In which we’re talking about process again

Reader Abi sent the following:

You asked on your last post what your ‘chickens’ plans were for the new year. Comments were disabled so I couldn’t reply as I’m not on Facebook. But I do really want your advice.
My plan in the new year is to finish my first novel. The first draft is done, now I need to edit. The problem is I don’t really know how to go about it! Since you’ve been a huge inspiration to me from beginning to end, I wondered if you could please write a blog on what your process is when you come to edit? How do you decide how much editing it actually needs? And what sort of things do you look for? How do you even know if it’s any good?
Thank you very much!

Editing is a learned skill and it’s one I came to rather late in the game. I never revised papers in school, so I never learned how to take something apart and make it stronger. Luckily, my first editor was a very good one, and from working with her, I learned something about the process. Editing is also vastly undervalued. It actually requires a separate skill set from writing, and not all writers are good editors. I do a single revision before the manuscript goes to my editor for her feedback, and here’s what I look for:

Is the plot clean? Are there loose ends that were left dangling as opposed to being neatly tied up?

Do the characters behave consistently? Characters can and do change over the course of a book, but if I am showing an arc, is it believable?

Are there typos or continuity errors? These are things that can get cleaned up later—during copy edits, for instance—but why leave them if you can fix them early?

Is there a spot where the reader is brought up short and yanked out of the narrative? This can happen for a hundred reasons, usually because of character inconsistency, change in tone, creative tangent, etc. Those are things that need to be reined in and tightened up.

Is each character functioning the way the plot requires them to function? This past weekend I was on a panel with seven writers discussing process and EVERY LAST ONE OF THEM starts with character. I don’t. I begin with plot and then ask myself who are the kinds of people who would be likely to engage in that behavior. (Either way is totally fine; process is idiosyncratic and anyone who tells you otherwise is probably trying to sell you a “how to write” book.) If there is a disconnect between character and plot, one of them has to change so you can present a cohesive book. In my third novel, I realized a character I had written was simply too inconsistent. She was cool and aloof in some scenes, informative and useful in others. Easiest fix? I split her into two characters—the original and her sister. It solved the problem neatly and gave me an extra character to hang an unplanned complication upon. In that case, I was particularly pleased to have spotted the problem and fixed it before it ever went to my editor.

The other thing I’ve learned to listen to is my intuition. If my gut keeps nagging me about something, it’s because it doesn’t fit smoothly and I need to take a closer look at the jagged edges. It’s like trying to fit a piece into a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes you find a piece that is SO CLOSE to what you think goes there that you keep trying to force it. But if you take a step back, you might see that what you thought was right is just a bad fit. Or you may have the right piece but something’s in the way. The trick is to figure out which and move forward.

And this is where I say again, please don’t underestimate the importance of an editor. Lots of people think their books are perfect without one. They’re wrong. Every book of mine is better for having an editor’s input. There’s no shame in needing someone with a keen editorial eye to look over what you’ve done and offer guidance. The idea that we should be able to do it ALL as writers is just misguided. Some of us probably can, but I wouldn’t take the chance. So, even if you don’t have the benefit of publishing in a model that includes editorial input, go and get it yourself from a trusted freelance editor. They will be able to cut through the rubbish and tell you where you haven’t yet done what you wanted with a book. They are invaluable.


2 thoughts on “In which we’re talking about process again”

  1. I’m one of the authors from the panel with you last weekend, and I was intrigued that you were the ONLY ONE who said “plot!” Now I understand why, and what you meant.

    Before I began writing my suspense novel UNDERWATER, I knew the basic plot and the conflict that my characters would face (I didn’t know how to start without it). I had identified the plot points and story arc, though I also had “unplanned complications” along the way. When I began writing the story, though, I started with my characters. I had to know them well (especially the heroine and the villain), so that I could describe their behavior and write their dialogue – so that I knew how they would engage.

    However, like you, I realized that another character needed to be different from what I originally planned. I, too, listenened to my intution. I made some changes, and she became more vital to the story, and a stronger, much more interesting character. Problem solved! Now that I’ve read your post, I see that we agree more than we disagree on this point.

    I also believe that a good editor with a keen eye is essential. My editor was fabulous, and though I worked to fix everything I could before the edit, her input was invaluable. We worked together well, and the result was a much better book, with which I am pleased!

    Happy I discovered your books, and great to meet you!

  2. Barrett says:

    Nicely said. Your description provides a nice checklist. Thanks!

    jeanne

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