Tag Archives: Revising

Editing Process for THE UNBOUND EMPIRE

I just turned in my second round of edits on THE UNBOUND EMPIRE! During the first (structral) round of edits, I posted a Twitter thread about the process. Here’s a lightly edited version of that thread:

When I was young and foolish, I thought revising/editing was just what I now understand to be line edits and copyediting. Cleaning up awkward phrasing, picking stronger words, fixing errors, etc. And that’s all great! But that comes pretty late in the game.

Working with a publisher, I have official cycles of edits where I’m turning in drafts and then I get feedback at increasingly granular levels from my editors. But on my own process was pretty similar, just without hard deadlines at which I had to stop and call it a draft.

The first big phase is structural edits. These include the main building blocks of the story. I’m looking for stuff like:

  • Characters whose arcs need strengthening
  • Weak subplots that need to be expanded, merged, or cut
  • Pacing – major chunks that move too fast or slow
  • Stakes: I can ALWAYS raise the stakes after the first draft
  • Agency: I ALWAYS need to give my characters more of it after my first try
  • Does what everyone is doing even make any sense (given their goals)
  • Relationships: are they compelling & do they develop

I’m looking at the bones, the shape of the story. I try to pull WAAAAAYYY back and squint and see what it looks like.

If my story is a drawing of a dog, this is the part where I make sure it has the right number of eyes and legs and that everything is roughly the right size, and that it doesn’t have a fish tail or bug wings—NOT when I’m doing shading effects and lovely fur textures.

THE UNBOUND EMPIRE is probably, of all the books I’ve ever written, the one where I’ve done the best job on basic structure on the first try. So at the structural edit phase, I also worked on some stuff that I might otherwise hit in a second pass, like:

  • Internality: Making sure we’re immersed in the character’s FEEEEELINGS and I’m not just coldly describing what’s happening
  • Convenience: Removing coincidences that further the plot and making sure everything happens because of actual reasons that are driven by the story

Other things that I often wind up rubbing in deeper in a second pass (after the structural one) include:

  • Voice (especially making sure my characters all sound different when they’re speaking)
  • Clarity (I need feedback to get this right—seeing what readers are confused about)
  • Transitions – I always write terrible transitions from place to place or arc to arc in early drafts and struggle to fix them later!
  • Page-level pacing: tightening rambly bits and drawing out intense bits more
    Setting – making sure it’s immersive & evocative

My drafts used to get much shorter in edits as I found all kinds of redundant or unnecessary stuff I could cut. (I especially had this terrible tendency to write “let’s talk about what we’re about to do” and “let’s talk about what we just did” scenes.)

These days my drafts tend to get longer as I add more emotionally meaningful scenes that advance character relationships and internal plot to round out all the OMG ACTION DANGER! type plot scenes. Draft 2 of Book 3 is probably going to be about 25K words longer than Draft 1. (Update: It was about 35K words longer than Draft 1.)

Only after all this stuff (which can be 1-2+ full edit cycles with feedback from editors or beta readers, and 2-5++ full drafts) do I get to the level of doing line edits and polishing language.

Usually at this point only like maybe 20-50% of my first draft remains.

Since getting a publisher (YAY!), I’m lucky enough to have editors involved giving me feedback for each major cycle, which is incredible. But before that, I got feedback from beta readers & CPs at similar points, and then from my agent. Good feedback is essential for perspective.

In my teens and 20’s, I would have been horrified to hear about all this work! Revision sounded super boring. But somewhere along the way, I realized that revision is just MORE WRITING, which is fun.

The first time I write a scene, it’s like practice. Maybe I’ll knock it out of the park on the first try! But at least as often, on the next pass I’m like “Nah, I bet I can do better than that.” And usually I can.

As an example, there are at least two key scenes near the end of THE UNBOUND EMPIRE that I rewrote nearly from scratch three times to get them right! The second pass was okay on each of them, but I thought I could do better and they were important scenes, so I gave it another try.

What’s your editing process?


