The Long Road to a Novel – Part 6 – Cutting Free

Cut trees

Making the difficult cuts to hone and refine your novel. How to approach it? Editing on paper or on screen? When and how to use feedback? When are you actually finished? These are just some of the issues I’ll be tackling in this post on completing a novel. So welcome, or welcome back to this blog series reflecting on my experience of writing The Art Trip!

The story so far

In the previous post, which I rather grandly titled ‘The Flowing Stream’, I’d completed my first draft and was taking a well-earned break. After six or so months of writing, 120,000 hard-won words were sitting undisturbed as a set of chapter documents on my laptop, whilst I was away basking in a small sense of achievement, doing anything but look at them.

The search for a new job was occupying a lot of my time, and around that I took the odd trip when I could, caught up on reading, and even dabbled with a little screenwriting to see what that was all about.

I planned to take about a month off from The Art Trip, and for a while, that time was vaguely reminiscent of the long summer holidays I remember from childhood. A month was long enough to feel almost boundless at the beginning, but (as I also remember from those long summer holidays) from about the halfway point, I could feel the end looming. The time would come when I’d have to open up my folders, begin to re-write, then edit. Unfortunately that Hemingway quote ‘the only kind of writing is re-writing’ is inescapable. As you can probably tell, I didn’t relish the prospect.

If writing the first draft is the part of the novel-creating process I most enjoy, the re-writing and editing is the part I find most challenging . So, as I embark on what I hope will be my second published novel, I want to take lessons from my experience wherever I can. This is certainly a place where there are lessons there for me to learn, and I thought I’d share my reflections too. If you’re a fellow writer or creator, whilst I can’t offer expert advice, my experience might throw up the odd thought for you on how to approach this phase of revision and refinement, and if it does, I’ll be glad. I don’t expect that taking a novel from draft to final manuscript will ever be a walk in the park, but perhaps it doesn’t need to be quite such a dark and daunting forest!

Clearing up my mess

You might have read in my earlier post that during my first draft, I chose momentum over perfection. I tried to write well, but quickly, and if something was a little too tricky to solve there and then, I’d often park it for later. I did wrestle my plot down to a cohesive story-line, with properly connecting chapters, and I filled in most research gaps along the way, but that still left quite a few issues, sitting there quietly among my seemingly neat, typed chapters. Quite a few, oh yes, and when the day came for me to start to re-read my draft, a lot more than I remembered. There was a price to pay for all the fun I had during those free-flowing months of writing and when I saw all the little messes I’d left, any sense of achievement was forgotten. It was down to me to clear up!

Where to start? I gave myself a goal, as I did when writing, to put a little helpful pressure on myself to keep up progress. I thought a couple of months might do it. Well, that turned out to be highly optimistic. Anyway, I began logically, at chapter one, and with one of my favourite writing tips, reading out loud. I renamed the chapter ‘Draft 2’ and started reading away to myself. Fortunately, being between jobs, I was often at home alone! Before I’d spent half a day reading and tinkering with the first pages on my laptop, I realized that approach wasn’t working for me. It was painfully slow and I was getting bogged down. I was trying to spot issues and solve them at the same time. What I really felt I wanted to do was read more naturally, more quickly, as a reader would, marking the issues to come back to.

It’d be much easier on paper. A trip to the office superstore and a long afternoon of printing ensued, sitting on the floor of my spare room, coaxing my poor little printer through chapter after chapter as it got hotter and more temperamental. At some point after dark, the collective efforts of my printer and I had produced a great, warm stack of words that weighed a few kilos. A novel is a pretty intimidating sight when you print it out double-spaced! Promising to recycle it at some point in the future, I took the stack to cool off in my living room, where it took up residence beside my sofa for a period of some weeks.

