Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Novel Process: Research to Submit

I'm very pleased to have Canadian speculative fiction author Derryl Murphy share with us his particular process for editing his own work. Napier’s Bones is Derryl’s first novel, and third book, after the collection Wasps at the Speed of Sound and the novella Cast a Cold Eye, co-written with William Shunn. When time and children allow, he works on his next novel.

The Novel Process: Research to Submit

In writing (and finishing, and rewriting, and so on) Napier’s Bones, I realize now that the work involved in editing the novel unfolded into a seemingly never-ending series of stages. Now, your mileage may vary, but it seems to me that these stages will probably come close to what most authors experience. Allow me to lay them out for you:

1. The Research Stage

This strikes me as the least certain fit, as it all depends on how much the writer has to deal with doing actual work leading up to writing the novel, work that doesn’t (at least directly) relate to coming up with a plot. But for those of us who write SF/F, this is a pretty common stage, for instance in researching the latest cutting-edge science, or, in the case of Napier’s Bones, all sorts of aspects of history, from the sublime to the outright bizarre.

Sitting beside me as I write this is the notebook I took with me to Scotland and London, filled with notes from that trip. There are quotes from John Napier, gathered during visits to libraries, quotes from others about Napier or about Napier’s bones themselves, descriptions of a wide variety of possible locations for scenes in the novel, sketches of a couple of those locations (where photographs were not allowed), and all sorts of little tidbits that I thought might fit into the story. And of course, the vast majority of this research never saw the light of day. One of the first things a writer has to learn is that, no matter how bleedingly cool a chunk of info might be, now matter how many mountains you climbed and oceans you swam to get that nifty bit of trivia, there are going to be times when you have to sit down and ruthlessly slice it out of your book.

Think of a novel as a body, and the ideas that populate that body as the cells that contribute to its growth. Sometimes those cells of ideas will become something akin to cancer, and allowed to grow unchecked their presence will pretty soon swallow the book whole and defeat the author’s attempts to create a work that not only passes the Wow test, but more importantly the Readability test. And so some ideas never even make it into the first draft, while others will be removed by the author during the writing process, and yet more will get the boot after hopefully polite suggestions from editors or agents or fellow authors who’ve been nice enough to read the manuscript.

I don’t quote from Napier’s letter on his secret military inventions, I don’t mention the Panacea Society of Bedford, the White Horse of Uffington, nor the Standing Stones and Linear Graveyard of Kilmartin. And sometimes some research can disappear at one point and then suddenly be repurposed in a way never imagined. Therefore, my time spent at Rosslyn Chapel shows up not at all in the book, and the tour I took that told me all about the “secret history” of the chapel, ley lines of the area, and Pictish rings, rears its head in the unlikeliest of spots.

2. During Writing

There are authors who write everything first, and then sit down and go through everything with a weather eye, doing all their edits only after completing the first draft. I am not one of those authors.

Instead, I tend to edit as I write. Sometimes I’ll pile through pages and pages without worrying about it, and then leave it to the next day, and sometimes I’ll have to stop after only two or three sentences and tinker as new thoughts and ideas spring to mind. But always, before I can start afresh each day, I have to go back and re-read and edit my work. Where I’ve had to develop some self control is in not wanting to go back and start from the very beginning each day. This would be something of a fierce time delay tactic when I’m up in the tens of thousands of words, as you might well imagine.

This method lends itself to a rather free flow sort of plotting, of course. I find that my characters often run off and do things I never intended of them, and so that synopsis I’m working from soon finds itself the victim of on-the-fly editing as well.

3. Finished Draft

Not the final draft, mind, just the finished one. Now that I have 75K words committed to screen and/or paper, the last of which is “END,” it’s time to go over things with the attention to detail that comes with the detachment of not having to think about the story as I go.

