Rachael Blok took our 3-month novel-writing course in London back in 2016, and has gone on to get a publishing deal with Head of Zeus for the book she was working on with CBC: Under the Ice is just out and its publication date couldn’t be more apt: it’s an emotional crime-thriller set in the 12-day lead up to Christmas, when an idyllic Cathedral city is devastated by news of a young girl’s drowning.
Here Rachael shares her tips for editing your novel and tells us how reading other novels will help you with finishing your own …
Reading is an essential part of editing. It’s where you get to apply polish and make something shine. This doesn’t happen in isolation, however: the tools of writing are found in every great book. Joseph Epstein said that ‘Every writer is a thief’. I would disagree with the term ‘thief’ – you can’t steal a sentence, or a chapter, or a book. Copying falls flat – there’s no point. Your novel needs to be yours. Each sentence, each word needs to work to illuminate your characters and your plot. But understanding what you enjoy, when reading other writers’ work, can often help you figure out how to tell your story.
Know your characters. Find their hook.
I love to read novels where I feel like I know the characters. Really know them. In my favourite books I feel I could sit down in a pub and continue a conversation with them. That sense of familiarity, of being able to pick a character out of a crowd is something I strive for. Force of Nature, Jane Harper’s second novel, describes a character as having a ‘mean streak so sharp it could cut you’. Her character springs to life with one line and you have plot expectation too. Physical description of a character can often slow a plot down. The character description I like best is concise and illuminating: What does your character do that no one else can do? Why is your character worth writing about? I try to avoid describing hair colour or how tall a character is, unless it’s at the heart of the character, and the details feed the plot.
Prologues? It’s really up to you. You might be told to avoid them – but done well, I love them. Read, read and read again. Notice how prologues work, what tricks they play, what questions about the plot they raise; what expectations they set.
And in ‘Chapter One’, notice how novels begin. Do they start in the middle of the action? Do they begin with the introduction of a character? The first few lines of your novel are your reader’s first glimpse into your plot, so don’t waste them. Try to make sure that the opening to your novel cuts quickly into your story. Don’t waste words – make each one count.
When I did the 3-month CBC course, each of us had a tutorial with our tutor – mine was Louise Wener – and also a longer tutorial with CBC’s managing director, Anna Davis. I submitted my novel opening for Anna Davis’ tutorial, and she went over it with a fine tooth comb. I came away and deleted half of it. She talked about getting quickly into the action; about using description concisely. It was something Louise focused on too – the importance of any description maintaining the pace of the novel and not slowing it down. Your novel opening is your chance to introduce your reader to your writing style.
Remember that if your reader gets to the end of the first page and doesn’t turn it, you’ve lost them for good. Think about what makes you turn that first page every time you read a good book.
Tense and tone
Halfway through my first draft of Under the Ice, I stopped for a thorough re-read. I felt there was something missing in its tone, but I didn’t know what. I put it in a drawer for a week, picked up The Miniaturist by former CBC student Jessie Burton, and was completely engrossed by the immediacy of the tone. I loved it. When I went back to my novel, I re-wrote the whole thing in present tense and I felt it come alive.
That doesn’t mean to say that present tense will work for you. Some of my favourite novels are written in the past tense. Read other novels and see how the tools for writing are deftly used. You are always writing your own story. No one else can do it for you. Trial and error will get you there. Believe in it.
Underline your favourite phrases. Why do you like them? Notice how sentence length varies. Notice how characters speak to each other. Ask yourself how you are hooked into caring about characters. I firmly believe that understanding why you enjoy reading your favourite books will help you best tell your story.
It’s your story that matters most.
If you’re currently working on a novel, take a look at our selective entry novel-writing courses. Our spring 2019 courses are currently open for applications: Six-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Lisa O’Donnell or Six-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Laura Barnett.
Or, if you’re writing YA or children’s fiction why not take a look at our dedicated selective entry online course for Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson.
We also run three short online courses at budget-price designed to help writers at different stages of their novel-writing journey: Starting to Write Your Novel, Write to the End of Your Novel and Edit & Pitch Your Novel – all starting in January 2019.