Earlier this month, I travelled to a tiny village teetering on the edge of the Atlantic, for the Doolin Writers’ Weekend, and talked about publishing with the two fiercely smart women I co-edit Banshee literary journal with.
Except. That’s not quite right. We talked about publishing, yes, about how to find an agent and how to keep cover letters straightforward and how personal taste does come into play, but mostly we spoke about editing.
Editing. It sounds boring. Fiddly. Dotting i’s. Crossing t’s. Or it sounds like something that is done to you and your work. Someone asks Laura Jane Cassidy about her first novel, Angel Kiss (Puffin, 2011), which went through seven drafts: did you feel it wasn’t what you had in mind by the end of it? Laura replies no: the end product was closer to her initial idea. It needed work to get there.
But how do you go about editing your work? The first step is a psychological one, I think: accepting that it needs to be done, that comparing your first draft to polished, published material is foolhardy. A messy first draft doesn’t mean you’re not a genius. It means you’ve written a first draft. So, step one: be aware that editing is part of the process, which can include everything from cutting your first three pages or writing ten new chapters to tweaking each sentence so that it sings.
Step two: comparisons are odious. Everyone’s first draft is different – sometimes people research and plan meticulously, so that their work is structurally sound from the very beginning; for others they know that sort of planning stifles them and ensures they won’t write a single word. Some people revise as they go, so that their ‘first draft’ may be quite polished (if not quite finished); others fling everything down on the page with a view to tidy it later. There’s no ‘right way’ to complete a first draft, once you get it done.
Step three: put it away. Put it in a drawer (real or metaphorical) and do something else for a week or a month or two, before revisiting it. You know more about what you were trying to do than anyone else ever will, which can get in the way of clearly seeing what you’ve actually put down on the page. Time away can help.
Step four: return to it. It can be useful to print it out, if you tend to type up your first drafts, or to read it on an e-reader – anything that gets you looking at your work in a different format to how you viewed it while writing. How does it feel to you as a reader?
Step five: make notes about anything that occurs to you, big or small. Think about the options available to you. If someone else has read your work, listen carefully to the feedback – consider it, without slavishly adhering to it. Neil Gaiman says, ‘When people tell you what’s wrong with a story, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.’ This is the troubleshooting stage, and it’s just as creative as making stuff up the first time around: how do you come up with ways of tackling problems or gaps you’ve found in your work? How do you get it closer to what you want it to be?
Step six: be patient. You might have to revisit steps three to five over and over again. Revising a piece of work – whether it’s a poem or a novel – is rarely a one-stop job. Resist the urge to send out your early drafts to magazines or journals or publishers or agents. Yes, editors do still edit, but they want to see that a piece of work is as good as you have made it yourself, before the two of you work in tandem to make it as good as you can both make it. The editor does not swoop in with red pen to simply correct typos, or gleefully grab a manuscript to destroy it of all soul and originality so that it will become The Next Big Thing. The editor is a set of critical eyes used to examining creative work carefully and asking thoughtful questions about how it could be improved, how it could do what it is trying to do in the best possible way.
Step seven: does it feel ready, or at least, as good as you can make it by yourself? Send it out into the world, to homes where it might fit, always remembering that personal taste is a factor and that one or two or even twenty rejections is no reason to give up. Follow the submissions guidelines. Keep track of where you’re sending work to. Don’t pester editors for a decision. Move on. Write the next idea. And start all over again.
(c) Claire Hennessy
Claire Hennessy is a writer and co-editor of Banshee literary journal. Issue #2 has just been released and is available from http://bansheelit.tumblr.com/issue2
Issue 3 will open for submissions on 1st April 2016.