Editing the Novel

I’ve just emerged from an experience I REALLY don’t want to face again, which is why we hope we won’t have to move out of this house for decades: I had to get a book that had been written through three moves, one half move (son out), one international trip, and one very serious illness, ready for publication.

The problem with this is that like Kris Rusch I tend to write books very fast because that’s as long as I can hold the shape of the outline in my head.

Shape of the outline?  Oh, yeah, here’s the thing: some people plot on paper, sometimes outlines so complete that you only have to add dialogue.  I’ve done that myself, with say the Magical British Empire Books (yes, I am eventually going to issue them.  Right now my time for page proofs and typesetting is very limited, particularly since I’m still the “Publisher” for the whole family.  No, I DON’T actually need you to tell me the sheer insanity of having the main writer in the house also be the publisher.  It’s just that I learned more about how to do it, from covers to typesetting, to converting to ebook — partly because I was too ill to write for a long time — and also that Dan has two jobs, Robert and Marsh have crazy demanding time consuming educations, and my profession LOOKS more elastic, since I can write whenever I’m not asleep or doing something else.  Anyway, right now it’s the publishing and particularly the reissuing that are getting pushed to the back.)  Those books had 100 page outlines, each.  And what I found is that those are deceptive.  They distort the “pacing” of the book and make you misjudge foreshadowing.

I can eventually do a post on roadmaps, and what works for several people when it comes to pre-plotting, but for now let’s just say what works best for me is a rather loose outline, maybe ten pages, handwritten, which then shifts and I go deeper in the book, and realize the precipitating incident won’t work, say, or that the character as she’s emerging would never get that worked up over a snub, or…

In ideal writing conditions — which have happened for maybe ten of my published books — I get a month to write the book.  Half of that is research, particularly for historical, though right now there are two science fiction books causing me to learn way more about brain damage than I ever wanted to know.  Then I have a loose plot, which often just has something like “someone betrays him” for an entire section.  And then I immerse myself in it for two weeks and breathe, eat and drink the novel.  At this point I’m a lot like Star in Glory Road, while she was getting impression of past Emperors.  My food tastes change, my temper is different, my speech and cadences change, and let’s say that my husband has loved some of my characters and despised the others from living with them second hand.

If left undisturbed for this time, the book at some point produces an Eureka moment, at which I’m racing backward to make sure the foreshadowing is there, and forward, to pin the feel of the ending down before it escapes me.  (Like a butterfly, if you pin it disastrously, you’ll ruin it.  In either case, of course, it dies and stops shifting, so you have to make sure you pin it where you want it.)

This is normally when my computer gets a ton of little sticky notes pinned all around the monitor.  My kids, when they were little called it “porcupining” as in “Mom has porcupined the monitor.  She’s doing the final day on a book, and she won’t be herself.”

This book, Darkship Revenge, got interrupted about 1/3 in.  TWICE.  And btw both times I lost half the book, in a cd which disappeared in the move.  (I have now of course, found one.  The other is still missing, but yesterday we located my publishing cd which has been missing for two years.)  And then it’s been near-closing since June.  Except we had one international trip with weather so hot we could not sleep either night or day, then unpacking, then a couple of house and cat emergencies, then younger son moving out, and then in December, when I was maybe three days from finishing, my body thought it would be a rousing idea if I collapsed in the shower.

The resulting doctors appointments (still going on) resulted in novelus interruptus so much, that the entire feeling and sense of the novel changed while I was not writing.  And then I had the Eureka moment and realized that though I bring the characters to upright and locked position and there’s a victory at the end, this book is part of a two-book plot arc.  And that the guy I had planned sequels with had to die.  (Of course.  My subconscious hates me.)  If this weren’t a much better configuration, I’d have forced the end I had written down.  But it was better.  So I spent January fixing the book to fit the new ending.  It is now at Baen, and I have a checklist for editing a fractured novel.  My novels don’t usually need all of these (though some they do, like, are similar scenes always happening in similar places?) but I know other people are messier writers, and Kate is a radical pantser, and her rewrites/edits often involve what I had to do.