I began to read again, and this time to scribble too. Just as I find it easiest to write by hand, then, I find it easiest to edit by hand. A good old red pen, or purple, or anything but black works for me. Anything that stands out from the text a mile off and shouts ‘fix me!’. I read away, circled issues, crossed-out and sometimes noted little additional ideas as I went. I didn’t know the proper editing symbols yet (note to self, I still don’t), so I just used what made sense to me. This sofa based, reading part of the edit wasn’t all that bad, I began to feel, as the ‘read’ pile grew larger, and the ‘to read’ grew smaller. With a mug of tea in hand, it was quite civilized. In a funny way, I began to forget that I’d written what I was writing. I’d tut at mistakes, laugh at unfortunate typos, and sometimes just wonder what the heck I meant.

That sense of distance was a very good thing, and it’s what my month away had given me. A month was just long enough to forget what exactly I’d meant to write, leaving me free to see what I actually had written, and whether it worked when I put myself in the reader’s place. When I reached the bottom of the stack of chapters, although there were plenty of issues to address, overall I wasn’t dispirited. The passages I’d felt flow freely from my pen flowed for me as a reader too. My characters came to life as I’d wanted, and I liked their interactions. Where I’d written something funny, I didn’t laugh out loud (unless it was one of those unfortunate typos!), but I did smile to myself. Editing was going to be painful, but it would be worth it, perseverance might pay off. I took my chapters, now covered in red ink, returned to my laptop and re-wrote, tackling issues as I went.

The re-writes

For me, re-writing and editing are not so separate, I see them both as part of a longer continuum of refining and improving my work. I went on to work through my story several times, initially filling and smoothing any patchy parts, then later addressing smaller points with a finer and finer touch.

It’s a little tricky now to remember the exact improvements I made with each successive draft. The Art Trip went through about five iterations, I think. I’m not exactly sure, because it’s also a circular process for me. In the later iterations, some chapters hardly changed at all, whilst others were still evolving. Probably the last two or three versions of the overall novel were each intended to be the final. If I check in my folders, they’ll be named with increasing vehemence things like ‘final’, ‘FINAL’ and ‘FINAL FINAL’!

Whilst I think this is probably a fairly natural approach to editing, and one that makes sense in a lot of ways, circling back to fix smaller and smaller issues each time did induce a kind of dizziness! It felt a little like claiming a spiral staircase, narrowing towards the top. If you have read, or go on to read The Art Trip, you might notice that my character Ken experiences a similar feeling as he ascends the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome! Even though I was devoting an awful lot of time to it, I found myself still in the midst of this editing spiral with my original two month goal well behind me. I was keeping notes, and was careful with version control, but it got a bit difficult to keep my bearings sometimes, on what I’d solved and what was still to do. Sometimes, in solving one issue, I’d create another later in the story or have to rework a chapter I thought I’d already locked down. That could get me down, especially when month three came and went.

Being brutal

What pulled me out of this spiral and helped me bring my editing to a close? The first thing I credit is a bad mood that led to a certain degree of brutality! I knew that in my first draft I had material to spare, and with each successive iteration I reduced the length. It happened quite naturally, by making sentences more concise, by cutting a paragraph here and there if it didn’t really develop the action. That was positive, but it wasn’t helping me with a few issues that kept tripping me up, consistently, each time I ran through my work.

There were certain thorny chapters that just ate up editing time, so much so that I almost dreaded coming to them next time round and getting ensnared again. They were chapters that had been in my mind from the earliest days of developing The Art Trip. They contained scenes that had caught my imagination and featured in my plot outlines from the outset. The problem was, when I came to read those scenes, what I’d written felt too flat. Each time I re-wrote them, they were different but not exactly better. Writing a romantic comedy, it was especially important to me that my story didn’t drag, but felt light and entertaining throughout. One particular example of a problem chapter was set in the Sistine Chapel. I couldn’t work out what exactly my characters should say and do there. I’d had some fun describing the place, all the tourists, the school group’s reactions to the wonderful spectacle of Michelangelo’s ceiling and so on – it was nice, but it was too bland.

