Tag Archives: editing

Seven top tips to help you edit your novel

Since I submitted the third draft of my novel last week, I’ve been pondering a lot about how I finally got there. It wasn’t easy, that’s for sure.

I was optimistic when I first got started on the whole redrafting process back in September, but it wasn’t long before I started to flounder. I got things back on track, and completed the second draft almost within my self-imposed deadline.

I knew there was still work to be done at that stage, so it was no surprise when I had to start work on draft number three in January. I had some great feedback to work with, and slowly but surely a third draft began to take shape.

I’m not saying that’s perfect either, but in getting to that stage I’ve learnt a lot about how to go about editing and redrafting a novel: and that is what I want to share with you here.

Tip One: Don’t rush it

It’s easy to get impatient when writing a novel. After the first flush of excitement even getting to the end of the first draft can feel like a slog at times, and that is absolutely nothing in comparison to the arduous process of getting your head round the edit.

Having said that I found that it all came much easier when I was ready. I think you have to trust that if it just doesn’t seem to be working when you’re explicitly focusing on it then maybe your brain just needs a bit more mulling time.

But having said THAT…

Tip Two: Set yourself deadlines – and stick to them

This might not be the way you work, but for me my procrastination skills are so finely tuned that unless I have some sense of urgency I could just drag a task out forever… Especially one as tricksy as this.

Editing deadlines

I found it really helpful to decide on an overall deadline (both times round I gave myself around two months to get the edit done), and then to break it down into daily goals. Those were a bit more flexible. I aimed for a chapter a day, and sometimes I did more, sometimes less. Sometimes I redid what I’d done the day before. Sometimes my brain had been whirring so effectively in between editing sessions that I whizzed through several chapters. But I generally had a sense of where I was at and could therefore balance things out to make sure I got to the end pretty when I wanted to.

And along the way, remember…

Tip Three: Listen to your characters

In my first draft, I think a lot of the details in the story were driven by what I thought the characters might think, or say, or do. But really I was just getting to know them – I had to make presumptions and fill in the gaps because there just wasn’t time to stop and focus and listen.

The bits where I’d just swanned on through were blatantly obvious when I came to look at them later – what was not so obvious was what to do about them. But then I remembered that I wasn’t actually doing this alone. In the process of writing the first draft I’d created several companions to my task – and now they were there, ready and waiting for me to breathe fresh life into their story, I really needed to listen more acutely to them and where they wanted to take things. Even if it wasn’t strictly where I’d thought I wanted to go.

Which brings me to…

Tip Four: Listen to your readers

It goes without saying that you need to find someone you trust to give you feedback at each step of the writing and redrafting process. Preferably more than one person, and preferably people who are avid readers – even better if they enjoy the particular genre that you’re writing in.

But once you’ve found those all-important beta-readers, it can be incredibly tempting to pick and choose what bits of feedback to listen to. It’s your novel after all, right? And if you don’t agree with what they say then it’s your prerogative to ignore it, right?

Except they are in a much better position than you to measure how your novel will be received. Because they are readers – and readers are what it is all about.

There is a big gulf from the novel in your head and the novel that people will read, and that gulf can only be crossed by getting the right words on the page. If you think you’re communicating something, but your readers are telling you that you’re not, then you need to ask yourself why.

Though you mustn’t forget the most important thing…

Tip Five: Trust yourself

This might seem to fly in the face of everything I’ve just said, but it really doesn’t. You may well receive conflicting feedback, or feedback that really doesn’t sit comfortably with what it is you’re trying to achieve. And if you do the you need to remind yourself that, ultimately, you are the author of this work.

As long as you don’t dismiss things out of hand, as long as you really consider how you might be able to make the changes people are proposing, then it’s ok to stick to your guns and find a way to make your way work.

Just remember…

Tip Six: It’s ok to get rid of stuff you like

Writing a good novel is not just about good writing. It’s about how all of your words and sentences and paragraphs and chapters sit together to create people and worlds that are meaningful to your reader.

Some of the bits you end up cutting might be pieces of writing you love. Keep them! Just don’t be afraid to recognise that they might not work in this manuscript, here and now.

Editing a novel

And whilst we’re on the subject of fear…

Tip Seven: Don’t be afraid to experiment

Once you’re past the relatively liberating stage of writing the first draft, you might find a desire for perfection creeping in around the edges. You might feel like you have to get your next draft just right – perfect, in fact. And that – I speak from experience here – can be pretty paralysing.

The only way I was able to move forwards was by freeing myself up to experiment. To try things out, even if I wasn’t entirely sure they worked. To take things in a different direction. For me this was especially true of the second draft. I got rid of lots of those experiments by the time I got to draft number three, but the residue they left behind had undoubtedly made the manuscript stronger.

And that’s it!

