Editing Your Own Novel

Editing your own novel

Now the fun begins. You’ve completed the initial pass on a chapter or maybe the whole manuscript and it’s time to edit. I think of editing as a more creative process than a first draft. Creativity is spawned by restrictions and what could be more restrictive than an established plotline with developed characters in already carefully crafted scenes? Every change you want to make must be formed within these boundaries. Yes, it is a challenge, but it’s an exciting challenge. Or maybe you go completely crazy and change the boundaries, add or delete a character. That’s just a big edit. By the way, don’t be surprised when the edit takes four times longer than writing the original manuscript.


Perspective Tricks

In order to edit your own work, you need to become a different person with a different perspective. Not easy. But there are ways to trick yourself. First try reading printed hard copy of the piece. For whatever strange reason, you gain a different perspective reading words on a page than you do reading a computer screen. It’s weird, but misspells, repeated words and other bad grammatical stuff sticks out. Then try reading your work out loud. This exposes clumsy sentence structure, repetitious scenes and dialogue that is not owned by a character. The next trick is assembly. Connecting the paragraphs and chapters together highlights transitions and exposes logistical problems, e.g. things the characters know and when they know them, things the characters have with them and when they get them and memories the characters have and when they remember them. You’re almost finished. The final trick is time. You are a different editor a week or a month or a year later. Put your work away for a time, then bring it out in the future and read it with new eyes. You’ll be surprised by what you find.



What are Layers?

Each edit pass you do with a different perspective can be focused on a different element in your writing. I like to call these layers. The initial layer is plot consistency and dramatic motivation. Read through your manuscript to ensure that everything makes sense, the scenes progress sensibly and every action by a character has a legitimate motivation.  Authentic dramatic motivation makes for powerful storytelling. The best reference I’ve found for this is The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri, first published in 1942. The next layer should include a verification of the story arc. In simple terms, does it follow the classic sequence of problem/issue, rising tension, climax and anti-climax? I found the best-written explanation of this construct in The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vobler. Another layer might be voice. Do each of the characters maintain their voice throughout the work? Is the voice authentic for their gender and age? Does each of the characters have an arc?


Paper Tools

Diagramming your work sounds like another trick, but it is really an important methodology. Maybe some people can do this in their head, but I need stuff on paper as a visual aid. Basically, it helps me to have my entire story laid out so that I can see the whole thing in a glance. This works for portions of a novel, but is most useful when you have the whole first draft manuscript complete. A story board is a form of this where each scene gets a 3 x 5 card and all the cards are pinned to a big wall somewhere so you can see the whole novel and move scenes around. I don’t have a big enough wall, so I use a computer. First I write a detailed outline of the novel. In my scheme, every chapter is described in a paragraph of a few very terse sentences. Events, characters and actions are listed. I print out all the paragraphs, one for each chapter and paste them together into a single long sheet that is about ten feet tall. Then I use colored pencils to connect the flows, all the appearances of the characters (arcs), all the occurrences of magic (logistics), and so on, until I have a successful picture of the story movement, and I’m satisfied that nothing will interfere with the dream state of the reader. A hidden benefit of this methodology is the ability to make changes. With this view of your novel from 1,000 feet, you can move scenes around with god-like power and not lose connectivity and continuity. Whew! Finished. No. Now it’s time to take your baby to its first critique group. Good luck.


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