So, for people who might need it, here is a non-exhaustive checklist:

1- Is your ending the strongest possible?  I.e. does it leave the most lasting emotional impression in the reader?  If not:

a) Whom does what happened affect/change?  Can you make sure you are in that person’s head at the end, or you get his/her feelings on it?

b) Did you drop an elephant from the ceiling?  Even the most meaningful of deaths or love affairs means nothing if you didn’t foreshadow it.  I know, I know, everyone talks about how it should be a surprise.  Sure it should, but not so much of a surprise, no one saw it coming.  Then it’s just “and then a meteor (or an elephant) killed them all, the end” and the reader is left thinking “well, I wasted my time.”
Go back and foreshadow in such a way that the reader is hoping or fearing the event, but never sure it will happen.  Yes, I know, easier said than done.  But it gets easier with time.

2- Do you have a lot of nonsensical running around?  This is what I refer to “and in the middle of the novel something happens.”  It’s where, unless I’m reading it as an editor (I edit for close friends even though I hate editing, and even though I’ve been very bad lately) or as a beta reader, I just put the book aside and wonder off.  I like action as much as the next person, but the action must be meaningful to the plot, or it’s just filler because you were short on words.  How can you tell, when you’re close to it, if that’s what you were doing?

a) look at the scenes.  Do they advance the plot, either physically or emotionally?  Do your characters get closer to their goal?  Do they learn something that will help them attain it?

b) if not, can you change the scenes, so they push the character towards the goal?

c) if not, can you write new scenes that will do so?

Think of the middle like the three encounters in a fairy tale.  The tasks your character is set by the evil fairy or whatever might seem meaningless, but they must be changing and learning through it, so they can win.  If they’re just random, it will not satisfy the reader.

3- Is the final climax satisfying?

Yep, yep, I know.  You try.  You really do.  But sometimes you lose focus, and the final battle either almost doesn’t happen because you already know who’ll win, so why bother describing the minutia? OR it gets lost in a trailing morass of minor squirmishes.

Lately I’ve found myself having a weirder problem (though not with this last book) in which the final battles are two or three.  This is fixable (but annoying.)


a) what if your final encounter with the big-bad is not a bang but a whimper.  You have been building to this battle for 400 pages, and suddenly it’s over in 3, because, well, the big bad got scared of your hero’s armor of righteousness and imploded.

… your readers will get mad.  I know because some of the authors I read consistently do this, and it drives me bonkers.  So, go back and imagine that final confrontation in greater detail.  Start with “the big bad just pretended to implode… and now…”  For inspiration read the final confrontation in Terry Pratchett’s Thud.  Now go and figure out what to do.

b) Your big battle gets lost in a lot of little battles.  This is particularly common with multiple POV novels.

Choose one, and make that take longer/be more difficult.  Punch it up a lot. If in multiple POV novel, weave your other battles around it, so it starts first and ENDS last.

This is very important.  Your big climatic battle should be the lest one, before the characters are brought to their upright and locked position.  In the epilogue (don’t call it that)/cigarette moment (don’t call it that either) chapter you can give a summary of how the other, little battles went if needed.  BUT the big battle should be the important one, the one in which the central evil or more terrible menace faces your principal character/s.

4-Then there is the rest of the checklist, which is less important but will at times drive you insane:

1- Make sure your character arc is consistent.  Even for minor characters.

2- Make sure any large changes/idea shifting is foreshadowed and given lots of reasons to happen.  “And then he went crazy” is not very satisfying.

3- Make sure all your scenes don’t occur in the same type of location.  If your characters are always having arguments in the bedroom, make them argue in the car.  Maybe they’ll see something that helps.

4- Don’t kill a character twice unless he’s some form of undead.  Even a minor character.  Even in a series.  And stop laughing, this has happened in long running series I read.

5- If you have a brilliant idea and it’s a series, make sure it’s consistent with what went on before/will come after (this is mostly me, I think.  I plot by fits of brilliance.  Or “brilliance” at any rate.)

6- Make sure you have your character’s description consistent throughout.  Particularly minor characters (I’ve found this in published books too.  As in, the tall blond, who was really a tiny brunette.)

