Write Like You’re in Love, Edit Like You’re in Charge

by James Scott Bell

Several years ago I tweeted the words that are the title of this post. The phrase went viral (is there such a thing as going bacterial? I’m done with viruses!) It got passed around and was picked up by the great writing tips author Jon Winokur (@AdviceToWriters). The phrase aptly sums up my approach to writing a novel.

I thought today I’d unpack it a little, and ask for your responses.

Write Like You’re in Love

Coming up with a great idea, one that gets your nerve endings buzzing, is like love at first sight. You’re giddy. You can’t wait to spend precious months with this new romance.

When you start writing it’s all champagne and moonlight walks on the beach.

But then, out of the blue, you find yourself in an argument. The book is resisting you. Or vice versa.

Usually this happens to me around the 30k mark. I start to think maybe this isn’t going to work out after all.

You say to the book, “You’re not giving me what I need.”

And the book says, “This is how you treat me? After all I’ve done? I’ve given you the best pages of my life!”

Fortunately, I’ve found this little dustup to be only temporary. Let me suggest two ways to kiss and make up with your novel.

First, go more deeply into the characters. Pick any one of them (and not necessarily your Lead) and write some backstory. Create more of their history and use that to come up with a secret or a ghost.

A secret is simply that which the character doesn’t want anyone to know about, for some personal reason related to backstory.

A ghost is an event from the past that haunts the character in the present, and causes the character to act in certain ways. It’s best to let those actions happen without an immediate reveal. It creates mystery for the reader, always a good thing.

Five or ten minutes with these brainstorms will get your story juices flowing again. You’ll want to keep writing just to see what happens to these people!

Second, jump ahead and write a scene you feel excited about. Write it for all it’s worth. Then drop back and pick up the story and figure out a way to get to that scene.

These tips will help keep the love fires burning, like bringing the wife flowers even when it isn’t Valentine’s Day.

(Also see my post “When Writers Hit the Wall.”)

Edit Like You’re in Charge

Once you have a complete draft, you move into the hard-scrapple world of revision. And here you need a system.

The late Jeremiah Healy was a popular author-speaker on the conference circuit. In one of my writing books I found a clipped page from a newsletter I used to get called Creativity Connection. I’d saved it because it was a summary of one of Healy’s talks. In it he described his system of approach after writing a first draft:

  • He set aside the draft for a month.
  • He printed out a hard copy and read it through in one day, not making a marks on the manuscript (“Once you start, you won’t be able to stop.”)
  • He looked for “holes in the plot, underdeveloped characters, anomalies, and inconsistencies.”
  • He edited the draft to address any problems.
  • He next submitted it to three beta readers. “One should be an intelligent general reader. The second should be familiar with your genre. The third should be the dumbest bunny you can find.”
  • Then another edit, based on this feedback.
  • Finally, create the “cinderblock manuscript.” By this he meant the final polish on the old-school paper manuscript you used to submit to a publisher (the shape of a cinderblock). He worked especially hard on the first three pages. “When agents—who get buried in 50 manuscripts a week—decide which of the ‘cinderblock’ manuscripts to take home and read, they do so by reading the first three pages. It may be harsh, but it’s not arbitrary. Eighty-five percent of book buyers decide their purchases by applying the same test.”

That’s a good system, and very close to the one I use myself.

And systems can often be improved by adding a formula. Here’s one I’ll leave you with. It came in an early rejection letter the young (1966) Stephen King received from a science fiction magazine. It was a form rejection, but the nice editor had scribbled the following on it:

“Not bad, but puffy. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.”

Now it’s your turn. How do you keep the love as you make your way through the first draft? Do you have a system for revision?

