25 Steps To Edit The Unmerciful Suck Out Of Your Story
I’m editing a book right now. It is its own happy brand of hell — but, for all its hellishness, it’s also a process I dearly love because it’s like purification through flames. It’s a powerful step in storytelling — often, I find that editing is the part where the story is truly constructed.
So, here you go: steps I sometimes go through to get the job done. Other times: I go through an entirely different process. These are not set in stone or meant to be a doctor’s prescription: these are just a handful of options in a relatively sensible sequence to help you get a grip on Forging Your Story In The Fires Of Mount Revision. Do as you will. And good luck, penmonkeys.
1. Go Do Some Other Shit For A While
Hey, you wrote a book! Yay! Woo! Now go hibernate. Write another book. Travel with the machine elves on a hallucinogenic odyssey through time and space. The goal is to give yourself as much time between I Finished A Book! and I Am Editing That Book! as possible. You need to come to the edit with distance between You and It. You need to arrive as if some other asshole wrote this book. That will give you cold clarity about the story, the characters, the language, everything. You won’t feel nearly as much irrational hatred and absurdly protective love over it. Your co-dependency with the manuscript will be ground into the mud. This is tricky if you’re on deadline and don’t have a lot of time, but you gotta try.
2. Make Sure Some Other Human Actually Reads It And Offers Notes
Other human beings are essential to the editing process. Essential. Otherwise you’re operating in a vacuum. You’re floating in the amniotic goo with just a swollen cord connecting you to the story. You need eyeballs. You need hands. You need the doctor with the ultrasound to be all like, “This baby has three legs, hooves, and Tilda Swinton’s face growing up out of its back.” This other person might be an agent, an editor, a friend, a spouse, a beta reader, a stoned dude on the highway selling oranges, whoever. Just have them read it. And get their notes. Pay them if you must. Sob plaintively. Embrace blackmail.
3. Read Their Notes, Then Put Those Notes Away
They gave you notes. Good. Read them. You’ll hate those notes for anywhere between five minutes and fifteen days. That’s okay. Ride it out. In the meantime, just put the notes away. Hide those fuckers in a drawer and go have a cheeseburger or something.
4. The Re-Read
You need to re-read your book. It’s time. Sit down with it. Print it out and plop it in your lap. Or smear it onto your iPad or computer monitor. Whatever it takes: just re-read that sonofabitch. Do this quickly. You’re not reading for pleasure. Your job is not to savor it like it’s a meal. This is dirty, gnarly, fuck you I gotta get this done time. It’s mercenary. The object behind reading it swiftly is to see the entire picture and that often necessitates burning through it like a garbage fire. The faster you read, the larger the picture becomes, and the easier it is to see all the little and large fuck-ups that will drag your story down like a colostomy bag filled with buckshot.
5. Take Notes Like A Terminator
Your own notes should be cold. Merciless. Equal parts Follow me if you want to live and Your clothes: give them to me now. No emotion. Just the icy crimson stare of a sociopathic robot hellbent on fixing grievous errors (by driving a car through the front of a police station, if need be). Don’t only use the time to highlight stuff that doesn’t work. Highlight the things that do work, as well — stuff that, to you, counts as components of the story that do what they were designed to do. And okay, fine, if you want to drop the emotionless edit-bot motif for a second, feel free to doodle little happy faces or gold stars or tentacled elder gods giving you a thumbs-up (er, tentacles-up) in the margins to indicate: I’m making a note here — “HUGE SUCCESS.”
6. Think Upon Your Sins, Child
You have identified the problems. Now it’s time to conjure the solutions. Sometimes this is easy. “This paragraph doesn’t say what I want, so I’ll rewrite it.” A lot of the time, this can demand a whole lot of staring off into the abyss. “I’ve discovered a rather profound plot hole and to fix it I’ll… wh… I’ll rewrite this one part and… ahhh ehh… I could rejigger — no — I could flip it and switch it — oooh double no — oh I know I think I’ll go eat a cupcake and watch Adventure Time for seventeen hours.” Problems require solutions and so this is the part where you do whatever you gotta do and take whatever time you need to think up the fixes. Take a walk. Take a shower. Sleep on it. Divine the truth from pelican entrails. Find answers. And write ’em the fuck down.
7. Play The “What If?” Game
Here’s the part you will both hate and love. As you’re looking back on your story, play the What If? game. Ask the question: “What if X happened? What if Y went the other way? What if Z was actually an orangutan secret super-agent named Orange Julius?” This is the time for big thinking and absurd changes. Most of these will land with an irrepressible thud. And that’s okay. But once in a while you’ll hit on one that resonates, that fixes a whole bunch of problems in one fell swoop, that changes the story in big ways (but all for the better). It’ll require work, but hey, if you’re not here to work, then you’re reading the wrong blog.