Book 3 Writing Process (So Far)

This month I turned in my first round of edits for Book 3 of Swords and Fire, yay! I thought it might be fun to share a bit of what the process for writing it has been like so far.

First phase: Brainstorming. This was my first time writing the conclusion of a trilogy, and the brainstorming process was very different. I came up with a whole checklist of plot threads or relationships for which I wanted to give a satisfying conclusion, moments I wanted to happen, etc. I also knew I wanted to escalate the stakes appropriately for the last book in the trilogy, and I literally made a list of really bad things that could happen for inspiration. (I didn’t use ALL of them, I promise.)

Second phase: Plotting. I had to pull all those ideas together seamlessly into a coherent story with a clear through line and emotional arc, which was a daunting task! I’m still editing this book, of course, so whether I ultimately succeed remains to be seen, but I’m cautiously pleased thus far.

Third phase: Drafting. After all that brainstorming and plotting, my deadline was not getting any farther away, and I had to race along at a pretty wild pace. I followed my usual pattern of getting 10K-20K words done and then restarting with a new draft, and then getting 50K-70K words in and realizing I need to go back to the beginning and start another new draft again.

This actually works really well for me. The first restart happens because at first I’m just feeling my way into the book and flailing around, and after I’ve got a grip on what the hell I’m doing I can start over and be more on target on the second try. The second restart happens when I’ve gotten far enough in that I’ve realized ways I can improve the book structurally, but those structural changes are significant enough that they’ll change the way the rest of the book unfolds. I’ve done this for all three books in the trilogy, one way or another, and I think it’s really improved the final results.

Fourth phase: Revision plan. After getting feedback from my editors (both my amazing editor Sarah Guan and my equally amazing UK editor Emily Byron), I had lots of input to process. Plus I had my own list I’d been keeping of changes I either ran out of time to make in the first draft or thought of after turning it in. And on top of all that, I have certain types of analysis I always run at this stage (after completing a first draft): looking at stuff like through line, stakes, agency, the arcs of each major character and each major relationship, individual plot arcs, etc. I take each big structural piece and try to look at it separately, making sure it holds up on its own if I squint at it and ignore all the other fluffy story bits clinging to and obscuring it.

I then took my pages and pages of notes on things I wanted to change and turned them into a concrete scene-by-scene revision plan. For instance, I might take something vague and general like “increase agency” and then look at my scene list and go “Ooh, in this scene I can make this whole plan Amalia’s idea instead of something presented to her by others,” or “I can make this dangerous encounter something she initiates herself, knowing the risks, rather than something sprung on her by surprise.” I turn that into a revision outline which I know I won’t stick to completely, but which is there to organize all my ideas to make the book better (including how I’ve decided to address my editors’ notes) so I can refer to it as I revise.

Fifth phase: Structural edits! I went through the whole book in order, addressing my editors’ comments as well as my own ideas to improve the book, scene by scene. I added scenes, deleted or moved scenes, edited scenes, and rewrote a whole bunch of stuff from scratch. I’ve found I can often do a better job on a second try even for a scene that’s working okay already, so there were a LOT of scenes I rewrote with the same basic beats, just sharper and better.

The schedule for this round of edits was REALLY tight for me, so I didn’t get to take a second stab at some new scenes I may not have nailed on the first try, or to go back and work in some stuff that would lead up to later events better. And my brain kept very helpfully going OOOH OOH OOH I HAVE THIS GREAT IDEA FOR A SCENE YOU COULD ADD AND A THING YOU COULD DO up until literally the night before edits were due. I was like, THANKS, BRAIN, COULDN’T YOU HAVE THOUGHT OF THIS A MONTH AGO? But no. So that stuff will have to go in next round! That’s the thing about working with a publisher…you’re always going to keep thinking of more ways to make the book better, but at some point they need to take it from your grabby writer hands even if IT’S NOT PERFECT YET WAAAIIIIT OMG because they need to actually have your work in their hands to take their turn and work their magic.

Book 3 was about 110K words at the end of draft one, and is now 145K words at the end of draft two. In addition to those 35K new words, I also rewrote large chunks of the existing wordcount. But it’s still mostly the same main plot points in the same order, because the structure was reasonably decent on the first pass for this one. Editing is a strange alchemy.

I’m really excited to share this book with everyone! Once it’s ready, of course. There are more rounds of edits coming, and lots more work to do.


Isolating Plot Arcs for the Win

People often ask if I’m a plotter or a pantser, and the truth is I plot like crazy in advance, but also am always rethinking and editing my outline as I go. As I’m working on Book 3 there are a couple of tricks I’ve found really useful for refining my outline in mid-draft, and I thought I’d share them with you.

Today’s technique: separately plotting individual arcs! This has been SO HELPFUL for me in identifying places where the story is weak and needs a bit more.

I was plunging into the second half of Book 3, and wanted to figure out what exact senes needed to occur to resolve the remaining plot. I had an outline, and I could tell something was wrong with pacing or stakes (or possibly both) in one large section of it. But I couldn’t figure out what.

So I pulled out each of the four major plot threads and made lists of the remaining scenes or moments in each thread, separate from the rest of the outline. This showed me the structure of each thread standing on its own, without all the other stuff cluttering it up.

And here’s what I found for one of them, generalized to avoid spoilers (each bullet point is a scene):

  • BAD THING HAPPENS! OH NO!!!
  • Yup, still bad.
  • That bad thing? STILL SO BAD.
  • Hey, that bad thing is still out there, in case you were wondering. Being bad and all.
  • AHHHHH BAD THING COMES TO A CRISIS AND SUPER DRAMATIC RESOLUTION!!!!

I hadn’t noticed when it was all mixed in with other plot points and scenes, but I had this big dramatic plotline that just didn’t move at all for a long stretch despite having a feeling of urgency and a lot of emotional importance. I had scenes planned that would punch the sore spot, as it were, but they didn’t change anything or move the plot forward.

(As a side note, I think this particular structural pitfall is a REALLY common and seductive one for writers. We have a great idea for dramatically kicking off conflict and another great idea for dramatically resolving the conflict, but we are way more vague on what happens in between these two points.)

Once I spotted this problem, it wasn’t too hard to fix—I just had to think of what could change and what could be at stake in those middle scenes. But I couldn’t see it until I pulled it out from the rest of the outline and looked at it on its own.

This trick was also really useful for checking the through line of each separate plot, making sure that each action naturally set up the next one and that there was a compelling flow from beginning to end. It made it easier to make sure that the relevant characters for each thread were changing and having an inner or emotional arc that paralleled the plot arc. And it made it super easy to spot redundant scenes.

Once I’d cleaned up each separate arc, I could weave them back together into the outline, paying careful attention to the overall through line to make sure I had a coherent, smoothly flowing story and not a patchwork of unconnected pieces. I’m sure it still needs work, because this is an early draft, but wow, it’s a lot better than it was!

I’ve also sometimes done this for major characters, pulling out the scenes or moments that are important touchstones for them in their personal arc through the story, and I think it can be very helpful in making sure your characters have compelling and coherent personal arcs. It’s especially useful when you want to strengthen an important non-POV character like a BFF or love interest who you might otherwise wind up seeing only through the lens of how they fit into the main character’s story.

I think this can also be a really useful thing to do between drafts, when you’ve got the basic story down and are trying to figure out how to hone it into its sleekest, deadliest form! (Uh, well, maybe not deadly if you’re writing, say, a cozy romance? I dunno, I like stories with murder in them, what can I say.)

I hope that’s helpful if you’re struggling with structure! GO YE FORTH AND MAKE BULLET POINTS!


So Many Drafts

Hey there, writers in the trenches! Let’s have a little talk about tweedle beetles drafts. Specifically, numbers of drafts.

