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Flower Bud Petals

Edits and Rewrites

These are the notes for my class "Edits and Rewrites". We may not have covered more or less of these things depending on the make up of the class. Please feel free to contact me with any questions or suggestions. 

You’ve completed your novel! Now you can find and agent and they will find a publisher and you can begin your whirlwind book tour!


Hold on— you’ve completed the ROUGH DRAFT. You are not even half way to the finish line.

There are several parts to writing a novel and it is why it is considered such a daunting task.


According to some statistics, 81% of people belive they have a novel in them and want to write it. 15% of people actually begin writing a novel. 6% make it at least half way. 3% finish. And a whopping .06% publish. That means if you know 10,000 people, 6 of them will publish a novel— or 1 in 1,666.666 people. That is a devil of a number if I ever saw one. But with the rise of self-publishing sites like Amazon KDP, we see more published works than ever before, to the tune of thousands of new titles per day. If you filter out the low content books, the AI generated garbage, and the fact that people have different ideas of what ‘done’ means, you probably have a number closer to the 2% of people being published— not all of these books, however, are finished.


The difference, I would argue, between a writer and someone who writes, is that a writer strives to make the work better. The writer will receive feedback and criticism and put their ego aside for the betterment of the work. Someone who writes makes a story and does not have the heart nor the will to change it. A writer wants to learn to be better, someone who writes is blind to the idea. But getting those critiques isn’t always easy, even for the stoutest of hearts. It takes a certain amount of bravery to push forward in this little treaded territory and even more courage to actually listen to the advice given. It takes wisdom to weed out good advice from bad advice and sacrifice to chop up your precious words and tailor them to better fit the story. In short, editing is an adventure of its own.


Today, we will talk about finishing your book and that means edits and rewrites.


The very first thing you should do when you hit ‘The End’ is nothing. Put the manuscript away for a few weeks, even a few months. Then take it out again and read it out loud. See how it sounds. You will be surprised how much a little time makes those mistakes jump out at you. When you read and reread things over and over again, you know what the story SHOULD say and your brain will fill in the gaps and gloss over plot holes. Removing the book from your recent memory will allow you to see it with fresh eyes.


Once it has sat a while, read it all the way through and make sure everything make sense. Do you feel hung up any where? Is it crawling along in places and racing in others? Did you go over the same ground too many times? Did you not explain something well enough? Is there confusion? Is the tension increasing until the end? Or do you have flat spots? Are there plot holes?


Last class, we talked about pantsing and plotting. It’s ok to be either for the first draft, but now you have to really take everything apart and analyze it. Outline your plot and make sure it make a sense using the foolscap method mentioned in the first class. Then do the same thing for the sub plots. I like to do a side by side comparison and see how the subplots play out alongside the main plot.


Character development- Take a deep look at your characters. Start by putting your character’s name at the top of the page. Write a brief description of who they are at the beginning of the story. What goals do they want to achieve? How do they plan to do that? What stands in their way? How do they overcome that obstacle? How do they change by the end of the book? What have they gained or lost?


Ex. Frodo. Inherits Bag End and the ring. He longs for adventure like his uncle had. But when he is told he has to journey with the ring to Rivendell, he struggles to go and finds out adventure is not all its cracked up to be. Several people are after him, even some people he thought he could trust. He begins to realize that this journey is his to take to the end. Later, he realizes that it is not an adventure he will come back from but it must be completed to save the home he loves. Though he has saved the world, the ring has burdened him and he is tired. Because of his service, he is invited to go to the land of the elves. This is his complete arc. From naive adventurer to frightened hobbit to brave savior.


Your characters need to change. The journey changes them. Often, that change enables them to ‘win’. In a Christmas Carol, we are shown all the ways in which Scrooge has changed for the worse in his life and we know exactly what will happen to him and those who depend on him if he does not change for the better. This change allows Scrooge to not only regain the possibility of salvation, but to regain his joy and for Tiny Tim to live a long life.


Agency- Your characters also need agency. Bella Swan from Twilight could have been played by a potato. She watched the action but did nothing to sway the action. Sure, there was a vampire in love with her and a werewolf in love with her. But if they had been in love with the magical purple potato promised to bring eternal joy after making it into chips, it would have been the same, except the potato probably wouldn’t have fallen down as much.


