Welcome back! So, very quickly, first the news, nice and quick: There’s a Labor Day Sale. You should check it out. Boom, done, on to the next docket: The Dragon Award winners have been announced, and there are some who are very unhappy about it (guess who?). If curious, check that out here.
Now, onto today’s post! Today’s topic comes by way of surprisingly convenient request. Why the surprise and convenience? Well … because as it turns out, I actually received a request for a post of this nature a week or so after I’d written it … but as a reward for my Patreon Supporters, who usually get access to behind the scenes stuff and the like.
That said, it was a request for a Being a Better Writer topic, and aside from one caveat (that being that this is my approach, and other authors likely differ), it’s worth looking at. So often with BaBW we talk about writing in one form or another: How to improve, what to watch out for, even how to take care of yourself while writing. But aside from my own personal commentary on what I’m up to during the fact or some Q&A responses, we’ve not really talked in-depth about the process and steps from start to finish of a novel once the first draft is done. And there are a lot of steps!
Now, that said, the particular steps presented here? These are mine. Not in a possessive way, but they’re the steps that I use when taking my book from “finished draft” to “finished product.” They’re what I’ve settled on over years of writing and millions of words written. I bring this up because this is not the editing process that was used by any of my old teachers, from Sanderson to Kent (it’s actually much closer to Larry Corriea’s editing process). Each one of them, when answering a similar question, spoke of a different process than the one I use, with different steps, though—and I will stress this—we all still accomplish the same goal.
My point? This is the editing process I use. You can pick and select what steps from it you wish, but in the pursuit of making your work the best it can be, I would highly advise using it (and other’s processes) as a template, not a perfect guide. Know your weaknesses and build a system that is designed to ferret them out and fix them as you edit. Find steps that work. This post isn’t meant to be the way to do it, but a way.
So, that said, let’s get to it! My editing process, in several steps, with examples.
Step One: Complete the First Draft
So, this is the first step … and I actually don’t have any evidence of this one first hand, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. But basically, this is the first, “finished” version of the book that is completed: The first draft. This is the point where I sit back, let out a sigh, and take the rest of the day off because this book is complete. Or at least, the first draft is. From start to finish, the book is done. No missing chapters, no content left unwritten. It’s done (and it’s always a relief at that).
Step Two: Complete the Alpha 1
Now you get to find out why I don’t have any examples of the first draft. After I’ve let the story sit for a period of time (usually anywhere from a week to a few months), I load it back up, and start reading through it, line by line, just like I’m reading an ordinary book. And as I do this, I make changes. Each time something stands out, reads wrong, or doesn’t line up, I fix it. Usually I have a few spots I want to smooth over anyway—earlier chapters where I want to tweak details to fit better in with the later chapters, tweaks to the foreshadowing so events line up better, etc. And I make these to the first draft document … which I why I really don’t have any examples of those first drafts: they get edited into an Alpha 1 document.
So, let’s take a look at an excerpt of an Alpha 1 document, which is what gets sent out to Alpha 1 readers via a private Google Doc. This is from the earliest draft of SUPER MODEL, one of the short stories in Unusual Events:
It hit both me and my mother pretty badly. Thinking back, I’m not even sure I remember the rest of the year that clearly—part of it is a haze, a blank fog that shrouds my memories of that year like mist over a lake. I remember that things had already been weird for me already that year, what with getting older and discovering the joys of puberty. [Emphasis Added]
Right, so that’s a text example of what an Alpha 1 reader might see. Now, they read through and note problems like, for example, this one:
Looks like you have an extra already here maybe.
Which was a comment on the “already been weird for me already” in the segment above. I then go through and edit this, often asking the initial commentator to take a look at the revision to see if I’ve fixed the issue. Sometimes multiple readers weigh in on comments. Sometimes they disagree with one another. But with each, I make changes, either to better explain things, rearrange confusing sentences, or even address the rare plot hole. The point of an alpha is to find large errors, such as confusing sentences or topics, plot holes, things that aren’t explained, etc, and so that’s what we look for.
And so I make the changes, and build an Alpha 2, which looks like this:
It hit both me and my mother pretty badly. Thinking back, I’m not even sure I remember the rest of the year that clearly—part of it is a haze, a blank fog that shrouds my memories of that year like mist over a lake. I remember that things had already been weird for me that year, what with getting older and discovering the joys of puberty.
Now, that’s a pretty simple fix (just a word or two) but some can be massive. I’ve cut and rewritten entire sections before when it was needed (but that’s a lot of text to post, so we’ll leave that undone for now).
Anyway, once this first round is done, I have the Alpha 2 document ready, and it’s time to send it off to the second set of Alpha readers.
Step Three: Complete the Alpha 2
So, now I go get more Alpha readers, and I do the same thing again. This step is basically identical to the first Alpha read, though usually there are less errors to be found, and those that are usually are found are a bit smaller in scope. But again, we’re looking for the same stuff: Improperly explained bits, plot moments that could be tightened up, extra stuff that could be cut … etc.
