The Editor’s Hat – 11 Tips for Your Second Draft

Your first draft is done.

Wait, it’s not? Then go away and don’t come back until it is. This is not the post you’re looking for.

The rest of you can stay, but only if you promise not to make fun of the people who aren’t finished with their first drafts yet. Because you were like them once. And I still am.

Okay. [I know. There’s no need for “Okay” here. It’s superfluous. I should just get right to the 11 tips. But I’m keeping it. “Okay” is an intentionally overused aspect of my subtly ironic faux-conversational style. What, you thought I didn’t know I overuse it? I do. Also? All this bracketed content would be meaningless without it.]

You wrote a novel. Sure, it probably sucks in its current condition, but so does so much published work, am I right girlfriend?! [For the record, I am not directing this comment solely to my girlfriend. First of all, I don’t have one. Second of all, I don’t have one.]

The good news is that you’re already done with the hardest part: you completed a novel. The bad news is that you still have to do the hardest part: make it good. [Yes, I said “hardest part” twice. On purpose.]

So then, here are 11 tips to help you get there from here.

1. Walk away from the novel. Celebrate the finished first draft with a bucket-sized margarita and then forget about it for a while. At least a week, preferably a few. You will need some time to transition from writer to editor. This transformation is not immediate like the way Bruce Banner turns into the Hulk. Additionally, your rage usually doesn’t come until after the transformation.

2. Put on your editor’s hat. [I mean this figuratively, but some of you probably would do well to interpret it literally. Especially if you haven’t washed your hair since you started writing the novel.]

3. Print out your novel. Or send it to your Kindle or other e-reader device. Reading the work in a different format than the one you used to create it will give you a much-needed fresh perspective.

4. Pretend you just bought this novel with your own hard-earned cash. Read it. Have a pen nearby (and also a notebook if you’re reading it on an e-reader), but don’t plan on making a ton of notes this time through. If you come across something obvious – a big-picture issue or inconsistency or obvious error – go ahead and make a note of it. But mostly, just read the novel.

5. Walk away. Again. [Yes, it’s true. I’m doing this because I don’t think you get enough exercise.] Give the book time to settle into your subconscious. It’s amazing just how much of the stuff you think is fine reveals itself to be not-fine when you’re not actively staring at it. [There might be a psychological explanation for this phenomenon, but I prefer to believe it’s some editorial faerie alchemy at work.]

6. Pick up your red pen (or turn on track changes in Word) and start going through the novel again. This time, mark (or change) everything you see that doesn’t feel right. Look especially for the stuff I’ll be noting in the next four items on this list. [If I were a list purist, I’d include those four items here, since they’re really a sub-point of this particular item. Usually, I’m all about making sure lists are pure in their parallelness. But not this time. I committed to 11 items and this is the only way I’m going to make that number.]

7. Look for redundancy. Also look for things that you repeat. [Predictable? Yes. But you expected that, didn’t you. I’m here to please.] By the way, I don’t just mean repeated words. Those are pretty easy to solve. I’m also talking about repeated ideas. For example, if your protagonist complains about the impertinence of his boss on page nine, we probably don’t need to read about that again on page 18, and 48, and 93. Readers are smart. Once you reveal something, they’re likely to remember. Also, watch for repetition in descriptions. If we learn that Roscoe is a “giant of a man, towering over Lucy like a giant” on page seven, don’t tell us he’s huge the next time he’s in the room. (Unless context demands it.) Also? You probably should work on your similes.

8. Listen to your characters. Sometimes it’s helpful to read through the book focusing solely on one character at a time (especially their dialogue scenes). Yes, this can be time consuming, but it may reveal inconsistencies you wouldn’t otherwise have noted. Also, listen to the things characters aren’t saying on the page. It’s important that the unwritten stuff between one scene and the next is logical and purposeful. For example, is the protagonist’s surprise on page 88 warranted? Or did you reveal so much on page 58 that she wouldn’t even blink when her mother says, “I’m a vampire. And also, I watch Wheel of Fortune every day.”

9. Stop telling me a character’s thoughts about what he’s going to do just before you reveal the same thing through his actions. I know I’ve said this a million [exaggeration] times already on this blog, but this may be the one thing that bugs me most. A good scene doesn’t need the “telling” if the “showing” is well-written. Don’t tell me what Jeremy is pondering every time he’s about to do something. Sure, some pondering is fine – and probably integral in understanding Jeremy. And if your story is more of a telling story, then tell. But most of the time? Just have Jeremy act. We’ll see his intent, we’ll read and understand his motives in both the action itself and the result of that action. When you include both, you make readers feel stupid.

10. Kill your pets. [Please don’t call the ASPCA. I mean this one figuratively. Also, be thankful I didn’t quote the more commonly used “kill your babies.”] You’ve heard this one many times, so I won’t elaborate except to say, those “pets” aren’t just favorite words or phrases, they can also be the way you set up a scene or the way you describe a character or setting. If every character introduction begins with a detailed description of his/her eye color and height and favorite Starbucks drink, it’s time for some serious killing. Of figurative pets. Not literal ones. [Don’t forget to spay or neuter your pets. And hug them often (except goldfish). Especially after spaying or neutering (also, except goldfish).]

11. Be tough on the writer. Notice I didn’t say “be tough on yourself.” The editor’s hat grants you the right to challenge everything the writer put on the page. Don’t hate the writer (that will only lead to more therapy). Just be honest with him/her. If you do find yourself being especially brutal, that may be due to the fact that your first draft was especially sucky. Or it could simply be that your editor’s hat is too tight. [This is how I excuse the excessive red marks on every project I’ve ever received back from an editor. People really should learn their hat size.]

Oh, and when you think you’re finished with the editing, repeat the process. No, I don’t know how many times you’ll need to repeat the process. And yes, it’s possible to overedit your own work. This is where crit partners and professional editorial services come in. [Steve: don’t forget to produce a clever, yet humble commercial touting your own editorial services and then insert the link here. It would really suck if you just left this reminder instead.]

That’s all for today. I’ve got some editing to do.

Now, where did I put my hat…

How to Increase Your Novel’s Word Count

Word count is the devil you have to love, or at the very least, respect.

This is a true statement if your goal is to be published (through traditional methods) someday. Those of you who don’t care about traditional publishing can leave the room now. Go play cricket or bake a souffle or save the whales. Then write about it. Use as many words as you like.

The rest of you, please select an abacus from the abacus cabinet and have a seat.

Unless you’ve already had significant publishing success or your last name is Rowling or King, you’re going to have to pay close attention to The Count. You’re picturing that vampiric puppet from Sesame Street, aren’t you? Now you’re thinking about vampires. Now you’re thinking about Edward Cullen. Now you’re either drooling glitter or you just threw up a little in your mouth. Can we get back on topic now? Thank you. (Go team Lestat!)

If you’re like most new writers, your manuscript is too long. You never intended it to grow to 150,000 words, but it just sort of took on a life of its own. Like a garden of beautiful wildflowers!

No, like a plague.

Well, if you’re one of these sorts of writers, you’re in the wrong classroom. Overlong Novels and How to Trim Them Like a Bad Mullet is in room 242 down the hall. Don’t forget to put your abacus back in the abacus cabinet on your way out.

The three of you who remain? I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news: you suffer from Anorexia Novelosa. You missed your goal of 80,000 words by 25,000, didn’t you?

There, there. No reason to cry. Well, there might be a reason to cry, but we won’t know that until after you try some of these ideas for increasing your novel’s word count:

Introduce a Brand New Character. Not just any character, but someone who is significant enough to throw your protagonist’s plans a little out of whack. Some stories come up short because they’re a bit too linear. Good guy pursues a goal. Bad guy interrupts good guy’s plans. Good guy overcomes bad guy. The end. But what if there’s another good guy pursuing the same (or a conflicting) goal? Or another bad guy who wants the joy of ruining the good guy’s day? Or someone who could be either good or bad depending on the way the wind is blowing? Yes, adding a significant character to a “fully operational Death Star”…er…I mean a “complete” first draft can really mess with the plot you so carefully worked out. One change on page 45 could have an impact on every page that follows. And some that precede it. But a brand new character can also add depth and texture (and words) to your story.

Give a Minor Character More Lines. You know that neighbor who appears once or twice because it gives your main character someone to talk to on the way out of his apartment? What if she had a bigger role? Look at each of your minor characters. Perhaps a couple of them are just begging for more ink on the page. Give it to them. Let the crazy uncle be even crazier. Follow the mother and her daughter into the train station instead of just observing them from a distance. Cross the street to find out why the dog is barking every night at eleven. Every character in your story has a full, complex life, even if all you see of them in your current draft is captured by a single sentence.

Fill in the Calendar. I’ll bet you have more than a few places in your novel where you write something like “three days later” or “later that night.” Sometimes there’s an entire chapter just begging to be written about the “three days” or the space between now and “later that night.” Note: I said sometimes. We don’t need to know what’s happening every minute. Choose these new scenes carefully. And be aware that any additions to your story will affect not only the plot, but also the pacing and rhythm. If an addition “feels” off, it probably is.

Further Develop a Subplot. Subplots are “sub” for a reason. They are meant to enhance, not compete with the main storyline. But some of your subplots might benefit from a few more words. Perhaps the rainstorm that never seems to end not only threatens the dam, but also floods a local school, forcing teachers and students to hold classes in a nearby abandoned train station. Maybe the grocery store clerk who is always singing to customers decides to try out for American Idol.

