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 life: The moment you know it’s all gonna work out

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As you may know from this blog, I’m deep into revisions on a young adult fantasy book. It’s my second completed manuscript, and while that alone is an accomplishment worth being proud of, I feel like I’ve achieved an even greater milestone in my writing life:

I am more comfortable with revision than I ever used to be.

Revision is scary. Okay, that’s an understatement. After I wrote my first book, I found revision fucking daunting. I used to relentlessly Google things like, “How do you revise your book without getting overwhelmed?”

When I got to my second novel (this one), something changed. I joined a local writer’s group, and eventually I started setting quarterly goals so I would get my first round of revisions done. That quarterly schedule turned into weekly goals, which turned into a real revising habit — and now I sit down to revise nearly every day, without fail.

The secret, I learned, was that there is no secret. Revision is hard. It’s always going to be hard, and it’s a necessary evil if you want to get published. But there are ways you can make it easier.

Writer’s groups and critique partners make revision a hell of a lot more approachable. I suck at identifying critical issues with my novel — maybe less so now, but still, I’m way too close to the damn thing to know what I should even try to fix.

That’s the rub: When you try to revise without feedback, especially when you’re new to revision, you’ll probably identify “problems” to fix while missing the bigger issues that you should be focusing on. I remember I spent hours revising the first few chapters of my first manuscript — churning out draft upon draft — and guess what? It wasn’t a very efficient use of my time, and I zoned in on smaller, nit-picky issues like word choice when I should have been thinking about whether the story made sense and what needed more developing.

Revising in a vacuum is a useless exercise.

When you have other people read and critique your novel, you get a reader’s perspective, which is so crucial for identify the real problems with your novel. Readers pick out things you would have never thought of — things that matter. They don’t obsess like you do over your prose and making it “perfect.” They’re much more willing to accept your style.

Critiques can hurt, but they’re mighty powerful. And eventually, you get used to them, and you don’t take criticism personally anymore. Once you do — what’s there to be afraid of? Certainly not revision. No, sir.

Being comfortable with the revision process is one of the best feelings in the world as a writer. It means you’re not afraid to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty in the name of making your novel better.

Do I ever still worry what readers will think? Of course. But I’m finding that I can survive whatever they throw at me. And that makes me so much more confident that I’m going to achieve my dream of being published one day.

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When reactions to your novel make you want to facepalm

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Sometimes you’re reading comments on your manuscript and you just feel like this.

Okay, so maybe it’s not the reader’s fault. Correction: It’s definitely not the reader’s fault. They’re not stupid; their opinion is legit. You just didn’t communicate yourself clearly, and now they’re super confused, and you’ve derailed their understanding of everything, and …

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You need to fix it, but where do you even start?

This is a question I’m struggling with right now, and honestly, the only solution I can think of is to take a deep breath and … think … HARD. Where did you lead your reader astray?

Sometimes the answer is right in front of you, and it’s as simple as pronoun confusion or omitted dialogue tags. Who’s the “he” in this sentence? Who’s speaking here? Bam, presto, fixed — you’re done.

Other times, you’re going to have to play detective. If you can, ask them more questions. Ask them what they think is happening in the scene — have them recount the story to you — and as soon as their version and your version don’t align … BOOM.

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But when all else fails, or you don’t have the person in front of you to interrogate them, you might either have to a) add a little more detail to clarify what something is or what’s going on, or b) add more introspection so a character’s motivation makes more sense. Every action has a reaction, as they say, but sometimes you don’t understand what the hell caused the action after that. So make sure you’re connecting the dots on paper, not just in your head.

I’m finding in my revisions that sometimes I need to write in a few extra sentences if a paragraph is confusing my reader. Or I might have to go chapters back to where I introduced an idea and flesh it out more, answering their questions early so they don’t carry their confusion throughout the whole book. Or I have to add an entirely new scene because PROBLEMS.

the office

Writing is never a perfect process. Revision can make you want to tear your hair out. And no matter how much you revise, somebody else can come along and point out another issue for you to resolve.

Have patience. Be easy on yourself. Do one revision pass at a time. Your novel will keep getting better, I promise.