Back in 2013, when I finished a first draft of ‘The Sisters’ Song’ (which was called ‘Ida’s Children’ then—I’m still getting used to calling my child by a different name), I had no idea how much editing and rewriting lay ahead. I thought four, maybe five, drafts, and it would be ready to start sending out.
In the four intervening years, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve revised, redrafted, and completely rewritten my novel. I stopped counting at twenty, and that figure only includes full revisions, not sectional edits, or where I’ve gone over and over the same paragraph, scene, or chapter 100 times, if not more.
It’s fair to say that some of that revision could have been avoided if I’d known how to write a novel when I set out. However, I suspect that’s nearly impossible, because the only way to know how to write a novel is to actually write one. You can learn a lot from reading other novels, studying texts on the craft of writing, and by attending classes and workshops, but, really, writing a novel is an on-the-job apprenticeship—you just have to dive in and do it, make all the rookie mistakes and learn from them.
After so many revisions, my novel bears little resemblance to that first draft. The main characters have stayed and are, by and large, the same. One character—my so-called ‘antagonist’—has caused me a lot of grief, and I’ve worked really hard to make her believable and, hopefully, sympathetic.
The initial drafts also had a big cast of secondary characters, but when various readers along the way pointed out how little these characters did to develop the story, one-by-one I deleted them. Their souls now repose in my graveyard for cast-offs. I’d like to say I miss them, but I don’t. Once I discovered they weren’t needed, as I did on the first read-through after they’d been given the chop, I haven’t given them a second thought. Not a single one. Ruthless, I know.
My storyline has changed, too—whatever remains of the original story has been unpicked, turned inside-out and upside-down, and sewn back together to make a garment completely different to the original.
My novel has a different ending; a major sub-plot is buried in the graveyard alongside the secondary characters; characters have swapped roles or do the completely opposite to what they did originally; much of the ‘filler’ has gone, and scenes have been compacted and fused together, so events happen over a single day or night instead of weeks; I’ve relocated some events, both in terms of setting and where they happen in the story.
As you can probably tell, I’m ruthless when I edit. I slash characters, scenes, and chapters with relish. I’ve shifted, deleted, trashed, reworked, reorganised, recreated, and basically done whatever it took to make my story better. If I thought something might improve my story, I had to try it to see if it worked. Sometimes it did; sometimes it didn’t.
In the process, I’ve created a lot of extra work for myself—I have over 190,000 words in my word cemetery. But I don’t see any of them as wasted—they’ve all helped to get the story where it is and flavoured it in some way.
During the week, I read this quote on Annabel Smith’s blog:
For me, that’s how it is. Writing a novel isn’t about me, or how tired I am, or how sick of it I feel, or how tedious editing is, or how much extra work is needed. Writing a novel is about the story and serving that. I feel as if it must be honoured, revered, listened to, and told in the way it needs to be told.
Each time I’ve edited my story, I’ve tried to listen to what it wanted to tell me. Even in the early days, in those crappy first drafts, I did the best I could—but the thing about a story is that it rarely reveals itself all at once. Rather, it does it incrementally, each step taking it deeper, making it more layered, more textured than the one before.
At the end of each hard edit, I thought that would be it, that I’d uncovered all my story had to say. Yet each time I returned, there was more to discover. And there’s probably still more (not that I can see it right now, although I bet someone will point it out to me!).
Writing a novel takes a long time. It takes time to see where a story can be enriched, or what a scene is really about, or how a theme can be developed, or, as I’ve discovered, how it can be brought full circle. If I’d stopped working on my novel three or two years’ ago, or even one year ago, it wouldn’t have anywhere near the richness and layers that it does now.
Editing hurts, there’s no doubt about it, but the pain is worth it. There’s a sense of fulfilment and accomplishment in knowing I’ve told this story the best way I can.
My book won’t be perfect—no novel is—but it’s time to let this story go. I feel I’ve done it justice, and that it is enough.
Om my.. I know how hard you have worked on your story. I will always think of your baby as Ida.. such a beautiful post. Your tone, the colours of your visuals and quotes are just perfect xxx
Thanks, Rae. I’m glad you liked the post, and, yes, my book is still Ida’s story.
This post really helped me be more realistic about when I can publish my first book (not this year, that’s for sure!) – and also to be okay with slashing characters and scenes and redoing whole sections. I feel much more confident about editing, so thanks.
Thank you, Tehkella! I’m glad this post helped. It’s hard to convey how much editing is needed before a book is ready to be published, at every step along the way. It’s hard to convey it without making it sound too hard and depressing, and the last thing I want is to make people feel like giving up! I want the opposite, in fact—to say that even though you might have had a hard critique, keep going, keep rewriting, don’t give up, and you’ll get there. 🙂
So true and a great reminder not to lose heart in the midst of it. Looking forward to reading the book.
Thanks, Iris! You know the journey already! I’m glad you’re looking forward to reading my book. 🙂
Good to hear this part of your journey is at an end, Louise. Now I suppose it’s up to your readers to make of your story what they will, and that’s probably both easier and harder for you. Easier in the sense that you can no longer have a say in it – in how your readers read – but also harder for that very same reason. Whatever the outcome, it must feel good to know that you’ve done the very best you could. You’ve honoured your work.
