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In case the New Year brings that dastardly task of editing your novel: Kathryn’s Guide to Editing Fiction

Knowing what to do after you’ve *finally* finished the first draft of your manuscript and have mopped up all the blood, sweat and tears that went into it can be a bit of a mystery if you’re new to the game. You know editing comes into it, and you may have heard about beta readers, but what comes first, and more importantly, how do you go get started?

To help with the cacophony of questions littering your head, I’ve made a general guide to help you get going. This is very much based off my own experience, and is not an exhaustive list:

  1. After you’ve written that last word on your manuscript, put the whole thing away somewhere and leave it for a good amount of time (I personally leave it for about three months, but others leave it for longer) and get on with other things. Start a new project; finish any others lurking around; if you’re thinking about publication, research which avenue might be best for you and what that entails; basically, anything to keep your mind stimulated but doesn’t involve that first draft. This is to make sure that when you do eventually go back to it, you can view it with fresh eyes – meaning that plot holes, weak characters or lack of world building will jump out at you and therefore be easier to fix.

 

  1. Don’t focus on spelling or wording on this initial edit. Look at the big picture instead. Are there any holes in your plot? Do your characters feel flat or serve no purpose? Does the story start in the right place, or are the first few chapters unnecessary? What scenes work, and what don’t? If you’re finding it hard to tell if certain points of the story are unnecessary, try removing them and see if it affects the overall plot. If the plot still flows, then those scenes (however beautifully written they are/despite how much you personally love them) have to go. Nothing ruins a good book more that scenes that jar the pacing by adding nothing.

 

  1. Once you’ve fixed the big issues with your manuscript, you can either put it away again, or continue on to the next stage. Again, I personally leave it for a bit because I know I get far too close to my work.

 

  1. Now it’s time to really focus on your characters and world building. Your characters need to feel like real people – give goals and dreams, flaws and bad habits, and don’t hole them up into stereotypes. If they’re from very different backgrounds/circumstances to you, make sure you do your research – not only to make them realistic, but to avoid being insensitive to readers. (If you’re worried about your representation of people from different walks of life to you, you can always hire a sensitivity reader at a later stage.) When working on world building, think about the social structure of each place, use all five senses to describe things and make sure you don’t fall into the pit of info dumping. Also, in dialogues scenes, look out for ‘white room syndrome’, when no description about where or when the scene takes place is included.

 

  1. Next, we get in to the more technical aspects of writing. Tense, point of view and grammar. (If you feel your manuscript is shaping up nicely, you can start looking at spelling, over-use of words and continuity, but I would leave that until last.) It doesn’t matter what point of view you use, or what tense, as long as you keep them consistent throughout the manuscript – unless you have a very good reason not to, like an intentional stylistic change to illustrate a certain point. If you struggle with grammar, there are a lot of helpful books and forums, as well as YouTube guides. (I have a book on grammar that’s actually written for kids, but the language and examples are so clear that it’s the one I go to most.)

 

  1. The stages of editing can get a bit murky here – some writers have to repeat steps until they’re happy and end up with a good number of drafts, others breeze right through and end up with relatively few. However, whether you’ve done a lot of back and forth on your work or not, this part is important. Read your work aloud. I’ll say it again: READ YOUR WORK ALOUD. From start to finish, until you’re sick of the sound of your own voice. This is so you can clearly see problems with sentence structure, missing words, typos, continuity, repetitive description and all that jazz (as readers we’re always pleased to spot others’ mistakes, but are far less pleased as writers if someone kindly points them out in our own work).

 

  1. Finally, when you are happy with your manuscript and can’t find anything else to work on, it’s time to send your work to beta readers. These can be other writers, friends, family or simply people you know love to read. What is important to note, however, is that it’s far more helpful to send your work to readers who readily consume books in that genre than ones who have never read/rarely read within your genre, as the feedback you receive will be more relevant. When you do receive feedback, look for trends in what people are saying. If eight people say a scene isn’t working, then it’s probably wise to take another look and see if it truly does need revising. If one beta reader hates a character but the others love them/make no comment, then perhaps that’s just their personal taste. Consider all feedback, but remember that it is still your work, so you have the final decision on what to change.

 

So there you have it. Where you take your work from there is completely up to you. Whether you opt for traditional publishing, self-publishing or somewhere in-between (be absolutely sure you don’t head down the path of vanity publishing – an old but good rule on how to tell a vanity publisher from a real one is that money should always flow to the author, not away) make sure you do your research.

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NaNoWriMo

While I was studying creative writing with the Open University in 2012, a fellow student mentioned that she was going to take part in National Novel Writing Month  (NaNoWriMo for short) that year. At the time, I had no idea what that meant, so when I checked out their website I was amazed that so many people were taking up the challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. I’d already written a manuscript, of about 68,000 words, and that had taken a whole year to do. So how in the world did people manage to write a book in a month?

The idea was crazy, but strangely alluring. So, I did what any person already halfway through another manuscript and up to their ears in coursework would do: I decided to give it a go (this was mid-october, and NaNoWriMo takes place in November- talk about spur of the moment!)

I had a vague plot in my head, about a young wizard who would have to turn detective, and a name. And that’s it. When November 1st hit, I wasn’t even sure I was going to get even 500 words done, because as luck would have it, I had a family gathering to attend that day. However, the drive up there would take a few hours, and as I was a passenger, I took my laptop with me. And I started typing.

By the time we arrived, I’d finished the first chapter and completed my target word count for the day. I’d done it- I’d made a start, a good start, and now all I had to do was do the same the next day, and then the next until I had 50,000 words. At the end of day 17, I achieved the 50,000 word goal. I had a book, and it had only taken a few weeks of hard work.

What’s more, when I read the draft back a month or so later, after my ‘cool down’ period, I actually found that the quality of the writing for a first draft was much better than when I’d taken my time with my other manuscript. I realised for the first time that having a deadline and forcing myself to do the work quickly actually helped to focus my ideas and make the plot more coherent.

I’ve now completed NaNoWriMo five years in a row, and reduced the amount of time it took nearly every year. The second year was 13 days, the third, only eight, the fourth, seven (and that year I was on such a writing high that I actually started another book in November, though I didn’t complete it until mid-December) and the fifth year was also seven days. Now, that’s not to say it was easy. With the seven and eight day ones, I was writing for 2.5-3 hours three times a day, usually getting up at six and going to bed no earlier than 11.

I was exhausted, but the quality of my drafts when I went back through to edit them after a month or two had passed meant that editing was a pleasant experience that I could enjoy, rather than saying ‘what is this rubbish?’ and hanging my head in despair.

So, for anyone wondering about NaNoWriMo, I’d say if you can set aside the time (and if you’re busy, you will have to fight to make that time – I’ve now learnt to book a week or two off work in November just so I can take part) then it’s definitely worth it. Even if you don’t finish by the end of the month, you’re sure to have made a decent start. And who knows, that might be just the help you need.