Getting Out of the Labyrinth: Part 5 – Editing

A new week, another step forward on our series about The Labryinth! This week we’re talking about what might me the most scary of the steps, editing.

i prefer barefoot.
i prefer barefoot.

Before you even start on the editing process, you need to give yourself time to celebrate. You just wrote a book. Not a 12-year-old scribbling in a notebook. Not a really long fanfiction. An honest to goodness book that you pulled up out of your brilliant mind and made into reality. Take a few days. Go out to dinner with friends and get the most expensive thing on the menu. Order too much moscato. Buy something you’ve been looking at longingly for weeks. Take a long bath with a book and bubbles and candles. And don’t feel bad about any of it. You 100% need this time, especially if you’re been in the labyrinth. Make yourself feel good because you deserve to feel good. You just did something amazing. Writing? Writing is easy. But finishing? You are a rock star, so you should treat yourself like one.

Okay? Okay.

Today I’m going to be talking about editing. I think that this is probably the stage I was most afraid of going into it. I heard so many horror stories about authors who had to chop their beloved novel to pieces to make it fit through the tiny hole that is “publishability.” The narrative seems to be that we should be afraid of editing. It’s going to make our book into something dry and committee approved and getting there is going to be painful and full of sacrifices.

I’m here to tell a different story. Editing is never as scary as you make it out to be in your head! Don’t let it psyche you out and take it one step at a time.

1. With your red pen in hand, read your book.

This step is the most depressing… and rewarding.

You’ve taken the time you feel you need to reward yourself and feel like a boss. That’s good! You are a boss. Not only does this make you feel good about yourself, it gives you a bit of time to realize that book isn’t something you are writing. It’s something that you wrote. The difference is pretty huge. Your book doesn’t exist in pieces anymore. It doesn’t live part on a page and part somewhere halfway between your brain and your fingers. You book is now a full, real thing.

So now it’s time to read it.

Why is it depressing?

Well, because it isn’t going to be very good. In fact, if you did your job right, it’s going to be pretty bad. Full of typos, misspellings, constantly changing character descriptions, bad pacing, scenes that go on forever, a character who suddenly starts acting different because you realized something about their backstory halfway through and just kept writing… the list is endless.

And when you come across those things, just fix them. When you see something you don’t like, fix it. This is one of those things that sounds hard, but is shockingly easy. You know how to write. You know how a sentence works. You know what good pacing is. Editing only sounds hard because you haven’t finished a book before. Editing sounds like that terrible brain-bending depressing slog that is fixing things as you write. But it’s not! Since there isn’t a battle taking place in your brain between writer and editor, editing is something that will come to you, easier and easier every page.

Why is it rewarding?

Well, because it’s going to be good! This isn’t a contradiction. The thing is that I lied all along. Your book isn’t terrible. Your book is wonderful.  It’s first draft wonderful, but you are going to have so much fun rediscovering little scenes, being delighted by character tics you didn’t even realize you were writing, and seeing how all those tiny pieces you’ve been working away at fit together.

Once you’ve written your book, you’re not going to read it expecting final draft quality. You’ve written it. You know it isn’t that good. You remember all the little bits you were pretty sure sucked. And they’re still going to suck! But since you know they suck, it’s not like the fact that they suck is going to shock you. You’re going to see the joy in them, instead.

You’re going to reread scenes you hated and see things in them you love. And the opposite will happen, too! But this first read through will show you how your book works together as an entity, how one thing flows (or doesn’t flow) into another. The wonder of reading a novel and knowing that it’s yours blunts the horror of seeing how bad it really is.

This first read through with red pen at the ready will let you straighten up the most egregious problems with little effort, and give you a sense of what you’re working with.

(1.b. Try to do all of this in no longer than a week. If you take too long to do your first read through, with long breaks between sessions or just short bits at a time, the book will still just feel like parts. You need a sense of how it works as a whole!)

2. Round up a couple of alpha readers.

Wikipedia says that alpha and beta readers are just different names for the same job, but I think they’re really different. To me, an alpha reader doesn’t do any of that stuff beta readers do – check grammar, spelling, formatting, or so forth. That’s for later. Betas are super important, but alphas might be more so.

We know our books so well. We know them inside out. It’s really hard to read them as readers. We know what’s going to happen, so how can we tell how our plot twists land? We know our characters, so how can we tell if they’re introduced to the reader in a way that’s not too much or too little information? We know all the rules of our world, so how can we tell whether we’ve given enough information so that readers know them, too? A beta reader takes your book and makes it better by taking it apart. An alpha reader is there to answer the most basic questions:

Did you like it?

What did you like? What did you think about the ending? How did you feel about my characters? What about the plot? Were you bored? Where were you bored? Did the ending come too soon? Was everything adequately foreshadowed?

These are all questions that we, as writers, can’t answer ourselves. While theoretically we could do our own copy editing, we’ll never be able to have the blind eyes that an alpha reader brings to the table.  Not everything an alpha reader says needs to be right, but everything they say should be taken into consideration.

The great thing about alpha readers compared to beta readers, too, is that they’re easy to find. While your beta readers should preferably be other writers who read a lot and know what they’re looking at and how to help, an alpha reader can be just about anyone who ever reads fiction. Find someone who’ll read the book and then be willing to get grilled about it. They’re not too hard to find!

