So you’ve got some criticism back from your writer’s group or your beta readers, and now you don’t know what to do. How do you know what advice to take and what to leave behind? How do you know what will help and what will harm?
For starters, there are two main flubs you’ll want to consciously avoid making:
- FLUB #1: IGNORING IMPORTANT CHANGES THAT NEED TO BE MADE
This can happen if you consciously or subconsciously think you know more than all your reviewers (in which case, why did you choose them?), or if you are too sentimental about your work and just cannot emotionally handle making a needed change. Another possibility is that you’re looking at the changes you need to make and saying to yourself, “It’s too much work. What I have is good enough.” Do you really want it to be good enough, or do you want it to be good? Chances are, you want it to be good.
- FLUB #2: TRYING TO SATISFY EVERY WHIM OF EVERY REVIEWER
Giving your work completely over to your reviewers and trusting them over your own sense of the work is going to get you in trouble. Your reviewers bring their own vision to your work, and if their vision doesn’t line up with your vision, you need to recognize that and stay true to what you are trying to accomplish. You can’t make everyone happy, but you can make you happy. YOU have to love your book. You are the one who is going to send it off to agents and fight for it against all the rejection slips that are bound to pile up. You have to believe in your book more than anyone else does. If the changes you are making are going to make you not love your book or not believe in your book, don’t make them.
So how do you walk the line between the two extremes? How do you know which changes will be best for your story? Here are some ideas to consider:
- If you never have before, pick up a book on story structure, outlining, story theory, or revisions. There are a lot of them out there. A good understanding of what makes a story appeal to your reader will help you see the ways your novel works and the ways it does not—which will help you interpret the feedback you’ve received.Here are some titles I’ve found helpful.
– Wired for Story by Lisa Crone
– Rock Your Plot or Rock Your Revisions by Cathy Yardley
– Structuring Your Novel or Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland
- There’s power in numbers. If multiple reviewers are all in agreement that, for example, character Z is unnecessary, then either character Z probably is unnecessary and should be removed OR you have failed to show the significance of character Z and you need to figure out how to do that. Either way something needs to change regarding character Z. The direction you take your changes is up to you, but multiple people saying the same thing is a red flag that there’s something amiss.
- One person’s opinion is just one person’s opinion. You should consider these singular insights carefully in case your reviewer noticed something everyone else missed, and you can always poll your other reviewers if something someone said is particularly troublesome… but don’t change everything to please just one person. If you AGREE with the reviewer, maybe she found a gaping plot hole, then you will want do something about that—but a lot of the things that these insights will bring up are just options. Seeing them helps you expand your sense of possibilities, which may help you find the right path when you’re making the truly necessary changes…. but don’t try to turn your book into something you never intended it to be just because one of your reviewers has a different vision than you do.
- Ask yourself: How would the change you’re considering affect your plot? Does it make your protagonist more or less invested in the outcome of the plot? Does it help keep the tension growing throughout your story? Does it make your protagonist’s actions more or less important to outcome of the plot? Overall, is this a change that would benefit your story on a plot-level?
- Ask yourself: How would the change you’re considering affect your theme? Does it provide your character with an example that might change the way she thinks about the world and more specifically about her immediate issue? How does that affect your character’s motives? Does this change affect what your story is about overall? Is that what you want? Overall, is this a change that would play into your story’s theme?
- A note on grammar. If you’ve got some discrepancies between you and your reviewers about how to punctuate your sentences or the meaning of a word, do yourself a favor and don’t just assume the other person is right (or vice versa). Look it up. There are lots of grammar resources available online, and a quick internet search will tell you what you need to know.
Yesterday it rained, and I’ve been starting to get a little tired in the afternoons–what with being 6 months pregnant and all–so I knew if I went home I’d just sleep a lot of the afternoon away. Instead, I took myself out to Potbelly’s and plowed through the last 250 pages of my paper edits. Yeah! Go me!
This was my first time doing paper edits on a hulking 520 page manuscript. Here’s what I learned in the process:
- Paper edits are worth doing. Editing on paper is a lot different than editing on screen. You notice different things, and you get a better sense of your pacing, how you are moving through the book (quarter of the way, half way, three quarters) than you do while editing on screen. You also have your original text right there and it doesn’t disappear, so you stay focused on making making your writing tighter rather than just fiddling around and adding to it.
- Use pencil, not pen. I started out working in pen, and I often got so excited about crossing stuff out and fixing things, that I sometimes changed things that, after finishing the paragraph, I realized were there for a reason. Then, while making my fixes, I often wrote in what I wanted it to say… and after ten crossouts and failed attempts, realized the original way was better. The sections that I edited in pen are a MESS and I’m kind of dreading inputting them into the computer. The sections that I edited in pencil are neat and organized and make sense.
- Paper edits allow you to think spatially. This may not help everyone, but as a very spatially-oriented person I remember exactly where on a page something I read was, so when I’m going along and I see, “Oh! I just used that word a couple pages ago!” it’s soooo much easier for me to find the part I’m thinking of and make fixes. And that goes for finding that scene or paragraph of description you just realized is unnecessary ten pages after you read it. Bottom line: You don’t get lost in a huge scrolling document the way you do on screen.
Also on the spatial front, having all that text in front of you also makes it easier to flip around in a given chapter, so you notice how moving a paragraph to a different location works better, or where you can cut a section without having to add a transition between two parts. And because your changes are all circles and arrows, you can read through it and test drive the change without having screwed something up if you don’t like it.