38 thoughts on “Write Like You’re in Love, Edit Like You’re in Charge

  1. To keep the love during my first draft, I’ll stay with the manuscript in some fashion, every day. The most effective strategy for me is to write something out-of-order, something that takes place earlier or later in the book: a brief scene, a conversation, introduction of a character. If I have a commitment that takes me away from my computer for an extended period, I try to find something interesting in my surroundings and jot it down with a link—no matter how far-fetched—to my book. The most important aspect for me, is that I do something that relates to my WIP every single day, or else I’ll go too far astray because absence does not make my heart grow fonder.

    My system of revision in lengthy. After the first draft is finished, I read it, make notes as I go along, and incorporate the edits when I’ve finished reading it. I repeat the process until I can’t find anything else to fix. This process involves slogging through multiple drafts, during which I become progressively crankier and convinced I wrote the original draft with my eyes closed.

  2. Jim, what a great title and (parrot) photo, with advice to match. Thank you for sharing the bullet points of Healy’s revision advice.

    My own method is to write one day, revise the next. Lather, rinse repeat. When I am done with the first draft I basically follow Healy’s advice. I shall surely, however, remember your write/edit approach the next time that I apply pen to paper or keyboard to screen.

    Thanks again. Hope you are enjoying the weekend.

  3. My normal process: I write a chapter, usually in a day or two. Print it out, take it to bed. Read and make minimal markups, often noting where I can’t follow the speaker, or transitions are rough, or I know there’s a better word somewhere. I don’t do the fixes there, just note them.
    Next day, that’s the start of my writing session–doing the fixes. That usually gives me a running start into the next scene, for which, ideally, I’ll have written one or two paragraphs.
    I have two very reliable critique partners, and they’ll get chapters, but at a slower pace. By the time I hit ‘the end’ I’m ready to look at it like a complete entity. I print it out. I summarized my ‘tricks’ a while back in this post: https://killzoneblog.com/2021/01/playing-tricks-with-editing.html
    By the time my editor sees it, it’s as clean as I can get it. But of course, she’ll have plenty more to say about it.

    • That’s a good practice, Terry, to read/edit a hard copy each day. I usually do a light edit onscreen on my previous day’s pages, then move on. But I’m trying the print approach on my current WIP, giving the pages to my wife to read. So far, I like it.

  4. Excellent advice, Jim, as always.

    Right now, the idea for a new book is playing hard to get. It flirts and winks at me then disappears. I’m chasing it from one possible plot to another. No giddy buzzing yet.

    Your suggestion of a ghost/secret is a big help. That will be the inciting incident.

    For me, it’s much easier and more rewarding to edit an already-done draft than to “fall in love” crafting a new story. Sigh.

    • Ah yes, Debbie. There’s a whole lot of flirtation that goes on, maybe even a date or two, before deciding on “the” idea.

      Maybe the first draft is the marriage, and revision is marriage counseling.

    • Debbie, I feel exactly as you do. Writing that first draft is work. Hard work. The exciting part—the fun part—comes when the thing is written and you begin editing, polishing it up and making it shine. Right now I am slogging through the writing of the final few chapters of the sequel to my first novel in anticipation of getting to that fun part.

  5. Thanks for all the tips and links. I always enjoy reading about the processes other writers use for writing and editing. And, as I try some of those approaches, my process is still evolving.

    Keeping the love during the first draft: I find that I enjoy the process of outlining, having an overall “big picture” outline to start with, then creating a CliffsNotes version, with lots of details, as I go, staying ahead of the writing. Each chapter of the notes prepares me for writing that chapter. And the outline can be changed as previously written chapters require it. I’ve been playing with Google Docs, so I have access to it wherever I have internet access, it’s easy to change (I used to do this with a notebook), and it can be opened on my computer while I’m writing. Using the color highlighting for setting, conflict, emotion, cliffhangers, etc. has been fun.

