From First Draft to Real F’ing Novel

perfectI’ve only written two full novels, but I seem to have already developed a standard editing procedure. Both novels were drafted using completely different methods, but the editing process has been (thus far) nearly identical. Everyone has their own process that works for them. Some people swear you should only focus on one thing for each pass of editing and ignore all else (i.e. focus on fixing the plot and ignore line edits, character issues, phrasing, etc.). I am wholly incapable of doing that. If I notice something wrong, I have to fix it immediately. I do have a method though. Once the book has been drafted, here’s what I do:

Let it sit. I have no particular length of time I shoot for. Longer is probably better. For my first novel, I think I was only able to hold out for two weeks. Maybe four. I was excited. My second book was written during NaNoWriMo, so my brain was crispy fried disaster by the end of November. December was full of holiday planning and travel, January was full of depression and terrible short story attempts, but sometime in February I finally picked it back up. I don’t think the exact length of time is important, but I believe conventional wisdom says six weeks. If you need a number, I suppose that’s as good as any.

Print read-through and markup. I always print the book for my first read-through. My eyes catch things in print that they tend to skip on the screen. I do a lot of traditional markup along with my own brand of circling, arrows, notes in the margins, angry faces, and self-deprecating memos.

First-round revisions. With the manuscript still in Scrivener, I fix everything I noticed during my first markup while also doing a full second read-through. I do a lot of hopping between chapters to check consistency of details during this phase, something that Scrivener is excellent at handling. I fix absolutely everything that I notice as I go along, but I do turn my analytical brain particularly toward large-scale concepts like plot, flow, pacing, and characterization during this phase.

Compile scene and chapter wordcounts. Once I’m done with the major revisions, I’m about 90% sure that all the scenes that need to exist, do. I may still add more based on crit partner feedback, but at this point I make a list of all my scenes and their wordcounts to look for strange outliers and get a sense of how many words are in each chapter. A really long or really short chapter or scene isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a tipoff that I may need to break something up into two scenes or flesh something out. I re-number all the chapters once I’m done.

Ctrl+F revisions. While I do catch a lot of my bad habits and red flags during my first two read-throughs, some always slip through the cracks. Sometimes I let them go intentionally for the sake of tackling something bigger, knowing that the find feature in Scrivener or MS Word will catch them later. Either way, this is one of my favorite steps because it adds a nice layer of polish to the manuscript without having to read through the entire thing yet again. As I mentioned in earlier posts, I have two Ctrl+F lists I work from: one generic list for all my writing and one list specific to the work-in-progress. I hit both lists before moving on to the next step.

Critique partners and beta readers, round one. At this point, I’m usually tapped out on big-picture things I can fix on my own. I’ve plugged up the plot holes and smoothed out the character arcs as best I can, but our brains always fill in the gaps for us. It’s time to bring in critique partners and beta readers, which I talk about in this post. This is also where I like to bring on any applicable cultural beta readers to ensure I’ve done my due diligence with regards to representations of marginalized groups of which I am not a part. Not gonna lie–this step is the one I love and hate the most because I so badly need and want the feedback, but I am So. Very. Impatient. And. Anxious. It’s hard for me to do anything other than be constantly terrified during this stage. (This is where I’m at with Space Academy Rejects right now, hence this distractingly-long post.)

Draft query letter and synopsis. To distract myself while I wait for feedback, I move on to drafting my initial query letter and the hated synopsis. The query letter will almost certainly be utter shit and get scrapped immediately, but queries are hard and a million drafts are necessary to get it right, so may as well start the process early. More importantly, though, I think queries and synopses are important story analysis tools. If you can’t boil your book down to a 250-word pitch with a clear main character, conflict, and stakes, you probably have a bigger problem with your story. Similarly, to write a synopsis you must distill your story down to its core events and turning points. My crit partner Lisen Minetti recently wrote a post on how her synopsis revealed a few important weaknesses in her story. I’m sure this step could be moved earlier in the process for maximum effect, but it’s a convenient time-filler here.

Second-round revisions. A fourth read-through, still in Scrivener at this point. Time to analyze all the stuff my crit partners and beta readers brought up, figure out which feedback I want to incorporate, add in what I learned from writing the query and synopsis, then make it all happen. At the end of this round, all the big-picture stuff should be fixed and the final polish is starting to show.

Critique partners and beta readers, round two. Same critique partners, different beta readers. Crit partners: did I fix it all? Is it working better now? Any more fine-grain edits? Beta readers: Is this an enjoyable read? Did anything jump out at you that needs fixing? Did you get bored anywhere?

Final polish and line edits. One more read-through, this time with a fine-tooth comb. Any last feedback from CPs and betas gets addressed, and a final layer of polish gets added: thematic elements, symbolism, additional description, stylistic choices, etc. Every word in gets examined to make sure it’s the right one for the job.

Polish query and synopsis. Time to finalize both and ensure they reflect all the changes made, including style and voice. I love to do query/synopsis/first page swaps with other querying writers, both because I really love to dig my talons into query letters and because hey: this is it. This is what will get you in the door. The more eyes, the better. But yes, critiquing query letters gives me a fierce sort of joy. Maybe I’m ill.

Query and revise. That’s it. It’s go time. Send out those queries. Let the rejections roll off your back and stay resilient, but also don’t be afraid to take a break to re-examine your novel and carefully consider the feedback you receive. You may need another round of revisions. That’s fine. Do what your novel requires–but don’t get stuck in the loop of endless revisions!

So that’s my process, creatures. What’s yours? Did I skip any vital steps? Let me know in the comments.


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