Indie Novella Writing Course
Lesson 9 - Editing
For the last week of the Indie Novella writing course we are going to focus on answering the all-important question; you’ve finished the first draft of your novel, what do you do now? To answer simply, enjoy the moment!
Writing a novel is an achievement. You’ve already succeeded where many have failed. So this lesson aims to provide you with tips and a series of resources when it comes to copy editing and what to do next when you’re done.
Have a well-earned rest
Time away from your novel once you’ve completed a draft is vital. As writers, we get so wrapped up in our story and in our characters, we are unable to perform the most critical function of an editor: being impartial. Time away, reading something new, writing something else, enables us to return to our manuscript later and do something essential – read it. While writing a novel is a great achievement in itself, to take a novel to publication you need to read your novel as a reader would. Therefore, put down that pen, switch-off that laptop, and put the first draft away. Jane Austen would lock her manuscript in a drawer and pass the key to a friend with strict instructions not to return it for a year. If you do choose to adopt this approach we do advise you to first check your phone and keys are not in said drawer. A good time to come back to your work is ideally when the conditions under which the book were written have been forgotten and you have a cold, clear eye on your work.
Where to start?
Consider the adage; writing is for yourself, rewriting is for others. When writing a novel, the person you should be writing for is yourself. Write what you know, or what you want to know, or what you love writing about. Once your first draft is complete then start considering other people. The purpose of editing is to address the needs of your implied reader. This may sound daunting, but in fact its quite an easy shift – we’re all readers at heart.
Editing usually starts with plotting and pacing. Review your plot in general. What happens when you move from one scene to another? Is there consistent forward momentum? Are there any holes? Do you find yourself wondering what happens to certain characters? Are there any loose ends? Do your conflicts resolve? Do you give the reader enough room to interpret some events for themselves?
Once you are happy with the overall content of your draft and the order in which your scenes have been placed, you should then drill down and look at each scene or section individually. Consider the following questions:
How well written is the scene?
Does each scene satisfy the objective when you wrote it?
Does it contain too much information and action, or too little?
Does the action in the scene reveal something about your characters?
What is the pace of the scene, is it moving too fast or too slowly – does it drive the story forward?
If this scene was left out, what would be lacking in your story?
The classic novel, The Great Gatsby, provides an interesting example of the editing process. When he finished his draft, it was only 50,000 words and Fitzgerald felt dissatisfied at how short it was. Rather than being too short, Fitzgerald’s editor believed the story was underdeveloped and encouraged him to fill it out. The result was an extra 10,000 words which created arguably the perfect novel. Therefore, if in doubt, or red-flags start to jump out at you during your first read through, go back to your plot and planning stage and see if you need to 1) add some new scenes, 2) remove some redundant ones, 3) lengthen/shorten some chapters, or 4) rewrite an entire section.
The biggest advice we can give a writer is do not be shy to use option 4. A lot changes from when you start a novel to when you finish it. Not just in your vision of what your story should be, but also regarding your skill and experience as a writer.
In general, we recommend reading back through your first draft without making a single edit. Then, read it again, but this time making notes and edits on your manuscript. First drafts are wonderfully messy so don’t be too harsh on yourself. The key to good editing is doing draft after draft, so don’t worry if it takes time.
Tips for the editing process
Utilise technology – we live in the age of Print on Demand. Companies like Lulu will put your novel in paperback form for low cost (note: its not going to remotely be of bookshop quality but that is fine for this purpose – but AVOID using Amazon, as it essentially self-publishes your novel and you will be unable to remove it). By putting it in this format gives you some form of critical distance so you can really step into a reader’s shoes. HOWEVER, do not be tempted to show anyone, and once read, destroy that copy. Hence why we say not to make any notes on that first read.
Change your setting. If you wrote you first draft at your desk, then go to a park or a café where you never wrote. If you feel ostentatious hire an Airbnb, just get to a stage of forgetfulness where nothing reminds you of your state of mind when you wrote your novel.
Do wait until you’ve completed that first read through before you start editing. Only when you finish reading you will know where to start editing.
Examine your language. Is there a consistent voice? Are your characters’ voices a little too like your own.
Editing Individual Scenes
Leading on from our pacing lesson, it is important that your scenes make their point but do not outstay their welcome. However, as much as we bang on about each scene needing to serve its purpose, it should also be written as beautifully as possible. Drilling down even further to the line-by-line level, does each sentence stand up well in isolation? Is there a pleasing mix between long and short sentences? Is there a flow or rhythm to your writing? This is probably the most rewarding part of editing. It is not all, Cut! Cut! Cut! or ‘Your writing is too descriptive, quicken up the pace! Make everything shorter and to the point.’ In fact a lot of the editing process is making sure what is often told in three or four long-winded, scrambly-thought scenes or blocks of exposition, can be told eloquently in one scene.
The above is never more applicable than when deciding on your novel opening. We said at the start of this course, your beginning should be the last section that you write in your novel. This needs to be your most polished piece of writing and your opening chapter has to both entice and also represent your novel as a whole. The opening of your novel should transport your reader straight into the world of your story, introducing them to the setting, the central characters, and to the all-important central conflict at the heart of your novel. Again, below are some tips for your opening, however they are not strict rules. As with many of the tips provided on this course, none are dealbreakers BUT if you do choose to not follow them make sure this is a deliberate strategy and you have good reason, rather than it being by accident.
