Writing a novel is a long and epic journey. It might start with an idea knocking on your door, like all the visitors arriving in The Hobbit. Characters taking up residence in your head. It could be something very small, a word, a scrap of colour, a picture. Whatever it is, it sets you off on your journey of a hundred thousand words and more. And, like truly epic quests, a novel is the kind of journey that gets longer and longer as you go on. You may think you’re climbing the crest of the final hill, but then you get over it and see the curves of the twenty other ones you have to climb. Writing your first book in particular feels like this, like you can’t even see how far you have to go until you’ve already climbed for miles. You thought the first draft was great. Then you realised it wasn’t. You wrote away, digging your pen in like an alpenstock. You thought the next draft was finished. Then you realised you’d only begun to learn to write. And so on.
A few people have asked me recently what actually happens when you get edited. For me, I’ve been getting general feedback about what isn’t working so well in the book (could be entire characters, could be scenes, could be the whole plot…) and then it’s up to me to figure out how to fix it. These are big structural and thematic issues. Like if you built a house and forgot to put in a staircase (eg, ‘I don’t think Bob would really become a crazed puppy-killer in the final third of the book. Can you make his arc of motivation clearer throughout?’) Next it’s the fixtures and fittings – why have you mentioned people sweating twenty times in a row? (I really have done this – what’s wrong with me?) The repetitions, the timeline errors, the bit where you mixed up the character’s names. Writing a book is such manual labour it’s all too easy to reach for the same phrases again and again, especially once you’ve knocked down walls and taken the parts for scrap. My characters all do far too much shrugging, nodding, and sighing, for example. We haven’t got to the final stage yet, which I imagine will be something like putting in the carpet and screwing the number onto the front door.
So having rounded many hills, fought through the valley of the first draft, conquered the valley of first edits, I now find another ascent – the second edit cliff-face. And I know there will be more after this. Copy-edit crevasse. Final tweaks tor. I think there might be no such thing as a perfect novel (is that what poetry’s for?) There will always, always be a word you could have changed. Perhaps it’s as the quote goes: art is never finished, only abandoned. I don’t know if this book is art exactly but I’m quite keen to abandon it right now! Also like in quest stories, there’ll be many points you want to give up. You’ll hate and despise the book you loved to death at the start. You’ll think you can’t do it. But every single person who ever wrote a book has been this way too. If you look closely, you might find the marks that show you the way.