The Rewrite

On December 30, 2018, Kyryiann wrote, So, editing. This last November I finished a first draft for the first time. Any tips on the whole editing process?

A few of you had suggestions.

The NEWLY REPRESENTED Melissa Mead: I usually let it sit for a bit, so I can re-read with fresh eyes to spot errors and make sure that everything makes sense.

Christie V Powell: I like to make a list of all of the scenes, describing them in just a few words, then organizing those descriptions into chapters. It helps me see at a glance what needs to be rearranged and what scenes I still need to write.

viola03 says: Congrats on finishing the first draft!

I’m like Melissa Mead in that I like to let it sit for a bit and re-read it with fresh eyes. My first drafts often turn out more like just the plot line and not a whole lot else, so I start with reading it over and adding some more detail, description, backstory, etc. In a draft that I spent a year editing (I know, yikes!), there was one scene that I just couldn’t get right. I tried it one way, let it sit, then tried it another way, let it sit, until I was happy with it. Sometimes trial and error is the best way to get a scene right :).

Once you’re happy with your edits, let your friends and family read the draft and ask for constructive criticism.

Yes! Congratulations, Kyryiann! You’ve done what for me is the hardest part!

Last night I sat in on a webinar on revision conducted by children’s book expert and free-lance editor Harold Underdown, along with his business partner, Eileen Robinson, another kid lit publishing pro. You can link to their revision workshops and revision info here: Harold, whom I count as a friend, is the person behind the informative website, The Purple Crayon, which I encourage you to visit and noodle around in if you’re interested in writing for children. The book that Harold and Eileen had chosen to illustrate their revision process was my historical novel, Dave at Night. I was honored!

(Many years ago, before I was published, I submitted my picture book manuscript called “Dave at Night” to Harold. He was one of the few editors at the time who took interest in my work and gave me thoughtful feedback. He asked me to expand the story into a chapter book, which I did, and which he rejected–but in the revision I discovered that I’m a novelist, that the longer form suits me. Before then, I had been afraid to try a novel, and I’m forever grateful. Several years and many revisions later, the book was published with a different editor.)

This is a long way to get to telling you that the process the webinar described is called a revision grid, and it’s very much like what Christie V Powell does. Essentially, it’s a list of scenes along with description. The descriptions are organized into a few metrics, like thoughts, dialogue, setting, that characterize the scene. In the process of creating the grid, the writer sees what she’s accomplished and locates the spots that need work.

I agree with Melissa Mead that it’s useful to wait a while before diving into revision. Distance gives us the perspective to see our work fresh. Depending on our natures, we can be less hypercritical–or we can see that not everything is perfect.

If you feel that the draft is dreadful–no worries! First drafts are supposed to be a mess. You’ve done it right.

Here are some of the major things to look at in going through your draft:

• In places, our story feels rushed. In these spots it may be hard to know how the character got from one setting to the next, one feeling to the next, one time to the next, or how relationships, attitudes, or feelings have shifted. In those places, we have to expand to show our story’s evolution. We may need to add scenes and reveal more, remembering to include our MC’s thoughts and feelings, as well as who-said-what and why and where. This expansion and seeming slow-down is likely to have the paradoxical effect of making our story appear to speed up, because, for the reader, being on the ground where events are happening is thrilling.

• We’re bored when we’re reading our manuscript. The problem here may also be that we have to add more showing. We may be narrating too much. Or it may be that we’ve been protecting our MC and we have to inflict the worst, or almost the worst, on her.

• Our setting may not be fully fleshed out. The reader may have trouble envisioning it. I know some of you draw maps for your stories. In this case, you might like to draw the setting. Or you can draw it in words in your notes, and then think about how your characters would experience and navigate the space and what they would react to in it, keeping in mind what you want to make the reader aware of.

• Are your characters consistent? Are we making them do things for plot reasons that they wouldn’t do? In revision, we can think about how to move our plot along without forcing our characters to go against their natures. Or we can rewrite our characters so they’ll naturally do what we need them to. Or, we can have them change, making sure the reader is looped into all the steps in the change.