8. Secure A Human Sounding Wall
Talk things out with another human being. In person or on Skype or via telepathic mindbridge. It helps. Even if they’re not a writer. Just to vocalize problems and potential solutions can offer a kind of intellectual and creative lubrication. And that person may be able to push back and offer opposing ideas. If an adult human isn’t available, you can talk to a toddler, a dog, a cat, a ferret, a horse, a door jamb, a hat rack, a Roomba, a cat riding a Roomba dressed as a shark, a mirror, a monkey butler, or a tea cozy with a smiley face knitted onto it.
9. Compile All Notes In A Giant Binder Of Editorial Doom
Put it all together. All the notes. All the problems and fuck-ups. All the proposed solutions and fixes. Jam that stuff into a binder (real or electronic). Look on your works, ye mighty — but do not despair. Because this is what getting shit done looks like. This is the job, and you’re doing it, so have a cookie.
10. Determine Validity Of Notes
Heat up a copper wire and dip it into the petri dish of blood, and if it’s the blood of The Thing, then the human meatbag will suddenly metamorphose — *is handed a note* — okay, that’s from a movie. You know, I was sitting here saying, I think this is from a movie, and sure enough: it’s from a movie. Okay. Deep breaths. Refocus. THERE. Okay, not every note you took or every note you received is going to be gold plucked from a leprechaun’s rectal rainbow stash. Some notes are gonna be great. Some are worth keeping just in case. And others? Ennnh. Meh. Neh. Not so much. Some notes may also disagree with one another (“MORE COWBELL.” “FEWER COWBELLS”). How to determine? Outside, say, a game of chance? Listen: this isn’t math. Gotta go with your gut. Cultivate instinct. Poll the jury of your intestinal flora.
11. Steady Yourself For The Tribulation Ahead
Have an adult beverage. Do some stretches. Pray to whatever ink-stained gods you hold dear. This is a mindset thing. Fuck winter: editing is coming. Editing can be a tough row to hoe: lots of changes, lots of uncertainty, lots of losing things you love and confronting stuff you don’t. It’s easy to panic. It’s easy to pull the ripcord and parachute away before you even begin. Don’t. Editing is where a story is truly told. Steel yourself against the coming hell. Time to work.
12. Outline The Book You Wrote
Maybe you used an outline to write that first draft. Maybe you didn’t. Whatever happened, now you’ve got this giant 300+ page leviathan whose individual components are hard to discern as separate from the whole. So: outline the book you just wrote. A retroactive outline, of sorts. The goal is to see what’s there in terms of story beats, character arcs, plot moments.
13. Outline The Book You’re Gonna Rewrite
Now it’s time to take that outline and reoutline so that you have the book you intend to end up with. Why do we do this? Because it’ll save you a whole lot of work later on. If you just dive into your edits like a drunk going to town on a pie-eating contest, everything will end up far messier than you like. Tweak one thing, another part breaks. Add one character, invalidate three others. Have a plan. A map. Some idea what’s going to happen next. More to the point: it’s easier to fuck up and adjust the story now than it is when you’ve revised and rebuilt the dread leviathan.
14. Have A Plan
Let’s talk about plans, actually. The outline is only one part. You should have some sense of how you intend to approach the edits. Just pick a page and dive in? From front to back? Back to front? Drop acid and rewrite the book from word one in a hallucinogenic stupor of your own devising? Figure out what comes first. And what comes next. (Oh, and use Track Changes. Always make sure you have a record of what you’re changing. You’ll appreciate it later.) Want some options? DADDY HAS SOME OPTIONS FOR YOU. Also, stop calling me “Daddy.” Because, ew.
15. Option: Tackle The Most Heinous Fuckery First
This is the equivalent of being the new fish on his first day in prison and walking up to the biggest, baddest dude in the cafeteria and trying to punch his lights out. This is you exerting your dominance over the story. This is dinner before dessert. The value-add here is that you’re attacking the hardest, jaw-tightenest, teeth-grittiest part of the story first. Everything is cake after this. And it also means that all the difficult fiddly bits are figured out. Easier as you go.
16. Option: Tackle The Easiest Shit First
On the other hand, sometimes you want to start at the shallow end before you go playing Marco Polo in sharkier waters. Pick the easy stuff. Little things that are easy to fix: the equivalent of a shoelace untied or a remote control without batteries. The value: you start fixing little things, you feel productive. You feel good about making changes. And you gain momentum. And by the time you get to the heinous fuckery, you’re like a warrior in an RPG: you’ve leveled-up, you’ve got your Authorscale boots, you’ve got your +4 Truncheon against Editorial Mayhem.
