Editing: On Research


It’s been a quiet week spent reading for Book Club. I just finished The Paper Magician last night, but won’t be posting the review until next Thursday, after our meeting. But, at least you have that to look forward to!

What I’ve really been focused on this week is research for The Steel Armada. Now, this is the first time I’ve ever actually done full blown research for a book. I’ve done some quick Googling on the spot to get clarity on an issue or scene, but I’ve never sat down with a text and taken notes and built up details and the world from there.

I had my first study session on Monday. For the first time in a long time, I took the manuscript out into the wild (Governor’s Cup, a local coffee shop downtown) and put in my earbuds to bring the din of espresso machines and conversations down to the comforting bustle of business.

It was a nice hour spent pouring over Sailing Ships. As previously mentioned, that book is a gold mine of info, but it’s actually a little advanced for me. It’s giving me terminology and diagrams, but it doesn’t really explain what the various parts of the ships do. So, I know where the mizzen is a on a ship, but I don’t know what function it serves.

Dammit, Jim! I’m a writer, not an artist!

So, my research is leading to more research. Which is awesome! I’m taking notes, learning new things, and letting those things further develop the world. And when the world develops so do the characters who live in it.

But, I want to talk a little about research in general, in terms of writing fiction.

Those of us who took any Creative Writing courses have heard the “tried and true” advice spoken with finality: Write What You Know.

…Yeah. About that…

Funny thing for Speculative Fiction authors is that this advice falls flat. I’m writing about a desiccated planet and the small fraction of humanity that survived on a flying armada of steel ships above it. I don’t exactly know what that’s like.

But, I know what it’s like to be a seventeen year old girl falling in love with her best friend. I know what it’s like to lose your father figure. And I know what it’s like to demand more from the people and the world around you.

And anything I don’t know, like the architecture of rigged ships, I can research.

Which is really the most important thing I’ve learned so far. Speculative Fiction authors can still write what they know, they just have to know a lot about a ton of different things. The key to great world building is developing the small details that lend your world credibility. Yes, there’s much in Fantasy and even Science Fiction that is made up of things we can never truly know before we set out to write them. But, I can learn as much as I can about the things that are real, or based on reality.

Do giant sailed ships made of steel fly through the air? No. But, those ships of my creation can follow the look and feel of wooden rigged ships from human history. And the more I know about that, the more realistic I can make the ships of my creation.

Now, I’m not saying I’m going to be an expert of fully rigged ships after this book is finished. And I doubt I’ll ever try my hand at sailing even the smallest of sailed craft. That actually sounds terrifying to me. But, I will be able to name the parts of a ship with clarity and confidence.

Watch out Jeopardy! I’ll wreck that ship category when the time comes!

(See what I did there? Wreck? Ship? Hah!)


I have only the slightest idea of what any of this means…

Another big research topic I’ll be doing soon is Aeroponics versus Hydroponics. These people have food, both plant-based and livestock, which means they grow crops. How? What’s their nutrition like? Their livestock’s nutrition? These are questions that need answered.

Not because they’re vital to the plot. They aren’t. At no point does a potentially under-nourished cow play a critical role in freeing this society from its oppressors. But, if I can lay the foundation of my own understanding, I can address any questions that might come up.

For instance, now that I think about it, goats are a far more believable protein source than cows. They’re way more versatile eaters and take up less space, while providing milk, cheese, meat, and hide.

Who doesn’t love goats? Look at ’em!

But, if you haven’t noticed by now, the research spiral can be a dangerous thing. I think it’s why I’ve avoided it so far. Because questions only lead to more questions, and I have a tendency to want them all answered.

Let me tell you now, that is not necessary. You don’t have to answer every single question. Because ultimately you just need enough truth to wrinkle out any doubt from your manuscript.

Of course, it’s not a bad thing to do too much research. You just have to recognize when to rein it in and bring your focus back to what really matters: the manuscript.

So, I’m spending a lot of time doing research this round of edits. But, I still feel hopeful about an August finish. I think this round of edits will go by faster because there’s a lot of content creation happening. That’s way more interesting than going through line for line and reworking things.

But, all this content creation means I’ll probably have to do a fourth draft, to clean up the lines I’ve added in order to flesh everything out. Bummer. I still want to have all of that done by August.

I’m going to need an endless supply of coffee and snacks.




Editing, or How I Decide to Drive Myself Crazy

Ask any author, and they’ll tell you how much they loathe editing. Brandon Sanderson has to bribe himself, though he calls it a reward system. For every x amount of pages, he buys a pack of magic cards. Otherwise he would never edit.

I’m curious to know how you guys feel about editing. Because I love it! Writing can be hard, because I’m not particularly good at outlining. So, I have a general idea as I write, but the details are vague, and the story tends to go its own way.

Editing is the time when I’m actually in control. I can step away from the creation, which tends to give me mega-tunnel vision, and look at the whole piece. And then I can tear it apart and make it better.


I wanted to talk a little about my actual editing process. At least what I know of it. I’ve never edited an entire novel before, so the process may change as I go. Learning and what not.

Usually I begin by reading the chapter through, and taking as little notes as possible. If I do take notes they’re broad, like “A little vague here” or “clean up POV”. Large tasks that affect the tone of the chapter.

Once that initial read through is done I put three things at the top of the front page:


Then I read it again, circling any “was”, “as”, or “-ly” adverbs. Once they’re all circled, I count them, and put the corresponding numbers in their place at the top. I do this because “was”, “as”, and “-ly” adverbs are indications of weak and passive writing. Having them circled lets me hone in on where I can immediately start strengthening paragraphs.

Not too bad for the rough draft!
Not too bad for the rough draft!

After fixing these sentences I’ll consider word choice. I’ll look for repetitive words and sentence structures. This is the part that’s like a puzzle. Finding what’s wrong with a chapter and removing it, then replacing it with something better.

In the past I’ve been editing short fiction. The prime directive in short fiction is to be as concise as possible, and to cut anything not absolutely crucial to the plot. Every sentence should characterize, world-build, and move the plot along. And yes, writing a novel should be that way too.

But, going into editing ‘Vessels’ I knew there was a lot of content that needed added. So, for the first time in my writing career, I have notes of scenes that need added into chapters during the editing process. It’s weird. And, I’m not sure how I’m going to tackle that just yet.

It’s these early chapters that are the most difficult. The plot didn’t really exist yet, so there were no hints of impending action, and characters that come to play late in the story need introductions in earlier chapters. A lot of adding new scenes in these chapters. Which I’m excited about!

But, it makes editing them a lot harder.

Anyway, once the line editing is done, you know, word choice and all that, I’m going to start working on the additions. Also, everything I edit gets written straight on the page, and then gets inputted in the computer later.


Once a round of editing is done I’ll make a note of it at the top of the front page. I’ll put the date of completion, which draft number it is, and the phrase, “Ready for Retype”. That way, if I don’t get to retyping right away, I can come back and know which edit it is, when it was completed, and that it’s ready to move on.

For short fiction I could retype, print it, and then continue editing. I could keep tweaking and perfecting for ages, until I really didn’t think it could get any better. But, with the novel, I’m going to treat it as a whole. Chapter 1 has been edited and retyped, meaning that it is officially on Draft 2. When all the chapters are at that stage I will reprint and start editing all over again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Until I think it’s ‘done’.

This is going to take awhile…

I think editing is daunting to a lot of writers. It’s not as fun as creation. The sense of wonder is gone. You already know what happens and now it’s the mechanics of the thing. Magic-less.

I get that. But, you can’t say it isn’t challenging. And I love a good challenge.

Anyway, enough ramblings here. It’s time to get to work!