Performing the Invasive Edit


I’ve been hard at work on the third in my Darwen Arkwright series for a little over a month now and had managed to get about 55,000 words done when I ran into a problem. My outline was uneven: detailed in parts, very sketchy in others, and though that wasn’t necessarily a difficulty of itself, I realized that I was fast coming to the end of the plot well short of my word count. This also isn’t a huge problem of itself, because my editorial process always tends to add stuff as I realize what the book is really about and how I might make it richer, so I always try to keep my first draft short.

But this time I realized I had a pace and tone problem. The entire final half of the book had become a protracted action sequence, and while Stuff Happening is generally a good thing—esp. if said Stuff involves danger, fighting, the occasional explosion etc.—I was concerned that it had become relentless and repetitive. I also found that I couldn’t work in the quieter moments of reflection and intellectual discovery that I needed in the second half because there was just too much going on and no time for my characters to think, let alone feel.

Years ago this would have been paralyzing. I would have panicked, I suspect, fearing that the book wouldn’t work and that I’d wasted a good deal of time and effort. If I could imagine a fix it would have seemed too daunting, too invasive, like cracking open my story’s rib cage so I could massage the heart. Such hesitancy would worsen over time as the scale of the problem calcified in my head and the book might just die on the table.

But I’ve been around the block a few times since then, and I’ve learned that sometimes you have to go in and fool around with the innards of the thing if the book is to survive. It’s not easy, and is always a real facing, one that can feel huge, overwhelming, but I’ve done it before so I know I can do it again.

The first step is to ask if the book is worth saving. Generally, for me, this is a no-brainer. I don’t set out on the journey unless I feel that there’s something at the core which is worth sharing. Asking the question again at this stage, however, is useful because it reminds me what I think is good about the book, and sometimes my answer will have shifted since I started writing. When I know what I value in what I’ve done, I can then think about the restructural editing without fearing that I will accidentally kill what I think is the best aspect of the book.

I needed to break up that long action sequence and insert a moment of lightness and calm in the centre, where I could build plot and character and do other things I wouldn’t be able to once the engine picked up speed. But changing the sequence of a book and moving its parts around creates all kinds of ripples throughout the text, all of which have to feel logical and consistent with the story, its people and its world. In this case I needed a reason to stop the plot advancing at such a break neck speed, and I found it by throwing a wrench into the works so that my characters simply couldn’t proceed in the ways they wanted to, the ways the first draft had permitted. They didn’t choose not to act; they had no choice.

This is, I think, often a good solution for books where the plot has run away with itself. Derail the action. If the characters simply can’t proceed—as opposed to having them change their minds or seem to forget their primary objective—you can’t be accused of violating character in service of plot. Indeed, such a strategy tends to foreground character by creating dramatic tension, since you now have some very frustrated people who have been prevented from doing what they know they must.

The unforeseen difficulty the characters face not only forces that moment of calm that I needed, it demanded that they THINK their way back into the action: in other words they resolved the tonal problem for me by figuring out how they could get back to the point where I had thrown them off course. The upshot was that I got to emphasize thought, give the reader a break from all the running about, and layer some thematics that I wouldn’t have been able to do without getting clumsy in the big climax. Along the way, I discovered things about my story and its characters which I can point up during the final section of the book with a fairly light touch.

Revisions like this need a lost of post op nurturing long after the sutures have been closed, and I’m still going through and tidying things up, making sure the time line makes sense, seeding issues earlier, and generally working to make the new version feel smooth and organic.

And you know what? It does. What seemed almost insurmountable only days ago is now largely done and dusted, because I wasn’t afraid to wield the chain saw and then stitch the bits back together. Years ago this book would be languishing because I’d be stressing out over the radical surgery required, but now the end is in sight and the book is stronger for the edit.

So what about you? Any particular large scale editorial challenges you are facing or have faced? Problems or solutions such an edit generates? Have at it.


27 comments to Performing the Invasive Edit

  • *adjectival expletive* Yes.

