Monday, May 5, 2014

How to Edit Your Novel in Layers

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.


When I tell a young writer (whether they're literally young or they're new to the art of novel writing) that editing is my favorite part, I have no trouble interpreting the look on their face. It's usually one-part shock and two-parts, "You're crazy, lady."

And I have no trouble interpreting it because it's probably the same expression I wore the first time a writer told me the same thing. Because how could editing possibly be your favorite part? It's so overwhelming! So tedious! So impossible to know if you're ever done!

While I can't promise you that editing will become your new favoritemany seasoned, successful writers continue to love the first draft process and bemoan the need to editI'll do my best to bring some organization to the vastness of the task.



Because Jill and I know that the editing process is a common struggle for new writers, we released a book on the subject last spring. Go Teen Writers: How to Turn Your First Draft Into a Published Book will walk you through not just edits, but also the querying process, critique groups, and dealing with issues like self-doubt and procrastination. We've put the ebook on sale for $2.99 during my editing series, and you can download free resources from the book on my website.

So...you've written your book. Now what?

If you're anything like me, your first draft is a mess For the first couple chapters, the story is pretty cohesive. Somewhere around the middle, however, a prominent character from the beginning appears to go on vacation and never return. I start referencing conversations or events that never actually happened. A plot twist comes out of nowhereand not in a good way. The climax lasts about two pages, and then I meander my way to a closing line that has zero oomph.

And those are just the problems that I knew about before I re-read the draft.

I'm the type of writer who works best when she writes bare-bones first drafts. Many writers have found this works for them, but certainly not all. Some writers edit as they go, and if that's you, great. But for me, it works best to break the process into two clear taskswriting the story, and editing the story.

In a perfect world, after I've finished my first draft, I take six weeks off. But in the reality of deadlines and working around my kids' school schedules, sometimes it's only two or three weeks. That time off is critical, though. The best thing it does for me is it helps me to hold on loosely to the way my story is and to think more creatively about what it could be.


Step One: Read your book and take notes

Cake photo courtesy of Elizabeth Liberty Lewis
Baked by Gretchen Lewis
In some ways, editing and creating a book is like baking a layered cake. When it's frosted and sitting on the plate, the cake is one cohesive object. Chocolate Cream Cake, or however you want to imagine it. When you take a bite of it, all the flavors and layers combine to make a taste, but they were once separate elements that the baker pieced together.

Writing your first draft was like mixing together the cake batter. And with step one, it's like you're picking out your cake pan. You're looking at the story as a whole and figuring out what you have and what you're going to shape it into. 

After my weeks off, I send my manuscript to my Kindle, grab a pen and sheet of paper, and settle in for a long chunk of reading. I like to read on my Kindle because it prevents me from editing, but other writers work best on their computer or with a printed copy. 

I'm a little embarrassed to admit how long it took me to realize that I should take notes during my first read-through. I keep a running list of two things: Stuff to Research and Stuff to Fix/Consider/Change. 



By the end of my reading, I usually end up with two or three pages of ideas for how to change the story. For the historical book I'm working on, I wound up with a list of twenty nine topics I wanted to research - from bullet proof vests to school uniforms. For one of my contemporaries, the list is usually only half a page long.

For the Fix/Consider/Change list (which could really use a snappier name) I take notes on all things story related:
  • Events I foreshadowed but never followed through on.
  • Characters who seem to matter a lot in the beginning, but who I kinda forgot about after a while.
  • Ideas for how to tweak a plot thread I'm not totally sold on.
  • Scenes that I need to add to the first half of the book in order to better sell an event in the second half.
  • Ideas for improving a character's backstory.
  • Ideas for how characters might be linked to each other.
  • Themes or symbols that I notice and want to do a better job of drawing out.
  • Inconsistencies with storylines or characters.
While a lot of the list are things I need to improve, you'll notice a decent amount are ideas for how to change. If you like all the pre-book brainstorming stuff, you might really enjoy this part of editing too.

Even though I've written the first draft, I find in the first step of editing, I'm still working to define what exactly my story is and how to most clearly tell it. That's why you want to make sure to start with the read-through. Otherwise you might find yourself perfecting a cake that's not taking the shape you intended.

32 comments:

  1. Yep, that's a great post again! I like editing, because it's fun to see your story become better than it was. (Although editing isn't fun when you don't know how to begin with it, or if you should create another beginning or not, or... ;-)).

    arendedewit.blogspot.com

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    1. Agreed. Sometimes I drown a bit in the editing process. Especially when you're having to wrestle through those HARD questions.

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  2. Thanks for the post, Stephanie. I like the idea about reading on the Kindle so you can't edit. :)
    I have noticed lately that when I read books I sort of critique them to myself. Saying things like 'should be more showing' or 'we could use a prologue'. So I'm thinking that editing just might be fun if I ever finish the first draft. :)
    Thanks for the post again!
    http://teensliveforjesus.blogspot.ru

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    1. And thanks so much for the sale on the book. Haven't finished my first draft yet, but am definetely going to snatch it. :) Thanks!

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    2. Glad you found it helpful, Sofia! And, yes, being a writer really impacts your pleasure reading! Now that I'm so aware of story structure, sometimes it's all I can do to not annoy my husband with constant comments about the movies and TV shows we watch :)

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    3. I do this too, but mostly for books.

