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Author Topic: Novelists - what do you change?
Member # 5137

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I'm deep in the throes of editing a novel project (YA sci-fi, teen girl on a space station.) I'm not yet to the point of sending it out for critique, but getting near there.

For whatever reason it's been bugging me, what should I be prepared to change when I ask for feedback from others? The longest work I've ever had critiques on before this has been something near 8k words, whereas this will be a good 60-75k (maybe more, depends on how much I add in editing. It's at 55k right now with several new scenes needed.)

I'm trying to get my head around the novel creation process and would appreciate thoughts from those who have been down this road before. I'm asking specifically for input from novelists because it seems to me that with a short story, you can take feedback from critiquers and make somewhat large scale changes to the story in a reasonable amount of time. But with a novel-length project...where do you draw the line? What kinds of things do you change? Setting details? Subplots? Details of the plot? Characterization? (more? less? different?) Motivations of the main characters? Backstory that isn't told so much in the novel but educates characters' behaviors?

Would love to hear your experiences. Thanks in advance!

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Member # 8368

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Well, first, get used to the idea that it's going to take more than one revision. I would say at least three times through the entire thing. I've done way more than that on my first.

Revisions due to critiques are usually spot changes. I would not change a major part of the story--motivations. characters, or subplots--based on a critique. Although, a critique might spark a line of thought that would cause me to make such a change.

I have changed, not the details of the setting, but how much detail I'm giving. And I've changed the depth of the POV at certain points. I have added some backstory where readers indicated that they didn't understand something.

I have added scenes and condensed or deleted scenes during my revisions. But that's more often based on what I think the story needs than on a critique.

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Member # 5675

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Don't hurt me, but I say, change whatever you want to, and whatever feels right.

Graveyard is the first novel I've received feedback on, but I did it from a very early stage. I can't say any review so far has caused me to make any major changes to the plot, but one reviewer's insights have inspired me to think about Celeste's reactions to things in new and interesting ways.

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Member # 8019

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I've looked at several dozen novel projects. Before I looked at the first one, I'd developed a checklist for scrutinizing a novel. It didn't come into play except for one of the novels, but it too I passed on because it wasn't quite ready for the expenditure of effort. In every other case, I couldn't read the manuscripts past the first few lines. I also looked at their middles and endings before declining and didn't find anything worth the heartache of getting involved as a developmental editor.

I've evolved my checklist by analyzing published novels that I like and that are popular.

My macro structure checklist first includes whether reading a beginning, middle, and ending passage gives a general sense of the story in such a way that I might approximately predict what fills in the intervening passages. For each of those three passages, I see if there's a crisis in the works and if they're relevant to each other. Specifically for the crises; inciting crisis, whether it's timely, compelling, and logical; for the climax crisis, whether there's a clear turn in the outcome from increasing doubt to outcome most in doubt to decreasing doubt; for the final crisis, whether it portrays a reasonably complete and satisfying reversal of fortune.

Every published story, micro, short, or long, that I've analyzed passed that scrutiny.

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited April 06, 2009).]

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Member # 2733

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The hardestpart of a novel for me is to be willing to make the scope of changes an honest appraisal might require. There's a tendency to cling to what we've labored so long and hard to create. I've heard that it is not uncommon for a novel to go through 3-5 complete rewrites, not editing passes or revisions.

Ultimately, you should be the driving force behind any substantial changes, rather than critiquers, but from readers you might do as little as clean up unclear passages/story points, or do as much as be inspired to revise the story in its entirety.

I've wasted a lot of time working too long with a manuscript that really needed to be redone, so my biggest advice to be open to that possibility, again, following your own judgement.

Good luck!

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Jeff Baerveldt
Member # 8531

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I've always liked Elizabeth George's method of obtaining novel feedback.

When she gives her novel to her first readers, she gives them two sets of questions -- one set to be read before they read the novel, and the second set to be read after they read the novel.

The difference between these two sets of questions is that that somethings about which you want feedback have to be known before going into the reading. For example: "Does the setting emerge well?"

The other set of questions focus on specific plot that can only be answered after having finished the novel. For example: "Is the break-up between Jack and Diana believable?"

When her primary reader is ready, she sits down with him or her and talk about the book, using the questions as a guide for their conversation.

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Jeff Baerveldt
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One more thing.....

Regarding how many rewrites a novel needs, that will vary depending on (a) the writer's method and (b) the novel itself.

Writers who spend time outlining their story won't need as many rewrites as writers who don't outline. Also, there are writers (like Holly Lisle) who have developed a one-pass revision method; but these writers typically outline as well.

Then there's the novel. Some stories, despite how much a writer has prepared before drafting, get go places where the writer doesn't expect. When this happens, you have three choices: let your characters go as they please, pull you characters back in, or stop and start over. Depending on which one you choose will determine, in large part, the number of revisions you'll need.

The one piece of advice I've taken to heart about drafts and revisions that has really helped me is this: Do you damn best to get it right the first time.

In other words, don't say, Well, this is a first draft, so it can be crap. That's a surefire way to ensure multiple revisions.

But if you strive to get it right the first time -- even though you probably won't -- you'll have an easier time fixing the mistakes, thereby cutting down on revision time.

