How Chuck Wendig Edits A Novel

Recently, I wrote a post called, “How Chuck Wendig Writes A Novel.”

Just after writing that, I threw myself into the churning gears of editing and rewriting not one novel, but three — I spoke a little on Twitter about said editing/rewriting, and I got a lot of folks tweeting at me or emailing me questions about my editing process.

Seems now is a good time to sift through the sand of my process, see what baubles turn up.

Now, two quick things:

First, this is my process. You are not me. (OR ARE YOU? MOM, THE DOPPELGANGER IS READING MY BLOG AGAIN.) As such, this is not meant to be a step-by-step Menu For Proven Success. Every writer’s gotta figure out her own process. This is mine, here to serve as an example and a list of possibilities rather than a do this or perish in the cold fires of ignominy.

Second, I believe that this process is as important, if not moreso, than the actual writing of your first draft. A story may be born in the first draft, but anybody with children will tell you, those baby creatures are dopey as shit. They just lay there. Crying and pooping. But time and teaching is what makes the person, and in editing and rewriting your work you’ll likely find that this is where your story grows up. A tale is truly made in this phase.

Put more succinctly:

Writing is when we make the words.

Editing is when we make the words not shitty.

Now, red pens out! No, no, not red penis out. See, that gets an edit. Weirdo.

Let us begin.

Kick The Story To The Curb And Walk Away

The best thing you can do for the work is get to the point where you forgot you wrote it. Give it enough time so that you can come back to it with only a hazy memory of the thing — meaning, you’re reading the work like some other jerkoff wrote it. You’ll come to it so fresh and so clean. You’ll be more clear-headed about its errors. You won’t needlessly love certain parts that suck, and you won’t automatically hate parts that are actually pretty good.

How much time does this take? I’ve no idea. I’m not you. (OR AM I? Okay, no.) I’d say to give it a month if you can afford it — sadly, I can’t always afford that kind of time, what with deadlines and all. With editing Heartland, Book One, I rewrote it many times over the course of a year, and just now did one more rewrite for the publisher — and in this casew had like, maybe five months before I really had to reopen and look at it again. I wasn’t so lucky with Blue Blazes – I had to write it and rewrite it immediately after. (But when Angry Robot returns the book to me for edits, enough time will have passed for me to come at it clear.)

Stare At It Until Its Weakness Is Revealed

Something is wrong with your story.

Repeat: something is wrong with your story.

I don’t know what. I haven’t read it. All I know is, every story has different set of problems, though certainly some writers cleave to problems particular to them (my problem is frequently plot, and my edits are often about punching the plot until it yields to my demands). What’s the problem with your story? Well. Maybe it’s:

Confusing character motivations. Unclear language. Plot holes. Wonky structural issues. Needless exposition. Boring parts. Shit that doesn’t make sense. An addiction to commas. Conflict that doesn’t escalate. Conflicts that are too easily solved. Inconsistent mood. Incongruous theme. Needs more sex. Needs another monkey sidekick. Parts are written in Sumerian for no good reason. The book is only 300 words long. The book is 300,000 words long. Needs more giant eagles carrying the protagonists around everywhere. Needs fewer awful parts. THE STORY IS DUMB AND YOUR FACE IS DUMB AND EVERYBODY HATES YOU.

Or whatever. Point is, you have to sit and figure out why this thing you wrote doesn’t work — either in part or in total. This is a heartwrenching component of the process, because…

…well, because it is. Because you don’t want anything to be wrong. Because you just spent so much of yourself putting the first damn draft on the page. But you know what? Fuck it. The good news is, just because something’s wrong doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed. No problem in a novel is too serious. All can be solved with a most merciless edit.

Get Some Perspective

Let someone else take a crack at it. Sometimes, even after time has passed, we’re just too close to the thing. You don’t want to kill your darlings or, maybe it’s the opposite: you just want to kill all of it with cleansing fire. Let someone else confirm or veto your feelings. They’ll also bring new questions and complexities to the table, too (“I did not realize that Captain Redballs the Bold died in chapter three, but then I have him in chapter six making love to a mermaid”).

I have my agent, who is a wunderkind in terms of sussing out a story’s problems. You may have friends or fellow writers who can help. Or copy-editors or editors or wives or a super-intelligent NASA-bred terrier. But find a trusted outside perspective. Don’t let it all fall to your shoulders.

Track Changes Is Your Best Friend

A tiny note: learn to love the power of track changes. Available in fullest form in Microsoft Word.

It is exceedingly helpful to mark all the changes you make. I turn them on when editing but turn their visibility off at the same time — so, it’s tracking all the changes I make off-stage and behind the curtain. But I can view them at any time. And it’s also a great way to track the comments and tweaks put forth by that person of outside perspective I was talking about, too.

And hell, part of it is just the satisfaction of looking at all your changes by the end and being amazed at the level of work you put into it. Suddenly you’re like:

“Man, I really made this pig bleed, didn’t I?”

How cruelly satisfying.

Work With The Multiple Safety Nets Of Redundant Backups

Also, save a lot when you edit.

And back up your work.

Not once place, but in many.

A cloud backup.

