How to Edit Your Novel (Part 2)

I told you I was bad at keeping up with these.

For those of you who follow me on Twitter (not a plug) – you may have heard I have now finished my first novel, spat on it (not literally) and polished it until the sun could shine on its very pages.

You may also notice that there was a considerable gap between this piece of good news (that happened around about September 15th) and my last blog post (May 31st. MAY)


Editing is hard.

So let’s get stuck into part 2 of how to edit your novel, shall we?

macbook on a messy bed

If you read part one of how to edit your novel, you should be coming at your second attempt with a whole toolbox of help:

  • You’ve taken a break from your novel
  • You’ve identified scenes where you can’t find any of the following elements (or can find them, depending on whether it’s positive or negative…):
    • Sense of place
    • Conflict
    • Dialogue with a purpose
    • Slow sections
    • Repetitive sections

You should have also gotten a neat little folder of bigger edits that you want to attack, such as:

  • Character development
  • Foreshadowing
  • Language issues
  • Historical accuracy (if you’re writing historical fiction and assuming you want it to be as accurate as possible – I appreciate some of us will err more towards fiction than historical in that marriage)

So what do you do now?

yellow sticky notes

7. Separate the “oh sh*ts” from the “oh dears”

As you’re going through your reads of your novel (should be 2 by now, one on a kindle/e-reader and one on paper) you might have noticed some flaws cropping up.

What you should do is separate them into two piles. The “oh sh*t!’s” and the “oh no!’s”. This will help you prioritise. For example, in my novel:

High Priority Lower Priority
Character goal in chapter 2  disappears – she has a goal, but she stops fighting for it. The character uses contractions most of the time – and then switches to full speech. Make this more consistent
No reaction from X event in chapter 7 – need to add a reaction scene You’ve misspelt the word soldier literally every time you’ve used it
Ending feels too sudden – ensure there’s balance, word count wise, between climax and resolution vs Act I
Character Y too 2D – reflesh them

You’re going to hit the big ones first, and then come onto the little ones. (Or, if like me you begin losing the will to live, chop them up and take one of each every time. I find the prospect of a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit at the end of every big fix is a very good carrot, albeit much less healthy…)

8. Attack the problems in turn

I had a few big problems in my first draft. My villain was like he’d been ripped from a children’s TV show. Effectively he entered the scene, did the equivalent of a cackle, and then swept out again to perform evil misdeeds.

And that, my friends, is boring.

Now, I was smart in the beginning. I gave my villain the same goal as my main character. What I didn’t do is flesh out why he wanted it.

So I went back to the drawing board, and performed a few character exercises with him. I wrote a letter from him to the main character, trying to convince the MC to quit while they’re ahead. I wrote a bit of his backstory, did a scene of him growing up as a child.

I effectively did all that I’d done for my MC, at the beginning of the novel (which is why I cut three chapters, because I’d written them for me to get to know the character rather than for the reader.)

And then I scaled up his entrance and made it more impactful.

Take each of your big edits at a time. Do some research (there might be some stuff on here that might help you – or post in the comments if you’ve seen anything crop up I haven’t mentioned, chances are I’ve had it crop up too) and see what you can do to fix them.

Work your way through your list until you’re happy (or as happy as any author can be when they’re editing, which I feel is around 68.5%) and when you’re done (and big pat, because that can take a while) – move onto the next point.

In part 3, we’ll cover some tips for the following broader issues if you want some extra help:

  • Sense of place
  • Conflict
  • Dialogue with a purpose
  • Slow sections
  • Repetitive sections

9. Delete your prologue

I know this might seem extreme.

But bear with me.

I think you should do this for three reasons:

  1. There is nothing a prologue achieves that careful flashbacks/anachronous* elements can’t (*non-chronological)
  2. Agents hate them
  3. You’re asking your reader to start your book twice. That means two hooks, two awesome first lines, two drags into your story. And let’s be honest, chapter one is its own beast (coming in part 4) So it’s always better not to have to write two of them…

If anything, (3) should be enough to make any writer quiver in his boots. (We’ll cover editing the first chapter in part 4 in more detail, don’t worry).