• Here’s one I’ve been guilty of more than once: making my MC, whom I want the reader to adore, unlikable. For me, when I’ve done this, I’ve made her a tad self-centered and clueless about the people around her. I hasten to add that you may not want the reader to love your MC, or you may want him to come to love her gradually as she evolves. In this case, you just want to be sure you’re achieving the effect you’re after.

• And another I keep running into: pacing. Mine is often too slow, especially at the beginning. My solution is to trim, or, more accurately, hack. Every sentence is a candidate for the chopping block. I don’t think I’ve ever revised a novel without cutting more than 100 pages. As I’ve said before here, I don’t just send them to oblivion–I copy them to my Extras document in case they turn out to be essential after all. And this comforts me. They still exist. And my remaining pages move faster. Besides, I believe in concision. Wordiness is my enemy.

While I’m writing my first draft I always become aware of problem areas that I don’t want to go back to fix right then, because it’s generally best, if we can, to soldier on to the end. When I sense an issue, I go to the top of my manuscript–you can do this in a separate document, if you prefer–and make a note. Here’s one from my forthcoming book about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain: Handling slaves. Is there anything apologist about it? Should I make Hamdun be a servant and skip all that?

(Ultimately, I decided to keep the slavery, because it was common then, and I wanted readers to know that, at the time, most slaves in Europe were Muslims from North Africa, and most slaves in North Africa were Christians from southern Europe, both taken by conquest. The sub-Saharan slave trade was in its infancy in the fifteenth century.)

Anyway, when I finish my first draft, I consult my top-of-the-manuscript notes. As I clear them up, I delete them.

I’m an inveterate fiddler, so I repair my sentences and paragraphs at every stage, even in first drafts, when it’s a foolish time-waster–because the sentences and paragraphs are likely to be cut. I vary sentence length and sentence and paragraph beginnings. I’m even, a product of my poetry training, sensitive to the sound of my prose and its meter. Sometimes I add or delete alliteration and assonance. When I want extra punch, I may bring on the iambs, da DUM, da DUM, because ending a sentence, a paragraph, or a chapter on a stressed syllable packs a wallop.

As we go through successive revisions, when our drafts are more polished–and certainly before submission–we make sure all is clear, because clarity is the writer’s deity. We have to say exactly what we mean. (By the way, that last sentence is in iambs. We HAVE to SAY exACTly WHAT we MEAN.)

Here are four prompts:

∙ Your main character is in a twelve-step program and is attempting to make amends to the people he’s hurt. Some take this well, but others not so much. Pick one of the not-so-much characters and write a story about the relationship and how it develops in this real-life revision.

∙ The fairy Lucinda has decided to reform herself. She is visiting the (still-living) victims of her gifts and attempting to repair the damage her gifts created, but, in her bumptious fashion, she brings on hosts of unintended consequences. You can pick gifts from my books or make up fresh ones. Write a story about one or more of her attempts to repair the past.

∙ Pick a paragraph or a page from a finished draft or a WIP and rewrite it five ways.

∙ Pick a chapter from a finished draft and trim it as much as you can. Do this in more than one pass. Trim. Walk away. Wait an hour. Go back and trim again. Pay special attention to your adjectives and adverbs. Do you really need this one or that? Sometimes I discover that I’ve written two sentences in a row that say the same thing. One can go. When you’re finished and have waited at least another hour, read the skinny chapter. What do you think? Better or worse?

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. So this is on the completely opposite part of the writing process, than this post, but I’ve just got an idea for a fantasy story and am working on fleshing it out.

    My MC has just become a slave and has just been sold to an owner, it is war time and she is a prisoner of war. Her village was attacked, but a younger sibbiling(age 6 or 7ish) is in some kind of danger and she must escape to free said sibbiling.

    I am also curious for how you come up with fantasy name?

    Thanks! I’m so exited to read the new book 😉

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      There’s a comment thread on how to come up with fantasy names in the previous post’s comments (Plotting Plot).
      I don’t the idea seems too cliche at all! The idea might be popular, but it’s definitely not overused, and when I use a popular idea as my foundation, I usually find some way to twist it up as I’m plotting or mulling it over in my head.

