So you’ve finally finished the first draft of your novel . . . congratulations! That’s an amazing accomplishment.
But you also know the real work has only begun. Before your send your opus into the world, it must look and feel as good as anything you’d find in a book store, including cover design and layout and, of course, a polished and awesome story.
Let’s focus on polishing the story today with a look at editing.
The Editing Problem
For most writers, myself included, self-publishing is the way to go. But we don’t want to put more garbage out into the world. You know what I’m talking about . . . buddy thinks he’ll write a story, which he does, and then vomits it all over Amazon for the world to see, warts and all.
If you’re going to spend the time and effort writing a novel – and hopefully a good one – then you owe it to yourself to make it look as professional as possible. This means a solid edit.
But, the cost of editing can be tremendous. Suppose you’ve written a 75k word novel. For a run of the mill copy edit – assuming that you’ve followed a well-structured plotting system so you know the story works – you could pay as much as $0.05 per word. That’s a cool $3,750. Even a final proofread to catch any remaining typos will cost $750.
I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll never, ever recoup that money from book sales because, honestly, very few self-published authors ever sell more than a hundred books. Ever. At a couple bucks of royalties per book, you do the math and it looks grim.
Still, though, your story needs editing. You don’t want to hold your nose and contribute to the barf on Amazon, do you?
The Editing Solution
Many a novelist believes the solution to this costly, but necessary, service is to self-edit. Maybe pick up a piece of software or read a couple of books on it. That will help. But you also need to check your mindset. When you’re writing, you’re in creative mode. As an editor, you need to put a skeptical scowl on your countenance and slay all those pretty words of yours.
Not everyone can edit their own work.
I can to a point, but then I need outside help for all my blind spots.
Still, you can get about 80% of the manuscript problems fixed on your own, saving you a ton of money in the process.
Here’s how . . .
The 3-Step System (with 2 bonus steps)
With your finished draft in hand, you’re going to do three revising passes through it, focusing on What, Why, and How.
Let’s look at each one.
1. What Happens
In this pass, you’re going to focus on the story and what happens. This isn’t the time to get cute by throwing in all those Big Themes that might please your high school English teacher: focus on making sure the story is coherent. It flows logically, the action is appropriate. Fill in any missing gaps. Fix the chapter transitions. Make your story flow.
As you do this, when you notice typos, fix them up along the way. You’ll miss a bunch, I guarantee you that, but it’ll be a start.
2. Why It Happens
In the second revision pass, you’re now going to focus on the characters and their motivations to really understand why they behave the way they do. This will ensure consistency, which is super important if you plan to keep your readers engaged (which we want, just to be clear).
Your Main Characters
When I talk about “main” characters, I’m talking about your viewpoint characters (if you’ve taken a workshop with me, you’ll understand that . . . if not, these are your protagonist, antagonist, and a confidant or romantic interest or some other primary character in your story).
So make sure the good guys are likeable and the villains are nasty. For even more effect, give your hero flaws and vulnerability, make her take some bad decisions. Readers need to feel sympathy for them. Also, give your antagonist some good traits. Make him real. Sure, he might have murdered Don Fanucci in cold blood, but just because he did, Vito Corleone loves his kids a ton (can you tell I just watched the Godfather II?).
Followers of the Snowflake method of plotting get this, but all writers should have a thorough understanding of what makes their characters do what they do.
Characters are motivated by two things primarily: a concrete goal (that is, the story goal) and an abstract goal. So for example, your hero might have a burning desire to solve a murder (concrete goal) because it speaks to their sense of justice in the world (abstract goal).
Look at your viewpoint / main characters and ask yourself what motivates them. Then, as you go through this revising pass, keep those motivations in mind when your characters act and make decisions and generally do stuff. They need to be consistent or else your reader will scratch her head and wonder wtf . . .? Why did Sally do that? It should be clear.
3. How It Happens
Now we’re getting close to the next end (you’ll discover, if you haven’t already, there are may “ends” in the writing process).
In this third revision, you want to add in some of the colour to your prose. Things like describing your settings in each section or chapter, what your characters are wearing, what the weather’s like, and so on. Be careful: this is not an invitation to give each character a laundry list of descriptors. You know what I mean: Sally stared the killer down. She wore a blue smock with white socks and gray shoes, a black ribbon in her hair, and a pendant that said “Bite me” in bold lettering.
Don’t do that.
Drip your descriptions in.
What you’re looking for are those small things that help the reader engage. Like one of my baddies who has a penchant for dandelion tea. Think about the old Law & Order shows. Whenever the cops went to interview a person of interest, that person was always doing something: mowing the grass, fixing a car, cleaning the house. Those are the little details that readers love and that keep them engaged.
But wait . . . there’s more!
Two bonus revision passes!
4. Chapter Openings and Closings
If you follow a proven plotting method like our Plotting Roadmap, you’ll see that all sections (which later become chapters) open by hooking and orienting the reader. The endings leave the reader having to keep going to find out what happens (does Sally kill the killer? Does she die?)
So in this pass, you’re focusing on the openings and closings of your chapters. You need to keep your reader hooked. Don’t let them put your book down!
5. One Last Proofread
All the while, as you’ve been going through your drafts, you’ve encountered typos and fixed them. Now you get to do it one more time. So put your manuscript away for a few days, and then read it through again. Don’t fiddle with it anymore, just focus on typos and consistency in your writing.
For example, if you write “six o’clock in the morning” one place and “6 am” in another, it might just be enough to kick your reader out of the floe. Be consistent.
And now, you’re ready to publish, yes?
Now you’re ready to pass your manuscript off to your beta readers with a list of broad questions so you can make sure you didn’t miss anything big.
By following these steps, and a proven story structure, you will eliminate the need for extensive editing completely and save yourself thousands of dollars.