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Susan Glickman

Editing the First-Time Novelist

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I teach Creative Writing in the continuing education programs at both Ryerson and the University of Toronto. My students know that I also work as a freelance editor, so they often ask me whether they ought to hire one. Sometimes they even want to hire me, but generally I refuse. Why? Because first drafts from first-time authors are simply not ready to be edited by anyone other than their author.

The editor will be stymied by too many basic problems of narrative typewriterstructure, pacing, character development, probability and dialogue, and will wonder how far to go in confronting the fledgling writer about them. Faced with what looks like the slaughter of his or her first-born, the writer, in turn, is likely to be overwhelmed with despair, or rage, or both.

Here’s a letter I wrote to one of my students suggesting a practical sequence of revision:

Congratulations on finishing the first draft of your novel! Lots of people start out with that ambition but very few actually get there. But here’s the part you won’t want to hear: In my experience, the first draft is exploratory, not final; it teaches you what you were writing about and then reveals to you all the places you rushed, or faked it, or left essential things out, so that you can now go back and fill them in. You aren’t close to having realized your whole story yet, so your manuscript is not ready for the services of a professional editor.

Put it away for a couple of months at least, and then read it slowly, on paper, with a pencil in your hand. (Even better, read it out loud.) Don’t let your imagination fill in what’s missing or skip ahead — make sure that everything that a first-time reader requires to make sense of the world you’ve created and the characters who inhabit it is actually there, on the page.
 Make all the necessary corrections, however long it takes. (You may find yourself having to write a new draft of the book.)

Once you’ve fixed up all the stuff that’s obvious to you, give two copies to two different readers who are not family members likely to be preoccupied by reading between the lines in order to understand your relationship with them. Choose people who are intelligent critics. Promise that you’ll still be friends with them, no matter what they say.

Remind yourself of that promise when you get their feedback. Get drunk, or binge on chocolate, or watch Casablanca and weep yourself silly. Whatever gets you through the night.

Wait at least a week.
 Read what they said again. Take it seriously. Write a third draft of your novel trying to solve all the issues they have pointed out.

Now you are ready to engage the services of an editor and benefit from his or her experience of the publishing world.


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About the author

Susan Glickman

Susan Glickman is the author of 12 books (poetry, fiction, juvenile and literary history) and a freelance editor, primarily of academic books.

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One Comment “Editing the First-Time Novelist”

  • Rosemary Shipton

    says:

    A very wise essay, Susan. Yes, I belong to the school that thinks that only the best of the finely revised drafts should be published – and all the previous ones kept in a drawer until the author is famous and literary critics want to study the progression of the novel through all its stages.

    Not long ago, however, I heard a contrary opinion, so I’ll share it with all the readers here. A young editing friend who is well connected on the social networks told me she had been asked to edit a novel by a teen-age author which had been published in instalments with great success on Watpad – with the funds raised to have it edited professionally by crowdsourcing. She said it was not really ready for publication (all the characters spoke in the same voice, etc.), but she also made this point. Millions of people, especially young people, post every detail of their lives, along with photographs, on facebook and other sites. Publishing drafts of their literary works-in-progress is simply part of this same trend, she said, and, as such, it should not be criticized. In other words, within reason, writers should be free to self-publish whatever they want.

    As for me, I can’t keep up with all the books I want to read that are released by the publishers I most admire, so I’ll ignore this huge new source of fiction in the raw. But hey, each to his own, Millions of readers think otherwise …

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