There are other things, too. I’ve already written about the more prosaic things that kept me going when the going got tough. But for me the thing that really helped me bring these edits to a conclusion was getting myself into the right mental state. And it is that I hope these tips will help with.

 

Writing Bubble

 

The List

Coming up for air

I’ve been increasingly single-minded over the past few weeks. At the beginning of January, I started work on the third draft of my second novel. This was a pretty intimidating prospect – with every new draft the stakes get higher – and I struggled at first to pick up momentum. But as I got deeper and deeper back into it, helped by some great feedback and a couple of lightbulb moments, I became increasingly confident in my ability to make the changes I needed to. And as I got closer and closer to the end, working on the edit was pretty much all I wanted to do.

And then, this Tuesday, I submitted it to my agent. A huge weight was lifted off my shoulders – now all I have to do is wait and see what she thinks!

Well, I say all I have to do. My single-mindedness has definitely impacted on everything else: my blogging activity has slowed to a trickle, the laundry has piled up, and all my good intentions to do more exercise have come to not very much at all. I have also not been giving Arthur quite as much attention as perhaps I should have been. I mean, I’ve been here. Physically. But my mind has not been entirely present…

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So that was my main aim this week – to begin to re-enter the real world and enjoy hanging out with my awesome son. We’ve spent lots of time at the beach, hanging out with friends and just throwing stones.

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I finally put together the rebounder that’s been cluttering up Leigh’s study and is a key part of my ‘get fit for summer’ exercise plan. That was foiled slightly by Arthur’s insatiable appetite for bouncing… But I’ve had lots of fun getting reacquainted with my hula hoop whilst watching him bounce up and down.

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He’s been asking after yoga lots too, so getting back into that is my next goal – we were doing so well with our morning yoga sessions but those too have suffered in the quest to get this novel finished (again).

My brain is still feeling a bit fuzzy after all its hard work, but fresh air and exercise are definitely helping. I have a growing list of ideas for blog posts, and hopefully soon I’ll find the time to actually write them!

There’s nothing quite like the buzz of adrenalin and sense of achievement that comes from bringing a major project to a close. But there’s something pretty special about the peace and space to breathe that comes in its wake as well – and that’s what I have been enjoying most of all about this week.

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My word of the week this week is breathe.

The Reading Residence

Fingers crossed…

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Having run out of patience with myself last night and stayed up till past midnight to get the last bits done, the third draft of my novel is now winging its way to my agent. Yay!

I hope…

It’s hard to be entirely sure, you see, when these words and worlds and characters you have created have been seeping into every inch of your consciousness as you get deeper and deeper into the manuscript. But I definitely have less reservations about this draft than I did about the others.

I’ve reread the entire thing twice over the past week, each time changing less and less. By last night I was mainly mulling over the effectiveness of a handful of individual words, which is as good a sign as any that it’s time to let it go.

It feels more nerve-wracking this time round. I mean, everyone knows a first draft is meant to be rubbish, right? And with the second one I was experimenting with various things that I knew wouldn’t necessarily work out. But the stakes seem higher now. Which is why my fingers are tightly crossed that this draft reads as well as I think it does.

We shall see.

And in the meantime I have plenty to keep me occupied.

I might even let my mind wander back to that third novel I was getting so excited about before Christmas…

Though I should probably do some laundry first.

 

Muddled Manuscript

The final chapter?

How long is a piece of string?

Despite a busy week of non-writing related things, including a trip to Brighton and some well-overdue catch-up time with old friends, the edit is continuing apace.

After getting to the end of the novel last week, I have now swept through it again – getting rid of continuity errors and unnecessary repetition, tightening up description and dialogue, adding in a few little layers of intrigue to the plot. Overall it is maturing nicely.

But as with so many of these things this ‘final’ sweep has thrown up more questions. Most significantly, have I organised it as effectively as I could?

I’m talking chapters here – how long, how many, where they begin and end. I thought I had that all figured out. I began the whole writing process with chapters after all – once I’d done my initial planning and a story had begun to take shape I neatly split it into 30-odd sections to structure the first draft. They weren’t all individual scenes, but they seemed to be the natural chapters – or so I thought. I gave all of these an identical word count target. I didn’t stick to it religiously, but they all turned out pretty uniform.

And I figured that was fine, until the bird’s eye view the latest read through afforded me made me doubt that.

I started to see chapter breaks elsewhere, and to link scenes in my mind that I’d previously separated. Some events seemed to warrant being surrounded by white space all of their own. And in general I found myself wanting to make the chapters shorter.

Ever the researcher, I did have a bit of a sniff around the internet to see what advice I could find. But the most common response to the question ‘how long is a chapter?’ seems to be ‘how long is a piece of string?’. There were a couple of sites that suggested readers prefer uniform chapter lengths so they can pace themselves more effectively and are more aware of what’s coming next. But then others that said a variety of chapter lengths was preferable, and these artificial divisions in the story should be governed only by the story itself.