Action! Make something happen! Readers pick up a book because they want a story. Therefore, get your story going right from the off, so that it is impossible for the reader to put the book down. Give the reader something funny, intriguing or distinctive which gets your plot in motion and sends your characters into action.
Introduce your characters, or at least your protagonist. We need to know whose story it is. Also establish when and where the action is happening. If you’re writing a historical novel, it should be made clear when the story is set straight away.
Set the tone for the novel. If you’re writing a humorous story, make something funny happen straight away or establish a first person narrative voice that’s full of wit and wry observations. Use sensory experience to make it all the more visceral for the reader.
Ask that central question and show that central conflict.
Some writers have the ending of their novel in their head right from the start of the creative writing experience. It is their jumping off point and they use this predetermined scene as the basis for their plotting and pacing. Some writers don’t know what the ending will be when they start writing and genuinely surprise themselves when they arrive at it. And some writers have multiple endings written up and wait until the last moment to decide what it will be.
Whichever way you may have chosen to write your ending, the editing process is where you can reassess and decide if it really does a) suit the tone of the story you have written, and b) leave your reader satisfied. As we have said, rewriting and editing is for the reader, therefore we may need to be a little less precious of an ending we decided upon when the bulk of our novel was in our head rather than on the page.
Apparently Hemingway wrote 47 different endings of A Farewell to Arms. Dickens wrote two ending for Great Expectations. What we can learn from this is that there are often multiple possible endings for our novels and sometimes the only way to decide which one is best is by writing all of them. And the reason we don’t is likely because, by the time we reach that all important end, we’re exhausted and just want to see our novel in that shop window.
Think of the novels you’ve read and believe the ending is the right one. And think of the times you’ve gone ‘nooooo!!!’. Here are some things to consider and examples when examining an ending:
The Happy Ending vs the Tragic Ending – A lot of writers find the idea of creating a tragic ending for the novels impossible as they, themselves, want the best for those characters they’ve invested time in. However, consider the works of Shakespeare and consider how many of them had tragic endings. Our featured novel, Us, by David Nichols ends effectively with Douglas not achieving what he set out to do and not keep his family together. Also, for Douglas, what his wife chooses to do is also salt into the wounds. However, even more unsatisfying for some readers was the ending of Nichols’ blockbuster novel One Day, where the lead character, Emma, is suddenly killed off. Not the happy ending some may had thought the book was building up to. However, through Emma’s death we see the change in the other lead character, Dexter, and probably the combination of doing so, and Nichols’ bravery of creating something so stark, resulted in a memorable and remarkable reading experience. Hence, our tip is, happy or sad, let our ending mean something and don’t just let tie up loose ends.
Creating Change – by the end of your novel something should have changed. This could be within the mindset of your protagonist, or the situation as a whole is radically different to the start of your novel. Some would argue that your ending has been achieved when you are able to illustrate to your reader what that change is. In our example of One Day, what would have been the change for Dexter if the novel ended before the death of Emma, or even with Emma’s death? With Eleanor Oliphant the entire novel is about change and it resolves with Eleanor making breakthroughs, and being ready for self-discovery and ending the vicious cycles she was previously beholden to. Eleanor’s character arc is complete. Another timeless novel which is all about the character arc is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. In fact bestselling author and psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz recommends it to anyone who wants to explore the nature of change.
“Scrooge doesn’t change because he’s frightened — he changes because he’s haunted. We can be frightened of gaining weight, but that alone probably won’t cause us to change our diet. Haunting is different. It makes us feel — makes us alive to — some fact about the world, some piece of information, that we’re trying to avoid.”
At times the right ending for a novel is when you as a writer have no more left to say and you have shown the change your novel was about.
Resolve – For a lot of novels the ending comes when the central mystery is solved and we reach a quiet. We’re not talking about every loose end as that can feel overly perfect and pedestrian. Life isn’t like that, and often we want our endings to ‘feel real’. But you do need to reach some resolution. Remember, the difference between real life and novel is that a novel ends. Murder mystery novels tend to end with killer being revealed, hence that moment of resolution. We do not need to know that the detective lived happily ever after or what the victim’s family did next. Rather, you’ve reached the resolve of your central conflict and central question. Despite not being a murder mystery, Julien Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending centres on a mystery which the protagonist is trying to solve. Things may not work out perfectly, but that central question is answered.
The Climax – Many novels build up to that final conflict between protagonist and antagonist. This can be a Lord of the Rings style battle for Middle Earth or can be more subtle with the antagonist simply being the protagonist’s own nature. And we don’t need a happy ending – it could be the protagonist falls back to who they were.
