Editing The Hell Out Of Your Book

From my understanding, hell is a place where bad people go.

First drafts are places where hellish sentences, plots and characters lurk. When you edit, you’re a manuscript exorcist. The power of revision compels you! The power of revision compels you!

As imperative as the editing process is, I’ve seen plenty of aspiring writers stuck in revision hell. I know people who have been editing and tweaking their first novel for over ten years. Then there are people who think a first draft is all you need, forgetting that when you say first draft, that implies there must come a second, third, yadda-yadda-yadda. We all can’t be Robert B. Parker who obtained legendary status as a writer who loathed rewrites. Let’s consider him the outlier, not the standard.

When you edit, you have to set tight rules. You want to polish that lump of coal into a diamond, but it has no value if you never get it out to an agent or publisher.

When 2014 ends, I will have published 8 books in 3 years. I’m always working on something, so I can’t let myself slip into editing hell. But, I also can’t scrimp on revising each novel and novella.

Editing, to me, is synonymous with the word rounds. Each book will require several rounds of revisions. And when I say round, I mean going from start to end, re-reading and rewriting like a person possessed. Here’s an example of how I edited my upcoming novella, The Waiting.

First Round : Also known as the first draft. My main concern at this stage was getting the story down. Occasionally I would go back and tweak what I wrote the day before, but the theme in this round is always onward and upward! Hell, what’s pouring out of me at this point may not even make sense, but somewhere in that mess is the backbone of the book. The key is to power through and get to The End.

Second Round : This is where the hard work comes in. I read every line from start to end, making changes, wiping out whole sections, adding more, tightening plot points, checking for grammar, punctuation, etc. Of all the rounds, this is the one with the most heavy lifting. This is where the story truly comes alive.

Third Round : I have several trusted people who are  my first readers. For each book, I’ll select two of them to read the manuscript. One looks at it like a line editor, finding all of my many mistakes, checking for continuity and basically making it look like I passed English class with flying colors. Another reads it to give me feedback on the story itself. They make suggestions on how to improve the story. Some parts need to be placed in earlier sections of a book, others tossed into a deep, deep pit. They’ll also point out sub-plots that my conscious mind wasn’t aware of, affording me the chance to further explore them and make the overall story stronger. The feedback from my first readers has a value impossible to quantify. I’m eternally in their debt.

Fourth Round : In this round, I take the line edits from my first reader and correct all of the mistakes. For me, this is the easiest round since someone has already told me what to do. I just need to follow orders.

Fifth Round : Now another very hard part. Scrambling the pieces of the story around based on my other first reader’s feedback. This can be a heavy rewrite that can take weeks, or a little less punishing that may only take all  my free time for a week.

Sixth Round : After I’ve retooled the entire book, I have to read it again, making more revisions as I go. This can be heaven or it can be hell. If it’s heaven, it’s ready to go once I’ve reached the last page. If it’s hell, it means another round of edits.

Luckily, for The Waiting, I was able to stop at 6 rounds. Double lucky was that it was a novella and only a hundred pages. Sweet. Now, when I wrote my thriller, The Montauk Monster ,a book that was just under 100,000 words, I believe I went as far as 8 rounds. Remember earlier when I said you have to set editing rules? That was essential for The Montauk Monster because I only had 4 months to write and edit the book. If your goal is to be a working writer, you’re going to be writing your ass off, year in and year out. There’s no time to be trapped in editing hell.

Don’t let the multiple rounds process scare you. Believe it or not, you’ll like the book more and more with each round. You may even grow to love it! The passion you felt on writing the first page will be rekindled. Honest.

I’m not saying this is the way you have to do it. It’s just the way I do it and it’s been working…so far.

Anyone out there stuck in editing hell? You have a revision trick that could benefit the rest of the class? Come on, let’s hear it. When it comes to writing, old dogs learn new tricks every day. I’ll send a signed promo copy of the cover of The Montauk Monster to the first 10 people in the U.S. who add to the conversation (have to watch that postage! if you live outside the US, I’ll find something else for you).

Happy editing!

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About Hunter Shea

Hunter Shea is the product of a misspent childhood watching scary movies, reading forbidden books and wishing Bigfoot would walk past his house. He doesn’t just write about the paranormal – he actively seeks out the things that scare the hell out of people and experiences them for himself. Hunter’s novels can even be found on display at the International Cryptozoology Museum. His video podcast, Monster Men, is one of the most watched horror podcasts in the world. You’ll also find him every week on the Final Guys podcast, available everywhere. He’s a bestselling author of over 30 books, all of them written with the express desire to quicken heartbeats and make spines tingle. Living with his wonderful family and two cats, he’s happy to be close enough to New York City to gobble down Gray’s Papaya hotdogs when the craving hits.