    Seriously, AJ, you have just described the headache I have been facing this last week. I made a few tiny adjustments to the earlier parts, to hint at characters and events that take place later part of the book, and that completely changed how my characters deal with a certain situation. The little ripples become waves. I’ve been trying to figure out exactly how to fix it, but I’ve been getting caught up in the desire to *not* take a chainsaw to the narrative, because I am so freaking ready to be done with this. It might just need a few extra well-placed scenes, but it will probably take a lot more work than that. And all I can tell myself is that it’s for the good of the story, since part of me recognizes that these changes need to be made, but it’s frustrating, and I’ve caught myself procrastinating as a result.

    The one possible solution, which I haven’t tried this time around, is to write it out. To narrate the problem to myself and brainstrorm solutions on a blank notebook. I’ll try that during my lunch break and see what happens. Of course I think about this after ranting. Figures. 😉 Thanks for this post!

  • Mikaela

    Yes. I realised when I was almost finished with the Raven Mocker that I should have added Josie from the beginning. I needed her, since she added an extra layer to the story. And, I tried to go back and add her but I couldn’t. I think I was too close to the story.

    I should probably do that sometime this year, since I love the world I created :).

  • When I started righting my novel I wanted to alternate present and past to tell the story of a single day in the life of my characters. I thought it was the most important day in their lives and I wanted to show how the past explained that one day. However, two thirds into the book I ran out of past and realized I needed some future to resolve the conflict. I showed the draft to some people and one of them asked why I couldn’t just tell the story in chronological order. I hesitated for weeks, trying to salvage what I had, but in the end I just took a deep breath and ordered the chapters. It took a month to go through the whole novel and make sure everything and everyone was introduced the first time they appeared, remove all the repetitive stuff and clean up POV. But I’m really glad I took the hacksaw to my project.

  • Laura,
    I hear you! The alternative, of course, is to do the opposite: walk away from it for a while. Work on something else. Ten come back to this when it feels fresh and you can be excited about the project and it feels less onerous. In truth, I would find that very hard, but it works for some people. I’d need to dive back in, slashing and burning and rebuilding till it felt like something right, something you could be enthusiastic about again. It’s not easy, but it’s probably worth it, and the best approach may well be like removing a band aid: one hard pull…

    yes, working a new character in is tough and creates all kinds of unforeseen ripples. But if that’s what your instinct says to do, you are probably right (and yes, major characters generally have to be introduced as early as possible for the reader to connect with them). Create a new document for the revision (knowing you have the original intact will make this easier) and then go in and move the big stuff (shifting forward the first appearance of Josie). Then it maybe a matter of reading from that point on knowing that she is now in the story and see how that changes things. Might be fun. The great thing about this process is that you’re making something new without having to create out of whole cloth, so in terms of word count you are already well in your way to being done.

    sounds like you took the bull by the horns. Nice job. I hope you are satisfied with the results. Experimental narrative forms can be eye catching but they have to be done extremely well or they come off looking gimmicky. My gut feeling (without having read your work, of course) is that you made the right choice.

  • “This is, I think, often a good solution for books where the plot has run away with itself. Derail the action. If the characters simply can’t proceed—as opposed to having them change their minds or seem to forget their primary objective—you can’t be accused of violating character in service of plot.” <–Can we make tee-shirts now?

    I'm having editorial issues with my two big novels right now. On the first one, I'm trying to figure out how to shift all the necessary(?) exposition behind the inciting incident in order to get to the action faster. Problem is, it's setting up not only the conflict of the book, but the conflict of the trilogy, so that's a wrestling contest between a bull and a bear.

    The second one I'm still working on the effects of a previous surgery. I cut out a lot of necrotic flesh and vestigial whatsits and created much better conflict at the heart of the story. Also, I'm shifting it into first person. I guess you could say I've been trying to fit it with prosthetic limbs.

    Partly, I'm worried that trying to "tend two patients at once" is hurting my chances with both. I probably just need to sit down for a few hours and think about the first one.

  • bonesweetbone

    Now all I can think about is you standing over someone with a chainsaw…

    ANYWAY, I’m really glad you posted about this process because it’s something I’m going through right now, too. At the moment, I have a first draft of one work and a zero draft of another and I’m stretching my editing muscles for the first time on something so long. It’s a lot more work than I anticipated and I picked the easier of the two works to tackle first!