I know that when I started out writing novels, I had no idea how many drafts a book went through before it got published. Thinking back on it now, I get all Ming the Merciless and want to tell my past self, “Pathetic writer. Hurling your manuscript out into the void, without the slightest inkling of what is out there. If you had known anything about the true nature of publishing, anything at all, you would’ve hidden from it in terror.”

Uh, no, really, actually, it’s totally great and awesome. BUT! I sure as hell needed to revise more.

So, in case any of you are despairing about how many times you’ve overhauled your book, here is a bit of data for you on my debut novel:

THE TETHERED MAGE went through around 6-7 drafts before it was ready to go on sub to publishers. Once Orbit accepted it for publication, it went through several official rounds with my editor—a major structural edit, minor structural edits, little fine-tuning kind of edits, copyedits, etc. But I did a couple rounds for each of the structural passes before my editor saw them. So it came out in the end to around 13 drafts.

Now, some of those drafts were me getting 20K words in and then going “Ugh! Start over!” Other drafts were just polish passes, where I was buffing up the language to a high shine and not making any major changes. But one of them was me revising from YA to adult, historical fantasy to epic fantasy, AND adding 50K+ words (almost doubling the length of the book from first completed draft to final draft), so I feel like it all evens out.

I created the doc for the very first draft of THE TETHERED MAGE in early 2014. I took some time off from it in there to work on revising an earlier book, but finished the draft that went on sub to publishers around the beginning of 2016. It sold in June of 2016 (BEST BIRTHDAY PRESENT EVER), and I continued to revise it for several months; it finally comes out next month (WHEEEE!).

Mind you, that wasn’t the first book I wrote. The book that got me my agent went through about 10 drafts before it did (I started querying it way too soon, though, on like draft 5). And I wrote other books before that.

Every single page I wrote, every revision pass, made me a better writer. The me of 2 books ago couldn’t have written THE TETHERED MAGE. Heck, the me of draft one of THE TETHERED MAGE couldn’t have written draft 13. Revision is where I learned the most, and still where I do my best work.

I’m working on revisions for THE DEFIANT HEIR now (the sequel to THE TETHERED MAGE). I’m really excited about them! I feel like this draft is going to be a big step up from the last one, and it feels so good to see the shape pulling true, and the pieces falling into place. I used to hate revision, but now that practice has given me a better understanding of how to spot areas for improvement and fix them, it feels awesome to make my book sharper and shinier with every draft.

Writing on a deadline, with an editor, is very different than writing on my own, and I don’t have the luxury to allow myself draft after draft. But I’m nonetheless already on draft 5 by my own count (my editor saw draft 4 as my “first draft”), and the version I’m giving her next month will probably be draft 6.

So, my as-yet-unpublished writer friends, if you haven’t already done so, I urge you to embrace revision! The difference between my first drafts and my final drafts looks a lot like the difference between my writing 5 years ago and my writing now, and that’s not a coincidence. You never know how many times you’ll have to tear down and rebuild before you get it just right, but it’s well worth the effort. Every draft teaches you something, and takes you one step closer to the end of the publishing rainbow…

…Even if it’s NOT ACTUALLY A RAINBOW IT’S A WEIRD RAINBOW-COLORED NEBULA THING WITH AN OMINOUS FLOATING CITY IN IT AND YOUR ADVENTURES ARE ONLY BEGINNING.


Achievement Unlocked: Revision Milestones

Looking back, the big turning point in my writing career came when I embraced revision.

Cocky teenage me thought everything I wrote was awesome, and only needed light editing to be perfect. Eventually, I realized that the first draft is only a starting point, and the most important part of the writing process is elevating your book from promising to kick-butt drop-dead awesome through an Edge of Tomorrow-like process of revising it again and again until you have honed it to a bleeding edge of badassery.

It can be really hard, though, to know when you’re ready. When you’ve leveled up your skills in the unforgiving lava dungeon of revision until you are prepared to fight the boss monster of querying.

