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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Editing: How To Avoid Staring Into The Great Black Abyss

Okay, so imagine you've finished the fifth draft of your amazing NYT bestseller. You've let some time go by. And now you're ready to edit the manuscript. Again. (*Note: for the purposes of this post, editing and revising are synonymous.)

You sit down, open the document, and...proceed to stare into the great black abyss like somehow your MS will edit itself. Oh, sure, maybe you're like me and you immediately click on gmail when something earth-shattering doesn't hit you about your novel. Or Farmville. Or Cafe World. Or a writing forum. Heck, maybe you even distract yourself with Hulu and Free Rice. And when you get really desperate, well, let's not go there.

I know (trust me, I KNOW) the thought of editing an entire manuscript is overwhelming. Daunting. Like climbing the mountain--again.

So today, I'm going to give you some pointers that have helped me tackle my 320-page manuscript, edit it, polish it, get it to betas and then out the door in less than 30 days. Strap yourselves in.

1. Set goals. Not only a "finish-by" goal date, but goals for what you want to accomplish in the edit. Does character A need more depth? Do you need to introduce the antag earlier so readers know who/what the MC is up against? Do you need stronger world-building? Faster pacing? A sub-plot that needs fleshing out? What are you trying to accomplish with the edit?

Know what these are. Don't freak out that there's SO MUCH that needs to be done. Just make a list.

2. Chunk your MS. It's much easier to wrap your mind around 100 pages rather than 350. So chunk your MS into manageable sections. I split mine into three distinct pieces and worked on them individually.

Okay, so you really haven't opened the document and started yet. This is all the "behind-the-scenes" stuff that you can do in a notebook or in your head. It usually takes me 2-3 days to make my list and chunk my MS. Take some time to do this. It helps things settle in your head before you actually start.

3. Read. That's right. Hopefully, it's been a while since you've read or worked on your MS. You'll be able to see things with fresh eyes this way. I printed the first chunk and sat down to read. Yes, I had a pen (it was black, not red) in my hand. During this reading phase, I was doing three things:
  • Line-edits (for awkward phrasing, repeated words, word choice, paragraphing, funky formatting, etc. Everything looks new and different on paper. I strongly encourage printing the chunk and editing on paper.)
  • Outlining (I don't outline before I write. So I create my outline as I edit a finished draft. I have a pad of small (2-inch by 2-inch) post-it notes next to me. After I finish reading a chapter, I write the main focus of that chapter on a post-it and place it neatly in my manila folder. Can't sum it up? Maybe you don't need that chapter. Every chapter must advance the plot. Even if you write from an outline, you can do this to see if you've really used every chapter, every scene to advance your plot. And hey, maybe your outline has changed.)
  • Making Notes (I know my goals for the edit, so as I'm reading, I draw a star and make myself a note. Like, "Insert a memory about character B here." Or "This would be a great place to reflect on plot point G." Or "Introduce antag here by way of video." Or "More world-building/setting here." I don't actually write the insertions. I simply make notes of places where they could go.)
4. Transfer from paper to computer. Remember, this is only for the first chunk. For me, it was about 115 pages, and it took me about 3 days to read, line edit and make notes for the section. Then I finally opened my Word document and started with page one. I entered the line edits, written changes and deletions. When I got to spots where I had a note for new material, I wrote it. Everything is done with the "Track Changes" feature on, so I can see what I've done. Actually transferring the changes is easy. And since you have something tangible to do, you don't waste any time staring at the screen, wondering what to do and where to do it. Transferring only takes 1 day. Maybe longer if you have large sections to add/rewrite.

5. Rinse and repeat. After section one is transferred into the computer, print section two. Read, pen in hand, post-it's nearby, computer off. Transfer to manuscript. Print section three. Read, transfer. Since I only had three sections, I edited my entire novel in about 12 days. With the goal-making, I finished a round of (major) edits in two weeks.

(*Note #2: Some of you might stop here. If this is say, the second draft, and you're not ready to send to readers yet, you're done! In only 2 weeks. Leave the MS for a while, write something else maybe. Then come back and start with #1 with new goals for another edit.)

6. Send to readers. Now, this could be an entire post by itself. But I don't have time for that, so I'll just say to choose people who you A) trust and B) love and C) will read FAST. I mean, you only have 16 more days. I recommend recruiting a few (meaning: 2 or 3) readers who will critique as you finish chunks. So really, you could have stuff out with Beta readers after you transfer the first chunk. When they finish, send them the second, and so on. This way, you're not stalled at this point in the process, waiting for reads. You've been getting them back on shorter sections. Which is how you want to work anyway.

