Over on Twitter, I saw this insightful observation:
She is not wrong. There’s a lot of writing advice that focuses on, “shut off the inner critic, just write, you can fix it in editing” and a lot less advice on editing. I think about editing pretty consciously both because I work on my own stories, and because I’m in a critique group (I’ve been in this group for over twenty years) and so I think a lot about story structure and what my colleagues are trying to do with their stories so I can help them do it better.
I responded with a Twitter thread, but my friend Magenta nagged me to turn it into a proper blog post, so okay. Here’s an essay with my insights on how to edit your story, now that you’ve followed Anne Lamott’s classic advice and written a shitty first draft, which you are now trying to fix.
(I know basically nothing about editing magazines or books. I have never worked as an editor professionally. This isn’t about that sort of editing; this is about taking a draft, something that’s truly not ready for the light of day, and turning it into something you’re sufficiently pleased with to show other people.)
- Does the plot basically make sense? When you re-read, are there moments that the characters forget to try some absolutely obvious solution, like calling someone on the phone or locking the door? Fix it so no one’s holding the idiot ball.
- Are the characters basically portrayed consistently? Does anyone forget that they’re a medical doctor or rocket scientist? If someone is supposed to be sympathetic, do they basically seem sympathetic?
If a character is supposed to be flawed but still likeable, did you overdo the flaws so now they’re just an asshole? Maybe take out that scene where they kick the puppy. (This can be a genuinely difficult balance to strike, but if it’s important that readers sympathize with the character, definitely err on the side of not having them kick a puppy.)
- Do the logistics in the story more or less hang together? If the character gets no sleep for 48 hours, are they tired, are they on meth, are they superhuman? If there are flowers blooming, are they in season? If someone gets on a bus, do they remember to get off again?
- If there’s real-world stuff in your story that your readers might be moderately expert in, did you get it right? Hopefully if anything was plot-critical you fact-checked it while writing. But if you gave your characters a real disease, make sure the course of the illness in your story is plausible. If your characters are traveling through a real location, make sure you’re describing it accurately.
- Did everything make it out of your head and onto the page? This is actually rather hard to read for — it’s one of the reasons that beta readers are awesome — but easy to fix. You know the reason that your character took that text so seriously but if you skipped a step it looks like your character freaked out for no reason.
- Were there subplots you introduced and then dropped?
If a character gives a detailed explanation of something that was originally going to matter, only then you had a better idea — take out the detailed explanation. On the other hand, sometimes you realize a subplot would bring a whole new dimension to the story if only you properly braid it through.
One of the really magical things about writing is that sometimes, that throwaway bit that didn’t mean anything when you put it there turns out to be the key that holds everything together. I think of those moments as gifts from the muse. Editing isn’t always about making the thing Not Suck; it’s also about spotting the really brilliant bits and polishing them up and focusing the lights on them so people can notice how very shiny they are.
- If you’re reading back through your story and it fundamentally feels like it’s not working, like there’s something missing, questions that aren’t being answered in a way that’s satisfying, ask yourself whether you’re avoiding an answer that frightens you, or an answer that you just want to avoid. Maybe because it’s a cliche or a trope you hate…and yet it feels like the only thing that makes sense there. Maybe because you’re convinced the story will be less marketable.
I don’t have a clear answer for you because sometimes the answer is that you still need to avoid it. Other times, it’s the door you need to open to let the real story in.
Here’s the long, illustrative example that I didn’t get into on Twitter: back in 1999, I saw the US premier of Martin Guerre, a musical by the team that wrote Les Miserables (which I love). It has a lot of problems but the one that to me seemed like the central heart of the problem is that it’s absolutely crystal clear to me that in the musical, Martin is gay, and yet the script doesn’t grapple with this fact in any way. And I don’t know how the composer and writer could have looked at what they’d written and not see that. I think they didn’t want it to be true because that would make it less marketable (at least in the late 1990s) so they wrote around it. But that meant the show was missing its heart. If they’d embraced it, and written it as a show about a young man who’s cast out by his family and community because he’s gay, and who’s then replaced by a friend who comes back, who’s able to fit in and be the Martin they always wanted but he could never be? That could have been amazing. Instead they set fire to the set. (Every night! It was less impressive than it sounds.)