7- If it’s a series, make sure that someone encountering book 7 or 9 can enjoy it and go look for the others.  Also be aware this is not always possible.  I think in Darkships I’m hitting the point it’s not.  People who read Through Fire first were apparently, occasionally, bewildered, and the ones who read Darkship Revenge first will be somewhat confused about emotional resonance, I think.  But do what you can without turning half the book into “when last we saw our heroes.”

There are other things you should watch for, such as are your characters always sipping wine?  (One of my early unpublished books had the characters drinking so much coffee that they should have spent most of the book in the bathroom.)  Or “Is my character’s obsession with his hair annoying?” and “Is it meant to be?”

But if you just take care of the above, it should get rid of the MAJOR problems.

And now I’ll go and edit another novel, because life is like that.

First though I drink a lot of coffee, because I’m allowed and I’m not a novel character.

26 thoughts on “Editing the Novel

  1. Even with a lot of foreshadowing, having a book where the first 3/4 is having aliens drop space rocks on the character’s head, and the last 1/4 is having vampires solve everything can be more than a bit jarring.

      1. I’m not so sure it *did* work. I have a friend who loves Weber’s other work, who gave such a negative review of Out of the Dark that I haven’t bothered to crack open my own copy (bought at a library sale, so Weber didn’t get a royalty from my purchase, whereas he DID get royalties from my purchases of all the Honor Harrington novels). And, in fact, I haven’t yet heard from anyone who liked the book. Or rather, because Weber is still a darn good writer even when he’s making major mistakes in his plot structure, let’s make that “anyone who liked the book nearly as much as they usually like Weber’s novels”.

        1. I’m in that category of “didn’t like it nearly as much” – although I did like it.

          Actually, it left me wondering whether it might have originally been planned as the first of a series that died too young… “Vampire Galactic Empires.”

        2. I should clarify that when I say “… so Weber didn’t get a royalty from my purchase,” I mean that word as “therefore”, not as “for the purpose (of)”. But I just now realized that that book was published by Tor. And if I had said “so Tor didn’t get a royalty”, it would have had the opposite meaning — there, the word “so” would have implied purpose. But I have nothing at all against Weber.

  2. Thus far, my one-and-only book* didn’t actually have a climactic scene when I started. I knew what I wanted it to do, but I wasn’t quite sure how, because it had to be both threatening and survivable. And then a random song I’d stuck in as the protagonist’s touchstone song happened to have the answer—it was very weird. Mind you, this is a book I thought about for a good fifteen years before I wrote it (partly because I had to grow up and get enough skills for it to work), so there are scenes in there that had a decade plus of mental working-out in them. The crazy part is that last-minute climax feels like one of them, which I guess means it’s right.

    *I keep telling people I’m not a writer. And yet I’m working on the sequel, because nobody else is. With any luck it will not take as long as the first one.

  3. Just think how much worse off you would be if some of your beta readers and copy editors were not such pack rats.

  4. Hmmm… Right now I’m still writing (and half-way editing), but this gives me things to think about.

    > 1- Is your ending the strongest possible?

    Which one? Right now, I have two. I think both are necessary. Call them climax and epilog, if you will. Climax will be heart-warming. (Pssst, don’t tell anyone, but there’s a romance underneath all these science fiction trappings.) Epilogue will be heart-wrenching, and then inspiring. They’re already written, and I think they’ll be as strong as they can possibly be. The last line should make hardened cynics feel warm all over. So I’m good so far.

    > b) Did you drop an elephant from the ceiling?

    One of my challenges as I’m writing (well, dictating). I cannot dictate a scene if I don’t know where it came from. I have to go back and edit on the fly to fix that. No elephants from my ceilings.

    > 2- Do you have a lot of nonsensical running around?

    I hope not. Right now I’m thinking a lot about Deborah Chester’s Scene and Sequel structure. No action should take place unless it emerges naturally from what came before — even if it happens to lead naturally to what comes next. And between the actions, I find time to reflect on what happened, and to foreshadow what’s coming.

    > a) look at the scenes. Do they advance the plot, either physically or emotionally? Do your characters get closer to their goal? Do they learn something that will help them attain it?

