Lessons in Editing: Writing a Novel is Hard Work!

October 17, 2010 in Novel, On Writing, Study by pacejmiller


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My editing class is getting down to the business end of things.  We’re no longer looking for typos and grammatical mistakes.  It’s time to take an entire manuscript and assess it as a whole.  What is good about it?  What doesn’t work?  And most importantly, how do you make it work?

I must admit, I’m not the hardest person to please when it comes to novels, but it is rare for me to think of something as truly magnificent.  It really annoys me how some members of my class act like every bit of writing we are given in class to edit is a piece of crap.  It’s as though in expressing their horror at someone else’s writing ability they are somehow elevating their own.

“This is just atrocious.  A good writer would be able to make this work.”

“Oh, it just irritates me how trash like this can get published!”

“What are these writers thinking when they submit garbage like this?”

And so on and so forth.

The stuff we edit in class is obviously not perfect — otherwise what’s the point of using them as editing exercises?  On the other hand, they are not that bad.  A lot of the writers have genuine talent and ability — but it is what it is — an unpolished draft that needs some work.  One of the pieces that was trashed in class (which I thought was pretty good) was actually written by quite an established writer.

We’re reading a full-length manuscript at the moment so we can assess it as a whole.  It’s not my piece of cake but there are some good things about it.  I’m sure some of my classmates will come with their teeth sharpened and ready to tear into it.

Which finally brings me to the point I’ve been trying to make — writing a novel is really really hard work.

I once thought it was virtually impossible to get something published these days, especially for a previously unpublished writer.  But that’s not the case.  If you write something good enough to be published, then chances are, it eventually will be, provided you are persistent and work at it.  The hard part is coming up with something good enough to be published.

Simply put, the majority of the stuff that is being submitted to publishers is not up to par.  A lot of people submit manuscripts they think are good, and could be, but aren’t.

But the question is, are you willing to take suggestions on board?  Are you willing to go back and tear the manuscript apart, re-write massive chunks, kill off characters and change the voice?  It can be quite demoralising, especially if you’ve just spent years on what you thought was perfect masterpiece, only to be told that it’s far from it.  The problem does not lie with the talent of writers out there — it’s more about having an idea of what is good enough to be published, and having the strength and determination to keep going until your manuscript gets there.

These thoughts remind me of my own stagnant manuscript, which I hope I will be able to get back to soon with some renewed enthusiasm.  It’s still only a first draft, but I can already see some the things I’ll need to go back to and fix.

There are so many aspects to a novel and all the pieces have to be aligned in order to make it work.

Does every character need to be there?  Do they all serve a purpose?  Can certain characters be combined or discarded?  Do all the central characters have a personal journey, a story arc to go through?

What about the dialogue?  Does every piece of dialogue contribute to the progression of the story or character development?  Do characters speak the right way?  Can you differentiate characters from the way they talk?  Do the things they say match their personalities?  Is the dialogue truthful to the characters?  How about dialogue attribution?  Are there too many unnecessary adverbs?

What about tone, voice, point of view?  Structure?  Pace?  Logic?  Plot holes?

It gives me a headache just thinking about it all, but each and one of these things is crucial if you’re serious about getting your first manuscript published.  Do you have what it takes?  I’m still hoping I do.