Editing–Meet the Novel Killer

Sorry for the delay in posting, but have been very busy with writing jobs, which is a good thing.

The topic for today is an interesting one and even possibly controversial. Editing is great, but it can KILL a novel. If you are hoping to either one day be published or even write that break-out novel, you could be your own worst enemy.

Some of you reading this may be on Twitter, and if you are, there is a hash tag group called #writegoal (the brainchild of talented romance author Anna DeStefano http://www.annawrites.com). Definitely worth following and even joining. The purpose of #writegoal is to inspire and to create a system of accountability. Other writers will cheer on people they have never met, and there is something oddly convicting about posting “Goal today is 500 words.” There are no writing police to drag you away if you fail to meet those 500 words. Yet, those who participate feel they must at least give it the good college try in order to appease the group. But, I digress. Accountability is important, but a topic for another day.

I keep tabs on #writegoal, and #amwriting and even on MySpace and FB groups. One consistent post I see looks like this. “Looked at the pages I wrote last week and now editing. What crap”…or something to that effect.

Editing can be CANCER to a novel. Yes, editing can be devastating to shorter works, but doesn’t have quite the killing power it possesses when introduced into longer works. In a novel that can span anywhere from 80-120,000 words (depending on genre), editing can be catastrophic if done at the wrong phase.

Think of it this way. Driving is great. It gets us from point A to point B much quicker, and we do not know what life would be like without our cars. Yet, do we hand car keys to an eight year old? NO! Why? Because that child needs to develop into at least pre-adult (known as an adolescent) to be handed a two-ton piece of metal and fiberglass. Is it because we sit up at night thinking of ways to make the lives of our eight year old children miserable and that we take sick joy in depriving them of fun activities like driving? Um, no. As older wiser adults, we know the child doesn’t have the height, motor skills, and cognitive development to take on such a task without possibly fatal results.

Yet we edit novels three chapters in? No!!!!! Can you edit a novel this early? Sure. But just like handing an eight year old car keys, prepare to endure some consequences.

In my opinion, a novel has not developed enough to sustain any reasonable edit until at least the first draft. Your first draft is essentially your fifteen year old who can now go to Driver’s Ed.

Some of you might be screaming right now. “Kristen! What do you mean? Are you mad? Are you suggesting I leave a document rife with spelling errors and grammatical flaws just lying around?”

Yes. Yes, I am. You will thank me later.

If you are writing a novel, you need to leave any kind of edit for once you have finished the entire first draft. Breathe. Get a paper bag. You will be okay. Just trust me.

Now is it okay to reread what you have written in order to get grounded? Sure. And when you reread, it is even okay to make notes of things you believe at the time should be fixed or even expounded. But don’t you dare hit that backspace button! Nothing gets deleted. Period. Feel free to highlight. Make a note that you believe something should be taken out at a later time, but leave it be. Also, anything you decide needs to be added needs to be written in any color other than your main document. Red, purple, blue. Doesn’t matter. Just make it a different color.

Also, if you take part of your novel to a writing critique group before you are finished with the first draft, then you are taking a HUGE risk.

But, if you choose to do so, I recommend that you still follow my rules of editing. Any changes or suggestions need to be inserted in the form of notes (highlight possible deletions and make a notes as to why this section needed a change). Any additions need to be in another color…then sally forth.

Don’t look back, or you will turn into a pillar or unfinished novels.

Premature editing is very dangerous for three reasons:

1. Uproots Subconscious Seeds—Your subconscious mind is an amazing machine. It sees the big picture in ways the conscious mind cannot. As you write, your subconscious mind is planting seeds that, when viewed in a microcosm of one or three chapters, will likely seem to make no sense. Duh. That is like an acorn trying to envision life as a 100 foot tall oak tree. These seeds need time to gestate. When you edit prematurely, all you see is a hunk of something smooshy. You don’t realize that a possibly mind-blowing idea is trying to take root in the fertile soil of your story. By editing too early, you can possibly cripple your novel. By the end of the first draft, however, you will be able to look back and see sprouted weeds, which you can feel free to uproot. But the sprouts will be mature enough to distinguish from seedlings that need to be nurtured to their full potential.

2.  Makes us Mistake Busy Work for Real Work—Premature editing indulges our fears. Many times writers do not continue forward due to subconscious fear. Deep down we might know our original idea is flawed, or not strong enough, or convoluted, or unclear. We may know that we don’t have a solid outline or framework to support a 100K words. We may realize our characters have problems, but it is going to take work and honesty to fix them. Or all of that might be just fine, but we fear failure or even success. We fear writing the gritty stuff because it leaves us exposed and vulnerable, or we fear writing real conflict because our human nature is to avoid it. Premature editing gives us a false belief that we are being productive, when in fact it is sabotaging our work and reinforcing our fears by permitting us to procrastinate. Fears can only be conquered by facing them, and premature editing keeps us “busy” and gives us justification to stay mired.

