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Back in 2013, when I finished a first draft of ‘The Sisters’ Song’ (which was called ‘Ida’s Children’ then—I’m still getting used to calling my child by a different name), I had no idea how much editing and rewriting lay ahead. I thought four, maybe five, drafts, and it would be ready to start sending out.

In the four intervening years, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve revised, redrafted, and completely rewritten my novel. I stopped counting at twenty, and that figure only includes full revisions, not sectional edits, or where I’ve gone over and over the same paragraph, scene, or chapter 100 times, if not more.  

It’s fair to say that some of that revision could have been avoided if I’d known how to write a novel when I set out. However, I suspect that’s nearly impossible, because the only way to know how to write a novel is to actually write one. You can learn a lot from reading other novels, studying texts on the craft of writing, and by attending classes and workshops, but, really, writing a novel is an on-the-job apprenticeship—you just have to dive in and do it, make all the rookie mistakes and learn from them.

After so many revisions, my novel bears little resemblance to that first draft. The main characters have stayed and are, by and large, the same. One character—my so-called ‘antagonist’—has caused me a lot of grief, and I’ve worked really hard to make her believable and, hopefully, sympathetic. 

The initial drafts also had a big cast of secondary characters, but when various readers along the way pointed out how little these characters did to develop the story, one-by-one I deleted them. Their souls now repose in my graveyard for cast-offs. I’d like to say I miss them, but I don’t. Once I discovered they weren’t needed, as I did on the first read-through after they’d been given the chop, I haven’t given them a second thought. Not a single one. Ruthless, I know. 

My storyline has changed, too—whatever remains of the original story has been unpicked, turned inside-out and upside-down, and sewn back together to make a garment completely different to the original.

My novel has a different ending; a major sub-plot is buried in the graveyard alongside the secondary characters; characters have swapped roles or do the completely opposite to what they did originally; much of the ‘filler’ has gone, and scenes have been compacted and fused together, so events happen over a single day or night instead of weeks; I’ve relocated some events, both in terms of setting and where they happen in the story.

As you can probably tell, I’m ruthless when I edit. I slash characters, scenes, and chapters with relish. I’ve shifted, deleted, trashed, reworked, reorganised, recreated, and basically done whatever it took to make my story better. If I thought something might improve my story, I had to try it to see if it worked. Sometimes it did; sometimes it didn’t.

In the process, I’ve created a lot of extra work for myself—I have over 190,000 words in my word cemetery. But I don’t see any of them as wasted—they’ve all helped to get the story where it is and flavoured it in some way. 

During the week, I read this quote on Annabel Smith’s blog

Image by Anna Pretorius Photography

For me, that’s how it is. Writing a novel isn’t about me, or how tired I am, or how sick of it I feel, or how tedious editing is, or how much extra work is needed. Writing a novel is about the story and serving that. I feel as if it must be honoured, revered, listened to, and told in the way it needs to be told. 

Each time I’ve edited my story, I’ve tried to listen to what it wanted to tell me. Even in the early days, in those crappy first drafts, I did the best I could—but the thing about a story is that it rarely reveals itself all at once. Rather, it does it incrementally, each step taking it deeper, making it more layered, more textured than the one before.

Image by Anna Pretorius Photography

At the end of each hard edit, I thought that would be it, that I’d uncovered all my story had to say. Yet each time I returned, there was more to discover. And there’s probably still more (not that I can see it right now, although I bet someone will point it out to me!).

Writing a novel takes a long time. It takes time to see where a story can be enriched, or what a scene is really about, or how a theme can be developed, or, as I’ve discovered, how it can be brought full circle. If I’d stopped working on my novel three or two years’ ago, or even one year ago, it wouldn’t have anywhere near the richness and layers that it does now.  

Editing hurts, there’s no doubt about it, but the pain is worth it. There’s a sense of fulfilment and accomplishment in knowing I’ve told this story the best way I can. 

My book won’t be perfect—no novel is—but it’s time to let this story go. I feel I’ve done it justice, and that it is enough.

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THE SISTERS' SONG

Coming January 2018 (Allen and Unwin)

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