Tuesday, November 6, 2012

So you think you've finished writing your novel?

I selected this post to be featured on my blog’s page at Book Blogs.

I can't believe it's two months since I last blogged but in that time I've written 40,000 words and finished the new novel, the follow-up to 'Song at Dawn', so turning into a recluse has all been worth it.

How do you feel when you finish your novel? I am always elated, ready to celebrate with a very good bottle of wine, convinced that this is the most wonderful book ever written. I need a print-out straight away so I can see the sheer number of pages, feel the weight of paper covered with my words. After ten months' work, I have finished my latest masterpiece.

A week later, I am suicidal. My masterpiece is rubbish. Why would anyone ever want to read such trash? I should burn it and forget writing. I should take up crochet instead.

Another week later, with some helpful input from the man who always reads my work first and yet has stayed married to me, I realise that my novel needs some work. After I've put in the work, and only then, I think it will be well worth sending out into the world, for my readers to judge its quality. By the time my readers see it, this novel will be as good as I can make it, and I will be proud of it.

This is my fifteenth published book and I go through the same emotions every time, which apparently is a little wearing to live with, but it is just part of the process for me, and it's easier to accept it when you've been through it before.

It seems to me a great pity that more and more writers are publishing at stage one, elated at finishing, impatient to get their books out there, to get the adrenalin rush of seeing their precious work in bookshops, on amazon, on smashwords, on real people's virtual and physical bookshelves. Believe me, I understand the temptation and the impatience. After all, you've followed 50 shades of marketing and done every single pre-publishing platforming networking activity known online - right? 

But your book is not yet good enough to publish.

This is important enough to repeat. No-one's book is good enough to publish the moment s/he puts the last full stop in place. However experienced a writer is, however many million books s/he has sold, this is always true. You haven't 'finished' your book when you write the last sentence. You've written the first draft. 

You think this applies only to self-published authors and the publisher will do the rest of the work? Wrong. Publishers put huge pressure on their writers to meet ever-tighter deadlines, at the same time as expecting ready-to-go typescripts. The days when editors worked with writers on the content of their novels are long gone and high-quality editors are few and far between. When an author sends his/her 'finished' work to the publisher, editing can vary from a proofread to, rarely, 'old-fashioned' discussion about improving the book. Mostly, I see the book going to print pretty much as it left the author, who usually submitted it to the publisher sooner than s/he would have liked, without any revision time.

Advice on 'keeping readers happy' is making this fast-food mentality worse. We are told to keep in the public eye by producing books regularly and 'shorts' in between. No wonder there are so many badly written, badly edited books around, both self-published and from reputable presses. Pressure!

Just suppose you resist the pressure and want to make your book better before it goes out to your readers. What should you do? It depends on what sort of book you're writing but this is what I'm doing:-

the Editor

The Editing Process

1. Read the whole book in one go, noting any technical errors, any inconsistencies, any continuity problems, any lapses in point of view, and any weaknesses in plot or dialogue. I always print out my novel, double-spaced, and sit down in a comfy chair with a red pen, to mark up the typescript. I don't care how teacherly red pen is - it shows up well! I have my own shorthand for picking up on errors but if you want to use professional editing symbols, they can be found online. I thought this was a good list of editing symbols.

When my books have been conventionally published, I've accepted or rejected publishers' editing by both response on printed galleys and on Word in editing mode. If I'm editing/feeding back on someone else's work, I use the editing options in Word.

Technical errors - grammar, spelling, punctuation, formatting, font

Consistency - names (a big problem for me because 12th century spelling was erratic and I'm using four languages - English, French, Occitan and Arabic. The same historical character has a different name in different languages)
                   - choices on e.g. use of hyphens in words, so that the same choice is made throughout the novel (for instance, I decided on bedroll rather than bed-roll)

Continuity problems - e.g. the knight was holding a dagger but he kills the enemy with a sword. It's very easy when writing over a period of ten months to make these sort of mistakes. Time often trips you up - you said it was night and yet here they are in broad daylight; you said your heroine was pregnant by the hero but they only met two months ago and the baby's arrived! 