The latter opinion definitely resonated more strongly with me. Everything I know about good writing from my years spent teaching it tells me that variety – as long as it’s not purely for the sake of it – is the way to go. This is borne out in the books I enjoy to read too, especially the ones that get me totally hooked. Thinking about it, I realised I like short chapters too. I hate the feeling of having pages and pages to go until I can easily take a break, and if I get to the end of a chapter then I’m more inclined to read on if it’s not going to be too epic.

I think this possibly makes me a bit of a lazy reader, but I figure I can’t be alone in that.

So there are considerably more chapters in my novel now. Most of them are shorter, some significantly so. And their length, and where they begin and end, is dictated by what the story and the characters need – and by default the things that are going to make the reader want to know what happens next.

There is one last thing I’m mulling over (well, for now anyway). And that is – how do I label these chapters? In the very beginning they had titles, but I ditched them fairly early on. Since then they’ve had numbers, but those are starting to feel a bit stilted as I navigate through the manuscript. I’m wondering if there is an alternative, or if in fact the chapters need any label at all. And then I’m wondering if I want to divide the novel into parts, to demarcate the different phases the story goes through.

What do you think? How do you like the novels you read to be organised? Or indeed what techniques have you used in your own writing?

I realise I’m possibly over-thinking things, and this is exactly the sort of detail that a publisher might decide to change if they ever get their hands on my novel, but in the meantime I may as well get things as close to perfect as I can, right?

 

Writing Bubble

So I think I’m nearly done…

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I reached an important milestone in the edit today. I made it to the end of the novel. Again.

My manuscript now stands at 91,150 words, as opposed to 92,300, though rather more than 1,150 have been cut. I reckon at least 5,000 have been exchanged: unnecessary exposition for punchy dialogue, descriptions of actions for descriptions of emotions. I kind of wish I knew exactly how many, but I don’t suppose it really matters. It is interesting, though, how I find myself wanting to hang on to little things like word counts as a way of measuring progress.

The real progress has been in how much happier I am with the general mood of the novel. The first draft felt too cheesy, the second a strange combination of the banal and the melodramatic. I think I’m much closer to getting the vibe I’m after now – closer to knowing what that actually is. I think it’s darker, emotionally. And yet more hopeful too. Which makes the climax even harder to stomach.

It’s not 100% there yet. I had a bit of a breakthrough about halfway through this process, one where I gave myself permission to let go a bit with my description – to bring a bit more of myself into the world I was creating. That was important, because I’d abandoned some of the elements of the book that made it about me for the sake of making the characters more engaging. What I think I realised is that that uniqueness, that idiosyncratic way of seeing things, belongs more in the fabric of the prose itself than in the events in the story. I’d let go of that in a desire to make the story more accessible, but I think I’d got it all topsy turvy.

I have no idea if that makes sense, but it’s where I’m at.

Because that breakthrough happened relatively late, I want to go back to the beginning now – to look at the manuscript yet again through the new lens I have acquired. I jumped around a bit, adding things in and taking things out so I didn’t forget them, but I need to make sure I haven’t lost continuity in the process. And there are sections early on that might need more work too, just to make sure that I am saying all I want to say in the best possible way I can.

This is gong to be the hardest bit now I think. This final sweep through, attempting to keep every one of those 91,150 words in my mind as I make sure that each chapter, each scene, each exchange fits comfortably within them.

But I am nearly done.

I think.

With this edit anyway.

Wish me luck!

 

Muddled Manuscript

My editing essentials

This really isn’t the easiest time of year for keeping motivated and focused on an edit. The burst of enthusiasm that January brings has passed, and yet it’s still very much still winter. The cold, wet days are taking their toll and, whilst there’s a glimmer of hope in the lengthening hours of light, springtime – let alone summer – still feels a very long way away.

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At this point in the last two years I’ve been in the early stages of first drafts, when everything is exciting and new and I’ve just been able to write without fear of getting it wrong. But this year I’m attempting the third draft of my latest novel, and whilst it’s actually going pretty well I’m having to pull out all the stops to keep things that way.

So I thought I’d share my editing essentials: the crucial elements that have kept me going when the going’s got tough, the crutches I’ve turned to when I’ve been sorely tempted to curl up under the duvet (or at least under a blanket on the sofa whilst Arthur watches The Lion King for the umpteenth time).

First on the list is…

Coffee

No surprises there then. I have always really appreciated a decent cup of coffee, and since Leigh bought me a gorgeous DeLonghi coffee machine for my birthday last year it’s become something of a ritual.

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I like my coffee organic and strong, with a generous serving of frothy milk. One with breakfast, and another (with a large glass of water for good measure) when I sit down to write.

