When I write about my self-publishing journey here, I usually stick more to publishing strategies and marketing topics, but a couple of people have asked me editing questions lately. As I close in on twenty novels (between my name and the new pen name, I should hit that number this Christmas, for my four-year self-publishing anniversary) and almost as many short stories and novellas, I guess it’s fair to say that I’ve developed a system.
My first novel (the first novel that I finished anyway), The Emperor’s Edge, took about seven years from conception to publication (and that didn’t even include looking for an agent/publisher, since I went straight to self-publishing!). Granted, there were years where I didn’t touch it at all in there, but I was definitely finding my way as a writer. I ran it through the SFF Online Writing Workshop twice, several years apart, before “getting serious” and deciding I not only wanted to be a writer, but I wanted it to be the full-time job (yes, quite ambitious for someone who had yet to publish anything). My second novel, Encrypted, also went through the workshop. I wrote that one a little more quickly and had it polished and ready to go in just under a year.
These days, it usually takes me a month to write a first draft (though I’ve done it in as little as two weeks) for a standard-length novel (80-100K). The beastly 220K+ word Republic took two months.
My first round of edits might take about a week for something that involves fact-checking and doing some research (I don’t usually spend a lot of time on either when I’m writing the first draft, because I don’t like to break the flow) or only three days for a simple story that’s set in a made-up world and doesn’t involve much of that.
After I’ve gone over the manuscript once, I send it off to beta readers, who will point out everything from typos to logic errors to confusing action sequences. I’ll usually start working on something else while I’m waiting for them to send the manuscript back. Once it returns, I’ll address their comments again and then either go over the whole story one more time (depending on the degree of the changes I made) or just go over the particular scenes where I made significant changes.
After that, the manuscript is off to my editor, Shelley Holloway, who will check for grammar issues, typos, and anything else confusing that my beta readers might not have pointed out. Again, I’m usually working on something else while she has my manuscript — gotta keep things going if you want to do this full time!
When Shelley is done, she’ll send the manuscript back, and I’ll run through and accept/reject changes and fix any issues she pointed out. We’ll usually go back and forth a couple of times before it’s ready to be turned into an ebook. Once Shelley gets started, it’s usually only about a week or maybe a week and a few days for us to do all of this (she’s doing the heavy lifting at this point). She has numerous clients, though, so I’ll have to book her in advance (sometimes hard when you write quickly) or just accept that there will be a bit of a wait before she can get started. (Again, this is why I always have something else ready to start on.)
The whole process, from Word 1 to finished novel, usually takes a couple of months now, with the slowing-down points being the times when the manuscript is off with beta readers or with my editor (or when I haven’t gotten an order for cover art in early enough, so I’m waiting on that). With one novel (Balanced on the Blade’s Edge), I wrote, edited, and published it in 30 days, but that was more of a bucket-list thing than the norm. Even if I can work that quickly, other people (beta readers, editors, cover artists) have lives (and other clients).
So, there’s an overview, but here are the answers to some more writing/editing-specific questions I’ve received:
A book in a month? A rough draft in two weeks? Don’t you think the quality of the writing suffers if you’re going that fast?
When I first heard about people writing 10,000 words (or more) a day, I thought the same thing, but I also realized that when I was writing my usual 2- to 3,000 words a day (1,000 before this became the day job) that it honestly didn’t take me that long to get those words down and that a big chunk of my day was spent screwing around online or around the house. I knew I could accomplish more and I actually started to feel a little guilty about not getting more done.
So I started to use timers to make myself stay off the internet for chunks of time and to do nothing but write during those slots (I’ve heard of other authors having a dedicated writing computer that isn’t connected to the internet). I realized that if I had everything outlined ahead of time, I too, could have 10,000-word days. That isn’t the norm necessarily, but now I feel pretty lazy if I’m working on a new draft and don’t get at least 5,000 down.
All of this equates to finishing rough drafts in less than a month. Is there any difference in my writing if I type 2,000 words a day versus typing 10,000 words a day? Not at all. It’s simply a matter of spending less of my day goofing off. If anything, I’ve learned that my first drafts tend to be more cohesive and need less editing when I finish them in a few weeks. Writing quickly lets me stay “in the flow” of the story. It’s closer to the way you would actually tell a story, if you were sharing it with a friend, closer to real time, if you will.
