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Editing Your First Novel
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Having finished my first novel after about a year of sweat and toil I thought I'd share my experiences of the finishing process.
Because it's easy to think that, when you've written the last sentence, that's it. Done. And it's certainly an accomplishment. You can pat yourself on the back, crack open a bottle of champagne by all means. You deserve it. You've lived that baby for as long as it took. And just like a real baby, the initial step was fun and the next twenty years are hard graft! Except I hope it won't take you twenty years in this case, now that would be devotion to perfection.
So this is where the next step, the real hard work, begins. The editing.
Now, I know you think you've been editing as you went along. You've probably had lots of ideas in the middle of the night about how you could improve that bit where your main character discovers the body. Of course, lots of us do that. (I'm trying to train myself not to, but that's another story). But the real editing doesn't start until the novel's finished, it's sat in a drawer (or file on your computer), and you've had a bit of time to be a little more objective. So now is the time to take a little break. Read a novel. Play a few Facebook games. Go to the cinema. Visit those friends who've been feeling abandoned while you've been so busy.
But don't leave it too long. Maybe a week is probably about right.
Now from my own experience, editing takes several steps. You might be able to do them all at the same time, but you might be giving yourself an impossible task if you try. So this is what works for me.
At this stage you're going to be looking at the big picture, so we'll start with:
Does your plot hold water? In other words, is it real? Will the reader be able to suspend their disbelief sufficiently to become engrossed in your story? For instance, here are a few scenarios around which I've seen a plot built:
1. Person X finds a cache of money. The plot is then constructed around what person X does with the money. Maybe it belongs to a criminal. A drug dealer. Maybe it belongs to someone desperate, who has been loaned the cash to pay a debt. But none of these matter if the circumstances around the finding of this money are improbable. If you can't make us believe that the money really would have been in that place, then we won't believe in what happens next.
2. Person A is attacked walking home from work. How come no-one sees the attack? Why were they walking there in the first place? What is it about the situation that makes the attack possible? If you can't answer these questions adequately, maybe you should choose a different location, different time, whatever makes it feel right.
3. A letter has gone astray. The contents are crucial to the well-being of both sender and recipient and the whole plot builds up to a resolution of the unnecessary enmity between sender and recipient because the letter is finally found. Think carefully about how and why it's gone astray. A long time ago I began a short story based on just that premise, but somehow I couldn't make it work. We need to be convinced that this actually could happen. Think about the content of the letter. Why did it need to be sent? And why now, at this very moment, has it been found?
Don't be lazy about these aspects of the plot. If it doesn't feel completely right it probably isn't and you will start to lose your reader pretty quickly. We've all seen novels like this, and if the initial premise doesn't work then we quickly dismiss them as not worth the read. And we don't read anything else by that author, either.
Look carefully at each piece of action (or scene) and ask yourself a number of questions.
1. Do I really need this to happen? What does it contribute to the plot? Does it reveal anything about a character? Would it speed up the action if I remove that bit where the Main Character (MC) prepares her dog for Crufts or learns how to make wicker baskets? It may be beautifully written and you just love it, but you may have to take it out. (Don't throw it away, you might use it in another novel.) It broke my heart to remove a scene on the art of brewing beer and another on the anthropological awareness in the lyrics of the Kinks. I loved those passages. Did they add anything? No, I was showing off. Avoid at all costs. Of course, if your MCs pedigree Afghan hound is subsequently poisoned, then that might be relevant. Otherwise, think carefully about your readers.
4. Are your scenes long enough? Make sure you haven't cut a scene shorter than it need be. If there's emotional tension to be got from it, dig for it. That's not to say you need to write it like a Victorian melodrama, but if one of your characters is having a bad time make sure we know how they feel about it. If they've got themselves into difficulties, don't get them out of them too soon. The first time I had police interviewing a rape victim my editor said it sounded as if she'd just left her handbag on the bus!
Above all, keep enjoying your writing. If you get fed up with it then so will your readers.
In the next article we'll look at Character. Till then...
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