If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.
Okay, you’ve made at least one pass through your manuscript, you’ve fixed a few typos, maybe changed a couple details. You’re feeling good.
Now it’s time to dig into the big-picture changes
Analyzing your own work is challenging. It took all your energy just to get the story out and now you’re supposed to dissect it like a master’s literature professor? Here are a few questions to get you started:
- Does every scene move the plot forward?
- Is your character’s motivation consistent?
- Does your character HAVE a goal?
- Do the subplots add to the overall story or detract from it?
- Are your characters likeable? Or at least relatable?
- Is it boring? (If it’s boring to you, it’ll be boring to the reader.)
- Is the ending rushed, or too drawn out?
Answering these will set you in the right direction. (And I’d love to hear other questions!)
Killing your darlings
You might have a passage that is the greatest piece of writing ever to grace a computer screen, but if it doesn’t move the story forward—or worse, takes it in the wrong direction—it has to go. This, my friends, is called killing your darlings (and it’s the inspiration of the image at the top of this post, courtesy of my amazing friend Nadine).
This doesn’t mean you have to completely throw these lines away. I usually have a file called Bits & Pieces where I save the bits I love, but don’t belong in my story. Sometimes I’m able to work them in elsewhere—like a line about the pee monster growling in The Slope Rules—and other times they remain safely tucked in a folder. Either way, they still exist, which makes it easier to remove them from my manuscript.
Is every secondary character necessary?
In the first draft of The Slope Rules, my main character Cally had an older brother. They were close and he looked out for her because their mom died when they were younger. He was active in the first couple chapters, but once I got into the meat of the story he sort of… disappeared. For the rest of the book. So as much as I liked him, I decided my story would be stronger if Cally was an only child and that close relationship was with her father instead.
I attended an editing workshop at the SCBWI conference in NY last year and Kate Messner and Linda Urban introduced a chart that helped me figure this out. Across the top, write every chapter. Then down the left column write every character, plus other elements that are key to the story. Then check off each chapter that each character appears in, even if they’re “off-screen” (mentioned by other characters). If you have characters that barely appear, they might not be necessary.
Or maybe you have more than one character serving the same purpose. Does your main character really need FOUR best friends? Maybe two or three is enough.
Are all the loose ends tied up?
It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a standalone novel or a part of a series, you have to conclude the story. I’m not saying it has to be a happily ever after ending, or that there can’t be a cliffhanger leading into the next book—books with ambiguous endings are wildly popular—but there needs to be a resolution to the main story. If the love interest’s brother is arrested in chapter 3, we need to at least know if he got out, went to court, or if the charges were dropped. Or maybe he was murdered in his cell—either way, the reader wants to know these details.
Can you go deeper?
If you’ve ever worked with an editor (or very good beta reader), you’ve probably heard this phrase. It can be anything from the best friend’s motivation for secretly sabotaging the investigation to the main character’s true reasoning for not opening up to people.
Adding depth to your characters—all your characters—can be the difference between a mediocre, trope-filled read that leaves readers wondering about more than you intended and a novel that leaves your readers fully satisfied.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
Tip: If you have several overarching things that need to change, devote one pass to each one rather than trying to tackle everything at once.
Writing a novel is hard. Editing a novel, turning it into something the general public—or someone other than your mom and best friend—wants to read is another animal entirely. It won’t happen in one pass. There will be times when you question why you ever thought you could do this, but I swear to you, it’s all part of the process. Every writer feels this way at some point or another. Heck, I feel this way right now.
But keep going. Because if you thought it felt amazing to get to the end of the first draft, just wait until you can declare your novel complete.