The process of editing a novel (a.k.a the hardest yet most rewarding thing you can do as a writer)

The draft novel is finished. What now?

Almost two years ago, I wrote a post explaining how I took zero words and managed to produce the first draft of a novel.

I spent my entire life aspiring to do this almost impossible thing. Life is busy, hectic, full of responsibilities and serious stuff going on–but I did it, and, blimey, it was hard.

I had always intended to follow that article up with the rest of the process, from first draft to finished book.

To say that I was clueless would be an understatement.

This article attempts to explain what that journey was like. It might help you, I don’t know. I’m not pretending to be an expert, these are just my views. Everyone is different, but I experienced highs and lows and my learning never stopped, so I thought I would share my adventure with you.

Celebrate. But not much. The draft may have taken ages, but it is just the start.

At the finish line? No, it’s just the start of a new adventure.

Lesson one: Get yourself an editor

Is it possible to release a novel without an editor?

Yes, sure, but you would have to be incredibly skilled. I have seen a couple of excellent examples, but I think these are rare and the individuals concerned were supremely talented.

Getting an editor is the best decision you will make. This is a hard journey. You’ll need a strong ally, a friend, a person that will fight as hard as you will to make your vision a reality.

My process was very challenging, and I feel for Emily as we had to contend not only with the novel and my inexperience, but also with the unusual layout, and the logistics of time-zones and technology. She never gave up. I never gave up.

She saw it as much her project as it was my own. If I gave up, I had a feeling that she would travel across the globe and stalk me until I finished it.

That’s what a great editor will do for you. Emily June Street is a great editor.

Lesson two: Editing has layers and they are many and varied

The first level of feedback will give you a sense of the entire novel. Where are the strengths? Do you have a cohesive and clear plot?–Despite lots of work, I didn’t. How is the beginning? How strong is the character development? What is the outcome? Does the book fit into a genre and tick the expectations of the readers of that genre?

You could ask these questions of yourself, but it’s not easy to judge your driving style when you’re sat in with a limited view behind the steering wheel.

Points for style, but are you driving the wrong way?

You could ask others. I probably should have done more of this, but it’s something to do at the end, in the beta reading phase, or gaining advanced reviews before publication. The people you ask will be friendly, helpful and they’ll want you to succeed. This is, perhaps, not always what you need.

An editor, on the other hand might give you a friendly, but firm, kick up the backside, then make you a cup of tea and give you a chocolate biscuit. This is a time of though love. You don’t need nice comments. You need to know if a character needs to be reworked. You need to know if your settings are a bit ‘meh’. You need to know, independently, how you get from where you are now to where you are capable of being.

Tea and biscuits to sooth you. Or, coffee ‘n’ donuts if you’re a US cop.

I didn’t know what I was doing. My editor knew exactly where the weaknesses were.

Did my editor change my book for the better? Incredibly so.

Did she try to get me to think about the genre direction? Yes, but I wanted to write my own book and not necessarily conform to a set genre with firm rules (my first book was important to me and I didn’t really care much about ticking genre boxes). If sales, recognition and awards are important to you, then you’ll need an editor even more as the genre expectations will be key in everything. Emily respected and fully supported my desire to do something I was passionate about and she made it the best book it could be.

Further layers of editing will help with the structure, flow, bringing characters to life and sorting out spelling and grammatical errors (in a big book expect to go through this several times and still miss things, as even big publishers with teams of people don’t get it right all the time).

Is genre important to you?

How long do you need?

This depends on the availability of your editor. The level of feedback. Your time. Your perseverance and ability to dust yourself down and keep going even when the journey seems impossible. Somewhere between three and six months, as a minimum, would be reasonable for most people.

Lesson three: Book covers

I am blessed that Tamara Rogers (not only a brilliant author and amazing person, but a visionary artist) was able to design my cover.

Invest in a great cover. Of course, choosing a cover that fits with your genre (challenging for me–as I didn’t fit firmly into the Fantasy genre), is super important as it will help you to attract buyers. However, it’s just as much about how you feel when you get that physical book in your hands.

I cried when I saw my cover. It was like the realisation of a dream.

Don’t leave it to chance.

Metropolitan Dreams wrap cover – alternative version

Lesson four: Blurbs, reviews and marketing

Going right back to the start, making the right decisions early on will help you significantly later.

If you’re firmly in a genre, then getting advanced copies for review to readers of that genre is vitally important. Ensure that your schedule (yes, you’ll need one,) to publication allows enough time to create Advanced Reader Copies (ARC’s), sufficient time for them to be reviewed, and enough time for you to do something with these pieces of gold dust.

Likewise, you can send your book for review at magazines and blogs, but expect a long delay in some places.

You can attend conferences and events. This can help with learning from others or building contacts. I have never done this, but others have used it to great effect.

Learn from others. I am in awe of what Margaret Locke has done, it’s simply incredible and she is a the very high benchmark for me as to what can be achieved.

You can invest in marketing. This comes in various forms. Through websites, blogs or e-mail promotions – these can be time-consuming and will need to be carefully managed and timed, but they can have incredible results. You could also opt for Amazon marketing, which allows you to target adverts based on keywords–this is good for many people as it allows full control on spend per day and can be stopped, copied and restarted reasonably easily. Liz Hedgecock has done some great things in this area.

Selling books is much like selling cars. You need determination, technique, guts and a snazzy suit.

Lesson five: have a good support network

I am blessed in many ways as I have a great mentor in Tamara Shoemaker (who never asked for the role 🙂 ). A prolific author and master editor, she is also highly supportive, smart, kind, generous, knowledgeable and witty.

I also have an extended online family full of talented and amazing people, in the FlashDogs community.

Get involved in groups. I’ve not been very fortunate with writing groups apart from the virtual ones, but there are plenty, like the Poised Pen, that can greatly help you on your journey.

Flashing all over the world 🙂

Lesson six: have a break?

For me, I still needed to spend time at work and with family. I had a lot of commitments and not much time. I didn’t want to look back and know that I had jumped from one almost impossible project to another without being fully ready for it.

I needed time to think about the next project. I needed distance from it and to listen to some of the feedback (which was wonderful, positive and consistent).

For me, a break was vital. For others it might be a loss of momentum. I think this largely depends on how much time you have for writing. I was emotionally and physically drained and needed a break.

Final lesson: sales aren’t everything

If you consider self-publishing to be your full time job, then of course the title of this section is completely wrong. I feel for you, it must be hard, and I hope things are going well.

Even if you have a significant amount of time available, the chances of making much money from fiction writing are limited. This is a harsh statement, I know, but it’s a fair reflection for most people.

If you go down the traditional publishing route, this will take time (a lot of time), you might be successful in finding an agent and/or publisher (a number of  FlashDogs have). Many have reported that this was also a highly challenging experience for them. Even if you get a contract, there will still be a lot of work, and perhaps, not much financial reward.

Of course, for a tiny few, the rewords are significant. However, I knew a few ‘best selling’ authors that still have to work more or less full time to supplement their income.

For self-publishing people, again, this can be a route to high success in terms of sales. However, even with talent, incredible hard-work and dedication, the outlook is far from guaranteed.

Know what it is that you want from your work and focus your efforts on that, but if it is sales alone, then be prepared that much of this is outside your control and it might take significant investment to help build initial success. Even with initial success, it is still hard work, writing more books, promoting, growing networks and interacting with readers.

For me, holding that book in my hands was magic enough.

Knowing that a part of me would live on, and with it, a dedication to my mum, was sufficient reward.

For me, the feedback I got from reviewers who didn’t know me and people that did (and would happily have told me the brutal truth) was truly more important than any money in the world.

So, even if buying that new car or house isn’t possible, even if buying that sandwich is hard, sit back, look at that book on your shelf and think “I did what many people only dream of” and feel proud, you have done something truly amazing.

Metro Dreams taking pride of place in the amazing Norfolk and Norfolk Millennium Library.
Somewhere here my novel rest within the UNESCO City of Literature library (Norwich)
A piece of me is forever here (unless it’s being borrowed, of course 🙂 )

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