
Yes, you have to go through all of these steps before you can even start to quibble over whether “amorphous” or “ambiguous” is the right word. This is your last chance to read the beast once again, this time paying more close attention to those details that are really going to make your manuscript shine.
7. Rinse and repeat
Sorry, did you think you were done? Oh, you naive little writer you. You’re going to go through several iterations of this process before you’re ready. It might take a month. It might take years.
If you feel overwhelmed by the editing process, consider finding an editor who knows what to look for in a good story and can help you professionally rework your manuscript until it’s gleaming.
But remember that you do have to kick this manuscript out of the nest and let it flap its wings on agents’ and publishers’ desks eventually. You’re never going to feel fully ready to do it—but when you’ve done the best that you can do, it’s time.
Got a question? Tweet me @beccaquibbles with the hashtag #askbecca, email me at becca [at] DIYMFA [dot] com, or just leave a comment below! You could see your question answered right here at Ask Becca!
Rebecca Ann Jordan is a speculative fiction author and artist in San Diego. She recently won Reader’s Choice Best of 2013 for her short story “Promised Land” at Fiction Vortex and has published poetry and fiction in Flapperhouse, Yemassee Magazine, Bravura Literary Journal and more. Becca regularly columns for DIYMFA.com. See more from her at rebeccaannjordan.com.