Point of View - check for switches of viewpoint too close together. 'Head-hopping' is a classic beginner's mistake - choose one viewpoint and stick with it for a while, regardless of whether it's 3rd person or 1st person. Check that the viewpoint works, both in showing that character and in showing only what he/she could know or see/hear. If you're using an omniscient narrator, check that the voice is consistent.

Weaknesses in plot - Does everything fit with what has been written earlier, about events and about characters? Are the characters behaving in character? Think about the action from each person's viewpoint. Have you sacrificed believability for action? Are there big gaps, which need some explanation? Are there parts which are confusing? (In my novel, 12th century politics in the Holy Land is part of the plot and I have to remember that my readers haven't spent a year researching the period - I have to cut out the stories that are fascinating but off at a tangent, the historical detail that isn't needed for this story, and I have to make it clear in a couple of sentences who these historical characters are)

Weaknesses in dialogue - Does it fit the characters and period ( in a historical novel, anachronisms are real clangers and most likely to appear in speech)? Real dialogue is oblique - people don't follow on exactly from what is said before.
 e.g. 'That's the phone.'
'I'm in the bath'
This exchange is not logical but makes perfect sense. Check that dialogue is lively and realistic, without dropping into the boring ums and errs and trivia of real speech. Unless, of course, that's your aim.  

2. Re-write - cuts are as important as changes and additions.

3. Input from others - make critical friends. Writers' groups in the real world and online are a great source of support and critical input. You very soon figure out which people are the right ones to help you with which book, and of course you help them in return (or you pay them, or both). I now have a truly wonderful network of writer-friends and the historical novelists in my network are going to read and feed back on 'Bladesong'. I trust them to find any horrible anachronisms, dialogue or big faults in plot or structure. They might find all kinds of other faults too but I know their feedback will be constructive so that will lead me to

4. Re-write - using the input from other people.

5. Copy edit - the fine toothcomb stuff. Zap every mistake in grammar, spelling, punctuation, formatting and technical consistency. Sod's law means that you will have introduced new mistakes with your re-writing.

You think you can do the final edit yourself? Have you ever shown a page of your work to a really good professional editor? Did it pass the test? I'm an English specialist, who used to teach English, and I'm a reasonable editor, but I miss mistakes in my own work. This time, I'm getting it checked by a professional. As I already have three excellent, pro editors in my network of writer-friends, I don't have to trawl through lists of strangers and take a gamble. If you are looking for an editor, talk to other writers to find one they'd recommend. Genre forums are very useful because people writing the same sort of books are sharing their experiences. 

I tried an editing task in the writers' group I run monthly. I'd doctored a piece of writing with a variety of different mistakes and my writers all had time to edit the piece. Then I read the piece aloud and they stopped me any time one of them wanted to make a change. As well as raising issues of subjectivity and ownership (the 'editors' became very possessive of their changes and preferred their version to the writer's), the exercise came up with one unexpected outcome. Not one of the editors picked up on the doubling up of words 'was was' until the piece was read aloud and then they all kicked themselves for missing this mistake - twice.

It is very difficult NOT to read for sense and miss such mistakes - which is why you need a good editor.

6. Finished! Ready to publish.

'Bladesong' will be published early in 2013 and I hope that if you read it, you won't be interrupted by mistakes on every page. I'm sure there will be some mistakes, as the proof-gremlins always create a few. These tiny creatures visit edited works and add errors, for the sheer pleasure of seeing the writer's and editor's faces, when they say, 'I know that was correct when I sent it off!' Every author and publisher I know has confirmed the existence of the proof-gremlins, so it must be true.


  1. Very useful advice, Jean. Some food for thought there for all of us.

    1. I'm glad you found it useful, Susanna, and good luck with your writing!