      • Writing Ballerina says:

        BTW that last part wasn’t a brag, it was a confident statement that you’ll be able to do the same. Sorry, I forgot to read over the comment before I posted it 🙂

        • Thanks, for all the support! I’ve managed to get my self stuck(again). So I have been brain storming and one day in health class(we were learning about addictions to drugs) I was thinking
          What if a leader of a country were to be adicted to a drug?
          So one thing lead to another and my idea has transformed into;
          My MC(Ilise) has never had an easy life,but it was at least bear able, untill King Rokarun became addicted to a magical drug, now the entire kingdom is falling apart around her all because King Rokarun can’t find anymore of his drug.
          Now my problem is I don’t know any better than Ilise what she will do about this!

    • That sounds like a really interesting idea! The time she spends biding her time before she can escape and help her siblings seems like it’d be really fun to figure out. Good luck with it!

  2. future_famous_author says:

    I think that some authors are probably good at using cliches, then twisting the story in some way that would surprise you even if it weren’t a cliche! So twisting the story as Writing Ballerina suggested is a really good idea!

  3. Yay, thank you! This really helps. I waited a month to get started and now I’m starting to edit it, going over and rewording things. I’m definitely going to be using some tips!
    I was wondering, I want to have chapters with names, not just numbers. Does anyone here do that, and if so, how do you come up with the names?

    • Made of Stardust says:

      Well normally I don’t name my chapters but when I read fanfictions online I’ve noticed that a lot of people sort of sum up what happened in that chapter in two words or less. Let’s say a war has been brewing in a story for a long time but just now, in this chapter, it truly starts. You could title that chapter “War”. I don’t know if I helped too much but hopefully I helped a bit?

    • I name mine in my ongoing YA series. I also use chapters to help my pacing, so the name is usually evident. I posted an example of my excel sheets on my blog, one of which includes all of my chapter names. Let me see if I can find the link…

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      Based on the blog post about your question, I’m assuming you’re done the first draft? Good; I wouldn’t worry about chapter titles until the end of the first draft when you have a good idea of how the chapters are going to be divided up and what’s in each chapter (thought you might move things around as you revise).
      Chapter titles can serve as foreshadowing and/or symbolism. If the former, make it subtle, or the readers won’t be surprised. Symbolism is great, too. You can pick an object in the chapter that maybe holds some weight and name the chapter after it.
      You can also use an obscure noun (eg. “horror” or “joy”) where appropriate as a one-word chapter title.(I personally like “horror,” or something of the like because it adds some tension.)
      Also keep in mind that not every chapter has to be symbolism or foreshadowing, etc. You can mix and match, or make double meanings.
      Hope this helped!
      (I’m also impressing myself with these super cool answers. Believe me, I don’t know where they come from! [sorry if that’s a little of a brag])

  4. I need some help brainstorming! What are some traits that make a character sympathetic/likable to you, that go beyond just being a good person? (For example, do you like characters who are clever? Brave? Ruthless? Confident?)

    And on a different note, what makes you dislike a character? I’m not talking about antiheroes or intentionally “unlikable or antihero characters, but rather things that make you dislike a character because they’re not written well.

    Also, how do you have a character grow and overcoming their flaws without having those flaws annoy the reader at the beginning? People aren’t perfect and usually change and learn/overcome their flaws throughout life, but I’ve noticed that people often get annoyed and stop reading before that can happen.

    And finally, on a much more general note, has anyone else noticed that characters in YA get a *lot* more scrutiny and criticism than those in other age categories? Be too snarky, and you’re “annoying”. Feel hesitation or ambivalence or change your mind about a situation (as any normal person would) and you’re “wishy-washy”. Be too perfect/special in any way and you’re a Mary Sue, make too many mistakes and you’re TSTL (too stupid to live). I have rarely, if ever, seen any reviews of MG books talk about characters like that. (Flat or ineffective characterization, yes, but nothing like this.) Do MG books just happen to have better-written characterization than YA books, on average? Is this a matter of audience? (I’ve found that a lot of YA reviewers tend to be older teens or young adults (20-30), while MG reviewers tend to be parents reading with their kids or MG-aged kids themselves.) Or are we just holding fictional children and tweens to a different standard than teens?