Almost as important for firing up the brain cells is…

Chocolate

I’m generally on a bit of a healthy eating tip at the moment, but decent dark chocolate is definitely one of my weaknesses. My brand of choice is Plamil – organic, nut free and delicious – and I will invariably enjoy a couple of squares of their ginger chocolate, or if we’re out of that a handful of chocolate drops, whilst I sit down and gather my thoughts.

For that of course I need a bit of peace and quiet, which is one of the many reasons why I love my…

Connecta

I have made no secret on this blog of my love for the Connecta baby carrier – and in fact you will find me extolling its virtues over on their blog too. But it really has been invaluable for the tricky business of writing whilst looking after a toddler.

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Arthur still naps in the sling, as he has ever since he was a tiny baby. I think the fact he enjoys his cuddles so much is one of the reasons why he still often has two naps a day. The design of the Connecta means that it is essentially supporting him to sit on my lap, so his (ever increasing) weight is spread evenly and unless he has a really monster sleep it’s pretty comfortable. And knowing that he is safe and close and happy means that I can focus all my attention on my work.

And for that I am still reliant on…

Scrivener

My discovery of this software has done wonders for my organisation. I found it great to write the first draft in, following my carefully planned structure and using the daily targets to keep me motivated, and now I’m deep into the edit it’s really coming into its own. I love how I can flit back and forth, move things around or cut them out completely safe in the knowledge that I can still get them back if I need them. I can keep an eye on my word count, and refer back to all the bank of research that I built up whilst I was writing the first draft. And all in one window.

Though when I’m tired of looking at that one, I can instantly refresh my soul by looking out of another at…

The view

I always dreamt of one day living by the sea, and more specifically having a place where I could write looking out over it. When that dream became a reality I was worried at first that the view might be a bit too beautiful and would distract me from getting anything done. As it happens though, that’s not a problem. I think my big computer screen helps – I have to consciously shift my gaze to get away from my manuscript. But there are times when I’m getting so frazzled that I really need something to give me a break from it all, and looking out at the big open sky and the ever-changing landscape of the sea is just the ticket.

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And that’s about it! Those five things have done a sterling job of keeping me on the straight and narrow so far, and I’m hoping I can continue to rely on them over the next few weeks as I bring this edit to a close.

How about you? What are the things that help you keep your focus when you’re writing (or editing)? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Writing Bubble
Mama and More
Mums' Days

Don’t look down

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I feel like I’m walking a tightrope with this edit at the moment. I’ve mastered the juggling, just about, and am pleased with the pace of progress I’m maintaining. But as I get deep into the novel again I’m realising just how tricksy my main character is – and the considerable challenge I’ve set myself to take you, the reader, with me on her journey.

I’m finding myself wondering just how far I can go with Grace before I lose you… Her mental health is fragile from the start, although she’s becoming a little less insular – a little easier to relate to. Her disintegration, though, is crucial to the plot. It is linked to her own substance abuse, and the man who takes advantage of this and her, and his own narcissistic tendencies, and how that makes her question her perception of reality. And that’s just the start of it – but I don’t want to give too much away.

Not only do I want you to care about Grace, I want you to literally come with her on her journey – to question things as she does, and ultimately to question her. To doubt her, but without fearing that she (or I) have purposefully misled you in any way.

I’m focusing on the end goal, the solid ground of another completed edit, but each step I take towards it needs to be made carefully, gingerly – just one foot after the other. And I can’t look down, otherwise I might lose my nerve altogether.

In the earlier stages of working on this novel the worry was that Grace wasn’t likeable enough. I’m not so worried about that now, but I do want to make sure that you believe in her. And it’s that process I’m finding fascinating at the moment: how, as a writer, we carve out a version of reality that appears to be true.

It’s not as simple as just telling the truth. The truth is often dull, or off-putting, or just plain difficult to believe – particularly where depression and anxiety and psychosis are concerned. My job is to create something that is truer than true: that captures an essence of reality that many different readers will relate to whilst at the same time preserving Grace’s uniqueness and humanity.

And in doing this, I’m not just walking a tightrope – I’m dancing on it. Each word, each step, is part of a complex routine that feels clumsy at first but will appear increasingly seamless, even effortless, the more I immerse myself within it.

I’ve never thought of writing a novel in quite these terms before, but it makes a strange kind of sense. The end result needs to be a performance that will play out flawlessly in the reader’s mind. I am no stranger to performing – be it a sequence of moves on a trampoline or bringing a character to life on the stage, you may begin with a clear idea of what you want to achieve but it is only through practise, through gruelling rehearsals, that you begin to get close.

And that is where I’m at right now, twirling the words around on a tightrope in the sky, waiting for the moment when they are finally ready to present to the world. And whatever happens I won’t look down until I get there.

 

Muddled Manuscript