How do you make sure your characters have agency? Ask yourself, what does your character do to drive your story that any other character (or a potato) cannot. What does Darth Vadar do that one of the storm troopers cannot? He uses the dark side of the force in direct opposition to the Jedi use of the light side.


Minor characters will have less agency. What does Chewbacca do? He co-pilots the Millennium Falcon, but anyone can do that. He shows the diversity of the creatures of the Star Wars universe, but so does Admiral Akbar. BUT he is imposing muscle that the characters need to help fight through parts of the story (C3-PO can’t do that). He brings raw emotion to the story (for he has no words) when other characters are stoic.


Plot holes- Plot holes are places where the plot either doesn’t make sense, is inconsistent, or otherwise fails to suspend disbelief. Ex. People out running an arctic blast in ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, a person being injured (in any number of stories) and while they were in absolute agony in one scene, seem to do just fine in another and are able to thrash the bad guys. Your character might suffer from ‘specialitis’— that is they are a Mary Sue or Gary Stu, for example Harry Potter, an eleven-year-old who has just learned he is a wizard, not only makes the quiditch team but gains the most valuable spot, the seeker, for an entire house. It doesn’t matter how many points the other team has racked up because Harry caught the snitch and he gets 150 points and ends the game. Your character might have plot armor— this the literary equivalent of playing ‘the floor is lava’ with your kid only to have your young one proclaim “But these shoes are lava proof”. If your character suddenly develops an ability to nullify the impending doom, then it will deflate the story and rob it of tension. Plot holes can be small, like having a character start on a journey and making sacrifices without ever really wanting or needing to be there. Or they can be big, as in Deus ex machina, when the author literally inserts a miracle to save them. We can see this when the eagles show up to save Gandalf and friends over and over again (even the greats aren’t immune).


The Stakes- Is there enough at stake to keep your character motivated, to create enough tension to make the story exciting? If Gary has to find a plunger because the toilet is clogged, it is just an ordinary thing. But if he needs to find the Golden Plunger of Mambrino because the toilet is actually a gateway to the underworld and the demons are planning a take over, then the stakes are much higher. The fate of the world is at stake! The goal in both scenarios are the same but the stakes are very different. The stakes are what you lose if you fail. Think of it this way, most people won’t start eating salad every day just because it’s good for them and will go on happily munching chicken tenders and Twinkie's. But people will change their diet once failing to do so creates a huge health risk. The stakes are high enough. Your characters need high stakes, too.

You can find many different examples of stakes, but basically there are internal and external stakes. External stakes can be your team loosing a game, the threat of nuclear annihilation, or your child getting hurt. Examples of internal stakes are loosing your honor or not getting your revenge. Frodo has both internal and external stakes. If he doesn’t complete his mission, the world will fall under Sauron, his best friend Sam will die, and if he doesn’t do it soon, he will succumb to the ring.



Tension- Is your tensions holding in the right places? Or is the work just falling flat? Take a look at Frodo’s hike to get to Mt. Doom. It was long, arduous, and slow. But it would have been a lot less exciting if they were simply slipping in the back door. Instead, they had the Nazgul at their back, Sauron actively looking for the ring and the hobbits, and Gollum leading them but at the same time, scheming to get the ring for himself.


Theme- You might not have known the theme when you first started out, but now that the novel is written, you can sit and examine what the story is telling you and what you want the work to say. If your story is about a child who must grow in the shadow of war and yet finds beauty in their world, you might want to focus on the contrasts, images and plot points that reinforce this idea— a flower growing out of the pavement, an enemy sharing his rations with the character’s sick mother, northern lights. Through plot and imagery, you can strengthen the theme of the story and make it more impactful. If you don’t know the theme, and even if you do, some readers might take a different message from the book. And that is OK. What you don’t want is to have the first half of the book talking about the importance of honesty while the  second half of the book drives home the point that no one can be trusted.


Scenes We talked in the last class about making sure your scenes ‘do the work’ with a technique I call braiding. Ideally, your scenes provide three things for the reader. They can include— characterization, so we can better understand the characters or watch them change, movement of plot, development of conflict or its resolution, world building, and even techniques like foreshadowing and reinforcing the theme. Each scene needs to give us something to propel the story along. Example- In The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits finally make it to The Prancing Pony only to find out Gandalf isn’t there as he said he would be (plot advancement), there is a scary looking man (Strider) in the corner (development of conflict), and the innkeeper, Butterburr, is hospitable to the company of hobbits and has accommodations for them as hobbits come by from time to time (world building and characterization of the inn keeper). We get the tension that accompanies the turn of events and, masterfully, after so much darkness, we are balanced out by the joyous and scattered nature of Butterburr. We will see fewer and fewer instances of joy and frivolity the closer Frodo and Sam get to Mount Doom. And that brings us to our next point.


