Edit me: tricks for revising

As many of you know, I recently finished my second novel, BLOOD RED SUN.  Part of this process involved a lot of serious revising and editing.  Awhile back, I wrote a post about some of the changes I felt I needed to make and how I approached revising as a process.  Today I follow up on that post by sharing the revising and editing tricks I used.  I make no special claims at expertise here,  but merely share things I found useful in the hopes that you may too.

Revising and editing a novel poses two major differences from revising a short story: 1. keeping track of of all the different threads in the novel, and 2. getting through its not-inconsiderable bulk without losing focus.  For the former, the use of a diagram or spreadsheet can be really useful; create rows for each chapter and columns for its setting, the characters present, the action that occurs, the character development that occurs, and so forth.  I use strikethrough and different colors to keep track of changes.

When it comes to keeping focus, I create a hierarchy of revisions – big stuff (plot changes, character development, and so on) first, followed by smaller changes (improvement of setting, fine-tuning description details, etc.), and, finally, editing.  Then, for each type of revision, I make multiple passes through the manuscript.

In the final revisions of BLOOD RED SUN I had several areas I knew I wanted to revise.  One was to improve the textural feel of the world (the sights, sounds, tastes, and so forth).  Another was to work on bringing out my protagonist’s thoughts and feelings; showing her emotions through her actions and reactions.  Doing both of these things at once seemed daunting, so I separated them and gave my full attention to each in different passes through the novel.  This might seem like it would take more time, but it actually speeds things up — you move through each chapter more quickly because you are working on just one thing, and one thing only.

Still, during an editing pass I sometimes find I can maintain clear-eyed focus for only a few chapters.  At that point, I stop being able to edit and just start reading.  When you’re reading, your eyes tend to skip over small errors and you forget exactly what it is you were supposed to be looking for in the first place.  Worse, you get fatigued and the earlier chapters end up being much more highly revised and edited than the later ones.

One way to overcome this challenge is to break the novel up into non-contiguous sections.  A trick I found effective was to revise randomly.  I wrote all the chapter numbers on little slips of paper and put them in a bowl.  I’d draw one, revise whatever chapter was listed, and then draw another.  This kept me from getting pulled into the story and allowed me to focus on the book in little sections, really honing my editing knife.

When I draft, I also often leave bits unwritten.  These bits are peppered throughout the novel, written in brackets, and colored red to remind me of their languishing and unloved state.  An example: [insert DESCRIPTION OF THE CAMP here] or [look up SPECIES OF SNAKE].  During revision I have to go back and fix all these bad boys.  Many of them tend to be description related and it can get tough to think up beautiful new descriptions off the cuff.

To solve this problem, I create master documents with descriptions of the world.  BLOOD RED SUN was a desert world, so I had fifteen different ways of describing the sand, twenty-five different ways of describing cactus (plus a list of all the species of cactus), ten different ways of talking about the way morning light hits the mountains, how the air smells after it rains, and so on.  As I went through the manuscript, I’d use these descriptions in appropriate places, marking them off on the master sheet so I wouldn’t repeat them.  This worked so well for me that I actually ended up doing separate sheets for descriptions of the various cities, of the clothing people wore, and of the food they ate.

Finally, for the smallest level stuff – fixing typos, excising excess words, and tightening the prose — I used the method laid out in the 10% Solution (a genius little book).  Here you use the search function in your word processing program to focus on a single word (“that” or “of” or “was”, for instance).  You go through each and every instance of this in the novel and decide whether to revise, remove, or keep the offending sentence.  This is sooooo tedious, BUT it really works because it forces you to focus at the level of the sentence without any other distractions, something you could never do if you were reading as opposed to using ‘search’.  The method is called the 10% Solution because it usually results in you axing about 10% of your word count (all of it flab).

So, those are my tricks:

  • Using a spreadsheet to keep track of your plot lines, characters, and arcs
  • Making multiple passes, each focused on a very specific type of revision
  • Chopping the novel up into sections and editing them randomly as opposed to reading through them in order
  • Using master sheets for world-building (descriptions, sights, sounds, smells, tastes, etc)
  • Using the 10% Solution to hone the manuscript into a lean, mean machine

What do you think – do any of these things sounds helpful?  Are you already doing some of them?  What other editing and revising tricks have you found effective?

