The new year (a major thing here in Japan) and the start of the final academic trimester means I haven't had as much time for creative endeavours as I'd like. If I'm not attempting to coax my unheated apartment to a temperature higher than the inside of my refrigerator (not exaggerating!), I've been working on lesson plans and semester overviews and the usual mid-year performance reviews. I've kept myself sane by working on creative things in my head (I'm almost never not thinking about characters, plots, etc.), but that doesn't translate well to visible content.
I have, however, begun editing this year's NaNoWriMo novel during my down-time. Armed with a hard copy of the novel, a multicoloured pen (red for small on-page edits, blue for continuity, green for larger notes-to-self on changes that can't be fit into the margins) and five colours of highlighter and sticky notes (pink: changes, blue: continuity, green: plot, yellow: character/dialogue, orange: major changes), I'm diving in to the glorious world of revision.
Confession: I actually like editing. I love wrangling struggling prose into something workable, finding continuity errors and fixing them, slashing my pen through weak scenes. It's like playing "Where's Waldo" or those "I, Spy" books, except instead of tiny men in striped shirts or sixteen trumpets, I'm rooting out all the things currently dragging my book down. Instead of despairing whenever I come across something that needs fixing, I'm just glad I (or one of my betas) found it.
It helps that I have a system, which speaks directly to my rather compulsive mindset. In a separate notebook, I note the changes made on each page of the document (in the appropriate colour, with the appropriate sticky), so I can quickly skim through and cross-reference my edits. ("Page 18: cut redundant explanation of Cris' botany project, as per continuity note on page 3") I probably look absolutely insane, but it's good to have a reference, and filling the pages with visible changes also gives me a visual barometer of my progress, which is much more satisfying than a word document.
This is a slow process. I check each page for continuity errors, character motivation, dialogue problems, world-building, and places that need expansion, and each sentence to make sure my prose is tight and as free of weak words as possible. Here is my Editing Hit List:
- 90% of the time I find the word "was", I reword the sentence to get rid of it. I hate weak phrasing, and copious "was" sentences make for mushy prose. I replace them with action or description instead.
- I don't have an all-out vendetta against adverbs; I believe they can be used well, but it's often just as effective to cut them and add description instead. Sometimes I reword, but often I just cut redundant ones that somehow crept in — J.K. Rowling's "Harry shouted angrily" comes to mind.
- Generic Dialogue
- My characters' dialogue should sound like it belongs to them. If the scene is expositional or plot-forwarding, sometimes I slip into "author-voice". These get reworded immediately.
- Generic Voice
- None of my characters' narration should sound like a newscaster. If they're twelve, their narration shouldn't sound like an adult. I don't go overboard with the quirkiness, but I do try to keep them individual. Why have four narrators if they don't bring something new?
These are the immediate edits I make right there on the page. I do my best to tighten my prose (without going overboard; my writing style is not minimalist) and make sure I'm not just telling the reader what they're "supposed" to see.
After I've gone over the technical details, then I move on to the bigger picture:
- I'm very guilty of this. The plot demands that Character A have a certain skill in order to move onward (accuracy with firearms, for example); eager to move on, I write in a quick justification and go on my way. Except that by the end of the story, Character A just so happens to have 5 or 6 of these little skills that end up directly relevant to the plot. Since I don't like my characters to be the human equivalent of Q's Bond Gadget Stash, I have to backtrack and figure out which of these little skills to integrate, remove, or work around.
- Sometimes it's as minor as a physical description that changes without explanation, or a character's name that I forgot and subsequently changed (in this draft, one of the characters is either a polygamist or I didn't remember I'd already named his wife). Sometimes it's little things like repeating a metaphor I particularly enjoyed, or doubling up on exposition. Other times it's larger plot elements that directly conflict. The thing with NaNoWriMo is that it doesn't leave much time for reflection and in-process continuity checks, so I tend to find a lot of these.
- Dropped Threads
- During NaNoWriMo I often introduce a concept, character, or plot idea only to abandon it almost immediately. Sometimes I forgot that it existed; sometimes it wasn't that important to begin with; sometimes I genuinely thought I'd followed up on it, only to find out it's all in my head. Either way, at this point I make a note and decide whether to work it in through the rest of the story or get rid of it.
- Are the character's motivations clear? Does it make sense what she's doing? Does it directly contradict something he said earlier? Has the character changed from the beginning of the story to the end, and if so, is it clear this is character growth and not just sloppy, inconsistent writing? Also, if the narrator is unreliable, here's where I need to make it clear. If Character A believes his actions are impeccable without any moral quibbles, I need the reader to understand that this is his belief, not the story's. I don't want the readers thinking I think Character B is a saint when he's really an opportunistic sociopath just because he does.
- How's the speed of the scene? Does it leave the reader wondering what the heck just happened? Or does it crawl, getting stuck on minor details or description or wandering because I didn't know what happened next and hoped that just writing would lead me there? (This happens more often than I'd like. I always figure it out, but then I have a lot of middle bits to cut.)
For each scene and subsequent chapter, I check to make sure that it …
- forwards the plot
- doesn't derail on a tangent unrelated to the rest of the story
- isn't redundant
- wasn't written because it was 3a.m., it was NaNoWriMo, and I realized if I just expanded on a particular tangent then I would reach 1,700 words and I could finally go to bed
- makes sense (see above)
During this whole process, I don't go back to my digital document to make any changes. It's too soon to tell if I'll introduce new contradictions and continuity errors, or if something I'm noting now gets explained later, etc. Only when I've finished the entire hard-copy draft do I get to go back to my computer and start changing things. After that, I read it over again to catch any typos or sneaky weak words that infiltrated the rewrite, ship it off to my betas to make sure I didn't miss anything, and I'm done!
It's a crazy, lengthy process that eventually starts eating my brain and destroying my soul a little bit, but it's insanely rewarding at the same time. And since I refuse to let myself edit the text document piecemeal, I don't get stuck in "editor's hell".
I haven't finished a novel in a long time so it's been a while since I've gone through this process. I'm looking forward to it, and enjoying the 18 or so pages I've done so far. If, in a month, I start to lose my mind, please remind me that I said this. ;)