The emotional balance of the work. How does the emotional balance of the novel play out? If your novel is doom and gloom from chapter 1 to chapter 28, you might have a problem. People like sad stories and scary stories, but even the most desperate of novels has moments of light. Miriam and Layla share a cup of chai after dinner in A Thousand Splendid Suns, Kehaar provides some comic relief in Watership Down. And even in the almost singularly dark (and it must be said very short) The Pearl, by Steinbeck, we get a satisfyingly disgusting description of the doctor drinking hot chocolate and his suffering serves more to buoy our spirits than it does to create empathy. When books are emotionally flaccid, they do not stir anything in the reader. The tone of the book needs to go through its cycles of ups and downs just like the characters do, just like we all do.


Pacing- In the last class, we discussed pacing and how a story can go quickly or drag its feet to help with the story. This is your time to make sure the pacing is on target. The things that are most important need the spotlight and the slower pacing.


Perspective and tense-  If you are writing in third limited, all of your prose should be past tense and you should be in a limited number of heads. If you are writing in third person omniscient, you want the voice of the narrator to be strong and guiding. You want to avoid head hopping— where you are in many peoples heads in a single scene. It can be done, and to great effect, but it is exhausting to read and to write and is not sustainable for an entire novel. If you are writing in first person, make sure you don’t accidentally slip into third.



Sticking the landing- At some point, your story ends. That ending has different needs depending upon the genre. If you have a romance novel, you need a HEA or ‘happily ever after’ or at least a ‘happily enough’ ending. A mystery needs to solve the mystery and to exonerate the other people you thought committed the murder. You can have a neat and tidy ending where every conflict meets a resolution. You can have a cliffhanger ending if you are penning a series, but I would caution that you need to tie up some of the loose ends. Think of it as your novel has a story arc and your series has a story arc. In Star Wars, the story of A New Hope is resolved when the Death Star is destroyed, but the larger series story about Luke and his father takes three movies to come to an end. You can even have an ambiguous ending, where the reader has to decide some things for themselves. The Handmaid’s Tale ends with our main character getting into a van that may or may not be her salvation and we are left with the devastating reality that uncertainty is the only certainty in her life.

The important thing is that your reader reaches the end and feels satisfied. They have invested time into reading the book and they do not want an ending where at the hight of excitement, when everything is on the line and there is seemingly no way out, the character wakes up and it was all a dream.


Now that you know what you have to have, you need to know what to watch out for:


Tropes- Tropes are scenarios that we see played out again and again in books and movies, sometimes to the point of eye rolling. These can be big things like ‘the unlikely band of heroes’ or small things like ‘the clumsy nerd’. Any of these on their own can be fine, some are unavoidable.


Being well read in the area you write in will help you understand what is oversaturated and what can take more. For instance “medieval setting’ for fantasy is a trope, but it’s so well loved it doesn’t matter if that is what you want to write. While ‘vampire/werewolf war’ might be pushing it a bit and many publishers put this on their list of what not to send them.


What you truly want to avoid are the tropes that predictably play out in your plot. I call these ‘goldfish episodes’. In the 80’s and 90’s there were several episodes of TV that ran the same way. The episode opens with the kid feeding his fish, which he loves dearly, though we have never seen it before. Later, the fish dies. The kid wants to have a funeral for it. Mom arranges the whole thing while Dad complains. The neighbors are invited, everyone dresses up in mourning clothes, there is a small box for a coffin, a eulogy, and the child grieves like an adult. A meaningful moment is had where Dad realizes at the end it was worth it and the kid learns about death.


Another example? Super Fighter Man and the heir to the throne— who knows nothing about sword play— are running away from some big baddies. The prince is destine to destroy the ‘dark lord’. After making camp and having a meal, Super Fighter Man teaches the prince to use a sword. He doesn’t get it at first, but soon, finds his feet. Shortly there after, they are ambushed and the prince ends up being a god with the blade.

