First Aid for Novel-Editing Emergencies

At the beginning of this month I started the long, arduous process of editing the trilogy I wrote last year. It’s been fun to go back to the beginning and revisit these characters where their story starts — but I’d be lying if I claimed it’s been all fun and games. I’ve actually run into all kinds of issues that plague authors in the middle of an editing project: lack of motivation, character inconsistencies, and wobbling plot lines, just to name a few. Sometimes I feel less like I’m editing and more like I’m putting out one fire after another!

So what have I learned from this process, one month in? I don’t have a finished product yet, but I have come up with a first aid kit for novel-editing emergencies.

Coffee

Editing and rewriting isn’t nearly as fun as drafting the story for the first time. The biggest challenge is just getting my head in the game.

I’d love to have a pithy answer for what it takes to get motivated, but honestly, I drink coffee. A lot of coffee. Judging by an informal survey of my author friends, they drink a lot of coffee too. Why re-invent the wheel? If I need motivation, coffee is always a good choice.

Research Binders

Back when I was planning out these novels, I assembled entire binders with character sketches, D.C. maps, job descriptions, and apartment layouts — just about everything else I could possibly need to know about living and working in D.C. Despite my organized approach, I abandoned my binders completely about halfway through the rough draft. I got so carried away by the story that I just kept typing.

Throwing out your notes and pounding the keys is great if you’re trying to write 50,000 words in 30 days. When you go back and start editing…well, let’s just say there are some inconsistencies. For example, one of my main characters changed height five times. The apartment he lives in changed floors even more often than that. So frustrating — until I remembered that I already figured out how tall my characters are and where their apartment is. Back to the notebooks!

Whew. Fact-checking crisis averted.

Music

The editing process is so slow and nit-picky that it can be hard to remember exactly what story I’m telling. Instead of “can’t see the forest for the trees,” it’s more like “can’t see the overarching theme for the plot holes.” Some novelists have told me they stay on track by trying to relate every part of their story to one word, such as “redemption” or “justice.” I go back to the song that inspired the story idea in the first place: “God Bless the Broken Road” by Rascal Flatts.

When I first heard this song, I wondered, “But…what if the road hadn’t been broken? Would they have met anyway? Can you be both sad and grateful for a painful life story…or do you have to choose between bitterness and joy?” Voila! A story idea was born. Every time I listen to this song, it brings me back to those questions and reminds me how my characters are feeling.

Chocolate

Editing is a long process (so says the author who has now gone over the same chapter three times…) Along the way, it’s important to celebrate the successes. Sometimes it’s a big win (like getting the whole book ready to send out!) Sometimes it’s a little victory (like finally nailing a tricky line.)

Some authors reward themselves with stickers or checking off their progress on a list. I prefer chocolate. Like coffee, chocolate is always a good choice.

Creative Distractions

If you see my Instagram feed, you know that I’ve been dabbling in making origami models. I got the idea from one of my main characters, Mara, whose love of precision makes her perfectly suited to this kind of hobby. I have a perfectionist side, too, but it’s a real challenge for me to focus on getting every fold just right — one wonky corner early on can throw off the whole model!

I started doing origami in order to give myself a creative break that didn’t take me too far away from the storyline of my novel. They don’t take more than ten or fifteen minutes to make — I can do some in less than five — and it’s a refreshing change from staring at the computer screen. Plus, taking up the hobby of one of my characters gives me a little insight into who she is and how she approaches problems. Win/win.

Remember the Dream

This is probably the biggest motivation of all to push through the editing process and finish the books. I don’t want this story to live forever in my head, or on my computer, or on the bookshelf. I want this story to get in the hands of a reader who will love it as much as I do (tweet this). So that’s what’s fueling my latest editing marathon. It’s going to fuel the next one and the one after that, too.

Oh, and coffee. A lot of coffee.

Originally published on Blog — Ellen Smith Writes

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