The funny thing about books with writing that feels effortless is that they’re the ones that take the most effort. And I find that, for me, it works best to spend that effort in layers. That way, I can focus on one thing at a time and really make it shine before moving on to anything else. This may not work for everyone, but I thought I’d share how I edit. My layers, if you will. So without further ado, here you go!
Draft 1: Get it all out there. Anything goes in this stage. Toss in anything you think you might want to use later. If you discover later that it’s not working or it’s not right for this work, it’s easy to toss out. I think it was Shannon Hale who said that the first draft is all about getting the sand in the sandbox - later drafts are when you build the castle. This draft is always fun because it’s so freeing to just be able to write write write! That’s what I love about this layer system - I don’t have to worry that I’m doing it wrong because I know I’ll come back later to fix it. It takes so much pressure off!
Draft 2: Plot, plot, plot. By now, I’ve usually got a good idea of what’s working in my story and what’s not and I can see the shape I want it to take. Before we work on any of the details, we want to be sure to take care of the big picture. There’s no point making the sentences all pretty if you decide (after months of making those sentences nice and pretty) that you actually don’t even want that scene in there anymore! Hammer this out until you’re sure it’s where you want it (and then be prepared to let that go later, if necessary!)
For me, draft 2 is usually a total rewrite. I’ve found that usually the first ending I think of is the totally wrong one (because it usually feels stale and predictable to me) and the beginning is often in the wrong place. That’s what draft 1 is for - discovering all the pieces I have at my disposal. Draft 2 is about throwing out what doesn’t work and grabbing anything I didn’t realize I would need.
Draft 3: Character time, baby! Because you’ve figured out the plot already, you know what you want of your characters doing - now you’ve gotta figure out why. Hopefully, you’ve already figured out most of that. But this is what this layer is really focusing in on - making sure it’s coming through for your reader and really making those characters sing! If the characters are flat, your book will be flat. Characters are the heart and soul of story. Now is the time to really look at each and every character’s motivation - is every move made by every character motivated by something? Is that motivation clear on the page? How are the characters relating to one another? If you can really get us caring how people’s relationships are, we feel it that much more when something sours the relationship - a brother pitted against brother, lovers torn apart, parents watching children struggle - all the classics! (This one’s especially important! The moments when characters are interacting are the moments when we have double the amount of emotion that can be felt - a dose for each person! Make it count!) How does each character see the world and is that evident in the way they’re written (particularly for POV characters).
It’s worth noting that when I say ‘draft 3’ by this point, I’m usually done rewriting from scratch. It’s more of a go through chapter by chapter process for me, changing things up, while realizing those changes may still be pretty significant as far as the words go. But the story, remember, is mostly the same (except of course, when it isn’t. :) Following?).
Draft 4: This draft is a lot of little things. I usually take it a chapter at a time, and look through it for one of these things, then the next. None of them take a super long time so this works for me. Let’s take a look.
You’ve got a good story, you’ve got awesome characters, let’s take a look at your setting. It’s like being back in my theater days - I’ve learned my lines, figured out my character, memorized the blocking, and now it’s time to add the sets! Typically we’d have an idea of where the set pieces were going to be and my teacher would have tape down on the ground to mark it off. Similarly, you should have a good idea of your setting from the get-go - it often plays a part in shaping plot - but in this round (which actually isn’t so much a draft as just an edit) I ‘bring in the set.’ I’ve got color added all of a sudden and shape and texture and height. This is the time to really focus on those setting details and making the world come to life.
In addition to setting, now’s the time to take a good hard look at pacing. Are you getting in to scenes late and leaving early? Do your character arcs fall against each other in a way that keeps the tension up? Are there emotional beats? Is there any part that’s dragging? Take a good look at your middle especially - is it sagging?