Why make this a separate step? Easy. I want new eyes to look it over, but with the big errors cleared up they can find smaller stuff. For example, take this line from the Alpha 2 of the same story—
“Run by?” he asked. It sounded like a question of what I’d just said, so I repeated myself.
—which became, for the Beta 1—
“Run by?” he asked. It sounded like he was questioning what I’d just said, so I repeated myself.
Again, Alpha 2 changes tend to be a lot smaller than Alpha 1 changes, usually more pointed towards readability than larger problems like pacing, plotting, and the like … but those can sometimes crop up anyway. Changing one thing can sometimes lead to a need for change in the Alpha 2 … and possibly even a need for a third Alpha with a really rough manuscript … though I haven’t had to do that yet.
Step Four: Beta 1
At this point, you can probably guess what this step is. This is the proofreading stage. All the plot and construction issues have been cleaned up, so now I turn the lens to a fine focus, rather than a grand view. This is the point where I unleash the beta readers on the first Beta copy. Their goal? To find each and every typo, misspelled or misused word, erroneous character use, extra space … everything I haven’t found yet (I actually do my own ‘Pre-Beta” read step between the Alpha 2 and Beta 1, just to take some of the load off).
Once again, I get new readers into the mix (so that they don’t skim over text or miss something because they’ve read it before), and they’ll take something like this—
Alma let out a sigh, her shoulders slumping as she lowered ream of paper she’d been unwrapping to the table.
Alma let out a sigh, her shoulders slumping as she lowered the ream of paper she’d been unwrapping to the table. [Emphasis Added]
This is little stuff, sure, but there’s a lot of it. Monthly Retreat (the story from which the above was lifted) was only 13,000 words, but there were over 30 tiny little errors like this to fix in the Beta 1 alone, not to mention the Beta 2 (if that seems clean, you’re right; I actually produce very clean drafts for this industry according to my editors). Missing words, typos, missed quotation marks. All of it gets looked at. From that, we get Beta 2.
Step Five: Beta 2
Beta 2, as you can guess, is more of Beta 1. At this point I bring in more Beta readers, as well as ask the first set to read it over again, counting on both the new eyes and the return of the old ones to once again go over everything with a fine-tune comb. More errors are found, small wrinkles that are smoothed out. From this careful, detailed reading, the work is ready for formatting and the Copy Edit.
Step Six: Formatting and the Copy Edit
Now comes my least favorite part. The work’s formatting must be adjusted for publication. This means going over it all once more, this time taking the result of Beta 2 and adjusting anything that needs to be changed in order for the title to look right in book form (as opposed to the word document it’s part of). Granted, I’ve streamlined this process quite a bit; I tend to start my books with half the formatting done in advance, a lesson learned after being forced to do a ton of extra work on my first. But there’s still work to be done putting together a table of contents, title page, copyright info, an about the author page … etc. All that extra stuff goes in.
Then, after I’ve done all that, comes the Copy Edit. I “publish” the book myself, converting it to an actual mobi file and dumping it onto my kindle so that I can check on all the formatting, etc, and see how it holds up.
This means reading the book again. For the … sixth time? Probably more? I really don’t want to count, because by this point I really do just want to be done.
Anyway, I read through the copy-edit, fixing each formatting error as I come to it and updating my copy. Sometimes it goes easily … sometimes it does not. More than once I’ve repeatedly made changes, converted a book file into a e-reader file, transferred it to my device … and found that somehow, the formatting error still persists. Hours have been spent figuring out the causes of such problems, and usually it’s something as innocuous as a misplaced space or accidental tab-indent I failed to notice during the writing process.
Regardless, this step goes forward until at long last I am satisfied that everything is good, and the formatting, etc, is finished.
Step Six: Cover and Upload
And … now we reach the final step. Everything cleared, I take the Master Copy Edit file and make a final save of it as a “Final” file, marking it as such. I take that file, along with the cover, and submit them to Amazon. Amazon’s own team converts the file and, using an automated system, checks it for errors (which really doesn’t work that well—it flags every single word or name it doesn’t recognize, and when you write science-fiction and fantasy …), and then puts it up for the release. I put in a release date (Amazon didn’t actually used to have this feature, it just went up when it went up, but nowadays they’ve learned that this is a good idea), set the clock, and the book is out of my hands.
Meanwhile, I go rest my burned out mind doing something else, taking a break until I start my next book (usually a day or two after the last one went live).
And that’s it! The exact process I’m going through right now with Colony, and soon to go through with Shadow of an Empire. Alphas, Betas, Copy Edits, from the first draft all the way down to the final product that goes live for readers like you.
Anyway, I need to get back to said editing process. I hope you found something useful to take away from this examination of my process, something that can assist you with forming your own editing process.
Oh, and don’t forget. Before you go, check out the Labor Day Sale!