What to do when you finish your first novel.

Short version:

Get an editor(s).

Long version:

I’d thought writing a book was like climbing a mountain. It seemed impossible at first, but, by always moving forward, by writing a page or two each day, the empty space on my computer screen slowly filled with words. When I typed, “The End.” I felt like achieved something amazing. I’d scaled the mountain. And like any mountain, I thought going down would be easier than climbing up.

Holy shit, was I wrong.

Because I didn’t climb a mountain. I’d climbed a plateau. A plateau that spread out before me in all directions. A plateau that somehow, inexplicably, contained a jungle.

I’d reached the editing phase.

As I hacked through the jungle of my words, there were no directions. No signs pointing: “A better book - this way.” Every day was a slog. Did I add to this scene or cut from that one? Was the new dialogue true to the character’s voice? Did this scene need more description, or did adding words slow the story down?

Editing a novel is a shifting morass of confusion and distress. I think it’s the not knowing if each change is making the novel better or worse. In addition to possibly making my book worse, I constantly worried that the changes I made were injecting cascading continuity errors throughout the entire manuscript. Who said what? Who knew what? And when did they know it? And did it change what they said or how they acted?

Timelines had to be adjusted, plot points, reworked.

Some authors will say that all you need is someone to look over your book, maybe a beta reader or two to catch the occasional typo, and call it good.

Those authors are all much better at the English language than I am.

I had four people, all experienced editors, put eyes on my book before I published it. And I needed every bit of advice they had to offer. Each one had their own strengths. One excelled at developmental edits, letting me know which scenes needed more meat and which needed to be cut back. Another was a grammar master, and helped me rearrange and reword sentences so they were correctly written and flowed better together. A third excelled at finding typos and missing words. Only one was with me for the entire journey and took on all those tasks.

I sent a shorter version of this blog as a review to one of my wonderful editors, Ti Sumner. Ti saw something in my writing and encouraged me to keep with it back when we were just students together. And while my other editors were great, and if you need recommendations shoot me an email, they didn’t have nearly as much impact on this novel as she did. For example, at the end, in the climactic scene, I had a character fighting for literally no reason whatsoever other than I needed them to fight in the final scene. I’d read through the scene dozens of times and before spotting the problem. Ti caught it on her first read through.

I highly recommend her.

But even after all the work she and my other editors did, and all the hours I spent proofreading and editing before and after I sent my novel to them, there’s still no guarantee I caught all the mistakes.

That doesn’t make any sense, you might be thinking. Isn’t that what editors are for? Yes, it is. And also, OMG no. Whose name is on the book? That’s who’s going to get ripped in the reviews for a poorly written novel.

For me, here are the must haves of an editor:

1. Be better at grammar than I am.

Okay, that’s not a particularly high bar. But I don’t mean someone who knows what the oxford common is. I mean someone who’s spent their entire life waging a holy war against passive voice and has dedicated their existence to knowing when to properly use a comma, semicolon, n-dash, m-dash or an ellipse. You know the friend who grammatically corrects your text messages and emails when they send you their response? That’s the type of person you want for an editor.

2. Understand my sense of humor.

I get it. My humor is not for everyone. Some may call it crude or juvenile or the worst of the worst: not funny.

Fortunately, all the editors I worked with got my humor, for the most part. Or at least they interjected haha in the right places in their comments.

3. Understand that dialogue is mostly off-limits.

Most people don’t speak properly. So, having grammatically incorrect dialogue can be okay as long as it’s formatted correctly. i.e. open quotes, dialogue, comma, close quotes, dialogue tag. Unless the character is the type who would speak properly. Then having grammatically incorrect dialogue is not only wrong, it’s out of character, which is even worse.

A warning sign for working with a new editor: if they want to dramatically change a character’s dialogue in the first few chapters before they even have a feel for who the character is. Conversely, it’s a great editor that can tell you in chapter fifteen, “I don’t think Character X would say that last line. It doesn’t seem like who they are.”

So, yeah. If you’re finishing up your novel and wondering what to do next, find an editor or five.

And buy a machete.