‘But editing,’ she hissed.

Last month I reported I’d finished the first draft of my new novel, working title In the Land Newly Risen from the Sea, and was letting it ferment for a week or so before cracking on with editing it.

I’m now stuck well into the editing process, trying to get it finished before my baby bump grows so big I can’t reach my keyboard. Ideally, I’ll have it finished by the end of June, and then give myself six months of maternity leave. Of course, things don’t always go quite to plan, so come September I might be trying to type re-writes with one hand while holding a screaming baby in the other.

One thing I’ve noticed when I discuss editing is that not everyone has a very firm grasp of what it involves – many people assume it’s simply a hunt-and-destroy for typos. That’s actually proofreading, a separate process which comes later.

So if editing isn’t looking for typos, what is it then? Well, the way I think of it is as a three-part process, each part of which involves making a pass over the manuscript and examining it in a greater or lesser level of detail.

The first pass is to check for basic consistency, pacing, and structure. Are there any plot holes? Do the characters’ motivations make sense? Does it have a ‘saggy middle’ where the story meanders around without much direction? Are there too many sub-plots? Or, as I’ve found this time round, are we spending too long with one character’s point-of-view and neglecting what’s happening to the protagonist? It’s at this stage that you might decide to make big changes like changing the order of the chapters or cutting out a big chunk of text.

The second pass is what I think of as the continuity-error search. In the movies, continuity errors are things like a character’s outfit mysteriously changing when they walk through a door, or objects on a table disappearing between shots. With books, you don’t have to worry about every tiny detail in quite the same way – but you do need to make sure that, if you’ve described a character as finding a knife in one scene, you don’t then have a later scene where the knife has gone missing without any explanation.

The third pass is the line edit – this is when you get really down-and-dirty with the details of your word choices, and tinker with your sentences to make them flow better. It’s here that you discover things like an over-excessive use of the word ‘but’ (but I need to use it every other sentence! It’s such a useful word!) or that you’ve described characters as ‘hissing’ lines of dialogue which contain no sibilants. You’re smoothing out the edges of the sculpture, if you want to think of it that way. And yes, if you spot any typos, by all means correct them.

I don’t expect all writers to agree with my three-pass editing structure – in fact, I’m sure each writer will have their own personal approach, and that’s as it should be. But (that word again!) every book is going to need structural and language checks at some point if it’s going to make sense and read well. And of course, once you’ve done all that, then you hand it over to your agent/editor/beta reader to see what they think, and keep your fingers crossed they don’t find too many serious problems…

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Second Draft Blues

Nearly two months ago, I finished the first draft of my new novel, The Silvergreen Sea. After a period of reflection, discussion with my agent, and a little help from my writing group, I’ve now started on the dreaded second draft.

Why dreaded? Well, because while the first draft can be spurted out quickly and relatively thoughtlessly, second (and subsequent) drafts take real work. It’s easy on the first draft to dash something off with a casual ‘it’s not great, but I’ll fix it later.’ Now, later’s come around, and you gotta get fixin’. At least this time round, unlike last time, I haven’t left any huge gaping holes in the story with ‘more plot to go here’ scrawled at the top of the document.

One of the difficulties with the second draft is that progress is hard to quantify, as you’re never quite sure in advance how much work will be needed on a given section. On the first draft, I had daily, weekly, and monthly word targets, and I could always see exactly how far along I was on that handy Scrivener progress bar. With the second draft, the first four or five scenes needed only a brief tidy-up so I zipped right through them in a morning: then I reached a scene which needed a complete re-write and had to spend two whole days on it. The ghost of my former project manager self wants to go through the first draft, calculate exactly what needs doing to each scene and how long it should take, and draw up a full plan of action: but my current, writer self, just wants to get on with it.

If you’ve never written a book yourself, you may be wondering what sort of thing typically changes between a first draft and a second, or a third… the answer is, as so often with writing, that it depends. One book may be almost ready to go after the first draft and just need a bit of polishing; another may be far too long and need extensive cuts; another may be skimpy and need extensive additions; another may be wildly incoherent and need a complete rethink. My book falls somewhere in the middle. Some bits need to be cut, others need to be added, others changed around. One character becomes more prominent; another character falls out of focus. Other characters warp and transform, changing gender or magical powers. The basic plot outline and central characters will remain, but a lot needs to be rewritten.

It’s not going to be easy, and I don’t know how long it will take. But hey, this is my job now, and nobody else is going to do it for me, so here I go. I’ll let you know when I’m done.