Editing that Novel

Originally posted on http://www.rolandclarke.co.uk on 17 May 2012

As I embark on editing my second novel, Wyrm Bait, it seemed a good moment to reflect back on the lessons I learnt editing the first one.

Editing was one of the reasons why Spiral of Hooves took 12 years of writing before I had a final draft that I had confidence in.  Sounds like I kept on re-writing and in a way I did, but in totally the wrong way – I call it back-editing or back-pedalling.  I would write a few of the early chapters and then show them to other writers, mainly reading short sections aloud to the novel group I belonged to.  They were anxious to help and I failed to discriminate between constructive criticism and comments to discard.  So I kept going back and re-writing the same chapters, even re-reading the same scenes to the poor group.

Eventually I saw the error of my ways and began to be more selective in what I listened to, although by then my characters and plotline had gone through major changes.  When I finally had a complete draft that I could begin to revise, a lot of the novel in terms of structure, chronology and scene order as well as character consistency was all over the place.  Revising that was a massive scissors & paste rewrite but at least I then had a draft that began to flow – so I could then go through and hone the actual words.

While going through all these drafts I read somewhere – apologies if I don’t know where – that one should start with the overall picture and work down to the level of the individual words with each rewrite.  Hopefully after the chaos that was Spiral of Hooves I might have an easier time editing Wyrm Bait and enjoy what is meant to be as much fun as the writing.

I envisage 3 phases to Editing:

1.   The Overview:  ensuring that the overall structure of the plotline works and even surpasses the original intent of the plotting done before I even started writing.  When my partner/No 1 critic-reader read the finished novel aloud, I made notes on what didn’t work BEFORE putting the novel in the bottom drawer; so those notes are my starting point.
It helped having the background & detailed characterisation worked out even before I devised a detailed scene by scene plot using cards plus my novel writing software. I also wrote the second novel (and subsequent ones) without back-peddling EXCEPT each day I re-read and made minor changes to the previous day’s writing before I wrote the next chunk.  Also I kept ensuring that events that needed foreshadowing were inserted or changed as necessary plus any potential inconsistancies were avoided.
Therefore this edit should in part have been done in (a) the read-through notes & amendments; (b) the daily review and other corrections while writing the first draft.  But it doesn’t mean everything works at this stage so I will still have to do an overview.

2.   Chapters – Openings & Cliffhangers:   It remains to be seen whether I was beginning to write more self-contained and concise chapters in Wyrm Bait, with the cliffhangers to keep readers moving on. I will need to ensure that the tension is kept up but not at a break-neck speed as there need to be lulls both overall and within the individual chapters.  One crucial thing is that the plot keeps moving forward and the characters either grow or at least learn.  I also know that although I did research when I plotted the storyline and when I was writing, that there are areas that will need researching in more detail, given how the plot evolved.   This could all mean one draft or probably more like two or three as I know the chapters in Wyrm Bait vary in how they are written, with some sketched roughly and others overwritten with flights of purple prose.

3.   Every word counts:  So finally at the grassroots level there are the individual words and the phrases they either enhance or kill, deciding if the sentences flow and the paragraphs work.  After Spiral of Hooves, I know that there can be a lot of dead wood hiding at this level as unwanted adjectives and adverbs, inappropriate verbs or obvious embellishments.  I might have cut out large chunks by removing whole scenes and even chapters but fine tuning the words and removing the dross added light and shade to the flow of that story.

On one level it’s daunting reflecting on what has to be done but I know that it is also exciting as I will be discovering Wyrm Bait again and I have the chance to find the jewel at its heart.  Isn’t that what we are doing as writers – crafting a precious object from words?

Although I’ve used various online sites and real-paper books as I tried to learn this craft of writing, one comes to hand as useful at many stages: Writing The Thriller by T. Macdonald Skillman – Published by Writer’s Digest Books ISBN 0-89879-928-7.  With contributions from other thriller writers it has some invaluable chapters including one on editing called ‘Words on a Page’ which is one of my ongoing references.

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