Arrogance alert: I am about to lecture you on ways to make a bad novel better. This is done based on the feedback received from one person (albeit a fairly important person; to whit, my editor) about one novel. He was very positive about the work I’ve previously referred to in these pages as my problem child (see also here).
Based on this slimmest of evidence I therefore feel it appropriate to share a few of the techniques I’ve used to lick my red-headed stepchild into shape. All of the below are things that I’ve done in the chasm between first and finished drafts.
- Take your time. I was working on the Problem Child for over six years before it was signed off with the editor. Of course it always feels like you’re in a rush but, unless you have specific deadlines, you have the rest of your life to get it right
- Believe in it. Yes, there are times when it’s right to give up on a project but often you have to believe in your baby, and…
- Be stubborn. You took the time to write a whole draft; something inside you is telling you it’s worth getting right, so you might as well…
- Do the work. Editing is hard but it can also be hugely rewarding. You have to be prepared to sit in that chair and frown at your work until it comes into focus
- Get criticism. Whether on individual scenes or on the story as a whole – preferably both – it pays – hell, it’s essential – to get feedback. Find beta-readers. Find a writing group. Don’t go solo
- Listen to criticism. If someone, or preferably someones, are telling you something doesn’t work then it probably won’t work for any agents or commissioning editors either
- Act on criticism. It’s a lot easier to tinker with grammar and character than it is to get to the root of a problem. Remember, though, you don’t have to rush to action. Take your time. But you will have to tackle the issues raised
- Edit someone else’s work… and keep reading. Thinking about a novel in a different way can help you frame just what’s wrong with your own work – and can give you a fresh perspective on how to fix it. You never know when the answers might strike you
- Be humble… but believe in yourself. You can do it. Go you!
- Draft, redraft, redraft again. I’ve lost track of the number of rewrites I’ve done for Human Resources, partly because of my idiosyncratic numbering system and partly because it received a new name, and thus a new folder, towards the end of its pre-acceptance life. But I know it took at least nine drafts. Some were major rewrites, others mere tinkerings around the edges. Every one went to make it better. I say again: do the work
- Add characters. My early drafts always seem to be underwritten (with the exception of those that aren’t and need characters removed, which I have also done) and need added layers of complexity. Specifically, I seem to omit a vital level of antagonism which can only be solved by redrafting with a new character woven throughout
- Re-write the opening. Because the opening is disproportionately important, and it’s not as easy as it should be to find the right moment to come in. I set the opening at three different points before settling on a fourth, changing my mind, then changing my mind back
- Arrange a panicky second beta-reading. Because self-belief is fragile
- Worry endlessly whether it’s good enough. Ego never survives contact with the enemy, which in this case are your readers
What have you done to reinvigorate your work? Please do add your comments below. And remember, kids, that whilst this may look like advice, it is coming from an idiot. Caveat scriptor, y’all. Caveat all the way.