It’s best to give yourself a little bit of a window before you jump into this, a few days or even a week or two. And then, read it out loud to yourself. You’ve probably heard this before, and it is a truth; tripping over words while reading them aloud is a better way of finding the problems than reading them in your head, where the mind can play tricks and fill in blanks that you don’t realize are there. Take notes if you want, any time something stands out as a little odd, not ringing the bell of the plot you had initially laid out. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong, but it’s a good way to catch out any corners you may have painted yourself into.

4. Other People

Now it’s time to hand it off to people you trust. In my case, this consisted of a few friends who are also authors, as well as my father. Keep in mind that other writers, like people in the Real World, can sometimes be busy, and so you may not get a timely response, or even an in-depth response. But if you have enough people out there who are willing to run through it for you, most of the bases should be covered. Also remember that you don’t have to take everything suggested as gospel. If a suggested edit doesn’t cut it for you, ignore it and move on.

The authors I approach are busy people, with writing careers of their own. At this point I tend to go to people who have more publication credits than when I was working with a writer’s group, but that’s often the nature of the beast. If you are writing and involved in the community then you probably will find a cohort in a similar position to you. As time goes on some will fly past you, some will coast along at your pace, and some will be left behind.

5. Editors and Agents

By this time I had probably done the equivalent of four or five rewrites on Napier’s Bones, and I was lucky enough to find an editor at a major publishing house who wanted the book. He and I sat and had lunch at a con and discussed some possible changes, and then that was followed up by an email. I did all of that, and I think it made the book a lot stronger, but then the hopeful sale (always tentative) fell through. I tinkered a little more with the novel, and eventually found an agent who also had some excellent suggestions, which meant more rewriting.

As usually happens, though, me still not being a client of this agent meant that responses were very slow in coming, and so when Sandra Kasturi of CZP approached me about the book, I said Yes. Considering this was an idea that had been cooking since the early ‘90s, and a novel whose first draft had been finished in 2003, I figured it was now or never, and happily jumped in with both feet.

6. Final Process

With ChiZine, as with any proper publisher, there were still edits to be done. Sandra read the book, loved it, but had requests. There were still holes I needed to fill, clarifications I needed to make, and clunky sentences I needed to smooth over. Working from quite detailed notes Sandra had sent me I once again dove into the novel, and once again came out the other end with a better story.

And then we still weren’t finished! By this time there were copyedits to be done. The manuscript was sent back to me, in electronic version, marked up with suggested changes for sentences, misspellings, problems in continuity, or just ways of making things a little clearer. I could accept or reject a change (for instance, one quotation spells the word “matters” with three Ts - “mattters” - because that came from a hand-written, primary source from the late 16th century, and I wanted to keep that), or else I could see the suggested change but substitute one of my own that I thought worked better.

This part went back and forth two or three times, and when it was done we finally had a book that was ready to go. I read through a PDF of the version that was to go to the printer, one last go to catch any possible mistakes, and then signed off on it and it became a real live book.

Are you ready for the punch line? My wife just finished reading it, and found a mistake. And so it goes.


  1. Great description, Derryl! I'll show it to my writing students.

  2. Derryl, an excellent overview of the novel process! I have a question, though. What part of this process do you like the least?
    Krista: Starting this blog is a great idea! Will watch for more, because I'm always hungry for information about writing and publishing. Way to go!

  3. Eileen, probably the last part. And that's mostly because me and this novel, we've lived together all these years and by this point I just want the cheap floozy out of the house and my life back so I can continue on with the new love/hate relationship I have going with the next novel (I'm something of a serial writer, I have to admit, and I do fool around a bit, writing short fiction and even non-fiction at the same time. Which often gets me in trouble).

    But, to answer your question in a different way, I find the first serious set of edits, after the first official draft is done, to be the most difficult. They're the heart-wrenching moments when you have to flush entire sections and concepts.

  4. I like the portrayal of the research phase. Including the pictures. And good to know I'm not the only one who reads drafts aloud!