Wow, has it really been four more drafts? (Has anyone been keeping count? Because it might have just been three… I can’t remember anymore @_@)
Amidst procrastinating the ninth (I think?) draft and wondering if this thing will EVER be finished, I’ve learnt a lot about writing and editing from An Experiment in Time and Memory. This is the first book I’ve done so many drafts of, and consequently it’s the one I’m most proud of. I can’t wait to share it, but man, I wish I didn’t have so many things to fix before then!
1. Beta readers are the best motivators
A beta readers is someone who reads your book just before it’s published, to give you feedback and an idea of how readers will respond. They’re a useful second pair of eyes to give you an idea of which characters are likeable, which chapters are filler, and which sentences don’t make sense, for example.
But they also bring a refreshing enthusiasm. One of my readers called a plot twist just before it happened, and seeing her comments as her hunch was revealed to be true was so satisfying (and entertaining! *evil author laugh*). I would have thought that her figuring it out beforehand would ruin the surprise, but it made it so much better!
One of my other readers would joke around with the characters, and this comment made my day:
That joke was left over from the copy I gave to my sister (that had even more references that I’d taken out), and I was so excited that someone else understood the reference!
Seeing how my beta readers got involved in the plot and the characters made me fall in love with them all over again. I’d grown tired of it, and could see all the twists coming a mile away, but my readers’ new enthusiasm and fun with the characters made me enjoy it all over again.
Plus, it was fun to be able to discuss ideas and characters with them!
All this motivated me to keep editing, to make the next draft even better.
2. Be strategic to help keep things as painless as possible.
My editing process was not streamlined. Every time I started a new draft I read through the entire book, made a list of things to change, then went back and changed those things. Each draft, I had to go through my book with a fine-tooth comb… twice.
For my fifth draft, I asked other people to read it for me. Then I made a big list of everything my beta readers asked me to fix, based on their comments and my own thoughts while answering their comments. It ended up being fourteen pages long, but a good chunk of that was brainstorming ideas for plot-holes (and a new name for my main character that somehow took 224 words).
Then I went through each dot point and fixed the issues, crossing them off as they were fixed.
It was fast and mostly painless, with the added bonus that I didn’t need to reread my book again. In fact, I could skip the chapters that didn’t have any dot-points, and spend more time on those troublesome ones that needed full rewriting.
This particular method may not work every time, but having a strategy means that your approach is tailored to what you need to do. Be deliberate to get as much benefit out of each draft, in as short an amount of time as possible.
(By the way, the list for the next draft had only six points on it!)
3. Outlining is a beautiful thing…
If you’re a newbie writer quietly having kittens at how painful and drawn-out editing seems to be, just take some deep breaths, and read on.
First, editing isn’t my favourite part of writing, but it’s not that bad. If it was unbearable, I wouldn’t have given up long before the ninth draft.
More than that, AEITAM needed so many drafts because my first draft was a mess. I started with the idea of a time-travelling agent waking up in 19th Century Melbourne with no memories, and wondered where I could go with that. I sat down and wrote down a meandering “plot outline”, which I promptly… “lost”. 😅
One night, I was driving down a country road. It was raining harder than my windscreen wipers could keep up with, and the road was full of pot-holes. Signs were out for road works, but, of course, no one was working in the cold, dark, rain. The fields stretching out to either side made the road quiet and eery. This, I thought, would make an awesome setting for a car chase.
I decided to start my book with my agents involved in a car chase through some country roads. They’ve just picked up some new technology–a timebox–and are taking it back to their HQ when they get ambushed. They crash the car, and one of the agents not only gets a concussion, but she’s also accidentally sent back in time. She finds herself in a little 19th Century town in the middle of nowhere, with no idea who she is.
Exciting, right? But as I wrote and researched, a lot of issues started to come up:
- The opening of the book was set in London, but I was imagining (and describing) Australian country roads. I had to change the long, straight road to London back-streets, the fields to houses and parks, and, stupidly, kilometres per hour to miles per hour.
- Who was ambushing them? Who do their chasers work for? This changed multiple times as I figured out the rest of the book, and each new idea required a rewrite.