A local, external device.

Tattooed onto your back.

Buried in your yard.

Multiple redundant backups are your best buddy.

Gaze Upon The Coming Task With Terror In My Heart

There exists this moment before I edit where I feel completely overwhelmed. This is, quite literally, part of my process. I get this sense of literary vertigo, like I’m staring over the cliff’s edge into the crashing gears of some giant malevolent machine that I cannot comprehend and that I am sure will crush me into my constituent parts. And in this moment I want to back away and say, “Fuck it, I’m not doing this, I’m done, game over, my work sucks, I’m not a writer, I’m just some asshole, I can’t hack it, I can’t–”

And then I leap over the cliff’s edge and let the gears take me.

And that’s when I find out it wasn’t as bad as I thought.

It’s never as bad as you thought.

Re-Outline That Motherfucker

I outline my work prior to writing.

But, when writing, my work inevitably strays from the outline.

If I had to quantify it (and I will, because you keep shoving the barrel of that gun into my kidneys), I’d say about 75% of my draft survives the original outline, and 25% goes completely off the fucking rails like if Thomas the Tank Engine did a bunch of bath salts and tried to headbutt his way through a collapsed mountain pass.

(Sorry for the Thomas the Tank Engine reference. I have a toddler. I am infected.)

So, I like to take the draft I just wrote and re-outline it. Just so I see the entire thing before me — I want to see the forest and the individual trees. And it helps to pull my head out of the big blobby morass of the novel and see it as smaller, more manageable. I can see its shape. Its contours. I can see all the plotty bits and turns-of-the-tale. It’s a map. A blueprint. A cheater’s guide to a video game. Whatever. I want digestible chunks. Hence: outline.

Re-Re-Outline That Motherfucker

Then, yes, I re-re-outline.

The re-outline details the novel I just wrote.

The re-re-outline details the coming rewrites of the novel I just wrote.

The Power Of Excel Compels You

I use the mighty fuck out of Excel to perform this re- and re-re-outlining process.

Here’s how: I make four columns.

Column #1: Chapter number/name. (This is pretty explanatory, yeah?)

Column #2: Plotty Bits. Meaning, what the fuck is happening in this chapter? I don’t go into great detail, here. Just broad stroke events. “Bob dies. Mary lays eggs in his rectum. Her alien hell-shrimp are born in his colon. Mary exits.”

Column #3: Conflict/Changes. Meaning, I want to know what the core conflict is of this chapter. And I want to know how the story or its characters is changing. I want the sense that the story is moving, that things are happening, that the diagram of the narrative isn’t a flat line.

Column #4: Comments/Questions. Here’s me asking myself questions or making marginal comments — “Should Mary flee the scene now or do her motherly instincts prevail over her new insectile litter inside Bob’s moist bowel-channels?”

Then I duplicate the last three columns (plot, conflict, comments) again. This time, for the re-re-outline. This allows me to see both the current state of the novel and the novel I intend to edit/fix/rewrite/asplode side by side. Very helpful, at least for me.

I Am Shiva

Shiva is the destroyer. But Shiva is also preserver, concealer, revealer, and creator. And that, to me, sums up the entire editing and rewriting process: some stuff you kill with an axe. Some stuff needs to be reborn. Some stuff you preserve and keep — other stuff can only remain if you are able to can tease out the essence of the thing (scene, character, sentence, whatever).

What I’m saying is, after I re-re-outline, it’s time to rewrite. Which means destroying whole parts of the story and remaking them. In the Blue Blazes  I lost an entire main character. Like, I erased her from the tale. Sometimes with a machete, sometimes with a surgical laser. She just wasn’t pulling her weight and so she had to go, and that means rewriting the story — a stitching of the wound, you will — around the holes where she once existed.

Read It

Once you’re done with the big edits, I reread. (Re-outline, re-write, re-read. Lots of re-re-re.)

I read the draft aloud — which is not to say I sit here in my office bellowing fiction all day, which would drive my family nuts and wake Toddler B-Dub up from one of his blessed naps, but I kind of mumble-whisper the words as I sit here. (Which means anybody looking at me from afar probably thinks I’m some kind of crazy person.) Reading your work aloud will allow you to catch a lot of the rough patches in terms of language. And reading the work in general will allow you to catch any problematic bits that remain. It’s like pouring the broth of your work through a strainer and then through cheesecloth to capture those last gnarly bits.

If Necessary, Do It All Again, But Not Before Weeping Softly And Drinking A Lot

Sometimes you gotta do it all over again. Sometimes some of the cancer remains, which means it’s time for another round of surgery, chemo, and radiation. Hell, sometimes a truly frustrating thing happens: the second draft has more problems than the first. That’s okay, though at the time it’ll feel completely defeating. It’s all part of the winnowing. It’s all progress even when it doesn’t feel that way. Because this is you getting to know your story. This is you getting to know more than just this story, but all stories, feeling your way through what works and what doesn’t. It’s all research and development, man. It’s all one big story-hack.

56 comments

  • Yes, literary vertigo! Accompanied by literary blackouts. (Unless that was the drinking.) Every time, it’s like I can’t remember that I did this before and got through it (eventually). How can I not remember?… Eh, whatever. I’m working on a new story now that’s gonna be perfect the first time through!

