First comes the wild idea. It grows gradually in your creative self, until it feels like an elephant in the corner of a room, not letting you ignore it. Until you're compelled to get it on paper.
You write for months or years. You now have a huge file on your hard drive or piled on your desk. You rework it, get feedback, rework some more. Hate it, love it, feel neutral.
Finally, you're ready for revision. Revision is essential; we know that professionals spend most of their book journey on this final stage. But if it's our first book, how do we figure out what needs attention? It reads OK, our writers' group loves it. But we still sense the book isn't ready to go out to agent or editor.
Without a plan, a map, revision can feel endless.
Checklist to Revision Sanity
"I'm having a hell of a time editing an old book," Annette, a reader from New York, wrote me this week. "I know it needs container (setting) details and sensory details but I seem to get bogged down.
"Sometimes, I find myself just rewriting what I had from an old manuscript, trying to sound like another (famous, rich, bestselling) writer, or making notes on the old manuscript and retyping that. I seem to lack a focused technique for editing.
"I tried the exercise in Your Book Starts Here on expanding and contracting the main nugget of a paragraph. Both seem easy enough, as I already know what the nugget is, and what the visuals are.
"I guess I'm not sure: how much is too much, how to add, and
how to work the process of editing. Paper? Computer? Just fill in holes, lop out excess? Which first? How do you know what's chaff
and what's seed?"
How the Pros Edit
I trained as an editor for eighteen years. Both as a freelancer for various publishers and a salaried manuscript editor for a small press in the Midwest, I worked with experienced pros who were steady, careful, and kind enough to instruct me.
I learned there are indeed clear steps to take when polishing a manuscript. It's not a blind ride. Each editor has their own method, but many overlapped.
From my eighteen years, a checklist evolved. I'll share some of the basic guidelines with you. They've served me well in my own editing.
Step One: Find a Workable Editing Method
Decide first if you're more comfortable editing by paper or on screen. It's really a matter of personal preference.
Many editors vow that it's impossible to catch all mistakes via a vibrating computer screen. My boss always printed out a "hard copy" and went through it with editing pen.
I adopted that method. I know my limits onscreen; I miss repeated words, typos (despite spell check), and clunky sentences. So I always print a hard copy after content and structure are in place.
Before that, I'm just wasting paper.
Content is what happens--is there enough? Are the stakes high? Structure is the flow--have I arranged events or information in a strong flow? Basic architectural questions that need to be solved before revision editing.
Step Two: Get Software That Assists You
Last year, I switched to Scrivener. There are many writing/editing software options but Scrivener is my favorite.
It lets me create my manuscript in a "binder" which is easy to arrange, rearrange, and edit from. I build "islands," or scenes, first. Then in first draft assembly, I create chapters. I edit them individually first, then as a whole.
For instance, part of my revision process is to create chapter transitions that keep readers from setting down the book after a chapter ends. I want a page-turner. Scrivener and Word both allow split screen viewing. I open consecutive chapters, study the end of one and the beginning of the next, to check chapter transitions.
When I've done all I can, I import the entire manuscript back into a Word doc and send it to myself via email. I open it on Pages on my iPad or on an e-reader. The goal is to get a document that looks like it will in printed book form.
I read it carefully, making more notes. This step-by-step method is invaluable. I always find more to correct. Back to Scrivener for the final tweaks.
Step Three: Pacing Checklist
1. Scour out the verb "to be," a blah choice that creeps in to writing as placeholder. I search for "was" and all uses of the verb "to be" and use my thesaurus to get creative.
2. Remove "had" as much as possible. "Had" is past perfect and is really only needed in the first instance of a flashback. Then most pros slide into simple past tense. For instance: "She had been a chef years ago. She landed a good job at Circus Maximus." Notice that the "had" places us in the backstory, but after we are there, we can move to simple past, with "landed."
3. Eliminate "ing" verbs. Gerunds are useful but slow down the pace. Compare: "He wired the alarm" with "He was wiring the alarm"--fast, punchy versus languid. Occasionally, languid verb forms draw out tension, but if you search, you'll be astonished how often you've unconsciously used them.
4. Replace "walk" and "move" with more vivid actions. "They moved across the field" versus "They sped across the field." Quite a difference.
5. Ruthlessly wipe out adverbs. Cheating, I call it. We opt for "ly" descriptors instead of punching up our dialogue and actions. Adverbs slow down the pace. Can you get rid of most of them?
Step Four: Continuity Check
Editors make sure the details are consistent in a manuscript. Here are the three biggest offenders:
1. Verify the movement of weather and time of day, chapter to chapter. Make sure these are consistent and evolve logically. We can't go from midnight to midday without notice. I make a chart and double-check it against my chapters.
2. List all major items in your story--vehicles, physical details, room locations, possessions--anything that appears frequently. Use the checklist to search for each. Verify that you've used the same descriptions. A man with flaming red hair in chapter 1 who is suddenly bald in chapter 10 needs explanation.
3. List all names--place and people. Check for consistency. One of my mom's pet peeves (she's a voracious reader) is the author who changes a main character's name from Elise to Elaine mid-book.
Step Five: If It Still Doesn't Sing . . . Checklists for Content
If you still find yourself swimming in unease after these changes, you may need to go back to your content and upgrade it. Here are five small questions I ask myself, to bring content to another level:
1. Does each person in the story show inconsistencies? Humans do. We're generous and stingy. We're sweet and snarly. If your players aren't two sides of their own coin, stop protecting them. Show everything.
2. Are the places and peoples unique enough? I make lists of how each person differs from the others, then do the same with each location. Push this as much as you can.
3. Are there enough fights? Do they range in intensity? If not, add some. Conflict makes prose move.
4. Are there enough secrets? Do you reveal them too soon? Can you delay more, to build tension?
5. Does each chapter have a clear and definite purpose? If not, can you change it? Or eliminate it?
For even more tips, check out my Revision Checklist post from last year. It got re-blogged more than any other in 2012, which says it hit home with many readers. Click here to see why.
This Week's Writing Exercise
Pick one of the revision tasks above. Try it out this week on a chapter or your entire manuscript. See how it works for you. Then try another, if you wish.
Slow and steady--most editors I admire have these qualities. It's something we writers may not come to naturally, but the revision process will certainly teach us better!