And lastly, The Twist – done well, this can propel a novel. Think of the reversal moment in Gone Girl; the revelation in SJ Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep; of the stunningly shaped reveal in Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, which is so subtly done that some readers don’t even notice it, let alone anticipate it happening. Surprise is a wonderful tool to engage readers, as long as it is believable and in keeping with your story. The twist must actually be guessable, though the author would hope to construct it in such a way that most readers will not guess it. Like with all good endings, twists work best when a story is plotted carefully, hence why tidying up your ending, or even rewriting it is a critical part of the editing process. Scatter hints through your plot and balance with misdirection, so your ending in fact begins much earlier in your story.
Next Steps for Writers on the Indie Novella Writing Course
And we cannot discuss endings without reaching some form of resolve for this course. There is no weekly writing exercise for our last lesson. Instead, we ask you to rewrite the first 5,000 words of your novel. AND fully Peer-Review another participant's work.
None of the above should however be done inside a week. You should exchange email addresses and create an alternative space, where you can share your thoughts and then take a month (or three) to develop a draft you are happy with. The Submissions page will be open at Indie Novella for you.
Regarding what to do next, the first thing you need to consider is what you want to achieve as a writer.
Do you want fame and fortune and to quit your day job and spend the rest of your life being paid to write novels?
Or do you simply want your work out in the world, being read by people you know with the satisfaction of knowing you have created a piece of art?
The latter does not have to be mutually exclusive with the former, however the former is definitely mutually exclusive with the latter.
The next thing you want to consider is; how much do want to invest in your novel or you as writer? And we’re talking about both money AND time.
Literary and Editorial Consultancies – Be wary of big promises. For a hefty sum, these promise a lot. They can give a line-by-line review of you manuscript, analysing the key aspects of your novel and how it reads in terms of your beginning, your ending, your use of pace, characterization etc. They also promise priority access to literary agents too – some say they act as scouts for literary agents and others say that literary agents prefer dealing with them and they can get your manuscript out of the slush pile and in front of agents. So obviously, if you are happy with your novel and know your novel will be picked up by an agent if only they read it, this should be your natural next step, right?
The Novelry and Cornerstones Literary Consultants are two example such consultancies, and both do a great job in flagging issues with a novel and making suggestions. But both are there to make money and will likely take any novel and provide editorial guidance. Going to such agencies does not remotely guarantee your novel is put in front of an agent. If that is the sole reason you are using them then note, there are only 250 literary agents in the UK and each only take on only 4 news authors per year. It is a lot of money for what could just be a report.
Indie Novella do however recommend both editorial services and proof-reading services. Having an experienced editor review your novel will definitely make a difference. However, there are far more affordable freelancers out there and Indie Novella can recommend a list at a fraction of the cost (and we don’t take any commission). Just get in touch.
‘Hooking’ an Agent – I think there is enough advice and events out there on ‘hooking’ an agent. Indie Novella’s advice is, if you want advice on engaging with agents then the best person to ask is an agent. Louise Buckley, a former literary agent, has created a wonderful short course on teachable: https://how-to-submit-to-a-literary-agent.teachable.com/p/how-to-submit-to-a-literary-agent
At just GBP 18, it is highly affordable and specifically focused on how to navigate the submission process.
Another place to find agents is Agent Tables. Byte the Book is an affordable member site which connects authors to agents and publishers and their free networking events for members is a great place to meet people in the publishing industry. Agent tables are, however, ticketed events and cost around GBP 100. However this is considerably cheaper than jumping straight in with a Literary Consultancy.
Further Writing Courses – after completing one writing course a lot of writers find themselves enrolling on another writing course to hone their skills further. The gold standard of writing courses has to be Curtis Brown Creative. The agent led writing course, while not promising to put your manuscript in front of their agents, has led to a series of publishing deals for former students. At the end of the day, the caliber of writers on the course is high so the peer group you would be working with will be excellent. The course also brings in their own agents for pitching events and published writers for Q&A sessions. However, their flagship course costs GBP 3,190 and it is for London based students.
Small-press Publishers – Reaching an agent can take time, and as you can see, requires substantial investment. But some publishers do allow for open submissions, such as Indie Novella. Small-press publishers essentially bring your novel to life where it can reach all major bookshops. They don’t have the big PR machine of the big publishers so you won’t get an advance and are likely to sell perhaps fewer than one hundred copies at first. But it is a great achievement in itself, especially if you’ve hit a wall regarding the agent route. If you’ve written something you are proud of, are happy to share it with the world, AND feel it is now time to move on and start writing your next book, small-press publishers are for you.
Finally, we leave you with one last set of tips. Before you put that pen down on your novel, consider the following check-list. If you tick all five, your novel is ready to go!
A Check-List for Authors
1) Have you introduced your protagonist and started your story on the first page? Doesn’t need to be a big explosive opening but something intriguing should happen to entice the reader in.
2) Is the central question at the heart of your novel, in your first chapter? Make your reader desperate to read on in order to find the answer.
3) Do you have any scenes that don’t move your story forward in at least three ways? THREE may sound harsh, but it is an excellent benchmark when you find EVERY scene untouchable.
4) Have you cut all characters that don’t have a real role in your story? If you have characters that are quite similar to each other, consider merging them.
5) Have you checked to see if each scene can be reduced? Can you start it later? Can you finish it earlier?