So what are the main things that we can do as authors to improve our books and ensure that they’re ready to be published? I’ve put some tips below but I’d also recommend that you have a good look around the internet. There is some great advice out there by some great writers.
Edit and proofread on the fly
‘The best way is to read it all every day from the start, correcting as you go along, then go on from where you stopped the day before.’ Hemingway
When I first started writing I thought that writing and editing were two totally different activities. First you wrote a book and then, when it was finished, you edited it. Simple.
However I’m now firmly of the opinion that writing and editing are part of the same creative process and can be done at the same time. Now when I start writing the first thing I do is ease my way into it by reviewing all the writing I did in the previous session. I go over it and edit the text so it reads better and also correct any typos or tense errors. By the time I reach the end I’ve not only got the story fresh in my mind but I’ll have also done some editing and improved my book. Then there are the times when I’ve booked myself some writing time but the creative juices absolutely refuse to flow. Rather than just give up I usually go to page one and start reviewing and editing all the writing I’ve done so far. Doing this iteratively means that a good chunk of the editing and proof reading will be done by the time you’ve finished writing your book.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out – Not my words but those of a writer call George Orwell. When we write the first draft we should always let the words flow and throw everything in. The work after that is cutting out everything that doesn’t advance the story. Here you have to be brutal. We can sometimes write quite beautiful sentences, ones we become attached to, but if they’re not serving the story then they’re getting in the way.
Hemingway again – ‘It wasn’t by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.’
Don’t repeat words or phrases – Watch out for this. When I’m editing I’m always on the look out for words I overuse, ‘really’ and ‘suddenly’ are two. Some call them ‘crutch’ words. So you have to be creative and look for alternatives or, as above, just cut them out if you can. I now find myself actually using the thesaurus in Word and it can help. Something that can also be a bit grating is overusing character names. In the first draft of my first book Kathleen pointed out how many times I used my character Mac Maguire’s name and I was horrified – Mac did this, Mac did that, Mac said this – it was awful. Simply replacing some of the ‘Mac’s with ‘he’ and ‘him’ improved the book no end.
Ensure you’re being consistent – There’s something I call the ‘fatal flaw’. If even one of these exist in a book you may lose your reader right there. Almost all fatal flaws have to do with consistency (although some can be related to obvious plot holes). Here’s a real example and one I’m not all that proud of.
In my first book I had a character called Sam but later in the book I decided to call him Andy instead and that was fine. I tried auto-correct but ended up with changing everything in the book that had the letters ‘s-a-m’ so ‘same’ became ‘andye’ so I had to do it manually and I missed a few. So in a crucial conversation my main character is talking with Andy when, halfway through, someone called Sam jumps in and starts talking instead. He doesn’t appear in the book before or after this conversation so I’d guess that at this point many readers would have been throwing their Kindles against the wall or, more probably, deleting my book and avoiding anything else I might write in the future. Thankfully one of my readers noticed this before I published the book. It certainly taught me a valuable lesson.
For character names, place names, technical terms, jargon etc. make sure that you spell and capitalise them correctly and consistently. Although you should bear in mind another one of Orwell’s rules, ‘Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.’
Also check consistency in your Table of Contents so it reads Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three… or Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3…and not Chapter One, Chapter 2, Chapter Three … and yes I did that too.
Let your book ‘marinate’ – Some authors do this for months or even years but for me 3 to 4 weeks can do the trick. If you’re stuck, or you’re fairly sure that something’s not right and you can’t put your finger on it, put your book away in a metaphorical drawer and don’t go near it for a while. Let it rest and try to forget it. When you go back to it you should be able to look at it a little more objectively and sometimes the solution just jumps out at you. Also do this when you think you’ve finished your book and it’s ready for publishing. Put it away for a week or two and then check it again. You’ll be surprised at what you missed before.
However you can really get stuck sometimes. My first attempt at writing a detective book around my main character Mac Maguire just didn’t work and I couldn’t figure out what to do about it. So in the end I gave up and started a new novel from scratch, trying to avoid the mistakes that had plagued the first one. The new novel, The Body in the Boot, was better but I never did quite forget that first attempt. Its time came however and it ended up being my fourth novel ‘The Blackness’ nearly two years later. Some ideas may have to marinate longer than others.
I hope you’ve found this useful and that you’ll avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made. In the next post Kathleen will be looking at how others can help you improve your book. In the fourth and final post in the series Kathleen will be looking at some resources that you might find useful and will also touch on more things that you can do improve your book.
Next post in the series – Things to consider (3) – How others can help