Drafting a novel is like hiking through a huge forest. Your approach to the impending journey may vary: some of us come up with a detailed map, set their feet on the path and power on through, while others see the edge of the trees, think “let’s see what’s in there”, and wander in. Most of us have approaches somewhere in the middle: we might know where we want to end up, but not have a specific path in mind. Almost all of us get distracted by things along the way; sometimes the distractions turn out to be just that, while other times they are a valuable addition to your journey.
But there’s an idiom that also applies to a writer who is in the middle of or has just finished drafting a novel.
I can’t see the forest for the trees.
Whether you love your work or hate it, when you type THE END, you are not seeing it clearly. Everything from being able to discern the dead wood — those scenes, characters or chapters that don’t move the story forward — to spotting typos is harder. You don’t have the altitude. You’re still in the trees.
So here are four ways to see your work differently. To get a Google maps perspective on your forest.
1. DO SOMETHING ELSE
This is the first and most important, which is why I gave it shouty caps. If you can possibly avoid it, don’t jump straight back into editing. Give the manuscript a few weeks to stew. Read a book (or five). Write something else. Go on holiday. Spend some time with the loved ones you’ve been neglecting. You’ve written a novel, which is a thing to be proud of. Celebrate, but not by re-reading it.
This point should be applied in conjunction with one or more of the other suggestions, below. The only exception is if you’re up against a hard deadline that doesn’t give you the luxury of time. I’m not talking about a pitching contest you want to enter — there will always be more pitching contests — but something with legal ramifications, like a contractual requirement.
2. Read it in hard copy
Speaking of trees (sorry about that, forests of the world)… This is my favoured approach. I wish I could get the necessary distance while still reading my words on a screen, but that’s the place where I drafted it, and I just can’t. On paper I can see misspelled or misused words, tracts of exposition — they all leap out at me. Usually I do a dirty word search before I hit print and make those amendments to the soft copy. Then I sit down with a pen and have at it.
This does have the drawback that I have to enter my edits onto the soft copy afterwards. It’s tedious but, for me, worth it.
3. Change the appearance of the words
If you draft in Arial, try looking at your manuscript in Times New Roman. Or Comic Sans MS, if that’s what floats your boat — just remember to change it back before you submit it to any agents or publishing houses. I know some people who actually format their book and read it on their Kindle, to try and put themselves into the role of a reader rather than the author.
As an aside, I do this with all my blog posts. I write them in Word, do one proofread in the WordPress data entry screen, and then do a final check in the blog preview screen.
4. Read it aloud
Obviously this is better for picking up line edit problems — passive sentences, overused words, that sort of thing — rather than structural problems. Although if you get bored reading a scene maybe that’s a sign the scene could go. There are also text-to-speech programs that you could use if you don’t want to read your 150,000-word opus aloud for fear of never being able to speak again. (And, um, if that’s your first novel I also recommend reconsidering the length…)
I’m tempted to add a fifth point here that says “see point one”, but I won’t. You get the idea.
Do you have other tricks that you use to let you see your words afresh?
Cassandra Page is a speculative fiction author and professional editor who has almost finished drafting her sixth novel and is itching to get stuck into the edits.