If you’re reading this because you’ve finished writing your novel, huge congratulations. Pop the cork, bring out the bunting, sing from the rooftops! Having an idea for a novel is exciting. Starting it is exhilarating. Reaching the finish line is something else - an accomplishment to be truly proud of. Of the gazillions of people who have an idea for a novel, only a small proportion put pen to paper, and fewer still make it halfway, let alone complete it. You’re already one in a million (or thereabouts).
If you’ve come this far, you’ll already have patience, tenacity and a sense of what it is to play a long game. All of which will be vital if you’re looking to find your novel a home at a publishing house. Your book wasn’t written overnight, and it won’t be published overnight either. Paths to publication are typically long, bumpy and disrupted by U-turns, dead ends and dark tunnels. Harsh, but it definitely helps to know these truths. It also helps to have a map, and to know where the potholes might be, because reaching one finish line (writing The End) essentially means you need to refuel and gear up for the next steps of your path to publication. Buckle up to find out more…
1) Step away
This is easier said than done. It can be incredibly difficult to prise yourself away from something that’s likely to have consumed your every waking (and sleeping) thought for months, or even years. But taking a break from your book-bun-in-the-oven will give it time to rise. Sorry to break it to you, but your book baby is unlikely to be perfect, and taking a break will enable you to return to it with fresh eyes, unfiltered by the rosy spectacles of new parenthood. At this stage, so close to finishing, your tinkering and tweaking could end up as tampering. That’s to say, you might make rash decisions you’ll come to regret (and no one wants to throw their baby out with the bathwater).
During this break, you’re likely to be struck by bolts of ideas - “what if I added this/got rid of that/moved that here/moved that there?” - and you’ll want to note down these thoughts. But don’t go back in for a few weeks. Give yourself the break you deserve, that your book deserves. It’ll be worth the wait.
2) Re-visit to re-work the big picture
After that well-earned restorative break (a week, a few weeks, maybe even a couple of months, perhaps depending on how long it took you to write it), it’s time to return to your novel with fresh eyes. Take your time over this, and be patient - you’ll need to re-read and edit several times.
In the first instance, it’s wise to read for the bigger picture (translation: resist the overpowering urge to tinker with every word - that will come later). Ask questions like these - does the overall plot work? Does it make sense? Does the story start in the right place? Or is there too much background detail in the opening chapter/s? Do you need to get to the point (or action) earlier? And what about the pacing? Does the story move forward fast enough? Did you gloss over any parts during your re-read (i.e. were any boredom alarm bells set off)? Does it need to slow down in places? What about your characters? Did any feel flat and feel two-dimensional? Do they behave consistently? Do they all serve a purpose in the story? Is their dialogue appropriate to their character? Is it authentic? And what about your themes? Are they seamlessly interwoven to your story, or do they feel clunkily tacked on? Or maybe they’re barely there.
Make notes as you read for these fundamental flaws and gaps, these flat points and glossed over areas. Next, go back to do what’s known as a structural edit. That’s to say, return to your book baby to implement these bigger picture improvements. And the last (but important) word on this process - be critical, but be kind to yourself by taking breaks and keeping an eye on the bigger picture. At times it might feel like you’re breaking your novel into pieces, but really you’re working to put those pieces together to form a stronger, better shape.
3) Re-visit to re-work the detail
Structural edits done, (and they’re likely to be the longest, trickiest part of this re-working process), the next stage is to read for the small stuff (though of course, this ‘small stuff’ has big impact).
This involves scrutinising the style of your novel - how you’re delivering its content. Is the tone consistent? Does it have atmosphere? Does the language flow? This is when you get down to the nitty gritty of each paragraph, sentence and word. Every full-stop, comma and every other type of punctuation, for that matter. Have you said what you want to say in the best possible way? Do you need all those adjectives and adverbs? Or maybe you need more - maybe your writing needs more personality.
Make these changes and keep polishing until you think your story shines. Then (you’ve guessed it) take another (little) break before diving back in for another read. And maybe another round of edits.
After all this, you might just be ready to move to the next stages of your journey - reaching out to readers (who aren’t you) and finding an agent, which we’ll cover in next month’s Aspiring Authors article. Until then, happy resting, writing or reworking - depending on where you are on your path to publication.
Joanne Owen is a writer and publishing professional with over twenty years’ experience of the book industry. Alongside writing and reviewing books, she hosts writing workshops and is an Editorial Expert for Love Reading.