Editing: The Art Of Taking An Axe To Your Novel

Yes, there are some writers who will bang out a book in a month and have it on the Kindle the next day. I can’t do that. I torture myself with the particulars of the craft. I want to make a compelling story. I want readers to have an insight into my characters and the way they see the world. I had no sense of the timing for writing when I started Darker Shadows in January. I wanted to have the book finished and released by the end of April, and I honestly expected that to happen right up until about March. That timeline now seems laughably ignorant. I’ve discovered a few other things in that time that make me a better writer. For instance, I can’t write all day. I’m jealous of the people who can. Sometimes narrating around something is better than just showing it. (Not telling the reader about it mind you, but hinting at it in other things.) Most importantly, I’ve discovered that the second draft of a novel is where I actually put it all together.

Editing is to writing what ovens are to baking. You don’t have a cake just because you put all the ingredients in a bowl. Without an oven you just have a sloppy mess- The same goes for editing. I don’t think what I have as my first draft is bad, but bad is a relative term. It’s a pretty damn good first draft if I do say so myself. You’ll see my butt before you ever see that draft though. The only person allowed to see it is my partner, and after that I can’t look her in the eye for about three hours. First drafts are for us, the writers, not for the world at large. Like the title says, you’ve got to take an axe to that puppy first. Cut it apart until it lies in splinters at your feet then take the pieces and see what makes it tick. Glue it back together into something stronger.

I started editing last week. I knew before I started that I wanted to re-write the first few chapters and expand on the ending. I also knew that I’d read the whole thing out loud after the edits and polish up every line and paragraph. What I didn’t expect is that I would feel compelled to change the timescale of the novel altogether. Darker Shadows takes place over a few weeks in the first draft. Now that I’m looking at all the pieces I’m wondering if the story wouldn’t be better spread over a few months. Between that and the rewrites we’re talking 20-40k words of rewriting in a 106k word novel. (Not to mention the line edits) If you’d asked me when I finished the first draft in April if I needed to do that much rewriting I would have said no. It’s tough to do, but it’s a labor of love. It’s only going to make my novel better.

An experienced writer will probably read this and say, “No shit, Al.” But this isn’t for the experienced writers, its for the chums like me; people just starting out, people who want to go the indie route. I’ve read a lot on how indie writers do their thing, and the current thinking seems to be that you need to get your novel out there as quickly as possible. After all, everyone wants more books on the shelf so that they have better odds of getting a sale right? There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you can write, edit, get it re-edited, and market it without cutting corners. But you wanna know a secret? You can’t. You aren’t an exception to that; nobody is. You don’t just want to bang something out and throw it on Kindle. You need to edit it. You need to peel back the layers of your baby and see what’s under the hood.

Who am I to suggest something so audacious? I’m a lifelong reader, that’s who. When I decided to to indie publish instead of doing the rejection dance I immediately noticed that a lot of the writing community looks down on us. Sloppy they call us. Amateurs. People with no respect for the craft. At first I laughed it off. Well read people can sometimes be a bit elitist. (Myself included) Then I started looking at the competition. I’ve put down more novels after the first five pages in the last four months then I’ve put down altogether across the rest of my life. The amount of poor writing in the indie market is obscene. I’m not just talking about bad stories, I’m talking about run on sentences in the first paragraph, more adverbs than you can find in a dictionary. (Even if you search widely, exhaustively, and enthusiastically) I’ve seen more than one book at this point where the entire first chapter is the protagonist’s back story told as passively as possible. Yuck!

You know what could have fixed that? Editing. Going back and looking at your novel while asking some hard questions. Does the reader need to know this? Does this add anything to my story? Is the pacing good? Should I up the tension here? Would this book be better told from a different perspective? Do I need to change protagonists? Those questions hurt, and they’re supposed to. It’s called storytelling, and it isn’t as easy as a lot of people think setting out. (Once again, myself included) Take an axe to your love. Pour a hundred hours of work into something and then chop it to bits. After that is when you go back over it with a fine shammy to polish out the sentences. I’m begging you to consider this advice if you haven’t already done so. Not just because I want to see others succeed mind you, but because I’m sick of buying books and putting them down fifteen minutes later. You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain. Go sharpen your axe.

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