Thursday, 9 December 2010

Taking Out the Trash! - On Editing a Novel

I'm about to start the editing work on one of my three finished novels (the non-NaNo novel). This is the first time I've ever edited a novel and I'm quite scared at the very idea to have to revisit something that I know is written terribly badly. However, editing is a necessary process in the work of a writer - how else do great novels get written? Someone once said that even Lord Byron edited his work, so never be ashamed that you have to, or think that you don't. In order to calm my nerves before this work I decided to look up what I could find on the editing process itself, and I thought I would share it with you. So, let's get to work! (If you don't feel like reading the entire post you can just skip to the summary at the end.)

My first piece of advice, which I find is supported by many others online, is to let your novel rest. Do not begin editing immediately after finishing. It is imperative to distance yourself from your writing, for many reasons. I find that it doesn't only make it easier to spot irregularities in the story, characters and logic, but it also makes the novel suck less. Yes, I mean it. Forgetting about your novel for a few months makes it better.  If you don't believe me, just try it. I haven't looked at my novel since August, and since then I've written another novel during NaNoWriMo this November. Now, however, I believe it's time to take it out again and try to make it readable.

Before throwing yourself back into your novel, make sure that you know what you want to convey. Also, if you didn't do this before, figure out what motivates your characters. I've written a blog post on this before, check it out here. It's important that you know this because now is the time when you're supposed to mould your novel into perfection - and perfection includes knowing your characters.

When beginning the editing process it is advisable to start by fixing obvious spelling and grammar mistakes. Don't take too long with this though. What I do is paste the text into MS Word (I use Q10 when writing and disable the spell check so there are bound to be some mistakes) and look at the red and green underlining and fix the superficial errors. This is fast, easy, and if you're anything like me (i.e. very fastidious about grammar), it's rewarding.

After doing some superficial work it's time to really get down to business. This is where it starts to become painful. You will have to confront all that bad writing. There is no escaping it. Easiest is to print your novel on paper and armed with a pen and a pad to take notes on simply read through the entire novel in the way that you would read any published novel. Look for superfluous scenes, errors in logic in the story, missing background information etc. Make sure that there is a natural progression of the story and that you don't jump into the action too fast or have too much back story at the end. Make an outline of everything that needs to be changed and added. This is when you make sure your story is sustainable and worthy of all that pain and sweat you put into it.

When you've done this a huge part of the work is done, though there is still the matter of actually making the changes. Now: write. Fix the problems you found.

That sounded easy, didn't it? Well, it won't be. But it's just a matter of doing it. After you've fixed the problems you can finally go into all those little details and fix sentences and word choices that are less fortunate. Think about similes and metaphors. Make hints, don't say everything explicitly. This is when the really good writing happens. This is when your novel becomes art, no matter what genre you're writing in. Read the dialogue out loud to make sure it sounds natural - maybe even act some of the dialogue out with someone. It's really just a question of taking the story that is now perfected and raise it to the next level.

Now we're really close to the end. If you feel ready for it, send your novel to friends and family and force them to read it critically and send long reports on their thoughts. While you're waiting for their feedback you can go over grammar and punctuation, which we all know is a never ending process. If you're lucky, your readers will love the novel. Otherwise they might have some opinions and ideas as to how to improve it. Listen to them! Sure, some things should be taken with a grain of salt, but I advise you to think critically about every aspect they point out because they might have spotted something important that you've been blind to thus far.

The editing process can be iterated as many times as necessary, though I have to say that for myself I hope I can make do with only one iteration. It sounds incredibly daunting! Though, I guess writing a novel sounded daunting before I had done it too, and now I've written three. The part I'm looking forward to the least is the complete rewriting that I will have to do of some parts. There isn't just editing needed, but actual writing of some major parts. Also, I will somehow have to split my novel into chapters. I don't do chapters. Yet I hate reading novels that aren't split into chapters.

Lastly, I want to relay a tip I came across somewhere online: read your novel back to front the second time around. I am a sucker for things that give you a new perspective on things, like looking at a room while upside down, and I thought this sounded like a great idea.

To sum up the editing process I've shortened it into a few simplified steps:

  • Put your draft away for a while. Don't think about it or look at it for a few months.
  • Make sure you know your story and your characters.
  • Fix the obvious grammar and spelling mistakes.
  • Read the entire novel while making notes about major issues, like:
    • Superfluous scenes.
    • Logical errors.
    • Plot holes.
    • Missing background information.
    • Story progression.
  • Make the above identified changes.
  • Go into more detail. Change words, use metaphors. Hint, don't tell. Create a beautiful piece of art.
  • Ask friends for help - and listen to them!
  • Go over grammar and spelling in great detail.

Good luck!

Additional resources:

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