So You Want To Edit A Book Part 1: The Dramatic First Read Through


Hi you guys! Remember me? Last fall, we walked through the process of writing a novel together, during which I shared tips and tricks in the hopes that I could pass along something helpful.

While I wrote that column, I was actually writing a book. I mean, I couldn't exactly talk/blog about it without doing it, right? My hope, at the time, was that you, dear reader, wrote one too. Did you? How'd it go?

So. Back then, I also made a promise. I promised I'd let you know next about my editorial process, the process of taking my insane first draft and turning it into something decent. Hopefully something better than decent.

I planned to start the editorial column back in February, but, you know, life intervenes, the holidays happened, and I made the decision to write a whole other book while letting that last one fester on a virtual shelf in my computer. 

(The reason for this was simple, at least to me: I needed time away from the story. It was the hardest one I've written, a story that blends years of painstaking research with the horrors of one of humanity's darkest hours. I needed to let it sit, to think about other things, for a long time before I could face it again.)

Be critical of your writing, yes, but please: don't be critical of yourself.

So now it's April. The book is off that shelf and back in my hands. I'm actively editing. So I thought I'd check back in with you, tell you about my process, and again, hopefully in this ginormous knowledge dump, you'll find something useful.

And to be fair: that's by no means a certainty. Not by a long shot. One thing I've learned from recent chats with other writers (a podcast here, the AWP conference with my LitReactor colleagues there) is this: no two writers write or edit the same way. I spoke with one author who writes so many books at the same time he almost made my head explode. He edits as he goes, finishing each first draft and sending it immediately to his beta readers. Another writer with whom I spoke writes two or three chapters at a time, and then goes back and edits them, once again ending with something close to decent.

That's not how I roll, though. Not even close.

For me, as we discussed in that prior column, a first draft is quick. It's dirty. It's ugly. It's barely the framework around which my finished product will eventually stand, and as such, my editorial process is far more extensive than that of other writers. 

So, shall we dig in? In this column, the first of my editorial series, we're going to talk about the first, extraordinarily harrowing step I take when I remove a book from my virtual shelf.

What is it, you ask? What could be so scary?

Well...I read my book, in all it's sordid, horrific glory.

And let me tell can be dramatic...terrible...enlightening...and scary and intense and thrilling and wonderful, all at the same time.

Here's how it goes.

Why the dramatic first read through is important

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King talks about this first read-through. His advice sticks with me, even now. I'm paraphrasing here, but he says: Read it fast. Read it hard. In one sitting if you can. Get as much of an overall picture of your book in your head, as fast as you can, so you know your story.

I couldn't agree more. You can't begin to edit a book until you know it: the good, the bad, the terrifying. You have to know what you're working with before you alter a single word.

You also have to read impartially. You have to distance yourself from your words, because they're not your words anymore. They're the story

The dramatic first read through tells you so much. It tells you about pacing. Structure. Is your book moving too fast? Too slow? Is it rambling in concentric circles, never going anywhere?

It tells you about your characters. Are they strong? Brave? Silly? Whiny? What motivates them? Do any of them have enough of an arc to carry a novel?

It tells you so much more, too. So much you won't know until you read. So many bright spots. So many cool things you won't believe you wrote!

But the thing is, you're going to find flaws, too. Lots of them. And you should! Because even if you don't see them, believe you me: they're there. I promise. And you want to see these things before anyone else.

How'd my dramatic first read through go?

Oh man, you guys. My first read through of the book I wrote last fall was trippy. 

It's the sixth book I've written, and as such, I'm happy to say I can finally see improvements in my writing. Finally. The first draft had voice. It had details. It had some decent dialog, and a solid plot.

But oh! The pacing! The structure! It was awful!

I spent the first four chapters on a single wedding scene, adding in full pages about the food and drink and music. (I saw George R.R. Martin's influence over my writing, and yes, this wedding turned red.) Then when it came time for a slew of murders, I spent barely a few paragraphs, glossing over the inevitable deaths of dozens of people as though I couldn't face it myself. It lent the first 100 pages of the book a herky-jerky start-and-stop pacing that made me want to throw my Kindle at least twice. It...wasn't pretty.

And while the pacing did even out by the end (yay me!), I found some major flaws in the motivations of my main characters. There was no rhyme or reason to their actions. They floated through space, influenced not by the world around them but by my desires for their actions. 


So what did I do about it?

First things first. For me, remember, this was about reading, not about editing. So as I read, I kept a small notebook open beside me. I took copious notes on what worked, what didn't. Then, when I got really frustrated one day, I used the notebook to sketch out the personal histories of all of my main characters.

It helped a ton to do that. I wrote details like eye color (something I'm really good at not keeping consistent - in my zombie series, my publisher caught me no less than a dozen times, changing people's eye color indiscriminately), hair color, occupations, food preferences. I fleshed out their stories in that little notebook so I wouldn't have to in the book, giving myself the option to add choice details into the story, instead of info-dumping at the start of each character's introduction.

