Short answer = a lot! When my husband first suggested that I sign up for this self-editing course, I wasn’t sure. Forever stubborn, I ummed and aahed, said maybe the September running would be better, that I wanted to see how well I could self-edit before turning to others for help. But how glad I am that he persevered and my curiosity got the better of me! So why was the course useful? What EXACTLY did I learn?
I have skipped a lot of blog posts recently, which makes me feel a bit like a naughty child late with her homework (*flashback to GCSE year*). You can blame the course for that though. I wanted to get the most I could from it (I mean, I paid perfectly good money – these things don’t come for free, right?) and that meant spending time and energy, both creative and analytical. Now the course is over, I need to continue with self-editing proper, which is very scary but also exciting, and I aim to post on here more frequently again. First up, I thought I would share with you what I have learnt from the course, both as a reminder to myself and in case anybody is thinking of doing anything similar in future.
But there are many self-editing courses out there…
So why did I choose this self-editing course?
- It was online and flexible – people are great, but only when I’m in the mood for them (forgive me, I’m an introvert). This course took place in a private online forum, and the weekly exercises could be done whenever you had the desire and inclination. A lot of the value came from the feedback discussions that we all chipped in to, and you could add as little or as much to these as you were able.
- The course leaders were both published authors with extensive experience in editorial input / feedback / and, most, importantly, writing – I loved getting advice from somebody who has seen the whole book process through from start to finish, and emerged successful on the other side.
Now for the important question…
What did I learn on my self-editing course?
- Giving constructive criticism is still no easier to me – although I am getting better at constructively criticising in itself, I just need to be less afraid of speaking my opinion out loud.
- And I am getting better at receiving it – it is very daunting to put a piece of your writing out there, knowing not everyone will think it’s brilliant, but you get used to it, and the negative feedback makes the positive feedback all the sweeter.
- You can’t please everyone, so just please yourself – one thing I noticed was that one person might think an idea of yours is the best thing since sourdough bread, and another might feel pretty meh about it. So what do YOU think? That’s what really matters, and, in my case, other people’s opinions of my work usually served to confirm that I already knew there was a problem, or that I wouldn’t be willing to change it unless on pain of death.
- I was already on the right track with my editing before I started the course – I had started a chapter-by-chapter summary with notes around what the reader should learn and how the chapter could be changed to make it even better. I am going to carry on with this as a first step. If nothing else, the necessary skim-reading is a great reminder of what has actually happened in my book so far (you’d be surprised how many of the details you forget, even when they came from your own mind in the first place).
- The editing process is LITERALLY (okay, maybe not literally) going to take forever – please don’t laugh, but I was somehow under the highly misguided illusion that it would only take me a month or so to edit my book. Not because I think I am super-brilliant at editing, rather the opposite. I didn’t have confidence in myself to recognise and react to potential issues in my story before the course, and now I do. We learnt how to edit effectively by working on small chunks (around 200 words) of our own manuscripts, and so I now need to multiply the effort involved in each week’s exercise by about 400. See? Forever.
- I have a few minor plot issues to clear up, e.g. an unfinished subplot here or an unclear character goal there – this is most likely because my view of the story changed as I was writing it (pesky story), and should hopefully be simple to fix.
- Characters with contradictory traits are fine (even desirable) but you need to make it convincing – for example, one of my protagonists is simultaneously scornful and fearful of the gods. A few of my coursemates queried this, but I feel it is a very important aspect of her character that explains a lot about her behaviour. I just need to get this across in the book. After all, readers aren’t mind readers – clarity is everything.
- I am still vindicated (for now) in my decision to attempt a complex plot / story structure for my first book – my worry was that readers wouldn’t understand the ending, but my coursemates seemed to. A few of them told me the non-linear, multiple timeline, multiple point-of-view story structure intrigued them and so I am hoping other readers feel the same.
- It is good to leap out of your comfort zone occasionally – I mostly write in third person, and I thought I was doing a good job of conveying characters’ thoughts and feelings UNTIL I tried writing the same passage in first person. It was a revelation and made me realise there is so much more I can do. So I’m going to vary my practise exercises a lot more from now on – write in third person past, first person present, why not even second person future?! (Now that would be a weird read…)
- One of the most common pieces of feedback I gave to others (e.g. if they asked whether enough happens in their book) was that I think it’s okay if big things don’t happen, as long as what does happen seems big to your characters. I think this is true – what matters is what the character feels. It doesn’t matter if you, as the reader, couldn’t care less about the fate of the green tree frog – if green tree frogs are the most important thing in the character’s life, and that is properly conveyed, then you will care when they become extinct and the character is left devastated.
- The feedback I received confirmed my belief that the beginning of my book will have to be more closely edited – the comments given on my writing in later extracts and from freshly written pieces were generally more encouraging. This is not a surprise as, when I started my book, it was my first piece of creative writing in a very long time.
- Using your phone to post in online forums while in the bath is going to lead to steam-induced typos and RSI at best, and a drowned phone at worst (luckily, only the former happened in my case, but the latter was oh so possible).
So now all that remains is for me to put everything I have learnt into practise. I will be very interested to see if my shiny new knowledge of self-editing will influence the way I write my next book from the very beginning, but that’s a question for another time. Right now, I have a book to edit, and, like I said, it’s going to take forever…