PS -- I'm not just making this up, either. My understanding is that Dean Koontz, Dan Simmons, and OSC all strive to make their first draft their final draft.

[This message has been edited by Jeff Baerveldt (edited April 06, 2009).]

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Member # 5682

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KayTi, I think it boils down to how much you think the idea improves the story and whether the effort is worth it to you (i.e., your confidence in the project).

I had an editor interested in a story so long ago that I won't mention the year. She wanted me to eliminate an historical figure from the YA story. This character held most of my interest in the project, but the editor said it served only to distract the reader from the real story. That hurt.

She left the publisher soon after and I couldn't track her down. I'm still thinking about it, but lately it's been on my mind a lot and I hope I can make better judgments, now.

Good luck.

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Member # 8368

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In other words, don't say, Well, this is a first draft, so it can be crap. That's a surefire way to ensure multiple revisions.

I agree with this. But it's also a fine line. You want the first draft to be as good as you can make it. As close to the final draft as you can make it.

At the same time, you don't want to self-edit too much in the first draft. Especially when the story is flowing, you want to let it flow. And, yes, that means you're probably going to have to clean up some things later.

For me, I'm getting better, but when the writing is really flowing, adverbs sneak in. I need to go back and take at least most of them out. I also tend to slip into third person omniscient when the writing is really flowing (which isn't happening right now). I usually need to change that to limited third, often getting more into the viewpoint character's thoughts and feelings on the second or third draft.

It's a point on the continuum we all have to find for ourselves. Hopefully, we get better with time and practice.

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Jeff Baerveldt
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@ Meredith

You make an excellent point about not editing while writing. Let me elaborate what I meant.

In my own mind, I've always divided the "post-writing" process into two phases -- revision and polishing.

Revision has to do with "re-visioning" of the story. That is, it has to do with the big things that make up a story -- setting, character, plot, etc.

(This is why I like outlining my stories before drafting them. I can vision them and re-vision them in different way before actually writing them. Of course, new visions of the story come along while drafting, which have to be dealt with. And then there's the effect the story has on the reader...which you don't know until you're actually reading it. A scene that seems important might really be redundant after the fact because you've ended up covering the same material in other sections.)

Polishing a story is what most people will call copyediting. You look at words, sentences, paragraphs. You focus on spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, and typos.

Now, I absolutely agree that while drafting one should NOT engage in copyediting. Don't interrupt the flow of words that can be corrected after the writing session is over, or the next day.

I've found that my own copyediting takes place in two phases. The first phase happens everyday before I sit down to write. I always reread what I wrote the day before to get me back into the story. And though I resist the temptation to change too many things, I'll correct a mistake if I see it or rephrase a passage if the error is apparent.

But my real copyedit happens after I finish all my revisions of my draft. It's the last thing I do to a story before sending it off.

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Robert Nowall
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Ultimately, no matter what someone else tells you about what they think should be corrected, you and you alone have the final say on what does and doesn't get changed. (At least until publishers get their hands on it and edit it without telling you.)

My experience with critiquing, giving and taking, have generally been good. I liked most of what I heard about my own stuff, and usually tried to incorporate changes into the stories, save for those I decided to work-no-more on. I tried to be as thorough as possible when I gave, which meant going from the broad ("What does this story mean?") down to the picayune ("This word is misspelled.") (I'm relatively inactive these days, far as critiquing goes.)

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Member # 7960

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I gave my first novel to someone here on Hatrack. The beginning was already pretty polished, and I was happy with it. He wrote back after the first chapter and said he thought I needed to start earlier on in the story. This was someone whose opinion I really valued, or I might have ignored it, but I worked on it and it wasn't easy, but I wrote a whole new first chapter (alright, let me be honest. It still isn't quite done.) It has added to the story in more ways than was originally intended--it helps me explain the world through action instead of through semi-forced conversations. Unfortunately, this has sent shock waves through the whole book. Now on page 37, the heroine is discovering something for the first time, but that's something she already knew from page 3. And there are whole sections that don't have any reason for existence now. Luckily (or not), I don't feel any kind of rush to finish it.

On the other hand, this same critiquer has given me advice that I didn't end up taking. I tried, but it just didn't work for me, so I undid it.

If I took every bit of advice I'd been given, my book wouldn't even make sense any more. I'm sure you already know what I'm talking about. The best thing I can tell you is go with your gut--BUT if someone you respect tells you something strange or difficult, don't let it go without thinking about it. At least play around with it for a while. Your gut will tell you if you're heading in the right direction.

[This message has been edited by Unwritten (edited April 07, 2009).]

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Member # 5952

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I've had two of my books read by critters. I think the key for me was to read their feedback, and then ask myself the question, did they get the story that I wanted to tell? If they didn't, then why not? What could I change or tweak to help them see the story that i want? If they did, and they just didn't like it or it didn't work for them, then I look at their crit in a different light. There's still insight to be gained, but ultimately, it's my story.

Based on their reviews, I've changed the beginning quite a bit (including lopping off a good 50 pages or so), and did a lot more character and background work. The bones of my story are still there, but I had a lot of exercising to do to make it buff and toned.

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