When folks talk about “leveling up” writing craft, they’re slapping possibly the best metaphor in the universe on this process. Because writing a book is almost exactly like game-mastering a role-playing game. In which you are also playing all player characters. Alone. Deep into the night. And recording the whole thing in case someone, anyone, ever wants to hear about your fun made-up adventure that you had with yourself.
First you read the module (get the story idea and some rough sketch of the conflict and setting). Then you roll up heroes (main and secondary characters, with motivations and emotional problems and gear). Then you sit down at your little table for many hours and eat bad food and melt into this strange, magical, wonderful world you’ve devised.
And after you’ve defeated the big boss (written the first draft), it’s time to assign experience points and loot, and … level up.
Yes, leveling up is revision.
When I’m leveling up (revising) a book, the most helpful source books (tools) are going to be
- Critique partners—Get you some! At least one. I have three. These are professional writers who are at or above my skill level (not necessarily writing in my genre; the skill-level match is the key here) and do not hesitate to point out crap that isn’t working. They aren’t “oh I love everything you write” people. They are “eeew”-in-the-margin and “nope, he’d never say this” people.
- A developmental editor—My publisher hooks me up with editors who read my icky drafts and offer suggestions for making the books better, but if you’re self-publishing, you need to go out and find a good dev editor on your own. Don’t skip this part. I don’t know a writer who turns out perfectly balanced and paced first drafts about adequately motivated characters. And I know some damn impressive writers.
- A read-along performance—I don’t mean you need to get up in front of an audience and read your book aloud. I do mean that you need to read your book aloud, though. Yes, the entire thing. Even those scenes that make you blush. (Have a glass of wine, if you need it.) Read the characters in their own voices and make sure the POVs are sufficiently distinct, the dialogue makes sense, and the chapter-ending hooks make you want to keep reading. If you stumble over a word or sentence when you’re reading it aloud, very likely there’s a problem in that spot. Flag it and move on, and later, you can come back and think, Ha! I spelled teh wrong and spellcheck totally let me down! Because this is not the kind of thing your eyes notice when you’re reading silently. But your mouth realizes that teh is completely unpronounceable and helps you fix all these embarrassing things.
- Beta readers—Contrary to some weird stuff I’ve heard lately, you do not need to pay for beta reading. Find another writer in your genre who you trust, and trade manuscripts. Or find a reader in your genre who is willing to read in exchange for a shout out in the Acknowledgements or chocolate or advance copies of all your books in perpetuity or just to elevate the genre. Note that a beta reader is not a line editor and is not responsible for your commas. You should have already sorted your commas by this point. Also, don’t use your book-buying readers as betas. Readers who buy the book should not also have a duty to tell you that your pacing is off or you’re showing rather than telling all through chapter six (why is it always chapter six?). Readers bought the book. Your job is to make sure that thing they bought is already a quality purchase.
- A line editor—To sort the dangling participles (you have some, I promise) and word repeats and 42-word sentences and language that might trigger or offend a reader in ways you would have never anticipated. A good line edit helps you polish the low-level, sentence-type stuff. It also points out bad habits you didn’t even know you had—oh, hello, overused "just" and made-up verbs! If you publish traditionally, this step might be rolled in with a white-glove treatment on your final revision, or it might be called something else. Regardless of what you call it, though, it’s the pre-copyedit and post-developmental edit. It’s the stage where your sentences learn to shine.
- A copy editor—Even if you are pretty sure you write clean, you still need a copy editor. Everyone needs a copy editor. Copy editors need copy editors. Because none of us are that good all on our own. Also, a good copy editor is not someone who did real well diagramming sentences in sixth-grade language arts. A good copy editor has memorized The Chicago Manual of Style and has training specifically in how to recognize inconsistencies and errors in a book-length manuscript. Get editing samples and references. Important note: you cannot hire a good copy editor for $50 for your 100k-word opus. (Read that sentence again. Cannot.)
So, okay, I lied.
You aren’t running this adventure alone after all.
Sure you can bang out the crappy first draft all by yourself at your little table in the dark of night and with Cheeto-stained fingers. But if you want those characters ever to get the Chain Lightning spell or the insta-kill +1 vorpal sword, you’re gonna need to get some other folks in on your game.