"From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it."
- Groucho Marx, comedian and Genius (immortal)
I often use the analogy of movies when talking about writing novels because they do have a number of things in common. This is yet another, although here there is a marked difference. Without a doubt this is possibly the most soul-destroying event any new writer will experience.
When making a movie, the Director will film many takes that will not end up in the final version of the film. These could be because the actors made a mistake, burst out laughing in the middle of filming, or simply because the Director just could not produce what he wanted. These days, this material is not lost on the Cutting-room floor when the Director and Film Editor put their heads together to create the final version of the movie, the one we will see in the theater. Usually these ‘outtakes’ appear as Extras on the DVD version of the movie, so at least the Director has the opportunity of placing more of their work before the viewing public.
Not so in the Writing world.
Once you have completed your First Draft, where, if you’ll recall, your sole objective is to transfer your story from your mind onto the page, the next step is polishing it. This is known as
Hara Kiri Editing and there are several steps you should follow.
Once you have literally, or mentally, typed ‘THE END’, a feeling of achievement, tempered with fear, will wash over you like a Tsunami. Yes, you can understand the achievement bit – it’s been a hard slog, but finally you are there – you have written a novel!
No, sorry, you haven’t written a novel; you have written the first draft of a novel.
I said ‘fear’; why fear? Come on, search within and recognize that YOU KNOW you made compromises, especially as you neared the end; you know you CAN do better; you know there is room for improvement. Don’t be ashamed; we all do this, although many will not admit it.
As a creative writer, yes YOU, we now leave behind the pure abandon of fabricating something out of thin air and take a step to a hybrid situation where we will force ourselves to modify our creation while still trying to keep that freshness that abounded when we were pounding the keys. It’s a bit like Dr. Frankenstein deciding his monster would look better with blue eyes and less of a hooked nose…
Let’s take a look at the first part of the editing process, step by step.
The first step, as soon as you have finished you novel is:
GO DO SOMETHING ELSE!
You need a rest, a brief one, from what you have just written. I know the ‘just written’ bit refers to an extended period of time, months, maybe even years, but you have to distance yourself from your creation for a while and gain some perspective. It’s like a surgeon operating on a family member; unless you are objective, things are not going to go well!
But I’m finally a writer… I want to write, you say.
Fine, then write… something else. Try your hand at a short story, or an article, or a blog entry, or anything not related to your novel. It will still be there when you come back; don’t let impatience be your downfall after working so hard for so long.
After a couple of weeks you can pick up your story again and you may note your attitude towards it has subtly changed. It’s now easier for you to extract the scalpel and start cutting.
I know you have agonized over every word; battled the demons of randomness to memorize the Thesaurus and select the most suitable syllable to relay your ideas to your reader. But… you now have to make your book Lean and Mean!
Step two is a Selfie. No, I’m not suggesting you take a self-portrait for the back cover; I’m talking about a Self-Edit.
This is a multipart activity, as we will see.
First label the data file that is your novel ‘[title] FIRST DRAFT’ and make at least two copies of this, if you haven’t already done so, on pendrives and remove them from the vicinity of your computer. I’m a little Old-School too, so I always print out a full copy – What for? Read the chapter on Copyright and you’ll see. Then run the whole novel through your Word Processor’s Spell Checker. Okay, you’ve been doing this as you went along; fine, but do it again now. Make sure you have the right version of English selected (UK, US, whatever) and all the checking options switched on.
Done that? Document come back clean and approved?
Now read this:
I have a lovely spelling check
That came with my PC,
Witch plainly marks, four my revue,
Miss takes I can not sea.
I’ve run this poem threw the thing.
I’m sure your please too no.
It’s latter perfect in every weigh.
My checker tolled me sew.
Many years ago, an anonymous writer produced the above and it’s as true today as it was when it was first parsed through the spell checker – it comes out clean – no errors!
These are Homonyms and they are the bane of any Spell Checker. A Homonym can be at the same time a Homograph (words that share the same spelling, regardless of their pronunciation) and a Homophone (words that share the same pronunciation, regardless of their spelling). There are a few obvious ones that will now be lurking in your novel: there and their and they’re; we’re and wear; for, four and fore to name but a few (phew?), but the list is long, believe me – Google ‘Homonyms’ and the Internet will provide you with a huge list. You could type these into the ‘Find’ field in your Word processor and check each one, but there are easier solutions, as we’ll (wheel, well?) see (sea?).
Just a minute. Didn’t you (ewe) say we should read through our work and catch stuff like that?
Now read this…
Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteers be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.
No, this is not a joke; it’s a real study done a few years ago at Cambridge University which basically concluded that if you retain the first and last letters of any word in their correct position, and all the others are present, our brains can correctly interpret the sense in short paragraphs of text. There's an old joke by comedian Eric Morecambe about playing all the right notes, just not necessarily in the right order. It’s pattern recognition, which is how we read.
