Last month, I signed up to the How To Edit Your Novel workshop at Waterstones Birmingham. Writing and editing a novel can sound a bit daunting to anyone who has never gone through that process before, so it’s great to hear from authors and editors about how they go through this really intimidating process.
The panel of lovely people talking about editing were:
- Gillian McAllister – her thriller, Everything But The Truth is released in March
- G X Todd – whose thriller novel, Defender, was recently released
- Stephen Aryan – who writes the current Battlemage series of epic fantasy
- Amanda Rutter, a freelance editor
They divided the general writing process into four steps – the first draft, the structural edit, the copy edit and the proof. I have roughly divided this post that way, but there’s a lot of universal tips scattered throughout.
The First Draft
Firstly, they discussed their approach to writing their novels. Gillian McAllister wrote her first draft in three months, and stressed to us that it was absolutely terrible. She then scan read it (it’s too terrible to try and read any other way) and condensed it all into scenes on index cards. From there, she decided on weaker, ‘saggy’ parts of the story or ones that could be removed entirely. Then she would move on to the second draft.
GX Todd, on the other hand, took a very different approach. She aimed to write 2000 words a day and each day, revise the 2000 words from the previous day before writing more. It’s similar to my current approach only with less daily words!
Stephen Aryan said his approach was a mix of the two. He noted that he has to read the end of his chapters for the hook that keeps one reading. Amanda Rutter added that the Davinci Code by Dan Brown was a good example of a book with great hooks as it meant she finished the book in one sitting!
Some tips for re-reading
Get critical beta readers. Pay attention to all they notice, good and bad, reason or no reason. If they’ve noticed it, it’s something you should probably pay attention to. If all your readers say the same thing about a specific section, then pay special attention. If they say something different about the same section, take their words with a pinch of salt, although it is clear that there’s something to pay attention to even if it stands out less.
Read your work out loud, especially dialogue. This is a common tip and it’s not hard to see why – it’s dialogue, it’s meant to be spoken.
When reading though your work, do it in a different way. Chances are you were staring at your laptop for ages,so try reading your work on a kindle or printed (double spaces with room in the margins to annotate) or change the font to something different.
The Structural Edit
Let the first draft go~! You may become emotionally attached to a draft you spent months or even years on, but the first draft is always gonna be pretty terrible and that’s a given.
Don’t be afraid of big structural edits, and keep an open mind as to the direction of the story!
From what I heard, it seems structural edits look more at the work as a whole, an overview of the project. The major themes of the story, the plot, the characters and their roles, all are sorted out in this editing step. I say ‘sorting’ but it could be ‘figured’ out afterwards. This is the time where you get an idea of where your novel sits on a bookshelf – its genre.
Some extra writing tips from the panel included ‘never start with waking up’ and ‘don’t be too continuous’. If it doesn’t progress the plot it may not be necessary. This is one of my problems! I somehow have to move my main characters from place to place without writing a documentary of their day.
Another plot advancement tip is ‘achieve more than one thing with a scene’. This means don’t just focus on advancing characters development in one scene and plot the next. Make one scene do twice the work.
2nd drafts can get bigger instead of smaller! I think the numbers thrown around were 80k to over 100k!
Know the 1 sentence pitch of the book. Keep it in mind as you write. You might say ‘it’s ____ meets ____’ but also keep in mind not to overshoot your ambitions by , for example, ‘it’s Harry Potter meets Lord of the Rings!’
The copy edit covers things like spelling and punctuation but also fact checking. For example if you’ve mentioned someone shooting a bow and arrow, that detail has to be right because eventually, someone who knows how to shoot one may read it and get very annoyed at any detail that is wrong. I know I would get annoyed!
Structural edits may be suggested at this point as well but you don’t have to implement their suggestions.
Finally the proof. Final checks are made like in copy editing, but this time there’s also a physical version, something that’s being sent out to reviewers. In the meantime, the authors will keep reading their own book, and making tiny changes. GX Todd mentioned that she read her novel start to finish at least 34 times before it got published (throughout the entire process) and McAllister says she read hers about 20 times.
GX Todd adds that she didn’t pick up the book again after it was sent off to publish… Not until she had to write the sequel, anyway.
They all agreed that deadlines are a good thing for them, because they’ve never felt like their projects were finished. There’s this urge to keep working on the manuscript but if they followed it, it would never be published!
Again, they stressed that Fresh Eyes are important. This is why fonts are changed and we read things on kindles and we have beta readers. The more ways of reading a project like its new, the better, since most readers will be new to your story. To add, try reading stuff in reverse! Read your manuscript starting from the last chapter or just work back page by page. Rutter says it good to stop yourself from getting caught in the story.
Lastly, tips for finding an agent. They mention and praise the Writers’ and Artists’ Handbook which is published annually and includes a list of agents and what they publish. An agent is pretty much essential and they stress that having one is worth every penny. They will make sure you get paid decently for your work.
Finish the manuscript before you start to approach agents. The panel agreed on three rounds of editing before sending the work off to one. It’s going to be edited more with the agent as well as the publisher too.
Remember that agents read 8000 submissions a year! It takes a bit of luck and being the right manuscript at the right time.
If an agent has a social media profile, go stalk it a bit. You might find they are in the mood for something in the genre you wrote in. Twitter has made them ever more accessible with hashtags like #askanagent, too.
That sums up all the advice we got from this talk! It was super helpful. My main takeaway from this was that, as much as I am working my butt off on this draft, it really is just the start – the tip of a bottomless iceberg or something. Therefore I should really stop fussing over how perfect my second chapter has to be at the moment.
I hope you found this helpful too. I didn’t get absolutely everything in my notebook but I tried my best to get down as much as I could. Lastly, a special thank you to the lovely panellists and Waterstones Birmingham for hosting this workshop!
Until next time,