    My revision (subject to change): Each day, I review the previous day’s writing and do some editing, or leave a note in the notes section. When done with the rough draft, I make light edits immediately, before sending it off to the beta readers. They have it for two months, so that’s my time away from the manuscript. When it’s back from the beta readers, I review the manuscript before I read the beta readers’ comments and note or make the changes that need to be made. I then read the beta readers’ comments, make changes as appropriate. At that point I have Scrivener or Word read the manuscript to me and look for things I missed. Then, it’s a couple more passes, before it’s ready for the final editing.

    Thanks for the post! Have a great weekend!

    • Very thorough, Steve, as a good system must be. Thanks for the deets. I know other writers will benefit from them.

      Weekend enjoyment back at you.

  6. Love the headline/phrase!

    On the Edit side, no way can I put the MS away for a month. A few days to a week, maybe. Then several rounds before sending to the Dev Editor, during which time I’m finalizing the (Indie) cover (that I’ve been fiddling with all along). Then to Beta readers. Then more fiddling along with a printed-copy read-through. By this point, I’ve been elevated to 1st Violin in my orchestra. 😉

  7. Helpful advice, Jim. I find that momentum matters during drafting. Keeping a novel journal helps, too, provided I don’t spend all my drafting time during the day there rather than with my novel. I love the idea of “secrets” and “ghosts.” I’ve used ghosts before, very helpful at getting at what drives a character.

    Revision, now that’s the mountain I’m currently climbing with my library mystery. With my published fantasy novels, my revision process consisted of me finishing a draft, turning around, and diving in to deadline and try to fix “all the things” wrong with the draft, then send it off to my beta readers, who would send me detailed comments. I’d make another “fix all the things” pass and then send it off to my copy editor. Unfortunately, fix all the things often meant not fixing all the stories issues, so I was often fixing those during the final edit. Not ideal.

    Deadline pressure was one reason I did this. The other was, prior to “getting serious” about self-publishing in late 2015, I’d only tried revising one novel of the five I’d written at that point (all are in my writer’s trunk), and that revision took months of on and off again. So I made darn sure to revise my Empowered books in a timely (deadline driven) fashion.

    Fast forward to now and with my first mystery, I’ve made three read through passes so far, and have a mountain of notes, both on the hard copy manuscript, the digital version, and lots of paper and digital scribblings on the mystery plot.

    I cut myself some slack because this is my first actually mystery novel (as opposed to my fantasy novels that have crime elements). I knew there would be a heck of a learning curve. I also took the time to read screenwriter Jack Epps’s book Screenwriting is Rewriting, which emphasizes multiple passes. The book was recommended by author Carrie Vaughn at the Virtual Rainforest Writers Retreat I attended back in March. I also attended an online revision workshop that presented a system similarly to Healy’s, with one difference, your first pass is actually a writer’s fix it up pass. Then you put it aside, print it out and do a read through. I do like Healy’s advice to read through without notes, because when you start, you wind up like me, with a huge amount of margin and line notes. I need to figure out how to avoid going overboard with this.

    Of course, now the book feels like a hot pile of something. But I do have a much better handle on it. This is all a long way to say that I’m working on improving my revision process 🙂

    One thing I want to include is some way to track revision progress. It’s easy with drafting–word counts or scenes written. But really difficult to track words revised. I suppose scenes revised could be one way, but with multiple passes, that becomes more onerous. A checklist of things to fix and then ticked off might work. Any thoughts? Or do you just revise to a deadline?

    As you can see, today’s post really touched a chord with me 🙂

    Thanks for that! Have a great Sunday!

    • Wow, Dale, great content there. Thanks. I relate to a lot of it. The idea of momentum is key. I find if I’m away from a story more than a couple of days, I lose mojo. Pressing on to finish a draft is so important.

      As for tracking revision progress…Scrivener gives you several ways to label a scene: To Do, First Draft, Revised Draft, Final…you can also make up your own. Another plus is that you can take a “snapshot” of a scene you’re going to revise in a big way, so it saves the old scene for comparison.

