Final edits – what do you look for?

When your novel is as familiar as the sight of your two hands typing, what do you miss?

I always find that when I’ve got the plot watertight, the physical consistencies sorted, there’s another pass I need to do to make sure I don’t lose the reader. I’m now making final tweaks to my second novel, Life Form 3, after an extensive rewrite and I thought I’d share the kinds of change I’m making before it goes back to my agent.

Making sure we stay with the main character #1

There are points where I haven’t allowed the reader a beat to catch up with the main character’s reaction to something important. While I don’t want to slow the pace down or overstate, there are moments when the reader expects a beat before the next line of dialogue or action. So every time there’s a significant revelation, I’m asking myself have we got a reaction?

Making sure we stay with the main character #2

The novel is third person, although the main character is in every scene. But sometimes when the action is centred on other characters we need to be reminded of his presence or he can seem like a passive observer. Or it might dislocate the reader by looking like I’ve drifted to a different point of view. So if, for instance, several characters are talking and my main character doesn’t have a line of dialogue or needs to listen to them, I add a beat of reaction from him.

Making dialogue bookish, not filmic

When I write dialogue, I envisage it as a scene in a movie. For some dramatic scenes, I had the pauses and reactions in my head. On the page, the reader doesn’t have my head movie, so this can look sparse and the eye slides off it too easily. Also, this can be quite a distanced way to see a scene. Where I had sparse dialogue, I included the reader more by fleshing out some details.

Culling the fancy stuff

Can you hear that screaming? That’s me, drowning my darlings. I’m wailing at least as loud as they are. I am removing metaphors and similes that, although lovely, interfere with the reader’s immersion in the scene.

For instance, the main character finds an abandoned underwater room. On the floor are dead, dried fish – ‘like’ (I wrote) ‘soles that have dropped off shoes’. Yes it’s lovely, but the scene has so much sensory detail already that this stops the flow, like a record jumping a groove (I hope you’ll allow me that one). Out it goes (with me weeping a tear). This is what ruthless revision means.

Adapting my style for the demands of the book

In case you’re wondering, I didn’t even realise I’d written two novels with the word Life in the title. And no, I’m not planning a whole series of them. In fact, Life Form 3 has given me quite a different set of challenges from those in My Memories of a Future Life – and one of the biggest was writing style.

The main reason is the setting. Life Form 3 is set in a strange, unusual place, so I have had to curb my natural love for the flamboyant and weird. It’s all very well to describe the familiar in an unfamiliar way – that’s fresh and poetic. In My Memories of a Future Life I revelled in it. But in Life Form 3, the story is already flamboyant and extravagant. To add more weirdness, in terms of descriptions and comparisons, gets confusing. The moral? If you’re already describing the unfamiliar, don’t gild the lily by adding more oddness. Keep something simple.

We all do our last passes differently – what do you look for? Share in the comments!

For more tips on novel-writing, from first twinkling idea to final fix, you might like my book Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence or my multimedia course with Joanna Penn aka The Creative Penn

Thanks for the pic BryanKennedy

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  1. #1 by PJR on April 8, 2012 - 7:54 pm

    I recognise the bookish-not-filmic aspect of the read-over, and especially the culling. I really do like that part. Having edited copy for sense, flow and accuracy for years, I do enjoy slashing and burning what needs to go. Never a problem. The challenge, perhaps, is how many times to do this and let it go out, for there are diminishing returns.

    Let me throw this into the mix, especially with implications for workload, accuracy, time to publication, etc. Question: Do you – and do other non-US authors – produce separate versions of e-books for the UK and US markets due to spelling differences, etc, especially for tales set in US? Or, when that is the case, produce only the US market version for pickup everywhere?

    best wishes, Patrick

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 8, 2012 - 11:45 pm

      Hi Patrick! Yes, it’s a nice part of the writing process – you finally get to think ‘I made something’!
      You always ask tough questions. Publishers do bring out special US editions. I don’t for my self-published books, for a few reasons. 1 – I don’t know US English in enough depth to do it. And 2 – I’ve never had any US readers (or Canadian, or Australian, or NZ) complain that they found UK English was hard to understand. So I think the differences probably don’t matter too much and readers are ready to accommodate them. I certainly don’t mind reading a book in ‘American’.

