Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the first draft of our writing came out perfect? But as we all learn, that is only a pipe dream. Seriously, no one is that good.
So many wonderful books, so many talented writers. How could someone like me even attempt such a feat? It helps to hear an author’s confession. Every first draft is a mess—the real magic happens in the re-writing and editing phases. And so, I asked our Paper Lantern Writers for their take on where to begin this monumental task.
The first element Edie Kay always focuses on is Voice. I do this almost as I write. When I sit down, I generally read back the last 5-10 pages that I’ve just done, and I scan those for Voice as I go. The elements I am looking for most is word choice. For instance, my main character in THE BOXER AND THE BLACKSMITH, Bess Abbott, is a professional lady boxer. She didn’t go to school. She is illiterate. She has emotional intelligence, she has street intelligence, but her vocabulary? A little smaller than my other characters. She sees a lot, can interpret the needs and meanings of others, but her word choice is limited and simple. Her dialogue is littered with slang, and by turns, self-deprecating humor and bravado.
The blacksmith, on the other hand, is what we would now term “middle-class.” He’s had an education, he has a well-respected and established trade. He runs his own foundry and has an apprentice. His understanding of the world is larger, but his understanding of people is less than Bess’s. He may be able to use fancier terms–more evocative verbs, word choices, flowery language, and beautiful compliments–but he is not as invested in the emotions of others. I often create a “style sheet” that lives next to my computer while I write that book. What are slang terms Bess would use in conversation? How would Os, a blacksmith, think of beauty and quality? Artisanal trades like blacksmithing begin when the apprentice is quite young, and would temper (you see what I did there?) the outlook of the character.
Slang for Bess is not only a part of her dialect, but a way of asking someone if they belong to her world, or if they would accept her world. So this is why Voice is the first part of editing I do in every draft.
When Linda Ulleseit finishes the first draft of a novel, she takes a deep breath. “Then I put it away for a couple of weeks. When it’s time to dive into the edits, I first read the whole book through. On this pass I want to know if the pacing works, if the story builds properly, and if the ending is satisfactory. In my books, the ending usually is terrible until the third or fourth revision! After I’ve worked on it awhile, I read the book aloud, usually to my dog, who is my most appreciative audience when it comes to early drafts. Reading aloud helps with the cadence and flow of the text. I’ve even had readers say that my books read like they’re meant to read aloud!
My novels often alternate points of view each chapter, so on subsequent passes I make sure the voices are distinct and the theme is woven through. I’m pretty good at grammar and punctuation, so I don’t worry about that too much until the very end. One of the most important pieces of editing is to let someone else read it because it’s always wonderful in your head! A good beta reader can find holes in your plot, weak character descriptions, or overused phrases that you love but shouldn’t use so often. A book is never really done. I pull the plug on mine and call it done when I’m so sick of revising and editing that I want to scream. And yes, I do sometimes find things I’d like to change in the published book months later!”
Since C.V. Lee writes biographical fiction, the first thing she focuses on is making sure all the historical dates and facts are correct.
I wouldn’t want to refer to the wrong king on the throne or have events out of sequence. The other element I focus on is the origin date of words. I wouldn’t want my 15th century characters using 18th century words in conversation. For example, my characters could be betrothed, promised or pledged. However, they cannot be engaged since that word ‘engage’ didn’t appear until the 16th century and the term ‘engagement’ didn’t appear until the 17th century. I don’t want the historians or students of the time period nitpicking at the errors and inconsistencies (although I’m sure I’ll have missed a few) in my story.
I found it helpful to break revising my novel into separate areas of focus. For example, one pass tackled grammar using the software program ProWritingAid. Another layered in sensory details. A helpful exercise early on was to analyze each scene with an eye to moving the plot forward.
Kathryn Pritchett found Rock Your Revisions: A Simple System for Revising Your Novel by Cathy Yardley to be a helpful guide in this process. Yardley recommends you consider four things in each scene: the protagonist’s Goal, Motivation, Conflict and Disaster (or Resolution.)
In Scrivener, I use the Notes section to the right of the manuscript pane to make sure I address the GMCD of each scene and when I hadn’t, I revise it until I do.
Whether editing a finished book or chapters to send to her critique group, Ana Brazil focuses first on “flow”.
I’ll define flow as “The characters in the story have to keep moving along and bumping into each other to create chaos and friction.”
Or maybe I really focus on deleting “non-flow”, which I can define as those character actions, reactions, and dialogue that make the reader go “huh?”. All of those bad boys & girls must come out and be replaced with the character’s real feelings, actions, reactions and dialogue (or narrative).
After I finish a book I also have a list of “whole book edits” to do. For my 1919 vaudeville mystery, I’m really looking forward to my “clothing, costumes, & shoes” edit because I love describing the fabulous clothes my heroine wears on- and off-stage.
My tip: Don’t let editing drive you crazy (hard to do, of course) and employ a professional copy editor.
C.V. Lee writes historical biographical fiction featuring forgotten heroes and heroines of the past. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society, Alli, and a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. You can find her on Facebook @cvlee.histficwriter and on Instagram @cvleewriter.