7. Go over crits, make changes. Add stuff, delete stuff, etc. This is just a polish. You've already done the major reconstruction. Now you're just smoothing over the edges, based on what your readers have said. If you have fast readers, you can probably get this done in a week or so. I think I had my chunks back and crits incorporated in about 8 days.

8. Leave it alone. Which means, leave it alone. Don't open it. Don't read it. You can think about it if you want. I didn't. 2 days. I actually did this immediately following the final transfer (step 5), while waiting for reads to come back on chunks. It doesn't matter when you do it, but it's vital. Seriously, leave it alone.

9. Send entire, repolished MS to trusted readers. These are NOT the same people who read the chunks. Different people. I had 4. I sent them the "final" MS as well as a list of my goals so they knew what I was trying to accomplish with the edit. (*Note, I did this because with one exception, my readers had already read my book, so I wanted them to know specifically what I was trying to do this time around.) Again, they need to be A) trusted B) loved and C) fast.

10. Final edits based on final reads. 

11. Done!

This system worked for me. I managed to edit my 83,000-word novel, get reads, and polish it up in under 30 days. Hopefully, you've seen something in this list that can help you focus your energy into accomplishing an edit (no matter if it's your third draft or your, um, eighth) of your manuscript without falling into the great black abyss. What do you do that helps you get the editing done?



Lisa Katzenberger said...

Elana, this is pure gold. Thank you! I can power through a first draft pretty easily. The goal of 2,000 words a day is specific and tangible.

But I've always languished when it comes to revision. I love your process -- it's specific, has goals, and feels manageable. Thanks!

Melanie Hooyenga said...

This is a GREAT post! I'm going to use NaNo month as a month to edit, and since I have 30 chapters I was planning to do a chapter a day, but I like this method.

One thing I haven't done is an outline after I've written (I write from a loose outline) but I like the idea of how it helps figure out if each chapter moves the plot forward. Great advice!

Lizzy Mason said...

Oh, Elana, you are a font of wisdom! And your timing is perfect as I've just embarked on another major revision of my ms.

I do the printing and revising method, too. It really puts it in a new light when the words are on paper, not screen. Can't figure out why.

Thanks for sharing!

Stephanie McGee said...

Excellent post! I'm bookmarking it for when I hit that stage. If I ever hit that stage. I might just burrow my head in my covers until spring comes again.

Liesl Shurtliff said...

I love you! I am staring into the black abyss!

Stina said...

Great post, Elana! I've recently been using the book Manuscript Makeover by Elizbeth Lyon to help me with my editing. I think it's made a huge difference. I'll find out soon since my toughest critter is reading the ms right now. :D I wasn't finished editing in two weeks, but four weeks isn't too bad. However, there are a lot of checklists, which might be daunting for some people. But for the analytical moi, it's perfect.

Anonymous said...

Elana, I like your plan. It is very concrete. Often that is all one needs to move forward. Thanks for sharing this. Another great tool for the writer kit!

Natalie Aguirre said...

Elana, This was a great timely post. I usually spend months of my revisions. I'm just finishing one and am wondering if I am going to have to revise one more time. Your way makes it seem less overwhelming. Thanks.

Jamie Grey said...

Great post, Elana! I have a 80k word novel I've been putting off because I always try to do too much at once and it overwhelms me. I'm definitely going to try this! I think it might really work for me.

Elana Johnson said...

Thanks guys. I hope something helps. :) Good luck with the editing.

Michelle McLean said...

You are sheer awesomeness Elana :) Wonderful post :)

Unknown said...

O, Thank you, Elana..THANK YOU! I have been editing the same four chapter for a month now, Like Lady Macbeth re-washing her hands. I am going to see if this will move me forward.

Steena Holmes said...

Perfect! Exactly what I needed! Thank you!

Unknown said...

Wow - you have no idea how helpful this post is to me. I just finished my 1st draft of my first YA novel and have been wondering how the heck to start the revisions I've decided to do before sending it to my crit group. I did print out the ms and love the idea of doing it in chunks. Thanks for such wonderful tips and best of luck w/ your ms!

Suzette Saxton said...

Ah, the inner workings of a disciplined mind. Thanks for a glimpse into your genius, Elana! ;)

Merc said...

This is awesome, thank you so much! I'm saving it so I can come back to it. :D