It occurred to me today that there are certain milestones writers tend to pass as they gain XP crunching their way through writing career side quests. I spent a few minutes brainstorming a list of some revision achievements many writers seem to unlock before finding success in publishing. If you’re wondering if you’re high enough level to poke your head into the boss monster dungeon, it might be worth taking an look to see how many of these you can check off.

You certainly don’t need to have done all of this stuff—if you’re good enough to get it right the first time and haven’t had to do some or even most of these things, that’s awesome. But I’d suggest that if you can’t check off at least 5-6 of these, you may want to grind some more revision levels before querying. And I would suspect most agented writers can probably score at least 50%.

Have you ever (on any book, not necessarily your current one):

Cut a major character, or merged them with another character?

Cut an entire chapter?

Significantly changed the order of events (moving whole scenes/chapters around)?

Cut an entire subplot?

Added an entire subplot and woven it into the story?

Started over completely?

Rewritten an entire chapter (or the equivalent) from scratch?

Had 50% or fewer of your first draft words make it to the final draft?

Done a complete reimagining of a major character?

Rewritten your first page(s) completely 5+ times?

Done a revision pass focused specifically on improving one general/abstract aspect of the book, such as voice, setting, stakes, through line, etc?

Changed POV, tense, viewpoint character(s), age category, genre, or another similar major meta-structural element?

Written 5 or more drafts of a novel?

Completed more than one novel?

Trunked a novel?

What am I forgetting? If you comment with other common “achievements,” I’ll add ‘em to the list! (And maybe I’ll do a more reach/advanced achievement list someday and make it into a full-fledged Revision Hell test or something.)

Happy revising!


Breaking a Scene List into Arcs

In a previous post, I talked about color coding my scene list by stakes. That’s only one of the ways I use my scene list, which is really a super handy all purpose tool to look at a book’s structure in all sorts of ways. (To review, it’s just a list of all scenes in order, with a short phrase naming each scene.)

Another way I’ve used it that came in really handy on my current revision is to use the scene list to break the book up into arcs or acts.

I look at the scene list and try to identify turning points in the book, and map out arcs connecting those turning points. You can look at varying sizes of arcs, from a few major acts to lots of shorter arcs—whatever’s useful to you—and even nest them if you want to get fancy. For my current round of revisions on THE TETHERED MAGE, I wound up identifying 10 arcs of varying sizes.

After I identify these turning points, I break up my working copy of my scene list accordingly, and I try to name or label each section based on its overall arc. If I can’t identify an overall direction, or I want to label a section “A Bunch of Random Stuff Happens,” it probably means I have a bunch of disconnected scenes without a clear through line. (This happened to me on this latest pass, and it was super useful to catch it so I could find/make a through line.)

Here are a few of the redacted-for-spoilers labels for my current working arcs in THE TETHERED MAGE, for example:

  • Meet [REDACTED], Your New Problem
  • [REDACTED] Is Getting Worse And Maybe It’s [REDACTED]’s Fault? LOOK ALL THESE THINGS ARE CONNECTED!
  • Starting to Figure Stuff Out & Have Victories & Solve Stuff…
  • OH WAIT NO EVERYTHING GOES TO HELL

(Those aren’t consecutive, except for the last two.)

For other projects and past drafts, I’ve sometimes used more specifically descriptive phrases, as opposed to the more abstract and structural ones above. Here’s a made-up example of this approach:

  • Part One: Searching for the Golden Potato
  • Part Two: Potato Found, but Stolen by Void Bunnies!
  • Part Three: Hunting Down the Void Bunnies
  • Part Four: NOPE! Running From the Void Bunnies
  • Part Five: All Seems Lost (Void Bunny Ambush & Aftermath)
  • Part Six: Unlocking the Inner Potato (It Was Within You All Along)
  • Part Seven: Stealing Back the Golden Potato
  • Part Eight: Void Bunnies Destroy Seattle
  • Part Nine: Unleashing the Golden Potato
  • Part Ten: Post-Potato-splosion Wrapup (soup w/leeks & bacon, mmm)

It’s kind of like the scene list zoomed farther out.

