I had written and completed numerous shorter works over the years, but The Conscience of Abe’s Turn: Season 1 Episodes 1-4 is the first full novel-length work I had ever written and edited to completion. The experience taught me a whole new set of lessons.
Some of these lessons I learned from my own editing experience. Others are classic truths of which I was merely reminded, and with which I know other writers wrestle regularly. We each have our own hurdles to jump over. Still you might encounter–or perhaps you are encountering–one of these.
Be prepared with these 7 lessons learned from editing a first novel:
It will take 5 times as long as you think it will. When you estimate how long and hard you’ll need to work, start with however long you think it will take, and multiply times 5. If you think you can get through it in a couple weeks, estimate about 2 and a half months. Unless you have actually edited a novel-length work and have measured how long it takes you to get through, assume you’re going to underestimate by half an order of magnitude.
And don’t give any excuses. “But I’m not like most writers. I like editing.” So you’ve already assumed it’s easy. It’s not. Multiply by 5. “But I’m using Holly Lisle’s One-Pass Manuscript Revision process.” Good for you! It will take you only a fraction of the time it takes everyone else… which is still 5 times longer than you think it will take. “But–” Hey! What did I say? Multiply by 5.
“But I edit as I go along.” So you’ve convinced yourself that your novel will need no substantive editing, just line editing. At most, you’ll need to fix only a few typos. And indeed you will find those typos, and you should fix those typos. You will also find huge problems with your prose, your characters, your descriptions, your story lines, and everything else, problems that will make your manuscript read like crap. And this is the time and place to fix them. If you think that editing as you go will save you from revising your manuscript, figure out how long you think it will take, then multiply by 5 as above, and then multiply by 5 again.
Your life may change while you’re editing your novel. Because you’ll be dedicating yourself to an activity you’re not used to. Writing uses primarily your right brain, whereas editing uses primarily your left brain. Even if you’ve exercised and stretched both halves of your brain, so that you can use them both and switch back and forth as need be, prolonged editing will still feel much different than prolonged writing. I experienced mood changes, lack of creativity, and lack of motivation. Afterward, I experienced a sudden renewed interest in the next phase of the project. Since the format of Abe’s Turn is chunked into novelette-sized stories, I’m considering moving to a rotating write/edit schedule with other writing work thrown in for spice, to keep myself from losing interest and falling asleep.
It gets better as you go along. You’ll probably find that the first chapter needs to be heavily tweaked, revised, rewritten, recast, redone from scratch. But the last chapters are possibly fine as is, maybe with a few spelling and grammar errors fixed. What I found is that I had actually become a better writer and much more in-sync with the story, as the story progressed. So by the end, I had perfected the voice I wanted to use, the tone of the piece, the plot, the characters, everything. The beginning chapters had serious problems, on almost every page. But in the latter chapters, sometime whole scenes were absolutely wonderful just as I had originally written them. Maybe I needed to clarify a vague sentence here, or correct a misused word there. But that was it.
It’s okay to finish. Really, it is. It’s okay, even though that means you’ll be done, committed, revealed and open to ridicule. Even though you won’t be able to make any more changes. Even though everyone will see what you’ve produced. Even though most of those who read it will probably hate it (because what you’ve written is worth writing). Even though most of those who hate it will tell you they loved it (because they don’t want to hurt your feelings). It’s still okay to finish, because that’s what you came all this way for, and you’ll never actually get it published unless you do finish it.
It will never be right. Or at least, it will never be as good as you want it. You will never be done wanting to make changes. Want proof? Go to Amazon.com, or walk into your local Barnes & Noble, and check out the top sellers du jour. Crack one open and start reading. Odds are that within the first 5 pages, you’ll find at least one thing you’d change. Let it go. Even after you’re done, you will feel like you want to tweak it some more. Don’t. Let your editor take a shot at it, yes. But don’t keep going back and tweaking it, or else you’ll never finish it. And remember that it won’t be as bad as you think, because readers who love your work will love it despite its flaws, and people (probably non-readers) who hate it will hate it despite its perfection. If you want proof, look no further than Harry Potter.
The last push through to the end is probably the hardest part about writing. I’m not quite sure why this is. Maybe it’s because when you first start, it’s all new and exciting, and as you near the finish line, your left brain gets tired out. Maybe it’s because of that fear of finishing, fear of commitment, or fear of success. Or maybe it won’t happen at all for you. But it did for me. The closer I got to the end, the harder it was to continue. Some things I found that helped: setting daily editing goals, loads of self-encouragement, and frequent breaks.
Maybe it’s just my imagination, but the editing phase of the writing process seems to get the short end of the stick. There is plenty of advice on how to write, how to write better, and how to write faster. But few articles I’ve read are about what to do after you’ve written your first draft. It may not be sexy or glamorous, but editing is a key phase of writing. And it can be difficult, depending on how good you are at it. And I don’t think you can completely off-load the editing phase onto a paid editor, because your editor doesn’t share your vision of your story, and it is your story. Maybe he can correct your grammar and offer suggestions for improvement, but only you can know whether it’s “right.” So you have to be the final arbiter, the final editor.