editing with a fine quill pen

Grab your editing tools and start polishing your own first draft into something worth casting in bronze. A quill and poem, Bournemouth, England, August 2017.

How do you turn mush into gold? When you finish the first draft of a novel, you’re on a high. You did it, you put in the hours and you completed a book. Next thing – publication and worldwide acclaim. Right? Wrong. Next is poring over that book, finding its strengths and weaknesses, and making it into something you could possibly put in front of an agent or publisher. In other words, editing.

But how do you do that? Yes, you can hire an editor, but if you want to give them to best chance to focus then your draft will already be in the best shape you can make it. So that means a large amount of self-editing before you share with anyone.

What, then, does editing involve? Spellcheck? Grammar check…? Yes, and more. Here are some broad areas for your post-first-draft attention.

1. Make a scene list and number the individual scenes. Forget chapters for the moment, list your scenes. This gives you a manageable picture of your whole story. A scene list involves writing a line or two – no more – per scene. Highlight its main moment, how the plot moves on and any important setting.

2. Now think about tone. Look at your scene list again and in one word, note the tone of each scene. Gloomy, flirtatious, thrilling? It’s very hard to be consistent over a whole novel, and what starts out light and fluffy may veer into grimdark territory by chapter ten. Ahem. So if your book’s promise is a light-hearted romp through a fantastical landscape, check that what you’ve created delivers that.

3. Think about the must-have scenes. These are the scenes that must happen for the plot to work, the big or momentous scenes,  the ones you want the cinema audience to remember for months after they see the film. Where are they? Do you have everything your imaginary back-cover blurb  promises? Focus on those key scenes. This is another step that helps dodge overwhelm.

4. Consider the structure you want for your novel. This may have changed since you first started writing it. Get out your structure reference sources (I like the structure laid out by Save the Cat. I also like what James Scott Bell does with structure )  -and using your scene list, map your story onto the structure that best fits your genre. This exercise lets you see if your story performs a beautiful arc to a towering climax and perfect denouement… or if it arrows to a peak in chapter three and then meanders for the next two hundred pages. Try to pin your novel’s key moments to that of the structure you want it to have. Does it hit all the key points? What’s missing, what’s repeated unnecessarily, what’s over or underdone? For me this is the hardest part of editing, but it is necessary.

5. Consider character story arc. Now stop thinking about plot and think about character story arc. Now you know how the main plot points work out and fit together, how does that match up with your main character’s personal story? It’s no good him having an epiphany in chapter two and then following the plot for another eighteen chapters, fully developed. His epiphany must come at or close to the realisation of the main plot point; his disasters must coincide with the plot’s low points, his triumphs with its final resolution. Or at last, there must be a correlation between whats going on in his heart, and what he’s trying to achieve in the external world.

6. Check your facts. I prefer not to research in any detail before I start writing. I do a bit of googling to get broad facts right, but leave the detail for later. So now is the time to make sure you know when and where things happened – dates, places, names. If you refer to a train journey, check it’s possible and how long it takes. Maybe like me you write the work CHECK!!! in your manuscript for stuff you know you’ll need to look up later. later is now. Go!

7.Look at the book’s pace. Does the reader have time to breathe, to get to know characters, in between breathless action scenes? Does the story move forward at every point, with no redundant scenes of local colour and texture but no plot? Jack Reacher drinks a lot of coffee, allowing him and the reader to take stock. If gunfight followed gunfight, we’d never keep up. Editing specifically story for pace can fix that. Seek that balance between reader interest and reader overwhelm.

8. Listen to the dialogue. Find your characters’ speeches and make sure that each person sounds like herself, every time. Each of us has a distinct speech pattern and it should be obvious, even without tags, who is speaking. I reckon you could pick out Sherlock, Hermione and James T Kirk from their dialogue. Your characters need to be as distinctive.  Add idioms unique to each person, work on patches where everyone seems to sound the same.

9. Setting check. I’m guilty of under-describing things because I can see them just fine in my mind. This is not good enough. So I spend a lot of my editing time checking that events are not happening in a narrative blank space. Make sure the reader can tell where the action is happening – what it looks like, its atmosphere and weather/lighting. And the time of day. Also make sure it’s obvious when in the narrative this is happening – right after the last scene,

10. Timescale check. Make sure it’s obvious when in the narrative this is happening – right after the last scene, some time later, or what? And make those settings work for your story. If they are a bit generic, make them specific. If they are a bit mundane, make them amazing. Not everywhere needs to be the Paris Opera House in a thunderstorm, but everywhere needs to feel like somewhere.

11. Theme. Make sure that the theme of the book is present throughout the story. You needn’t hit readers over the head with This Is About Friendship! every two minutes, but the motifs and set-pieces where the theme is explored, need to be there. Make sure it’s introduced early and tied up, or at least referred back to, at the end.

12. Spellcheck and grammar check. Now you can do the line edits, sentence structure, scene structure – starting with basic spelling and grammar checks. And check by eye, not by squiggly red line on the screen. Read each word slowly and individually. It amazes me that even after three final read-throughs on my weekly stories, someone (often me) always picks out a typo after the piece is shared in the workshop. Every time.

There are many other things you can do to tidy up the enormous pile of mush that is a first draft. But these few should keep you busy.

Let me know how you get on, or if you have any other tips you want to share. -Sef