      • #3 by PJR on April 13, 2012 - 7:20 pm

        Hi Roz

        I’d add that I often reassess how the starts and finishes of chapters – or “episodes”, in serialised formats – work, to see how the hooks can pulled more taught or teased in play, and the ends a sharper exits.

        I also try to monitor as I go along, but revise in separate runs, for thematic elements – their presence and continuity of built-up. Echoes of movie script structures.

        In addition, I look to cut out possible duplications or repeated narration of a point or aspects around it. Pruning.

        Oh, and further on the “which English language” point we discussed, I’m opting more for “American” for stories set in America, and thinking too that that is also a far bigger market. Worth the extra graft on many levels, I’d contend. We’ll see, though!

        Wee side thought, tad unrelated: I was in a bookshop today and it struck me that assessing covers, back blurb & dipping into some titles is the process we have when enjoying the browsing. Thinking further on e-books, it’d be good to have bookshops with slim promo versions only to get more on shelf space and then have more browsing possibilities. Then, can purchase ebook through shop, for special rate (+ coffees!). We get ebooks and get to keep shops, and they get browsers & revenue.

        Related, I wonder who is providing en ebook copy, free, when a physical book is bought. I know a business publisher tax books that has done this for years – for the one fee I get both. Sounds good to me. Any publishers of fiction, etc, doing such.

        Thanks, again

        Best, Patrick

        • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 14, 2012 - 2:35 pm

          Hi Patrick!
          Chapter ends and starts – yes, it’s always worth another look at those. And I’m always on the lookout for repetition, whatever draft I’m on.

          As for your ebook suggestions… well who knows what book shops will look like in the next few years. They’d have to go a long way to rival Amazon in terms of price, though, because they have more overheads. Now if cafes curated a ‘top picks’ list that you could browse along with your coffee, it might be a different story.

          The biggest problem for writers is discovery – getting seen by the right people. The biggest problem for readers is finding carefully tailored recommendations. Amazon’s engine is good, but a person who understand you is better – which is where the bookseller with wide knowledge and the ability to judge tastes is much better. It’s also why we prefer our familiar reviewers, because we get to know their tastes. But ebook sellers would always have the problem of undercutting Amazon, which isn’t possible because of Amazon’s price matching. And if they don’t, what’s to stop the customer zipping onto Amazon even while in the shop and buying it there? So if this was to work, the bookshop/cafe would have to offer discounts that were invisible to Amazon – say a loyalty points scheme, where you earned a free book after a certain number. Just musing here… it’s still hard to work out how any shop could be viable selling ebooks.

          As for paper copies coming with a free e-version, no I don’t know of any publishers doing that. Specialised non-fiction like tax books are probably a special case and I imagine they’re pretty expensive to start with, and the margins must be big because of the reputation that comes with the authors and the publishers. But run-of-the-mill books aren’t expensive and the margins are tiny. I certainly wouldn’t be willing to give away a copy in another format.

    • #5 by judithvanpraag on April 22, 2012 - 2:24 pm

      Patrick, Given that I’m a bilingual writer, I publish in my native Dutch and American English, I find I do need to keep in mind the familiarity of readers of either language with the other culture. An American version may for instance need a bit more information about things taken for granted by Dutch readers.

  2. #6 by Darlene Steelman on April 8, 2012 - 9:01 pm

    I am in the middle of an edit.. it is very tough! There is some stuff I want to keep, but I know it had to go.

    • #7 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 8, 2012 - 11:46 pm

      That is tough, Darlene – keep going! I find it helps to create a special outtakes file. Sometimes you can graft the removed darlings back in if you rework something later. But only if they strictly need to be there. Don’t throw anything away – a book can change so much you never know what you might return to.

  3. #8 by Carol Riggs on April 8, 2012 - 9:06 pm

    Great list of things to look for. I don’t have the sparse dialogue problem–mine is the opposite. I tend to overtag and over-describe and tell every little nuance of reaction. Some streamlining is good! I need NOT to be afraid to have a little back-and-forth of dialogue by itself.

    I always look for repeated words, ones I’ve overused. In my last novel I just finished revising (for now), the characters did a lot of shuffling, shuddering, and sliding. Gah. I also usually have to pick up the pace in action scenes, and make them tight as they can be. Too many words ending with “ing” and longer sentences can really slow things down.