Anyway. When I’ve gotten that same feeling from my own stories — like it’s a swing and a miss, a swing and a miss, I’m just not connecting — it’s nearly always because there’s something right in front of me that I’m trying not to look at.
- Think about theme. Almost all my stories are about something. There’s a central idea holding things together. Sometimes I know the theme when I sit down; other times I don’t figure it out until I’m editing.
If there’s something you’re saying with your story, think about whether you’re saying it. Also, paradoxically, if one of your characters ever articulates it directly, take that bit out so your readers won’t feel like they’re being hit over the head. But if you can put the theme in focus, that can make for a better story.
- Are you protecting your characters from hard decisions and painful situations? Hard decisions and painful situations are where a lot of the drama lives, so consider making their lives harder. Are the stakes scaled properly relative to the rest of the story? On Twitter I suggested people think about whether the stakes are too low, but in fact, not everything needs to be life-and-death.
- Is there character change? If your main character is unchanged from beginning to end, consider whether you centered your story on the wrong person.
The first story I sold professionally, I originally wrote it from a different character’s POV. I was trying to write a story about failure, and after getting critiqued by my writer’s group I realized that the central problem was that the character failed due to his weaknesses, and it would be a lot more interesting if he failed because of his strengths. Also, I picked a POV character who would actually experience conflict and change, vs. “I am secure in my world view, and at the end, I am CONFIRMED in my world view!”
(“I was secure in my world view, and here at the end, I am going to tell you I’m confirmed in my world view and nothing has changed, I tell you, NOTHING HAS CHANGED” is a perfectly fine character arc and totally counts as change, FTR.)
- Re-assess the beginning. Does it start in the right place? Not too much backstory/exposition, not so “in medias res” that the audience neither knows nor cares why things are suddenly blowing up? More often it’s the first problem: you’ve got a bunch of stuff in there before the story actually starts.
- Re-assess the ending. Is it satisfying? Does it feel like an arc is concluded? If you made a promise to your audience, did you deliver?
(Brooke Bolander had a story that came out recently called “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” and that story makes a very clear promise right in the title which, not to spoil things too badly, IS DELIVERED UPON.)
There are a number of ways to make promises to your reader, but there are certain openings that tell people, “this is a very specific type of story.” For example, if you start with “Once Upon a Time,” people will expect that either you’re writing a fairy tale, or you’re deconstructing fairy tales in some way. Fairy tales are allowed to follow their own weird logic, but tend to end with people getting what they deserve in some way. (They don’t need to end with Happily Ever After.)
Anyway, if you discover a mismatch between the opening and the ending — maybe you thought you were writing a fairy tale but you really aren’t hitting the fairy tale beats — you can rewrite either the beginning or the ending. (And I’m not saying you can’t start a weird postmodernist story with Once Upon a Time, just, you know, know what you’re doing. If you’re going to yank the rug out from your reader, do it on purpose.)
- A lot of writers struggle with endings. When I’m struggling with an ending, I tend to think about my theme, what my story is about, in a larger sense, and see if that helps.
Like, if your theme is, “small voices and efforts still matter,” and the bulk of your story is about a person trying and failing to accomplish some large goal, the ending might involve them accomplishing a small goal. They could also have some feelings about it. Depending on your character it might be “aha! I can make a difference in small ways!” or it might be deep frustration that they can ONLY make that small bit of difference.
- If you’re happy with your ending, go back through your story and look for spots that you can poke in just a little bit of foreshadowing. This will help your ending to feel like everything’s clicked into place. Like, if it’s a story about small actions making a difference, you could add a moment or two where someone’s small efforts make a difference to your viewpoint character without The Moral Here necessarily sinking in.
