What I’ve Learned From Editing

After spending all of my free time for the past two months, I’ve finally finished editing and revising my novel. During that time I’ve learned a lot, and wanted to share it. My biggest lesson resolves around reducing word count, but that’s a topic for a later day.

Characters Can Still Change and Surprise You

I thought I knew everything about my characters and their relationships to one another. I was wrong.

While editing one of the first chapters I’d written, I realized Character A was doing or saying things which were no longer in line with Character A’s personality. Character A didn’t do a 180 degree turn, but had evolved as a character over the rest of the novel to the point they wasn’t the same. I had another character who I discovered had asthma due to all the wheezing they did while running. Initially, I thought it had more to due with the character not being in as good of shape as the others, but nope, undiagnosed asthma.

My other surprise came with some of the relationships. In the first draft Character B was still angry with Character C when Character C showed back up after hurting Character B. By the third draft it was clear while Character B was still hurt by Character C’s actions, Character B had also forgiven Character C and was happy to see them.

Later on, Character D reunites with Character E. In the first draft, Character D was happy. Again, while writing the chapters leading up to the reunion I realized that wasn’t the case. They were more hesitant, afraid Character E didn’t feel the same as Character D.

As annoying as it was to discover these things and then having to go back and re-edit other parts to keep them consistent with the changes, it was also fun to learning new things about characters I thought I knew so well.

Don’t Take Plot Outcomes For Granted

If you’re having issues with needing more words, or another sub-plot, this tip might help. Basically, just because you know the plot is going to lead somewhere– Character A has to be at Place X, or makes friends with Character B– that doesn’t mean you have to make things easy for them. Sure the entire plot might hinge at it, but make the characters fight to achieve it.

Consider Harry Potter. J. K. Rowling knew Harry would be getting to Hogwarts, but she didn’t make it easy for him. Rather than jumping straight to, “Yer a wizard, Harry” she spent several chapters on the Dursleys doing everything possible to keep him from going to Hogwarts. It was a mini-adventure and mystery before the actual one kicked in.

Also consider how he became friends with Hermione. Again, rather than skipping to them being friends automatically upon meeting on the train, Harry and Ron are put off by her behavior. It’s not until the troll incident do the three bond and become friends.

By making your characters struggle for what’s a foregone conclusion, you can add suspense and excitement to your story. The readers might know the result, but they’re also eager to read the next page to know how it happens. The results can have more meaning too. What makes a stronger friendship, bonding with strangers on a train, or bonding over a life and death experience?

Keep a Realistic Schedule

I’m a procrastinator, I’ve known that for years. During my first attempt at editing, before the story went through some major changes, I was averaging a chapter every few weeks. With no rush or deadline, I was free to take my time.

For this go around, I gave myself till the end of February. I could get through a chapter every two days, allowing me enough time to get through all the chapters at least once, and then go back through a second time.

By sticking to this schedule I was actually able to succeed, where as in the past I failed. Of course, a large was making sure the schedule was realistic. Don’t go overboard and push yourself too hard, otherwise you might burn out quickly and stop.

Take a Break

I spent a lot of my free time editing. I also took breaks. Sometimes there were more pressing things Real Life demanded I do now. There was no getting out of them.

I also set aside an hour each day to put down my laptop and focus on my SO, who’s been understanding when I spend the majority of the evening editing. That hour was a great distraction from editing, and time for just the two of us.

Sometimes breaks where needed when I hit a writing block. I might have encountered a plot-hole needing fixing, or reached a part where I needed to write new material, but wasn’t sure where to start. Taking a break and doing something else gave me a chance to clear my mind and think rather than staring at a digital screen blankly for an hour. Whatever issue I was having, was usually resolved after taking a break for a few hours or a day.

Prioritize and Plan

I may be a procrastinator, but I’m also a planner. I’ve learned over the years I cannot write without a plan, otherwise I won’t get very far. The same goes for editing. I made a plan to spend two days going over each chapter– fixing errors that stuck out, deleting unneeded sentences or words, or in some cases, writing new scenes I had skipped over from my other drafts. Those took the most time.

Then, knowing I still needed to reduce my word count, I went back through and further deleted extra scenes or sentences, as much as it pained me. I wanted to get my story under 120,000 words, and budgeted 4,800 words for each chapter. Some were under and others were over the limit, but having an average word count for each chapter was a huge help.

Finally I tackled double-checking all of the details such as the location and time period for each chapter. My story takes place over a fifty year period, and several countries. By double-checking those finer details I could assure all my names and places were the same, and I didn’t end up with an instance where a character was doing something they shouldn’t have been old enough to do. This also was when I finished addressing all those place-holder names I inserted during NANOWRIMO when I couldn’t think of what to put, but needed to move on.

Timelines and Family Trees are Your Friend

I mentioned above needing a timeline due to the large time period my story covers, but I’m so grateful I did. I’ll spend another post discussing what programs I used, but having an official timeline came in handy on a number of occasions.

So did having a family tree. Because I’m writing a fantasy, there are multiple kingdoms with royal families that are somehow all related to another. By making a family tree, I was able to keep track of who married into what family when, and their names. I have a lot of side characters who are maybe mentioned once. A family tree allowed me to keep track of everybody including great-uncle Joe who was married to great-aunt Diana from the neighboring kingdom, who’s also related to the evil wizard.

Your Eyes and Microsoft Word Can be Wrong

As part of the editing and revising process I was doing line edits, catching spelling and grammar mistakes. No matter how many times I went over a chapter, I always missed things. Things that weren’t caught until I ran spellcheck in Scrivener, or Microsoft Word upon compiling it in a Word document. I must have read my first chapter twenty times, but still missed little things.

However, Scrivener and Microsoft Word can be wrong. Scrivener would red flag items Word didn’t, or would’t have an issue with things Word did. Word also said a lot of things were incorrect when they weren’t. There was one instance where I wrote ‘and the two stop’. Word kept insisting I needed a hyphen between ‘two’ and ‘stop’, not realizing I meant two people stopped, but was writing it in the present tense.

So while you shouldn’t always trust your eyes will catch every mistake, don’t blindly click accept changes on every little thing Word finds. Make sure you’re reading carefully and if the change is truly warranted. And all of this is before I had somebody else look over it, who will no doubt catch even more issues.

That’s it for this post. My next one will all be about reducing my word count. Feel free to let me know if you’ve had the same learning experiences or different ones in a comment.

— Kay S. Beckett

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