    One of my main characters wasn’t working out and I had to go back in, change the major life event that made him that way and that hurt the pacing. Now I’m going back through and trying to sort out all the pieces, erasing traces of that event and changing his character accordingly. I’m much happier with the story now (halfway through!), but it’s left me staring blankly at the computer screen more than once.

    So glad I’m not alone!

  • Gypsyharper

    My editing hurdle at the moment is my musical. I finished the first draft about a month ago and there are some things I really like about it (hooray!), but also some big problems. This is my first real editing experience, since it’s the first time I’ve actually finished anything. It’s also the first time I’ve attempted to write a musical. So I’m feeling a little overwhelmed. I think the relationship between the two main characters needs to be fleshed out a lot, and some of the lyrics are cool, but possibly not really in the voice of the character who’s singing them. Some of the lyrics are just bad. (I’m not sure I’m really a lyricist!) Anyway, I think I probably need to print it out and take a red pen to it. Also, I need to give it to my composer friend who said he’d write the music. Hopefully he’ll have some suggestions, since he’s been doing this a lot longer than I have.

    My novel WIP has all kinds of issues, too, but their not really editing issues yet, since I’m still struggling through the first draft. Sigh.

  • L Scribe, I want that T-shirt. You make it, I’l buy it. 🙂

    Bone, I had the same vision, Only AJ had a scalpe in the other hand. Dexter gone mad(der).

    AJ, I am glad it worked out so well and so quickly for you, and that you have reached the point in your career that you don’t panic! The first time this happens is such a critical point in a writer’s life – the dismantling and reconstructing a book to meet a deadline. I had such a horrid problem with Gwen’s Ashes to Ashes (6th book of my career), that I called my agent and told him I was going to abandon the book and start over. He said, “You can’t. You can’t meet the deadline.” He pulled my proposl/outline up on his PC and started at the beginning, making me talk/walk through it. Forcing me to think critically about a storyline he believed in. It took 90 miinutes of time I knew he didn’t have to help me. I learned what I’d done wrong and how to fix it. Two weeks later I had a finished book. But at that point in my career, I couldn’t do it alone. I needed someone to bounce things off of. I’d forgotten that incident! And — Go Darwin!

  • Hepseba ALHH

    a) Yes, thank you so much for making the point that externally hindering the forward motion of the characters can be an excellent way to slow the narrative. This sounds like a point I should try to keep in mind for a good long time (perhaps with a tee-shirt), though so far my issues have more to do with getting the ball up to speed.

    b) Oiy. Yes, I completely tore my own WIP (my first book) apart, and now have recently finished that first big “edit”, having written something like 60,000 new words to do it. But it is *so* lovely to see things looking so much better as a result. Now character A actually has a story arc and is at least vaguely sympathetic, character B actually goes out and does stuff, and character C has interpersonal conflicts that make sense while still coming off as a mostly competent person. Things are still pretty mushy and raw, but I think now I’ve got something I might actually be able to polish up to look like a book. 😀

  • And NOW I can’t stop thinking, and have no time to dive into the edit. I blame you, AJ.

  • Ok, second attempt at responding…

    that would be a pretty large T shirt 🙂
    Re. the exposition issue, try simply cutting it all out (saving it in a new dc, of course) and diving right into the story then reading to see just how much of the exposition you need to dribble back in elsewhere. A lot of it can probably be left to reader inference (which is better than exposition anyway). Put back only what is absolutely essential and reveal it through character/plot once the story is moving. A simpler approach (one I used in Darwen I) is simply to reverse the sequence so that you begin with action/story and then do the expo. Darwen I began talking about who the boy was, how he came to be in the states etc. then the second chapter had him spotting and pursuing the flittercrake. The published version reverses that, so that the story gets out of the blocks faster and then, with the reader already hooked, we start to learn about who the boy is almost in flashback, before slotting back into the main action.

