I imagine there are some writers out there who write their first novel effortlessly, a couple edits and they’re done. These people would be known as “naturals”. I am not a natural. I’ve only met one natural who was such a great storyteller I could easily see why novels just flowed out. But for most of us, the first novel is a great experiment, or learning experience. And many writers throw their first novels in the garbage.
I’d hit the wall with my first novel but I’d done so much work on it, I couldn’t bear the thought of throwing it in the trash. In its earliest form I’d done the Humber School’s correspondence course, I’ve attended numerous workshops, I’ve worked with critique groups, I’ve had readers go through it in its entirety. I’ve done seven complete edits. I swore there was no more I could do without professional help.
I’d submitted a few places and even had a full manuscript request, but I wasn’t getting any takers. So I knew my novel wasn’t “there” yet, but I wasn’t sure what the problem was. I decided to sign up for a substantive edit. I know in reality a fiction writer doesn’t make much money off their work, so it can be hard to rationalize spending money on the unpublished novel. But I was no longer getting what I needed out of workshops. As good as they were, information is tailored to a group and not to my specific project, or my specific problem. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never attended a workshop I haven’t learned something at, but there is only so much you can cover in 2 or so hours.
It takes some research to find the right editor for yourself but I can only highly recommend this option. The notes I got back were fantastic, and of course were directed entirely to me and my novel. I had a structural problem. Not only that, I had a conflict problem. I kept giving all the conflicts to secondary characters, while my protagonist was good at conflict avoidance. I couldn’t believe how often I did this! Doing the substantive edit not only taught me about this novel, but also showed me how to go through a draft and tease out the conflicts, find the real issues my protagonist should be dealing with. I hope this lesson will help me to be a better editor on my next novel.
I also signed up for a course taught by Annabel Lyon & Nancy Lee from UBC. It’s an online course which is great because I can do it on my own time. The course is entitled, “How to Write a Novel: Structure & Outline.” I was going to do this course last year, but for some reason didn’t sign up for it. The timing is fortuitous now as I work with the notes from my substantive edit and re-structure my novel, making the bones that much more solid. The depth and breadth of the course is fantastic and I’ll definitely look to taking other courses they offer.
There seems to be no end to learning in novel writing, which is probably why I like it so much. Even though I have to re-write my first novel, something I’ve spent years on, I’m still excited about the process. Probably because my editor was so enthusiastic about my novel. And she really liked my writing and voice. (I have a voice!) And I’ve added another book to my writing collection, A Passion for Narrative, by Jack Hodgins.
It’s hard to be a beginning writer and take in all that we learn and apply to our novels over time. So if you find yourself hitting a wall, I’d highly recommend having a trained eye go over your work. It’s amazing what they can see and can help lift your writing to the next level.