The Red Pencil

On May 26, 2018, Bethany Meyer wrote, What is the best editing process? What steps do you do in what order from beginning to end in the process?

Also, how does one rewrite a part of the story without feeling like you’re not changing anything/the story has gone flat/wanting to pull your hair out?

Christie V Powell wrote back, After I finish the rough draft, I’ll put it aside for a month or two. Then I’ll read it over and make a list of all the scenes. I reorder them into chapters and figure out what scenes are still missing–for my current WIP, I’m using KM Weiland’s story structure to get the big picture–character arcs, theme, and plot–in the right places. Then I go through and get the manuscript to match the new outline. After that I’ll get feedback from beta readers, and go through it several more times, checking for character, dialogue, prose, grammar mistakes, etc. Then I’ll order a physical copy from staples and go over that to see what I missed.

I definitely do feel that I am changing things–but in a good way. The rough draft helped me to discover the themes and overall feel of the story, and then my editing will help me bring to light what I’ve discovered. For instance, I was half-way through the rough draft when I realized that the relationship between two specific characters was going to be a major focus. In editing, I went back and changed the order and added scenes so that this relationship is a bigger part of the story. I figured out that one of the themes is the dangers of extremism verses the importance of communication, so I worked in two different antagonists, each representing opposite extremes.

Wow! Christie V Powell is organized! That sounds like a great approach to revision.

Just saying, Bethany Meyer, my hair is thin to begin with, and I feel lucky to have any left!

But I’m less likely to tear mine out in revision, my favorite part of the process, than in writing my first draft, my least favorite part.

It may be helpful for everyone to think about revision as I do: the hardest work is over; I have an entire story–beginning, middle, and end; all I have to do now is make it better.

I’m such a slow writer that when I finish the first draft of a novel, I’ve pretty much forgotten the beginning, so I have to wait only a few days before I can dive back in. But I agree with Christie V Powell that at least some time has to go by. We need that time to be able to see what’s going on in an objective way, not to feel defensive about every word and every scene that we labored to produce.

The feeling that the story has gone flat may come from not waiting long enough before going back into it. Immediately after finishing we are at our most vulnerable to a doubt attack.

Every writer works differently, and I’m not as organized as Christie V Powell, so I just jump back in, and I tend to do everything at once as I go through: character development, dialogue, setting, grammar, word choice, pacing. For me: pacing, pacing, pacing.

As I’m writing my first draft, I’m often aware of aspects that aren’t working well that I will need to address in revision, so I make a note at the very top of my manuscript. For example, in my WIP, the relationship between my MC and her grandfather is super important, but I don’t think I’ve revealed it enough, and I haven’t developed the grandfather’s personality fully. So I have a note about that at the top of page 1.

Or, to take another example, at the beginning of the WIP, I made my MC a math genius. As I kept writing, I had to conclude that my own grasp of math wasn’t good enough for me to represent hers, and I confess I’m not eager to educate myself sufficiently to keep up with her (along with all the research on fifteenth century Spain). So, there’s another note at the top to tone down the math. I’m worried, though, that I may find that I can’t do without it. If that’s the case, I’ll hit the books.

Some of my notes are about tiny things that will take only a few moments. At one point I need my MC to be wearing, as usual, a lot of jewelry, but I haven’t shown her wearing jewelry at all. I have to drop a mention or two–there’s a note about that.

Also, I note at the top of the manuscripts words I suspect myself of overusing.

So on the happy day, soon after the even happier day when I typed The End, I dive back in. As I go along, I look back occasionally at my list at the top to refresh my memory and make sure I’m catching everything.

But the first thing I do is save my first draft and rename the revision. That way, if I mess up the revision, I still have the original to go back to. This gives me the confidence to move forward. Every time I start a new round of revision, I do the same.

And other things may crop up as well. If they do, I’ll add them to my list at the top, to pick up as I continue, or to fix in my second revision. I’ll also delete notes as I make the repairs.

A first revision is never enough for me. I go through the manuscript one or two or three more times before I send it to my editor, and then, naturally, I revise again and again based on her feedback.

For me it’s a process of both amplifying and cutting. I often find that I’ve glossed over moments that need more, so I go deeper.

In other places, I’ve nattered on endlessly, and then the (virtual) scissors come out. I cut a lot! Always. Usually over a hundred pages, taken in snips from here and there. Sometimes it hurts, and that’s where my Extras document comes in. When I cut something, I copy it into Extras. I know I’ve saved my original draft, but what I’ve just cut may not be in that draft, and anyway I may find it more easily in Extras if I need it, which sometimes (rarely) I do.

I pay a lot of attention in every draft to the minutiae of grammar, sentence structure, word repetition, word choice. Every sentence in a paragraph shouldn’t start with the same word. A string of paragraphs also shouldn’t start with the same word. Sentence after sentence shouldn’t be two clauses connected by and or but. I need to vary my verbs. And so on. Even though this may not seem as important as plot and character, the minutiae determine the kind of read we provide the reader, and we want it to be smooth.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC gets do-overs. When she makes mistakes she can travel back in time and fix them. What could go wrong? Make the fixes go south, causing more fixes in a downward cycle. Write a scene or the whole story.

∙ Jacob Grimm writes the stories and Wilhelm revises them (I’m making this up). But, when it come to “Snow White,” Jacob feels that Wilhelm has murdered his creation. Write the story of their struggle and the way the fairy tale evolves.

∙ Your MC is the daughter in a family that has carried on a feud with another family for six generations. She wants the feud to end and takes on the job of mediator. No one cooperates. Write the story of her efforts to make peace. You decide if she succeeds or fails.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I’m still in my first draft, but thinking about the revision part has already gotten me sweating. But this makes it seem a whole lot better, and makes me not so worried. Great post!

  2. I needed this! I actually just finished my first draft from NaNoWriMo yesterday and started editing today. Thank you so much! I will make good use of these tips and techniques.

  3. I just finished a fifth draft of a book I’ve been working on for over two years in one form or another (There are several pages of it as a comic book and about three sketchbooks full of my characters) and I had to cut a lot of it down for clarity. It now spans one year instead of three or four, and I simplified the plot considerably. I absolutely cannot look at that draft one more time.
    I want to continue the story, but the main plot of what I have so far is the character “wanting to be somebody” in a sense. She wants to be a hero like her uncle, and that drives most of her decisions. In the end, she has a sense that this goal is attainable, but by no means attained.
    I guess the question is really, should I keep writing her story now, or should I switch gears to something completely different for a while?

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        Congratulations on finishing and revising! It’s up to you, of course, but it might be worthwhile to let your latest draft sit awhile so you can get some perspective. You can work on something else in the meantime, then let it simmer.

  4. from a different comment that didn’t get replied, my own comment:
    I go a few questions so I can start my first book. In your book “Writer to Writer” (I’m loving he book so far btw ^-^), you said that I can use your writing prompts to help me start my story, but where/what are the prompts. Also, i’m making a dragon adventure book series (hopefully it will turn into a series), which prompt would work best? And how do I slow myself down with he story? Cause I keep going right to the main part in the first few pages of the story. Lastly, do you ever daydream the whole story in your head sometimes? Like you are going to your destination but your mind is in the story you are waiting to create, does it feel magical? Because o me I am beyond happy when I get sucked into the story.
    also how do you avoid reader’s block, or how do you overcome it.
    reader’s block is when you start writing but than your brain goes blank on what else to write. I think your book “Writer to Writer” explained that, but I don’t completely understand it.
    please reply to these questions soon.
    what do you use to do online typing?
    sorry about all the questions, I just want to make sure i’m ready to begin writing.

    • I overcome Writer’s block by writing whatever pops in to my head, whether it’s a single made-up word (I love making up my own words) or a whole page of ranting at a character.

    • Just adding in my own comment to your post, emily, I do kind of daydream parts of my novel-to-be. Mostly the exciting or emotional parts. So I guess you’re not the only one who daydreams about their books!😉

    • Sounds like you don’t have to worry about writer’s block! 🙂 That usually involves running out of enthusiasm.

      I don’t see anything wrong with going right to the main part of the story. if that’s what you’re enthusiastic about.

      • i guess you’re right Melissa, but i only daydream the main event. Not the start or small details of the story, that is when i get writer’s block.

