The Nighttime Novelist...accomplishes more in about 240 pages than a dozen other "how to write" or "craft your novel" books have ever done.

--Helen Gallagher/Blogcritics




Saturday, March 26, 2011

Editing Novels: A Quick-ish Guide

March is National Novel Editing Month--NaNoEdMo, as the kids say--an excellent occasion for those writers who went through November's National Novel Writing Month to look back at their sprawl of pages and to make something of them, good novels being not so much written as rewritten, revised, re-envisioned, polished until your elbow gets tired, polished some more, then polished some more. And NaNoEdMo seems like an excellent idea to me...that's not just because of the work I've done as an editor but because I'm currently finishing my third--and final, knock knock--editorial pass through my novel The Strikeout Artist, from which I just gave a reading at Ohio's Heidelberg University, a sign I'm getting close. (Thanks for having me!)

If a writer spends months--optimistically--drafting a novel, she can spend whole years in the editing process: doing completely new drafts, trying out completely new approaches, voices, and structures, looking at and tweaking the pesky component parts until the components can't be separated from the whole, the macro editing giving way to the micro and the book finally, mercifully, appearing as a unified whole. It's an involved, trying process...a labor of love, certainly, but a labor nonetheless.

If you've been celebrating NaNoEdMo with your own manuscript--or if you've been "celebrating" it with your manuscript for many months and many drafts by now--here's a quick guide to novel editing that might be of use, going from those big-picture macro considerations down to the no-less-important detail work involved in the micro, and considering those elements of craft that help bridge the two.

Macro Editing

1. Motivation: Does your character have a clear want or goal that's elucidated early in the book and is never far from the reader's mind throughout? Does the reader understand why the protagonist wants or has to meet the goal? What he or she would do to get it? Why it's imperative that the protagonist keep pushing toward the goal, rather than deciding halfway through she'd rather be skiing? The basic arc of any story is motivation, conflict, and resolution...but the conflicts in a novel are only meaningful if we understand them in relation to the motivation: how they keep the protagonist from her goal, and why she or we would care.

2. Consistency: If the reader is told in Chapter 1 that all a character really wants is to reunite with a lost love, and then on page 27 we see the character hitting on some girl in a bar, that’s a problem: either 1. the character is bipolar, which we should’ve been told up front, or 2. the character is behaving out of character, inconsistent with what was set up by the author, and agreed on by the reader, at the start of the story. (A third option--unreliability in fiction--is a topic for another day.)

If we're to trust the way the character is set up, then at parties he’d be the guy in the corner staring into his beer, or the guy refusing to go see a new comedy with his friends because [lost love’s name] always hated Adam Sandler movies. And when confronted with the possibility of a hook-up at a bar, he might take the girl home with him, only to pull out the scrapbook he and his ex made together and force the poor girl to hear the story behind every single picture. In Aspects of the Novel, EM Forster defines a round character as one capable or surprising in a convincing way. We might paraphrase to say, capable of surprising in a consistent way, the motivation giving the writer clues as to how the character might react to the conflicts that come up, even if the writer doesn’t completely know what the character will do until, say, he takes a woman home from a bar, and then pulls out the Memories of My Ex scrapbook for them to look at.

3. Logic: Do the actions and reactions of the protagonist--and every other character in the story, for that matter--generally follow the rules of everyday logic? Every situation a writer sets up suggests a number of probable turns a story might make, or a character might take. Recognizing and accounting for everyday logic--what it would occur to us to do in a given situation--is essential to keeping the illusion of reality intact, lest a reader begin asking such annoying questions as, "Why doesn't the protagonist just [use his cell phone / climb out the window / ask his parents for help / order Chinese food]?"

4. Using (and Distrusting) Tropes: It's true that authors make literature primarily out of other literature, out of those types and tropes that have come before. But this is all the more reason to make sure that you're using tropes in smart ways...that you're not just following the basic conventions of the type of story you're telling, or type of character you're writing, but that you consider ways your story and character play against expectation or type. If, for example, there's a moment in your story where your protagonist, faced with some great conflict, reacts the way an epic hero would, rushing headlong into the fray, this might be precisely the moment to ask yourself, "How would I react in such a situation? What might I think about or do?" Following tropes too closely, without questioning, leads to characters who behave like characters in fiction, rather than people...not to mention, leads to plots that seem bound by formula.

