Disclaimer: this post immediately follows last week’s, so if you need to catch up…DO IT NOW.
Today we are going to talk about editing your Shitty First Draft. Ideally, you’ve put it away somewhere for a week or two (or more) where you can’t even glance at it sneakily while pretending to tie your shoelaces (I SEE YOU CHEATING OVER THERE). This is one of the most crucial things you can possibly do when it comes to writing a novel: you have to take time away from it. I’m going to do an entire post about “not writing” in October (since that will be my last hiatus for my current project, and also links up nicely with Inktober, a non-writing creative event I participate in), but what you need to know at this point is that when you put your book away for at LEAST a week (2-3 is better, 4 is best), you can come back to it as an editor instead of a writer. You will have “new eyes,” a different perspective that will allow you to see exactly what needs to be cut and what just needs to be polished. Most importantly, it makes plot/logic issues glaringly obvious. I take several hiatuses during each book, and it saves my ass every single time. When I haven’t, I’ve gone on my merry way, editing a broken book without ever knowing it. Take regular breaks from your book and you’ll save yourself a looooot of time in the “fuck, none of this actually works and now I have to re-plot massive chunks of it” department.
That being said, let’s talk about editing the SFD. You have a typed-up, printed-out Shitty First Draft sitting in front of you, steaming and stinking like only a true pile of shit can. Time to RIP IT TO FUCKING PIECES.
If you remember one thing and one thing only during this phase, it’s this:
YOU ARE NOT TRYING TO MAKE THIS DRAFT PERFECT.
Write it backwards on notebook paper and staple it to your forehead so that you see it when you look in the mirror. Carve it into your arm. (Okay, don’t do either of those things…maybe embroider it on a throw pillow and have someone hit you in the face with it repeatedly)
Drafts 2 and 3 are still going to be messy. They’re still going to be mostly-shit. What you’re focusing on when you edit your SFD are BIG PICTURE CHANGES. Sure, you’ll think up some nice sentences that will make it all the way to the final draft. They’re like….corn-shaped flecks of diamond inside your turdy turdy book. But you aren’t *focusing* on writing nice sentences right now. You’re focusing on “does this make any fucking sense at all?”
I usually start each editing phase with a read-through, start to finish, very little notes. It’s going to be painful….cramming raw shit into your eyes hurts….but you gotta do it. You need to sit down and read your craptastic story as a whole. Then I do another “pass.” This time, while I’m reading, I mark the HELL out it. Since this draft is mainly composed of “major plot point” scenes, here’s what I’m looking for as I read:
1. Does the plot make LOGICAL SENSE?
Here’s what I want you to do. Imagine…the biggest nerd on the internet. Those wonderful, beautiful internet nerds that have days-long arguments about a single sentence of dialogue in Star Trek Beyond and how it completely cancels out the entire plot of Star Trek…something…because Captain Kirk said X and now he’s saying Y and….
I love those nerds. Why? Because when I write (and especially when I edit), I think of one of those nerds reading my book. I think of them completely tearing my plot apart with One. Fucking. Question. “Well, why didn’t your character just do this?” “If so-and-so said they did THIS, then why did THAT happen?” “You specifically stated that your system of magic does not include X, and yet on page 321 X happens very easily, with little to no setup involved with how character Y was able to perform such a complicated and forbidden piece of sorcery that was theoretical, at best, to begin with.”
Read your Shitty First Draft with one of those nerds on your shoulder. It will save your fucking life. Some plot holes will still sneak by you, all the way into the final drafts. But if you edit with your inner “well, actually” nerd, you’re going to cut down on the number of Giant Gaping Plot Holes That Unravel The Whole Book. Plot holes start to become smaller, more contained and easier to fix, with each draft. Thank you, internet nerds. I love you. You make me better at what I do.
Okay, back to things to look for while editing:
2. Does this start in the right place?
I suuuuuuuuuuck at openings. I really, really do. If you look at the documents on my computer, you will see that I have various openings saved in different files because I just can’t fucking decide where to begin. And by the final draft, NONE of those openings are the ones I’ve actually used. Go figure. It’s torture. And it’s also SUPER important (because, obviously, the opening is what is going to hook an agent/editor/reader into giving your book a shot). So, think about the best place to start, and start there. You won’t get it right until way, way, later, but it doesn’t hurt to start thinking about it now.
