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Monday, May 16, 2011

Great Novels Aren't Written--They're Rewritten

Courtesy of 1802
Great novels don't happen by accident. They're a culmination of great ideas, great story, great writing, patience, and the ability to rewrite fantastically.

It's a deliberate process.

As I learn more and more about writing, I've found that I begin editing before I've even typed a single word into the computer.

The first thing a person has to do to rewrite well is to start with the right attitude. Everything (I'm not talking about sacrificing your values here) has to be on the table. Every word, every character has to be something you're willing to consider changing if doing so means making the story stronger and better. It's kind of like that song, Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better.) Only sung to yourself. If you have a talent for great description, you can still seek to find the perfect description. Not only will this tighten your writing, but it'll bump it up a notch.

Having an everything is optional attitude from the beginning is freeing. It allows me to draft with less fuss, because I'm not so worried about making everything perfect the first time. And it helps with the revisions as I work to separate the silver from the dross and make the golden bits sparkle even more.

Which leads me to the second thing good revisers need: the ability to trust their gut. It's important to keep an open mind, because as writers, we can be very blind when it comes to our own WIPs. Good critique partners (betas, etc.) are invaluable, but they aren't always right. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut--making sure it's your gut and not simply a resistance to change.

Then come the edits themselves.

There's the addition edit, wherein you look to see what you need to add to the story to make it complete. For me, it's always description. Visually speaking, I tend to be blind, so I have to go through and find places where good description and setting emerge organically from what I've already written.

Then there's the deletion edit, wherein you look to see what you need to cut from the story to make it complete. This is also the place where you might need to merge two scenes or maybe even some characters. I write very spare for the most part, so my deletion edit is usually more of a boy-that-was-awkward-phrasing or I-need-to-change-the-scene-a-little-farewell-words.

Then there's the weakness edit, wherein you go through and hunt down every single weakness you can find and kill it. Mine tend to by an over abundance of similes and metaphors (it's how I think), over explaining, too many -ing phrases, really long sentences.

Then there's the strength edit, wherein you go through and look at what you do well and do it even better. Have a great hook at the opening of the chapter? Great! Now add two more: one in the middle of the page, and one at the end. This is the edit, I don't think a lot of people talk about. Editing isn't just about fixing mistakes, it's also about making the prose and the story stronger, better.*

Then there's the line edit, going through and polishing away every grammatical error, every typo, making sure it all flows smoothly. Paired with this would be the syllabic edit. Reading it out loud and making sure every single syllable or word is needed. This can also make you aware of trouble spots that might have flowed well mentally, but twist your tongue in knots when spoken aloud.

And there are probably a bajillion other edits I haven't mentioned. But these are the edits I do. Now, as I'm becoming a more experienced word wrangler, I can combine some of these edits. Sometimes. It really depends on the story and how much work it needs to be stronger.

Good rewriters need a lot of patience. They also need the willingness to work hard--even when it's not fun, doesn't seem worth it, and who's going to read this anyway? And the final thing they need is confidence.

Honest confidence does not breed arrogance.

It is the acknowledgement that you did the very best you were capable of. There's no need for false modesty, fishing for compliments, or looking down your nose at someone else's work, because yours is quite obviously superior. Those are all symptoms of having a lack of confidence. Honest confidence is being able to know you gave it your best, and to be happy with that no matter how others might experience your story.

Those are some of the tools in my Toolbox of Rewriting Awesomeness, what tools do you keep in yours?

*I learned about this type of editing from Dave Farland/David Wolverton.

Danyelle writes MG and YA fantasy. In her spare time, she collects dragons, talking frogs, and fairy godmothers. She can be found discussing the art of turning one's characters into various animals, painting with words, and the best ways to avoid getting eaten by dragons on her blog.  


Talei said...

I am in the throes of editing so this post is very timely!

Currently I'm finding the 'Don't be afraid to delete entire scenes edit', particularly useful. This is the one where you say, I love this scene -but is it necessary to the plot, does it move the story on?"

Thanks for a very informative post!

Ted Cross said...

I agree with all your edits, though I simply cannot hold off on the line edits. Misspellings and grammar errors prevent me from thinking about anything else, so I have to get them all fixed before I can move on to the other editing phases.

Stina said...

I'm in the delete, delete, delete phase as I try to get my word count down by getting rid of the unnecessary paragraphs. These are the ones that are no longer necessary because of major edits that happened later on.