Do tell.

Adventures in revising

Sorry for the somewhat protracted radio silence this week…revising my novel has taken over my life and I’ve been neglecting pretty much everything else.  Carrying out revisions, however, has raised some potentially blog-worthy questions for me about process. 

When I first started writing a few years ago, my revision process was very simple: try to figure out what was wrong  and fix it.  Since then I’ve learned a lot and, as a result, have started breaking the revision process down into much more specific components and steps. 

For one thing, I can now take my writing apart more effectively and analyze it through different lenses.  Are there problems with the structure, plot, and pacing?  Do the characterizations need more subtle shading or greater development?  Is the writing flabby?  Is the POV too distant?  Is the world-building vivid and deep enough?

Pulling out these individual strands has led me to revise in several passes.  For instance, the plan for final revisions to my novel “A Blood Red Sun” include the following passes over the manuscript:

1. Plot level changes

2. Shading and development of characters, especially the protagonist and secondary POV character

3. World-building (particularly with respect to improving sensory aspects – sound, taste, touch, feel)

4. Editing following the method in the 10% Solution (this includes a reading aloud pass and a printed pass)

At least…that’s the plan.  I’m midway through the first pass and I’m already finding it really hard separate elements.   In fact, it’s gotten to the point where pass #1 and pass #2 are merging.

I’m not sure if this is a good thing or not.  On the one hand, combining the two doesn’t seem to be hurting my focus, but it is taking longer and reducing the number of times I’ll go through the manuscript before declaring it done.  Do I need to force myself to be more regimented?  I don’t know.

Another benefit emerging from this project is greater awareness of my chronic weaknesses.  One thing I’m realizing I do A LOT is flounder around with spatial cues.  Characters are always crossing the room, looking at each other, “fixing their gazes” (ugh), and so on.  In a few rare instances, such cues are necessary for clarity, but usually they’re just useless filler.  I look forward to zapping them with my editing ray of death in pass #4. 

Distancing the POV is another trap I fall into when drafting.  Characters watch other characters experience things rather than letting the reader have direct access.  Instead of letting “the sun warm her face” the character will “feel the sun on her face.”  And then there’s the dreaded “was” replacing active verbs with its passive life-sucking force.  Again, my ray gun is at the ready.

One of the things I love about writing is how much of a learning process it is.  Sitting down to complete one task (revising a novel) allows you to simultaneously experience greater self-awareness and growth as a writer in general, which will benefit your next writing project.  I have no doubt I’ll look back on my first year of blogging and smile indulgently at how naive I seem to my now more-experienced self.  Not only do I have no doubt, I look forward to it.

In the meantime, though, it’s back to revisions for me.  Please share your processes and suggestions for revision in the comments…I could use the help!

Writer’s Workspace: 12/14

Good morning!  Welcome to this writer’s workspace.  Here’s what’s happening liiiiiiiiiiiiiive at Miranda’s desk:

What I’m working on: After receiving feedback from my writing group, I zeroed in on three major chunks of revisions to my novel “A Blood Red Sun.”  I finally made it through the second chunk; the third is in my sights (which means the end of revisions is a glimmer on the horizon, too!).

Snippet from the screen: “Kara knew Itzil was coming.  She could feel it in her gut, in the pucker of goose bumps on her skin.  She heard footsteps in the hall.  The heavy wooden bar grated as it was dragged back.  Kara breathed deep and tasted the damp, moldly scent of the cell and the tang of harsh soap still clinging to her skin.”

On my iTunes: Actually, I’ve got Pandora up and running today.  It’s great for listening to all those Christmas tunes you’d really rather not pay for 😉

In my mug: tongue-burninating Dunmore East Irish blend tea

Keeping me company: The Overseer is here on my desk, pestering me with his mournful eyes and sad little chirps: “please play with me!”  Hard to resist the cuteness.

The Overseer waits not-so-patiently for play time.

Out the window: Snow!  We actually got a very pretty dusting of the fluffy white stuff last night 🙂

A little procrastination never hurt anyone: Here’s an interesting history of the elevator pitch over on Wired; your daily giggle from SlushPile Hell; and an interview with fellow VPXIII alum, Ferrett Steinmetz.