- The town and time I chose to send my agent to wasn’t a “little town in the middle of nowhere” but a busy town with heaps of foot-traffic, due it being smack bang in between a city and some thriving goldfields. Even when I found a town that fit my purposes, my descriptions of the landscape, once again, were completely wrong.
- Concussion (or head trauma) in itself doesn’t usually cause long-term amnesia, so, unless I pulled a ‘well, strange things happen in medicine all the time’, something else would have to make her forget herself. The solution went from a very elaborate side-plot involving a two hundred year-old mysterious ghost (with a half new draft to fit it in), to a much more straight-forward solution (and a whole new draft to take it out).
And that’s just the prologue! (Well, now it’s chapter two.)
If I had outlined (or stuck to my outline, which is, quite literally, a whole other story), I would have researched earlier, discovered these problems (and many others), and been able to fix them in Draft 0. My first draft would be tighter, I wouldn’t be left with Ghosts of Edits Past (little details I missed that become continuity errors), and it might not have required so many rewrites. Maybe.
I’ve since started a new book, The Mistwaes Home, and, radically, I tried outlining. I’m hoping that having a plan (and sticking to it) will produce a tight first draft that won’t need nine re-writes. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes ;).
4. You’ve come too far to give up now.
I promise, I have tried to edit AEITAM. But every time I open the document, I kind of glance through the comments, scroll down to chapter four-ish, and shudder whenever I see something that will require more than rewriting a paragraph to fix. Emotionally, I go back to those days when I was tearing my hair out over how to fit in a character, only to completely erase him from existence two drafts later.
So I close the document, and pretend that I’ll come back to it later.
But I’ve had my break. I’ve interacted with water. And I’ve had beta-readers go through it, twice now.
I need to make a list, and commit to fixing one or two points from the list every day.
The thought of another draft is tiring, and overwhelming, but I’m so close. To give up now is to cheat readers who will one day fall in love with my characters. My beta-readers have proven that it’s possible ;).
Editing isn’t my favourite, but I’m feeling slightly (*holds forefinger and thumb a millimeter apart*) more motivated to start that next draft before I forget about it forever.
Who’s with me?
So, amazing creators, what’s something you’ve learned in your creative/editing process? What’s your record for the number of drafts on your project? (The winner gets a free Shinichi mug! XD)
I do actually have a spare mug. It’s a long story o_o
3 thoughts on “Four (more) things I’ve learnt while editing my novel ”
As a newbie writer, I have basically started (both my stories) the same as you did: a bunch of characters and a scene or two. The plots are chugging along now but I kind of regret how aimless the first few chapters are.
But on the other hand, I feel super daunted by the thought of trying to come up with a plot and villain (and don’t even get me started on the “three act structure” 😰) before I’ve even started writing. Do you have any plotting tips for newbies that you’ve learned with your new story?
Hm, good question. I might write a post to answer in more detail, but for now, here’s something that might help you get started outlining, and hopefully help it feel less daunting ;).
When I went to outline, I started by writing out as much as I could about each of my characters and settings. (I’ll focus on characters for now.) What does my main character look like? What are his circumstances as the book begins? Anything I know about him. Then, I asked, what is the ONE THING he’s desperate for? That “one thing” became the direction of the book: the villain is trying to stop him from attaining that one thing, and in the climax he finally overcomes it and gets that one thing.
I did the same thing for my villain: what do I already know about her? What is the ONE THING she wants? Why does she want to stop my protagonist from getting his one thing? How does she try to stop him? What does he need to overcome/realise to get his thing?
Finally, I brainstormed how to get from A to B–start to climax. What do my readers need to know about my characters that will help them or hinder them along the way? What sub-plots will I include, and how will they tie together? What happened before the book began that will motivate the characters?
It’s not as nitty-gritty as the three-act structure, but I think it will tick all the same boxes. I admit that I still start some chapters wondering what I’m going to do, and I’ve (half) intentionally left the resolution/denouement unplotted to allow room for any new ideas along the way. But hopefully this technique will help your first few chapters to feel tighter, and will feel just as organic as brainstorming a book with a friend 🙂
Of course, making it up as you go along is a perfectly legitimate way of writing, and many famous authors swear by it. But I think it’s awesome that, as a newbie writer, you’re trying both plotting and pantsing, to see which works best for you. Good luck, and please let me know if you try it, and how it goes!