What am I doing right now? I’m immersed in self-editing AA2. It’s an intense process and, while I’ve touched on it in bits and pieces in the past, I had a series of questions from one of the newer readers of these Wanderings that made me think this would be a good time to take a different look at the process.
So here are the Questions.
“I know you don’t outline. But do you edit at all as you write? Do you do an entire draft and go back through it? How many times do you go through the book before it goes to an agent or editor? How far along is it before Jim reads it? How much does his feedback factor in? What other first readers do you count on?
Answer 1: I don’t outline. Really. Before I start a novel, I have a general feeling about it, but I really don’t know where it’s going until shortly before I get there. However, I do organize, pretty stringently. I call this process “Reverse Outlining.” Since I wrote about that process back in July (WW 7-24-13), I won’t go into details here.
Do I edit as I write? Yes. However, this tends to be minimal (altering a word or two). I’ve known writers who begin their writing day by re-reading what they wrote the day before and carefully grooming it. Then they move onto the next day’s writing. I do that occasionally, but usually only when I need to jog my memory as to where I was last session. Otherwise, I pick up where I stopped and go on from there.
Answer 2: Yes. I pretty much write an entire draft of a novel (or short story) before I go back through it. There are two exceptions. One is if I have a major interruption in the writing process, such as a long trip or a several weeks’ break because another writing obligation comes up. Then I need to go back and find out what I’ve actually written, in contrast to what I’d thought about writing. If my reverse outline is up to date, sometimes I just consult that.
Answer 3: How many times do I go through a manuscript before I send it off to my agent or editor? At least twice, often three times. The first review is on the computer. In this reading, my primary goal is to fill in details I left out. I’ve never been a writer who slows down the flow of a good yarn because I can’t remember the color of a secondary character’s hair or the day of the week or suchlike. When I come to such a point, I slam in square brackets, sometimes with a note to myself inside them like [color?] and keep going with the story.
This is also where I check continuity and tighten prose, removing duplicate descriptions and other elements that creep in when (for the writer) weeks have passed, when for the reader only a chapter or so has gone by.
I do my second read-through on a hard copy of the manuscript. This is a step I never, ever, ever skip. I seat myself squarely at the table with no fewer than two red pencils at hand and a red pen in case I want to write an additional paragraph. (I write faster in ink than in pencil.) I am as ruthless as possible in this reading: cutting, augmenting, rephrasing, whatever it takes.
Back when I was first getting started, I’d often read the manuscript aloud. There’s no better way to catch clunky sentences or omissions. I still do this with short stories. An added bonus is that reading a manuscript is great training for giving public readings.
Another reading of sorts occurs when I am incorporating my changes into the manuscript. This forces me to take another close look.
Answer 4: How far along is the manuscript when Jim reads it? How much does his feedback factor in? Jim doesn’t see the manuscript until I’m done with these first two or three readings and have made all the corrections. Basically, he doesn’t see the story until it’s as good as I can possibly make it.
Occasionally, if I like a particular line or something, I might read it to him. He’s very patient about hearing parts of novels with no context. However, I don’t look for feedback as I write.
Jim’s feedback is very important. Although it might surprise those who think of archeologists as mere grubbers in the dirt, a lot of the work involves writing. Since Jim’s a project director, he also does a considerable amount of editing. So I’m really lucky in that my first reader is both a writer and a professional editor.
If I disagree with one of Jim’s comments, I make a note of it. If I hear the same comment from another reader, then I take it as a given that I have failed in some way to communicate my intent. Then I will do my best fix the error.
Answer 5: What other first readers do I count on? This varies from book to book, based on who has time and who I can trust to be ruthless with me, if such is called for. Much as I love hearing that I’m someone’s favorite author or that I write wonderful books, such praise isn’t helpful when a book is still in the evolving stages. Heck, even questions about a book that’s published can be useful. Sometimes, if I’ve left something out, I can put it in later in the series (assuming there is a series). Reader comments aren’t always useful because some readers want to dictate a direction for the series that I never intended, but I’d rather have them than not.
Another important thing I look for in a first reader is a familiarity with science fiction and fantasy as a genre. Readers who don’t know the conventions of the genre may praise where praise isn’t really due. (I remember a long-ago colleague who was fascinated by my use of the term “credits,” rather than money in Smoke and Mirrors.) Or they may get flummoxed by some standard genre element and want more explanation than is due.
Answer Six: Wait! There was no Question Six.
Time for me to haul out the red pencils and get back to work.
If you’re interested in other bits I’ve written about revising, editing, and taking criticism, you might enjoy the Wanderings for 2-08-12 (“When It’s There… But It Isn’t”) and 2-15-12 (“Two Heads or Too Many Cooks?”).
This doesn’t mean I don’t invite other questions. By all means, bring ‘em on!