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In my last writers diary, I talked you through how I got started. I hope that helped give you inspiration to get started, or keep going, if you have not already made it to the end of your first draft.
In this blog, I want to talk you through the editing process – not only my approach, but what you need to be prepared for, when it comes to writing and editing a book. Please bear in mind that every writer is different in their approach and style, so what worked for me may not work for you – however all successful books have one thing in common: they have been through several drafts before they become ‘easy reading’. What this means for those of you struggling with your first draft, is you will get plenty of chance to revise it and polish it up before submitting to a publishing house or presenting it to your readers. It is also a timely reminder for those of you who are new to writing that re-writing and multiple drafts is necessary to turn your words into a widely read piece of art. It also means your first draft does not have to be very special – it just needs to exist.
First, there tend to be two types of writers: those who write lean (like me), and those who write copious amounts. I’m also a plotter, where I have a really defined plot to my book, and even a really set plan to whatever time I find to set aside for writing. Another type of writer is a ‘pantser’ – fly by the seat of their pants – they have no real defined plot or even purpose for each moment of writing, but instead let their words and characters flow. This isn’t to say that sometimes when I’m writing my story line doesn’t sometimes take me in a new and unexpected direction, or even that there are occasions where my characters surprise me a bit as I write… I love it when that happens! It just means that most of the time, I have a plan for what I want to write about each day, and most of the time, that is what I manage to achieve.
To some of you reading this blog, that may sound utterly boring. To others, it may sound like a plan you can adapt. There are so many writing styles, and writers, probably the most important tip I could give you, is to find what works best for you to at least get the first draft written.
So, I write lean. The first draft of my first book came out at 56,000 words. When I reviewed it (worked on my second draft), there was so much I had to add in – descriptions of locations and scenes, thoughts and point of view, what my characters were wearing, what was happening around them – so much was necessary to add, as I had really only written what was essential to that scene. In doing so, it had none of the detail a reader needed to understand or picture what I could see so clearly in my head. By the end of the second draft, my word count was already up around 73,000 words. That’s a big jump, I know, and I’ve got to say, the second draft was in many ways as much work as my first draft, if not a bit harder. It was tiring to say the least, but I knew it wasn’t all in there at that point either – it was however, significantly better than the first draft, albeit it took almost as long to work through that second draft as it did the first.
Then it was time for the third draft. This was also a LOT of hard work. It was again about as much work as the second draft. In this revision, I was still adding detail where necessary for a reader to follow character motivations and understand their reactions and point of view; it was also where I still needed to add in some details about what was going on around the main characters in each scene, to again ‘paint a picture’ for my reader. What was the room like where the scene was taking place? Or if outside, what noises or weather were impacting my characters? What was their world like? I’m not sure about other writers out there, but when you write lean, this is the sort of detail you don’t include in the first or even some of the second draft. It doesn’t mean you need to write about every little thing in a room – but you do need to write enough so that your reader gets a feeling for what your main character is seeing, doing or reacting to at the time. The setting in which they find themselves, so it can be contextualised – are they comfortable, or anxious? In a hurry, or at ease? That sort of thing needs to be described for a reader to be shown the characters world, not just told it. As my tutors at Australian Writers Centre so often instructed us: show, don’t tell. So, by the time I’d finished the third draft, my novel was up around 85,000 words.
It doesn’t mean they were a quality 85,000 words yet; but they existed, and with each revision, I knew it was getting better.
As I worked through the fourth draft, I had a lot of tidying up to do. Things like grammar, dialogue tags, even fact checking (particularly important with historical fiction – to check the facts of the time!) and going back and forth in the book and fixing timelines that may have been out of place. I’ll admit, there was a lot to fix, especially in terms of timelines. For example, the timelines impacted what my characters did and how they were dressed because of the change in seasons. At the end of the fourth draft, the word count hadn’t changed much, but the quality of the work had. It was much ‘tidier’, and the story line was largely in what I thought was the right place. The story was really coming together, or at least I hoped… so it was time to share it with beta-readers.
A beta-reader is one who reads the story and lets you know if there are any glaring errors. For example, with historical fiction, if you have furniture or accessories in your story that didn’t exist at the time. Or perhaps you might describe or phrase an event in a way that would not have been understood or thought of in that way at the time. They are also great to let you know if you haven’t described your characters enough, or if they are not memorable enough for them to understand who is who. They are also able to tell you if the story seems ‘believable’, had them ‘hooked’ or even if it got them feeling something. You ultimately want your reader to feel something, so at this stage, it is good to find out where this has been achieved, or where maybe more work is required. Did they ‘get’ your work? Did they ‘feel’ for the main characters? Were there glaringly obvious issues? I had four beta-readers for this first novel, and I’ve got to say, it was incredibly scary to hand my first story out. I had no idea if it was any good, and it was my very first attempt. Their feedback was invaluable – there were several little things I hadn’t realised that I needed to fix up, or largely, explain better. I had to go back and tidy up the timeline a little, and make a few things more obvious, and a few other events less obvious. While there were some suggestions from individual beta-readers that I chose not to adopt, where two or more of them mentioned something, I made sure I fixed it.
Those changes became the fifth draft; and again, while I added some text and descriptions to some parts, I sliced and diced other parts. The final word count came out around the same: 85,000 words.
