How to Edit Fiction – 1 – Getting Started

Posted on July 9, 2011 by


Holy Gibberish

I hear a lot of talk about how the first draft is something you should just get down as fast as you can — a sort of verbal vomitus allowed to dribble out unchecked. Lots of professionals tell you to do this. “Just get it finished,” they say. “You’ll be able to fix it later.”

They’re telling you this because the single biggest division between those who write for a living and those who don’t is having a completed novel-length work. The first thing most aspiring writers have to come to grips with is that you must actually write prolifically to be a novelist.

I’m going to address my “How to Edit Fiction” series to people who have internalised that principle. Everybody else: go finish a book, then come back. You’re welcome to read on if you wish — but my advice does not apply to you. You need to do what they’re telling you. Get words on the page, because you’ll need them before you can start learning how to edit. (If you’ve done a novel’s worth of short stories, that’s perfect. It’s how I learnt how to write. I recommend it highly. I didn’t even attempt a novel seriously until I was paid to write one.)

Here’s the truth: an entirely unedited first draft is extremely difficult to salvage. Taming that beast can feel like an impossible task — at best, it’s like writing the book again.

I can almost feel the eyebrows lifting. You’re thinking, “That’s exactly how it feels.” You know why? Because that’s exactly what you’re doing. You’re writing the book for a second time.

It’s soul-destroying, exhausting work. You’ve already written this book. You’ve already taken the emotional rollercoaster along with every single one of your characters. It is so damned difficult to go right back to the beginning and then try to remember what it felt like for each and every character during each and every scene — and not only that, but to change everything around and do it better this time.

I love editing. I tell people that I love editing every chance I get, because then I receive this delightful reaction that’s a cross between, “You’re nuts,” and “You must be Jesus.”

Pinky swear, I’m neither of those things. I just know how to do it. It’s very, very simple: don’t write a shitty first draft. Do not just let yourself type whatever pops into your head. After you’ve written your first novel and you know discipline inside and out, you don’t ever have to go through that nightmare ever again.

This series will serve as a free mini-webinar on editing fiction, complete with assignments. You don’t have to do the assignments, of course — but if you do them, I’ll mark them and discuss them with you. Each week’s discussion will be held in the comments of that week’s post. If we decide we’d like a private discussion, I’ll figure something else out. Anyone can join, and anyone can leave at any time.

You’ll need a completed novel-length work, your lovely selves, and the willingness to speak up and tell me I’m wrong.

Before we move forward, it’s assignment time.

Assignment One
Read at least 1000 words of my sample chapter (available at the top of the page).

Done? Okay. That was a first draft. The beginning of the chapter, approximately the first two pages (600 words) was a second draft.

I’m hoping it knocked your socks off. Even if it didn’t, you’ll notice it’s very…how should I put this? Clean. Tidy. All the spelling and the grammar in the right places. In other words, if that chapter sucks, it’s because I need feedback and instruction — not because I got sloppy.

The bulk of this webinar will help you write first drafts like that, so that when you get to revisions you’ll focus on the things that are genuinely difficult to do: voice, character, pacing, environment — the things that make you an artist.

Assignment Two
Say howdy in the comments. Tell us what you write and what brought you here.

I’m all excited about this so I might even write up next week’s blog post tonight. Whee! We’re gonna have lots of fun, my darlings.

With love,

~~ NEXT TIME: Avoid Feeling Overwhelmed ~~