I also did things like fuss at my dog for letting me write such swill. I went for long runs to process motivations. I hit my punching bag really hard when I realized I'm still using my crutch words like "toward" and "moment." I guess I haven't outgrown my bad-writing ticks yet.

But most importantly, as I read, I found myself sketching out a plan, a rough outline of what the book can (and will) become. It'll be hard to implement, but at least the plan is there. It exists. It wouldn't have, had I simply sat down and started editing.

What are some important things to keep in mind?

Look, if you're anything like me, you really want your first draft to be perfect, even when you know that's an impossibility. If you're a brain-dumper, things are going to come out funky. They're going to come out weird. Even...awful.

I want you to remember: THAT'S OKAY! It's all part of the process.

I want you to remember: you cannot beat yourself up for bad or lazy writing. No matter what, you've written a book. A book that did not exist in this world until you sat down to write it. This is something of which you (and I) need to be proud. That is an accomplishment not to be taken lightly.

So give yourself a break. Be critical of your writing, yes, but please: don't be critical of yourself. Try to stay positive, and know that, when we dive into the first round of edits together, we'll have plenty of time to fix things.

Thanks for reading, good luck with your read through, and I'll see you next month for some more editorial talk!

Leah Rhyne

Column by Leah Rhyne

Leah Rhyne is a Jersey girl who's lived in the South so long she's lost her accent...but never her attitude. After spending most of her childhood watching movies like Star Wars, Aliens, and A Nightmare On Elm Street, and reading books like Stephen King's The Shining or It, Leah now writes horror and science-fiction. She lives with her husband, daughter, and a small menagerie of pets.

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big_old_dave's picture
big_old_dave from Watford, about 20 miles outside London, Uk April 24, 2015 - 7:46am

(Sort of) finished the first draft back of me first go at a novel in march at around 30k so will defo be using this when getting back into it for the next draft. Taking a break at the mo fixing some old short stories and starting a new one soon. At the moment thinking about it I'd feeling the entire thing needs re-doing.  

Josh Zancan's picture
Josh Zancan from Crofton, MD is reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck April 24, 2015 - 9:20am

Looking forward to the rest of the series.  I often go back and reread as I write (especially when I'm trying to figure out how to move forward), and take notes as I do.  There's already so much, but I feel more confident moving forward knowing what needs to be fixed in prior scenes.  I guess it makes me feel like I have a handle on it, and seeing those flaws gives me better perspective on what to adjust as I write--where I'm going wrong so I can make the adjustment now rather than having to go all the way back through the story when editing.  (For instance, I had a character in my head, of how she is and everything, but when I introduced her about sixty pages in, I deviated hard from that vision.  It doesn't work with the story at all.  I made notes on it--didn't change anything--but moving forward I have a better handle on how I need to write her, knowing I can go back and change her introductory scene.  Of course, I'm sure more changes will be made once I start proper editing, further than the notes I've already taken.)

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. April 24, 2015 - 9:39am

Wow, you guys! Thanks for stopping by and leaving comments! 

@big_old_dave: first, CONGRATS! On finishing! That's great! And definitely don't be afraid to give yourself the distance it sounds like you need - if you're feeling the the whole thing's a fail, give yourself some time to recover. It's hard not to hate your own words when you first finish them. Trust me. I do the same thing! Work on something else for a bit, then go back. A fresh perspective is all you need!

@Josh Zancan: See? Thanks for offering your perspective! We all do things so differently, and I LOVE hearing how y'all work! I always feel weird offering "advice" for that reason, too, so I'm glad to hear you'll be reading the rest of the series. I hope at some point I say something helpful! :)

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami April 24, 2015 - 1:30pm

So was editing your book in any difficult? I feel ya about consistency.:/

I know it took forever to edit mine. Granted it wasn't as long as took to write it (but who takes nine years to edit a novella?)

I'm one of those that tends to have pacing that flows to fast, that I credit/shame largely toward being more of a short fiction girl. So I ended up merging chapters, adding in side-stories and all sort of stuff.

Speak of the devil, this next one may be a side-story.

Look forward to checking out your book, not sure what you write, but I'm starting to warm up to general fiction.

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. April 25, 2015 - 6:30am

@L.W.Flouisa: Editing is always where I spend the bulk of my time, and it's always harder than writing the intial draft. By the time I'm done with at least three rewrites, I'll likely have changed every word at least once. Because I'm stubborn and I want to get it right. :) So I'm with you - editing takes FOREVER!!!!! 

I've already got four books out (three are a zombie series, one is more of a Frankenstein re-telling) - if you're interested, shoot me a PM and I'll send you links! I always feel weird linking right here. :D

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami April 26, 2015 - 2:11pm

Sent request. I've been trying to find more indie stuff, even though I'm going to brick and mortar more. (Reasons unrelated to self-pub or trade.)

Oh one major thing, when I edited mine, I had originally wrote with the intent is getting around being more suited to flash fiction.

And so although it was good for drafting, when come time for editing I had to make myself merge some stories that otherwise wouldn't have been longer than a scene.