        • One idea of mine is that you can have your plot, go over the major things, and then write in small things to reinforce them, so that you can think about what needs to be written. Maybe this would help with writers block? Like, for example, two people fall in love. What can reinforce that to make it more realistic? Perhaps weave in some Intimate talks, or a few kisses, etc. Make a list!

          • Gail Carson Levine says:

            I agree with everything that’s been said. The prompts come at the end of most chapters in WRITING MAGIC and at the end of most blog posts. They’re meant to spark ideas. As for your other questions, the more you write, the more they’ll get resolved, I believe. I don’t necessarily mean that the writing will get easier, alas.

  5. Great post, Mrs. Levine! Your last prompt is actually a lot like the plot of another fairy story I’m working on. Forest fairies and city-dwelling fairies don’t get along, but one city fairy realizes that both sides can learn from each other, so he acts as mediator to bring them together.

  6. I have a question. What, in everyone’s opinion, makes a book good? Character development? Plot structure? And what separates a best-seller from a normal book?

    • For me, it’s heart. It doesn’t matter how badly written the plot or the characters are, because if it has enough heart, people are willing to overlook the flaws.

    • Song4myKing says:

      I think it’s a variety of factors for me, and probably the books I think are the absolute best books are ones in which many of the factors come together.

      One thing is goodness. I know that sounds vague. But that’s what stands out to me about a lot of books, including Gail’s. They are good, clean fun. They are a joy to read. The characters are good, likable. I don’t mean perfect. Of course they have flaws. But they don’t flaunt their flaws, or take pride in them, or whatever. If they are aware of their own problems, they make some effort to overcome them. The “goodness” thing is in more than just the characters, though. It’s in the plot and tone and woven all through the story. Again, I don’t mean it’s a la-de-da trip with roses and smiley faces, and a little bump in the road that’s perfectly resolved. I do like gritty stories, even ones that don’t end nicely, like real life. But there’s still something good there. Like hope that shines through, even in a sad ending. Our real world is broken enough in many ways. Why read or write books that promote the feeling of hopelessness? That’s not going to help anything!

      Another thing is depth. The books I love stick in my mind. They make me think, stir stagnant parts of my brain. When I have finished reading them, I mull over them – the story, the characters, the choices, the questions, the themes. Some books have radically changed the way I thought about something. Others just make me think more deeply about something or introduce a new side to it.

      And of course there’s the beauty of a well crafted story itself, all the elements of character and plot and pacing and setting and wording.

      As for what makes a best seller, I don’t know! Previous fame often helps. And I think it also has to do with what topics are hot and in the puplic’s eye at the moment. But I really don’t know those ins and outs!

  7. Question for anyone who’s written a trilogy or series: How do you hook the folks who pick up Book 2 first, and keep them from getting lost, without boring the folks who have read Book 1?

    • Someone pointed out to me once that even the first book in a series doesn’t start in the beginning. There’s all sorts of background information you have to sneak in. The second book is no different–and a lot of times, readers who have read book 1 still need a refresher. You still work in information, little as a time as it’s important to the story. Harry Potter books 2-3 are pretty good at sneaking in a refresher into the text.

      I actually had a problem with my book 2. I tried to work in background information that way, but some of my readers of book 1 complained that they couldn’t remember some of the facts about my secondary characters–their abilities, specifically. I didn’t bring them up in book 2 until it was important, but my readers from book 1 remembered just well enough to know that they were missing something… so I had to go back and sneak in a few lines about their abilities when they very first show up.

      I liked how Seraphina by Rachel Hartman had a summary of the first book in the beginning disguised as a scholarly lecture, which fit her world really well and even included some foreshadowing. The Eragon books tried something similar: a summary in the beginning disguised as a story told around a campfire. You didn’t have to read the summary unless you wanted to.

  8. I have a pretty big plot twist planned for my current WIP, but I’m not sure how many hints I need to drop beforehand for the twist to be unexpected but realistic. I don’t want too many, obviously, because then the reader knows what’s coming. I also don’t want too few, because then I’m afraid it will seem like I’m just pulling things out of thin air and plopping them onto a manuscript. Has anyone else had/overcome the same problem?