In the interest of breaking this into two parts, after you do those two steps – stop. Stop for a long time. Stop for between six months and a year. What you need now is distance and perspective. You need to put as much space between yourself and that book as possible. Set a date when you’re going to go back to it, and until then, don’t look at it. Don’t touch it. Don’t think about it. Write something else purely for fun. Or don’t write at all. (This is the only time I will ever say that.)

When that date rolls around, crack that thing open again. Since it’s been so long, you’re going to be able to look at it under a new, less invested light. It’s time to actually edit it. Armed with a picture of what you’re working with from your first read, and the impressions of your alpha readers, get a machete, an axe, a blowtorch, and start tearing things apart.

 3. Start a graveyard for your darlings.

There’s a common turn of phrase in a literary circles. “Kill your darlings.”

Despite how it sounds, this doesn’t refer to the actual killing of anyone or anything. It’s not about letting characters die. It’s not about making sad things happen in your manuscript. It’s an editorial phrase. It means that if there’s a section of your book that you really love every single thing about but realize it’s not necessary or helpful… you get rid of it. It doesn’t matter how much you like it or how good it is if it’s dragging your book down. This can be a dialogue that runs too long, a turn of phrase that is clever but confusing, or even an entire scene that just doesn’t provide anything to the novel as a whole. A book should contain exactly as many words as it needs and not a single word more.

This is hard. It’s really hard. Getting rid of stuff that’s bad is easy. Getting rid of stuff that’s good but the book is better without? That’s rough. That hurts. Hitting backspace or crossing out that line makes you sad. They don’t call it killing your darlings because it’s fun.

I came up with a simple trick that made it so much easier. On my hard drive, there’s a file called “Deathsniffer Darling Graveyard,” and that document contains every single thing I loved that I took out of my first novel during the editorial phase. It made me feel so much better knowing that my darling wasn’t dying, it was still going to exist, just in a slightly different place. But I could go and look at it whenever I wanted! All those lovely little phrases that had to be pried out of the book for their own good lived on!

I never actually went to read them again. But knowing they’re there makes it easier, and you can bet there’s going to be a Deathsniffer 2 Darling Graveyard started in a few months.

4. Get a friend who doesn’t mind hearing you ramble.

Your second, harder edit can be a strangely lonely experience. Whether you’re gutting darlings and sobbing or you just figured out an elegant, perfect way to fix a problem, it’s a challenging process that takes a lot out of you even when it’s fun. It is so helpful to have someone who’ll listen tolerantly while you babble about your experiences.

Ideally, they’d have read the book while it was still in its larval state so they know what you’re talking about. It’s even better if they can provide advice when you’re stumped on a problem or want feedback for a potential solution. Someone who knows the craft themself will empathize more, and be able to provide better feedback…

But ultimately, all you need is someone who’ll text you sincere smiley faces when you’re owning and sadfaces when you’re not. And any friend worth their salt can do that. Don’t let yourself get wrapped up in your own head during this process. You need to get it out of your system!

(Can’t find anyone? I find making a twitter account and filling it with nothing but editing woes helps me a lot when I’m deep in the trenches and my writing buddies aren’t around. It gets it out of your system, if nothing else!)

5. Remember: almost everything about editing is easier than it looks.

Even when I’m in the midst of editing, I can forget how easy it is.

I was about halfway through my first hard edit when I came across a major, book-killing plot hole. I came up with a solution to fix it, but it looked like a lot of work. I needed to make consistent edits across five chapters and major edits to all scenes involving a certain character. That’s not even mentioning the minor edits needed from that point to the end of the book to reflect the new events. It sounded awful, frankly. And I didn’t want to do it.

So… I didn’t.

Shamefully, I was so bummed about having to make those changes that I put my book on a shelf for about nine months. I knew exactly what I had to change, but it was going to be so much work. I did other stuff. I avoided my book. Eventually, circumstances forced me to admit that I was going to have to come back to it and deal with the edits, or it was going to rot on that shelf and all my work would be for nothing.

I got the manuscript out again, I knuckled up, and I made the changes.

It took less than an hour to do the basics. The rest of the edits, I fixed as I continued to work through the novel, adding references to the revised events when the opportunity presented in what I already had written.

I’d spent nine months avoiding one hour of work. Because what seemed like so, so much effort was nothing. I wasn’t writing an entire new five chapters, I was just reading them and making changes as needed.

Even major changes aren’t that hard. That skeleton you built will hold up. You can take pieces out, put pieces in, change and rearrange pieces, and you still have a book. You never have to write the book again. You’re just slowly but surely building a better version of it.

There’s no limit to the amount of times you can go through the book. Every single time, you’re going to make it a bit better. I’d say I’ve read The Deathsniffer’s Assistant beginning to end about thirty times. Some pieces of it, I’ve read a lot more than that. You’re going to become so familiar with your book and every time you go through it, it’ll get better. And better. And better. Even if all you change is one dialogue tag, you’ve made it better. Editing is a gradual process and it’ll usually take more than one, two, or even three read throughs to get it where you want it.

But it’ll happen! And instead of focusing on how it’s not perfect yet, remember that every single tiny little change is making it better. And remember one other thing: even when you’re ready to start the submission process, you shouldn’t be comparing your book to something on a shelf. You’ve still got your agent, your acquisition editor, your copy editor, and your proofreader to go through before that thing should be getting compared to your favourite novel. Editing is a journey… a long, long journey that doesn’t end until your galleys are done and you’re heading to the presses.

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