Editing, Writing

How to Dig Yourself Out of a Hole

In my last post about writing, I talked about how I started the draft of my novel, how I thought I knew what I was doing, and how I found out I was completely wrong. In this post, I’ll talk about how I started fixing the problems I’d created for myself and how I moved forward through the editing process.

So, at the end of NaNoWriMo*, I found myself with a manuscript that was a little over 50,000 words and filled with a lot of junk. Again, following my standard procedure, I started revising from the beginning of the novel. The first couple of chapters, ones that I had thought about extensively, weren’t in terrible shape. There was some clumsy phrasing, some pacing issues, the usual stuff that you would see in a first draft and nothing that worried me too much. But as I got further and further through the novel, I was finding more stuff that just needed to be removed and less worth keeping. On top of that, I found that there were plot holes littering the story. Big ones. So, the first thing I did to fix my manuscript?

I outlined.

There are two schools of thought out there about whether or not you should outline a story. I’ve always done at least a little bit of an outline, though they were generally rough and never written down. I thought that being able to write from the seat of your pants meant that you were more artistic, more in touch with your characters and plot line. What I learned from actually sitting down and trying to write a long form piece, however, was that (at least for me) writing from the seat of your pants means you don’t really know where you’re going with the story, and your characters can take you for a rather bumpy ride.

For Burner, I sat down and spent about three or four days seriously considering the plot line I had in place and whether it was going to work, and then did some extensive rewrites to it. By the end of it, I had a seven page outline covering each day in the novel, as well as what the characters were doing, why they were doing it, and how it should resolve. And what I found at the end of the process was that I suddenly had a much clearer vision for the story. Suddenly, the scenes in between the action that I had struggled with before were easy, and the plot holes that I’d found were filled in and paved over. Throughout the editing process, I referenced my outline and continued to revise as more ideas came to me during the writing process. Even now, I still check it for information such as the day and time of a scene to make sure that it’s accurately described.

Just to give you an idea of how many notes I have for this novel.
Just to give you an idea of how many notes I have for this novel.

The next step, once I got through a lot of the rough stuff, was to be absolutely vicious with my editing. They say “kill your darlings” and my editing style quickly became a massacre. I deleted pages of writing, thousands of words gone at the press of a key. And the novel improved because of it. It was like cutting out a cancer. With the outline as my guide, I was able to find the pieces that didn’t work or make sense and remove them without any concerns. I knew what needed to go there instead.

And then I had people read the novel. I finished the complete first draft two-and-a-half years after starting (I was not kidding about how much work was needed to fix the manuscript), and I immediately started looking for people I could trust to read it and give me honest feedback. The benefit of having someone else look at your work is that you’re very often too close to the story. Burner is a mystery novel at its core, and I know all of the twists. That makes it hard to know whether those twists are effective or not. Having someone else read the story helped me see where I’d hinted too much or not enough at the underlying mystery of the story. Readers were also able to point out failures in the story, places where I thought things worked, but they didn’t.

Another trick that I found helpful was to read the story outloud. I will admit that this is a somewhat awkward experience. I have a husband and a daughter, and they like spending time with me (this is still a shocking state of affairs for me). Sitting quietly with them in the room or in the area while I’m reading outloud to myself, sometimes repeating sentences or series of dialog in different ways (sometimes I rewrite as I read outloud), is a strange experience. However, if you’re looking to catch weird phrasing or to make sure your characters’ voices are consistent, there’s no better tool than your own voice.

After all of that, I did it over again. I revised the outline, I made edits and rewrites, and then I had people read it. I’m nearly done with that process (significantly faster this time than the first, I might add), and I’m getting ready to start it a third and – hopefully – final time. Editing has been an exhausting but satisfying experience for me. I really like how the novel is turning out, how the story and characters have gained a polish and sense of life. I’ve also learned what not to do when I get started on the other six books in the series, and I’ve already started an in-depth outline for books two and three.

If I could give someone advice for starting a novel, this is it:

  1. Outline early and often
  2. Be prepared to remove and rewrite significant pieces of your story
  3. Read it outloud to catch weird phrasing
  4. Have other people look at your work and critique
  5. Be patient with yourself; you’re writing a novel, it’s going to take time

In other news, I will not be posting tomorrow or Friday, as it’s Thanksgiving, and I’m going to be spending time with my family. I hope everyone has a Happy Thanksgiving! Be safe, eat lots, and I’ll see you all again on Saturday.





*National Novel Writing Month

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