"Hi Ksenia! I am so excited you're going to go into more depth about your revision process, because your post about cutting half your words by rekeying your whole novel has me all abuzz with excitement (and, frankly, trepidation—I don't know why this method seems so frightening to me, but probably the fact that it does means that I should do it).
Here's the story of my story. I wrote a novel (a middle-grade). I waited a few months after the first draft, and printed the whole thing out and stuck it in a notebook. I read it through and made notes. I analyzed each scene to make sure it advanced the plot. I mapped character arcs. I typed in my changes. Then I waited a few weeks and sent it to my Kindle and read it again, and typed in more changes. Then I sent it to beta readers, and made more changes. Then I sent it to my agent, and made more changes. I had added scenes, deleted so many extraneous things, and tightened what I could. I'd gone from 74,000 words to 64,000 words.
We sent it out to editors and they all came back with the same rejection: "I love the voice but it takes way too long to get going." I put it aside. I wasn't sure what to do with it. And then, like magic, I won a free full manuscript edit from editor Deborah Halverson. I told her what the other editors had said, and asked her to very nicely be brutal. She wrote an amazing, thorough, mind-boggling edit letter and also marked up the manuscript.
And now I don't know what to do next. Do I read the edit letter so many times that I have it memorized? Do I print out the full manuscript with her edits in there, and read that, and then read it again and mark it up? Or, do I go Full Ksenia and print it out and then start typing? Or, I suppose, the question is: How do I go Full Ksenia on this?
THANK YOU, you are awesome, I bow down to your writerly wisdom. xoxoxo
Hi Julie! Don't bow too low, you might hit your head on the floor (and it's not like I'm very wise, either, not worth the effort). So. May I say something outrageous to you?
FORGET ABOUT EVERYTHING AND EVERYONE AND JUST WRITE FOR YOURSELF.
Can you for a moment pretend that nobody, nobody at all, is going to read your book? Can you just write it for yourself without any fear of what anyone might think of it? This is your life you're spending on it. What for? Why are you doing it? Why are you writing this book? Because it means something to you. Because you're having fun doing it. Well then, have fun. Forget about editorial letters and suggestions and simply open up a new file and start typing. The thing is, whatever was important for YOU in those suggestions that came from your editors you will remember. What is not important to YOU, you won't remember. And so let that go. It's YOUR book after all. YOUR time you're spending on it. YOUR story. Then tell it the best way you can and move on.
However, since you asked. I will write out here to be best of my ability my detailed editing process, which keeps changing as I write more and as I grow, so whatever I say here might change again in the near future, and whatever works for me might not work for you, but hell, try it! See what works, what doesn't, and carry on. Because the truth of the matter is, I don't know shit. I just try things and see what sticks, and what doesn't stick, I discard.
Here we go.
1. Let enough time pass between the drafts before you start editing.
This is very specific to you and to you only. For some writers it's 2 weeks, for some it's 2 months. Maybe for some it's 2 years? I don't believe in long breaks as I believe if you break for too long from your story, it dies, and resurrecting it will result in a shoddy job. You're better off setting it aside for a decade or something, so if you do come back to it, you will be so alien to it, you'll be able to rewrite it anew. So, typically I try not to break for longer than 2 weeks. I did a 2-month break between Draft 1 and Draft 2 of TUBE, and I was climbing walls without writing, but I have found that 2 months gave me enough perspective to be able to write the story anew into a clean blank file. Hence I decided to sandwich drafts of different books. That way I'd still be writing every day, and I'd get enough of a break between the drafts.
The question to ask yourself here is, what is that time for you? How long should you wait before you start working on it? I suggest trusting your gut. You need to get to a place where you have forgotten about it completely. Then it's a good time to start. (That's what I do.)
2. Read your previous draft from cover to cover without taking any notes.
There was a time when I believed in notes. Not anymore. I have seen that no matter what I write down for myself in fear of forgetting, once I start writing, most of it goes out the window. The problem with sticking to what you wrote down is, your story might not progress as you want it to progress, and so you get stuck, and then it all goes nowhere. Where is the fun in that? Let your story be. Let it change and develop and branch out in new ways, without constraining it. Because if you're not enjoying writing it, your reader sure won't enjoy reading it. Therefore, here is what I do.
I no longer print out the draft or put in on Kindle, I just clear out 2 days, sit down in the morning, and read it without interruptions until I can't read anymore. (I read it off my laptop, but if it's more convenient for you, you can print it out or whatever.) Then the next day I pick where I left off and finish reading it. Some drafts I can read in one day. And then there will be lots of thoughts in my head, and so I let them cook. Then, while all those thoughts are fresh, the next day I start writing the new draft in a blank new file.
