Novel - Editing Chapter One
In my previous post I wrote about working on a novel. I’m currently just over half way through the first draft, and have the rest outlined.
But recently I’ve been lucky enough to have my first chapter reviewed by two people who are very experienced in their fields - editor Amie McCracken and author Erin Kelly - as part of the two writing programmes I’ve been doing (see my previous post for details).
Having had the feedback from these reviews, I’ve just spent the weekend (at the desk in the picture above, at the Urban Writers’ Retreat in Devon) doing a thorough edit of the chapter and I’m very pleased by the result.
As the feedback was so immensely helpful, I thought I would share the key points (the insight is all down to Amie and Erin, I’m just reporting it here)….
Improvement: Point Of View
In a couple of the scenes, I slipped very briefly into a different character’s point of view. So, for example, the opening scene is from the point of view of the antagonist, Robert Walsh, but then there’d be this line from one of the protagonists:
"Sixteenth century." said James, pleased to be starting with something easy.
This suddenly lets us into James’s head, which is a switch of viewpoint. That’s okay if you’re writing as a ‘God’ omniscient narrator, but then you have to be really consistent with that and consciously make it work. I’d slipped into it by accident.
To keep it working in this scene, written from Walsh’s viewpoint, I’ve now edited it to:
“Sixteenth century.” said James, seeming to relax a little at the easy opening.
In addition, it was pointed out that in one of my scenes, it wasn’t clear who’s viewpoint it was, so I tightened that up.
Finally, in one scene it was suggested to me that actually it could be more interesting with the same action seen from the viewpoint of a different character. I’m going to experiment with that, but haven’t yet.
So, my learning points are: Think consciously about whose viewpoint the scene can be best written from (and that’s not always the obvious one), be clear about whose viewpoint we’re looking from to the reader, and stay consistent throughout the scene.
Improvement: Interior Monologue
It was pointed out to me that I write in a very to-the-point way, and focus very much just on what is being said, and what is being done. That can read a bit too much like a screenplay though.
The power of the novel is to also let us into character’s heads in a way that can’t be as easily achieved in other forms of storytelling. So we can also include what is being thought, and that can add a richness and interest to the story. The reader can then see things that one person knows but isn’t telling someone else, what characters intentions are, and so on. This is known as interior monologue, and I was quite light on it (except in the last scene in chapter one, which is written entirely as an interior monologue).
So, putting this into action a dry piece of dialogue like this:
"The last week I've done Berlin, Tallinn, and then yesterday into London." "And now Yorkshire." "Absolutely." "We'd have happily gone back down to London."
Has now become:
"The last week I’ve done Berlin, Tallinn, and then yesterday into London.” “And now Yorkshire.” James said. Not a question, but a touch of surprise in his voice. “Absolutely.” Walsh said. “We’d have happily gone back down to London?” James said. Now this was subtly posed as a question — probably probing for how keen Walsh was on them. Make them feel special, but not too special.
This gives a bit more insight, and starts us thinking about how the protagonist is perhaps a little manipulative.
Learning point: What is the character whose viewpoint the scene is written from actually thinking? Will sharing that with the reader help the story and the development of the character? How can it be used as a counterpoint to the actual dialogue to reveal even more?
Cut And Cut Again
The feedback was really useful to help me decide to cut out large swathes of dialogue that actually didn’t add that much, making the scenes leaner and punchier. In particular, I cut out any of the business or tech stuff that could be easily skipped over. Also, it was suggested that I leave at least one scene for secondary characters until a later chapter, in order to keep the first chapter focused only on the protagonists, the antagonist, and the ‘crunch’.
I’m more used to writing for broadcast where Courier is commonly used - or for non-fiction, where they’re less particular. Apparently in fiction, agents and publishers really really like Times New Roman and not much else! So I’ve worked out the Scrivener settings to get everything set up properly.
Everybody thinks differently
I set up an unusual relationship between the two main characters in the first chapter. One of the reviewers had a strong positive reaction to this, and one had a strong negative reaction. I think that’s very representative of real readers, and it’s going to happen sometimes. I think it’s a good thing, and you just have to trust your authorial gut at times like that. So, I’m keeping that as it is for now - but have it flagged in my mind to listen very carefully for future feedback about it.
The Good Stuff
Finally, the pat-on-the-back bits from the feedback I got. I received some very nice compliments - “Your writing style is excellent”.
I was told that I did a good job of immediately establishing the characters and action: “This is a really assured opening paragraph. I know who’s who, why Robert’s there and how he feels about it. And I can picture where it’s all going to happen. You’d be amazed how rare this is!”
Also, that the pace was good: “Your action rattles along brilliantly. You establish a great deal in relatively few pages and there’s no digression or waffle.”
And the building of the threat in the final scene in the chapter works: “This is a fantastically written scene that really adds to the air of menace”
It was great to get these positive comments as well as all the constructive criticism.
It was even more useful than I had imagined to have these two professionals review my work. I learned a lot from what they liked - but even more from what they pointed out that I could cut or improve. And I learned lessons not just for this chapter, but that I can look out for myself in the rest of the book.
Based on their feedback I did a substantial edit to get to a second draft, and I’m much happier with the chapter now.