    I sympathize with your darling drowning! I love to throw similes everywhere, just drench the ms with them,and sometimes they just aren’t right for the pace of the scene…

    • #9 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 8, 2012 - 11:48 pm

      Hi Carol! Ah, the over-written dialogue – an interesting problem. And I do a lot of streamlining too, but it tends to be in earlier stages. Especially, as you say, in action scenes.
      Similes… they are the most authorly fun to write. And then we usually find they get in the way. Sigh.

  4. #10 by cavalrytales on April 8, 2012 - 9:25 pm

    ‘That’ and ‘Was’ – my two least favourite and most overused words. I seem to delete more than I type – they must breed overnight.

    And although I think I write a decent battle, I always end up re-writing sex scenes (even though they’re suggestive rather than explicit) about a million times. And I’m still never happy with them.

    Editing is like collecting poo – one of the worst jobs in history.

    You have to do it, though.

    • #11 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 8, 2012 - 11:49 pm

      Extra ‘thats’, extra ‘justs’, extra ‘tries’… Yes, I sometimes look at the ms and think ‘where did they come from’?

      Battles and sex scenes in the same sentence? There’s a Freudian meaning in there, but in a good way. It’s all about conflict or resolution, not who stuck a sword where.

  5. #12 by Mickey on April 8, 2012 - 10:07 pm

    Thanks for the advice. I’m always trying to compile of list of things I should look for when I’m rewriting. For me its repetition and expressions. I have a bad habit of using the same expression and tend to repeat words like smirked, or better yet frowned. lol.So I put the word in the the auto find and count how many times it appears in a chapter. Then I go back and change the word and I find that helps me flesh out the scene/dialogue. :)

    • #13 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 8, 2012 - 11:50 pm

      Mickey, that’s a great point. You have to look out for your favourite distinctive phrases – the more distinctive, the less you can get away with repeating them.

  6. #14 by Tahlia Newland on April 9, 2012 - 3:58 am

    I like the sound of your new book. The magical realism one I’m working on now sounds like the opposite to Life Form 3, in that it’s a very ordinary situation and the metaphors for the teenagers experiences are are f’lamboyant and weird’.

  7. #16 by Valerie J. Long on April 9, 2012 - 8:58 am

    I can’t help but spotting typos in my prefinal, but that’s a sideeffect. What I really have to hunt down are rare crooked sentences, repeated words (like Carol) and missing explanations — sometimes I have to add a sentence to help my readers follow my line of thoughts.
    Luckily, I have help. Each of my books goes live in my reader community one chapter per day, I can collect the feedback, and only when it has passed this test and another edit/proof cycle with several critical sets of eyes, it may go into print.
    This is all about my German books. With about two years offset, I start translating to English. Translating in this case may mean rephrasing, as German sentence structures often don’t work, and idioms and plays of words work even less.
    In English, my publisher doesn’t allow semicolons, colons and parentheses, so this reduces my means of structuring a sentence, and in turn requires more rephrasing. All too often my sentences contain “comma splices”, where the necessary “as” or “because” connecting the parts is only in my mind. Luckily, my editors know my flaws.
    Thanks for your insights on book-or-movie dialogues. I’ll want to look at that next time.

    • #17 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 9, 2012 - 9:53 am

      ‘Crooked sentences’… there’s certainly nothing crooked about that phrase, Valerie, it’s the perfect way to put it. Translation must make it all the harder to see a piece as a reader, because you must use another layer of verbal processing – finding the meaning, conveying it precisely, staying faithful to the original and yet sounding natural in a new tongue. Very difficult, I imagine.
      And your English publisher doesn’t allow semicolons, colons and brackets? That seems unnecessary. But that’s an interesting point about how we sometimes fill in missing words in our head because we’re not reading what’s actually there.

      • #18 by Valerie J. Long on April 9, 2012 - 10:08 am

        Indeed, Roz — translation doesn’t mean to replace words. The result must convey the same meaning, and it shall entice the same feelings in my readers.
        About typography — I can understand my publisher. In many typefaces, the colons and semicolons don’t align with standard-height small letters, but extend above them, letting the entire text look ugly. That’s another thing I’ve learned as Indie publisher for my German books: you have to pay attention not just to your story, to grammar and wording, but also to the black arts — kerning, leading, serifs, margins and gutter, page composition.