    • I think YA books in the Chick Lit category often portray teenage characters full of angst which is difficult to accomplish without making one’s readers roll their eyes. There seems to be a big market for teenage girls who read for the “feels” instead of enriching their minds. Plus, so many YA books set up their characters in a way that allows for a steamy romance by giving them malleable morals or making them clueless to the situations they find themselves in. Though many books like that exist, they do not make up the whole population of YA books. Perhaps people roll up their sleeves when analyzing all YA books now and expect to find artificial motivations behind the characters’ behaviour. If I myself wrote a decent YA novel, I would rather that people give me a chance.
      You may be right that we hold teens to a different standard. I think that’s because stories about teens deal with more controversial aspects of society and ethics than books about the lives of children do. If readers disagree with the treatment of these aspects in some YA novels, this may bring them to the conclusion that the characters are designed to be unrealistic to help further a “false” message.
      Unfortunately, I have not read a large number of YA novels that exist today, so I may be way off.

    • For the question about characters overcoming flaws, what I try to do is make the character realize their flaw and want to overcome it, but fail initially. Good intentions should probably make them sympathetic. And, if they know they have this flaw, they might joke about it in a slightly self-deprecating way, and that self-awareness should also make them less annoying. It’s like Jo in Little Women, who is definitely aware of how bad her temper is, and she wants desperately to change it, but for a while she can’t.

    • KM Weiland talks about each character having a Lie, a Want, a ghost, and a Need. The Lie is something that the character believes about the world, and all character flaws are symptoms of it. So, in my current WIP, my character’s Lie is that trusting others is a weakness. Her flaws include hiding emotions, keeping distant from others, running away when she’s uncomfortable, and avoiding new experiences. Her Want is to find a home, both physically and socially. Her ghost is the reason she has her Lie: what past experiences caused her to form her lie. In this case, bullying by her cousins for showing weakness, and a betrayal by her father. The ghost makes her Lie relatable, and her Lie makes her flaws relatable. Her Need is the same as her truth–it’s what she discovers through the story that counteracts the Lie and allows for growth. My character Keita’s Need is that trusting others can be a great strength that empowers her to find her Want.

      So, the main way that characters change (still summarizing Weiland) is through rewards and consequences. In the beginning, when you see the character in their normal world, they are rewarded for their lie. However, once the plot gets going, acting on their lie gets punishments and acting on the truth gets rewards. They discover the Truth in the middle of the story and wrestle between the two until the climactic end.

  5. Thank you for the NEWLY-REPRESENTEDness. Gail! 🙂 I just hope I’m not messing up too badly in my ignorance. She’s already had to nudge me to send her something that I didn’t realize I was supposed to send.

  6. I have a question about trilogies/series. When you read a Book 2, how much of a recap of Book 1 do you hope for? Or if you, say, pick a book out of a box at a garage sale, and realize it’s “Book 2 of Awesome Series,” do you want to have what’s gone before explained, or would you rather just dive right in?

    • I would dive right in. Someone once told me that all books technically start after the beginning, so even the first book in the series needs background/world building worked in carefully. I’ve been trying to get new bets-readers for each book in my series so they can tell me if they can catch on without the first ones.

      I have read some creative attempts to summarize the previous books, and sometimes it was helpful even if I did read the first books. Eragon”s later books have an intro in an oral storytelling type voice. Seraphina”s sequel had a summary disguised as an academic treatus.

    • Made of Stardust says:

      I would rather dive right in, I mean, I don’t normally care if it’s just a small amount of summarizing but when authors like recap practically everything that happened before it just annoys me a little if you know what I’m saying. I just want to get to the part where the story actually begins, you know?

    • I usually don’t need that much of a recap in the book itself (unless it’s been really long between books or if the first book was super complicated, like the A Song of Ice and Fire series), but a line or two about the ending of book 1 in book 2’s back cover synopsis usually helps. And some reminders about minor events/characters in the book are generally useful. I can remember the main plotline and characters, but occasionally forget about minor stuff like the guy the MCs ran into and spoke two lines with or the name of the town they stayed at for a chapter.