  • Now getting your emails. Thank you Chuck. I’m new to all of this so finding this level of mentoring is a wonderful gift. I’m also reading your Kindle book: 500 Ways To Tell A Better Story – So much to learn….

  • Love it…. especially (1) leave it long enough to be seen as the work of another (2) get out the red pen(s). I am saving this blog.

  • I think very visually, so I start off with a Draft Zero which contains a lot of ‘stage blocking’ kind of stuff:

    She picks up the hairbrush from the counter and walks to the door. she opens the door, and sees the demon. she jabs the demon in the stomach with her hairbrush.

    Most of that would get cut in subsequent drafts, but it helps me to write out how i see the scene in my mind

  • Wow. This first-timer is happy to see there is an ‘after’ the terror phase.

    Also very stimulating that most things I do that just seemed a good idea at the time, are also used by others.

    My re-re-outline bits are more like a story ‘bible’, like they are used in story-based videogames, but it has the same intention, I think. (Story outline, character consistency, background, plot-consistency, world-building stuff, everything-consistency.)

  • Chuck,

    I’m just glad I’m not the only one who dreads hurling himself into the malevolent machine gears of the great big edit. I’m going to brave this next one, and maybe end up with a book. Thanks for this stellar piece of writing about the horrors of editing! :)

    - CTJ

  • I love the Excel tactic as an editor, too — when I do that for some clients, I color code everything so all the action is red and emotion is orange and informational scenes are green, etc. (Colors help to track multiple POV narrators, too, to make sure you’re not neglecting someone.)

  • I’m going through editing my novel now, and it does make me want to drink, but I move forward. I’m in early chapters right now that I haven’t touched for a year. My general reaction is this: “What the hell is this? I let people see this? Oh, God! I let people see this.”

    Editing. One of they joys of being a writer.

  • Concerning the reading aloud portion: This is immensely helpful! I wrote a play once upon a time, and for some of my post editing work, I grabbed four people (one for each character in the play) and had them read it out loud. It is amazing what you realize works and doesn’t work with dialogue when you do that. I don’t think I would have finished in half the time I did without doing that. Have you ever had anyone read your rough draft out loud while you listened?

  • I totally just passed the Literary Vertigo. I did it something like four hours ago. Somehow you always have a post about something I just finished doing.

    Always. Every toddler post, every writing post.

    How do you know you bearded psychic?

  • Your re-re-excel bits were very reassuring. I figured I coouldn’t be the only one odd enough to use Excel for editting and outlining. I use colors to track my POVs too. It’s a great way to see “balance” at a glance.

    What’s scary though is when you do the re-outline and add all of your notes and stuff, and then when you go back through it and start deleteing the ones you’ve managed to handle properly, you get this sort of panic about doing so.

    So now I have the same number of spreadsheets as I have drafts. The files are pretty small and if you’re reasonalby organized it’s no big deal. And then you can go back and see what you thought you should have done, as it compares to what you actually wound up doing.

  • I used to hate editing. Now, I love it. I used to have to do it on paper. Now, I use my kindle as the source document and rewrite on paper or in scrivner/word. I love tearing down and building back up. I love the infinite chances. I love eventually having to admit *and this used to kill me* that it’s never going to be perfect.
    It hurts like hell. Things you love die.
    But you get to create new things in their place. Things no one else could create.
    Damn powerful. Terrifying. But powerful.

  • This post came along just in time. Tried a real outline for the first time as I wrote draft 1 of the current WIP, strayed of course, and was stumped for how to get an efficient handle on the rewrite/reoutline. I’m gonna try this.

    Also looking forward to next week’s How Wendig Does X post: “How Chuck Wendig Eats a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup”.

  • Seriously, you have a painful job. If that’s your process, you might want to consider becoming an embedded war journalist or something else that requires you to wriggle through barbed wire while composing your story. I have an alternate method: Step one–leave to write something else for many weeks. Step two–read awful first draft and rewrite the awful parts while eliminating the stuff that seemed great at the time but turned out to be not so great or completely useless. Step three–drink alcohol, then repeat step two. Repeat. Repeat. Step four–declare that you can’t stand to look at the thing any more and toss it at someone that will give you an honest read. Step five–toss it or publish it, depending upon result of step four.

    Much less painful and highly effective; cf., God Bless the Dead

  • Jeeeeezus, thank you, Chuck. I know a zillion people will comment here and say nice things and shit, but I just wanna thank you for writing down what it feels like to stare over that fuckin’ cliff edge right before you leap. Today is my day to leap. I can’t tell you how much less alone I feel even though I don’t know you and we have nothing in common and you’ll never know my name and yadayadayada. Just…hey man, thanks a lot.

  • Neil Gaiman offers the same advice to put the work aside for awhile and then go back to it. It really is extremely helpful. The clunky parts jump right out at you, and the good bits sound even better.

  • I’ve been stuck in the “Gaze Upon The Coming Task With Terror In My Heart” for months now. Thanks to your blogs about editing, I’m finally ready to push through.

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