One day, deep into what was probably the third or fourth edit, coming to this chapter again I got little bit mad – with the chapter and with myself. I couldn’t face re-working it again, and I still didn’t like it, so I swore a bit and moved it swiftly to the folder on my laptop marked ‘Scrap’. My mood quickly improved, because a strange thing happened next. I began work on the subsequent chapter, and realized it flowed just fine from where the story had left off. The plot connected, nothing was missing. I couldn’t work out what my characters should say or do in the Sistine Chapel because there wasn’t really anything they needed to say or do there. I’d written that chapter because I wanted to write about that location, but in the end, I’d been confusing a novel with a guidebook.

Scrapping that chapter felt good, surprisingly good – a whole lot better than wrestling with it. I didn’t care about the time I’d spent labouring over it, I was simply happy that my story now flowed as I wanted. Feeling liberated, I was quick to take the same approach to the other boggy chapters. A gleeful spree of cutting ensued! In the end, I removed two more chapters and spliced a further two together. Each time, once I’d taken the decision to cut, I found it not only painless but positively pleasant. Whilst I may not be tidy, it turns out I do rather enjoy throwing things away! (When I can, of course, I enjoy recycling far more and I don’t delete my ‘Scrap’ files in case they come in handy somewhere else. Who knows, some little cutting could even be the seedling of another new story, but if they don’t, they don’t.) So that’s one big thing I’ve learned from The Art Trip. No single chapter or passage, however much I love it, should be safe. They all have to do a job, and earn their place in the story.

Trusted readers

The other thing that helped to pull me out of my editing spiral was seeking some outside perspectives. Certainly by the time I was on my third edit, I was beginning to feel so wrapped up in the detail of my writing and style, that it was getting difficult for me to see what else needed work. I couldn’t get the distance I’d had after that month away. I decided it was time for another month away, then, but this time, I wanted to use that month to move things forward.

If I needed to understand the impression my lead characters might make on my readers from the first few chapters, I should bite the bullet and find some readers. Sharing work is never easy, especially early on when what I’ve created isn’t fully grown and still feels vulnerable, so at this stage I only approached a small number of people I really trust.

I asked a few of my family and friends to help me, all people who are avid readers, or even writers themselves, who’d shown an interest in my work. I knew their opinions would be constructive and supportive, perhaps not the toughest readers I could get, but people who’d want the best for me and my work, so wouldn’t shy away from pointing out things I could improve. They were a fairly diverse group too, some who might be my target audience, but others who definitely weren’t, who might bring a cooler eye to my work.

I wondered about sharing the full draft as it stood, but in the end, rightly or wrongly, I shared just the first few chapters. I felt if I could gauge their reactions to those, I could apply what I learned to the rest of the novel. I most wanted feedback on the first impressions my main characters Beverley, Ken and Jessica made, to check that in editing they hadn’t lost their essence or charm. I also wanted to know if my writing did really flow for readers.

Very kindly, they each took the time to read my chapters and share feedback with me, and what I learned from each them was of great value. By the way, should any of that trusted group read this post – I should pause here to say thank you again!

There were a range of opinions, with some of my early readers saying my book was a page-turner, and others wanting my writing to be leaner, so they could get into the story more quickly. I took that away as something I could improve.

One of my lead characters, Beverley, I heard, took a little longer to get to know and warm to. Seeing a little more of her humour and a few more hints at her backstory might help the reader to engage with her quickly and more deeply.

With these points and others, I had the impetus I needed to edit again, with the benefit of a month away and some wholly fresh perspectives.

The editing process

By the time I reached this stage in my self-editing process, I’d found a new job. It came with a rather long train commute, and I thought it’d be good to use the time constructively. For the next run-through I downloaded my draft manuscript onto a Kindle and tried editing it live on the train.

