Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Time for the forest

Alright, so we've covered the process for writing the first draft and now we're diving into editing. (For a list of posts in the writing process series, click on the Steps for Writing a Novel tab up top.)

I always dive into the second draft wanting to fix everything right away. I want to nail down every comma, every word choice, and every character trait during my first read through. In short, I want to make everything perfect as quick as I can.

RESIST THE TEMPTATION. It's really overwhelming when you're trying to fix everything from facts to deleting adverbs to deepening your characters to smoothing out transitions. The easier way to do this is to fix the big stuff first. Focus on the forest.

Remember how we talked about writing in scenes is like paying attention to each tree in the forest? In your second draft, you're going to widen your scope so you're studying the forest - the overall story.

It's best if you can read your manuscript in as few sittings as possible. Ideally one. I haven't been able to do that in years, though, and I've still survived, so just do the best you can. Here is what you're examining and taking notes on as you read:


How's their growth throughout the story? Take notes about which characters need more fleshing out or where characters do something that doesn't settle right. Are characters agreeing too much with each other? Much of your conflict comes from the relationships in the story, so it's important for your characters to not see eye-to-eye on everything.


Is anything predictable or cliché? What happens too fast and what happens too slow? What research still needs to be done? And - this is something I do all the time - is there foreshadowing early on that GOES NOWHERE. I can't even count the amount of times I've foreshadowed something in the first half of the book, then completely spaced that plotline in the second half.


How's the pacing? Are you too dialogue heavy or too narrative heavy? Mark places that will need to be balanced. Is your opening too sluggish with back story? Is your middle sagging with unimportant details? Is your ending rushed?

Theme and Symbolism

Sometimes we have a theme in mind, and other times (the best times, often) the theme arises naturally out of the story. Are there places where you can do better at drawing out the theme? Likewise (and this is common especially if you write for the Christian market) are there places where you've fallen into preaching? Nobody bought your book to be preached at - they bought it for a good story. Make sure you're delivering.

Also, is there anything that has risen organically from the story that can be used as a symbol? I watched a commentary on the movie The Sixth Sense and M. Night Shyamalan said in scenes right before the kid (I can only think of his real-life name, not his movie name) encounters trouble, they slipped in something colored red. Like when he's at the party, he follows a red balloon upstairs. (Seems like his sweater is red too, but maybe I'm wrong. It's been awhile.)

By breaking it up this way - focusing on big stuff, then delving into the details - you're going to save yourself a lot of time. Because who wants to spend an hour perfecting a scene ... only to have to do a major revision on it later because you realize this plot line isn't working?

I'm curious, are you intentional about theme and/or symbolism, or do you find it just somehow happens? One time in high school, a friend read one of my manuscripts and was so impressed with me because the main character's first love was named Bradley Carver. His initials were "B.C." She thought I was being all awesome and signalling to the reader that he belonged in her past, not her future. I was like, "Oh, yeah ... didn't even notice that..."


  1. I was just coming up with my plan of attack for edits this morning, so this is fun. =) My editor requested a few plot changes and a few detail changes, so Stephanie's advice will be how I go about it too. First I'll make the big changes, that will require overhauling about 4-5 scenes, adding a few lines to others. Then I'll go through and take care of smaller things. Otherwise, I'll just end up deleting all that hard detail work, LOL.

  2. Yeah, I need to work on ALL of those things... :D I have so much foreshadowing that goes nowhere simply because Seaspear changed so much while I was writing it. So I'm trying to weed that out, along with all the unnecessary scenes, so the story will be more compact.

    I don't really plan symbolism. If I put it in, it just happens. But I confess that I don't use much of it.

  3. I don't intentionally use symbolism. Not usually. Even in reading books, if that or a moral gets out of hand, it puts me off the book because it seems to take over the story. And to me, the story--and it's characters--are more important than anything else.

    That said, though, I think readers can pick up on tiny messages or symbols that we don't even necessarily mean to put in the story--kind of like what you said happened with your friend picking up on the initials. After a lady proofread my book for me, she started talking about this "turning point" where she felt like my MC really opened up to the reader. I hadn't even realized that, so I just smiled and nodded like I knew what she was talking about. I figure even what the writer thinks is black-and-white, some readers can spin into something deep and interpretive. Some people just *get* things.

  4. I forgot symbolism, LOL. I tend to not notice any symbolism in something the first time I use it, but then I'll realize I could use the same thing again later, and it would GIVE the object symbolism. So it's half intentional. ;-)

  5. I have to admit, the theme came first, and then i wrote the story. But I don;'t believe I'm shouting it out at everyone. I do active editing, scrolling through the story at random intervals. in the course of this, I almost completely replaced the opening lines I entered in the free write contest. lol.

  6. As far as theme goes, sometimes it's wrapped up in your concept. Like I have a manuscript that's about a teenager who's decided to wait until she's married to have sex, but then everyone else around her is falling away from that principle, and so she's challenged. That's a concept wrapped up in a theme, so JT, I've been in a similar situation where I've had a theme come first. I think it can work well. Though I've yet to sell that manuscript, so maybe not :)

  7. I'm not good at symbolism. But I guess it arises naturally, because I write stuff not meaning for there to be any symbolism, and then my best writer friend will mention something, and saying that she liked how I used such and such to mean such and such. I guess the deal is that if I try, it won't work.

  8. I love symbolism! I use it and perhaps abuse it! I hope not though.
    S.B. Niccum
    Author Website

  9. Just had to reread this post as I prepare to dive deep into the forest!