That’s all from here, folks!  What are YOU up today?

Writer’s Workspace: 12/1

Good morning!  Welcome to this writer’s workspace.  Here’s what’s happening liiiiiiiiiiiiiive at Miranda’s desk:

First off, a special link to share.  My VP classmate and friend Catherine Schaff-Stump has posted an interview with me over at her blog, Writer Tamago.  Check it out!

What I’m working on: revisions to A Blood Red Sun press forward.  My protagonist has reached a real low point.  She’s been betrayed, her army is slaughtered, and she’s now a prisoner.  In the coming chapter, her enemy will perform ritual human sacrifice to allow a goddess to claim her body as a host.  Not looking good for our heroine.

Snippet from the screen: “A hot, dry wind blew.  It pushed her hair back from her face, ruffling the feathers of her headdress.  Kara stood with eight hundred and fifty warriors at her back and the dog at her side.  The northern edges of the Huecalli desert spread dry fingers around her, and beyond, the high, bleak mountains of Acoya rose like teeth.”

On the iTunes: “So Nice So Smart” by Kimya Dawson

In my mug: The usual English Breakfast tea.

Out the window: Gloomy, gloomy, and more gloomy.  I guess, as they keep saying in these trailers that I can’t stop watching…winter is coming.

Keeping me company: The Overseer is lounging on the floor by my desk, keeping a close watch; should I get up, he’ll be quick to steal his chair my chair.


His Royal Fuzziness, Mr. Ramses

A little procrastination never hurt anyone: of course, the first link I have to share is to my own short story, “The New Arrival” just published by Electric Spec.  Second, if you happen to live in the San Fran/Bay Area and like performance art, check out Sean Craven’s latest post on Renaissance Oaf.  Finally, to get you in the holiday spirit, a NYTimes slideshow on festive drinks.

That’s all from here, dear friends.  What are YOU doing today?


Writer’s Workspace: 11/23

Good morning!  Welcome to this writer’s workspace.  Here’s what happening liiiiiiiiiiiiiive at Miranda’s desk:

Today’s installment of Writer’s Workspace is brought to you from the sofa, as The Overseer has commandeered my office chair and is using it as his personal tanning bed.  Thanks buddy.


The Overseer takes his rest

What I’m working on: I’m way behind on all my projects, so whatever I chose to do this morning was six of one, half dozen of the other.  I dreamed about Blood Red Sun last night, so that’s what I’m inspired to work on today.  That means revisions, editing, and redrafting troublesome chapters from the first draft.

Snippet from the screen: “Kara’s expression was unreadable, flat and strange.  She swung her legs over the side of the sleeping bench and stood.  Her hair hung in ropes, thick with dried mud, and black patches of blood crusted her cheeks and neck.  Her tunic was torn.”

What’s on the iTunes: “Evenstar” from the Lord of the Rings soundtrack

What’s in my mug: English breakfast tea, half gone and mostly cold.

What’s out the window: Sunny and 65 degrees, my dears! (Sorry, friends stuck in Seattle’s snowstorm…)

A little procrastination never hurt anyone: A few links for those in need of a wee break…here’s Jeff VanderMeer on rejuvenating your imagination, Scalzi gives us a tour of his new office, and a thimble full of funny from Slush Pile Hell.  Enjoy!

That’s all from here!

What are YOU working on today?

Drafting and Revising: Patience really is a virtue

Congratulations!  You’ve had a genius idea for a story.  You’ve even managed to get it all written down, more or less in order.  You’ve gone over it once or twice, tweaking the wording, deleting pesky adverbs and restructuring awkward paragraphs.  You went so far as to print it out, read it aloud, and fix everything that sounded stupid.

Awesome! You’re ready for feedback.

No, I’m sorry my friend, but you are not.

get out your editor's pen!

I’ve learned this lesson the hard way several times.  It’s natural, of course, to finish up a newly drafted story and want instant feedback.  Or, worse yet, to want to cross “submit to market” off your to-do list.  Natural, but a big mistake.