It worked, sort of, but let’s just say that just as the British railway network isn’t always reliable, it isn’t always smooth either! I’d be trying to correct a typo and just then, the train would rattle over a set of points and I’d delete a whole paragraph or worse, fall foul of auto-correct! I had a horror of my novel being peppered with ridiculous errors! I didn’t have any major disasters, and my document was saved elsewhere, but I didn’t want to lose a chunk or mess up my painstaking editing so far. I think it’d have worked well at an earlier stage, but for the kind of fine-tuning I was doing, it wasn’t ideal.

Since I’d already decided to self-publish The Art Trip via Amazon KDP, I decided in the end that the easiest thing would be to turn my document into a formatted manuscript using the KDP guidelines, have it printed as a pre-publication author’s copy, and carry that around for my final fine edit.

The formatting took some time, but it was time I’d have had to spend later, and it also made me begin to think about a cover earlier than I might have, which was was no bad thing. When my draft printed paperback arrived, it was quite a lovely moment, and for a final edit, it worked a treat! I could read and scribble away on the train looking like a mildly eccentric commuter with a passion for red ink. I read my novel that way, in book form, then worked through it again on my laptop. That, at last, was to be my final version.

Finishing my novel

I don’t know exactly what I’d expected on finishing my novel. Certainly no chequered flag or breaking ribbon, but a bigger sense of achievement, probably, and relief, maybe. I’d finished two novels before, and each time felt they weren’t quite what I’d hoped they’d be. They remain unpublished, lying in a drawer, perhaps to be revisited in the future, or perhaps not. I wasn’t surprised that I’d missed that sense of satisfaction on completing those earlier novels, because I wasn’t entirely satisfied with them. With The Art Trip, though, I thought I’d made about as good a job of it as I could. Still, there were no fanfares or peals of bells. Perhaps I should get a bell for next time? But when would I actually ring it?

Let me say now that when I began to write this blog series I thought there might be seven posts. Seven would have been a nice round number, wouldn’t it? The last one would have covered finishing my novel – how I felt, my overall reflections – the grand finale, if you like. Well there isn’t a seventh and final post, because it wasn’t like that. When I really think about it, this is where things ended. Taking what I learned from editing The Art Trip, that seventh post wouldn’t really earn its place in the story. So this is it!

For me, there isn’t really such a thing as finishing a novel, there’s only the point where I decide I can stop work on it. At the end of The Art Trip, there was no writing the final line, adding a full stop and sitting back in my chair with a stretch and a sigh. The editing process just went on until I felt it was all right to stop. Really, it petered out gradually, as the issues I fixed got smaller and smaller in turn until I realized that what I was doing was really proof-reading. Rather than reaching an end, it was a case of knowing when to stop. I felt pleased, satisfied I’d done my best and also rather tired and slightly apprehensive for what lay ahead!

There remained, of course, the business of preparing to publish and publishing my own novel, all the ins and outs of being an indie author. I might come back in the future and write a series on why I chose that route and what I’ve learned about self-publishing, but for now I feel I’m still very much in that learning phase. It’ll take a little more experience and distance, I think, before I can work out exactly what I’ve done well and less well there. The main thing for me is that my book is out there for people to read, and, after everything, I am proud of it!

The next chapter

Right now, I’m focused on taking all the lessons I’ve learned from The Art Trip, and applying them to my next novel. It’ll be another romcom, I think I’ve found my genre here, the one that best suits my kind of writer’s voice. I have the idea and an outline plot which I still need to strengthen and test. In spare moments, I’m filling my notebook with notes on my characters and ideas for scenes, and I still need to do proper research into my settings and the backdrop of my story. I won’t say too much more for now, but I’ll share some updates here if you want to follow my progress! So, after one story comes another. Writing goes on. The long road just continues, but I’m so looking forward to travelling it!

The Art Trip

If you’ve enjoyed my posts on writing The Art Trip, and would like to check out the novel itself, that’d be lovely! You can read a free sample here. It’s available on Amazon in paperback and ebook, and included in Kindle Unlimited. I’d love to hear what you think!

Lisa Graham The Art Trip St Peter's Cupola

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