We’ve been renovating a 100+ year old house now for more than 18 months, and I’ve edited quite a few manuscripts in my time (having been an editor before becoming a career writer) and if there’s one thing I can say definitively, it’s that editing a novel and renovating a house are the same beasts. There are different stages to editing and they have to go in this order, or you’re setting yourself up for a world of hurt and re-work down the track. Want to know how to edit a novel? Think like a renovator.
Oh, how I enjoyed this part of renovating our house. Bulldozing. Jackhammering. Tearing down. Knocking down. Ripping up. Throwing out. Fun, fun, fun. We had to remove the toxic waste (asbestos). We had to tear down a significant extension on the house that was teeming with live termites. We had to cut down enormous trees that were touching the house, smothering it and threatening its very survival. Hey, I am a tree hugger; I have difficulty removing weeds. But if they’re in the wrong place and are threatening the entire building they have to go. So too does the useless, poisonous, distracting stuff in your novel. The plots that go no where. The characters that don’t belong there. The pages of useless stuff that slows your plot down to a girding halt. Get rid of it. “Cut your darlings.”
This stuff is huge. This is where you ask the really tough questions: what am I trying to achieve here? Where do I want this to go? What style of project is this? Who is my reader (buyer)? This is the stuff that will make you cry with sheer frustration and jump in the air with elation when you get it right. And far, FAR too many writers skip this and jump to the next stage. But this is where the money is!!!
After the demolition came the urgent structural improvements. The big one for us was to re-stump, a task I once thought was a simple matter, but in fact turned out to be a really trying exercise. The stumps that were there were termite ridden and rotten and the whole house was slumping. We had to get council approval and that meant we had to… wait for it… draw up plans!!! (Do you see where this is going?) What was currently on the house and what did we intend to replace? What material were we going to use (wood, cement, steel)? And the answers to these questions meant we needed an engineer (an expert) to give guidance on how to proceed.
Now, hopefully, your novel isn’t in as much danger as our house was but, even so, it’s fantastic to get an expert, an outside eye, to step into your project and offer some wisdom to make sure you’re going in the right direction and not making things worse for yourself down the track. This is where you need your beta readers–your trusted advisors. (But do tell them to ignore the obvious spelling etc. and spend their valuable time on the big stuff. That’s what you need.)
Having taken care of the must-do structural renovation (and we couldn’t do ANYTHING else to the house until that was done because EVERYTHING else depended on having a level, stable base to work from), we moved on to the fun structural improvements. We’d previously demolished the front stairs (also termite ridden) and built new ones. We pulled out an entire load-bearing wall and put in a load-bearing beam. And then we did another one. We put in new doors. We built in wall where previously there wasn’t wall. We chased the leaks in the roof and plugged them.
All of these types of things can be done in your structural edit and there isn’t a lot of point proceeded to the next stage. There’s no point painting walls if you’re only going to tear them down.
This level of renovation is equivalent to the copy edit stage of your manuscript.
Most of the really hard yakka is done at this point and you won’t need quite as many chocolate runs, coffee or cold beers at the end of the day. This is where we put in a brand new kitchen. Ta da!! Gorgeous. A chandelier. Ka-ching! Polished floorboards. Painted walls. Re-wired the house. Put in an air conditioner.
All these things make it easier to live in the house, which is precisely what you’re doing in the copy edit. You’re finding sentences that could be prettier and making them so. You’re sanding back the excess words and letting the real beauty shine. Everything flows from one area to the next. You’re grammar is straight, tidy and enticing.
This is like proofreading. (We aren’t here yet in our house renovation; we’re still working through the cosmetic renovations.) This is like when you’ve got people coming over for dinner, or you want to sell the house. You’re mowing, cleaning, tidying, fluffing and styling. The proofread is your final sweep, your last chance before your visitors arrive to make sure your place is looking its best and nothing’s going to embarrass you (no hidden mould or hair caught in the sink trap).
To summarise, there is no point putting flowers on your kitchen bench if you don’t even have one! Make sure you’re editing your novel in the right order. Do the hard work first, the one that will cause you the most sweat, agony and tears and have you saying that you will never, ever do this again for as long as you live. And work your way through to the fun, pretty stuff.