Beef Up Your Description. Let me give you the caveat first: don’t just add description for description’s sake. There’s nothing worse than having to slog through page after page of details that add little or nothing to the story. That said, there might be places where the story would be enhanced by more detail. Don’t just mention the fading color of the baseboard paint in the haunted house, tell me that the room smells like mold and dead mice and how the floorboards seem to cough with every step. Don’t just tell me there are wind chimes hanging on the back porch, tell me the song the protagonist hears when the breeze blows. Provide details that increase tension or reveal more about a character.

Find a Better Ending. I know, you already have the perfect ending. Or do you? What if the ending you have now is just a pause before the actual ending? What else could go wrong that might send the story in a (logical) new direction? Think about it. Or maybe there’s a “false” ending you forgot to write – one that fits rather perfectly in the timeline just before the actual ending.

What if you consider all these ideas and nothing seems to work? It’s possible your novel is un-expandable. Perhaps 55,000 words is exactly the right length for your manuscript. If so? Confidently shop it around to agents and editors. A great story is a great story is a great story. If it’s really just right at 55,000 words, a savvy agent or editor will realize this. I’ve seen more than a few novels get picked up for publication because they were “just right,” even though they fell outside the word count guidelines.

Okay. That’s all for today.

Class dismissed. Don’t forget to return your abacus to the abacus cabinet. I know you didn’t use them. I just wanted to write “abacus cabinet.”

Have a nice day.

[This post is 1103 words long. On purpose.]

You

Sit down. No, you’re not in trouble. This isn’t about dangling too many participles or ending sentences with prepositions. It’s not about your premise or your plot. It’s not about your characters (they’re all really very lovely). And it’s not about your craft.

You want what? A drink? Sure. What would you like? I have tea and coffee and…

Really? This early? How about just the orange juice without the vodka?

Okay, where was I? Oh, right. You’re a good writer. Your novel is competent, smart and entertaining. You’ve obviously read lots of books on how to write. I bet you read all the really popular agent and editor blogs, too.

But…

Hmm? Yes, you can move to the couch if you want. No, I don’t have any Xanax.

Like I was saying, your novel is good, but it’s missing something.

Yes, I know, I know. You’ve labored on this for months. You’ve poured every available minute into the writing and the re-writing. Your husband thinks you’re having an affair with someone named Strunk N. White. Your kids are wondering what a “crit group” is and where to find one and do they really need more feedback on their two-paragraph “what I did last summer” essays anyway? And your dog, Pulitzer, is afraid to ask to go for a walk because, apparently, his whimper sounds excessively adverbial and this causes you to scowl like Stephen King and it makes him nervous when you scowl like Stephen King.

No, you haven’t wasted your time. All that study has paid off. Surely you can see how you’ve improved. And if not? Go back and look at the first story you ever wrote. You’ve come a long way. I’m impressed. You should be, too.

But your novel is still missing something. Something really important.

It’s missing you.

You’re looking rather pale. Maybe you should lie down.

Let me say again – you’re a good writer. I’ve seen manuscripts from contracted novelists that aren’t as well-written as yours.

Good. You’re getting some color back. You were making me nervous there for a moment. I’m not trained in CPR.

It’s quite possible that your novel is good enough to capture the interest of a good literary agent. And maybe even good enough to get published someday. Of course, that could take a while. You know how tough it is for writers to break through. Of course you do, that’s why you’ve been so diligent at the craft and so dedicated to learning the business.

Maybe persistence and patience are all you need at this point.

But I can’t help wondering about that “missing something.” Where are you in your novel? Where’s the smart, slightly snarky writer whose email correspondence always makes me smile? Where’s the clever wordplay? The knowing smile? The arresting blend of confidence and vulnerability that I think of every time I think of you?

All that great writing advice might have kept you off the page. I like you. I like the way you think. I think readers would like you, too. And if you found you – if your novel had more of you in it – I believe that might just bump your manuscript from the “good enough to be published” pile into the “wow, I love this!” pile on an agent’s desk.

Ah, yes, that’s the million dollar question. And there’s no easy answer. I’d suggest these three steps:

  1. Let the manuscript sit. Don’t obsess over it. Forget about it and do something else for a while.
  2. Stop reading “how to write” books and websites. Instead, read novels. Good ones by authors you admire. Fresh ones by authors you’ve never met.
  3. When you finally do go back to your manuscript, forget the rules. Just (re)write as you hear the story in your head. You already know craft – that will come naturally now. This time, listen to your inner voice, follow it. Trust your instincts with word choice, pacing, rhythm, attitude. And here’s the real key: have fun.

Be you.

That’s not as easy as it sounds. And if you find you’re still struggling, start another novel. Yes. From the beginning. The more you write, the sooner you’ll find yourself on the page. When you do, you’ll not only be “good enough to be published” – you’ll be the only person who writes like you.

That’s the book I really want to read.

Yours.

Yes, you can have the vodka now.