This article was originally published in The Writer’s Everything, Issue #010.
Finishing the first draft of your novel is an absolutely enormous accomplishment. If you’ve ever written the final paragraphs of your 100,000 word manuscript, bookending it all with “The End,” then you have the right to be proud. Maybe even let yourself feel a little cocky. After all, you’re going to need all the encouragement and energy you can muster to push yourself through the next step.
If you know what this step is already, then you’re more than likely dreading the following word: editing. As awesome as it is to finish a first draft, it’s only half the battle. Oh, who am I kidding? It’s a lot less than half.
As much as people dread it, however, the editing process is an absolute necessity for any first draft. It’s the time when you arduously refine your writing again and again and again until what remains is a sparkling, perfectly cut gem.
The problem is that in our writing culture, we’ve been trained to fully embrace the creative process, to develop stories with twists and explosions and first kisses. Editing, unfortunately, is an entirely different process, and it requires an entirely different way of looking at your work.
So what should your objective be when editing your novel? Actually, there are many different things that you should keep firmly in mind when editing, so many that I’ve divided them into two categories.
The first, which was covered in the previous release of The Writer’s Everything, focused on addressing the small details. Specifically, it discussed the need to tie up or eliminate loose ends and make sure that you’re maintaining a consistent pace that is proper for your genre. In this article, we’re going to be addressing two big-picture goals that you need to address when editing.
Of course, there’s more to editing a novel than these four things. But writing a novel is like drawing a portrait. You start off with a quick, lightly penciled outline. Your next step should be, not shading the upper lip and drawing each strand of hair, but rather fleshing out your quick sketch with more details. You have to make sure that your “drawing” is taking the right shape, and once it’s in the form you want it, then you can address the myriad of other objectives, such as fact checking, grammatical errors, and typos.
Unrealistic Character Motivations
One of the most important things we have to address when editing is character motivations. Characters are the driving force of your novel. Their decisions and actions are the reason you have a plot. Characters are also what connects your readers with your stories. We may not have first-hand knowledge of wizardry, but we may know what it’s like to try to live up to the expectations of others, or fill the shoes that were left behind by our parents. We may not have first-hand experience in space dog-fights, but we may know what it’s like to aspire to a greater, more meaningful life.
That’s why it’s so important to have solid character motivations. If your characters are unmotivated, then your readers aren’t going to connect with them. They’re not going to care whether he can save his job, his marriage, or the orphanage if he doesn’t have the slightest interest in achieving those goals.
We have to make it clear what our characters want and why they want it. We have to understand what’s most important to them, and once we do, then we’re invested. When Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle were killed in Star Wars IV: A New Hope, we already knew that he dreamed of leaving Tatooine behind and becoming ‘a Jedi like his father.’ Because of that, we’re eager to see what he does next in the pursuit of his goals.
On the other hand, when Hester Shaw attempts to assassinate Thaddeus Valentine in Mortal Engines, it’s utterly meaningless to us. We don’t know what her beef with him is, why she wants him dead, or what she will accomplish by killing him. We have no reason to root for her to either succeed or to fail.
Even more egregious are the instances where a character performs an action without having any real reason whatsoever. In such cases, the reason is transferred from the character’s motivation to the author’s motivation. They did it because the story needed them to do it.
Why did Mr. Freeze tell Batman that he’d ‘kill him next time’ in Batman and Robin when he had him in his clutches and could have easily ended his life then and there? Because then the story wouldn’t happen.
All authors need to make sure that their characters are properly motivated, and that their motivations make sense. More experienced authors discover ways to weave character motivation into the story so that they are intrinsically linked. As you learn to pay attention to character motivations and adjust them as needed, you’ll find that your novel instantly becomes more compelling and interesting.
Identifying The Theme
The second big-picture objective that we need to address when editing is theme. Now, I know, I know. “Theme” may be a five-letter word, but to many authors it might as well be one short.
It’s too complex. No, not just that. It’s too complicated. It’s needlessly complicated. You don’t want to have to think about the themes in your novel when you could be focusing on more compelling things, like adding in exciting action sequences and killer plot twists.
Just as with character motivation, however, you’ll find that theme connects our readers to the story. Theme resonates with them, and having a solid theme developed is a sure way to keep them interested.
A word of caution, though, is in order.
Developing your theme is not synonymous with adding a moral to your story, and it certainly is not the same as preaching to your audience. Your theme is the topic that your story focuses on. That doesn’t mean that by addressing theme, your characters have to make it clear what’s right and what’s wrong. In fact, more experienced writers are able to skillfully weave theme throughout their stories.
While Jean Valjean is a slave to his past crimes in Les Misérables, Inspector Javert is a slave to the law, Fantine is a slave to poverty, and Cosette is a slave to society. Jean Valjean attempts to break away from his past and gain freedom in a new life. Inspector Javert contemplates his responsibility to uphold the law, and in the end, he can’t break free from his moral obligations. Fantine is unable to gain freedom from her impoverished life, yet she wins said freedom for her daughter Cosette. Cosette, meanwhile, feels locked in place by the expectations of society, and struggles to break free from her responsibilities and enjoy a relatively carefree life with Marius Pontmercy.
Of course, readers can discover their own themes in the pages of a novel. They can extract their own meaning and significance from your story. Does that mean that we don’t have to worry about theme ourselves?
Not at all.
While you may accidentally stumble upon certain themes while writing your novel, the best themes are planned out and developed just as well as the plot and the character motivations are. After all, the more work you put into developing the themes of your work, the more there will be for your readers to discover.
Don’t Be Afraid
When it comes to editing your novel, don’t feel like you’re obligated to suffer through it. And definitely don’t be afraid of the process. With just a few simple steps, and a little perseverance, you can craft your simple first draft into a fantastic, deeply developed second draft. So get to it and enjoy the journey.
The Writer’s Everything
This article, as well as many others, have been featured in previous issues of my writing journal, The Writer’s Everything, in which I, along with occasional guest contributors, provide essays, guides, encouragement, motivation, writing prompts, character bio development kits, and anything else that can help you turn your dream of becoming a writer into a reality.
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