Back when it took me much longer, I would spend a lot of time rereading scenes and trying to remember what happened in the opening chapters. This way, the entire story is solid in my head the whole time I’m writing, and there are less gaffs to fix later.
You don’t seem to spend much time on the editing process. I usually have to rewrite X number of times. What’s the secret?
I did some major rewriting of the endings for both The Emperor’s Edge and Encrypted. Hating the original ending is one of the reasons EE took so long to finish (I abandoned it for a few years because I didn’t like the ending and wasn’t sure how to fix it.)
The secret… outlining. I was more of a pantser (writing by the seat of my pants) early on, and I often wrote my characters into situations that I didn’t know how to get them out of. I would get stuck and sometimes lose interest and end up abandoning the manuscript altogether.
I don’t do extensive outlines now, but I always summarize the basic story (a small paragraph per chapter) before I start writing. I’ll often deviate from that outline, but I always know how the story will end, and that lets me more easily find a way to that point.
In the morning, I’ll also do more detailed outlines of scenes I’m going to work on that day, especially if I’m trying to hit 10k words. Those might include some snatches of dialogue, things that wouldn’t tend to be in my overall outline.
Having that roadmap in place let’s me get the story down more quickly when it’s time to write. I already know what’s happening next, so I’m not staring at the screen and trying to figure things out.
Since, before even getting started, I’ve already found my way around potential pitfalls, I don’t usually run into a problem where I have to do a major rewrite when I’m editing. I’m usually tightening up sentences and fixing little issues, but not cutting chapters or changing an ending. (Early on, I was much more likely to have to cut scenes, but I find that rare now.)
I’ll also add here that I’m sure a lot of improvements in efficiency are just a matter of having written numerous novels. I remember how I used to dwell on every sentence when I was sharing chapters on that workshop. Maybe I should use a better verb here. Could this be cut? Is this too much of a run-on sentence? Eventually you internalize the rules and don’t think at all about sentence construction; you’re just telling the story and not letting the words get in the way. I think you tend to second-guess yourself less on the story itself too.
I’ve been told you should put a rough draft away for a while before jumping into editing, but you start right in? Do you think you lose any perspective that way?
I’ve heard that, too, and I used to do it, but I’ve found that when I take a big break (maybe because I got caught up in a new project) that I have a little trouble getting back into the manuscript. I won’t have the story as solidly in my head anymore. Also, because I write a first draft straight through without editing, I’ll often have some things in mind that I know I need to go back and address. I want to get to those before I forget about them.
That said, there’s inevitably a break between my first and second round of edits, since that’s when the beta readers have the manuscript.
When you’re writing your first draft, do you edit as you go?
Almost never. For me, writing the first draft is about getting the story down and that’s it. A rare exception is if I thought of something I wanted to add to the scene I was working on the day before. If so, I might back up to the top of the page and work that in before getting started. But I never go back and tinker majorly with previously written scenes.
I usually suggest that other people don’t either, even new writers. Especially new writers. After you’ve finished the story, you may find that you end up cutting a scene or rewriting your opening chapter, in which case you were just wasting time if you tinkered with it a lot early on. New writers, in particular, tend to find that they started the story a chapter (or maybe chapters) earlier than they needed to, and that their “inciting incident” needs to be moved forward a lot to hook the reader.
Do you have a revisions checklist or do you just wing it? (submitted by @_ani_gonzalez )
No checklist. I just read through from start to finish and fix what needs fixing.
I will sometimes have a couple of notes to keep in mind as I go through the manuscript. For example, in Rust & Relics 1, I established that Simon, one of the main characters, has trouble speaking to one of the other characters (because she’s a hottie and he’s in luuuurve). I have a note here, reminding myself to add a few more instances of him fumbling his sentences, because that’s something I forgot about a little as I was writing the first draft of Book 2.
How do you detach yourself from the story to edit, especially considering you usually go into the novels right after finishing it? (submitted by @WildNightWishes )
How do I step back and look objectively at it? This may just be a personality thing, but I’m rarely so close to a story that I think it’s awesome and fail to see flaws — I feel like I can be fairly analytical from the get-go. I’m also a super picky reader myself (I’m one of those people who got into writing in part because I struggled to find stories that I enjoyed reading), so I’m sensitive to whether a scene is dragging, characters are flat, or there’s not enough conflict to keep things interesting.
