This week I’ve taken my first dive into the huge septic tank known in writing circles as Query Hell. I’m taking a staggered approach, with around 8-10 queries for THE CONVERTED floating around at any one time. When rejections come in, I’ll fire off a query to the next agent on my list.
So to distract myself from obsessively refreshing my Gmail every 30 seconds (even when I live on the other side of the world from the agents I’m querying and there’s not much chance they’d be reviewing queries at 3am) I decided to write a blog post on self-editing, since that’s been consuming most of my non-university time in the last few weeks.
In my first draft, I take a NaNoWriMo-like approach. Vomit the words onto the page, finish the story, and only then go back and edit. In practice, it’s not quite so easy. I often have fights with my inner-editor where he tries to convince me that I need to find the right word RIGHT FUCKING NOW. Kicking the inner-editor to the curb takes a lot of mental acrobatics for me, but I will never be one of those people who can disable their backspace key. It would drive me nuts.
Anyway, onto the editing itself. First point: self-editing can be hard. It can also be fun, but trying to critically evaluate your own story is like trying to drive at night when it’s raining and the windscreen is fogged up and a wasp is attacking you in the eyes. Spotting the bits of your work that shine and the bits that need to be cut out with a scalpel and the bits that need to be acquainted with my friend, the Molotov cocktail, is tricky.
The oft-given advice is to put the manuscript away for a period of time (suggestions range from a couple of weeks to six months or so). This works for me, although I rarely put the editing off for longer than two or three weeks. During this time, I let my girlfriend read the first draft and offer her criticisms. I realise this is heresy in some circles, but it works for me. My first drafts are usually clean enough and lean enough that the general story and character arcs are all in place, even if the prose itself needs an angle grinder taken to it. So my lovely girlfriend asks questions, tells me what characters she likes and dislikes, how the setting works, and so on. I write all these down without (much) arguing and let them percolate.
When the two weeks or so are up, I pull out the manuscript. Now, I’ve heard a lot of comments around that you MUST read the manuscript on paper. That’s not how it works for me. Perhaps since I’m a bit younger than some of the people giving this advice, I’m more comfortable with reading my novel on a screen. Also, I’m a poor student, so spending money on ink and paper makes it harder to fund my instant-noodle diet. Though I write my novel in WriteMonkey, I read it in Word. I use Word’s comment feature to make comments as I read through. These comments might be anything from emotional responses to the text, pointing out repeated story devices, inconsistencies, or things I need to add or cut. I don’t let myself fix anything at this stage.
While I’m doing this, I also like to re-read my copy of Self-Editing For Fiction Writers by Browne and King. I love that book like it’s my mother.
Once I’ve read through the novel I have a good big-picture view of it. I will then start writing additional scenes or extra dialogue or description or whatever the story needs. I don’t focus on the prose itself yet. I bounce ideas off my girlfriend, and the plot holes get shored up.
Now is when the polishing comes. I go through line-by-line, reading aloud to myself (with music playing so my flatmates can’t hear me). This helps me catch repetition, problems with flow, strange word choices and so on. It also makes it easier for me to pick up typos. At this stage I tend to read the chapters out of order so I don’t get caught up in the story and forget to focus on the words.
And then it’s done! Well, it would be, if I would ever stop tinkering. But at some stage I have to force myself to put aside the novel and declare it completed. If I don’t, I’ll keep changing bits and pieces forever, and never get around to sending it out.
So that’s my approach to editing my own work. It won’t work for everyone, but it seems to do ok for me. These aren’t immutable rules. Every novel I write is edited in a slightly different way, but this is my basic outline. And it can even be fun!
Well, these agents aren’t going to query themselves. Happy writing!