Okay, the spell-checker would catch all of those.
Then there’s this:
Your memory will recognize the
the words and convince your
your brain it is reading what should
be on the page.
Nothing wrong with that, right?
Still not spot it? Read it aloud.
So if we can’t trust the Word Processor or our own brains…
I’ve mentioned the existence of self-editing software before. This is not just a spell-checker on steroids, as so many are, offering little more than your Word spell check. It’s much more and a boon to writers of all levels. It’s easy to use and its job is twofold:
a) enable you to do a Selfie far more diligently and effectively
b) improve how you write.
Check out Stylewriter (just click on the name to visit the site – there’s a FREE trial of the software too) as a perfect example of what I’m talking about. I thoroughly recommend it. Also the company that produces it not only have the editing software, but a really useful website to teach you, using videos, how to get the most out of it. There’s even a Writing Course. When using the software, remember to switch on all the options, especially things you may think are not necessary such as checking quoted text (dialogue) where you may deliberately break the rules.
This stage of the Selfie will take time; three or four FULL days at least for a full-length novel, as you examine everything reported (including Homonyms) and make changes as you go along. Save your document as ‘[title] FIRST DRAFT’ – yes, I know we already did that, but we are only just getting started. We won’t move on to the SECOND DRAFT until we finish the Selfie.
Don’t forget to update the security copies you made after every editing session, to!
Next, PRINT the whole thing out – single side, double-spaced with a wide (two inch, five centimeter, right-hand margin and an inch on the left) margin. Yes, I know you only want to produce an eBook… bear (bare?) with me.
Now the hard bit…
SWITCH OFF YOUR COMPUTER.
Hang on! Shouldn’t I be giving this to friends and family to read and check my novel for me?
Find a quiet room where maybe your furry footwarmer can accompany you but where other family members, friends, visitors, Joe Public in general are banned!
Close the door, grab a pen or pencil, find a comfortable chair, turn to page one and…
…read your novel ALOUD.
No, I don’t mean just move your lips… act it out!
Imagine you were reading it to an audience.
Read exactly what’s written, obeying all the punctuation marks (pausing for commas, semi and full colons, full stops/periods, ellipsis, etc; exclamation and interrogation marks should be treated accordingly too).
Dialogue should be read and infused with emotion – imagine your work is now a movie and you are hearing actors representing it on the screen.
Yes, you will find yourself saying “silly me; I’ve made a mistake there” (or shorter words conveying the same sentiment) and pausing to make use of the acreage in the margin – good, you’re getting the idea – don’t stop to rush to your computer to make the changes yet though. Work through the complete novel – it will take days, but it will give you a great sense of the rhythm and flow whilst drawing your attention to things you have forgotten to include (!) or stuff that needs cutting (!!) because it doesn’t add anything to the narrative. You may even change the order of events (!!!), even whole chapters (!!!!). You may decide to eliminate complete characters (!!!!!!).
I told you it was hard work, but comfort yourself with the knowledge that your novel will be all the better for this.
My very first draft of ‘2012’ (note use of lower case – I refer to the copy that was the input to the process described above) was 118,000 words in length; the published version was 88,000 words. Yes I did just say I chopped 30,000 words from that novel!
A trick I have for this stage of the Selfie is to use the right margin for making corrections (I always choose a contrasting ink color that’s easy to spot against the black ink on the page), underline the text where the correction needs to be applied, and then put a large X in the left-hand margin at the start of the line. I also fold down the top left-hand corner of any pages that have any corrections to make them easy to locate. You will probably find that most pages will end up like this; at this stage in ‘the CULL – Bloodstone’ only four pages out of the complete novel did not have bent corners, and one of those said ‘THE END’!
Finally, if you haven’t been carted off to a mental institution at the behest of worried family members after hearing you talk to yourself for days on end in a locked room, you are ready for the next bit of the Selfie.
BACK TO THE BATCAVE!
Apply all the changes. When you finish each chapter, save it (backup copies as well) and go back and read it aloud again, this time not only checking you haven’t missed anything, but evaluating the PACE of what you’ve written. Try to be as objective as possible, and ensure you are judging ONLY the Pace. Try to isolate your assessment so it doesn’t take into account preceding or following chapters (you have an unfair advantage over your readers in that you know what’s coming, remember).
When you have finished, run the whole beastie through the self-editing software again. Then, and only then, you can change the resultant document’s name to ‘[title] SECOND DRAFT’.
If you are doing this right, you are getting pretty bored with your book by now. That’s a GOOD sign. Soldier on; we’re getting there.
Now, if you wish, you can post your work on review sites or have friends, Romans and countrymen Beta read the creation.
Finished, right? Just need to see what the amigos think of your masterpiece. Only a question of waiting now…
Sorry. Now’s the time to get the Professionals involved...