On Editing a Novel-Length Manuscript

As I mentioned yesterday, I am within days of e-publishing a novel. It’s about the decline and fall of the Inca Empire from 1470 to 1540, told from the perspective of one of the last survivors of the Inca nobility. I’ll be blogging about this quite a bit for the foreseeable future, and today I thought I’d talk about what it’s like to edit something of the length and complexity of a novel-length manuscript.

There’s an excellent quote by James Michener that I came across the other day. “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.” For me, that’s the whole thing in a nutshell. People think finishing a manuscript means you have written a book, but nothing could be further from the truth. Completing a first draft is like having a baby, but you still need to bring that kid up right before you trust it to interact with the wider world outside of your supervision. If writing is procreation –with all the fun and pain that goes along with that– then editing is the long and tedious but ultimately rewarding process of parenting.

First, a Hard Truth

Let’s start with the complete first draft. You have hundreds of pages on a computer or on a stack on your desk, and there is a powerful temptation to call that ready to go. You are already so far ahead of the people who dabble and daydream about achieving what you have just accomplished. After all, it has characters, conflicts, memorable scenes of triumph and tragedy, and a satisfying heft to it. What more do you need? Well, for a start, I guarantee you it should be at least ten percent shorter. Twenty percent would be even better.

“Ouch!” I can hear you protest. “This is a finished work! Everything I’ve written is there for a reason, Geoff, and wait until you read this part about–”

Nonsense. The sooner you accept the fact that a first draft is an overwritten, meandering, amateurish piece of sputum –as Nabokov so graphically called it– the sooner you can roll up your sleeves and get ready to untangle the spaghetti-esque plotting and bleach out all that purple prose. You have to throw it into a pot and boil out all the sap. William Faulkner told you to, “Kill your darlings,” and it is going to be a long and bloody process. Somewhere buried under all that copy there is a story about people suffering, and it needs to be excavated out from under all that unnecessary dross you piled on top when you had to cover the blank page with all that ink so it would stop staring at you.

Okay, I’ll stop belabouring the point. Let’s get into specifics…

Question Everything

Every word, sentence, paragraph, and chapter needs to be asked, “Why?”

Why is this here? Does it advance the story or reveal something about the characters? Is there a better way to do this? Why is it here, and not earlier or later? Will the reader understand it? Am I trying their patience? Is it really important, or is it just something I enjoy? Didn’t I already do this earlier? Isn’t there something like this later on that is more important? If so, do I really need both? Why shouldn’t I replace this with something shorter, or drop it all together?

I know. I hate those questions too. I have passionately defended my work against well-wishers who suggest radical surgery to save the patient, but in the end you do need to take out the scalpel and make sure everything really does bleed if you try to cut it off.

I’ve finished two manuscripts. They both took about three years to get the words down, and it’s been another four and more since that I have been interrogating my prose under a bare bulb. I haven’t always liked the answers, and that’s when I have to get ruthless. Beyond broad generalizations, let me ask give some specific examples of the questioning approach:

1) Assuming a reader is going to give you a page to hold their attention, what do you have on that page that will make them want a second? This is your book’s first impression, and it has to have a hook. That said, you can’t have flash for the sake of flash: Is there consistency in tone, in vocabulary, in dialogue? Is there a ticking clock of some kind that creates a trajectory for the plot and begins an arc for the protagonist? Why are you starting at this point in your plot at all?

I struggle with openings myself. Both of my books don’t have a single sentence surviving in the first chapter from the first draft. My writing matured over the course of completing the draft, so of course the beginning needed to change accordingly. I cut three paragraphs from my book’s prologue four days ago. I already don’t miss them. It takes some practice to be so hard-hearted to prose that came so close to seeing the light of day, but you get there in the end.

2) Is this scene here because I like it, or because the story needs it? If I removed this entire exchange, what happens to the plot? If this disappeared, could I stitch both sides of the hole together with just a couple of paragraphs? Would anyone miss it except me?

This one is a huge issue for a first draft. Every thousand or two thousand words you read is probably a day of the author’s life, and he’s loathe to throw away that day just because it’s an extra piece that doesn’t need to be in the finished puzzle. In my Inca book there was a twenty-page stretch where I had to get my character from Point A to Point B and have him arrive in a disguise with a plan to get into a place he should not be allowed to enter. I wrote it in three days, and I loved it. It covered an area of geography and a piece of Inca society I wasn’t going to be able to visit any other way, and it let me use a couple of interesting bits of research I thought readers might enjoy. I had a proofreader tell me it dragged, so I tried to jazz it up. No matter how many ways I tried, though, I could not escape the underlying problems: Point A to Point B could be covered in one sentence of exposition; nothing that happened between Point A and Point B ever came up later in the story; it contributed nothing to the character or the plot.