A better strategy is to set that story aside.  Forget it exists.  Do this for a minimum of a week, two if you can bear it–solitary confinement in the filing cabinet.  Then pull it back out and give it a read.  Chances are the first line will strike you as horrible.  If you make it to the third paragraph you’ll probably have found at least five instances of “that” you can cut.  You may have also realized nothing happens on the entire first page.


This is why patience is a virtue.  Draft.  Set aside.  Revise.  Repeat.  Then send it out to your writer’s group.  Only then will your story be at a point where higher level feedback will be valuable.  Plus, your writer’s group will thank you for doing the extra revisions 🙂

This one is always hard for me.  I love my new stories (after all, their newness makes them awesome by default).  They’re like perfect newborn ducks, fluffy and delicate.  I want to send them into the world so that everyone can see how amazing they are, how brilliant.  But I’m too close to them to recognize their awkwardness or see that they aren’t yet capable of swimming, let alone flight.  Maybe, just maybe, if I nurtured and fed them and waited for them to grow a little they might not get eaten by the neighborhood dog.

Just sayin’.

NaNoWriMo, where’s the love?

This is my first year giving NaNoWriMo a try and one thing that has surprised me is the general chatter out there regarding whether NaNo is for “real” writers or not (by which folks generally seem to mean published pros).  My feeling is that every writer, newbie or pro, will benefit from the practice of daily writing, so I’m frankly not sure what the fuss is all about.  Nevertheless, here are my thoughts on NaNoWriMo’s pros and cons:

NaNo’s advantages:

  • I’m nearing the end of Week 2 and am several thousand words behind of where I should be to “finish” on time…but, I’ve also written about 15K, thereby kick-starting a novel I might have otherwise never begun (and one I’m really enjoying writing).  Whether I reach 50K by the end of the month or not, I’m chalking this up as a win.
  • I write, revise, research, or otherwise work on my writing regularly, but the habit of putting down 2000 or so new words every day is a valuable one to develop.  NaNo has helped me develop this habit.  Again, a win.
  • Lets be honest, we all have goals we’d like to meet that fall forgotten into the gutter where they molder and die alone.  But when we announce those goals to the world at large, post our progress on a website, and read about the progress of our friends on Twitter, Facebook, and the like…well, the social pressure of something like NaNo can be very motivating (though also occasionally disheartening).  It’s a little embarrassing to see your buddies’ word counts grow while your status bar just sits there stagnating.  I’d be willing to bet social pressure plays a pretty big a role in how many people “win” NaNo.

And, for the cons:

  • The biggest drawback of NaNo, in my view, is that when you’re cranking out 50,000 words in one month and the NaNo cheerleaders are shouting “keep going!” “don’t edit!” “go!”…well, you get a frantic sort of feeling that isn’t conducive to reflection and revision.  There’s more to drafting a novel than just word count.  Giving yourself time for ideas to percolate, mutate, and grow into something more twisty and gorgeous than you first envisioned is an important part of the drafting process.  NaNo might not be the best means to facilitate plot and character development.

Some are quite critical of NaNoWriMo and say it’s a waste of time engaged in by only unprofessional writers who will produce mostly drivel.  While I don’t doubt a huge quantity of drivel is produced by writers during the month of November (and could provide whole passages of said drivel from my own manuscript), there are also plenty of examples of novels that go on to be finished after NaNo ends (50K is not really novel length, after all), revised, edited and eventually published (famously, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, but also (for speculative fiction fans) Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal and many others).  For many of these authors, the salient point is that NaNo provides a forum for setting a meaningful deadline and getting that first draft (or a big portion of it) down on paper.

NaNoWriMo isn’t really about finishing a novel in a month.  It’s about publicly shaming yourself challenging yourself to internalize what really amounts to a professional writing behavior: getting down a daily word count.  This is the advice that EVERYONE gives newbie writers: write, write, write.  Try to carve out 30 minutes, an hour, whatever, each day and write.  All NaNoWriMo is doing is saying to try this for a whole month.  All the rest about finishing a novel and so on and so forth is just window dressing.

So, bottom line.  If you struggle with producing a regular, daily word count and you want an external task-master (ah, that ever-helpful social pressure) to assist you in making it a habit, NaNoWriMo is an excellent tool for achieving your goal.

That’s my two and a half cents.  What are your thoughts on NaNo?