 ***This is one of the reasons I started Warrior Writer Boot Camp, based off Bob Mayer’s teachings about fear. I felt that, for many, the traditional critique group of piecemeal edit kept writers from facing and really working on the real weaknesses.

 3.  Premature Edit Can Discourage and Keep a Writer from Finishing—This is another reason that traditional critique groups can be counter-productive. Other writers are seeing your work in a microcosm, and that limits how well they can critique. This is why I suggest using the techniques we discussed earlier. Just make notes. Your fellow writers are invaluable, but you have to appreciate that they are seeing your work from a limited point of view. Their opinions may be dead-on (We HATE your protagonist and hope he dies), but they could be far off-base and serve only to uproot those subconscious seeds we discussed.

If you continue to go back changing things chapter by chapter, changing, changing, changing, either due to critique group feedback or your own self-edit, what happens is that you KILL your forward momentum with a big ol’ red-penning, back-spacing machete.  Do that long enough, and it becomes hard not to be discouraged and ultimately give up. If you have been reworking the first act of your book for months, it can very easily end up in the drawer with all the other unfinished works.

Now I know all of you care about your work, and you desire to put your best foot forward. If that means waiting a few months before you bring anything to read at your critique group, then so be it. Mark my words. It will take a lot of self-restraint NOT to go back through your writing with pruning shears after a hard critique.

But writing a novel is like planting a field of green growing things that will eventually bear fruit. If in the beginning, you can envision the magnificent rows ready for harvest, then it is easier to be encouraged and to refrain from digging up the seeds and starting over.

Good luck and happy writing!

Until next time…

Here are some resources to empower you on your journey to successful published author:

I highly recommend Candace Havens website. Candace often runs on-line writing workshops with Rosemary Clements-Moore that teaches Fast Draft techniques. http://www.candacehavens.com

As  always, I recommend, Bob’s Novel Writers Toolkit as a foundational text to learn how to write a novel and also suggest Who Dares Wins as a fantastic book that teaches how to address and conquer fear. Bob also runs the Warrior Writer Workshop, designed to develop amateur writers into professional authors. Bob now offers the course on-line for greater convenience. http://www.bobmayer.org


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  1. I agree. Get a draft done, then edit. I’m big on subconscious seeds in a manuscript that too much in-progress editing can weed out and be lost forever.

    There is a difference, though, in rewriting enroute At 85,000 words I’ve started over on my WIP with a focus on developing the relationship between my two main characters differently. So that’s going to take me several days to get back up to speed. But I needed to do that before moving on, because that relationship is key to the end of the book.

  2. I started several projects before realizing this very thing. Every time I would begin to make major changes or edit a project before it was complete, I’d completely lose momentum and all confidence in my ability to finish. Hence, I never finished. I’m holding off on major editing of my current WIP until I have a firm first draft in place.

    • Terrell Mims on March 22, 2010 at 10:20 pm
    • Reply

    I totally understand your viewpoint, being that have been being hacked, very Genghis Khani, in WWBC. Albeit, my early stuff was crap. When I read it, I ended up curled in a fetal position having delusions of sniffing Victoria’s Secret Lovespell. However, I never thought about the analogy of comparing editing to an eight year old. Great stuff.

    1. Yeah…we were all ready to drown you in a big ol’vat of Love Spell….hold u down until no more bubbles, :D. Good thing you finally learned how to write 😛

        • Terrell Mims on March 26, 2010 at 3:00 pm
        • Reply

        Please believe the Love Spell will make a comeback. Mwa ha ha!

        1. We can just smother you and get this over with, you know 😛

  3. I loved #1, uproots subconscious seeds. You named a phenomena that I could never quite name, or that I thought I was crazy for trying to pinpoint. But it’s so true. Sometimes I find some character trait or quirky+perfect coincidence unfold, and I wonder if my subconscious figured everything out for me. I’m one of those people who does a little too much ‘busywork’ for my liking, so I definitely need to reign in the red pen to let those seeds wiggle their heads out of the WIP muck!

    1. Glad it helped. Thanks for taking time to give feedback. It is much appreciated.

  4. Your post came at just the right time for me as I’ve been limping through revisions on an unfinished first draft. Yes, I started losing my confidence, questioned my idea and considered abandoning the WIP, altogether. Reading this gave me the good “shaking” I needed. I’ve made my #writegoal two days straight now, new words (no revisions) and am following the outline I’ve been working with. Won’t be looking back now, until I finish. Complicating matters further for me are all the doubts that come along with writing a first novel. *Big hug* THANK YOU. THANK YOU. THANK YOU.

