I’m in the middle of editing my latest novel. The biggest problem I have on my hands is time. Or lack of it.
For those of us who try to write a novel a year, time is not a luxury allowed us. But we have to try to achieve a good distance from our work in order to objectify and improve it. Being able to achieve that distance gives you the ability to ‘kill your darlings’ – suddenly they aren’t your darlings any more. Over the years I’ve learned a few techniques that help.
I write my first draft on a computer, then send it to my agent and editor, both of whom make their comments. During that period of anything between two to six weeks, I don’t look at the novel at all, hoping that when I return to it, I shall see it with new eyes. That’s when the work begins. In fact, this is part of the process I enjoy the most – teasing out the characters, sharpening the plot, tightening the prose. To distance myself further, I try to make the process as different as I can from the original writing process.
First of all I print it out in a different typeface to the one I’ve been working in thus far. This was given to me as a tip by a successful writer years ago. My eye then isn’t used to it and doesn’t slide so easily over the passages I’ve become all too familiar with. Then I pick up a pencil. This has to be one of those coloured plastic propelling ones with a rubber on the top – sold in packets of four in WH Smiths – nothing else will do!
Reading the words on paper is, for reasons I don’t understand, a completely different experience to reading them on the screen. With editorial notes at my side, I’m quite ruthless about the slashing and burning process. Suddenly what my editor has said makes even better sense. In some regard, I imagine the process as similar to a sculptor working with a lump of marble – chipping away, chipping away and gradually – you hope – something more beautiful will begin to emerge, something that’s been lurking within waiting to be released.
Then back to the screen, reading (in another typeface again, if I feel I need it) as I put in my corrections and cuts, checking that they work as well as I thought in the first place (not always the case).
And lastly – I read the whole thing out loud. Yes, really. Again I was encouraged to do this by another successful novelist. She was right. Any awkward phrases or stilted dialogue stand out a mile, ready for correction or cutting.
And yes, it takes time, but not ten years. By then I hope my experience of the novel is as close to a general reader’s as I can get.
And then it’s back to my editor … Wish me luck!