I wrestled with it for a few months, and then it was gone. Six months later, it stopped hurting whenever I got to the two paragraphs that had replaced twenty pages. The book is better for it. There’s no drag anymore.

3) Characters must be knowable individuals with a back story and desires. Rarely do you get a chance to waste the reader’s time with spelling out everything, but do you know what these people are all about yourself? How does that get translated into your writing? Where do they start as people? Where do they end up? Did they get there in a believable way, consistent not just with what’s on the page but also with your own picture of who they are? Are they still acting in Chapter 10 they way they acted in Chapter 2, despite all the growth the reader saw in Chapters 3 through 9? That brings me to another point: Did you introduce this character as early as humanly possible so that they are a knowable, maturing individual throughout the course of the story?

This is another one I’ve struggled with, although I am further hampered by a large cast of historical figures with foreign names. That problem is further exacerbated by the fact that Inca have childhood names, adult names, and honorifics they earn throughout the course of their lives. If I don’t know exactly who is doing what and why, my story would collapse under the weight of reader confusion and apathy. As it is, many of the lesser characters are given a visual or verbal or behavioural cue I can drop in as a quick reminder, a landmark that will signal to the reader, “Oh! This is so and so. I haven’t seen him for a while, but I remember he’s acting like this because he’s like that.”

That brings me to my next point…

Leave something for the reader to do.

Readers are brilliant, and writers need to remember that. A reader is going to take your prose and build a world out of it inside their head. You are not the art director of a television program, responsible for every wall tapestry and door frame. You sketch an image with words, and the reader will flesh it out with their own technicolour version of paint by numbers mentally. Less is so much more when they’re doing that. Keep your descriptions to a minimum, and the world in the reader’s mind will be so much richer and fuller for allowing them to fill in the blanks. This applies to setting and to characters. Give them an outline early, and never repeat yourself. If they didn’t pick up your first suggestion, it’s just going to be jarring later when you repeat it and it diverges from what they have already created. They will begrudge you interrupting the flow of their mental picture.

That’s not to say description is bad. Description is great! It can also be used to make the reader fill in a blank that you don’t want to offer them yourself. For instance, cloth is an incredibly important part of Inca society. The word ‘cumpi’ means both cloth and treasure, but I couldn’t spend the entire book describing what everyone was wearing at all times. For one, there isn’t time or importance enough to justify including it in the prose. For another, the reader will do better with it than I ever could. At the end of Chapter 1 and the beginning of Chapter 2 I  dedicated a couple of paragraphs to what commoners and nobles wore every day and on festivals. After that, whenever I mention clothes again, I confine myself to colour and let the reader do the rest. I just saved myself more than a hundred paragraphs of boring filler detail, and I’m sure the images made up by the reader are more varied than I could have produced in a month of Sundays.

Of course, a reader is only going to engage with your story if it holds their attention. Let’s turn to another important idea…

Is there something in it for everyone?

I don’t think I’m far off the mark when I say that no one demographic exclusively reads a given book: Men, women, young, old, parents, children, all religions, all marital statuses. Once it’s released into the wild, you don’t know who is going to read your story. Did you include something to hold anyone’s attention? Imagine your scenes all had to be described as contributing a specific genre. Do you have action? Suspense? Romance? Mystery? You don’t have to have all of them, of course, but you have to respect that every subject and trope you skip might be a group of readers you disappoint.

For that matter, do you have characters who inspire empathy? If a reader doesn’t care about what’s happening to the people inhabiting your plot, why on earth are they sticking with you to the conclusion? You’re wasting their time, which means you’ve wasted your time writing the book.

I’m not saying all books need to be all things to all people, but it’s so easy to broaden a book’s appeal by being conscious of demographics while reworking the draft towards a finished work. I made a point of having strong female characters throughout my story. When I was finished my first draft I was stunned at how much more could be done with their scenes. It was low-hanging fruit that I had failed to pluck, but through the course of my revisions I built some of my best conflicts and dialogue around half-realized beginnings. Most of my proofreaders have been women, and they have all been satisfied with the female characters. It wasn’t a slam dunk in the beginning, but an awareness of where I wanted to go and some tough questions of my copy let me get it in editing.