I then started looking for an editor. I knew my point of view still needed a lot of work; that was definitely my biggest issue with the first book. I’d only ever written cosmetic science textbooks before, where point of view and characterisation is not used. It was the first time I’d written fiction, so I wasn’t too hard on myself about some of these problems, as I knew I still had so much to learn. I emailed a few editors and the one thing I found out straight away was: they are all extremely busy. You can’t just email a good editor and expect them to be able to fit your work in. In most cases, there was at least a month or more to wait. In terms of price, they were all similar, and while price is important, I have always been a believer in ‘if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.’ This doesn’t mean you need to go for the most expensive choice, but it does mean don’t necessarily make your decision based solely on price. I actually wanted an editor that was going to be able to provide me with feedback that would help me grow and learn – and better understand my point of view issues so I could resolve them better by myself in the future. I also wanted an editor that understood my writing style; that ‘got’ me. I ended up sending my work to Carlie Slattery from Under the Stairs Editorial, and I’m so glad I did.
In my opening email to Carlie, I mentioned what my book was about, the word count, and that I was looking for an editor that would provide a structural edit with comments. She, like others I had contacted, asked for a short sample of my work to review, to see if I was a good fit with her; and she also sent back an example of her editing style. I loved her work straight away, it was exactly what I was looking for. It was honest but helpful, and since she was also in my target market readership, I knew she was the right editor for me. I booked in, paid my deposit and since there was a considerable wait time, I did another revision of my book to tidy it up and got it to the best I could before sending it to her. Please take note of the wait time I keep mentioning and find your editor EARLY, if they’re any good they’re always booked at least a month or more in advance! I sent her revision 6. I knew it was grammatically tidy, but also told her of my shortcomings with point of view, and that I really needed her help with that.
Even with COVID and lockdown restrictions, she still worked to the schedule she had originally provided me. It was hard to wait patiently, because I so desperately wanted to keep improving my work, so I started working on my second novel and my author social presence while I waited.
When I finally got her structural edit back, it was exactly what I needed. She could definitely see the point of view issues I was having and gave lots of examples on how to address and fix it. It was also great to have that ‘break’ from my work, and since I had started writing a second novel in that time, and I must say, it really helps to ‘flex’ your writing muscles. Her comments were in both a report and as a mark up to the original document – so all work and changes still had to be mine – but this was exactly what I was hoping for. She picked up a couple of things my ‘gut’ instinct had wanted to alter (tip: follow your gut, its instinctively right), as well as a few other vital character motivations I needed to add and explain. So, I worked on what became my seventh draft, and topped out at just over 90,000 words; then I went back, and on my eighth draft, ‘tightened’ up my text a lot, bringing it back down to just over 88,000 words.
I then worked through further ‘tightening’ of my text (ninth draft) – just under 87,000 words; then tenth draft… 86,500 words.
If it helps to let you know, the first draft was not too hard; my philosophy: just keep writing. The second and third draft were in some ways HARDER than the first draft – I had to check facts and timelines and fix in several places, I had to add in a lot of detail – hmm what were they wearing? What time of year was it? How far is that distance in a horse and cart? You get the idea. The fourth draft was finally feeling rewarding. The fifth and sixth drafts, also quite rewarding, while still tidying. The seventh draft – after the editor – a fair bit of work again, but felt extremely good to have a professional’s feedback and guidance. Eighth draft – tidying up the changes from the seventh draft. Ninth draft, will I ever not want to make heaps of changes? Tenth draft: ah, finally, its tidy with hardly any changes.
All of this squashed in around work, kids, appointments, life, illness etc… you get the idea. Again, whenever I could, I’d fit in writing or editing. I’m even writing this blog, sitting in my car, while my son is at an appointment. I’ll edit it tomorrow when my daughter is at her archery lesson. The pace of life never changes, you just find time to fit in writing, and then it becomes habit. The writing, the editing, even the social media work… it’s all part of being an author that one needs to figure out, and fit in, if they want to make it.
So, there you have it, in a nutshell, the editing process of my first novel; albeit in reality, what has fit on a few pages actually took months of hard work. At the end, and especially by the time I got to version 10, the edits were very few, and I had a piece of work ready to send out to agents and publishers… but that is for another blog, and another day.
Next up, I’m going to give you some great tips to build your social media profile. If you haven’t already checked out my business the Institute of Personal Care Science, you’ll know social media is something we have a good handle on: nearly 80,000 subscribers on YouTube (including just over 4 million views), nearly 70,000 followers on facebook, 10,000 followers on Instagram – you get the idea. Stay tuned for my next writers diary where I share some great social media tips especially for authors, but it will help other small business to take a similar approach too.
Until then, happy reading!
3 thoughts on “Writers diary 2: The editing process”
Editing is the worst process for me, so it’s great to have a glimpse of how other writers do things. And whoa, social media tips is something I could definitely use, so I’ll be looking forward to that, Belinda!
Hi Belinda, thank you so much for this breakdown of your process. This is an invaluable checklist for new writers like me, who are blissfully unaware of exactly how many drafts are necessary to get a tidy, flowing story, with well-rounded characters and accurate historical facts!
I’m just finishing up on draft 2 now but I know that I’m no where near the finishing line yet.
Thank you so much for your helpful insights.
Happy to share, well done on getting through that second draft! You’ll find it gets frustrating before it gets better but you’ll make it!