Rebecca T. said...

This is so great. It's nice to see it laid out in different kinds of edits like this. So helpful!

DRC said...

I always think of editing as painting a masterpiece. By writing a complete first draft basically gives you your blank canvas. Then as you edit, you're adding paint strokes to that canvas. Edit-by-edit, stroke-by-stroke, you're slowly building something that resembles a picture and a story, giving it depth and bringing it to life, and eventually, you will have your masterpiece...

Icy Sedgwick said...

I also have the "Chekov's Gun" edit - that I check that I haven't placed undue emphasis on an object, location or character who isn't going to have any importance later on. Then I find those objects, locations or characters who will have importance later on, and try to find a way to make them sparkle when they're first introduced.

Lisa Gail Green said...

REALLY useful post! Thank you. No matter how many times you do it, it's still an intimidating process. So many items to address fighting for attention. Having a methodical process is the best way to go.

Eric W. Trant said...

I'm in the soak phase, where I finished the first draft and am letting it soak.

I tend to line-edit as I write.

I also delete a LOT, even as I draft out the first copy. I bet I delete ten words for every word I save.

As has been stated before, the DELETE button on your keyboard should be the first to wear out.

I do multiple read-throughs after the soak. The first is a fast skim to get the gist of the story. I take notes on what needs to change, but don't pause to add scenes or make major changes.

It is during this fast-read that I delete useless scenes. If the scene bores me as I skim, or slows me, or seems tangential, I nuke it from top to bottom, re-read, and if I don't miss the scene, I save and move along.

I personally never have had a problem deleting scenes, and with short stories I usually delete the entire thing if it doesn't hook me.

After that, I do a slower read-through, add the necessary scenes and descriptives, line-edit as I go, and when I get to the end, Bob's your uncle and I write the words THE END, and off it goes to beta read.

I am a FIRM believer that over-editing and over-revision can KILL your story!

I also see too many writers struggling with one story/book for months and years. Stop it. Move along. There are other stories to write, you know, and if you're submitting for publication, you'll be forced to re-write anyway.

- Eric

Amanda the Aspiring said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amanda the Aspiring said...

Great post! =) I'm currently going through with a trifecta of edits--addition, deletion, and weakness. Then I'll go back through and do the strength and line edits while I make sure I didn't miss anything on the first run-through. Like Eric, I think that too much editing and revising can take the life out of a story. I recently read the first pages of an over-edited book and was saddened by how great it could have been if the author had let the writing turn out a bit more organically. =/

Sophia Chang said...

I love that everything is optional attitude! And it's so true, people never talk about the adding strengths type of editing.

Annie McElfresh said...

This is all so true! Great post! :D

Dorothy Dreyer said...

This is a great post! I'll have to go through these steps properly next time I edit. Thanks! :)

Lee Ann Setzer said...

Fantastic post!

I have to be careful in delete-delete-delete mode, not to get into the mindset that 0 words would be the ideal length...

Anne Buzzini said...

Great ideas. Building strength is a very important for me to hear right now. Thank you for the push!

Stacy said...

Fantastic post! I'm closing in on finishing the first draft of my WIP, and I also edit to an extent as I go along. I try not to delve in too deeply, but I always give the previously written chapter a run-through for major content and grammar errors. It also helps me to get back on track with the next chapter.

I really like your list of different edits, because I already know I'm coming in about 9K over standard, so I've got some editing work ahead of me.


Fresh Garden said...

Absolutely wonderful! :)

Danyelle L. said...

Thanks to everyone for your kind comments! There is definitely a danger in editing the spark and voice right out of a piece. That's why it's so important to trust your gut instinct. That and maybe let it sit for a few months. ;-)

And good point on "Chekov's Gun" edits. So important to make sure the proper emphasis and proportion are done in the story.

Best of luck with your edits!

Stephsco said...

Great post! It helps to see a break-down of different types of edits: line edit, strength edit, etc. Breaking the monsterous task into manageable parts keeps me focused. Right now, I'm finally listening to my gut about the structure of my story. I love the characters and what they do, but I've struggled as a new writer with execution. I spent so much time focusing on grammar and tightening my draft, I need to invest in the storytelling aspects.

Anyway... thank you again for this post, I am bookmarking it!

Betsy Love said...

Thanks for a great post Danyelle! Good content. I love coming to sites where I learn something. Yours was especially insightful.