  8. #19 by zoesharp on April 9, 2012 - 9:40 am

    Hi Roz. Great post. I always look at things like chapter break when I’m editing — it’s instinct to break a chapter at the end of a scene, but often far more effective to break it in the middle, so the reader just *has* to turn the page.

    I also try to read as much of it out loud as possible — nothing shows up the clunky bits of those sections of description that go on just a little too long.

    And I make a final pass trying to remove as many extraneous words as possible. If it doesn’t move the story forwards or serve a purpose, it’s gone. Killing your darlings, indeed, but it’s for their own good :)

    • #20 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 9, 2012 - 9:55 am

      Thanks, Zoe – yes, I fiddle a bit with chapter breaks at this stage too. And I read out loud. Poor husband…

  9. #21 by Jim Bronyaur on April 9, 2012 - 10:44 am

    I try to do perhaps two last readings… one as a writer, and one as a reader. (If that makes sense.)

    The last read as a writer, I look for anything wrong with the story… minor details, etc. that may have slipped through the cracks. I look for commas, periods, quotes, etc. Once I’m confident in the final version being… final… I’ll then switch gears and become a reader, losing myself in the story. I read as if I just bought it online and see how I feel as the reader.

    And of course, the big boss, my wife, gets to read it and gives me her take. Without her approval, the project won’t see light of day! :)

    -Jim
    http://www.JimBronyaur.com

    • #22 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 9, 2012 - 9:50 pm

      Hi Jim! Ah, the value of a willing spouse. Mine (aka Husband Dave) is a writer with even more mileage than me – and he definitely makes sure I pull my socks up. There’s no family indulgence when he gets hold of one of my books.

  10. #23 by Stacy Green on April 9, 2012 - 2:34 pm

    Hi, Roz! Late to this, but first, congrats on getting near the finish line with this novel! And what a great editing list. The pov things is especially important for me, because it’s amazing how just a few words can lose the deep pov for a character and make the reader wonder who’s doing the talking.

    My final edits on INTO THE DARK were about little details, making sure someone’s car stayed the same color throughout the book, etc., and making sure it just read smoothly, keeping me interested.

    Thanks for the great list!

    • #24 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 9, 2012 - 9:49 pm

      Hi Stacy! Thanks – and yes, the POV is such a finely judged business. Sometimes I find I’ve put in a line because it amused me, but I’m tripping over it because it switches the POV – even slightly.

      Keeping the interest – that’s definitely worth looking for. Always be moving forwards.

  11. #25 by Sally - aka Saleena on April 9, 2012 - 3:04 pm

    Great to know you’re so close to the finish, Roz. My last edit was almost entirely focused on getting rid of typos, checking again for plot inconsistencies, and getting rid of superfluous passages that didn’t move the story.

    Are you going the traditional route this time? I ask because you mentioned your agent.

    • #26 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 9, 2012 - 9:47 pm

      Hi Sally! Yes, I’m going the traditional route. I did with My Memories of a Future Life as well, but it was too quirky for a publisher to take a chance on. Life Form 3 may well have the same problem, but for now I have an agent who adores it and a publisher who is eager to see this revised version.

  12. #28 by Writerlious on April 9, 2012 - 3:12 pm

    Thanks for posting, Roz. I’m at the same stage you are (final edits, gah!!) All of your tips are great. I really like the first one –sometimes I forget to have a physical reaction when something emotional or painful happens. Going back to look for beats at moments like these seems like a great idea.

    I’m obsessing over character at this point. I’ve stared at the MS so long it’s hard to tell if they’re interesting and original or just washed out cardboard figures. Maybe it’s time to stop revising. ;)

    Good luck on revisions!

    • #29 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 9, 2012 - 9:19 pm

      Thanks, Erin. Sometimes you just need to put the manuscript aside. There’s only so much you can do in one pass. Good luck to you too!

