Sunday, 9 May 2010

Editing a Novel (Part Two)

While this is part of my collection of posts relating to the popular choices in my recent poll, it's also, I admit, a rather overdue post that I've been promising to do for a while. A follow-up to my post Editing a Novel (Part One) and loosely related to Anatomy of a Night Out vs. Editing a Novel, this is a fairly accurate account of how I edit my work.

Warning: enormous post ahead.

It bears mentioning that my editing process has evolved a great deal since I first started writing novels. I was not quite sixteen when I first sent query letters out about a project I'd written (needless to say, my queries and sample chapters were politely rejected because that book, while not quite tripe, was not very good), but I was about thirteen or fourteen when I finished my first novel, a 70,000-word epic fantasy called The Seventh Saviour. Believe it or not, I still have spiral-bound copies of it, mostly because I'm sentimental like that. When it doesn't make me cringe, it makes me laugh at some of the crap I came up with and occasionally, very occasionally, think 'oh, that's quite a nice line there' or 'hey, good paragraph'. 

Before the age of submissions, I didn't bother to edit my work. This was because I wrote it for my own pleasure, purely, and I never had the slightest expectation of ever having this stuff published. So I'd write a book, put it aside, and rush straight on to the next one. Often, I started many a novel and never finished it. In my entire life, I must have written about twelve entire novels, ranging between 70,000 and 160,000 words, and started or written large chunks of about fifty others. And no, I'm not actually exaggerating. Those figures come from counting the documents filed neatly on my laptop, along with estimating as to all the files and spiral-bound copies I've lost through one careless mistake or another. (I still have a strong sense of regret about the loss of a nearly-finished novel I wrote at the age of fourteen. I'm sure it was lousy, but I still love its characters and story, even if it did owe an embarrassing amount to Sleepers and The Godfather.)

Anyway, that rambling introduction aside, my point is: my editing process didn't really exist as such when I was sixteen and first sending out my query letters. You might marvel at my arrogance, thinking that anything written at the age of sixteen could have been worth publishing. But although I wasn't good enough and didn't know enough, I really think age has nothing to do with how good a writer you are.

In describing my editing process, therefore, I'm going to focus almost entirely on ECHOES, which is the last project I've edited and also the first I edited extensively.

If you've read my post about my 'first drafts', you'll know that I don't really have first drafts, at least not in the strictest sense of the word. When I've written a few pages, or a chapter, I always go back to fix sentences or flesh something out or whatever takes my fancy. I've got serious OCD when it comes to writing, so if I don't feel a chapter's quite right (for now), I can't move on to the next one.

But, once I had the completed 'first draft' of ECHOES (going by the above definition whereby a lot of it had already been tweaked along the way), this is how I edited it:

   1. While out shopping for food, I stopped off in the stationery aisle and bought the following:
  • a packet of fifteen coloured gel pens
  • a notebook for world-building, character and plot notes as well as for tracking submissions and queries
  • a yellow-papered notepad
  • and, when back on campus (this was this February), I bought some printing credit too.
   2. I made a list of all the Big edits that needed to be made. These things include adding entire scenes, or subplots, or changing a character's character, and so forth. These were things that might have struck me while writing my 'first draft', or while thinking about the book late at night, and I just didn't have the time or energy to make the changes at the time. Two of the things on my list, for example, were 'weave Esmeralda in through the book' and 'rewrite scenes from Amarra's POV': the former involved incorporating an entire, though small, subplot into the narrative while the latter meant focusing closely on a few scenes/letters that were written from the point of view of a character who wasn't my narrator.

   3. I put aside everything except my list and the notebook and started reading through the entire manuscript on the laptop, chapter by chapter. While doing so, I edited: I rewrote entire paragraphs and sometimes chapters, I incorporated the above subplot, I worked on the above character's voice, I cut out unnecessary words that struck me, and, the biggest change of all, I changed my opening chapter about three times.

While doing this, I also simultaneously made character notes. I didn't make enough, for which I'm sorry because I'll now have to go through it again and make more. These notes include noting down your characters' hair and eye colours, their tastes, etc. You'll need this if you're writing a sequel or trilogy or series, as ECHOES is supposed to be. You don't want to search the manuscript every time you wanted to be reminded of a minor character's eye colour.

This was a brutal stage of the process for me, mostly because big changes had to be made, and it's difficult to muster the strength to make such changes when it means so much more work and slicing into your newborn. But it almost always makes the book better, so bear with it.

   4. Once I had gone through the entire manuscript this way (in the course of which I managed to cut my ridiculous word count of 139,000 - far too long for anything remotely classified as young adult fiction - to 128,000, which just goes to show how much of a first draft involves unnecessary uses of 'very', 'suddenly' and other extraneous sentences, clauses and words that you'll feel bogged down by as you read back through it), I printed it off. Let me tell you, that cost me, printing off 450 flipping pages. 

