First One Room, Then Another

This week I finished the first draft of my work in progress, Texas Gravel, when I typed The End. This is number fourteen, and I had the same feeling of satisfaction as when I completed my first novel over ten years ago. It took years to finish that one and have it ready for publication, but this one unfolded in a matter of months.

Now the real fun begins.

Writing is enjoyable, or I wouldn’t do it. World-building is fun and rewarding. There’s great satisfaction in creating and developing characters, exploring whatever it is that makes them tick, and bestowing upon them all the ingredients necessary to become real in our imaginations.

But my absolute favorite part of the process is editing. Some folks approach it with dread, and others simply endure it as just another part of the process. I look forward to starting with the first sentence and combing through several months’ worth of creativity for a variety of issues.

There are as many theories about how to edit as there are editors and authors. Some say “write in one room, edit in another.”

Well, I guess that’s a good idea, but for me, that’s impossible. I write wherever I light on any particular morning. It might be at my desk, surrounded by bookshelves that reach sixteen feet high. Other days it might be feet up in my recliner, propped up on the couch, on perched on a stool at the kitchen island. More recently, I wrote much of the second act on the kitchen island in our weekend place, while workers made enough racket to wake the dead.

One of my favorite places to work is lying on our bed with my laptop across my legs ala Mark Twain. There’s a great photo of him partially under the covers with a typewriter on his lap and if memory serves, he’s the first novelist to write a book on the Iron Maiden.

I edit the same way, and in those same locations, and then some. It might drive some folks nuts, but I’ll work on the laptop for a while, then move to the Mac in my office and perch there for a day or two, reminiscent when I had a real job in an office.

My first edits are part of the first draft. I’ve told you how each morning I read what came the day before, edit those pages, and then slide into the current day’s work. In essence, I edit every day as I go.

Then once finished, I dig into the first draft, rewriting and tightening sentences, and looking for errors in continuity. I have a bad habit of forgetting what kind of cars my characters drive, or any number of descriptions about what they do, like, or feel. This is also when I start to notice repetitive words and do a search. The first time it happened in The Rock Hole, I realized I’d used the word “porch” two hundred and twenty-seven times.

That’s 227.

It happens all the time. A host of other words including, windows, car, sedan, door (especially door), and a host of others make wayyyy too many appearances in my work. I won’t even search for the word, “that.” This gives me the opportunity to look for useless words such as “just” or “very” or those pesky adverbs I’ve discussed in the past. Editing on the screen gives me the chance to rewrite even more sentences and tighten them up. I even more entire paragraphs around, or pull a sentence from here and there, and plug them into different places to make the draft read better.

I’m pretty good at setting scenes, but this is when I add a lot more description and detail to locations, people, and their actions to put the reader in that place and time. At this point the manuscript grows, even though sentences and paragraphs melt away with alarming frequency.

By the original draft’s third act, I’m thinking and typing fast, pushing hard to get the framework concreted into place. Detail takes a back seat to the action at that point, and editing is the time to expand certain scenes that were cheated the first time. I look for the opportunity to use all of our senses, sight, sound, smell, touch, and even taste. Many writers forget those descriptors and their work would likely improve if they added details to make it even more realistic.

This is where “He smelled woodsmoke” becomes “Smoke from a distant fire reminded him autumn was the time to burn leaves,” or “Burning leaves created a fog-like haze in the chilly autumn air.” The edits and possibilities are endless.

Here is where we can lift our vocabularies. We tend to use the same common words over and over, but now is the time to add excitement and richness with the use of the right word. Dialogue changes at this point, adding and subtracting, and getting into the character’s rhythm of speaking and acting.

Editing on the screen is fine, but I need to see it in true print form, as close to a real book as possible. It’s now the time to print the manuscript and read it again from start to finish. It’s stunning to see how many typos I’ve already missed, or sentences or paragraphs that are in the wrong place. Despite all the work I did in the first draft and the electronic edits, the printed manuscript is a riot of scratched out words, replaced words, corrected sentences, and margins full of hand-written notes and questions.

Finished, the pages then go to my personal editor, The Bride, who has a degree in journalism and worked several years as a newspaper reporter before she came back from the dark side. Her copy is marked with even more typos that I missed, and suggestions in the margins, and questions about a character’s actions or what they might or might not do in a particular situation.

Back at my desk with two different hard copies, I type in all those changes and the completed manuscript is polished and ready for my agent.

Maybe this peek behind the curtain in my writing world will help novice writers realize there’s no magical right or wrong way to edit. It’s about writing and rewriting as they attempt to complete that polished manuscript and find their place in the publishing world.

Do what works for you.