3. Is it told from the right character’s point of view?
Sometimes the answer to this will be a simple “yes.” Sometimes it will be a simple “yes” until three drafts in, and then you realize that your life is a lie and cake is a lie and everything is garbage and who do I think I am and………..
I changed my POV for my current project in draft….4? Or something? After I had readers look at it. It changed the book for the better. It changed my LIFE. Really think about what the best POV is for this book. What is the best way to get your information across logically? Remember, if you’re working from First Person POV (like I was initially) and that character isn’t in the room when something happens but you still need to include the information…your book is going to include a looooooot of “telling.” And it’s going to be boring and passive.
Sometimes certain genres have tried-and-true POVs. For example, some epic fantasy handles First Person well (the only example I have is the Kushiel series by Jacqueline Carey. FUCKING MASTERPIECES, all of them), but by far, third person is better. There’s just too much information to include that your character isn’t going to necessarily be present for. Consider your genre. Consider the scope of your plot. Consider the best person (or persons) to tell this story.
4. Are my stakes high enough? Does each character want something?
Nobody will care if the hobbit has to get the ring to Mount Doom just so that the cupcakes his uncle made are no longer cursed. Throw those fucking things in the trash, Frodo, and save yourself some goddamn time. Make your stakes high. It doesn’t have to be “the end of the world” but it should be “something horrible will happen to the main character or someone the main character cares about.”
5. What kinds of sub-plots are beginning to form (or can be formed) in the sewage I have now? How can I flesh this thing out?
As I mentioned last week, your SFD is probably going to be very short, since you were mainly focusing on major plot-point scenes. For me, writing is an “additive” art, like drawing (a big “thank you” to my brother for pointing this out!). When drawing, I start with a rough sketch, maybe just some gesture lines and some circles. Then I start to build a form out of basic shapes. I tweak the pose, check the composition, add some figures to make it really pop. Once I have the “bare bones” the way I want them, I start to add in detail: hair and clothing and facial expressions. Then ink and color. The SFD is your sketch. Drafts 2 and 3 are you tweaking the pose/checking your composition/adding things in/making sure it’s right. Drafts 4+ are your detail. So, as you’re editing your SFD and starting Draft 2, you’re going to think of what other layers you can add.
When adding scenes, I write them out on yellow legal or lined notebook paper and insert them more or less where they’ll go in the book. If I’m moving already-typed scenes around, I will physically remove the typed pages from the book and put them in the spot they’ll live in for the next draft.
Sometimes this part of the process can get rather jumbled and messy. The page numbers no longer matter, I’ve got stray pieces of paper everywhere, I have notes in parentheses circled here and there (because I’ve started making decisions based on those notes and committing to one choice or another). When it looks more like a trash heap than a printed manuscript, I go back to my computer and type up what I have so far.
Yeah, you heard me.
I type up the whole thing again.
I don’t just type the new scenes in the SFD document. I type up the whole book again, start to finish, new document, blank screen. Why? Because at this early stage, I’m still getting a feel for the story: its pacing and chronology, scenes that need to be added or cut, and until it starts feeling more like a book than a random mess, I want to start fresh with each draft. By draft 4 I usually just start adding to a current document (saved as a new file, of course), but drafts 1-3 get typed anew, until I have the book IN MY BONES. When the book is “in you,” so to speak, you won’t have to shuffle through 400 pieces of paper to make a change to one sentence. I get to a point where much of the thing is almost memorized, and I know where certain sentences and scenes are without having to look for them too long.
I used to think that this was maaaaaybe a crazy thing to do. Some people *glares at ‘some people’* seemed to think so, too. But I couldn’t help it. I had to type everything up again, print it out to edit, type it up again, print it out…that was just how I worked.
And then a super-cool Twitter account called The UnNovelist proved that I AM ALWAYS RIGHT AND ALSO THE MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE:
At the end of Draft 2 or 3, you’re going to want to think about whether you would feel comfortable letting someone (or someones) read it. You’re going to need readers at some point, but for right now it’ll depend on whether the draft is ready. It’s sort of like those Choose Your Own Adventure books:
-To continue working blindly and without any perspective whatsoever, turn to page 2
-To wallow in self-doubt and despair while someone you suddenly don’t like very much crushes your dreams, turn to page 7.
If your draft is ready to be seen by another human’s eyes, check out next week’s post (which will be about “beta readers” and how to take criticism). If your book needs a few more drafts first, rinse and repeat this post until you feel comfortable handing your baby to a super-judgmental stranger.
See you next week!