Self-editing – what did I learn?

Self-editing – will it take forever?
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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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…)
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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…


Writing the first draft – 8 things I did right and 5 things I would change

The first draft of my book - 8 things I did right and 5 things I would change
Keep putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) (Image –
After 20 months of writing, I have finally finished the first draft of my first book! I don’t feel even remotely guilty for drinking sparkling wine on a Monday night in celebration.

Yes, the arduous labour of self-editing is still to come, but let’s not think about that yet. I’m giving myself a month off Mamacona. I want to forget every word I have written so that I can come at it afresh and brimming with ideas in four weeks’ time. Mid-May, I’m sure you’ll be along soon. In the meantime, I will be reading fiction A LOT (it’s research, right?), carrying out some fun writing exercises and attending one of the Writers’ Workshop’s taster courses at Waterstones Piccadilly – on The Transformational Arc, in case you were wondering.

So, what have I learnt about writing so far? As well as asking what genre my book resides in, upon hearing that I am writing a novel, people frequently offer up pearls of wisdom. Over the last year and a half, I have acquired enough of these pearls to string together the world’s longest necklace. While any and all help is appreciated, writing is not a science and, as such, does not have a one-size-fits-all approach.

Which pieces of advice did I follow, rightly or wrongly? Which did I ignore but kind of regret doing so? I am sure my stance on at least some of the below will change when I am finished editing my current book. But, right now, in my slightly smug, bubbles-induced glee, this is what I think.

My first draft – what I did right (in my humble opinion) and will most likely do again

  1. The most common advice I have been given by far is to power through the first draft as quickly as possible. Instead, I chose to write entirely at my own pace, looking for the perfect adjective and pondering my next plotting move as appropriate. This suited me, pretty much for the reasons stated in this blog post by Harry Bingham. I know I will still have an editing challenge, but I honestly believe it will be a smaller task as a result of taking my time over the first draft.
  2. Despite the point around plotting below, I think my hybrid planned-unplanned approach worked well. I had a vague idea where the story was going, but didn’t particularly plan sub-plots and details in advance. This allowed me the flexibility to change course slightly if my mind wandered in a more interesting direction. I liked not knowing exactly what would happen every time I sat down to finish a chapter, and I felt a little as though the characters were leading me, and not vice versa.
  3. Given I was writing about historical periods I did not know too much about, I did a lot of research before I wrote even a single word of my story. I think this allowed me to soak up the essence of the periods, which then influenced the mood of my book.
  4. I thoroughly enjoyed not writing about what I know – I now feel I have an extra few pub quiz topics buried deep inside my brain, and the novelty kept the writing process exciting. I already have a few equally random topics / settings set aside for future books.
  5. A few online sources I consulted prior to beginning my book stated that a first time author shouldn’t attempt anything other than a linear, single point-of-view narrative. I ignored this, partly because I am horribly stubborn and partly because I really wanted to write this book, which just happened to be non-linear and multiple point-of-view. Time will be the test of how wise a decision this was, but I don’t regret it right now as I managed to achieve what I set out to do with the first draft. My advice would be to write whatever you want to write, no matter what that is!
  6. Not setting daily word targets – I like to write when I feel like writing so I continue to enjoy it. I have a flexible weekly target that isn’t particularly difficult to achieve, and I usually exceed it.
  7. Not writing with a hangover – I read this in an interview on a website I can’t remember right now. Excellent advice! A glass or two of wine while writing, is, however, perfect…
  8. If I found myself unable to figure out how to continue my story (I refuse to use the term “writers’ block”), I put my book aside for a few days in the belief my brain would figure it out somehow. This usually worked. On the rare occasions it did not, I tried my best to power through anyway, safe in the knowledge it was only a first draft.

What I would change next time

  1. After drafting the first chapter, I read and re-read it literally about 20 times, editing it in various ways upon each reading. Despite this, when I looked back on chapter one half a year later, it was… not quite as good as the rest of the book. You learn and evolve constantly as a writer, no matter how long you have been writing. Next time, I will have a quick read through for glaring errors but will leave the serious editing until later.
  2. It is not an exaggeration to say I came up with my initial plot in the space of 15 minutes. I think it has worked well, but could probably be even better if I had given it a bit more thought. Next time, I will try to suppress my excitement to start in the interest of longer-term gains.
  3. One thing I did spend a fair amount of time planning was my characters. I wanted them to be interesting and believable. Next time, I think I will carry out more fun (if slightly gimmicky) character planning exercises, like imaginary interviews – I found that my characters changed on the page as I went along (one of them even refused to keep the hair colour I had given her) so I would like to get to know them even better before I begin. I will also spend a little more time thinking about the necessity of each character – a good piece of advice I found in an online forum was to ask yourself (in the case of minor characters) whether this specific character is the one that needs to do something, or whether an existing character could fulfil the same purpose.
  4. I am a big reader. However, there were certain books I was afraid of reading, one of them being The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. As it also featured a Victorian circus, I was worried elements of it would unduly seep into my writing. I ended up reading it a few months ago and can safely say this didn’t happen. My book is MY book. I won’t worry about this next time.
  5. Buy a desk!

The list is long and will no doubt lengthen further over time. Please let me know what the writing process has taught you, or if you have any little gems you think I should follow in future (or wilfully ignore at leisure).

Backache or no backache, perhaps the single most important thing I have learnt is that the following quote from Scott Lynch sums up precisely how I feel about being a writer:

“I think it’s fairly common for writers to be afflicted with two simultaneous yet contradictory delusions, the burning certainty that we’re unique geniuses, and the constant fear that we’re witless frauds who are speeding toward epic failure.”