WRITE THE BOOK
Ah, it sounds so easy, put like that! You have an idea, you start to write, then you realise that what you thought was material for a novel is petering out after 20,000 words. Or you disappear into plot holes so big that you could lose the Titanic in them. Or get stuck with a plot summary that says “at this point something interesting needs to happen.”
This is so big a problem that I’m not even going to try to describe everything I did. I just wrote the damn thing. It helped that I fully expected that the first draft would be dreadful, though.
Then, after I’d fixed up the first draft into a much better second draft, I needed some help. I had numerous different people help me out by reading some or all of my second, third, fourth and fifth drafts, and got some great feedback.
Here’s a useful note comparing the different types of editing that might be needed:
You know all this, of course. The reason I’ve put it here is to be clear about what I mean by “Write the book”: I mean finish the thing, really finish it, so you have a manuscript that is ready to publish.
For the early versions, I didn’t send it to many people: I just wanted to be challenged on plot and characters. Later, the more the merrier: I had nine look at draft four and found that the comments they made had very little overlap, from which I infer that more readers would have found more issues.
Synthesising the various feedback was a lot easier than I had feared. First I dealt with the specific comments (about a particular word or sentence) from the readers. Then I looked at higher level issues, and consolidated the comments into a series of issues that I needed to address.
Although these readers found a lot of issues, none of them was doing a detailed Copy Edit in the way that a professional editor would. This means I was responsible myself, and it’s not an easy thing to do on your own writing. I got a LOT of help from Pro Writing Aid (affiliate link), which I highly recommend. I upgraded to the paid version, but there is a free edition which is pretty good. Computers aren’t good at understanding English prose, so some grammatical and vocabulary suggestions are off the mark. On the other hand, they are great at counting and spotting patterns, so there are really helpful reports which highlight overused words, repeated phrases, overlong sentences and suchlike.
I also ran my work through Grammarly – within the 7 days of a free trial – and, although it did find a few issues, I didn’t feel it would be worth the much higher cost of purchase. It highlighted a lot of potential issues which really weren’t, and missed a few issues which were present.
I’ve no doubt that using professional copy editors and proof-readers would have made this process go a lot more quickly, but at a cost. At this stage of my writing career, with the emphasis on learning, it made sense to do as much as possible myself. If I was more confident of having a commercially viable product then the calculation would change and I’d buy in more help.
One other tool to mention is Scrivener: I didn’t use this for drafting One Equal Temper, but I have used it since and plan to continue to use it at least for the first couple of drafts of future work, after which I may switch back to Microsoft Word for the editing and proof-reading stages.
Two last tips which I found very useful, especially in the later editing and proof-reading stages:
1. Print it out! Double spaced, Courier font. This helps typos stand out and gives you room to scribble corrections. I found this much more effective than using a screen. When editing on screen, I found it helped to reduce the page size to A5 (shorter lines are much easier to scan than long ones).
2. Read it out loud! And that means not whispering or pretending, either: you want to hear how the sentences sound.
It took me three months to do the first draft (90,000 words), and another five before I declared draft two to be complete, mainly because I kept changing my mind about the structure and flow of the story.
Draft three started as a polish on the prose, but I found some more structural tweaks and that took another couple of months. Draft four took two more months, although the first few weeks went a bit slowly as I tried to get my head round the changes requested by the readers of draft three.
Then I took a month off while my beta readers had a good look at that draft, and I had a first pass at something completely different with NaNoWriMo. Then, at last, draft five, which took another 2-3 months, although most of that was copy editing and proofreading. From end to end, it took me sixteen months – I’m hoping that the next one will go more quickly!