(I’ve seen that quote about spending a night in a tent with one mosquito a bunch of times recently, that’s why this theme is on my mind.)
Some novel-specific suggestions:
- Pacing. The first time I wrote a novel, I was used to short stories and the first section of the book was super choppy with not much in the way of transitions. If I ran out of stuff for the characters to say I just ended the scene instead of putting in something like “oh, look at the time!” That got better as the book went along but it took some time to get the hang of it.
- Unevenness. If this is your first novel, you probably got better as you went. With my first novel, I re-wrote the first section entirely from scratch at some point, because I had become a much better writer over the course of the book, and wanted the first part of the novel to be as good as the later parts. As long as it ended with Eliana and Giula leaving together, I could just drop in the re-written first section and everything would be fine.
- Length. You’re very unlikely to sell a 300,000-word novel as a novel. Self-publishing is its own world but my strong suspicion is that this would also be way too long self-published unless you have a lot of eager readers out there already. But if this is your first book, you’ll either want to very aggressively cut, or break up what you’ve written into 3 books. (Or very aggressively cut and break up what you’ve written into 2 books.) If you’ve got 80 pages of people packing and unpacking hats (that’s a Princess Bride joke) then definitely do some cutting.
My first novel, I kept trying to cut it down to under 100K and it somehow got longer every time I revised it. Fortunately, I sold it to an editor who had me break it into two books and expand it.
- Timelines and continuity. This gets so much harder with novels than with short stories. If you need to do this on a separate piece of paper or a printed calendar, use whatever tools you need to to make sure that if they go to bed and it’s Monday, they don’t wake up and it’s Saturday (unless there’s an actual reason for this). Xena, Warrior Princess could have a full moon every night; the rest of us probably can’t.
Sometimes I sit down and the story just unspools with all the pieces perfectly in place. Other times I have to tell myself the story before I know what story I’m telling, and it’s in the editing that I turn it into a coherent and worthwhile narrative. Sometimes it feels like I’m making a sculpture with something very annoying to work with and sort of bashing things into places. Sometimes it feels like I’m poking Jell-O with a stick.
I initially wrote “find the problems, then fix them,” but the thing about editing is that a lot of the time what you’re doing is shaping the story, now that you know what it is. You’ve got a beginning, middle and end, but you need to write the missing scene so that the middle flows from the beginning, or the ending makes sense when it arrives. You need to add the sensory details that communicate that your viewpoint character is terrified, despite the fact that she’s not admitting it to the reader. The motivation that made sense when you started the story doesn’t fit with the story you wound up writing, and you need to come up with something that does, and when you do, that gives you a bunch of new insights into the character that you need to communicate.
You’re done when it feels done, or when you decide it’s done, or when you’re sick to death of working on it and it had better be done or you’re going to set it on fire. Get some critique (if that helps you), send it out, and start the next thing. And trust that you get better with every story you write.
I am still working on my first novel- the first draft. The editing part does seem scary when I get to that part- the first draft feels like there are scenes that need to be added in between scenes- those will be added in the 2nd draft. I need to make my book sound like its a children’s novel
Naomi, I truly *love* your third-to-last line here:
“You’re done when it feels done, or when you decide it’s done, or when you’re sick to death of working on it and it had better be done or you’re going to set it on fire. ”
The reason I decided I would never try to write fiction for publication is that if I try to write fiction, I get to “it had better be done or I’m going to set it on fire” really quickly, and well before it’s worth reading. So I decided I was done with trying fiction writing; I guess my heart just isn’t in fiction writing. I don’t seem to have the same issue with essays or non-fiction, which I should write more of. (I generally get to “it feels done” or “I decide it’s done” with non-fiction.)
Much of this excellent editing advice applies to nonfiction, with some modifications. I’ve started a persuasive essay and realized by the end of the first draft that I am really making a different main point than I thought I was, or that I need to rewrite the beginning so that it’s pointing clearly towards the ending, or that I need to say something nasty about someone I was trying not to indict.