I’ve had this interesting question from Jan.
A friend has finished drafting her first novel. She asked me to proofread before she sends it to agents. I explained she would up her chances if she got it edited too, so she asked if I could do that.
I’m reading the manuscript and have found what I feel are fundamental issues. For instance, I’m 57 pages in and nothing dramatic has happened, I still don’t know the theme of the book, or what any of the characters are driving towards. There is a lot of description, but I haven’t been able to discern its purpose.
I really want her to have the best chance, so how do I essentially ask her to rewrite from scratch? She’s proud of the manuscript; (she should be, she wrote 92,000 words and had the dedication to stick to it). I’m trying to work out the best way to approach the things that need fixing without making her feel like I’ve torn down her baby. What should I do?
I sense you feel this is an unusual situation. It is not.
With developmental editing, especially of a first novel, it’s not unusual for me to (gently) tell the writer they need to completely redraft.
First, let’s assume your friend chose you because you like her kind of book. That’s important. A reader who loves a racy plot in a weird special world won’t want the same things as a reader who loves the quiet ordinary, told in poetic clarity. One person’s paint drying is another person’s delight. So let’s assume she knows your tastes, and you know hers, and all is aligned.
Assuming that, you’re looking for exactly the right things. You’ve responded as a reader who should like the book. You don’t think she intends you to feel that nothing has happened, and that it seems to be aimless. You’re not engaged or curious, though you are eager to be.
Still, she’s written 92,000 words. And now you’re going to tell her to do it all again. How do you do that without apparently dismissing her achievement?
Writing is rewriting
Tell her that rewriting is normal. If she hadn’t heard of editing, she probably doesn’t know this. First-time writers are often so relieved – and rightly so – when they type ‘the end’ that they think the work is done. If they have heard of editing, they imagine a brief tidying of spelling and grammar, and perhaps a nifty rewording along the way. Far from it.
Jan, tell your friend it’s not unusual to need several goes at a manuscript before it’s ready for readers or an agent. Most first drafts are rough. Here are posts about a slow, multidrafting writing process. Some books need to find themselves as we write. I did 23 drafts of the novel I’ve just finished… Sometimes we add layers as we understand better what we’re trying to do – and that polishing is part of the joy. Sometimes, though, it streams out fast. We’re all different. Sometimes, we’re even different from book to book.
Writing is many skills
Here’s another thing to tell your friend. Writing is many skills and you can’t learn it all at once. Tell her she’s taught herself some excellent lessons already – persistence, finishing, a routine that allowed her to complete the book. Also description. Even if the description is not effectively used, she’s had to vividly imagine the scenes and the story world, and that’s a necessary skill.
But there are numerous other aspects to a good novel and now she has to learn those. How to structure a plot. How to create characters who are individual and filled with life. How to give information without beating the reader around the head. How to direct the reader’s attention and emotions.
Some are reasonably obvious. Some are so subtle that you don’t notice them unless you know to look for them. And they all have to work together, all at once. See my previous point about layering and redrafts. Those are the arts she now needs to learn.
Her book is not rubbish
Might she think you’re telling her to abandon that book? Not at all. Until she knows about these craft points, she doesn’t know the potential that’s in her idea. She doesn’t have to ditch this story; she now has to learn how to do it justice. To write the same book, but much better. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t, but she won’t know that until she tries.
Also, she’s not the first person who’s had to be told this.
We’ve all been through it. See How exactly do you learn to write professionally. Is she missing these craft skills because she’s never taken a course? See Can writing be taught. And should she feel foolish because she wrote a book without knowing how to? An editor wouldn’t think that. Look at Why your editor admires you, and why you might not realise this.
Oh yes. And we all get nervous about feedback. How to prepare for comments on your book manuscript.
If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, including my own (much drafted) third novel, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.