Fiction editing: lessons from the first month

Welp, it’s been a month, and I’m six chapters down with twenty-four to go.

This, uh…this is not where I thought I would be.

But, as I said in the first post on editing, the process is slower than I expected.  And that slower pace has been both consequent and generative of some new lessons, having to do with progress markers, reality checks, and self-compassion.

Lesson five: Segment your work

When I first moved out here, I was equal parts exhausted, bitter, and desperate for rejuvenation.  Taking a self-enforced sabbatical from academics and throwing my whole heart into my novel was exactly what I needed.  In fact, even if I hadn’t needed it, I’d make a case for the first draft of a creative project always getting that level of concerted effort and focus, where one day flows into the next.

Editing, however, is mechanical, precise, and largely task-oriented. It’s more about taking a section of writing, setting it on stage, watching it work (or fail), and fixing the problems.

Therefore you can move by scene or by chapter.  You can follow one character thread through a few chapters.  You can move out of order.

And I highly suggest that you do, or you’re going to get stuck somewhere–say Chapter 4 for completely random example–and beat your head against the wall until you feel like lighting all your characters on fire and cackling while they burn.


If you’ve segmented things, you can easily step back, go find a chapter or a scene you remember enjoying, or that you find is particularly well-written, and then breeze through a bit of easy editing to get your mojo back.

In order to segment properly, though, you need to…

Lesson six: Revisit your chapter divisions

Most first drafts are somewhere between 25 and 40% too long.  A lot of that has to do with the fact that you’re still getting to know your characters and the ins and outs of your plot, so most chapters take extra time building up steam before they get into the action.  And a lot of them will also have too much denouement or assessment at the end.

Start by cutting all the stuff that helped you keep track of where you were, but will bore readers.

I’m looking at you, ghost of Robert Jordan.

Then, take what’s left and divide it into segments that have obvious beginnings and ends.  And if you’re jumping viewpoints a lot, see if you can’t compile those chapter breaks into tighter bundles.

So, a really long chapter with three viewpoints might become three chapters. The end of one chapter might actually belong at the beginning of the next. Etc.

The end goal is to organize and compartmentalize your book, making it easier to navigate both for you and your eventual readers.  Make it clean, make it sharp, and clarify your intentions–leave the mystery to the characters.

In the end, I went from twenty random, rambling chapters to thirty shorter, sharply delineated.  And then–because I am a very visual person when it comes to tracking progress–I was able to make a chart:

completion chart

Lesson seven: Make editing a part of your day, not the whole thing

If you’re an introverted writer like me, then when you’re writing, life sort of seems to slow down.  You may still have to work, you may still visit friends or family, but the world you’re building will be transposed over everything, so that your real-world interactions take on a patina of other-worldliness.  The best days in this formative time are the days you count by slanted sunlight hours, where you are isolated and jealously guarding your mental capacity.

Then, boom, you’re finished.

And you’re probably running low on funds.  You might have put on some extra weight while you spent long hours at your desk.  You need to call or write people to remind them that you are a person who is alive.  And you likely have other projects or research that you pushed aside.

It’s all been waiting for you…


And you know what?

That’s good.

It means that you have varied skill sets and interests, people who care enough about you to let you do your writing thing, and a new set of goals to propel you through a fresh round of productivity.

But it also means that editing can’t be your whole life.  Allocate it some hours each day, and then use the remainder to recapture holistic living.

For instance, for the past two weeks, I’ve been limiting my editing to four hours in the morning, no more, no less.  After that I go for a run or a walk or work in the garden to reboot my day.  And then I turn my afternoons and evenings over to business–tutoring, errands, cleaning, and, yes, the dissertation, which I’ve taken to calling the “Holloway Project.”

It also gets a chart:

holloway chart

And it’s all been going well!

So, yeah, the pace of editing is slower, but that’s primarily because I’m rounding out my approach to daily life and picking up all my old responsibilities again after a long period of privileged time off.

Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

3 thoughts on “Fiction editing: lessons from the first month

  1. You are a woman of many charts! I’m glad to hear (see… read?) that both the editing and the Holloway Project are going well. I often have trouble balancing my time and efforts for “many masters” and what has helped me has been to set self-imposed deadlines alongside actual due dates (bills, work, job applications, etc) for writing, editing, and the like. My google calendar is no joke.

    • I am indeed an organized person. I have two major systems for calendars and due dates, and then the charts supplement. I do find, though, that I’m always a little surprised when I finish something for myself on time…things where I am beholden to others crowd in and grab up space. What’s your trick for sticking to self-imposed due dates?

      • The trick I’ve found for sticking to self-imposed due dates is to allow myself to turn stuff in late! I’m kidding, but only a little. I post a regular Thursday article, and my deadline for QC Outside is the 15th of every month, so I structure everything else around that. It’s quite imperfect, and Thursday is awkwardly placed within the work week for a recurring post, but I’m sticking with it for now. Ultimately, I just make sure to put in at least a little time on the next upcoming post. When I’m on the ball, I put in some time on the post that’s coming after that as well. Sometimes this means I get less sleep than I should, but that’s all part of the deal for now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s