Reading your manuscript for the big picture, not the little stuff

After a two-month break, I’m ready to revise my latest manuscript — roll up my sleeves, uproot those big-picture problems with world-building and character and … ooh look, that’s a good place for a comma!

Turning off my grammar brain is hard for me. So hard that, when I took a developmental editing in fiction course earlier this year, the teacher schooled me on my first assignment. I was thinking too much like a copy editor. (Full disclaimer: I am one.)

I was seeing the trees, not the forest. As novelists, we gotta see the whole forest, because when you’re trying to take that first draft and hammer it into shape, all the pretty words and emphatically placed commas don’t mean a damn thing.

So I printed out my latest MS with the intent of reading through it with fresh eyes. I wanted to react like a first-time reader would. That way, I could focus on the story, rather than all my insecurities as the author.

And hey, it’s actually working. I can’t completely forget that I’m the author, so I’m jotting down little ideas and insights for how I can make the story stronger, given I know how it plays out. (Which is actually GOOD in developmental editing. You want to be familiar with the story in its entirety before you go making suggestions for how to fix it, so typically you do a clean read-through first, then only start marking up the MS on your second pass.) But I also have emotional distance now, so it feels more like I’m reading someone else’s manuscript, which lets me be more honest and free-thinking in my criticism, as opposed to crippled by doubt and pressure and self-loathing at being The World’s Worst Writer Ever.

So it’s awesome. Except for one thing. My MS is a middle grade, and I’ve noticed a lot of what I’m affectionally calling OPWs, or “Old People Words” — basically words or phrases that an adult like me would use, that might turn off kids and diminish the book’s voice.

Which is great, only now I can’t stop flagging them, or circling other words and marking them as “vague” or “awkward” — or striking out crutch words or whole sentences. Once I get going, I literally cannot stop myself. Full grammar beast mode activates, and I lose the forest for the trees.

This is bad. There’s no sense in caring about issues on the sentence level when it could all change depending on what needs fixed big-picture. Those words I’m nitpicking now? They could all get cut in the next draft anyway. There’s plenty of time to catch them later, when I’ve moved on to more surface-level changes.

So, memo to self — and let this be a helpful reminder. Don’t worry about perfect. Perfect is a trap. If you’re like me, that might take a lot of willpower, but first things first: get the story right. The characters, plot, conflicts, motivations, world-building, etc. See the forest first, in its entirety. Stand on a hill or something and get a good view. Make sure it’s a solid forest in every sense — that all the animals and plants and insects are doing what they’re supposed to. Then worry about pulling the weeds.

Doodle by my hubby

Writing, motherhood, and weird life turns

It’s been almost two years since I wrote my last blog post. And boy, things have changed.

Baby boy, to be exact.

I was feeling pretty down on myself in my last post. I was also — hey — about three months pregnant and constantly sick. So in hindsight, that makes sense. But I was also really stuck on the fact that I’d put a huge amount of energy into writing a novel that was my best one yet, and it wasn’t going anywhere.

So I quit writing. I didn’t have it in me. For all my past talk about “writing’s hard, you just gotta push through” — I couldn’t. All the self-discipline in the world wasn’t getting those words out of me.

Part of me thought, “Okay, this is fine. My mind and body only have energy enough for growing a human being. If I start another novel now, I’ll give birth before it’s finished, and then I’ll have to put it on ice for months as I adjust to being a new mom, and that’ll kill the project anyway.”

That was fine.

this is not fine

I did the thing. I gave birth to a baby boy, seven pounds, one ounce. I enjoyed my maternity leave. Then I grew restless. I wanted to get back to my job. I did.

And then my brain latched on to an idea and it was happening. I was writing a novel again.

As of last weekend, I finished the first draft of my fourth novel, a middle grade fantasy.

It’s a funny thing, life. I guess I only had room for one big project in me at a time. (God forbid I ever have twins.) But I was pretty sure I would never write another novel again. I was that demotivated and hopeless.

But then I did.

Writing with a 10 month old isn’t easy. Time is scarcer than ever. But you get it done. The words are bad, and you hate them, but they go down on the page.

And then you have a novel.

Signs you’re growing as an aspiring novelist

Growing as a writer

Last month, I sent my latest manuscript to one of my closest critique partners. I was anxious to hear what she thought. Anxious, but excited.

This is the third novel that I’ve written. When I finished the first one, I remember my hands were shaking. Pride and accomplishment flooded through me. I HAD DONE THE THING. I HAD WRITTEN A NOVEL. (It turned out that THE THING was only THE BEGINNING because revision is approximately 100 times harder and more work, but hey.)

