Editing Your Novel

Thanks to Isabel Costello at On The Literary Sofa for hosting an excellent post on editing from the author Sanjida O’Connell who is promoting her new novel, Sugar Island (John Murray).sugarisland cover

If you’ve finished the first draft of your first novel and are thinking of sending it out to an agent, take ten minutes to read her post. You might be surprised by what she says about the editing process behind her first two traditionally published novels:

I had the unfortunate fortune to be barely edited when my first two novels, Theory of Mind and Angel Bird were published by Black Swan. Fortunate, because editing is a painful process, especially when the person who is paying you is pointing out your shortcomings. Unfortunate, because it gave me the misguided impression that writing a novel is all about the writing. As Ernest Hemingway said, ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’ For your work to shine, you need to write, rewrite and then get some help!

With those first two novels, I wrote two to three drafts. That was it. There was plenty of copy editing to do though, as I hadn’t learned how to check my work for typos and correct the grammar properly myself – I was only 24 when I finished Theory of Mind and I still had a lot to learn. It was with my third novel, The Naked Name of Love, that I had the experience most novelists have and which, I’ve come to believe, is the key to creating good books.

As well as raising interesting points on the whole self-publishing/traditional publishing argument, the main thing I took from Sanjida is understanding the importance of having a professional eye read your typescript. She clearly thought she had with her first two novels. After all, they were published.

Sanjida explains how her editor helped her to see where she ought to cut and change and smooth her prose. More importantly, she listened. She wasn’t precious about her ‘elegiac’ but too long opening, didn’t whine about being told the “middle section is flabby” – instead she revised her novel. She wasn’t afraid of returning to the completed draft.

Sanjida makes the whole process sound simple, it’s not. It’s hard to admit that your writing isn’t quite hitting the mark you want it to, especially when friends tell you how wonderful it is.

Finishing a first draft – typing the end [virtually, of course] – is like when you clean your desk and it’s too tidy to work on. It’s hard to start again – to drag everything out and mess it up. And where do you start when you’re finished?

We all need to work with someone who ‘gets it’, who understands what we’re trying to say and, crucially, has the professional skills to help us say it in the most effective way for connecting with readers.

Margaret Atwood once said that being edited is so painful it feels like falling into a combine harvester, but it doesn’t stop her from writing, from sending her work to editors to rake through, over and over.

One of the things you want from an editor is simply the feeling that he or she understands your work. [The Art of Fiction no. 121 in The Paris Review]

Sanjida ends with 5 editing tips and a link to a longer piece on the whole process:

  • Take a break after finishing the first draft.
  • Look carefully at the overall arc of the plot and your characterisation.
  • Be ruthless. Even if a scene is beautifully written, it might have to go!
  • Get a second opinion, preferably from a professional, even if it means paying a freelance editor, who will be positive, yet truthful and with a knowledge of the commercial reality of publishing.
  • Listen. Usually people can pinpoint the flaws but don’t understand how you can fix them.
  • For a slightly more technical, nuts and bolts approach, I’ve written up my edit technique on my blog: It’s All in the Edit

About Janette Currie

Editor and literary consultant at JC Consultancy. Freelance writer.
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