Does that mean everyone is going to love my stories, and that they’re perfect? Of course not. Sometimes I recognize flaws that I’m not sure how to fix; sometimes flaws get past me. I just hope the stories are good enough to entertain. (I’m still surprised and delighted when I get fan mail from people who really enjoy the books.)
If you start thinking of your novel as the creation of some sublime piece of art that’s supposed to wow critics and become a part of the Zeitgeist, then you’re probably setting yourself up for a frustrating experience, one in which you revise and revise and maybe never finish. You’ve probably heard the saying, “Perfect is the enemy of good” or “Perfect is the enemy of done.” Definitely true with writing novels.
Any tips for story stuff (versus grammar)? (submitted by @groundedtravelr )
There are lots of books on writing that cover story construction, and those authors are much better teachers than I am, so I don’t know that I have a lot to say here, except that when I’m writing/editing, I try to…
- Give the characters quirks that make them seem like real people
- Give the characters compelling problems that they have to overcome
- Advance the story (have the protagonists working toward resolving conflict) with each scene
- Up the stakes (make life more difficult for the heroes) whenever possible
- Add some interesting/unique elements to the world to make it fun to explore
- Leave out the “boring” parts, insomuch as you can recognize them (if you start skimming while you’re re-reading that’s a sure sign that there’s not enough conflict going on in the scene to keep the story compelling)
- Work setting tidbits in unobtrusively, i.e. into the action or even dialogue
- Make sure most of the conflict ties into the overall plot and isn’t just there Oregon-Trail style to perk up a slow scene (Mary has dysentery! Oh, but she recovers, and it turns out it didn’t matter at all.)
What software do you use for writing and editing?
I write in Scrivener. I’m sure I don’t use 90% of the features, but I love that all of my chapters and scenes are labeled and on display over in the menu, so it’s easy to jump around in the story if I need to. I wrote my first two novels in Word, with everything in one big file, and I can’t even imagine doing that now. Ick.
That said, editors and beta readers usually have Word, so I’ll compile the Scrivener document into a Word file before sending it out to people and usually do my final edits in that program.
How many words do you write an hour? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
It will vary, depending on what I’m working on. Straight-up action scenes tend to come out most quickly for me. With scenes that are heavy on character interaction and dialogue, that will take longer. Dialogue is my favorite thing to write, and I’m more likely to pause and think about how I want a character to say something there. But when I’m plugging along and know what happens next, 2,000 words an hour is fairly common.
An hour is about the maximum that I’ll sit in the chair without a break. When I’m finding it hard to get going, I’ll set a timer and do 30-minute spurts.
I recently set a new words-in-a-day record, though I don’t know if I should count it since it was on a new novella for the pen name project and I haven’t been back to it since that initial burst, but I hit 13,000 words. (And no, I can’t imagine doing the entire 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo in a day).
I wish I could sit and write for hours, but I have carpel tunnel syndrome, repetitive stress injuries, or X other health issue that makes it hard…
Been there, done that. I was a wreck at 25 and had so many things wrong with me I was wondering if I would live to see 30. Even the computer stuff was hard because my hands hurt so much. Most of The Emperor’s Edge was written with voice recognition software.
More than ten years later… I rarely get sick and not much bothers me. I’ve done 10,000 words while sitting on the couch with my laptop. Ergonomics? Not a bad idea, but I don’t usually bother. Treadmill desk? Are you kidding me? (I do get exercise via hiking and playing tennis, but you won’t catch me doing many things that aren’t a fun break from writing.)
For me, Step 1 was identifying food allergies (gluten and dairy). Step 2 was cutting way back on sugar and things that metabolize into sugar in the body (carbs, essentially). Step 3 was realizing the low-fat diet advice was oh-so-flawed and adding healthy fats into my diet.
Recommended reading: Grain Brain, Why We Get Fat, The Big Fat Surprise.
I can’t promise that the right dietary change will fix all of everyone’s ailments, but it has made an amazing difference for me.
All right, this post has gone on and on, and wandered off topic more than once. There’s a novel waiting to be edited, so I’ll stop here. Any questions? Comments? Please leave a note below!