Voice. This one’s a biggie. It’s how you string the words together. It’s what makes your writing unique. It’s the difference between “John looked at Sally with a smile” and “John didn’t just look at Sally. He leaned into her like she was the campfire at the beach on a cold summer’s evening, his eyes reflecting its light.” One of those sentences is way more interesting and evokes way more emotion, which is exactly what you want. Emotion in stories=awesomeness. It’s about this time that I start going through every scene (which may be smaller than a chapter) and jotting down one-to-three emotion words. I’d ask myself, ‘what emotion am I trying to convey here?’ And then as I would go through the scene, I’d make sure that my words matched the emotion I was aiming for. If I’m going for tense and angry, I probably shouldn’t be using an analogy that has the word ‘cake’ in it - the two don’t match. If I’m aiming for jaunty and euphoric, a cake analogy might fit in nicely!
And lastly, here’s where I start to pull out themes. They’re in there, promise you. You don’t even have to be trying to put them in (in fact, if you’re trying, it’s probably feeling stale and contrived). Usually I can see a few themes at the end of draft 1, when my story has a shape. Here, I’m just tweaking words and situations to shine a little morel light on those themes.
Okay so about now, you should be pretty dang set on what you want happening, how you want it happening, and why. All of those should be coming across clearly. Your world and characters are so well written they feel real, and we’ll all shed a tear or two when our hero falls at the end of act 2. But we’re not done yet. If you stop here, you may have a good novel, but you probably won’t have a great one. Let’s make it great! Again, I usually take this chapter by chapter. I went through with a highlighter (or actually, some colored crayons) and highlighted each of the things I talk about next, then I went through a fixed them all. Here’s where we look at the nitty-gritty:
Description: After highlighting each and every description in a given chapter, I would look back and each one and ask myself “is this description doing more than one thing?” By which I mean, description should do more than just describe what’s in front of someone. It should contribute to the mood, or reveal something about the character or the way she sees the world, or move the plot forward. If it’s only describing, it’s bogging down your writing.
Dialogue: Yep, highlight every single dialogue in that chapter you’re looking at. Then read through just those highlighted words. Read them out loud. There’s something about hearing those words through your ears that really makes it clear what sounds like real dialogue and what doesn’t. Every character should have their own voice, their own unique way of speaking, their own favorite topics to bring up. We all do in real life- so should your characters.
Body Movements: Go highlight everything that happens in anyone’s body: he sighed, her spine tingled, his lips curled up, his throat went dry. Every single one of them. Oftentimes, you’ll find you’ve got favorites. My characters tend to use their lips, eyes, and shoulders all the time. Switch it up a little. Too much smiling in one chapter? How else can you convey that happiness?
Verbs: Ugh. I’ll be honest. This one was a chore. My least favorite part of my process, for sure. I thought often about abandoning it, but every time I thought that, I’d come across something else that should be changed and I could see it was making my writing stronger, better. So. Highlight every. single. verb. It’s not fun. There’s a million of them in there. But I bet with this exercise you could trim several thousand of them out. Take a look at every verb. Is that the strongest, most correct verb you could use there? We’re in the business of making words count, and the verbs carry the weight of the sentence - if they’re not strong, your sentence will be flabby. You may find it changes the shape of your sentence, for the better.
Take this for instance: “He had been trying for years to lose the weight he’d put on when she’d left him.” Let’s highlight those verbs.
He had been trying for years to lose the weight he'd put on when she’d left him.
Now consider this: "Despite his best efforts, he’d never gotten rid of the flabby roll of fat that appeared over his belt when Kayla up and left.”
The verbs in there? He’d, gotten, appeared, up, left. We went from eight, so-so verbs, to five mostly-more-interesting verbs. See how that improved the sentence by leaps and bounds? See how it has voice to it now? See how that’d be more exciting to read?! Verbs matter. Every one of them. It’s a huge pain to go through them, but in my opinion, totally worth it. And with practice, you’ll get better at using the right verbs to begin with, and then it will be more a matter of just checking to make sure it’s all as strong as it can be, instead of the arduous exercise it was for me.
Read It! Outloud!
The last (ha! there’s never a last with writing - have you figured that out yet?) thing I like to do is read it out loud to myself. Preferably over the course of just a few days. Make notes to yourself of anything that needs to be fixed, on any level. Then get to it! Polish until you brain starts to die a polishing death! And then, maybe, just maybe, you’re ready for more. You know, like querying and publication and things. :) I can’t really speak as an authority on those yet. I’m still working on it myself. Until then, what other things do you look for while you are editing? :)