Editing advice from an actual big time editor!
We are kicking off a new monthly blog series to share advice from editing experts.
It is our pleasure to welcome editor Allison K Williams. Allison is a writer, editor, speaker, and coach. Allison has edited books published by Big Five publishers including Penguin Random House, and independent presses including Spencer Hill, as well as working with self-published authors.
Allison is generously sharing her wisdom on how to go from first draft to a novel you’re ready to share with others.
Over to Allison…
SEVEN DRAFTS by Allison K Williams
So you’ve got an idea for a book. Where do you start?
Or you’ve finished a first draft. How many more drafts do you have to write? How can you tell what needs fixing?
Whether you’re starting at the very beginning, or beginning to revise what you’ve got, there’s a lot you can do before spending money on professional editing or using up a “please give me feedback on my manuscript” favor. Self-editing is time-consuming and thinking-intensive, but it’s not a secret or a talent—it’s a skill anyone willing to go through seven drafts can acquire.
1) The Vomit Draft
Get it out get it out! It doesn’t matter if all the words are spelled right. Don’t worry about complete sentences because. Sure there’s a plot hole big enough to drive a truck through, and in the second-last chapter you realized you forgot a character. Just finish. If you hit a place where you don’t know what to write, put in a placeholder like “NEED SCENE WITH DETECTIVE HERE SOMETHING HUMOROUS,” or write about the scene that belongs there, like “That time I just knew we were going to break up because of the way his fist wrapped around the salt shaker.”
This is not the time for research. Skip the baby names site. Put your phone face down and turn your wifi off.
If you’re a plotter—someone who writes an outline or synopsis of some kind before writing—apply the vomiting to each scene inside your careful plan.
2) The Story Draft
Summarize your story in one sentence in roughly this format.
In BAD SITUATION, HERO must TAKE ACTION against OBSTACLES/VILLAIN to achieve GOAL or else BAD THING.
“In a dystopian future where children are sent to fight to the death on national TV, Katniss must navigate the machinations of the game-makers and her own coach to survive the arena and come home to keep her family from starving.”
If you’re missing a key element, go back to step one and vomit some more until there’s a clear problem, protagonist, action and goal.
Then go scene by scene. A “scene” can be as short as a paragraph or as long as a chapter, but each time the narrative shifts location, time, or POV, it’s usually a scene change. Write one sentence summarizing each scene.
While driving home from a wedding, I find a stray dog.
I take the dog home and keep her over my girlfriend’s objections.
My girlfriend demands I choose between her and the dog.
I go get a haircut.
I choose my dog and my girlfriend moves out.
During this process, you’ll discover places the plot doesn’t make sense, a big event is missing, random extra scenes (why the haircut?), places another character needs to show up, etc. This is also the time to fill in any placeholders from the first draft. If you’re using Fictionary, do your first round of Fictionary work in here.
3) The Character Draft
For each character, read only their parts. Make sure the protagonist’s actions are motivated and urgent. Notice if a supporting character needs more on-page time, or doesn’t belong. Make sure the antagonists (bad guys) have clear motivations that make sense (eventually) to the reader, even if they’re a mystery to the protagonist.
Check point of view: make sure the characters only know what’s in their heads and only see what they can actually see. A character can guess at other people’s thoughts but not omnisciently know them.
Go through the dialogue, character by character. Each person should sound like themselves, and it should be pretty clear who is speaking even without dialogue tags.
The world is also a character—are the laws of nature consistent? If you have magic or aliens or superpowers, are there any holes in the “rules” of how they operate? Is your time period clear, and the technology (or lack thereof) appropriate?
4) The Technical Draft
Does each chapter start with a compelling action or image? Does each chapter end with both satisfaction and forward motion?
With each scene, have you gotten in as late as you can and still set the scene, and have you ended the scene as early as you can and still have it feel complete?
Zoom in to sentence level. Are there extra words? Do sentences end with strong words and images? Do paragraphs end with strong sentences?
Do a search for -ly and remove unnecessary adverbs; eliminate as many “was verb-ing” constructions as you can, and use a word cloud to check for overused words.
This is a good place for another Fictionary round. Take another look at the overall story. Are there long stretches of sad or angry without a break for humor or tenderness? Is there a sense of build and tension to the exciting parts? Is the climax the most exciting part of the book? Do the clues you set up through the rest of the book pay off in the climax? Are there loose ends or nagging unanswered questions?
Refine your authorial voice in this draft. By now you should know what you want to say–this draft is about how to say it.
5) The Personal Copyedit
Run spellcheck. Print out the manuscript and see what shows up when you’re turning a physical page. Read it out loud or use a text-to-speech program and catch errors your eyes got used to on the screen. Make a pleasant experience for the next step…
6) The Friend/Beta Read
Exchange manuscripts with a writer pal, or accept a friend’s offer to read your book. Give your readers specific questions: Did the story make sense? Where did your attention flag? Which character do you want to see more of? Try to get feedback in writing, even if that’s you taking notes while they talk.
Set the notes aside for a couple of days and then go back and see what rings true when your feelings have cooled down.
7) The Editor Read
This is the draft where it’s worth spending money on a pro editor or asking a big favor. Exchange manuscripts with someone you know is harsher or more technically demanding than the previous reader. Take your manuscript to a class or conference for an evaluation or partial read. If you have a small budget, pay to have your first 10-50 pages edited, and apply those changes throughout the book before any more full-manuscript reads.
The seven drafts are often more than one draft each. You might do three Story Drafts, or two rounds of Friend Reading. Some drafts take days, some take weeks or months. You might backtrack and revisit the Technical Draft after doing an on-paper Personal Copyedit. For at least a couple of drafts, print it out, edit the manuscript on sloppy, satisfying paper, and retype the whole thing—yes, really—so you can feel the flow.
I’ve found this method to work for everything from essays to full-length memoirs and novels. And once you’ve done it once, it’s not so hard to do it again—for your next book.