      If you’re really worried, you could always write a separate recap and put it on your blog/webpage so that people can find it if they really need it. Seth Dickinson did that for his book The Traitor Baru Cormorant (and in that case, this was a *really* good idea, because the first book was super complicated and came out quite a while ago). Here’s the link, if you’re interested:

  7. Made of Stardust says:

    I need some help. So in my story, the MC’s city is taken over. The conquerors are afraid of magic so they manage to siphon it out of everyone. The MC is alive at that time and I need some help figuring out how she can keep her magic even though everyone else has lost theirs. I don’t know if that makes sense but I’d appreciate any help! 🙂

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      If the MC’s magic is somehow intrinsically different from everyone else’s, and the reader knows this from the get-go, then the conquerors can fail to get it out of her, because they’re not aware of the difference and don’t know how to deal with it.

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      Maybe the MC hides, or was away visiting her grandma in a cottage outside the city, or hunting, or something else. I also like what Mrs. Levine suggested, that she has a special type of magic. Maybe she has two types of magic, while everyone else has one, and the conquerors think they have siphoned out all, but they have only siphoned out one.
      Make a giant list of everything that could work, no matter how silly or obvious or random. Get it all out.

    • My family just watched “Avatar: The Last Airbender” together, and it reminds me of one of the main character’s backstory. Her mother claimed to be the one with magic and was killed for it, when really it was the young child. So, not only is the character the only one with magic, she also has a tragic backstory that defines her character arc: she became a merciful mother-figure herself. Is there a way you can use a relationship with another character to form her escape?

  8. Does anyone else have problems with using/avoiding anachronistic metaphors when writing high fantasy? For example, how would you compare someone to a ticking time bomb or a loose cannon in a world without bombs, cannons, or even gunpowder? I’ve just started to realize how modern many of our common colloquialisms are, which is kind of interesting.

    • On a related note, just curious…Is there anyone here who does NOT know what a broken record sounds like?
      or how to “dial” a wrong #?
      or why “clockwise” is called that?

      (I may have just set myself up to feel REALLY old. 🙂 )

      And yes, coming up with metaphors that fit the setting can be a challenge.

      • I’ve never actually heard a broken record, although I’m not THAT young, lol. Given the nature of the metaphor (and what little I know about records), I’m guessing it either plays on repeat and skips parts, or just sounds really scratchy and annoying?

        • I found a record that I loved as a kid and got my brother-in-law to convert it to digital files for me. It converted everything, including some skips and repeats. So nice that I’ve preserved that annoyance for posterity 🙂

        • It plays the same bit over, and over… “Jingle bells…gle bells….gle bells…gle bells…”
          The next sound is usually some frustrated person picking up the needle. Or maybe smacking the record player, but that scratches the record, which causes more skips.

          Anyway, back to the ticking time bomb…Dam about to burst? Harness about to snap?

          Loose cannon: Wild/rabid dog? Blind archer?

          This kind of thing can make for some fun subtle worldbuilding (Ex, Malak calls someone he’s furious at “frozen carrion” because serpent-demons hate cold and won’t touch meat that’s been sitting too long.)

          • future_famous_author says:

            Yes it can be fun to come up with things for your characters to say or things to compare sounds to.
            For example, in The Tail of Emily Windsnap (younger grade book, third and up maybe? I started in third, but still love it about five years later), Emily, a human, says “wicked,” whereas her mermaid friend, Shona, says, “swishy.”

          • Gail Carson Levine says:

            This is another instance where lists help.We uncork (not an anachronistic word!) and let our brains breathe and list possibilities. Loose cannon: stampeding unicorn, for example. I like Melissa Mead’s ticking-time-bomb ideas.

      • I didn’t even realize the card connection until you mentioned it! For me, at least, the phrase has been so ingrained in my memory by itself that I wouldn’t have thought about it if I saw it in a book.

  9. Hi! I haven’t been on the blog for a while but I’m back! The discussion of chapter names reminded me of something I came across the other day. I was looking through an old NaNoWriMo story I wrote when I was twelve. The very first chapter is called “The Exposition.” Most. Honest. Chapter. Title. Ever! XD

  10. Made of Stardust says:

    So, I want to start working on my story but beginnings are always really hard for me. Does anyone have any good ideas or tips for writing beginnings?

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