Fiction editing: lessons from the first half

Halfway done! Halfway done.  …..halfway done…*collapses*

And the lessons this time are about trust–of self, of other authors, of characters, of ability.

Lesson eight: The iceberg metaphor

I think the majority of us have probably heard the iceberg metaphor: maybe because we were emo teens with “complex” emotional lives that vibrated below the surface; maybe because our teachers had a poster up on the wall, desperately trying to drive home how much actual work goes into a project.

But if not, it goes like this.

For every 5% of material that makes it to the page, there is another 95% of material supporting it silently, unseen, from behind the scenes.

In other words, if you don’t know the world you built inside and out, if you don’t where your story is going at all times, or if you don’t know why your characters say the things they do, based on backstory and motivation, your shit is going to get wrecked.


So, the lesson here is to do the grunt work, make the dialogue and plot charts, work on internal consistency, and trust that the time it takes to do these things is well spent.

Lesson nine:  Your characters are smarter than you

By the time you’re half way through the editing process, you’re going to know your characters even better than you did when you finished the first draft.  You will have wrestled with them, matched their spoken dialogue to their internal dialogue, designed and redesigned, and created distinct backstories, body language, and facial expressions.  You will have inhabited them, reading their lines out loud, trying out their walks or tics.

personal space.gif

And yet, they will still know themselves better than you do.

Trust that.

Stop making them do stuff.

Take out any remaining moments that feel “out of character,” even if they further the plot, and find better ways, real ways, for your characters to solve problems.  Ways that are genuine to their world view and ability.

This is especially important as regards misdirection.

If you have a sly character who would create problems of misdirection on purpose, that’s one thing.  But if you’re relying on classic misunderstanding or poor comprehension to further your plot–if you’re creating vibrant, brilliant, witty characters and then forcing them to be stupid–that’s lazy.

Lesson ten:  Keep reading for inspiration

This one is pretty self explanatory, but it’s worth a reminder.

You’re probably a writer because you love reading.  So keep reading.


Go back to your favorite books and see what made them tick.  Find great new books to remind yourself that you have aspirations.  Find terrible new books to remind yourself that if that guy can get published, so can you.

And google around for books that are especially good at whatever set of problems you’re working on, e.g., world building, inner dialogue, theme, character, voice.

Keep learning.

Lesson eleven: This is only your first edit.  There will be others.

This lesson came to me after attending a library seminar with YA author Martha Brockenbrough, author of The Game of Love and Death among other things.

She was super sharp, super to the point, and super insistent that editing is not a once and done kind of thing.  It requires multiple repetitions that get at the many layers that make up a book.  And while you can overlap maybe two or three of these layers at a time, you should not attempt to fix everything the first time through.

This was a big revelation for me.  At the time I attended this seminar, I felt like I had been spinning my wheels. And when I decided to trust her, I got the permission I needed to let some stuff go and come back for it later.

paper throw

FYI, her eight layers are character, plot, pacing, beginning/ending, timeline, theme, prose, discipline.

I let go of theme, prose, and pacing (which you can only really see retrospectively anyway) and refocused on character and plot.  As a result, my editing speed went through the roof–like a chapter a day.  And as my plot went under the microscope, I was able to fix timeline and reshape the ending of my book so that all my main characters arcs end simultaneously.

Discipline comes last–read the book out loud, make final changes, ship it out to beta-readers, rest, and review.

Lesson twelve: Turn the corner

So, in the end, if you start trusting yourself, your characters, and some good advice, you’re going to hit the halfway mark on your editing process.

And it’s going to feel amazing.


Take a moment to soak up the awesome, revel in the work you’ve accomplished, and bask in the reality that you are halfway done.  That you can do this thing.

Then do the thing.

*back to editing*



Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

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