17. Option: Tackle The Thing From Front To Back
You’re just going to start at the beginning and edit front to back till you get to the end and boom, the motherfucker’s done. Value: you get to read how the story’s going to play out to readers and adjust accordingly. You see how all the pieces will slot into place (or don’t, at present). It’s a clean, progressive way to edit, though doesn’t guarantee you won’t have to do some loopbacks to fix things that cascade throughout the draft like a power outage or a tectonic shift.
18. Banish Cut Copy To The Negative Zone
Anytime you cut something: keep it. Snip it from the draft, plop it into another Trash Pile file. Why? Two reasons: first, because if you ever decide, “You know what, that whole paragraph I cut needs to go back in,” then hey, ta-da, there it is. Second, because even if you don’t use it in the current story, maybe you’ll discover something in that narrative midden heap worth rescuing some day — the equivalent of finding a five-dollar bill in the laundry.
19. Invoke The Rule Of Threes
One is the loneliest number, but three is the awesomest number. All things in your story should probably get three (or more!) beats. If I may expound a bit about Chekhov’s Gun (if you don’t know what that is: PLEASE TO CLICK THIS INTERNET LINKY), part of where that theory fails for me is that it assumes two beats: see the gun in the first act, gun’s goes off by the third. We usually require a beat in the middle, though: another reference or glimpse of the gun, something subtle that allows the audience to consciously or subconsciously sense the continuance. Three beats allows any aspect (theme, mood, supporting character, plot component, whatever) to stand on its own. Two beats can feel shallow and convenient (or inconvenient, depending). In your edit, look for places where elements fail the rule of three.
20. Re-Read Again, And Read That Shit Aloud
Time for another re-read. This time: read it aloud. No, you don’t need to stage a dramatic performance at the city park — er, unless you want to, though it’s a good bet you’ll get Frisbees thrown at your head or be eaten by the hibernating bear you woke up with your clunky prose. Rather, sit at your desk, speak (or mumble) the words quietly. Listen for rhythm. Listen to pacing. Words on a page are just proxies for words spoken in our heads and from our mouths. Reading your work aloud isn’t a universal catch-all, but it will highlight a lot of places where the language sounds bumpy, where it hitches and slews toward an awkward, muddy decline.
21. Copy-Edit As You Go
As you re-read and read aloud, copy-edit. Tweak. Poke. Twist. (Reminder again: Track Changes is your friend.) Massage the language as you go. Look for spelling errors, typos, duplicated/repeated words, fucked-up punctuation, awkwardness, fragments, poor word choice, incorrect word use, junk language, tense issues, POV issues, stylistic goofs, unnecessary adverbs or adjectives, passive constructions, wonky metaphors, and anytime you describe someone’s genitals as “turgid” or “tumescent.” Attack. Kill. Repair. Read and repeat.
22. Keep A List Of Pretty Pretty Peacocks
I keep a file. In this file are the photos from my days as a male pornstar, DONNY DONG. I also keep another file, which is probably more germane to this discussion, where I keep a list of crutch words and precious darlings: anything I tend to rely upon as a lazy construction or word choice or character traits, or, or, or. It’s an embarrassing file, in a way, but really useful, because I can search for all this stuff during an edit and say, “Oh, I used the word ‘cock-taco’ seven times in this book and really, that’s a once-a-book word, minimum.”
23. Eradicate All The Pretty Pretty Peacocks If Need Be
As the saying goes, kill your darlings. A darling is often ill-defined as those things in your story that you love, but that’s daft. Don’t kill those things. Might as well say, “Murder your wife, burn your house down, YOU DO NOT DESERVE SUCH THINGS.” No, a darling is something that you love but that cannot justify itself in the text. You write a chapter in the middle of the book that has no bearing on the rest of the book and it drags down the pacing but you love-love-love it, well, that chapter might need two bullets in the chest, one in the head. Behead those precious, preening peacocks. (I list this late in the post because I tend to do this at the very end, often because that’s when I actually have enough context and instinct regarding the draft that I can see those divots and nodules at a healthy distance. That said, it’s something to be aware of throughout the entire writing and editing experience.)
24. Do It All Again If You Have To
One pass might be enough. Might not. Rewrite till it’s right.
25. Submit And Celebrate
You’re done. NOW EAT PIE. Or whatever dessert you hold dearest to your heart. After that: take action. You just went through a special kind of hell — you crawled through burning slime pits, you endured imps biting your sensitive bits, you slid through the sulfur-sluice and emerged bloody and burned with a proper manuscript in your demon-callused hands. Now it’s time to do something with it. Get thee to a literary agent. Or an editor. Or publish that motherfucker yourself. It’s time. You rock. You’re almost there.
Freeze-frame fist-pump: YOU’RE THE BEST AROUND.
*cue end credits*
* * *