    Goals are an interesting challenge in this book. It’s a Michener-esque multigenerational saga, covering five generations of one family. The only continuing character is the android, who is defined (in part) by its inability to answer the question: “What do you want?” Learning how to answer that question is its primary character arc. So most of my scenes give me a reason to ask that question in some form — and to find a logical answer.

    > 2- Make sure any large changes/idea shifting is foreshadowed and given lots of reasons to happen. “And then he went crazy” is not very satisfying.

    Exactly what I struggled with this morning. I just spent several chapters pushing the male and female leads together, a few months of courtship and a few years of wedded bliss. Now I need to wedge them apart and make it seem right to the reader. It happens over more than a decade, so it’s plausible enough; but I don’t want to spend that actual decade showing every little dispute. I really want it to happen over one transition chapter, though I’ve planted a few seed in earlier chapters. I think I’ve found a way to summarize it without making it seem like “And then he went crazy.”

    > 3- Make sure all your scenes don’t occur in the same type of location.

    Oooo, boy… At one point in my outline, almost the entire book took place in the one home, mostly in one room. I’m making it less housebound as I write. To my relief, this is also strengthening the book in other ways.

    > 6- Make sure you have your character’s description consistent throughout.

    Description is my Nemesis.

    Thank you! You’ve given me a lot to look for.

  5. If I drop bits of falling starship (scifi) instead of an elephant (fantasy), is that OK? She’s not the Big Bad, just a PITA.

    Actually, I was thinking of just that, but you’re right, it’s too convenient and “cutsie” is a way.

  6. Then it’s just “and then a meteor (or an elephant) killed them all, the end” and the reader is left thinking “well, I wasted my time.”

    Sorry, can’t resist…

  7. Another one clipped and squirreled away for future reference.

    All good points, except… Why not call an epilogue the “Epilogue?” Now you have me wondering just what I DO call it. (Okay, “cigarette moment” wouldn’t have worked anyway – the world as constructed at this moment doesn’t have that particular addiction.)

    1. Probably because you do need a bit of denounement after the climax, before you can get to the epilogue. (If you have one; often you can wrap everything up in the proper ending, and not need the grace notes of an epilogue at the last.)

      Epilogues, like prologues, are easy to do badly and hard to do well. Some writers will pontificate that one should never do either, but I go will Larry Correia: don’t do it unless it rocks. If it’s awesome and it works, then it works.

      The last epilogue so extremely well done I saw is Cryoburn, by Bujold. That was published in 2010 – do I need spoiler warnings, 7 years later? If so, SPOLER WARNING.

      Anyway, the climax of the action plot over and done with, the climax of the book’s theme (dying, both the fear of and the coping with) comes when we’re safely in the denounement on the action plot, resting on the space station and having a conversation that wraps up several loose ends comfortably by interrupting the safety and comfort with a sudden announcement of a death, and a very fitting ending.

      But the epilogue was a thing of beauty, because it allowed the readers to experience the hole left by the character’s passing in his world, among people who weren’t present in the ending scene, and provided in a few brief words the closure of not just the book, and that character’s arc, but of the entire series.

      1. I’ll need to re-read Cryoburn, it’s been quite a while…

        I’m going to have to think of something. The “epilogue,” “denoument,” “cigarette,” whatever – it takes place a while after the ‘spody spaceships. Summarizing – “Universe to main characters – you thought I was going to let your life get boring now? Bwa, ha, ha, ha…”

  8. One of the biggest near-mistakes I’ve ever seen was that whoever wrote the last season of Avatar TLA almost made me care more about a secondary character’s final battle with his sister than the main character’s final battle with the main antagonist. They made up for it by making the final battle amazing.

    1. Well, Zuko was practically a main character by then, as well as a fan favorite. His battle with himself and his past was important to the whole series. So it was right that there be practically as dramatic a final battle for him as for the main character.

      1. Actually, I think of the three (Aang, Sokka, and Katara) as the protagonist in three parts. Then Zuko was the antagonist who reforms at the end.

        I really wanted to follow all four of them through the series.

  9. durn bifocals. I got to this part “in which the final battles are two or three.” and read that as the final battle is best two of three.

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