    Re. your second point, I’d say whether you try to do both at once is really a personal judgment. If they are very different, you can probably be done at the same time, but my impulse would be to focus on one at a time so each gets my full attention and I dont get overwhelmed. Whatever works… 🙂

  • Bone
    yes, this is tough for all writers, and can feel like a huge cliff to scale. Sounds like you have it under control and are making good progress. Nice job.

    wow, a musical! A friend of mine and I have discussed trying our hands at this some time, but I just don’t understand the form well enough yet (and have very particular tastes within the genre). I generally don’t print work off before I edit it, though I do find that useful when I’m doing sentence level polishes. For the large scale invasive edits I do it all electronically: easier to move things around and fiddle.

    Thanks, Faith. That’s a great example and an inspiring story: 90 mins of talk and two weeks of work to wrap up a book you thought was dead? You can’t beat that. Sometimes you just have to suck it up and wrestle with what you’ve made till it does what you want. Funny how writing is like, you know, life…

    the idea of creating hurdles for your main characters is a common idea in screenwriting, where people often talk about sticking the protagonist up a tree and throwing a series of rocks at them as they try to climb down… 🙂 Delighted to hear your own large scale edit seems to be paying dividends.

    Scribe (2), then my work is done 🙂

  • AJ, I’m going to give that a go. It might be a little tough, since the inciting event takes the MC out of the location where the exposition is supposed to happen, but I guess she can do a bit of a flashback later (kind of like Darwen thinking about how and why he got to Atlanta).

    Thanks for the words of wisdom!

  • This post is a prime example of the distinction between a professional writer and a wanna-be. An inexperienced writer might not even notice the pacing problem, and if they did, they would assign some arbitrary fix without understanding how doing so “creates all kinds of ripples throughout the text”.

    And it takes real courage and faith in oneself to take a chainsaw to anything already down on the page. I have a problem still in believing that any changes I make will not destroy what’s been set down–but at least I’m at the stage where I can recognize when it has to be done.

  • Wolf, thanks for that, and I should add that one of the things about being a professional writer is that the book in question is often under contract already (as is the case with mine) and therefore under deadlines that one misses at one’s fairly considerably peril. This can, of course, be a great motivator… 🙂

  • AJ, holy cow!! You have just described the problem with my WIP. I’ve recently come to the realization that the last 1/3 or 1/4 of my *third* draft just has a lot going on that makes the whole thing seem bottom-heavy. I’ve already done some major rearranging and obviously, I’m not done. Can I quote The Lovin’ Spoonful? “Did you ever have to make up your mind? It’s not often easy and not often kind”–! Thanks for reminding us that the pain of such major surgery is usually worth it. What do you do with the stuff you cut? I’m afraid that cutting stuff from anywhere near the end will result in loss of MC growth; maybe it needs to be two books? Decisions, decisions.

  • Thanks, AJ. I don’t think I can consider walking away from it to work on something else, though. There are new shinies poking at me, but I’m honestly scared of losing the thread and I just really want to be done with this. Might take a reading break, though, and next week I’ll be on an island getting hyperbaric oxygen treatments for my MS. They let me take books into the chamber. And the forced relaxation could prove *very* useful.

  • ajp88

    I can’t help but to edit while I write, and I realized not too long ago that I’d have to substantially change one arc if I wanted it to remain interesting for the reader. I’m playing with Stockholm Syndrome for two different characters, with two radically different outcomes. And for one, I thought the scenes were a pretty decent representation of a person being swallowed up by her tormentor. Turns out, after sharing the full novel outline with beta readers, that it was dreadfully dull to read about and downright depressing.

    The depressing part I’m not worried about, I want that. But one of them gave me a perfect critique that she doesn’t have any actions, things just happen to her. So, I’m now going through and reorganizing scenes, cutting old ones, and writing new ones. Giving her crossroad moments where she chooses to go one way rather than the other (and what she does represents the depth of her syndrome) works a lot better, I think, than the original, passive arc.

  • Owllady,
    always good to hear when a post strikes readers as especially relevant. Thanks. As to the stuff you cut, save it. Always. Bits of it you may use elsewhere in this book, some of it may be part of a future project (though I’d try not to think in terms of multiple books till you have a good home for the first one). And if you are at all like me, you’ll discover that some of the stuff you were desperate to save doesn’t look all that great once the revision is done, then you’ll hold onto it for purely nostalgic reasons before consigning it to the Never To Be Used file.