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About Reavis Wortham

Two time Spur Award winning author Reavis Z. Wortham pens the Texas Red River historical mystery series, and the high-octane Sonny Hawke contemporary western thrillers. His new Tucker Snow series begins in 2022. The Red River books are set in rural Northeast Texas in the 1960s. Kirkus Reviews listed his first novel in a Starred Review, The Rock Hole, as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” His Sonny Hawke series from Kensington Publishing features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke and debuted in 2018 with Hawke’s Prey. Hawke’s War, the second in this series won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. He also garnered a second Spur for Hawke’s Target in 2020. A frequent speaker at literary events across the country. Reavis also teaches seminars on mystery and thriller writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to writing conventions, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC. He frequently speaks to smaller groups, encouraging future authors, and offers dozens of tips for them to avoid the writing pitfalls and hazards he has survived. His most popular talk is entitled, My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters. He has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas. All his works are available at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at “Burrows, Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “The cinematic characters have substance and a pulse. They walk off the page and talk Texas.” —The Dallas Morning News On his most recent Red River novel, Laying Bones: “Captivating. Wortham adroitly balances richly nuanced human drama with two-fisted action, and displays a knack for the striking phrase (‘R.B. was the best drunk driver in the county, and I don’t believe he run off in here on his own’). This entry is sure to win the author new fans.” —Publishers Weekly “Well-drawn characters and clever blending of light and dark kept this reader thinking of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

27 thoughts on “First One Room, Then Another

  1. Hi. Thanks for the details about your editing process. Although mine is similar, reading your description makes me long for a nap.

    I am editing my new novel. When writing or editing on my laptop I always sit at the desk in my writing room, mainly because I prop the laptop up on a five-inch stack of books and use a separate keyboard. Also, all my notes, calendars, and cheat sheets are posted over my desk. When I edit paper copies, like you, I change locations with a preference for a chaise lounge in our main room, but a bench outside during pleasant weather works, too.

    Editing is a lengthy endeavor for me, even though I edited here and there as I wrote the first draft. The need to add details during the editing stage—to enrich the text as well as make up for all the subtractions—is usual, sometimes fun, but feels endless. My wonderful, patient husband formats my books. For the last (one, two or three) editing passes, he formats the manuscript into Kindle book form. More errors show up.

    It always amazes me how frequently new, not so new, and veteran writers all say the same thing about editing: typos, awkward phrases, and weird vocabulary choices keep popping up during subsequent editing passes.

    • That first draft is to simply build the framework, and because of that, it’s rife with mistakes and typos. But you’d think we could weed all that out after reading the manuscript a couple of times. In my opinion, our brains subconsciously make this corrections for us and for some reason, doesn’t send that info to us make the changes.

      Thanks so much!

  2. Rev, I love it. I am HOWLING over your use of “porch” 227 times and your mention of it. Obviously, if you noticed it many of your readers would too. Good catch!

    Concerning writing in one place, editing in another…I think whoever dreamed that one up (and I think it can be excellent advice) was thinking more in terms of “write in Ohio, edit in Fort Lauderdale” or something like that. As you said, do what works for you.

    Thanks for another terrific start to the day.

    • Lordy Joe, I find that happens all the time. I’ve taken to keeping a notepad beside those pages as I edit, writing down words that keep reappearing. The number of those words, and the number of times they appear are stunning.

      Now, I’d like to write here at the house, and edit in Fiji…wonder if my accountant will agree to that. Of course, my Bride is the accountant, and I doubt she’d go for it.

      Thanks for making me grin.

  3. I use a program called SmartEdit that tells me how many times I’ve used words, phrases, and other basic searches.

    I’ll add one more pass that catches more clunkers, glitches, and things your eyes have grown so accustomed to seeing which is to have the computer read the manuscript out loud.

    I also edit nightly, do a full read, print the manuscript (different font, and I do it in columns which fools the eye even more), but following along with the computer brings even more things that need to be fixed. Tedious? Yes. Critical for a polished product. YES. I do this pass AFTER my editor has returned her feedback. We both miss stuff.

  4. Thanks for a peek behind the editing curtain, Rev. I am always curious as to how other writers approach the process.

    I had the opportunity to see Mark Twain’s house and museum in Harford, Connecticut. That bed you mentioned was right off the stairway. And apparently before or after the use of the typewriter, Twain wrote longhand, then handed the sheets off one at a time to his typist, who raced back downstairs and typed the sheet immediately. The typist got his exercise.

    One thing that has really helped me is text-to-speech. I have never ceased to be amazed at how many times I can go over a manuscript and miss the obvious. And when I have Scrivener read the manuscript, it jumps right out and grabs me. In the last couple years I have used text-to-speech earlier in the process, and I am convinced it has sped up the editing. I use text to speech in Scrivener, then again in Word. Fast and female in Scrivener. Slower and male in Word.

    Thanks for your tips. Have a great weekend.

    • Good morning, Steve!

