Writing a book is about so much more than getting to the words The End. There are numerous stages between writing the first draft and presenting a published book to the world. I didn’t really understand how exhaustive the editing/revising process was before my first book, If I Fix You, hit shelves, and I’ve been reminded all over again now that I’m gearing up for the release of my third book, Even If I Fall, on January 8, 2019. While the process has been slightly different with each book, I have discovered some tips and tricks along the way to make it a little less excruciating. Since I just turned my line edits back into my editor, I thought this would be the perfect time to share how I approach edits.
Step 1: I complete the first draft. Yay! Let’s call it draft 1.5 because I do a couple readthroughs and do minor edits to make sure it’s only mildly horrific before showing it to anyone.
Step 2: I inflict draft 1.5 on my long-suffering critique partners. They point out some of the glaring issues that I missed or wanted to pretend didn’t exist. They are always right, so more revisions are made.
When your CPs live in other states you have to get creative for group pics. Kate Goodwin, Sarah Gillory, and me.
Step 3: I send draft 1.6 to my even more long-suffering editor, then panic for two or three weeks–sometimes longer depending on how far out we are from my release date–while I imagine her reading it and then promptly canceling my contract.
Step 4: I get an email from my editor with the subject line: [Book Title] notes. I then proceed to slam my laptop shut and feel slightly ill for a good day or two before I can psyche myself up to actually open her email. I do this with. Every. Single. Book. I can’t help it.
Step 5: I read her email. It’s never as bad as I imagine and I have yet to lose a contract because of an atrocious first draft–or for any reason. Double yay! Apart from my first book, which I spent six years polishing before I even had an editor, there are always a lot of issues to address. I have an amazingly kind and insightful editor who always manages to pinpoint each issue while making suggestions and/or asking probing questions to help me improve my next draft. Even when the amount of work I need to do is overwhelming, I’ve yet to feel discouraged by one of her emails. I really do have the best editor.
Step 6: Sometimes we’ll go back and forth over a few issues to make sure I understand exactly what she’s asking or to run different solutions by her before I start draft 2. We very rarely clash over an idea or an approach, and if we do, they are usually very minor.
My edit letter for Even If I Fall (blurred to prevent spoilers)
Step 7: Starting draft 2. Despite my lovely editor and her very constructive feedback, I’ve still got six to eight pages of notes from her. Single spaced. This is the stage where I take a long look at my MS and feel like there is more wrong with it than right. It’s not a great feeling. What I did with the developmental edit notes for Even If I Fall that I hadn’t done with my previous books was to copy her whole email into my project in Scrivener (if you’re an author, aspiring or otherwise, and you haven’t checked out Scrivener, go do it right now. I will never write another book without it) and after reading it dozens of times, I started cutting out anything that wasn’t related to a specific problem (i.e. I deleted all the compliments and left the requests for greater development for a specific characters, fixing pacing issues, changing the plot twist etc.). I saved all the good things she said/liked in a separate place so I could read them when I needed to remind myself that the whole book wasn’t a complete mess. That cut things down quite a bit, but I still had pages and pages of issues to sift through.
Big Picture and Details lists for Even If I Fall (blurred out to prevent spoilers)
Step 8: I turn all those pages into bulleted points with mini-descriptions and break them into two categories: Big Picture Stuff and Detail Stuff. Big Picture Stuff includes things like pacing issues, conflicts, character development etc. Detail Stuff includes things like clarifying the timeline, combining chapters, adding setting details etc. Once I did that I was able to turn eight pages of detailed notes into a single bullet point to do page. One page! I didn’t change the amount of work I had to do, but organizing and condensing it down as much as possible made the task ahead of me feel much more feasible.
Bullet points with to do items and time estimates highlighted in red (blurred out to prevent spoilers)
Step 9: I strip the descriptions from each bullet point and then list specific things I need to do to address each one. For example, I needed to improve the sense of place in Even If I Fall since it’s set in a fictional town in West Texas. To do that I decided to 1, create a map of the town using Canva that included street names, distances, and key locations. 2, research population statistics, comparable topography details, 3, find places through the MS to weave those details in. Similarly, to help clarify the timeline, I used a free online program called Vizzlo to create a timeline of my story.
Timeline for Even If I Fall (blurred out to prevent spoilers)
Step 10: After I read through my editor’s original email, her email after I cut all the praise/compliments, and then my bullet point lists, I assign an estimated time frame to each to do item under every bullet point. For example, for Even If I Fall, I estimated that it would take me a full day to create a map of my town. Then I was able to add up the times and let my editor know how quickly I’d be able to return the MS to her. It felt so great to be able to strike through each item after it was done. For the most part, I overestimated each task to give myself a little breathing room, which ultimately meant I was able to turn the MS back in much earlier than I originally thought, always a good thing.
Map for the fictional town in Even If I Fall (blurred out to prevent spoilers)
And that’s pretty much it. I think I’m always going to tackle my edits this way moving forward. Once I can create an attack plan for myself I feel so much better about the work I need to do. It feels manageable instead of overwhelming. It also helps me to make the best use of my time. Some days I’ll only have an hour or two to work, so I’ll pull up my bullet list and find one with a short time estimate. Edits always require a lot of blood sweat and tears but I’m all about working smarter not harder, and this approach was a million times smarter than the way I used to work.
By the way, if you’re interested in seeing the finished version of Even If I Fall, it’s available for pre-order just about everywhere. You can check out the description and find pre-order links here.
What about you? How do you approach edits and revisions? Any tips and tricks you can share? Are there other stages in the writing process you want me to talk about?
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Abigail Johnson was born in Pennsylvania. When she was twelve, her family traded in snowstorms for year-round summers and moved to Arizona. Abigail chronicled the entire cross-country road trip in a purple spiral-bound notebook that she still has, and has been writing ever since. She became a tetraplegic after breaking her neck in a car accident when she was seventeen but hasn’t let that stop her from bodysurfing in Mexico, writing and directing a high-school production of Cinderella, and riding roller coasters every chance she gets. She is the author of several young adult novels including If I Fix You and Every Other Weekend.
She is represented by Kim Lionetti at BookEnds Literary Agency.