Revising could go on forever, couldn’t it? At some point you have to draw a line under it and say that’s as good as I can get it. I’ve tried my hardest and that’s all I can do.
It’s already been interesting to hear what resonates most with readers—different people are drawn to different things. I can’t wait for it to go out to the world, but, I must say, I’m a little bit nervous, too.
Man, I am just blown away by how many rewrites you’ve done on this book! So great that you kept at it and it has paid off for you.
I think a lot of it was because I was starting from a place of complete ignorance and naïvety! Fingers crossed the next one won’t take me as long. 🙂 (Thanks for the Sue Monk Kidd quote, by the way!)
That’s where we all start with our first books I guess.
I was so happy to find that quote. It couldn’t have come at a better time for me.
It’s resonated with me, obviously. I have no doubt that your hard work will pay off. 😊
Well, you know how I feel about editing but I agree, it’s a vital part of the writing process and not to be rushed for, as you say, the story reveals new angles the more it is polished. I know I published several books in a relatively short amount of time, but I’d spent years working on them before that and, like you, have lost count of the number of drafts and rewrites. And such a wise thing to say, that you can only learn how to write a novel by writing one! You’ve worked so hard to create what I have no doubt is going to be a wonderful book, and I can’t wait to read it – I love the new title too xx
I hope my book lives up to all the hype I’m giving it! It would be awful if it doesn’t! No one will trust me next time. 😕
I have no doubt it will, Louise – I’ve read your writing and I can’t imagine the book being anything less than wonderful xx
Thanks, Helen. I meant to reply to your comment about your ‘love’ of editing, too—you ‘love’ editing in the way I ‘love’ writing a first draft. There are few things I detest doing more, and the only reason I write one is so I have something to edit afterwards! 😉
😀 Haha, I know – whereas I love the flow of a first draft, of pouring the words onto the page. I love that as writers we each take different paths to the same destination 🙂
Every author gets there via a different route, but the important thing is we all get there!
Such a thoughtful, honest post Louise. Writing and rewriting are all part of the writing journey. It’s time consuming and frustrating but it must feel so amazing to know you’ll get to hold your real-life book in your hands very soon!!
You’re right—writing’s not just about engaging our muse, but also the critical, logical parts of our brain, too. Whipping a manuscript into order seems an impossibility, sometimes, but it’s amazing how it comes together. Thanks so much for your comment, and I can’t wait to hold my real-life book in my real-life hands! 🙂
What can I say?! So much of your fab posts reflects on what I’m currently discovering. It’s a huge learning curve and I’m encouraged to read that I’m not alone! Thanks for your openness in sharing your insights.
Thanks Susan. It’s all about the rewrite! From talking to other authors, it seems it’s the same for them, too. I worry when I write about the process and how hard it can be that it might sound discouraging to others, and that’s the last thing I want to do. It’s nice to hear it does encourage, and, yes, know you’re not alone. 🙂
Thanks so much for sharing this, Louise! It gives me hope. 🙂 I love it!
And no, you don’t sound like a fruitcake (although I must admit what that means; I like my fruitcake every now and then – lol!) because when I started writing (the manuscript is sleeping at the moment), it felt like it was bigger than me. It was like I was merely that physical vessel or being that typed someone’s thoughts, someone bigger than me, of course. 🙂 I am still to get back to writing… but the full time job… Soon! 🙂
I know what you mean when you say you feel like a physical vessel through which the story passes, as if you’re just the scribe. I feel similarly—that the story is bigger than me, and coming from somewhere almost spiritual.
We are more than scribes, though, I believe. I hold the view that the story comes from within us (I know others, like Liz Gilbert, don’t believe that), and it can be very hard to tap into that place—it requires a lot of stillness and contemplation. Not to mention sitting at our desks hour-after-hour and day-after-day, trying to find the right words, as well as physically typing the damn thing! 😉
Thanks for visiting and commenting!
My pleasure, Louise. 🙂
Finding the right words are always the hardest. Then again, so it goes in real life.
Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience.
Yes, reaching the end is so much sweeter when there’s been sweat and tears to get there! 🙂
I agree ☺💖
Thanks for visiting and your lovely comments, Anne.
My pleasure, Louise. All the best with the book. 🙂
Such an encouraging post to read, Louise. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and process with others. I have shared your post with my writing group. Three of us have novels in the last stages (at least we hope!). Congratulations on your upcoming novel release, very exciting and a fabulous achievement.
That’s lovely to hear, Heathermargaret! The last stages of editing are the most fun—tedious but fun! Good luck with it! 🙂
Great advise, Louise. I needed to read it today. Struggling with re-writing. So this is timely!
I’m struggling with editing (and a good deal of rewriting, too, even at this late stage!) at the moment. For me, this is the last edit, which is a good thing, because it’s nearly over. It’s also a pressure, because it’s the last chance I get to fix it! Thanks for visiting. xx