3. I write down only what I remember and only what is visible.
All books are different, and all writing styles are different. You might love writing lyrical narrative with lots of digressions into the realm of your inner character's life (think Victorian), or you might love writing intense action scenes one after another, delighting in showing us who punched whom how many times and how much blood and snot and bile was shed. I won't list all different ways of writing shit. You get the point. I will tell you what I do.
I write what is visible. As in, if you looked at the scene I'm describing, what would you see? Say, if it was a movie? So, I have two files open on my laptop, side by side. In the old draft I look at the scene I have to describe, and then in the new draft I write only what's visible, avoiding everything else. So, if in the old draft I say "Olesya was scared out of her mind," in the new one I will say "Olesya's eyes widened like fucking saucers." Or something. That way I shed a lot of water that is unnecessary. I might even go further and avoid the widening of her eyes altogether and simply say "Olesya looked at him," letting you imagine that indeed her eyes were huge and she was fucking scared out of her mind. See, instead of describing I move to pure action (which is pure story). Like a good actress in a movie could portray horror by simply looking up at her offender, with her eyes barely widening, if at all, where everything is in her gesture, so you can do in your prose. YOU know what happens. And your job is to simply record it. That's what editing is, really. You slash away everything that is not pure story recording. Get it? Okay, moving on.
4. I rewrite dialogue with the knowledge of what characters really mean.
We all hate shitty dialogue. That is to say, dialogue that spells out everything for you. That's boring. We want to guess at the nuances of speech, of unspoken words. That's the fun of reading, and the fun of witnessing human drama. So I look at the previous draft and think really hard what it is my characters are REALLY saying. Everything we say has a double meaning, and most of what we say is communicated via body language.
With that in mind I cut out dialogue lines that I can replace with body movements, and the actual dialogue itself I say out loud to death, sometimes up to 40 times (I counted), to see if it sounds right and communicates the stuff underneath. Let's say it's a bit of romance, and you know (see, YOU know) that your characters are falling in love. It's that moment. Now, the shitty dialogue would be, "I think I'm falling in love with you." Blergh!!!! Yuck. I hate reading stuff like that. The writer just robbed me of the delicious guessing game I was about to engage in. Unless your character is an utter simpleton who is not ashamed at all to flatly state his emotions (sounds like a pretending psychopath to me), this will sound phony. So I look at what's around. Remember, what's visible? Maybe they are in a room with an old grandfather clock. So maybe then the character (let's say it's a guy) would say, "Have you seen that clock? It's made of mahogany, isn't it?" And OF COURSE she (let's say it's a girl he falls in love with) has already seen it, and of course it doesn't matter if it's mahogany or not. Who cares? But he is so flustered, he wants to tell her SOMETHING. And so he does. And we get it. And we feel for him. And that's what I do with all my dialogue, and that's why it's bloody taking so long, because it takes a long time to think and come up with just the right way (and the right words) to SHOW what is going on.
5. I eliminate everything that doesn't move the story forward.
Another reason why editing is so slow is the time it takes to think about what to keep and what to cut. When you look at the old draft side by side with the new, the parts that drag on need to be cut. When I write the new draft into a new file, I think of every sentence and try to write it in such a way that it will propel the story forward. It's helpful to glance at the old draft and see how you ramble on without anything actually happening. I try to summarize each paragraph as I go. Can I say what happened? Or is it a whole page of descriptions? If it is, I cut it, and move on.
This is why typing into a clean new file is so liberating. You don't have to write over the old stuff that might constrain you. You can simply tell the story, the way you think about it THIS VERY MOMENT. It doesn't really matter how you thought about it yesterday or how you will think about it tomorrow. What matters is NOW. Again, I'll repeat, you write for yourself. What makes you tick NOW? What sounds like most fun NOW? What do you get out of telling your story NOW? You're the only reader you write for. If the story drags for you, then it will drag for everyone else. I can tell you that I have cut out whole chapters following this rule. I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who said something about every sentence moving the story forward. It makes sense. Imagine a reader opening your book at random and just starting reading. You can't waste a single sentence. You can't afford it. The reader will put your book down, and that's that. So cut the motherfuckers. Cut them. JUST TELL THE STORY.
6. I get rid of places where "I tried really hard."
So I tend to get enamored with big whimsical words (especially because English is not my first language, and I want to show off, of course) and I tend to overuse them. Where I'm saying that "the sky was brilliantly illuminated by that shade of ultramarine tinged with just a little bit with of cool winter violet" a simple "the sky was blue" can suffice. I can't tell you how many of these little snippets I have cut. Your goal (so I think) is to give just enough to your readers to let them imagine the rest. You KNOW where you tried really hard. Cut that shit out. This book is not about YOU, it's about YOUR STORY. In a way you are streamlining your prose, which is also what editing is. I don't know how to say it all fancy (I read sometimes articles that have a fancy way of describing the editing process with all those special words), but in plain English it's this: Get rid of all "writing" and leave only "storytelling." This means that when you do get rid of "writing," what's left will be your actual writing, your style (I know many writers freak out about that). Because your writing style is simply how you tell your story, meaning, what you choose to show and what you choose not to. And what you choose to show is what's important to YOU. It's that simple, and that hard. I know. If it were easy, I wouldn't be writing this damn post. Okay, moving on.
