Editing a novel: the three stages
First of all, I want to say that I'm in awe of anyone who's managed to write this year. From lockdown novel projects to NaNoWriMo, I know a lot of you have somehow managed to put words on the page in spite of a pandemic and everything else we've got on our plates.
For me, 2020 has been less about writing and more about editing. I completed a first draft of a new story last year, and have been working on it ever since. (It's a modern revenge drama set in a derelict manor house, in case you were curious.)
If you're coming to the end of your own first draft and are wondering what to do next, I'm going to share my own process for editing a novel. This is what I have found works for my writing, and it's a method I've developed over time, learning from each book that I prepare for publication. It's not a set of rules you have to stick to, but it does reflect a lot of the best practice that's recommended in the book industry. So whether you're aiming to publish or just want to work some more on your story so you can enjoy reading it yourself, here's my three stages to editing a novel.
A quick note first, though, on professional editors. There are brilliant people out there who really know their stuff on strengthening your plot, polishing prose, and making your novel shine. If your manuscript is accepted for traditional publishing, you will work with an editor to help make your story the best it can be. If you're planning to self-publish, finding an editor is an excellent way to get some professional support in making sure your book is ready for the market. However, it's still worth doing your own editing first. Editors will thank you for putting in the work and sending them a third or fourth draft rather than a first draft.
Right then, here we go. The first step in editing your novel is...
You think I'm joking, don't you? Seriously, take my word for it. For at least two weeks after you write the words 'the end' or 'they all lived happily ever after', do absolutely nothing with your manuscript. Don't read it or edit it. Close the file on your computer, lock that laptop in a drawer, and go out for a run.
If you've been immersed in writing for a long time, it's important to have fresh perspective when you start editing. Once you've had that two week break you're ready for:
Stage 1: the structural edit
OK, go back to your novel and ready yourself for the most brutal editing stage (in my opinion, at least!). This is the stage where I focus on the biggest story issues, like plot structure, character development arcs, and pacing.
What's that? You've spotted a typo in paragraph one? Leave it there. It's tempting to jump in and start correcting grammar or making your sentences sound better, but try to resist that for now.
It feels counter-intuitive to overlook mistakes when you're meant to be making your work better, but think of editing your novel like making a cake. Your first draft is the sponges, fresh out of the oven. This stage is when you construct the cake, not when you add icing and decorations (can you tell I've been watching The Great British Bake Off?) If you perfect a beautiful sentence now, you might discover later that the whole paragraph it sits in needs to be deleted or re-written and then you've wasted a lot of time and effort.
So once you've gotten over the eye-twitching pain of leaving your typos where they are (I'm always shocked by how many commas make it into my first drafts!) let's focus on what you can do in this stage.
First, read the whole thing from start to finish. Get a feel of what your story is like. Make notes, especially on the following:
Plot. Does the story feel exciting, slow, implausible, or melodramatic? Are there events that don't make any sense now you read the manuscript back?
Characters. Are your characters compelling and believeable? Do any of them feel flat, or do they make decisions that don't seem to match up with who they are?
Themes. What themes are coming out through your story and are they the same ones you set out intending to write?
Next, I recommend arming yourself with a few resources about plot structure. If that's unfamiliar, look up The Hero's Journey for a classic example or Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. These resources will show how a good story has different stages and beats. We all learned about beginning, middle and end at school, but it's possible to go into far more detail.
Different types of story can follow different structures (and some choose to follow none at all!) so have a think about what suits your style of novel. Whatever you've written, you'll want to make sure the stakes are at their highest right before the dramatic climax of the story, which will happen towards the end. If you find yourself losing interest or winding down much earlier than that, you've got some work to do.
I could write a whole book on this stage, but other people have beaten me to it. Instead, here are my top tips:
- If the pace is dragging, add conflict. Make life harder for your characters. Remember that conflict can be external (main character is attacked by a wolf) or internal (main character battles to overcome fear and residual trauma from previously being attacked by a wolf).
- If your characters feel one-dimensional, make sure you know what they want most and what they fear most. Then make it difficult for them to achieve what they want, and force them to face what they fear.
- If in doubt, push one of your characters off a cliff! (If you've read my second book, you'll know what I'm talking about here.)
This is the most drastic section of editing by far. You might find you have to re-write whole chapters because your main character has changed too much for their behaviour to make sense any more, or you might move a section to another part of the book where it fits better. Being ruthless is an advantage at this stage!
(at the end of this stage, reward yourself with a strong cup of coffee)
Stage 2: the line edit
Once you've got a story with a coherent structure, and dynamic characters who actually grow and pursue goals, you're ready for the line edit.
Time to fix all those misplaced commas? Nope.
Spelling and punctuation can still wait, painful though it may be. The line edit is about making your prose sing. This is where your own unique writing voice can begin to shine out. Here, we're looking less at the building blocks of the story and more at the way the writing can serve that story. To better explain what I mean, here are a few examples:
Exciting, action-packed scenes move fast. Use short sentences. Crash! That's the sound of onomatopoeia livening up your prose. Active verbs will also keep up the pace.#
On the other hand, if you want to gently introduce your reader to a new setting or character, and give them time to reflect, longer sentences work well. Take the time to pick out interesting details, such as your character's quirk of chewing the end of a biro when they puzzle over a difficult problem, or that their coat pockets are always full of toffees and newspaper cuttings.
When it comes to dialogue, you can have fun getting to know your characters' voices. Are they the sort of person to use long words and rambling sentences, or do they mostly communicate in grunts? Would they throw a corny pun into the conversation to try to make others laugh, or do they prefer to only talk about facts?
It can be useful to involve someone else at the line editing stage, because a different pair of eyes can help you spot something you probably don't realise you're doing.
We need to talk about crutch words.
What on earth are crutch words? These are unnecessary words that you've peppered through your manuscript without even knowing it. You think you've shown off a decent vocabulary, but a helpful friend might point out that every other sentence contains a 'really', 'very', 'just', or 'now'. These aren't the only examples, but they are some common ones.
A brilliant editor worked on The Runaway before it was published and was able to show me all the words I was over-using.
(Thank goodness she pointed out my vocab-blunders BEFORE it went to print!)
Stage 3: the proofread
At last we arrive at stage three, and you're allowed to break out your red pen and circle all the typos you've been wanting to fix.
Now, it's a curious phenomenon that it is easier to spot spelling and grammatical mistakes on the printed page than on a screen. But what if you can't (or don't want to) print two hundred pages for proofreading? I find that changing the font type, size and spacing of your manuscript helps hugely here. You've read your own words so many times on the page that you've probably stopped taking in every word. By making it look different on the page, you force your brain to pay attention. Some writers swear by Comic Sans here, but I think any different font can help.
So there you have it, the three stages to editing a novel. This has been a whistlestop tour, so let me know if you think I need to cover any aspect in more detail. And I'm always happy for people to get in touch to talk about editing, if I can be any help.
If you'd like to read more of my (edited) words, you'll find details of my books here, and you can read the first chapter of A Map of the Sky for free.