   5. Armed with my shiny new materials (and it's amazing how professional and cool those shiny new materials will make you feel) and my whopping whale-sized manuscript, I sat down, with Steve, and got to work. 

Steve was only up in Lancaster with me for a few days, so we couldn't go through the entire manuscript this way, but we managed to edit the first few chapters thus: I would sit down with different coloured pens and read carefully through a chapter. I would circle, underline or make notes next to any sentences that needed changing, words that needed cutting, mistakes, or typos. Then I would hand the chapter over to Steve, who would go through it with a pencil and make his own notes and mark out anything that struck him as unwieldy, awkward, not clear enough, or unnecessary.

After Steve left, we did this largely by email, but I also went through the manuscript by myself. I can't stress enough the importance of having someone else read your work before you consider sending it out anywhere: someone you trust, who will be honest but not cruel, and who, preferably, is an avid reader and knows what makes a good book and story. Steve is thankfully all three, and though I think he's biased, he is one of the reasons I managed to a) finish ECHOES and b) make it worthy of being rejected, yes, but also of having three very, very good agents read some of it and then ask to see more. So far. 

I owe Steve for that, and for being exceedingly patient whenever I went into a tizzy.

   6. I'm listing this as a separate step, though #5 and #6 are interwoven. Each time I finished editing a chapter on paper, I would get on the laptop and make the changes on screen. I did it this way so that each change would be fresh in my mind, rather than wait until I'd done the entire manuscript before starting over.

   7. Once I had finished #6, making the changes to the final chapter, I would have very nearly been finished had it not been for an email from an agent who had read 30 pages and then, politely, passed. He told me the plot felt too scattered. And while I have to say that you shouldn't make changes just because one person tells you they feel this way (because, after all, everyone will have different opinions and it's up to you to be sensible and humble about what you listen to and what you respectfully decide you aren't going to change), I made changes because the agent had made a good point. I had also felt that the opening tried to cram too much in and in too varied a form. So I rewrote the opening. More editing.

   8. And finally, what was more or less the last stage of my process. The final proofread. This might not be necessary for other writers, depending on how thoroughly they did their earlier edits and with how sharp an eye. But I change little things so often (a sentence there, a paragraph here, correcting a mistake) that I often don't note down every change. So, to be sure I hadn't made any mistakes while editing (because when rewriting a sentence, you can as easily throw in a typo as you might in writing that sentence in the first place), I went through the manuscript again.

This time, I resisted the urge to change much. As I mentioned before, I have terrible OCD about manuscripts, which I hope the rest of you are spared. If sentences don't align properly on the screen, if words don't look right, I feel that they're bad writing and must be changed. So I will often add unnecessary words or cut out words just to make a sentence look better.

So this is what I tried to resist and succeeded. Mostly. I caught a few more typos, tweaked a few more sentences that felt awkward, and stopped.

Phew. Done.

Final word count: just under 125,000. Still long for a YA, and indeed for a debut novel of any genre except epic fantasy or sci-fi, but it couldn't be helped.

There is such a thing as too much editing. It's what happens when you keep tweaking, and changing, and checking a manuscript, either because you're afraid of it being finished because that means having to put it out there, or because you're a compulsive perfectionist. While no manuscript being sent out into the world is ever going to be perfect, I really believe that there comes a point when it truly is the best you can make it. And that's when you should stop, take a deep breath, and send it out if that's what you want to do with it, because from this point on, I think only someone who knows how they're going to market it (i.e. an agent or editor) can make it any better or more polished. There's little more you can do alone.

(Or so I tell myself. But I daresay my manuscript is nowhere near as good as it needs to be.)


  1. not enough emphasis can be put on the time you spend making sure the sentences look good on Word. that should probably be between every number really!

    and thanks. I only help cos i want to, you know!

  2. Very insightful post - thanks. x

  3. Thanks for that very interesting bit of insight on the way you work. Although I write on a completely different scale from you (as in much much smaller), we have in common the fact that we don't make first drafts as they are commonly prescribed.

    And Steve, you rock. :j

  4. Fabulous post. It's only the fact that we just met that keeps me from gushing embarassingly at how much I like your style. :)

    >> I've got serious OCD when it comes to writing, so if I don't feel a chapter's quite right (for now), I can't move on to the next one.<<

    I laughed when I read this. It's so much the opposite of me! If I let myself get bogged down in early chapters, I'll never finish. My early drafts have things like: "blah blah blah [##put something in here about why he gives a sh*t what his parents think] blah blah blah." (I swear at myself a lot in my notes.) Then later I do a search for ## marks and fill in things that stumped or blocked me early on. I find that by the time I've actually put words on the page in later chapters, I have a better perspective on earlier chapters.

    Great article. I missed Part One of this... will need to go find it now.

    Oh, and if you need another beta reader, I'd love to help out. Just drop me a line: india AT indiadrummond DOT com.