7. I stick to a very rigid routine and work every day, no breaks till the draft is done.
I suppose this is a good place to batter you with some numbers (I hate numbers) so you can maybe glimpse some mathematical truth from it for yourself and your own process.
I get up at 8, I get my coffee, and I play some Words with Friends to get my mind to wake up, I might post something quickly on Ello and on Twitter, without replying (so as not to contaminate my mind with anything but my story), and around 9 I start writing. I write until it's about 2, or I feel I'm exhausted. Mentally. So that's about 5 hours. I usually produce about 2000 words or more if it's the first draft (lots of rambling), and about 1000 if it's any draft after (editing it down), and then I call it a day.
In the evening I read to Royce what I have written earlier. I read it aloud. He listens, gives me feedback. Often, while I read, I might stop and make a quick correction to a sentence or two, just based on how it sounded. Then he reads it quietly and suggests more corrections. I make some, others I don't. Then we go to sleep, and the next morning I wake up with the scene I read before fresh in my mind and I start writing where I left off the day before trying not to look at the previous draft much, only if necessary. Because I don't take any breaks, this is easy. Like a flow from one day to the next. I used to break for weekends, and Mondays were a royal pain in the ass. So maybe look at this in your own process. Whatever it is, every break takes you away from the story (unless it's a break between the drafts, in which case it should). Once you get into your story, I found you're not as scared of it. This daily work becomes routine, and you slip into it easily every morning.
8. I read books that show me how to tell what I want to tell in the best way possible.
The other thing I do while editing is I read books whose writing style I want to emulate or that makes me cuss aloud because it's that good and I wish I wrote like that. I steal stuff. So every day after writing I read, and I type turns of phrases that I liked into a file, and then the next day I might apply them to my own writing. Like I wanted to find a way to say something cleanly and with fewer words, like describing how the train doors move. It's such a little detail, but it's so important, because every detail makes a big whole. I wrote something like "the doors started gliding and met in the middle with a slap." Ugh. Too wordy. Too clumsy. But how the hell do I say it?? Then I came across this in some book: "The doors slid at each other." Bam! I stole it. Then later I changed it to "the doors slid shut." Voila. I got what I wanted.
9. I repeat this process until there is nothing to fix or the story feels done to me.
That's really it. Apart from other things I told you about in this post on cutting your draft in half, I go through every draft from beginning to end, like reading it, only very very slowly. This latest draft of TUBE took me almost 3 months (78 days of cutting 153K words down to 74K). And every day I kept moving forward regardless of whether I liked what I wrote/edited the day before or not. That is crucial. Because if you go back and fix one thing, you'll be tempted to fix another thing, and another thing, and soon you'll find yourself in this mire you don't know how to get out of, and soon you'll find yourself blocked. Don't do that to yourself.
Every book usually takes me 4 drafts.
- Draft 1 to dump shit out of my brain (without any plotting).
- Draft 2 to make sense of the shit I dumped (and organize it).
- Draft 3 to extract the story out of that shit (cut everything else).
- Draft 4 to polish the extracted story (get it ready for my editor).
The idea is to scrub through it from beginning to end, like I described above, until I feel like nothing can be added and nothing can be cut away, or I'm so tired of it, I can't see it anymore. This is when I send the final draft to Sarah Liu, my editor. Which is different from traditionally published writers, as I hear. And I hear sometimes traditionally published writers send their first drafts to their editors. Wow. I couldn't do that. My first draft is so messy, I don't know how you could see anything in there at all. Perhaps next time you hold back, Julie, before sending your draft to your editors? Maybe you have sent it off too early? I find that when someone tampers with my very first draft (or second, for that matter), the story is still so fragile it can break down completely and then it's beyond salvaging. It almost happened with The Badlings. Because I switched editors in the middle of writing it, and because darling Sarah caught in time the copyright issue, I had to backtrack and rethink the whole book, and I nearly lost it. I don't wish that on anyone.
Until the story is no longer vulnerable in your eyes, I wouldn't let anyone give you any suggestions. They can wreck you. You yourself don't quite know what you're trying to tell, so how the hell someone else can know better than YOU? They can't. They don't. Not with all their years of experience, they don't.
So here is my final word to you, Julie.
Take a deep breath, try to forget anything anyone told you about your book, clear out a day or two, sit down and read the whole thing from beginning to end WITHOUT TAKING ANY NOTES. Sleep on it, and the next day start fresh. Open up a new file and write what you remember. Consult the old draft if you need to, but simply write what YOU remember until the whole story is told. And that would be going Full Ksenia. Deal?
All right. Now you owe me vodka.