There’s something satisfying about finishing a first draft. The novel that’s been poking you in the brain for months is finally done and you can stand back and marvel at it like a new parent. And like a new baby, there’s an awful lot of mess to go with all that joy.
Protagonists who started out a little aimless and ended up with a stronger emotional journey, and now need to be tweaked. Subplots that were supposed to be a major part of the book that dead ended when another more interesting problem came along in chapter nine. That love interest who kept changing names. You know—perfectly normal first draft stuff.
After I’ve finished a first draft, I like to create an editorial map (also called an edit map, book map, or plot map) that quickly sums up every scene in my novel. It’s a huge help during my revision process, and allows me to easily see how my novel unfolds and where things happen.
Step One: Identify what happens in every scene or chapter
While you can certainly write as much or as little as you’d like, aim for the plot-driving goals and conflicts. These are the elements that are creating your novel’s plot.
- What is the POV character trying to do in this scene? (the goal)
- Why are they trying to do it? (the motivation for that goal)
- What’s in the way of them doing it? (the conflict)
- What happens if they don’t do it? (the stakes)
- What goes wrong (or right)? (how the story moves forward)
- What important plot or story elements are in the scene? (what you need to remember or what affects future scenes)
For an example, let’s take a peek at the opening scene of my teen novel The Shifter:
What is the POV character trying to do in this scene? Nya is trying to steal eggs for breakfast
Why are they trying to do it? She’s hungry and has no money to buy food
What’s in the way of them doing it? She’s caught by a night guard and the owner of the ranch
What happens if they don’t do it? She starves, and she might go to jail for stealing
What goes wrong (or right)? She runs for it, and uses her pain shifting ability to get away, which gets seen by two boys who alert the bad guys that she has this ability
What important plot or story elements are in the scene? She meets and helps Danello (who becomes a major secondary character and love interest), gets seen shifting pain by apprentices at the Healers’ League, and has a reason to go visit her sister at the Healers’ League in the morning, which is where she gets identified and comes to the bad guy’s notice.
Step Two: Summarize those basic elements
Once you know the details of the scene, summarize it in a way that will allow you to capture the essence of the scene in narrative form. This will be a great help when writing a future synopsis, as well as seeing how the story unfolds as a whole.
For example: Nya is stealing eggs for breakfast when she’s caught by a night guard and the owner of the chicken ranch. She makes a run for it, and in the process the night guard (Danello) is injured. Out of pity, she heals him and takes his pain, which is seen by two apprentices from the Healers’ League who will tell the Elders about her. She knows she’s just revealed her pain shifting ability to the wrong people. It’ll be a risk to go to her sister at the Healers’ League in the morning to get rid of her pain, but she has no choice.
Other things happen in this scene (some cute banter, an exchange of threats, a chase scene, some desperate bartering with witnesses), but the above paragraph captures the plot-driving elements that start the novel and trigger the rest of the plot. Without these elements, the novel would not have turned out as it did.
Step Three: Map out the entire novel
Go scene by scene and follow steps one and two for each scene. It can be a little time consuming, but well worth it. By the end, you’ll have a solid map of how your novel unfolds and what the critical plot elements are. You’ll easily see where/if a plot thread dead ends, or wanders off, or even any scenes that lack goals or conflict, which will make planning (and doing) your revisions that much easier. It’ll be clear what needs work and where.
Bonus Step: Map out any additional arcs you might want
Aside from the core plot elements, you can also add critical steps in a character arc, the pacing of reveals or discovery of clues or secrets, how multiples POVs affect each other, or whatever else you want to track. It can be woven into the narrative summary, or kept as a bullet point or subparagraph if that’s easier. You might even have two or three paragraphs per scene: One for the plot, one for the character arcs, and one for information you need, but the characters don’t know yet. Whatever format and details you need to move forward on the novel.
This additional information can be very useful for tracking subplots or inner conflicts, as well as mystery clues or what the antagonist is doing off-screen that’s affecting the protagonist. Timelines can also appear here if you need to know when events happens to ensure everything works together and you don’t have any 27-hour days.
The beauty of an editorial map is that it’s a quick and easy to reference summary of your novel. When you get stuck during revisions (and we all do, right?) you can flip over, see what happens when and where the story needs to go, and get yourself back on track.
Extra Bonus Step: Map out what revisions you want to make per scene
For those who really want to go the extra planning mile, I’ve found it particularly helpful to have a version with revision notes on it as well. That way I can see what I want to do and where, and be able to see how those changes affect the novel as a whole. This also makes it easy to update my editorial map as I revise.
A little preparation can go a long way and make the revision process easier and more productive. It’s a lot less hassle to find holes in the plot in a summary than realizing it after a beta read when you thought you were done. An editorial map is a handy tool to help you focus on the critical elements of your novel and keep your mind free for the fun creative work.
Do you use an editorial map? Do you think one might help you?
Looking for tips on planning or revising your novel? Check out my newest book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel, or help you refine and tighten a first draft.
Janice Hardy is the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She lives in Georgia with her husband, one yard zombie, three cats, and a very nervous freshwater eel. Find out more about writing at her site, Fiction University, or find her on Twitter @Janice_Hardy.