  8. Puffy? Stephen King? Yes. Even some of The King’s published books feel that way. But it’s KILLER puff. I am a dust bunny under his shoe. I can’t afford puff.
    Good post! I’ve long thought writing is a romance. Or an athletic event. The feels are the same.

    • Right you are, Carole. A lot of similar “feelz.”

      And yes, if we could write “killer puff” all the time maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. The formula is sound, another way of saying we need to be prepared to “kill our darlings.”

  9. Interesting question. I’m very methodical with the work.

    I have a day job but I’ve been trying to live the “Writer’s Life” to make it my full-time gig. So if I’m methodical with my work it won’t hurt my income. Being methodical applies to your question as well because I’m always trying for the best quality no matter what. The better the quality I can produce the more vested I become.

    I do have a quota and added on an editing quota to keep on task. If I find that I’m waning I will start a new WIP. I’m not dong this to stall but to not waste time I could dedicate to another WIP. I can explore in that new work as well. I’ve developed a universe of sorts around people from a fake town called Hillfort. I can use that new start for solving problems in other works and it brings back that spark.

    Also, last week I have started to use SmartEdit. Wow – can’t believe how much this helps out the editing process. Now something else is up there at the management table with me.

  10. Love the phrase and the pictures!

    I identify with this process. I find myself bouncing along in the first draft with a great idea and a ton of enthusiasm — until I’m somewhere in the middle of the journey. Then I find myself slogging along, not so sure that it’s working. I like your tips on how to get going again.

    Like a couple of others have mentioned, I enjoy the process of revision. Once the story is in place, polishing it is gratifying.

  11. The doctor looks like a whole lot of painful prodding of the guy type is going to happen, and he’s happy about it.

    The “in love” bit is a bit harder for those of us who have written romance because those gushy feelings on the page need a surprising amount of writer control even before the editing so it seems real without the reader throwing up in her mouth from the sugary mush, or we sound like one of Snoopy’s over-the-top John and Marsha moments. But, yeah, totally agree.

  12. Good post, Jim, and I’m glad to see you quoting Jeremiah Healey. He was a terrific speaker and a good writer. I’m currently enjoying my new novel — I get up every morning and look forward to working on it. I don’t know why, but I consider myself lucky to have a job I love.

      • If you were anywhere in the building, you’d hear him speak. 😉
        I had the pleasure of hearing him several times. I owe him my name tracking system.

  13. I do rolling edits as I write, so my 1st drafts aren’t too bad. They still need revisions. Editing/rewriting is where the magic happens. Once I finish the initial draft, I set it aside to work on different project. When I come back with clearer eyes, I *wish* I could read it through without editing. It’s just not in my DNA.

    Love the tips to stay in love with the WIP, Jim! I’m blinded by love at the moment. My brain can’t even fathom hitting a roadblock with this WIP. Isn’t that always the way? Still, I’ll stay in denial for as long as possible, thank you. When that changes, like we both know it will, I’ll refer to your tips to jumpstart the flow again. 😀

    • So glad to hear about the current love affair, Sue. Every now and then one of them lasts all the way to the end! May it be so with you.

      I know what you mean about not being able to read through without editing. I’ve disciplined myself to make only four types of marks in the pages and get through the dang thing, then think about the macro issues first, then in descending order the micro issues. Sol Stein referred to this as the triage method.

  14. Excellent advice, as always, Jim. I’ve already shared these stellar tips in several places on social media. Should help a lot of writers get through that “muddle in the middle,” as you call it! Enjoy the first long weekend of the summer!

  15. 5 screens into the Comments, and I’ve added this to my outline: “Defer giving his reason until later (SECHOST)”

    It helps to listen to characters. Page 48, a minor MG character says, out of the blue, “Let him keep the present.” I’m not sure why, but I let the hero hold onto the present. I get to page 90, hero needs a present, and he already has it.

    In my WWII novel, my Zeitzler thinks, “Hitler is crazy. I should resign.” Against the odds, I let him. Later I check. Zeitzler resigned IRL.

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