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    4. I thought I was the only one who did this with TV shows! Thank you; now I can tell my mom that it's a writer thing the next time I talk her ear off about good characterization. (Or bad, depending on the show...)

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    5. People who live with writers probably need their own support group :)

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    6. I do that with movies too, except it's also probably from watching the same movies over and over again. You can definetely notice the small things the 10th time around. :)
      Anyway, being an editor is on my list of possible future professions. It sounds kind of fun. :)

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  3. I already love this series of posts Stephanie. I am currently in my second draft version of my novel, so this all exactly in time. I remember reading here on GTW for the first time about reading through and making notes on the big things that need to change first and that is indeed how I did my read through of the novel.

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  4. Thanks for the post! Very handy. :) I just finished my first read-through of my first draft, but I didn't think of taking notes. Oh well, next time! :)

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  5. I'm obsessed with editing. I spend so much time editing the little I've written I can't complete the whole story. Time to kick the perfectionist to the side until I finish a rough draft.

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  6. Hi Stephanie! Thanks for the great post! One quick question: How can I transfer my manuscript from my computer to my paper white Kindle? Thanks!

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    1. If you go into your Kindle account on Amazon, you'll find an email address has been assigned to your Kindle. (You can customize the address as well.) Then you just email yourself the Word doc. It's a fabulous system!

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    2. I've done that before for a script that a couple of friends and I wrote to use while we are filming the movie. You can also find the Kindle email address on your Kindle under settings. Then click device options and then click personalize Kindle. At the bottom under Send to Kindle Email is your Kindle email address.

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  7. Amazing post! I own a copy of the book and it is AMAZING! I recently finished reading through my first draft of my first finished book and I have about fifty pages of notes... How I went about it, I read a chapter. Then I wrote the chapter number and title in the notebook, wrote, "highlights," and stated the point of the chapter. Then I wrote, "thoughts," and put in what needed to be changed. It took probably a month, but it was worth it and I have something to look back on as I rewrite. :)

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    1. Hey H! 50 pages? You didn't tell me that! Lol!

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  8. I literally did a victory fistpump when I read this post. I've been having trouble getting my novel from first draft through editing, but a while ago I decided to do a note taking read through, which I just finished. I'm so glad I got it right! ^.^ Can't wait for more posts on your editing series. This next editing layer had me baffled and discouraged again.

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  9. I love the list of basic things to look for changing! When i started going through my novel, I was all over the place trying to create the right word for a description, changing someones facial expression, rearranging the plot, just going nuts editing out of order. I really needed to have just some basic stuff to edit first. Thanks!

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  10. Thank you so much for this! I just finished my first short story and I wasn't sure how to approach editing it. This post helps a lot!
    ~ Grace Anna

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  11. This is a brilliant article! Thank you.

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  12. Great post! I'm not a big fan of editing, but maybe this series will help me...


    Alexa Skrywer
    alexaskrywer.blogspot.com

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    1. I hope so. Or that it'll at least help you like it a wee bit more :)

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  13. Thanks so much for sharing this!! I was so excited to see it, because I just put up a post on the same idea--editing in layers!! Check it out if you feel so inclined: http://www.writeupla.blogspot.com/2014/05/editing-bob-ross-way.html

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  14. I wrote a story a couple of years ago that I would like to go back and edit. At the time, I thought that it was a "really great story". Now...I look back and see that it needs help. Majorly. It is a lot like an idea that my good friend came up with. Do you have any suggestions for how to make it different? Also, it is kind of short (30 handwritten pages) and I was wondering if it is possible to make it novel-length. I am in for major book surgery.

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  15. Interesting. I'll have to try this. Well, technically I'm writing a first draft, but...it's about time I get down to editing the first draft I finished in November. I guess I was kinda hoping I'd finish the first draft of the sequel first, but...well, let's face it, that's a bit of a mess right now. :P

    Hey, this brings the question...lately I've noticed it's best if I don't take more than a few days off writing a first draft, because those days turn into weeks..and months...and so on. But sometimes it happens and I get stuck. Any advice how to get back to writing a story you've let slip for a while? Re-reading what I have so far, brainstorming what could happen next, etc?

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  16. I technically finished a first draft and I took a long time out... actually it's because the ending is horrible, the plot doesn't work there and I lost motivation to fix it because I have no idea of how to change it. Your last posts inspire me to work on this one again, I'm curious to see how it will end :)

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  17. This was so helpful! "Events I foreshadowed but never followed through on," made me wonder about my manuscript! That's good! Can't wait to print it all out and get cracking at revising :)

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  18. Great post!
    I am on the third revision of my first ever trilogy (I’d only just written short stories before I started this project, four years ago), and I have to say I learned a lot of the things you say along the way. I’ve always enjoyed the editing process, but I thing with such a long story (three novels) it’s even better. Everything evolves right in your hands. It’s a fantastic sensation.
    I really enjoyed this post. I’ll certainly read the rest of the series.

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  19. Excellent post! While I'm not a teen and not a new writer, editing has always been difficult to the point where I give up. Thanks for this post! I've talked about it on my blog and linked back. :)

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  20. I just found this article and it is fantastic. I have just finished editing my first novel, and I found editing to be a great tool to turn the story into what I have envisioned for it. I went through 4 rounds of editing in total and have the feeling, that if I am not going to stop now, I will always find things to add and research for it ;)

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