      I know an author who uses that same voice technology. It works for him, and his work shows it. My comments to Terry explain why these programs are difficult for me. Maybe because I’m too old and cranky to learn new tricks.

      later gator

  5. Like you, Rev, I love editing/rewriting. It’s one of my favorite parts of the process. I also do rolling edits, so my first drafts aren’t really “first” drafts. It’s exciting to start back at page one and read. Almost there. I’m racing toward the finish line…

    • I like the term, “rolling edits.” That’s exactly what I do. We should all read the pages from the session or day before. It’s a great launch pad.

      Write away!

    • I know. I’ve spoken to groups and afterward had a budding writer come up and tell they’ve been editing a manuscript for years. Oftentimes it comes from suggestions made by other writers. It might be insecurity, thinking that friends and people from writing groups know more than they do.

      Write. Rewrite, Polish. Polish. Submit.

  6. Great insights, Rev, thanks!

    I also like to edit. My first drafts are bare bones skeletons. Often scenes consist entirely of dialogue, like a play. Subsequent drafts are for filling in the muscles and flesh–like sensory descriptions, details of locations, character thoughts and reactions.

    Like Terry and Sue, I do rolling edits as I go, rereading the previous day’s work.

    With each editing pass, I can see the story improving which is always encouraging.

    • Our work always improves after each pass. I know of one successful author who edits backwards, one sentence at a time. That would make me crazy. Another edits backwards, one chapter at a time. I can see that for typos and such, but it won’t work for me. That’s the glorious thing about writing, we have our own style and methods.

  7. Love how you’ve embraced your writing and editing process, Rev! It really is a mindset. I’ve spent a lot of time this past year improving my own editing process, since I switched genres from fantasy to mystery. It’s like going from playing chess to playing three-dimensional chess, since mysteries have multiple levels to them, but I think I’m finally at the point where I’ve internalized a lot of what I need to do.

    I also love your willingness to write and edit anywhere–I think that’s freeing and also a way to keep your writing always close at hand.

    Have a wonderful weekend.

  8. “Do what works for you.”

    Better words never spoken, Rev, when it comes to editing. When it comes to editing “tricks”, I’ve tried most of them. Now my ‘”system” is somewhat established. I write my daily word count with cycling back and correcting basics like grammar, punctuation, typos, etc. Then, I next-day skim the piece to keep my head in the story and move ahead with more cycling back about every 500 words or so. Once the LI (low intelligence) ms is done, I plug it in Grammarly and see what AI (artificial intelligence) has to say which is usually a lot. I fix what I can and then ship it to my human proofreader who is RI (really intelligent) and finds the intricate stuff which she marks up and returns to me so I have to make the changes myself – the best writing exercise ever.

    I’ll share a little secret of what works for me next. I load the Word.doc.x into Amazon and hit the publish button (after all the formatting is done) and let it go live. As soon as that happens, I open the book on my e-reader and follow along in the Word ms on my laptop. I go through the published ms as a buyer would see it and modify mistakes on the Word.doc. Once that’s done, I republish the updated ms and never look at the bloody thing again. Enjoy your day!

    • Draft2Digital will create the epub and mobi files at no cost to you, and you can load them onto your e-reader that way without risking buyers getting an unpolished file.

  9. If you use “porch” and “door” too much, you may want to vary your settings, or you are writing too many useless steps when your character is moving around. He can go from the crime scene to his kitchen having coffee with his wife without every step detailed. The magic of transitions.

    Pro Tip from a Writing Teacher: Over-used words say as much or more about other writing problems than it does your vocabulary. For example, words like “suddenly” mean you really need to work on your tight viewpoint in action moments.

    The Twain picture was probably to promote the typewriter company he invested in so heavily and so disastrously. The Paige Compositer was supposed to be the future. It was not because of poor design. He was one of the greatest writers of all time, but he was an idiot about investing his money and kept dragging himself into poverty. Fortunately, his books kept selling.

    I’ve always been more of a layered editor working from big picture in my early draft to copy editing in the final drafts. The sentence you worry over for twenty minutes may be in a scene you end up deleting.

  10. Good blog, Reavis. Thanks for the reminders about editing. “Just” is my downfall, and I have to watch out for it in just about every novel I write.

  11. Thanks for the peek, Reavis! I just checked, and the word “porch” appears 0 (zero) times in my first two novels. But then, one concerns life 400 years ago and the other, 40,000. Just don’t get me started on “cave”! 😉

    And just like you wanting to read it in print form, I also order the whole thing from Amazon as a single Author Copy paperback and read it in book form before finalizing.

    Good stuff.

  12. All during the first draft, which is like pulling nails out of hundred-year-old oak boards, I tell myself, “you can’t edit what you haven’t written.”
    I also edit as I lay down my suspense line, then start over and weave in the romance–I promise, it’s much easier to kill ’em than to get them together…

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