Editing a novel can be a daunting task for a writer, and the full editorial process has a number of stages. With so much to consider, it can be difficult for a writer to grasp the best way to start editing their novel, and to know which elements to focus on to truly get the best out of their work. Francine Toon, Assistant Editor at Hodder & Stoughton and Sceptre, shares her valuable advice for any writer wishing to make their novel the best it can be, below.
I tend to think of a novel as a vehicle – let’s say a train – designed to take me on a journey. When I start a good novel I quickly have the sense that the writer is going to take me somewhere interesting, using the best route possible. The snack trolley will appear just before I start to feel hungry. The people sitting next to me are some of the most extraordinary people I have ever met in my life.
Now, in order to think about editing a book let’s take apart the key aspects of that rather laboured metaphor and tally them with what I look for as I am reading.
The first thing I notice about a novel – inevitably – is the quality of writing, on a sentence-level. Yet I do not think that the initial editing stage (and there will be many) is the right time for writers to prioritise this particular aspect. In the novel-train metaphor, the sentence-level elements, such as word-choice, dialogue and syntax, can be compared to seat-pattern, light fittings and whether there is a regular lavatory lock or one of those disconcerting electronic push-buttons. In other words, these smaller features of the book undoubtedly influence the quality of the journey, but it is more important in the first instance to make sure your novel is heading in the right direction . . . or even that it is heading anywhere at all.
How long does it take you to read a novel? A few hours? A few days? Weeks? The average length of the novel is about 300-400 pages. That’s about 80-100 thousand words. Therefore, when you are editing, take a good look at the people on your train, your characters. I’m sure you agree that on a long train journey, there is nothing worse than being trapped next to a boring or irritating person. Ask yourself whether the reader will want to spend hours of their spare time with your characters. Will they care about what happens to these people? Will they remember these people over all the other characters they have spent time with in other novels?
Fascinating characters can certainly make or break a journey. A reader could be moving through the dreariest backwater, yet become so absorbed in a personality, or personalities that they barely notice their surroundings. Having said that, it is nice not to have to go through a dreary backwater. As I get further into a novel, I start to think ‘Where is this story going?’ This is a very important question that you should ask throughout your editing process. Is this novel going to the Isle of Skye or Las Vegas? If Las Vegas, why is it going there? I’m not really talking about setting and location here, but the ‘point’ of a novel. Where does the story end up and, more importantly, why? There should be a good reason for a novel to take a particular route on its journey. (Is stopping for half an hour in Darlington really necessary? Maybe it is.)
When editing, think about all the stages of the plot – the journey – and decide whether they directly relate to the novel’s dénouement, its destination. It is important that they do. A reader may not know where the novel is going, but when they reach the end, it should be perfectly clear why they have arrived there.
The thing about novels – and trains – is that there are lots of them. Thousands and thousands are available at any moment in time. It is increasingly easy for a reader to change from one novel to the next if they begin to lose interest.
The first edit should be the time to stand back and take a long hard look at how the novel works as a whole. It is not the time to be stubborn or precious. Consider constructive feedback from early readers (whether these are qualified editors or friends that fit your intended readership) and be prepared to kill your darlings, as William Faulkner advises. Above all, the key to being a successful novelist is making your reader’s journey worthwhile.
For invaluable advice on editing your novel and getting it published, I would recommend On Writing by Stephen King and How Not to Write A Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman..
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Francine Toon is an assistant editor at Hodder and Stoughton and Sceptre. Follow her on Twitter: @FrancineElena
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