    I’m the same. Once the bee is in my bonnet [what the hell does that even mean?] I’ll worry at it like a dog with a bone till it’s done. How’s that for mixing my metaphors?

    that’s a great insight. However realistic it might feel, things happening to characters rather than having the characters drive the action often feels flat. This is especially true in film, and I think that’s why many genre novelists like to use screenwriting as a model for how action unfolds. If you are writing a particular kind of literary fiction, passivity and paralysis might be de rigeur for your characters, but for most of us, that’s not going to fly.

  • I’m late responding today, but this post is very timely for me. Just this week I think I figured out the structure problem with my WIP, which will mean making some massive changes. I’m still working through the new structure, but even though I’ve just added lots of rewriting to my schedule, I’m actually more excited about the WIP than I’ve been in several weeks, so I think that means the changes I’m making are probably good ones. Hope so, anyway!

  • Sisi,
    yes, that does sound like you are on the right track, nor is it unusual. Once you bite the bullet and dive into this kind of major editorial restructuring, you often find a great weight is lifted off your shoulders and you get excited about the book again. As you say: good sign.

  • I got it, AJ: major revisioning is like having your appendix removed: you don’t even miss it.

    It’s true that when I’ve taken out a few phrases here and there, the whole is better. And I really don’t miss what I took out. That’s not as simple when you’re talking plot threads, but still, you’ve proved that it can be done, It’s just, all that reshuffling and rebalancing and changing around, it’s hard! But that’s what wine is for 😀

  • Razziecat

    Any major revisions?? Hoo, boy. In a word, yes. Some of the exercises we’ve done on MW have made me realize that I’ve gotten somewhat off track. I’ve followed my outline too closely..and the outline lays out the action, not the character development. In my original planning, I made note of a number of background details and emotional/mental characteristics that should be reflected in my MC’s actions and reactions, and they…aren’t. So I’m going back and rethinking plot elements, dialog, motivation, etc. I’m also doing backstory scenes (partly for my own amusement, partly to become more familiar with the characters) and this is helping me make their actions more true to their emotional wiring, their desires and fears. It’s quite an interesting journey, I have to say.

  • Vyton

    AJ, great post. I really like the image of taking a chainsaw to my manuscript. Bits of text, loose adjectives flying all over. For the big restructuring, you can’t do it with a scalpel. Do you think that when you get to stitching the parts back together, you will need some scalpel work to trim the edges? Then you can use fine, plastic-surgery sutures to make it all seamless.

  • Owllady,
    wine, beer, gin, vodka. It all works.

    yes, I find that sometimes the plot-heavy nature of my outline leads to similar problems when I find myself wondering if the characters really would behave the way I want them to, and this is exacerbated when I start messing with time line, structure etc. In the end, you have to be sure that your protagonist etc. behave as they should, as seems natural and consistent with who they are and what they know, not the way that moves the story ahead in ways convenient for the author.

    Absolutely: start with the big knives and get small. To use another metaphor, think of it as remodeling a house. You may begin with bulldozers, jackhammers and pick axes, but they won’t help you when it comes to tiling the new bathroom… Chainsaw to scalpel. Quite.

  • Excellent post (he said, two days late….). The second THIEFTAKER book had a similarly vexing issue. Good plotting, good mystery “hook,” and I felt that the writing was strong. But it was almost totally lacking in personal stakes for my lead character. The mystery was interesting, but not dire, at least not until something happened nearly at the end of the first draft that suddenly upped the stakes significantly. Lucienne read it and helped me identify the problem, and a substantial rewrite fixed the issue. But it did involve major surgery.

  • Thanks, David. With hindsight I think the kind of edit we’re talking about here is actually the rule for me, rather than the exception, and for me–as with your second Thieftaker book–the issue is often one of matching the character stakes to those of the plot. Frequently the issue doesn’t become clear till the story has started to solidify in the writing rather than in the outline. There’s lots I have to find along the way before I can see what needs fixing, let alone how to make the fix.