Is it time to edit your novel? Novelists seem to be divided into two groups: you either love revision, or you hate it. One of my writer friends hates revision so much that she finished the drafts of four novels, before starting on editing the first one. In some ways, this is a good idea: she’s more competent as a writer after writing four novels.
Whether you like revising your novel, or hate it, editing can be fun. You’re improving your novel, and are making it better for readers.
Edit your novel: have FUN with it
As novelists, we’re lucky. We can correct our mistakes very easily. If you find that your novel’s got a few errors — whether just typos, or more serious errors — you simply correct the errors, and upload the new version, long after the novel is published. So, don’t worry that you won’t catch all errors. Focus on making your book better, and do leave a little time before you edit.
As I suggested in this article on editing:
“After you finish your novel, write something else. You need to clear this novel from your mind, so that you can approach it as a reader would.”
Now let’s look at some big-picture editing tips. By “big-picture”, I mean macro edits which affect the whole book — deleting characters, changing character motivations, enhancing the the novel’s beginning and ending, and so on.
Let’s look at some tips.
1. The big question — is your story question clear and answered?
Your story question is the point of your book — it’s what keeps readers reading. It’s related to genre. In a romance, the story question is: will the boy get the girl? All romances end happily; if they don’t, you’re writing something else, rather than a pure romance. Mysteries also have clear story questions: does the detective or amateur sleuth work out who-done-it?
Your story question is not the theme. I’ve heard the difference between the theme and the story question put this way. Your theme is meaning, while your story question is clear actions, and events.
So the theme of Pride & Prejudice is alluded to in the opening line:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
The answer to the story question is Darcy and Elizabeth’s marriage.
I’m not a huge fan of themes in commercial fiction; a theme either emerges, or it doesn’t. If you’re writing to a genre, your story will mean something, whether you focus on theme, or not.
Answering your story question, on the other hand, is vital. Make sure that the story question is obvious, and that it’s answered.
2. Look at your minor characters one by one: fire them if you don’t need them
Could you delete a character without damaging plot and characterization? If so, delete the character. If characters are not necessary, deleting them will help your novel.
You’ll know who these characters are by the time you finish your first draft. Here’s a good way to decide who the surplus-to-requirements characters are: does the minor character have a scene with a main character?
Crowd scenes don’t count. He/ she must have at least one scene with a major character, and that scene must be essential to the novel.
3. Are your character’s motivations clear? If you’re using Scrivener, create a Collection, and send it to a beta reader
Every character in your novel needs motivation. You need to know what a character’s motivation for acting is in every scene. You can’t keep everything in your head, so it’s very easy to lose track of a character. In the novel I’m currently working on, I gave a couple of minor characters excellent motivations in early scenes, then focused on other elements.
If I’m not sure whether I’ve clarified a character’s motivation, I create a Collection for the character in Scrivener, and add every scene in which the character takes part (or is mentioned) to the Collection. Then I create a PDF from the scenes, so I can send the PDF to my beta readers. They’ll soon tell me whether or not a character’s motivation is clear.
4. Tie up all the loose ends — or add loose ends, if you’re writing a series
It’s easy to lose track of all the threads of your story. Keep a running list of “open” threads in a document, then tick them off one by one as you resolve them.
Although this can seem like a boring chore, these resolutions will make your novel stronger, and readers will appreciate this too; they’ll find your novel more satisfying.
What if you need open threads? Anytime you’re writing a series, you’ll introduce characters, situations, and events which you’ll use in the next novels in the series. These are threads which you want to leave open. 🙂
Go ahead and make this a deliberate strategy if you think you may want to turn a novel into a series: add characters and events which you can use in the next novels in the series.
5. All done? Make your ending more powerful by linking it to your opening scene
You’re done. Excellent. Now look at the closing scene in your novel. In Save the Cat (a plotting method) terms, the final image is related to the opening image.
The easiest way to link the two images is via location, or an object. Let’s say that in your opening image of your cozy mystery, your amateur sleuth finds the body in the library. In your closing image, your sleuth walks into the library again.
Once you’ve linked the scenes, you’ve completed the big-picture editing of your novel. Kudos to you. 🙂
Update: January 20, 2017