Bridging Macro and Micro

5. Theme: Often it takes a full draft before a writer fully understands the major thematic question he or she's asking with a novel. But one you have an idea of theme, you can use that knowledge in the revision editing process to test out relationships between characters, between subplots and their overall purpose in the story, between scenes and their importance to building a reader's understanding of the protagonist's quest (versus those which seem to be merely taking up space), etc. Consider your major thematic question of the book and the various permutations of the question via subplots or character relationships. Conversely, as you revise particularly troublesome chapters or scenes, ask yourself what relation those moments in the book have--or should have--to revealing the protagonist and the meaning of her quest more clearly.

6. Streamlining subplots and minor characters: Building on 5, take a look at your secondary characters and subplots and make sure they're in line with the overall quest and thematic question of the book. If any don't seem to have a relationship to the larger quest--if you have minor characters or subplots present just because you like them--you'll need to do one of three things: 1. figure out the relationship, if any, to the larger quest or question of the book and bring that out; 2. absorb them into other characters or subplots that do belong in the book; or 3. excise them completely, i.e., kill those darlings.

7. Constant conflict: Is there conflict on every page? I don't mean an explosion on every page, or a rifle report; sometimes the conflict will be simple misunderstanding--two characters who see the world in different ways, or have difficulties communicating--or it could be hostilities of an environment, anxieties of what's behind or ahead, personal or internal conflict. Stakes throughout a novel will change, will rise and fall in big and small ways, but there should always be stakes either on the page or present in the reader's mind. (Of course the big conflicts throughout should be those that remind us of what the protagonist wants and why that's important.)

Micro Editing

8. Language and tone: Does your narration, and do your images, build up a consistent and desired effect in the reader? Anything can be looked at, and described, in any it's imperative that your images and descriptions, your line-by-line word choices, are not just informative but evocative. How would a bare tree in winter be described in a book about depression? How about a horror story? A story about lost love? About childhood nostalgia? In a comedy? The answer, of course, is "Very differently." Make sure your word-by-word choices are working toward building that mood, and that world, your story requires.

9. Pacing: Is your story forward-moving in moments of action? Hopefully. But is it equally forward-moving in moments of reflection? In moments of conversation? Are there spans of pages where you could accomplish the same effect, or convey the same information, in a paragraph? Are there paragraphs where you could convey the same effect in a single line? Likewise, are there blocks of narration that might benefit from dialogue or scene, or vice versa? Pages of straight-up chronological time that might be compressed?

10. Dialogue: Are your conversations interesting, engaging, smart, snappy on their own, outside the context in which they appear? If you're not sure, take only the lines of dialogue from a given scene--remove even the dialogue tags--and put the lines together in one conversation on another document, where they can't hide behind blocks of narration. Make sure that what the characters are saying, and how they're saying it, is interesting or engaging on their own, even absent context. (If you're still unsure if your dialogue is up to par, have a friend read it out loud to you. If you command him to stop after two lines because you're wincing too much, you'll know there's trouble.)

11. Looking out for orphans: Look back to your first fifty pages, especially, and at the thematic and plot questions that get raised there. Do all get resolved in some clear and meaningful way by the novel's end? Do they get dropped or forgotten at any point in the book? If any come back right at the book's end, are they there for a real reason, or do they show up the way information shows up at the end of a Scooby-Doo episode, in one big breath dumping information? (Those meddling kids.) See "Checking for Plot Holes," graciously excerpted on AuthorCulture.

12. Resonance: Do your last chapters and pages refer back to the hopes, fears, anxieties, and goals introduced in the first chapter(s), the first pages? Does the story begin to resonate as a completed and unified whole? The first act of a novel is about introducing questions...and the reader's excitement comes from what those answers might be. The middle act of a novel is, to some degree, about toying with a reader, complicating the questions, creating agitation and anxiety. The final act, then, is about finally releasing that anxiety by answering the initial questions posed lo those many pages ago. Reread the beginning of the book, then reread the end of the book...the two should have a number of things in common.

If this list is relatively quick, the process it describes is, needless to say, not. It requires time, patience, and the ability to look critically at what's really on your page, not just what you hope or think is there. Nevertheless, addressing these concerns in the editing stage is what takes a novel from a big stack of pages to a unified experience...and, even more importantly, it's what makes a reader believe that it all came out right for you the first time.


  1. This is fascinating to me. I just signed up for a novel seminar in the fall where we're supposed to participate in Write a Novel in a Month month (you know what I'm talking about...). It's cool that there's a "revise your novel" month, too. I'm looking forward to using your book (and this post) in the coming year.

    Oh, and hope you're well!

  2. Thanks for the comment, Nora! (I'm doing great, in spite of the fact I need a vacation...hope you are, too.)

    NaNoWriMo is a good idea, even if it's a bit crazy-making. But it helps to have lots of other people going through it at the same time, pushing you on. And having a seminar going for it at once is even better! Can't wait to see where it leads. :)