    1. Awww. Very awesome! I am so glad this was a blessing to you. Good luck and keep us posted with your progress.

    • annmariegamble on April 30, 2010 at 4:36 pm
    • Reply

    Busy work, indeed! There’s all kind of paper we can push around (research and outlines and character worksheets as well as edits) that feels like we have our hands on the novel but doesn’t actually move us closer to done. I figure I might end up cutting this scene entirely, so why worry about the polish right now?

    • Kara on May 6, 2010 at 1:14 am
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    Thanks for the really great article. I never thought of editing this way, but I can certainly see your points – especially numbers two and three. I usually go back over the first chapters before working on a new one, but doing so always leaves me less enthusiastic than I was when I started. Now I know why. Thanks, again.

    1. Great! Keep us posted on your progress!

    • Toothpaste35 on May 10, 2010 at 3:11 pm
    • Reply

    Thanks for another great article Kristen Lamb. This, as I have experienced myself, is so true. I’m fourteen and I’ve always started my novels with great, twisted plots, but never finished them. And that’s without editing. Lately, I have been highly motivated to finish a novel, edit it, and try to get it published. (Yes, I know what you are all thinking. I’ve only heard of a couple fourteen year-olds who have had a novel published (although I’ll probably be fifteen when I’m done), but I plan to be a part-time writer when I get out of college, so what’s the risk in trying to publish a novel early? Sure, it may not be as good quality as it might have been ten years from now, but right now from my point of view, I think it’s coming along in the way that it might, just might, get published.) Anyways, I was saying that I have been very motivated to write lately, part of the reason being my encouraging girlfriend, who also likes to wrie, and my great idea for a historical-fiction genre with a sci-fi twist. I have been coming along very well, or what I think is very well, finishing a chapter every two weeks (I have school and sports and whatnot so I think I’m progressing well). I have been posting each chapter on a website where I am not very well-known, which is a good thing. I know that you mentioned in another one of your articles that posting chapters of my novel online is not a good idea, but only my friends read it. Good and bad comes out of this. Good= I only get one or two reviews and you said that getting a lot of bad reviews, or just one, can hurt your motivation. Bad= They are afraid to criticize. I need feedback but they are afraid to hurt me by giving it (I think…unless my story is just amazing).
    Sorry, I keep sidetracking. So, I have only read this article after I have edited my first three chapters or so, and from now on I am going to just write, straight through (no back-spacing machete), to the end, and then go back and edit. I felt like when I was editing the first couple of chapters, that I would never get anywhere, and my motivation dwindled. I had stopped writing for a few days, worried that I wasn’t going to finish but also relieved that I did not have to edit and change the characters personalities or the plot or whatever there was to edit.

      • Toothpaste35 on May 10, 2010 at 3:14 pm
      • Reply

      My bad, I hit submit before I finished writing (Yay! said everyone else reading, thanful the lengthy post had ended). As I was saying, editing had slowed me down until the point where I stopped writing. But, when I came onto this website (as I often do to try and improve my writing techniques) I saw and read this article. Now, thanks to you Kristen, I am back on track and writing more than before…with no editing! I will do that at the end, when the time comes.

      Anyways, thanks again Kristen,

      1. I recommend you look at some of the earlier WW blogs that address craft issues, particularly last summer’s Deadly Sins of Writing. Thanks for taking the time to comment and good luck.

  5. Hi, I found your blog via Adventures in Childrens Publishing.

    I avoided editing until I had finished my first draft. I tried to concentrate on getting the story out before I hacked away at it. 🙂

  6. I find it hard to understand why anyone posts excerpts of the work they are currently focussed on, which goes on a lot in the Twitter world aka Teaser Tuesday.
    It’s almost a superstition for me that you don’t talk about fight club…hang on, that’s not what I meant. I mean you just don’t discuss what isn’t finished, not really even in the most general terms. It dissipates the energy for a start and second, what people say in response can unconsciously shape it(= warp) into another path.
    Anyway, another great post that helps me feel I am doing OK in resisting the pressure around me.

  7. Get to the end then let it rest, after time edit your tome. I find editing to be a great joy, not as much the death-in-progress some have had doing it. For me the idea is there, but most likely I botched it the first time, but the idea is alive in there and it’s now time to get to work. When I am on the second or third edit, there is a point where I think “Hey, that’s it! I said what I wanted to say!” And my day is great. You gave a great, thought provoking post. My opinion is a little different than your thoughts, but I see exactly where you’re coming from and wanted to thank you for the way you brought it out. Keep Writing!

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