    • I think the big thing is that the hints are disguised as something else, instead of stuck randomly in the middle of something. I liked this article from mythcreants: https://mythcreants.com/blog/five-ways-to-hide-your-foreshadowing/

      In my first book (spoilers coming), the villain can change form into a raven, but it’s not revealed until the very end. Some of the hints: my main character can feel if animals are real or not. She repeatedly checks various birds, but they always end up being real–she doesn’t have time to check them all. Every time that my main characters feel uncharacteristically scared or angry, there’s a raven nearby–but there are plenty of other birds/wildlife mentioned too that are perfectly ordinary. There is one scene where I feel like I overdid it–the main character sees a raven flying overhead and feels “an unearthly chill” for no apparent reason. So there’s a bad example.

    • One thing I like to do when organizing foreshadowing is to work backwards from the big reveal and make a list of every piece of information needed for the reveal to make sense. Then I’ll leave one or two for the climax, and scatter the hints throughout the book pretty evenly. I usually have a “book timeline” (based on page count, not the actual elapsed time during the story) that I use to help with pacing, and marking each bit of foreshadowing on there can help me see if the hints are too close together or too far apart. If you want a good example of foreshadowing, watch the movie Wreck-It Ralph. The big reveal happens near the end of the movie, but they start setting it up less than five minutes in. If you trace every “puzzle piece” that eventually forms the big picture, you’ll see that it’s really spread out throughout the film.

      Also, is your plot twist more information-based (character discovers a game-changing piece of information that solves a mystery) or action-based (character does something surprising)? The way you set up each kind is a little different. For information-based twists, the foreshadowing should be specific bits of information that build on each other, while action-based twists should be set up through big picture things like characterization and the tone of the story. For example, a lot of the surprise deaths in Game of Thrones are surprising because there really aren’t a ton of hints that for foreshadow it, but they also feel natural because the they fit the tone of George R.R. Martin’s world (which is dangerous and bloody and pretty much unsafe for everyone, even main characters), and the actions fit the characterizations of the murderers/victims.

  9. Question: How can you make a villian that becomes the MC’s love interest? For Example:
    My MC Maria is the daughter of the Young King’s merchant. The King is angry a lot and feared by his subjects, but I need to make him someone who you can sympathize so that Maria can fall in love with him.

      • That’s a good idea. Maybe give him a really tragic backstory, like being orphaned? Something that effects his life in a big way, and leaves a gap in his life, which leads to him to be really unstable. Perhaps the evil adviser appears to help fill that gap in his life? Just a few ideas of mine. Hope it helps!

        • I like that idea. Maybe he had the evil adviser and a group of friends who thought he should exercise his power to get whatever he wanted.

    • Honestly, a girl falling in love with an “angry villain” makes me uneasy. There are a lot of stories out there about a girl who falls in love with a “bad boy,” and some of them get pretty disturbing, especially if the guy’s abusive. What does he want from her? Why do his subjects fear him?

      I’m not saying that it’s an outright bad idea, but I think you should be aware of the potential issues.

      • This guy isn’t abusive or anything. The only reason his subjects fear him is because his friends think that he should demonstrate his power a lot and that he should get what he wants all the time. The king is kind of a softie, so he lets them influence them sometimes. And he never had someone who checked his temper when he was young, so he is used to getting everything he wants, and Maria doesn’t always do what he wants. Does that make sense?

    • I enjoy thinking about these kinds of stories, but I don’t usually write them down because of the dangers of glorifying abuse. You basically need to have the villain make a real and lasting change in character. Beauty and the Beast is a great example: he starts off mean, and he can’t form a relationship with the girl until he starts reigning in his temper. I also liked “Dragon Lyric” by Bethany Jennings (high school and up). It’s a short story about a girl married to an abusive dragon. (spoiler:) It’s open-ended. The girl escapes in the end and tells the dragon that time would tell if she’s changed him–if so, she’d be open to trying again.

  10. Yeah, I really liked it ‘Dragon Lyric’. There are still some spoilers I didn’t reveal if you still want to look it up.

    I played with this a tiny bit in my first book. My main character has several encounters with the villain who has a crush on her, but she escapes so nothing comes of it. After his defeat in the end, she talks to his brother. She regrets that she didn’t try to change him. The brother points out that the villain would have been abusive.

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