Before I wrote my first novel, I used to think that ninety thousand words was quite a lot. Many people tell me that it’s a horrendous amount of work – I often hear people gasp when I say ‘I’m about half way through – I’ve done fifty thousand words…’
It isn’t that bad at all. I’ve written lots of things from scripts to dissertations, so thousands of words don’t really faze me, but a novel is a different animal. Although an essay, in any form, may need re-drafting, upgrading and improving, there is nothing like editing a novel to alter the word count considerably, both up and down.
Some novels will never be finished – they don’t deserve to be. I set myself a twenty to forty thousand word cut-off point with a novel, where I review both what I’ve written and how I feel about it. If I’m not enthused by it and desperate to write more, then I stop and file it away. If I’m not completely caught up in my novel, I can’t expect readers to be blown away either. It’s not a waste – an idea can always come back later in another form.
In truth, I suppose you never really ‘finish’ a novel until it comes out in print. More to the point, there are probably several stages of ‘finishing’ a novel. The first time you ‘finish’ is when you write the last words of the final chapter of the story, add the full stop and then breathe out: ‘Ah yes, that’s the ending I wanted.’ Of course that’s a false finish, one of many false finishes. In some ways, you’ve only just started.
The next stage is editing. I always edit as I write, going back to read through what I’ve written to check for sense, clarity, effective storytelling, style, continuity. That’s part of the revisiting process inherent in writing a novel. But when the work is completed, it’s important to read through the whole thing again, preferably aloud, to check for everything from silly typos, errors of continuity, to tension, character, voice, style and impact. Usually, there’s some dead wood to take out – unnecessary phrases, descriptions, repetition. Often, though, I need to add more words. I’m not an indulgent writer – I often tend to write just the ‘bones’ of a novel, so during an edit I have the opportunity to expand a situation and develop a character or a setting further to improve the effect. I usually edit the novel twice at this stage and then I walk away for a day or two.
Later, having moved my mind away from my work, in the middle of an inane task an idea usually comes to me about the novel, one that I hadn’t previously thought of – an opportunity to add something that will make the impact even stronger or clarify a character. So I go back, include the new idea and re-read the chapters around it, checking that it’s integrated and that it makes sense in context.
After a couple more edits, it’s time to ask others to comment so that I can edit again, although it’s nice to have a reader ‘on the journey’ with me to test the effectiveness of story and character as I write and to make sure the tension works. I believe in the ‘other heads are better than just mine’ rule, or the ‘I don’t want to get anything wrong so I’ll check everything as much as possible’ rule. I am lucky to know people who always bring something special to my novel.
My partner, Big G, will suck his teeth and shake his head when he reads a certain passage and I’ll gasp ‘Oh no, what have I done?’ and he’ll sigh and say ‘In this paragraph, the (insert any type) car/ plane/ engine/anything mechanical, you’ll find that the engine/ exhaust/ wings/ anything mechanical/ nature/ chemistry/ physics won’t work the way you’ve said, it will work like this… (insert a long explanation I won’t understand…) etc. etc.’ So I change what I’ve written slightly to make the science right. Great to have an engineering perspective and I make the most of this resource all the time.
My agent is brilliant, sharp witted, intelligent, with boundless medical knowledge, grammatical knowledge, literary knowledge: her advice is a priceless resource I always benefit from. I try out chapters on family and friends to check that I’m getting an emotional response when I need one. One of my best responses was where my daughter read the scene where Nan comes to the rescue in The Age of Misadventure, and she clapped and cheered. The memory still brings tears to my eyes.
Then there are more edits. Everything from genre to gerunds comes under scrutiny, not to mention the legal perspective that could cause a very awkward situation if there is something in a novel that isn’t allowed to be included. It’s useful to work with professionals who understand marketing too. A clever editor might suggest ‘This novel will be out in the spring – you’ve written it to take place in the autumn. Can you change the seasons to coincide with the release date?’ It makes absolute sense when you think about it.
The advice that writer Stephen King gives about ‘killing our darlings’ (*) is good: we should never be afraid of rejecting whole chunks, characters or chapters if it’s not making the novel the best it can be. It doesn’t help to cling on to what we’ve written unless we are sure it is for the good of the whole finished novel. Flexibility is so important when we’re involved with editing. Most things we eventually change in our novels make total sense in terms of the overall package. If a writer thinks ‘But I’d rather keep this character or scene this way,’ we have to be sure it’s for the readers’ benefit and not because we, as writers, have developed a false illusion of its worth, which is very easy to do as a creative artist, always emotionally involved in the process.
Then there’s the incredible moment of realisation that the draft has become a real novel: it has a release date, a title, a front cover. But it’s still not finished: after line edits, word edits, type setting, there’s still one final chance to go through it all again. I always find that last edit quite scary: it’s the last opportunity to make changes before it’s too late.
I’ve just finished another novel this week and I’m pleased with it. It’s a great feeling, a bit like how it must feel to have constructed a newly-designed model aeroplane and now it’s about to be tested on the air. Are the conditions right? Will it fly? Will there be bumps on the way? Is it made of strong stuff to take any knocks and to withstand all weathers? Do I need to make some modifications or are any radical reconstructions needed before it can take off and soar? It’s at this point that I have to believe that it has strong wings and isn’t filled with lead. Self- belief comes from the instinct that what is on the page works and the knowledge that I’ve edited well.
Metaphors aside, finishing a novel is also about changing headspace and leaving the past work behind. It’s about clearing the mind, moving away from the story and the characters and doing something else, preferably outside, preferably in the sunshine, walking in the woods, lazing on a beach or travelling in the van.
There are two benefits to taking time out, other than the ‘I deserve it’ moment: rewards are something I don’t do for myself often enough. One payback is that when I return to a novel and read it freshly, if it feels good, makes me laugh and cry, entertains and moves at a cracking pace and makes me happy: then I know I’m on the right path. And secondly, taking time off from writing has a replenishing effect. One set of thoughts are blown away and a space is cleared for a new idea and project to float in. It’s a kind of spring-cleaning of the mind and the emotions that every writer needs – permission to move forward, if you like.
The truth is that I already have my next novel idea in my head; I’ve thought up the tension, the characters and setting. I just need to give my mind time and space to fill in a few gaps before I go back to plan a bit and then move to the computer and hammer it all out on the page, another ninety thousand words. Then the process starts again.
(*) ‘Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.’ (Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft)