The Structural Edit: First Draft Gets A Makeover

11:44 AM

I used to think that novelists were born, not taught. That magnificent words simply flowed into sublime sentences, the narrative flowing effortlessly. The author typed THE END, emailed it to their publisher who would say "Another brilliant novel!" and off it would go to the printers.

Then I met Kate Grenville. Kate is arguably one of Australia's finest writers. She is awarded and lauded and has produced some of this country's classic novels. But even the great Kate did fourteen drafts of her last book. Fourteen!

Hemingway rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times and Roald Dahl said "By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been re-read and altered and corrected at least 150 times."

I'm exhausted just reading that!

Of course, there's probably such a thing as too much rewriting, but the general consensus is that editing and revision are an essential part of the writing process.

So whilst my novel is written, it is a collection of 96,000 words in need of some attention. It's not just that its eyebrows are a little bushy and it could use some microdermobrasion to even up the skin tone. No. It's also a bit like a Mr Potato Head, but with the lips in the ear hole, the eyes in the hat hole and the ears have rolled under the couch somewhere.

In draft form, the novel is unsuitable for outside eyes. You would discover my dreadful overuse of the word 'lovely' or that someone's mother was a blonde sixty year old golfer in the first chapter who'd morphed into a flame-haired ex-hippie in the tenth.

Showing you the first draft would be like Angelina Jolie taking you into her bathroom and showing you the glob of hair in the shower drain and toothpaste splatter on the mirror. Nobody wants to see that. It's enough to know that Angelina Jolie sheds hair like a labrador and splatters tooth spit like the rest of us. Probably. Okay, maybe not. But stay with me on this . . . . We really only want to see the shiny, glamourous Angelina.

So how do I get from spitty Angelina-draft to sparkly Angelina-novel?

I'm nervous. I'm worried. I'm mildly terrified. What if I can't edit? What if I read it and it's a complete load of bollocks? What if I can't think of another word for 'lovely'???

Fortunately, I have mentor Meredith and her Most Excellent Editing Method to keep me on track.

First up was the read-through, done in as short a time as possible to give me an overall sense of the novel as a whole. This, of course, required a trip to Officeworks for a sexy new green pen and notebook, and many pots of tea at 5am in order to keep me hydrated (and awake!)

I used my green pen to slash and add notes, and the notebook to keep track of the outlines of new bits I wanted to add. Then there was the timeline. It was clear on first read-through that my timing was all over the shop. Because my characters travel to Far North Queensland, I really needed to keep tabs on what time of year they would be there because the weather, and therefore their activities, would vary with the seasons. You can't swim in the jellyfish infested tropical waters in summer for example.

I also wrote little scenes and ideas on post-it notes, colour coded by character, that I can insert/change/reinsert into the story at the relevant points. This did, of course, entail another crucial trip to Officeworks where I may or may not have road-tested artline pens and purchased additional notebooks. JUST IN CASE.

All this procrasti-shopping at Officeworks was not enough to get the edit done though. No. For that, there must be work, and lots of it.

So now I'm back on the keyboard, diving into the novel to make all the amendments from my notes. I'm writing new bits, fleshing out back story, changing chapters around and guess what? I'm loving it!

Yes, there have been moments of desperate texting to Meredith " I CAN'T WRITE. I WILL NEVER WRITE AGAIN" followed by her gentle replies of "Of course you can write. Because you know, like every other ‘real’ writer on the planet, that the writing is in the rewriting. Plough on my love, plough on."

And so I have, and I am, and there is forward motion.

Thanks to all of you who've decided to join me on the journey by Liking my Facebook page. It feels good to know that I have company on this make-or-break campaign of creative expression.


PS. Here are some links to resources on editing I've found useful . . .

Writing A Book: What Happens After The First Draft?

What to edit in first draft, or how to write second draft

How Chuck Wendig Edits A Novel (warning: Chuck has a potty mouth. Hilarious & useful but definitely explicit)

For your ears: Podcast - So You Want To Be A Writer: Interview with Managing Editor of Penguin Random House Brandon VanOver

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  1. Hi Michelle,

    It is nice to know that there are others out there that suffer or suffered from the same issues that I do. Particularly the Officeworks procrastination. I believe I am expert level at this, and it's, well, stationary. You can never have too much stationary. However, at some point you have to sit your butt down in the chair and get the work done. This is my post Christmas goal. Thanks for the advice and I wish you a wonderful Christmas.


    1. Thanks for your lovely comment Debbi. I agree you can never have enough stationery but yes, the work needs to be done and all the gorgeous pens in the world won't write the words by themselves :) Wishing you a fabulous productive new year!
      Michelle x