This week I have finished reading and doing final tweaks to the final edited copy of SIREN SUICIDES, my first novel that grew from one book to three. In light of this, I've been asked to blog about the whole editing process, what's it like, how to go about it, and other beautiful stuff like this. I'm by no means a seasoned author with over twenty novels written, so I'll tell you what I learned over this year, because it took me one year to write all three books. I can't actually believe that it's almost ready for publication! The very first notes I took date back to 2008, so technically it's been brewing in my head close to five years total, going from draft 0, to 0.5, to first, to second (done by hand), to third, to fourth, to fifth, to final sixth draft by my editor, Colleen Albert, to one more edit by me over hers, more just to catch little things in case there were any (I ended up cutting out a more descriptions and swearing, since I've a weakness for both), and, voila, after nine passes total, it was ready. Ready to be read (at least I hope so!). Because that's what editing a book is about, it's about making it readable.
Your first note about your novel is everything. I'm not talking about the opening sentence of your novel here, no, I'm talking about the first few sentences you jotted down on paper, even if it was just a quick description of an image that you saw in your head, anything to remember later what the story is about. Curiously, this description will stay the same, no matter how many times you edit the novel. If you cut it out, your story will be gone. My first note about SIREN SUICIDES was: "I felt nothing. All was quiet, not a single human life. It was empty, at last. I threw my mouth open and uttered a powerful scream, full of victory and triumph, agony and sadness. Finally, I found my voice." So the story in the end is about finding a voice. A siren sings, that's her magic. Same with your novel. There is a heart to it, the core theme, the reason you are writing it. You have to dig back to your notes or dig inside yourself to remember what it was. Under no circumstances, no matter how much you edit, can you get rid of that idea. If you do, your novel will become a different story, or maybe even fall apart. Make sure you find it, write it on a piece of paper and pin it above your work station, to occasionally glance at it while editing, to make sure it stays the same. Now, to the actual editing.
You novel draft is like an accordion, it expands and contracts. I think I said it in some blog post before. Somebody told me this once, and it made sense. You write your first draft full out, without thinking, without stopping, spilling it all down on paper, until the story is finished. Then, in second draft, you trim pieces that don't make sense, and your draft shrinks. In the third draft, you comb it with an even finer comb, but you also add some refined detail here and there, so your draft expands again. In the fourth draft, if you need it, you might find that with the new details added, you can say things in a more concise manner and shrink it again. In the fifth draft, polish it even more. Now that I've been through five drafts, which were really more like seven, I don't think I will ever do so many. I have overwritten the book in the end, and my editor has cut out a large chunk, making it better. The reason for all this expanding and contracting is very simple. It doesn't matter how awesome it sounds to you, it has to sound awesome to your reader. And simple things like continuity issues, grammatical mistakes, and wrong tense or misspelled character names can make a reader cringe and ultimately put your book down. You expand and contract your draft to get rid of the noise. To do this, you have to take at least two weeks off in between drafts (this is my experience, so feel free to disagree) to distance yourself enough from the story. Why? Here is why.
Write with your heart, edit with your head. Because your book is your baby, it's very difficult to disassociate yourself from it and see if from the reader's perspective. But unless you do it, you won't be able to make it readable. What sounds good to you, might not necessarily sound good to your reader. Here are a few tricks I have been using, to get myself out of my heart and into my head, or, in other words, pretend like my work is not my work at all, but someone else's.
- Read your work aloud. Book an entire weekend on your calendar, and read the whole draft aloud, as if to an audience. Where you stumble, edit.
- Ask a friend to read it to you aloud. Bribe your friend with cookies to read the whole thing. If not the whole thing, at least critical parts. Where your friend stumbles, edit.
- After you take a break between drafts, format and print out the whole thing on paper so that it looks close to the real book, then read in one sitting. You will see things you haven't seen in the file version. Edit them.
- Read your favorite book in between drafts, or, ideally, a new book by your favorite author, someone who really speaks to you, and then read your draft. You will see things that will make you cringe. Edit them.
- If you have beta readers, ask them to tell you the page numbers where they stopped reading, or stumbled. It's easy, doesn't require people to write you long explanations, and will point you to places that need work.
- Hire a professional editor, if you can afford one. If not, take a much longer break from your final draft, two to three months, and then do a final read through.
If you're unsure what to do, cut it. And, finally, after all said and done, if you believe you have made all changes and completed everything there is to complete, you are ready to publish, I would suggest putting your novel away for at least two months and do one final read through again after the time has passed. In the meantime, you can write a first draft of another novel. Why? Here is my story. I have gotten all three SIREN SUICIDES books approximately three months after I sent them to my editor. First, because she was busy with another project, and second, because it took her a little longer than she thought it would. From the total of 262K she cut out approximately 14K words. On top of it, while reading her edited versions this week, I cut out an additional 2K words, mostly descriptions (I was not rewriting anything, only cutting). I remember while editing my fifth draft three months ago, I couldn't let go of my descriptions, I was so in love with them. Now, however, after so much time passed, I simply couldn't stand the fluff. It slowed down the action. I can honestly tell you that it wasn't news to me, I did see it before, the problem was, I couldn't let it go. I had to calm down enough and forget about my book, to be able to cut it ruthlessly as if I was reading somebody else's novel. This is why professional editors can do this better than us, writers. We're having trouble stepping away from our own work.
Apart from editing, there is much more to making your book readable. I'll be blogging about choosing the font for your self-published novel, making covers, and other things in the near future, as I go through the self-publishing process. To conclude, the trick to editing and making your book readable is to learn how to switch from writing mode to editing mode, from heart to head, from hot emotions to cool logic. For different people it's different things, but for most time works like a charm, and putting your novel into a different medium, like reading it aloud or printing it on paper. Do you have any tricks of your own? Share, share!