Editing my first novel

ImageAbout two weeks ago I got some feedback on my first novel (A Girl Out There) that I felt inclined to listen to, so I went back in time and gave it a read through.

Looking back I was shocked to find that it hasn’t even been a year since I wrote it, but so much has changed since then that it seemed (as I flipped through the pages) like a book I set about writing in my teenage years.  In the meantime I’ve written two other novels, a novella, a host of short stories and I am currently working on a fourth novel.

I have done a lot since the first novel and looking back, my progress shows.

As much as I was happy to have such marvelous feedback I was shocked at the state of the book itself.  It was lacking a depth and a sense of feeling that I like to think I am much more capable of now and there was far too much telling and not nearly enough showing.  It felt sloppy, inconstant and too packed with stuff that didn’t matter.  It had only been seven months since I wrote the damn thing, but I swear it could have been years!

So needless to say I was thrilled to tear it apart and put it back together with more detail, emotion and expansion on the themes.

The whole process started out a bit rough, because I was stuck in the voice of my current protagonist (Nil) and I couldn’t quite make the shift back to the old one (Cali).  Nil is sassy and sharp and Cali is soft and flowing.  So I wrote the first chapter in Nil’s voice (or something close to it) and Ben read it and shook his head.  I’m pretty sure I threw things across the room in my annoyance.

It’s hard going back.  I like to tie things up and move on to the next thing, I’m a forward thinker, not a backward looker.

In round two I tried again, smoothed out some of the rough edges, but still Ben didn’t like it.

I despaired and it was all very dramatic.

Ben said vague sorts of things like ‘I’m just not feeling it’ and I wanted to chuck ‘it’ out the window.

 So I tried again and the next round was a bit closer, then a bit closer, then I hit the nail (more or less) on the head.  It was a huge relief.

After that all was well, having gotten the voice back and reestablishing the character in my mind going through the rest of the book felt as good to me as throwing stuff out.  I love throwing stuff out.  I will periodically go through the cupboards in the house just so I can feel the satisfaction and lightness of having less shit in our lives.

I got to rip out huge sections of text and toss characters to the curb, it was deliciously liberating.

Then, when all that was done I got to build up the parts I had left shallow, try to enrich the relationships and encounters that remained in the wake of my clear cutting.

Overall the book isn’t completely indicative of the style of writing I have moved on to.  My first book was more of an adventure-style story than the others that have come after.  I have shifted my focus a bit to go more literary with my magic realism, but still there is something I will always love about the first because it represents my own personal liberation.  It was me taking back my creativity, my past, my writing.  I was coming out of a bad situation and into a better one and the spirit of change is obvious within the pages of the story.

I used to hate editing.  When it came time for Ben to provide his feedback I would flail and moan and he would wait patiently until I was done my immature spazzing.  But now I get it, editing can be freeing and even fun.  It can be interesting and reflective.

Overall I’m pretty happy with the results of my efforts and I hope others are too (although that remains to be seen).  But what I can say is that I have a new appreciation for editing and the joy of tearing something to bits to find the goodness inside.


Keep It Simple


I’ve been doing a lot of reviewing lately on forums and in writing groups.  I feel like it really helps me focus on my own style to take apart other people’s stuff and look at the bits.

What I’ve noticed most of all (especially in fantasy and sci-fi) is that people complicate things too much.  Obscure words, five words when one would do, thick dialogue, overdone description, info dumps, metaphors that don’t match the world.  All of this stuff starts to stack until you have a book or a story that’s too full.

Take a deep breath writers and cut, cut cut.

If it feels confusing when you’re writing it, it will likely be ten times worse when someone goes to read it.  Keep that in mind before you go spilling the guts of the world all over the page.

Keeping it simple also involves knowing what parts of the story matter and what don’t.  I think writers fall in love with their characters and their worlds so much that they think people want to hear every last tiny detail that comes to mind.  We don’t.  We want to hear the details that matter, that are relevant to the story and keep the protagonist(s) charging forward or contain some sort of meaningful moment.

I learned a lesson about this today as I was writing a story that may or may not become a novel/la.  It’s a about a girl hitching to California from Toronto.  So I had her get a ride from some guy and they shared a moment by the lake.  Then the moment was over, it was over and gone but still I was tempted to stretch it out, make it last.  I was about to continue with them having lunch somewhere and my fingers were poised over the keyboard.  But instead, I looked at the chapter and said, ‘lunch doesn’t matter, it’s irrelevant and useless, the moment is done’ and I was liberated after that.  Set free by simplicity and brevity.

So look at your stories and novels writers and ask yourself if you are writing because it matters or if the moment is gone and now you’re just saying stuff because you want to hear yourself talk.

Although being complicated may be cathartic for you, if you don’t keep it simple, your readers will quickly move on.