In my last blog post, I talked about some of the lessons I’ve learned while writing a novel. Besides learning how to write, I’ve also learnt a fair bit about editing, having revised my novel countless times now.
There’s a lot more involved in editing a novel than I’d ever imagined. The adage, ‘All writing is rewriting’ is so true. Although at times the blank page was daunting and the bucket of creativity depleted, I found writing a first draft quite easy in comparison to the tiresome and tedious revisions that followed. However, I’ve enjoyed the editing more! I suspect it was because I was actually disappointed with how my first draft looked—it was nothing like the book I’d imagined.
At the time, I pushed the disappointment aside and started working towards my ideal. I began refining my draft—shaping, polishing, crafting—and slowly, with each painstaking revision, it has moved closer towards the image I have in my mind of what I want my story to be. (It’s moved closer, but it’s still not there yet—the thing is, I don’t know if it ever will be. I don’t know that anyone’s novel ever meets their ideal!)
And that’s the satisfying thing about revision—you see the improvements and see your story really taking shape. My first draft was just a skeleton, and it wasn’t even a full one at that—a skull and backbone, really, and even then a number of vertebrae were missing. There were also a few bones from other skeletons mixed in, so it was a bit of a motley-looking creature.
Importantly, though, I had a skull and vertebral column, and at least I had something to work with. Some parts of my skeleton even had muscles and flesh around them, albeit misshapen. At least, with that first draft, I had a story. It wasn’t pretty, but each time I restructured, reworked, deleted, added, deleted more, added more, shifted, shaped, changed words and punctuation, it grew more attractive.
Here are some of the things I discovered while editing my novel. Once again, this post ended up quite long, so I’ve split it into two parts. This first one deals with ‘Feedback’.
By the way, these posts aren’t ‘How to Edit Your Novel’ articles—they’re more about my editing experiences.
Getting Feedback From Others
At first, you need to write alone—solitude is good. But, once you have a first draft and have tidied it up a bit, readers are essential, even crucial. I’ve not heard of an author who doesn’t have at least one reader of their work before they send it out.
As the author, I was too intimately involved in my story to see it for what it was. I knew the characters, their motivations, their backstory, and there was no way I could read it ‘cold’, as a future reader might.
I was nervous about giving it to others, especially the first time. It was still quite an ugly, unwieldy creature at that stage, with bits missing, and arms and legs going in all directions. Fortunately, in my naïvety, I didn’t realise how ‘unpolished’ my story actually was or I mightn’t have sent it out!
As I pressed ‘Send’ and forwarded my
precious baby novel onto my husband and members of my writing group, I felt as if I was handing over a book of naked snapshots of myself. On every page I’d exposed the intimate workings of my mind. Funnily enough, giving it to my husband was hardest of all. As intimately as he knew me, I knew he’d be surprised by a few things I’d written—I’d even surprised myself!
When I write, a different side of me emerges. It’s a more authentic side, but a side I tend to keep private in day-to-day dealings with people. I’d certainly kept this part hidden before I started to write, and I worried about showing it to people, that they wouldn’t be able to reconcile the two Louise’s. Sometimes, I think it’s easier to hand your book over to a complete stranger than to share it with people you know.
I knew I needed these readers to be honest in their feedback so I was rather anxious—I wasn’t sure I’d be able to cope with anything too brutal. I half-hoped they’d lie, then I worried that they would lie—that they’d hate my novel but tell me they liked it.
Generally speaking, they were gentle in their feedback—they were my friends and my husband, after all. Nevertheless, they still gave helpful hints, told me things I’d missed, asked for more information about scenes I hadn’t unpacked, and pointed out when a character’s behaviour didn’t make sense. They told me which scenes didn’t work for them or when I’d gone on too long about something. In general, they pointed me towards a better novel.
The other really good thing they did was tell me what was working, which scenes they liked, and some they even loved. I needed to hear about those because I’m highly critical of my own work, and easily get bogged down with what’s not working and believe there’s nothing good going on in my story at all.
Getting a Professional Appraisal
Once I’d edited it a few times, I sent it off to a professional editor for an appraisal. Looking back, it was still rather untidy at that point, but at the time, I actually thought it was nearly ready to send out!
Despite reading many novels throughout my life (you’d think I’d have learnt something by osmosis) and reading many books on how to write a novel, I still had no idea. I thought I knew, but I didn’t. As with learning most things, writing a novel is best learnt on the job and needs guidance.
I knew there were problems with my novel, but I didn’t really know what they were, let alone how to fix them. The novel was growing with each draft, and I didn’t know which scenes to discard—I didn’t want to discard any!
I needed a professional, someone who could look at the bigger picture and spot the issues in my story that non-professionals can’t see. Most of all, I wanted advice—on how to fix those issues.
For me, the cost of having my novel appraised was worth every cent.
Carol Major at Varuna read my manuscript and told me what she thought. She was honest and everything she said resonated. She phrased her feedback gently and encouragingly, and I didn’t feel brutalised or deterred. In fact, I felt buoyed by what she’d said, because she not only told me what was wrong with it, but how to fix it. And she said enough encouraging things that I came away feeling that my novel was worthwhile pursuing and that I could fix its problems.
I took her advice on board—deleted about 20,000 words, added 10,000 new ones—and the story was already so much better. It must have been okay, because that was the version that was shortlisted for the Hungerford Award.
Accepting feedback with an open mind
I took the attitude that if I thought the changes would make my novel better, they were worthwhile trying. If they didn’t work, I just changed them back.
Most of the suggested changes highlighted an area where, deep down, I knew there was a problem and I was trying to get away with it. Often it was where I didn’t have a clear image of what I was describing; or where I was trying to cut corners; or where I knew the scene or paragraph or sentence did nothing to progress the story but I wanted to keep it anyway.
I ignored a couple of suggestions if I really disagreed, or if others had said they’d actually liked that part, but by and large, I took feedback on board. Sometimes, I disagreed but then heard the same comment from another reader, so I knew I should change it. Sometimes, the criticism didn’t quite hit the mark, but I knew the reader was trying to tell me there was a problem with that passage, so I tried to work out it was in order to fix it.
Negative feedback can be disheartening—if you let it! When I handed my novel over, I hoped to hear it was perfect already, and it was dispiriting to be told there was still more work to be done.
The other thing was, I’d put so much of myself on each page of my book that it was hard, at first, not to take the criticism personally. I had to mentally keep the feedback in a box and separate it from me. I’m better at doing that now—I can step away from my novel and talk about it as if it’s a project I’m working on and need collaborative input. In fact, I’m getting so good at discussing it that I almost feel disloyal, as if I’m talking about my child behind its back! (But when there’s just it and me, alone in the attic together, I apologise for my disloyalty and we cosy up again!)
In my next post I talk about how I’ve deleted some of my favourite scenes in an almost painless way, plus a few other editing topics.
In the meantime, if you’re editing, hold on to that vision of how you want your novel to be, then everything you do—all the rewriting, all the concentration, all the fiddling about, all the criticism—will be worth it because it’s leading somewhere, towards that dream of a finished, publishable novel.