In addition to helping spot structural issues, I also find breaking up the scene list into sections to be really helpful for tackling my edits in bite-sized chunks. For instance, if one of the 25 things I want to work on in this revision is strengthening character X’s voice, and character X doesn’t appear until my 3rd arc, I don’t even have to worry about that item on my list until I get to that section.

It helps me manage the revision a piece at a time, without having to juggle too many things in my tiny brain. And I can identify what I most want to focus on in each arc, and keep that focus in mind as I revise that section.

I’m sure there are a ton of other ways you could use this, too — and other writers probably have their own variations on this technique. I like making lists, because that’s how my brain works. Some people may prefer to map out acts more visually, or go crazy with sticky notes, or make an Excel spreadsheet, or name their cats after various plot themes and throw out some catnip mice and see what happens.

Some people may even be so awesome they can keep track of all this stuff in their head and not need 32 pages of notes to do a revision. (HA HA WHAT KIND OF LOSER HAS A 32 PAGE REVISION PLAN ANYWAY? NOT ME.) (*Switches tabs while you’re not looking*)

For me, though, the scene list is the X-Ray that lets me look at my story’s skeleton. And this is one way to make sure everything’s all connected properly, and not just a loose pile of bones.


Stakes Map

I did a new structure thing today which worked really well for me, so I wanted to share it with all my fellow writers!

I was side-eyeing my current revision, which involves adding a bunch of new scenes, and thinking there might be some patches where I had too many sitting-around-and-talking scenes in a row. I needed a way to zoom waaaaaay out and look at the story structure to check for places where I let the tension drop for too long.

Here’s what I did:

First, I had already made a scene list. I find this is super handy for looking at big structural things. It’s just a list of every scene in the book, in order, with short names (usually just a handful of words) for each scene. Here’s a made up example:

Greg misses bus, starts walking
Ninja attack
Running away, rescued by Sophie
Sophie reveals Greg is chosen one

Etc. You get the idea.

The new thing I did was to color code each scene in the list by the stakes. I might use a different color code for a different type of book, but for this one I did red for high-stakes action scenes, blue for high-stakes non-action scenes (the character has a lot to lose), and green for low-stakes talky scenes (the character doesn’t have much at risk, though plot points still happen).

This was awesome, because it made any places where I had a bunch of low-stakes talky scenes in a row really jump out at me. See what I mean in this example:

Greg misses bus, starts walking
Ninja attack
Running away, rescued by Sophie
Sophie reveals Greg is chosen one
Sophie fills Greg in over donuts
Greg in school crushing on Stanley
Greg fails math test
Greg moping over lunch
Greg goes home, gets in trouble w/mom for missing bus
Greg catches bus fine next day
Greg has to do makeup work in math class
Ninjas kidnap Stanley

The middle has way too much green. I can see immediately that it’s a problem. Then I can experiment with different solutions in my scene list until I have a better balance of colors.

For instance, in this example story I might cut a bunch of scenes and insert a higher-stakes one to avoid dropping the dramatic tension on the floor while Greg messes around:

Greg misses bus, starts walking
Ninja attack
Running away, rescued by Sophie
Sophie reveals Greg is chosen one
Greg in school crushing on Stanley
Greg tries to ask Stanley out
Ninjas kidnap Stanley
Sophie fills Greg in while they track down ninjas to get Stanley back

That might be too little green. Readers do need time to take a breath, dig in, and get to know the characters when they’re not in the middle of a huge crisis. But this color code technique will let me spot those problems, too, and identify spots where I need to give the reader a bit of down time or breathing space between epic fight scenes and shocking revelations.

When I tried this with my current draft, it let me get a bird’s eye view on stakes and pacing, move stuff around to fix problems, and make changes to up the stakes where needed. It not only made it easier to correct the issue I’d already identified, but it helped me spot another potentially slow stretch I needed to fix.

I’m totally doing a stakes map like this for every book from now on.