27 responses to “Editing The Hell Out Of Your Book”

  1. hookofabook says :

    Those darn first readers (developmental editors)!!!!! You know, one of them makes your life like living in heaven every day, cmon!! :)))))

  2. louckslindsey says :

    Like you, I go over it and over it again until it’s ready for human consumption, i.e. my critique partners, then chew on their suggestions for a while. I wish I could somehow make the whole process go faster, but I’m pretty slow. I guess that’s my trick, though–to give myself permission to go as slow as I need to so that I can put the best story out there that doesn’t feel like a first draft.

    That, and Pop Tarts.

    • Hunter Shea says :

      You go at your own pace and with whatever makes you comfortable. Pop tarts are a great pick me up. I prefer brown sugar cinnamon without frosting. 🙂 I’ll send a signed promo out to you!

  3. Tim Meyer says :

    Great post! My revision process is actually quite similar. I usually start losing my mind around the fifth draft! Personally, I think it’s different for each project; some books may need a little more love than others. The first book I wrote probably took ten drafts. The last book was about four. The one I’m currently working on is up to around six. I believe the key is to bang out the story early and just concentrate on revising in subsequent rounds. If you can hammer down the plot in that first draft, it makes everything easier. And outlining is huge! Thanks for this post, Hunter!

    • Hunter Shea says :

      The 3 of rounds definitely depends on the book. Sometimes the words flow just right, and other times, you want to drink kerosene and visit a match factory. When you get a chance, email me your address so I can mail you the cover promo!

  4. Craig says :

    I’ve been stuck in editing hell on my first novel for almost two years now. It turns out, however, that this has been a good thing. During my many, many rounds of editing, I started working on other projects – another novel, and a short story that has the potential to become a novella. The more I write the better I get. So now my first novel, after all those revisions, is becoming something that I am really proud of, and I hope to submit it within the next few months. I even came up with an idea for a sequel during my rewrites.Your professional advice has helped tremendously, and for that I thank you, sir.

  5. blazemcrob says :

    You and Hemingway have a lot in common, my friend. He was relentless with his edits. Thus, his books were great. I love this post! I was going to write one on the subject, but you did my work for me. I’ll just send everyone over here.


    • Hunter Shea says :

      Another link to Hemingway – both paunchy dudes with prematurely gray beards! And hey, anything I can do to make things easier for you, brother. I’m here for you. When you get a chance, email me (huntershea1@gmail.com) your address so I can send the promo

  6. Joseph Pinto says :

    Great insight, Hunter! I think everyone has their own ‘set of rules’ when it comes to editing; the key is to stick with what you’ve established & be consistent. I tend to be a nitpicker when writing my first draft – it slows me down for sure, but the grammatical & structural aspect in the ‘later rounds’ of editing then comes much easier; this allows me to focus in on details and overall vibe.

    I think a simple revision trick would be to allow your work to sit and simmer after your first round of editing – kinda like having a friend walk into your house and point out that the picture in the hall is crooked; how many times do you yourself walk pass and not notice it? Unfortunately, we don’t always have that benefit of time…

    • Hunter Shea says :

      Taking a break from the manuscript is a great point, Joe. I take a week away from it between the first and second drafts. Then a day or three between the other drafts to just let things gel. The subconscious needs time to piece everything together.

  7. Panel Beaters Roodepoort says :

    this is very nice blog i really like it

  8. Renae Rude - The Paranormalist says :

    This is just invaluable. Yes, I’ve been wondering how you do it. Thank you for revealing your method 🙂

  9. Renae Rude - The Paranormalist says :

    Reblogged this on Renae Rude – The Paranormalist and commented:
    By now you know I’m catching up on my blog subscriptions. I’m reblogging this one because I NEED easy access to it. After all, Hunter is one of my role models. I hope it’s of use to some of you too.

  10. pamelamorrisbooks says :

    Currently in Rounds 4-5 and waiting for trusty Reader(s) to get the manuscript back to me. In the meantime… in more Round 7 with some other deadline projects. Ugh. Great article, Hunter! Love to see how other writers work in the hopes of honing my own craft methods!

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  13. Brendan Brown says :

    Nice post and i like your ideas…….

  14. John Gibbons says :

    What I worry about is writing a story that just sucks no matter what. I worry that my vocabulary won’t shine through and that it will be a mess, or I won’t be able to describe on the page what’s in my head. Would love to read the Montauk Monster, but this post is so old lol. Still some advice would be great.

    • Hunter Shea says :

      Even if you wrote and published for 50 years, you’re still going to have those same worries. Just write your story the best way you know how and seek feedback from people who you trust and are avid readers or other writers.

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