Speaking of editing…

Take notes of all repeated details.

While it is almost always better to just remove repetition, sometimes there’s no getting around reminding readers of what happened earlier: A murder, a birth, a promise, a party, there are always going to be things from the beginning that impact the end, otherwise Chekov’s gun will never go off. A great plot is contributed to by every single page, and that means there are common threads of cause and effect, foreshadowing and revelation, running all through your story. If you try to connect things the wrong way, readers will call you on it. If you do it without meaning to, readers will call you on that too. Take notes about what you mean to do intentionally so that you have your story straight, and when you’re reading through the draft, anything that repeats that wasn’t in your notes gets the axe, no exceptions. This is a great tool for separating the wheat from the chaff, and it also brings into sharp focus that your plot is actually moving forward. I would ballpark that the vast majority of books that seem ‘amateurish’ never had an editor take notes about what seemed important in the early chapters and checked to make sure they resonated down the line.

On that note…

Get the most bang for your buck.

So we’re getting closer to calling this draft ready for the light of day: By and large your copy is strong; your characters and plot are in place, concise and purposeful; you aren’t taking your readers for granted. Now it’s time to take a close look at what you always knew was working. Remember those scenes that you were most proud of when that first draft was brand new? They are now your weakest points.

Let me soften that for a moment: The crucial turning points and climaxes of your plot are still just what you thought they were, but that’s the problem. Everything else is leaner, tighter, stronger, cleaner and clearer. You might have re-read your favourite passages during the revisions to this point, but you did it fondly. They cheered you up when you were feeling down. They were your touchstones that whatever else you were slogging through proved that you had what it takes. They were your darlings, and I’m sure I don’t have to remind you of Faulkner’s advice.

What is it about the scene that you like? Now read every sentence and ask yourself if it helps or hinders that overall impression. What is it about this scene that is so important to the characters and the story? Now read every sentence again and look for the dead wood that didn’t actually help you get there. Why are these particular characters in this scene? Okay, did you actually say that in so many words? Applying the premise of ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ to any passage of exposition is going to make your set piece that much better. I’m going to guess you’ve now cut about ten percent of the total copy and reworked at least half of the remaining prose. That was one of your favourite scenes, wasn’t it? You just gave it the kind of edit everything else has already answered to, and it’s all the better for it. There are no sacred cows in a first draft, only squeamish butchers.

At this point, your first draft is a distant memory. You now hold in your hands a Frankenstein stitched together from the early survivors and the replacements, probably even replacements of replacements. It’s time for the final polish to make sure these mismatched sentences flow together like they had always been that way. We come now to the final edits…

Final edits go on forever, if you let them.

I should begin this last part by saying there is no such thing as a final edit. You can move your commas around until doomsday. You will catch yourself using the same word three times in five paragraphs –hate yourself for it– and reach for synonyms from now until the day you die. That’s not to say you shouldn’t keep at it. Rewriting should go on until you are painfully aware you can’t do any better. That’s not to say your prose is perfect –it will never be perfect– but you have to be willing to admit that you can’t make it any better. All you’re achieving is making a different version of the same quality.

Rewriting a novel line by line is like pushing a goldfish across the length of a soccer field with your nose. No one blade of grass is a major obstacle, but each one needs to be overcome through patience and persistence before you can move forward. To extend the metaphor, with your face so close to the ground and a flopping fish in your way, perspective on where the goal line sits can be lost. I can tell you I’ve been editing my books for longer than I wrote them –and I was editing while I was writing them, for that matter– but I still think that goal line is over the horizon. You have to decide for yourself when you’ve had enough.

Hemingway is famous for being ruthless with his copy: The story goes that he would write like a normal writer, sloppy and fast, then he would take a blue pencil to his prose, cross out all the adjectives, and then retype the whole thing to obtain his trademark style. For myself, I view every -ly adjective as a personal defeat, but sometimes I leave them. Everyone has their ticks, but you can’t let them drive you crazy. Leave anything on the page that passes the ‘Why’ test, and when you’ve gone through the book without making meaningful changes that impact plot or characters or the length of the copy, call it a day and publish the thing. It’s done.

– – –

Wow, that went on for a long longer than I thought it would. Anyone who stuck in there until the end, thank you. If you’re working on a manuscript, let me know. From now on this blog is going to make some space for other people getting into the brave new world of e-publishing. We’re all in this together, after all.


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