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Editing your novel: Lisa O'Donnell on cutting and crafting

BY Lisa O'Donnell
29th Jun 2017

The biggest fib we writers tell ourselves is that we don’t know what’s wrong with our book. We always know. If I asked you to list five things you could work on in your manuscript, or areas you should develop, chances are that’s where you should begin to edit your novel. Some people come to the online writing courses I teach at Curtis Brown Creative with great ideas and perhaps a few opening chapters. In tutorials and workshops we hammer out those opening chapters and write towards the story. And then we have students who have a first draft already, but who've come to CBC looking to craft it, and give it more definition and shape. It doesn’t matter what you have at the beginning of the course because, by the time the course ends, you will have purpose and direction. Back in the days when I was writing my first novel, it took me over a decade to feel direction, to know its purpose and possess a first draft I could send out, and what I love about Curtis Brown Creative is that our students get there a little faster than I did. Editing is what I harp on about most in class. It’s obviously a huge part of being a writer, but so is writing your novel, so what comes first? Do you edit as you go or do you hammer out 100,000 words of story and hope for the best? Answer. You do what you need to reach your story. No crime has been committed if you smash out the first draft without a single change, as long as you understand that you will be required to return to page one at some point because literary surgery is a fact of our monstrous lives. It has taken me four years to finish my third novel and I’m still on my second edit. These days I’m a writer who edits as she goes, but it wasn’t always like that. My debut The Death of Bees took nine months to hammer out, but it took 18 months to edit. The truth is you change as a novelist and so does your process. In time I discovered I need to feel my novel before I can truly begin, and now I'll labour for months on an opening because I know that novel will be my skin until it’s completed. When I edit, the first thing I look to remove is description and unnecessary dialogue. Example. I edited a passage about a housing estate (and the echoing in the stairwells and how it smelled and a broken lift and the crusting of walls) because it had no purpose. It was vivid and I was sad to be parted from it, but my story isn’t in a housing estate stairwell and my character was merely passing through, so why labour on it? It said nothing about her, the story or who she was visiting, so what did my stairwell mean? Nothing sadly. I’m a writer who visited a stairwell that impacted on her once. It had to go and so the editing reaper I've become condemned it to the Prose Graveyard where dead text is lost, but not forgotten. The rule for me when it comes to the description is simple. If it has meaning to character and story it stays; if it has purpose, it stays. But if it’s simply me meandering about social housing and adds nothing to the narrative, then the scythe comes out and I’m quite ruthless. You have to be because your loyalty belongs to your novel and anything that mutes your story must be buried. I get to work with all kinds of talent from all over the world in my job – we have an incredibly flexible schedule on our online writing courses – but editing and finding or defining your story is what I do best, and it’s what you will do best once you leave the course. My favourite student is the one who knows editing is their friend, feedback is their angel and without pity will become the monster at the end of their own book – destroying what you must, to save what you came to write. Our three- and six-month online novel-writing courses offer dedicated modules on editing your novel, writing a synopsis and preparing a covering letter to agents - as well as expert teaching from published authors like Lisa O'Donnell. If you have completed your first draft and you're looking for help polishing your novel and preparing a compelling pitch package ready to send out to agents and publishers, check out our Edit & Pitch Your Novel 6-week online course.Find out more about our current courses via our creative writing courses page.