  13. #30 by Ashi Labouisse on April 11, 2012 - 12:54 am

    Great post, Roz – thank you! I’m spit-polishing the manuscript for my first novel, Opium (a literary thriller) to send to my agent by month’s end, and your pearls of wisdom on final edits are much appreciated. In what I’d thought would be the final read-through, I ended up revising a few chapter breaks to stop mid-scene – so counter-intuitive! Of course the changes necessitated a FINAL final look-see, and at this point I could recite the manuscript from memory :). Thanks for the guidance (here and on Twitter) and best of luck with Life Form 3.

    • #31 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 11, 2012 - 7:01 am

      Revised until you can recite it from memory? I know that feeling well! Best of luck with Opium, Ashi!

  14. #32 by August McLaughlin on April 13, 2012 - 2:00 pm

    Great post! I look for solid pacing—any lulls, I trim or cut. I also look for flow and momentum, and double/triple check the timeline and other math-related bits. Numbers are not my thing. ;)

    • #33 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 14, 2012 - 2:20 pm

      That’s a good one, August. I check the timeline before that, but when I’m on the final stage I pay close attention to the beat of every scene.

  15. #34 by Laura Pauling (@laurapauling) on April 14, 2012 - 11:08 am

    I do love being in that final edit stage! Alas I am in the first draft which actually I am quite fond of too! So that’s okay. Why oh why do metaphors and similes hold such appeal? I end up deleting a lot of mine too.

    • #35 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 14, 2012 - 2:36 pm

      Hi Laura! Those metaphors and similes… I think it’s because that’s where we feel like we’re ‘really writing’. Hey, I just compared this with this, aren’t I perceptive! Off to delete some more now…

      • #36 by journalpulp on April 14, 2012 - 9:27 pm

        Let us not get carried away, ladies, please. Please. I’m begging you. The minimalistic trend, the so-called steady-state, the hyper pruned-down writing, the unwillingness to take an honest chance (as Faulkner put it) — I, for one, deplore it. Give me the extravagant, the last of the hopelessly flamboyant. The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learned from others. It is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an eye for resemblance.

        Wrote Aristotle, in De Poetica.

        Why such appeal? Why? But do you not know?

        Metaphor is proportion. Metaphor is symmetry (symmetry means “measure together”). Metaphor is poetry — in good faith. Metaphor is metonomy. It is synecdoche. It is beauty. Metaphor issimile. Metaphor is life.

        Give me, Ms. Morris, your columns the color of salt beef, your bouquet of black snakes and your muscled hindquarters of a Grecian horse. They will enrich me more than the fast-paced. Give me one Suttree over a thousand of the pared-down. It will sustain me more. Is it over-written? And are there “too many similes and metaphors”? Unquestionably. But I promise you it will outlast all the others combined and will be around long after time has sunk the spare and the metaphorless literature.

        • #37 by Valerie J. Long on April 15, 2012 - 8:37 am

          Oookay, I feel relieved. While I agree that a story shouldn’t rely on metaphors in every second paragraph, there are a few passages in my books I wouldn’t want to discard. As long as we don’t compete with Bulwer-Lytton….
          Thank you, journalpulp!

        • #38 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 15, 2012 - 12:06 pm

          Ray, fear not – I shan’t abandon my taste for rich description. As always, I will do what serves the story. If the metaphor illuminates and enlarges, it stays. If it’s just me flouncing in the verbaceous border, it should stop right there.

          Fear not, part 2: Life Form 3 is a gigantic metaphor anyway. On one level.

  16. #39 by judithvanpraag on April 22, 2012 - 2:10 pm

    “On the floor are dead, dried fish – ‘like’ (I wrote) ‘soles that have dropped off shoes’. ” Great point. Typically a sentence that would make me grab a pencil, and the moment the editor in me is woken up, the spell the author tries to put on me is broken. In this case the metaphor wouldn’t merely have been overkill. I “see” dried fish, am even willing to compare to shoe soles ( although I usually reserve that comparison to dry and tough hamburgers), but immediately question the consistancy of said dried fish under water. Wouldn’t it float, fall apart, crumble, become a cloud? Whatever my thought, the author has lost me.
    The reminder to write bookish instead of filmic, –that’s a great one too! Life on the page :-)

    • #40 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 22, 2012 - 2:54 pm

      Re the fish – the underwater room is in fact dry. But that’s an unnecessary detail, especially for this post! Great point and nice to meet you, Dutchess!

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