As a rough guide, once you reach the final fullstop of your manuscript, you’ve reached – at the very best – your halfway point. I’d say that by now (I’m on my seventh novel and fourth non-fiction book), my time spent editing is less than my time spent writing, but that likely won’t be true for you. If rewriting your book takes you three times longer than it took to write it in the first place – well, that’s completely normal.
But still, there’s no reason to suffer for the sake of it, so here are some Quick Tips on how to shorten your journey.
1) Start with the structural
It’s best, if you can, to deal with the structural items first. It doesn’t really make sense to tinker endlessly with your prose style – then discover that you’ve got a giant plot hole in the middle of the book – then rip out that middle section and start again. It’s always better, where possible, to address structural flaws first and come back to the bits and bobs later.
2) But also follow your instinct
I say ‘where possible’, however, because editing isn’t always a logical process. Sometimes you can find yourself tinkering with the little stuff, then have a little breakthrough moment in which you discover that giant plot hole. Maybe the little thing led you to the big thing. It does sometimes work like that, and it helps if you’re prepared to be flexible.
3) Plots are about movement
It’s possible to get over technical about plotting. The heart of any story is simple. It’s about movement. Get your main character off balance as soon as you can and keep him or her off balance until the very end. If a chapter or two goes by in which your character’s position doesn’t go through some important shift, then your book has gone static and you must address that issue – no excuses.
You also need to be realistic about what constitutes change. If your book is a love story, and the Big Question is whether Ms Gorgeous is going to get it together with Mr Hunk, then it doesn’t matter that in chapter 10 she gets promoted, that in chapter 11 her mother gets cancer, or that in chapter 12 she discovers a hidden passage in the garden – none of those things matter unless it changes her position vis a vis Mr Hunk. So you need to know what your Big Question is before you can determine whether your book has enough movement in it.
4) Deepening your relationship with character
Most first drafts contain a good sketch of character, but haven’t yet dug down far enough. In part, that’s because characterisation lies in the detail, details lie in the intricacies of sentence structure, and you haven’t yet started editing your prose in painstaking detail. But it’s also because characterisation (far more than story) takes time to feel your way into. It’s about depth, not shape.
One good tip for helping that process along is to find bits of your book – maybe chapters, maybe just particular lines of dialogue – which make you think, Yes, that’s him, that’s her! The more you can attune yourself to the authentic voice and energy of your character, the more you will find yourself noticing when that authenticity slips.
Do also look for any instances of bland, generic or cliched writing in connection with your character. Take a sentence like: ‘He felt so hungry he could eat a horse.’ That’s a cliche, which means your character has no individuality of his own, no life.
On the other hand, ‘He felt so hungry, he found himself starting to wonder what his belt would taste like, and if it was true you could eat bark.’ That’s not a cliche, and the character (and the situation he’s in) are instantly more alive as a result.
5) Your writing style matters
It’s just amazing how many writers are careless about their sentences – as though books are anything other than long assemblages of sentences. So editing has an awful lot to do with looking at every chapter, every page, every paragraph, and every sentence. Are you being economical? Are you using cliches or bland, generic language? Are your sentences communicating precisely what you see – and are you yourself seeing the scene in clear, specific detail?
Contrast, for example, this:
The room was simply furnished, light and attractive. Georgia stepped over to the window and looked out over the bay.
Bare pine floorboards, a wooden table, two rush-bottomed chairs – and nothing else. The room felt instantly calming. Serene, somehow. Georgia slipped her shoes off and walked barefoot over to the window and the huge view out over the bay.
Those two snippets say the some kind of thing, yet the first has no resonance, the second one does. You couldn’t say that the first one was cliched, but it was bland. The second one was specific, it was individual – it was alive. That’s what you’re aiming for!
6) Showing and telling
Such a huge issue this, it’s hard to compress into a simple little paragraph. But the essence is this: most of your story needs to unfold in the present moment. Scenes need to unfold second by second. The reader needs to feel as though they’re in the corner of the action, looking on. If you have that sense of drama, you’re showing your story unfold – and all is well. If your story feels undramatic, then you may well be guilty of telling the reader what happened – in which case, you’ve got some editorial work to do!
7) Get an outside view of your book
I’m an experienced novelist, yet even so my forthcoming novel will have benefitted from (i) several reads from my literary agent, with comments and advice each time, (ii) a 6,000 word editorial report from my UK editor (who is well known for his editorial excellence), (iii) further comments from my US editor, (iv) yet more comments from at least one copyeditor, and (v) multiple sets of comments from skilled readers whom I know personally.
That’s not weird, that’s normal. What’s more, I’m a pro author, so I’m meant to be quite good at this game already. You’re probably a new writer, in which case your book will need help even more than mine did. So get it! You don’t yet have an agent or a publisher – but consultancies such as the Writers’ Workshop can offer really top quality editorial advice to all comers. That advice may or may not mean that your manuscript goes on to get an agent – but it should jolly well mean that your book becomes a darn sight better than it would have been otherwise. And the more you learn about this book, the more you’ll understand about writing – and editing – in general. You’ll get better. And one day, you’ll sell your book.