Where to begin with a novel edit?

This is a question that has been on my mind a lot lately. Over a year ago I finished the first draft of a novel. It was an exciting moment, and I can still recall how I typed the final sentence with a sense of bewilderment. I’d done it. I’d written a novel. But even in that moment I knew it was just the beginning.

Like many guides recommend, I let the work sit for a bit. A couple of months later I read it through on a warm spring day. There were some typos and clunky bits and repetition but overall I was rather chuffed with my efforts. It could be improved without a doubt, but I felt that it held together well.

I’m not sure what happened next. Other projects and life got in the way. And the thought of making a start (where and how??) with wrangling over 95,000 words was overwhelming, let alone any consideration of what I would do with it once it was edited. How many first novels live in drawers or backed up in a cloud?

But one of my writing friends kept asking me about The Novel. Where was it up to? How was the rework going? Finally the message got through. It’s time to rework the novel.

Have you ever googled novel editing? There is a vast amount of information and resources, tips and techniques out there to guide the novel novelist. But I soon realised that, similar to the writing process itself, there is no single way to complete the novel edit. Established authors vouch that there are variations to most of the novels that they have edited. Some authors have editorial teams behind them but when starting out it is just you and the page. The temptation is strong to spend considerable time researching various approaches but after a brief foray this began to feel like procrastination.

I have to keep it relatively simple. I have referred back to a post by Australian author Allison Tait that I kept in readiness for such a moment. And I also found a frank clip on editing by Jenna Moreci that aligned with my goal of a simple yet thorough approach.

The reality is that there are no shortcuts. I will need to keep moving through the stages of editing until the novel is in the best shape it can be. And rather than being overwhelmed, it is best to keep it in manageable steps.

How do you approach big creative tasks?

[Photo: mist in the Hartley Valley]

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8 thoughts on “Where to begin with a novel edit?

  1. I think you’re right about breaking it into small manageable steps and then taking them one-at-a-time. Perhaps also setting a few milestones along the way—and when you reach them, have a planned reward (lunch at a favorite restaurant, splurge on a book you’ve been wanting, a few pieces of the absolutely best chocolate you know…). Periodic celebration is an important part of attainment. It also helps to have a buddy or two you can share the journey with—periodic “check-ins” where they report on their progress toward a goal and you report on yours. No judgment, just connection and encouragement. This is what works for me. Good luck with the revision. Be sure to make it fun!

    • Thank you Donna for your wise words. I hadn’t given any thought to rewards along the way which is an oversight! I’ll update my plan to include them. Your suggestion of a buddy along the way is great too as that will definitely help with accountability. Thanks again for sharing your wisdom 😊

  2. Sorry to barrage you with messages. I just received a newsletter from the Pacific NW Writers’ Association (PNWA) and it included this bit of advice. It sounds like you have plenty already, but I thought this was pretty good stuff….and it’s reasonably concise.

    Self-Editing Tips
    Most of writing is rewriting, which makes self-editing a necessary part of any writer’s process. Still, it can be hard to know where to start. Editing a book is a big undertaking, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. One way to combat this is by taking things in stages. Here are some questions you can ask yourself as you work through various stages of editing. Note: it’s most helpful to edit large things first, then work your way smaller.

    1. Structure: addressing large, glaring issues
    • a. Is the character’s motivation clear?
    • b. Is the conflict made clear?
    • c. How can you increase the tension?

    2. Scene and summary: a better way to think about showing and telling
    • a. What parts of the book need to be explored deeply and in the moment? Are all these moments written as scenes?
    • b. What parts need to be distilled to their most important points and summarized?
    • c. Have you skimmed important scenes because they’re too challenging to write?

    3. Action and emotion: refining motivation, conflict, tension
    • a. Focus on blocking: is that roundhouse kick realistic in a narrow hallway? Does the chase on horseback go too smoothly considering your character is a novice horseman?
    • b. Fact-check! Details about guns, job positions, science, flora, fauna, and anything else you might have gotten wrong.
    • c. Hone in on two common pitfalls when writing emotion: abstraction and cliché. Use crisp, concrete images and evidence to help the reader understand how your characters are feeling.

    4. Dialogue, setting, and other elements: put each of these things under the editing microscope
    • a. Dialogue: What is not being said? Where can internal dialogue add turbulence or clarification to what is said out loud? How are the speaking characters at odds?
    • b. Setting: Is the setting relevant, vivid, unique, and accurate? Describing the setting directly from the thoughts, back story, and current emotion of your viewpoint character will add meaning to the imagery.

    5. Words: Considering sentence structure and rhythm
    • a. Are all your sentences structured the same?
    • b. Is that clunky paragraph in need of some longer, more flowing sentences?
    • c. Is that action scene bogged down in clumsy phrasing, and instead needs some quick short sentences (and fragments) to liven up the narrative?

    6. Cleanup: Deleting bad habits and other small accidents
    • a. Delete unnecessary repeat words. You’d be surprised how many times your characters smile or nod in a single chapter.
    • b. Did you use terms like very when you could have chosen a stronger adjective? Did you rely too heavily on adjectives when stronger nouns were needed?
    • c. Double-check for inconsistencies, like when your main character’s sister’s eyes turn from blue to brown halfway through the book.
    • d. Typos!

    • What a great overview – thank you for sharing it, Donna. And perfect timing for me 😊! I’m sure it will also be of interest to others too so thank you for bringing it to my attention.

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