Over the last two weekends, I attended 2 separate writing conferences: the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold conference in Denver, and the Arizona Night Writers Association conference in Gilbert, Arizona. I met awesome people at both, and also saw some really amazing panels and workshops. Over the next couple of weeks, I plan to share some of the things that I learned. Today, I am sharing my notes of the most useful presentations at the RMFW conference about editing.
The presentation, called "Coal to Diamonds: How to Edit Your Manuscript From First Draft to Final Polish," was given by bestselling ninja mystery author, Susan Spann (who also gave me invaluable advice about pitching my own novel!). In the presentation, she explained her writing/editing process in detail. That process, she explains, involves 7 individual drafts (she defines a draft a a full edit from beginning to end). Let's break them down one-by-one
1st: Word Vomit
Susan writes her first draft as word vomit. There is no filter. Everything goes on the page as quickly as possible. The goal is to get the story in some form onto the page. It will be rough, it may lack important details, but it is written down. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Three things are important for this draft:
1. No editing. Just write. Get it out.
2. Set a word limit that you will reach per day and stick to it. Susan's limit is 6,000 words (she writes her first draft in 10 days!). Most writers can't handle that, so she advises to pick a limit and stick to it until you've mastered it and then up it. She started with a limit of 250 words and built up.
3. If you get stuck, think of the most improbably thing that can happen in your world and shoot for it. Try killing off a main character (or almost doing so) or something along those lines. This will help spark your creativity, and you can get through it.
2nd: The Skeleton
3rd: Research and Detail
When Susan has questions that require research or discovers places that need more detail during the 1st and 2nd drafts, she notes them in her manuscript and moves on. Now is the time to go back, do the research, and add that detail.
Another focus of the 3rd draft is to bring in the emotional impact of the story. This is often found in the details in how characters move and speak. Dialogue and mannerisms start to become very important here.
4th: Chapters and Trim
5th: Annoy the Family
Susan reads her 5th draft out loud. When she finds a place that causes her to stumble, she fixes it. This is one of the best ways to ensure that the words flow.
The goal for this draft is to add your unique voice to your story. It is also to check for grammar, sentence structure, and echo words.
The book finally goes out for critiques. Most other writers would consider this the alpha and beta reader stage. I'm not certain whether Susan takes partial work to a critique group, but it didn't sound like it from her presentation. In her words, this is when the story is finally read by others.
Most authors find this stage very difficult. Susan's advice is to remember that there is nothing your critique partners can say that will be as mean as someone on Amazon. In other words, as a writer, you need to learn to take it.
There is nothing your critique partners can say that is as mean as someone on Amazon.
Once the critiques come back, Susan goes through them and incorporates comments she believes are useful into the book. While she doesn't use everything, she does think about each comment and asks herself what made the commenter say it.
7th: Spit and Polish
The final draft, a last pass through the story for spit and polish, and then it is off to the agent.
Writing is very personal. Every author must find their own process and their own voice. However, learning the processes that work for others can be very instructive. I was surprised to discover that my own process is similar to Susan's, but I learned some new things that I will try as well.
What is your process?
The last couple of weeks, I have been working on incorporating beta reader feedback into my book. It has been an amazing experience.
For those of you not in the know, beta readers are readers who get to read a manuscript before it is pitched to an agent or publishing house. They provide feedback to the author on what they liked, what they disliked, and any suggestions on improving it.
Handing your manuscript off to beta readers can be nerve wracking. Imagine handing off one of your children to someone else and asking them to tell you everything wrong with that child. Beta reading kind of feels like that. At the same time, it can be awesome.
If they like your book, you get some awesome praise. Authors love praise. Some of the praise I received included:
I really like the "monster". I read quite a bit of horror and this was unlike anything I've ever read. Really unique and creepy as hell!
Or how about my wife's comment after finishing the book for the first time:
Well, that was horrifying.
And one of my favorites:
This was one of the best horror books I have read and I would definitely recommend others to read it.
And then there is the ultimate compliment for any writer:
Yes, I would definitely read the next book in the series (and the next, and the next) and I would recommend it to everyone I know.
And then there's the part where they make your story better. My beta readers found a couple of small plot holes. Filling them has really improved the story, even if they weren't gaping craters.
So, even if they can be absolutely terrifying, they can also be one of the best parts of writing.