But before you rebel mentally from this prospect, think about this for a second. What is your prologue achieving?

  • Is it giving a perspective from a character that won’t appear until much later in the book? In which case, why not drop them into a scene in chapter one as a scene cut, and then cut back?
  • Is it giving your character back story that would be better shown and not told?
  • Is it giving exposition? (If the answer to this is yes, delete it entirely!)
  • Is it setting up your world-building (fantasy novels in particular?) Could this be instead achieved with a G.R.R. Martin-Esque map? A family tree?

There are lots of far more awesome interesting ways to include the contents of your prologue into your story than by sectioning it off at the beginning. You could:

  • Have your character make hints towards it, making it a question that the reader will likely want to be answered (= keeps them reading = keeps you in agents’ and publishers’ good books)

For example, in my novel, the prologue was a scene whereby my protagonist, Marian, is being read a bedtime story by her father.

Now, this is pretty pivotal in the course of the story. Without it, a whole heap of other stuff doesn’t make any sense.

So this is the perfect excuse to have a prologue, right?

yellow and pink lighted x decor


Rather, this is the perfect opportunity to play with the chronology of my story. I include every single sentence that was written in my prologue throughout the first few chapters in my novel with:

  • Memories
  • Flashbacks
  • Obtuse references to it by other characters (Marian’s mother)

There is not a single detail I’ve missed.

So trust me, DELETE the prologue and have it find its home in your character’s memories, or in a map, or in an off-hand comment.

But I need my prologue so my readers know what’s going on!

I get it guys, I really do. But trust me – let’s attack this together. Firstly, boil your prologue down to the information it’s giving. Try and write this out into bullet points.

Now, highlight the ones that are necessary for:

  • Character development
  • Plot development

If you haven’t highlighted anything, then reconsider whether you need it.

Highlighted: Plot development

If you’ve highlighted a lot of ‘plot’ and not ‘character’, chances are your prologue is exposition. A great example of this is in Star Wars (although movies can get away with a lot more due to humans having roughly an hour and a half to consume them and the attention span of a gnat – myself included):

“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.
Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy….”
Now this could very easily be written as a prologue to set the scene of your novel. And it wouldn’t be a bad one, at that.
But let’s think about what’s key here:
  • The rebels have secured the plans for the death star in order to restore freedom to the galaxy

It, in effect, gives us a timeline of Leia’s actions before we find that she has been captured. If we were writing this as a novel, we could achieve this by writing in a choral format (whereby character’s timelines begin separately and become entwined as the story moves forward, eventually merging into the same timeline).

And that’s effectively what happens in the movie – we open with Leia getting captured.

Movies can get away with prologues (they have loud music and shiny light sabres)

Writers… not so much. And not for your first novel, anyway.

Highlighted: Character development

If you’ve highlighted a lot of character development – then think about how else you can include it.

Let’s say your prologue opens with your character falling from a cliff, sparking his fear of heights.

Why not:

  • Show us he’s afraid and drip feed us the why
  • Have a character go to talk about it, and have your MC refuse
  • Have two characters talk about it behind your MC’s back (in a non-exposition way, e.g NOT:

“Wow, John hasn’t been the same since he fell from that cliff an developed a crippling fear of heights. He definitely won’t agree to come hiking, because of said fear of heights. Which is a shame, given that I know you’re into him Jessica.”

More like:

“Did you ask John about–?”

“Saturday? No. Why would I? You know what the answer’ll be.”

Jessica crumpled her nose. The answer had been the same ever since last summer. “Fine – but we’ll have to get Cathy to come then. I’m not listening to you rabbit on for six hours.”

Check back for part 3 where we’ll cover off some editing tips for:

  • Ensuring there is a sense of place
  • Conflict
  • Dialogue with a purpose
  • Slow sections
  • Repetitive sections

And part 4 where we’ll cover:

  • Chapter One – the chapter you’ll edit the most

Part 5 will cover beta readers, how to choose them and how to collate and work on feedback and then we’ll move onto agent queries!

Until next time!

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