But that is just not how learning to fight works or how kids grieve. That is lazy and predictable plotting.



Killing your darlings- This is a piece of advice I hear again and again, ‘kill your darlings’— the scenes that serve no purpose but that you love. We don’t need to see Strider and the hobbits playing twister because it doesn’t serve a purpose. But that doesn’t mean your darlings can’t be made to do work. If you really love the scene, then chances are there is a good reason for it, maybe it provides pacing or emotional balance, maybe it helps build the world. Or maybe it just makes your favorite character look cool. Tweak the scene until it can carry the weight to justify being there.


I think the main thing ‘kill your darlings’ tries to accomplish is to be brutal in your cuts. Take out the things that don’t aid the story— the treatise on meadow flowers and the follow up endings we really didn’t need. Create a new document to put all the things you cut. You won’t go back to it, but it will make it easier to know the fat is cut but available if you need it.



Now you’ve reread your novel and you are at a loss. So much is wrong and you feel like you are going to have to rip it apart and start over again. Just like sewing a dress, you won’t get it right the first time. I can’t tell you how many times I sewed a sleeve inside out, or cut the fabric too short. Writing is the same.


It might help to write a brief description of each scene for the whole book, then, looking at the big picture, see if there is something out of order or things you can add. Mark out where the tension is highest and when characters experience change or growth. Be honest with yourself and have faith that you can fix it. Remember, you won’t just hit ‘the end’ once, but many, many times in this novel’s journey.



Smaller things- Once you have the gordian knot of your plot and characters arcs untangled and aligned along the path of proper pacing, you can focus on some small things. Look for repeated words, filter words, too many instances of was/were, weak verbs, over use of dialogue tags and an abundance of adverbs.


Filter words- these are words that tell rather than show, words that pull you out and creative narrative distance. For example “The doorknob felt cold” uses filtering. This sentence does not and allowed us to BE the character in that moment.  “I reached for the doorknob, the icy brass bit my fingers as if to deny me entrance.”

Sometimes, you want that narrative distance to tell rather than show when a character themselves is emotionally or physically removed from the scene or when you are trying to sum up events such as: “Everything about that summer was joy. The sun felt like joy, the lemonade tasted like joy, and even the night breeze could be heard whispering what joy was to come the next day. But it all came to an end with the flip of the calendar. Ben trudged to school, his head held down, his books clutched tight to his chest, the leaves crunching under his boot.” We gloss over the entire summer and it works. All we need to know for the narrative is that the summer was happy to contrast what fall will bring. We zoom back into fall and pick up the story there.

Some common filtering words are: looked, heard, saw, believed, thought, imagined, tasted, felt, decided, knew, seemed, touched. Avoid heavy reliance on these words and instead find stronger ways to show what you mean.


Weak verbs- weak verbs are often a problem for any writer. But I would argue changing EVERY verb into a strong verb can make the prose too weighty and detracts from the story. It is not like the language we are used to hearing. I would suggest a boxing approach, keeping smaller, weaker verbs where they are of little consequence and using stronger verbs when it matters. Like a boxer throwing jabs before hitting his opponent with an upper cut.

Ex. “The cat jumped onto the counter and ate my tuna before asking me to pet her.” You could say: “The cat leaped onto the counter and devoured my tuna before pleading with me to stroke her fur.” But it seems a but much. Instead, take out the part(s) that is important and make that the strongest verb. “The cat jumped onto the counter and ate my tuna before petitioning me for pets.”


Editors: You’ve gone through your book, you fixed it all. You even put it away one more time and did the whole process again. You have fixed all you can fix— or rather you have decided meddling with it is no longer improving the story beyond minute details. You want an editor, or rather several editors. Here are some of the types of editors available to you:


Line editors go through the entire work and comment line by line. They look for all the things you have looked for such as filtering words, repetitive words, plot holes, pacing and other smaller details. They take a microscope to your work.


Content editors look at bigger parts of the work. They look at character motivation, theme, story structure, pacing of the piece as a whole and a slew of other major mechanics that make you novel work or fail.


Copy editors looks at grammar, punctuation, and style. They will catch things like homophone misspelling, pronoun agreement, and errant commas.


A proofreader is someone who looks through the book one last time and checks for mistakes in grammar and continuity. Did you spell everyone’s name the same way all the way through? Did you have an extra line on the page that wasn’t needed? This editor you would employ right before submitting or printing.


