I just finished a month of editing, and in the spirit of the work, I’m going to type up this post and publish it without a single read-through. How’s that for living on the edge?
This month I edited Stakes, the novel I wrote last November for NaNoWriMo. I had tried editing before on Fathoming Egression (my second novel) and failed– while the premise was good and the characters sound, I found it needed a complete rewrite, which I was ill-equipped to give. I moved on to other projects, loathing the idea of editing until nearly a year later, when I reread the story and decided to query with Stakes on April 1st.
With less than a month to prepare, I couldn’t afford to rewrite the story. I needed to make a one-pass, effective edit. In planning said edit, I was unable to resist the charm of checklists.
The first thing I decided going into the edit was that I wasn’t going to go front-to-back. Working on each scene individually and making sure all the promises and plot lines were introduced correctly, then resolved correctly– it’s too much to handle. Instead, I made a big to-do list in the Microsoft OneNote program, outlining what I wanted to do in general (figure out beginning scenes, work on promises, make it seem less like the books I just read). Alongside that, I made a list of story promises: things to promise, things to fulfill, and things to delete. I already had a list of those running through my head based on my reread of the story– where I was dissatisfied, where I was slightly confused, and where I just wanted to make things a whole lot cooler. Comparing the original dissatisfaction with the stand-up-and-cheer moments I wanted to have motivated me a lot.
Since this was my first edit, I split the to-do list up into two parts: the macro-edit and the micro-ish edit. Things like figuring out the beginning or working on promises fell under the macro edit list– things like figuring out character names or finding consistency errors fell under the micro-ish edit. Taking the micro-ish edit list, I pulled it off to the side (you can click-and-drag anything anywhere in OneNote) and covered it with a sidebar. I didn’t need to worry about that for now. Instead, I worked on my promises.
One by one, skipping around like crazy, I rewrote, reworked, and deleted scenes to promise, fulfill, and delete promises. This was almost all of my macro-edit. While some things couldn’t be fixed by messing with promises, I was able to do a lot for the story with just that. I felt great about it.
With a week to go (I took the promise work pretty slowly), I started in on the micro-ish edit. Taking an eighth or a quarter of the book per day, I went through and tightened things up, combining scenes, deleting scenes, and line editing my way through the entire thing. I can’t pretend to have caught every typo or passive voice mistake in the book, but I butchered every scene in terms of character voice, dialogue, and description. Having written this 120k NaNoNovel mostly through word wars, I had used far too many words to say just about everything. I went through everything critically, cutting as much as I could without leaving the story useless.
Stakes went from 120,201 words to 62,418 words in less than a week. Nearly half of the book disappeared without any major story overhauls. It felt horrible. As I worked, I couldn’t imagine sending Stakes to anyone like this– I was afraid I was cutting too much out of my style, making it too cinematic and matter-of-fact of a narrative. Perhaps I cut too much. Perhaps I cut just the right amount. I don’t know– my style is still too flexible for me to tell.
That isn’t to say that all of it was bad cutting– nor that all of it was cutting. I cut adverbs, stupid dialogue and thoughts, and inside jokes I had told to keep myself amused. I had replaced all that with body language, with concise sentences, and with actual jokes (on occasion). Although sixty thousand words went into the trash, sixty thousand words came out much tighter than they began. Where many authors boast of cutting 10% of their novel through line-editing, I cut 50%, but while that’s scary, it’s also good for me to know. After all, if you ever know everything about writing, you aren’t trying hard enough.
Today, I reread Stakes, the new and improved version, straight through. It was so much less pathetic than the first time I read it. A nagging voice kept pointing out problems as I read, but although I took note when it mentioned typos, I ignored it when it told me I was breaking the story trying to fix it. The story was undeniably better for this month of editing. And, as I did the final fixes and compiled it into a formatted manuscript, I felt pleased about the story again.
Having learned new stuff and with Camp NaNo looming (tomorrow!), am I just going to throw myself into another 120k novel without thinking? Of course not. This time, I’ll slow myself down. I’ll pay attention to the words I’m writing and make sure they help– if they’re fluff, I’ll make sure they’re necessary fluff (perhaps to put a figurative lens filter on a gory scene), but if they’re not, I’ll rewrite and stop the problem before it gets further than that scene. Of course, I won’t fall into the rewriting cycle of the first chapter, but now I know what I’m looking for in a style, and I can work intentionally rather than wildly. I can’t negate the need for editing, but I can certainly make the process less painful.