- Do your edits as fast as possible. Not that quality isn’t important, but with paper edits you have to leave sections on the cutting room floor. The best way to know what needs to be there and what doesn’t is to have a sense of your story as a whole, and that means moving quickly through it. Moving quickly also means you’re more likely to notice that every third chapter your MC is looking out the window. Or that you’ve used the words “tilted” and “tipped” way more often than anyone should ever use “tilted” and “tipped.”
Going fast also builds up a momentum. I breezed through page 50 to about 200 in a couple days… and then life happened and I puttered around pages 200-320 for almost two weeks. Then yesterday, I took myself out for lunch and did page 320-520 and I was finished. I think the quality of my edits during the long hauls was probably a lot better than the little snatches. I had a better sense of where I was in the story, what came before and after, and I was a lot more focused.
- Making cuts is still tough. I thought I’d scratch a sentence here and there and loose a TON of words on this edit. Not so easy. Other than my first chapter, which I ended up cutting entirely (and I’m still mulling over whether I need to put any of it back or not), I did not find as many of these little cuts as I’d hoped. And, naturally, I have a reason in my mind why every single scene I didn’t cut is important… but I adore my story, so of course I think everything is important.
I’ve mentioned my wordcount woes before, and I haven’t inputted my paper edits into my document yet, so I don’t yet know where I stand with that. I don’t think I cut enough. Not 30,000 words enough, anyway. Last night after I was finished making my paper edits, I went back through and managed to cross out a couple more chunks. I’ve got a couple other parts that I am questioning my motives for keeping as well that I may go back and take a second peek at this afternoon. I have to be suspicious of myself. I love nothing more than to read and write about an interesting character in their everyday happenings. But it’s got to move things forward physically or emotionally, and sometimes the amount of emotional movement in a given scene is not enough to justify it’s staying. Where to draw the line, though?
At the same time… wordcount isn’t everything. This is a book that I originally intended to be a trilogy… but then structurally it didn’t work. Most of the plot of the third book ended up being spread around the first and second book as a side plot, and then the first book and second book were too co-dependent to split up. It may be that whittling it down to 100K will do more harm than good, and if that’s the case, I’d rather it was too long. We’ll see…
I cannot believe how quickly April is whirring by. I am on page 217 of 520 of my red pen edits. After the first couple chapters it started going a lot faster, and now I feel like I’m breezing through it. The other night, my husband had to ask me three times to put it away and go to sleep because I was so into it.
I’m into my own book. That sounds sort of… weird. It’s true though. I’m really enjoying reading through it. I was hoping I’d find a lot of bits to take out–a paragraph here, a paragraph there–but I really haven’t. I’ve removed a couple sections, and I’ve decided my main character looks out windows too often, particularly at the beginnings of chapters, so I’ve deleted a bunch of those… but other than that, it’s not as easy to get rid of text as I’d hoped. Which is good because it means my writing is already pretty tight, but it also means I’m definitely going to end up with a manuscript longer than 100K.
I’m also a little concerned that my writing style may have changed between the beginning of the book and the end of the book. Crossing my fingers that I’m wrong.
The end result of all this is that I will not be ready to participate in Friday’s PitchSlam.
This red pen round of edits is going a lot slower than I expected. I figured it would just be a matter of crossing out a sentence here, a word or two there, maybe fixing up some missed punctuation or grammar… but no. My mind doesn’t work like that. I’m reorganizing paragraphs, changing content and making such a huge red mess that I’m sticking looseleaf sheets between the pages to explain what’s going on. After hours, I’m still working on the first chapter. I’m not even entirely convinced that my red pen edits are better than what I had there originally.
I’m wondering if maybe this was a bad idea. Maybe I should have just put out to a beta reader… but maybe once I get past the first chapter it will go easier. The first chapter is tough because when you first write it you don’t really know that much about your story (at least, I didn’t). I’ll plug away at it a little more before deciding.
I have now finished the rewrites of my last couple of scenes, and in preparation for a big word count cut, I’ve printed out the first 100 pages of my manuscript. There is something very satisfying about having it on paper. I intend to make heavy use of a red pen. Make it bleeeeeeeeeed. Mwahahaha!
So that was a couple days ago. I have carried my binder to work and back, to the grocery store and back. I have not yet opened it and started actually crossing stuff out. I think I’m subconsciously trying to give the ending rewrite a little bit of mental distance first. But I will do this, and when I do, I’m going to make some serious headway on this word count problem.
I have been stressing over my word count a lot since I started editing. I managed to slash about 35,000 words, but my novel still looks like it’s going to come in at about 130,000 words. It’s high, I know it is, and I don’t want to make excuses for it. You bet I’ll be asking my beta readers for advice on what else can be cut.
Here’s some information on acceptable word counts for different genres (picture book through young adult) written by @literaticat : http://literaticat.blogspot.com/2011/05/wordcount-dracula.html
This former agent, Colleen Lindsey backs that up here (and she’s got word counts for adult novels at well:
It seems that if you’re a debut novelist, it’s best to play it safe. Even for Adult Fantasy, the ideal is 100k at the high (though I’m still at the high end of the range).
Just like film, books require a tight edit and a merciless editor leaving perfectly good scraps on the floor until the strongest pieces are left shining and polished.