No one can catch everything, and your book will undoubtably be printed with mistakes. If you can get to 99.9% error free, consider that a win.


Editors are expensive. They can get paid by the word or by the hour and it can easily run into the thousands of dollars per editor.


You can usually save money by enlisting other writers to swap novels with you for line edits. If you have three people reading and giving line edits, you will have to provide three line edits for them. Take the bulk of what people say and utilize it. Even with professionals, there can be a clash of interest. If one out of three people tells you something doesn’t make sense, but the other two readers had no trouble with it, go with the popular opinion. As you go forward in your writing journey, you will find people who understand your style and the feedback you are looking for.


If you are very lucky, you may find someone in your writing circle who is both good at and willing to provide content editing for you in exchange for a swap or for a low price. This form of editing is such a valuable tool to the betterment of your novel and I have seen many published works that failed to incorporate one or failed to head the advice of a good developmental editor.

If you are short on funds, I would recommend learning everything about the craft of writing and plot structure that you can. Brandon Sanderson put his college lectures on YouTube for free and Steven Pressfield does a weekly blog that focuses on writing craft and process. In addition, I would highly recommend you begin editing other peoples work on different writing platforms. Nothing has taught me so much as the practice of being critical.


Copy editors are harder to come by for small money. If you can only pay for one editor, pay for this one. If you can’t afford one, learn everything you can about grammar and sentence structure. Buy some grammar workbooks and practice. Even if you can afford an editor, you want as clean a manuscript as you can get going into the editing process. Editing takes concentration and a high level skill set. So, unless someone is doing you a favor, remember, you often get what you pay for.


What a good editor will do:

-Use respectful language in comments.

-Take more than one pass at your work (sometimes there is an extra fee for this).

-Take your style into consideration when making edits.

-Comment on the positive.

-Provide credentials and possibly a sample of their work.

-Communicate with you throughout the process.

-Make and meet a deadline.


What a good editor won’t do:

-Rewrite your work. “The cat didn’t really want to go to the vet” changed to “The cat didn’t want to go to the vet” is fine. “The cat hated the vet. She scratched John as she put her in the carrier.” Is not ok. You are the author. They are the editor.

-Demean or insult you. “I am not sure who is speaking here” is one thing. “Hello? Who IS this? I am so lost right now” is just unprofessional.

-Claim to be able to do multiple editing styles at once. A good editor focuses on the task at hand.

-Claim they got all the mistakes in one pass or baulk at the idea of a second pass (especially for copy edits).

-Offer vague or unhelpful suggestions. Ex. “You have a misspelling on page 6.” Or “That dialogue between Jimmy and Greg was hard to follow at one point.”




Beta readers- Beta readers are people who will read your work as if they are reading it for themselves and provide feedback. This is done after line and content editing but before copy editing. They don’t have to be writers, sometimes it is better that they are not writers.


If you are really uncertain about the direction fo the book you might want to employ some beta readers first and then retool the book before going down the editing road.


I would caution against using friends and family as beta readers as they might not provide unbiased feedback. You want people who read books. If you are recruiting people from your favorite fan fiction site, then you will get readers who find that level of writing engaging enough. (Some fan fiction is excellent but a majority of it is probably lower on the literary scale than you want to be.)



A word on AI


Some people are using AI as a tool. Some use it to do their writing. Some use it for an in between, where the AI gives suggestions for where the plot should go.


I stay away from AI for two reasons. First, all AI can do is metaphorically eat books and then spit them back out in chunks and phrases. It can’t even understand what it is doing. You can read and digest books in a meaningful way. Learn to read critically and that will aid you much more than AI. Second, if you begin to rely on AI to take over when you are stuck, you will only become more and more stuck. Creativity is your flame to keep. Your job is to keep it burning. The more you rely on someone or something else to do it for you, the more difficult it will be to access it when you need it. Thousands of writers like Margaret Atwood, Nora Roberts, and George R.R. Martin, oppose the use of open AI. In the art world, it is even worse and people are loosing their jobs to AI suggestion bots that literally steal the images from their canvases.


Will times change? Will it become a more common place tool? Probably. But I think there is something to be said for saying not only “I wrote a novel” but “I wrote a novel and it is 100% made by me.”
































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