by Kitty Felde
It sounded so idylic: ten days on Nantucket, and then two and a half weeks in Maine. All that time devoted to one thing: revision.
I’m working on my first adult novel, a mystery set in Theodore Roosevelt’s White House. The first draft is too long – 368 pages and still lacking a last scene. It’s a mess.
This year has been full of chaos with running a tiny publishing company, producing a pair of podcasts, and then five family members developed health issues. It’s been difficult to concentrate.
But I had those two trips to look forward to, away from the many fires that demand immediate attention, and I would use them to whip my novel into shape.
I was afraid to look at the pages. I’d written the first draft a year ago. What if it was awful? What if I couldn’t figure out how to fix it? Should I just burn the darned thing and eat lobster and enjoy myself?
After talking myself off the ledge, I remembered how I edit. And that’s what I’ll share with you.
PRINT IT OUT
A play or novel looks completely different in other formats.
I write on my laptop, but edit on paper. (I know, I know. I’ve sacrificed trees for this book. All the more reason to make the editing count.)
You see things differently when a book is on the screen vs on a piece of paper. It’s tactile. There is something satisfying about crossing out duplicate words with a red pen or watching a stack of pages dwindle as you read and reread and edit. (The only downside: my carryon bag was particularly heavy since I insisted on dragging my printed copy with me on the plane.)
READ THE DAMN THING
I write in short spurts. A scene here, a chapter there. I don’t make a habit of going back over my work again and again and again.
But editing begins with looking at the project as a whole. Does it make sense? What’s missing? Are there duplicate scenes?
I don’t immediately fix these problems, just note them in a separate notebook. I just keep reading.
WHAT’S IT REALLY ABOUT?
I knew that underneath the mystery, the book is really about a daughter’s lifelong effort to get her father’s attention and approval. Upon re-reading my manuscript, I was satisfied with the emotional underpinnings of the story. What I was lacking was a plot that made sense.
I started making lists, outlining the various murder plots, the actual clues and the red herrings. I followed main characters through the story – their locations, their motivations. I found holes and noted them in my notebook. More things to fix.
FIX THE BIG STUFF FIRST…OR NOT
After looking at plot holes, I had a good idea of what needed fixing and decided to tackle that first. Rereading the entire work made it clear what was important and what was not. I eagerly picked up my red pen and got to work.
But there were other problems that had no immediate solution. I needed to sleep on it or take a long walk or a swim, distract myself long enough for my brain to figure out a solution.
In the meantime, I tackled the small stuff I’d listed in my notebook. How many children DID Mrs. Caldwell have? Was it eight or nine? What was the name of the bank owned by Mr. Johnston? What was the rank of that police officer? It was just as satisfying fixing little things as it was solving big problems. And fixing the small stuff gave me courage to attack the big stuff.
KILL YOUR FAVORITES
Writers are always telling us to be brutal in editing, to not be afraid to kill our darlings.
I’m not that brave. I marked up my paper copy. But when I have reliable internet and make those changes in the master script on my laptop, I will save all those edited scenes in my Leftover file. I’m braver about making changes if I know that I can always go back and put that scene back in the main manuscript. Or use it in another book.
I’m a member of THREE writing groups. I also regularly swap drafts with yet another set of writers. It’s invaluable to have another set of eyes on our work. There are just some things we are blind to, things we skip over. They tell us when they don’t understand a plot point or the physical action in an action scene or the motivations of a character. They tell us when things are dragging, when a line is funny, whether the ending is satisfying.
KNOW WHEN TO STOP
At some point, we have to admit to ourselves that our work will never be perfect. We have to share it with the world and take the consequences. What’s the worst that can happen? An agent will reject us. Or three. Or a hundred. We decide to self-publish and get a one star review on Amazon. (At least someone took the time to read the darned book!) None of our siblings will buy the book and never ask about it at Thanksgiving. (Good. They’ll never know we named the villain after them.)
Be brave. Write your cover letter and your synopsis. Polish them. And send out your baby into the world. It’s time.
Kitty’s many plays have been produced around the world. Two are available in print. These days, she writes The Fina Mendoza Mysteries series of books and podcast for kids.