My second novel is and probably will always be my baby — although it’s more like a car or a house. A shabby, broken-at-its-foundations house, but one that I built myself. I loved it to death, and I kept trying to fix it up (many, many times), but in the end I was only giving it a fresh paint job and dusting out the cobwebs while the porch was falling in and the roof was leaking. Sometimes no matter how hard you try, there’s no saving it unless you build a whole new house.

This novel was different. I didn’t feel overly happy or anything, really, upon finishing it. And while you might think that’s proof that the novel is bad, that it’s not emotionally affecting or immersive, I took it as a sign that I was growing as a novelist. This novel wasn’t my “baby.” It was one story out of many I could and will write. The whole of my aspirations and future weren’t resting on it being some sort of monumental breakaway success.

I felt … calm. I felt good about what I had produced. Confident. There are always problems with early drafts, but to me the novel seemed strong at its core, and I was curious to learn how my assessment compared to my critique partner’s.

Writing pencil twirl

It’s hard to get distance from your work and be objective about how good it is — how effective or successful you are at what you’re trying to accomplish. But even when I was doing my first round of revision, I was more focused in those self-edits than I have been in the past.

That focus and perspective, to me, is key. It’s not important how you “feel” about your novel — whether your fingers are trembling as they hover over the keyboard after typing “the end.” Whether the characters are near and dear to your heart. You don’t need to be in love because your personal feelings have little to do with the quality of your work.

Writers are notorious for thinking they’re geniuses one day and hacks the next. If you look over your work in either state of mind, you’re not going to get a very truthful assessment of its quality. It’s colored by what you feel in the moment.

As I waited for my critique partner to respond with her feedback, I suspected I was getting better at putting those emotions aside. That my assessment of my work was more critical and, I hoped, accurate.

And you know what? I wasn’t too far off. What I thought was good about it was what she thought was good. There were no heart-stopping surprises in her feedback. No shockers.

I’m getting better. I find that comforting. It may not be dramatic or riveting, but I’ll take that security over heart-pounding nerves and emotional rollercoasters any day.

How have you noticed yourself growing as a novelist?

Micro editing or macro editing: Which comes first in a first draft?

Pokemon No Idea What I'm Doing GIF

Quick life update before we get into the good stuff: September was a busy month for me. I finished the first draft of my novel WIP (!), adopted a dog (!!), and got married (!!!). So yeah, that’s why I sort of disappeared last month.

Now that things are calmer (well, not totally calm — dog training is a big undertaking) and I’ve taken a much-needed break, it’s time to dig my hands into my manuscript again and revise. To get myself pumped and in the writer’s mindset, I’ve been reading Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell and listening to writing podcasts (I use and recommend the platform Podbean). One episode I came across was on the “Story Grid Podcast” show and discussed micro editing and macro editing in a first draft.

So I’ve always heard that macro editing — the big-picture revisions to your story’s major structure and core elements, like world-building, plot, and character — should come before micro editing — the smaller-scale revisions to aspects such as sentences and word choice. It makes sense when you think about it: Why quibble over grammar or diction when you’re probably going to make massive, story-altering changes that might undo or negate all that work?

In other words, you don’t edit the prose of your first chapter 10 times, then move on to chapter two and repeat until you hit “The End.” You rework the clay of your story’s body to get the shape right before polishing the details.

Pokemon Weight Lifting GIF

But Tim Grahl, the host of “Story Grid,” actually advocates for the other way around: Tackling more minor tasks first before moving on to the big stuff.

The reason, he explains, is because after you reread your first draft and make a list (a spreadsheet works well) of all the problems you noticed or parts you’d like to improve, you’re going to be overwhelmed. And trying to start with the big items is only going to make you want to throw your hands up and quit. How are you even supposed to know where to start?

By starting with the micro, Grahl says, you can knock out smaller tasks while getting a better feel for your novel and how you’re going to fix those macro issues you’ve identified. Which means you’re less stressed and more equipped to conquer the revision process.

I like his thinking.

Of course, Grahl isn’t saying, “Tweak that sentence or fix that typo before doing anything else.” He’s saying, “Fix small issues, then big ones,” and I imagine he agrees the fine-tuning should still come at the end.

That said, every writer has their own style for tackling revisions, and what works works. To me, the most important part is to just get through it, make progress, and keep finding solutions to those pesky problems so you can improve your novel.

What do you think of Grahl’s advice?