What does it take to ‘Self-Edit’ your manuscript?

In the first of my ‘What does it take to…? series, I am excited, honoured and humbled to be joined on the blog today by THE Debi Alper, who wears so many expert hats that I’m surprised she can make it through any doorway. So in your own words, Debi, please introduce yourself.

Debi Alper AKA the Editrix!

I’m the author of six novels, all urban thrillers, the first two of which were published by Orion. For the last eight years, I’ve also been working as a freelance editor, creative writing tutor and competition judge. I live in SE London with my partner and teenage sons. I eat a lot of chocolate.

I first met Debi last September at the Writers’ Workshop Festival of Writing in York. If you’re any type of writer – aspiring author or even someone who writes copy for their job – this event is a must! Debi also runs an online course for the Writers’ Workshop, which I completed earlier this year. This course completely changed my writing and I am so glad I did it. I also met some amazing writers in my fellow students who I still keep in touch with now. I asked Debi to talk to me in more detail about the course:

Who is the self edit course aimed at and what can writers hope to get
out of it?

The course is aimed at anyone who has completed – or nearly completed – the first draft of at least one novel and wants to polish it prior to pitching to agents or self-publishing. The weekly tutorials give participants the tools they need to examine their novel with an objective eye. As the exercises are based on participants’ own WIPs, the ensuing discussions show them how to apply the tools to their own writing. They then know how to tackle revisions to their WIP but will also have acquired lifelong skills that they can use for future writing projects.

In the course, you tackle elements of a novel such as plot, character, voice and prose. Which aspect do students find the most difficult and why do you think that is?

That would have to be voice. It’s such a slippery concept to grasp but it’s also the one thing that makes writing leap off the page. Everyone already has a voice but many haven’t recognised it as such. In the course, we build up gradually to this aspect of creative writing so that people are able to see what a narrative voice consists of and how to strengthen it in their prose.

When someone has finished the first draft of a novel, there may be much that needs editing. How do you edit your own novels: chapter by chapter or element by element?

Everyone has their own way of writing. This isn’t Maths – there are no rights and wrongs. Personally, I do no planning in advance but start with a single sentence and a vague idea of a character and theme. (What Emma Darwin, my fellow course tutor, calls planning on the page.) I then start chucking out a first draft, putting my character into a situation – giving them something major to handle – and seeing how they react. The ways in which they react have consequences and that leads to the next link in the chain. That way, I find out what’s happening at the same time as my characters do.

Writing in this classic ‘pantser’ way means that, as the story spills out, I often realise I will need to make changes to earlier chapters. I make notes of these but resist the urge to go back and start editing until I reach the end of the first draft. So the initial part of my editing will be to go back and make those changes and any other tweaks I’ve identified. I then print out a hard copy and start reading through. At this point, I’ll read through and polish up the writing but the main function of this stage is to make sure that all the building blocks of the story are in place. The way I write means that there may be some scenes that are superfluous; they consisted of me marking time and keeping the words spilling out while I worked out what was going to happen next. It’s even more the case though that there will be crucial scenes which I’ve skated over and which need much more depth and ‘showing’. I also check the character development to make sure the early scenes, where I barely knew this person, are properly set up for the person s/he later becomes.

I then do an exercise to check the pace doesn’t fall off anywhere and that the narrative is always being moved forward. After that, I print another hard copy (sorry, trees) and do a final polish, checking every word is the right one and that it earns its keep, and every punctuation mark is creating the right rhythm, as well looking at the spacing on the page. (White space matters!)
I loved doing the Writers’ Workshop self editing course and I’ve met many
others who say the same. What do you think makes it so special?

Without a doubt, I’d say it’s the way the course encourages group feedback in a safe environment. People become very bonded with each other and the various WIPs. The groups stay on the Cloud forever and many people carry on supporting each other, operating as trusted readers in an online writers’ group. We’ve run the course eight times now and all the groups have been wonderful. A close second ‘plus’ would be the way in which the course is designed to give general guidelines but goes on to show how the tools can be applied to the participants’ own writing.

Have many of the students in your courses gone on to publish successfully and can you name them?

We’ve been running the course for two years. Given the fact that editing takes time – and given the glacial pace of publishing – it would be surprising if anyone had yet gone on to be published. Having said that, several have been signed with agents. Our biggest star is Louise Walters, whose novel, Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase, is due to be published by Hodder in 2014. We can’t really lay claim to Louise’s success as the news of her deal came through while she was on the course, but Louise credits us with helping her with the editing process that she embarked on with her publisher. More to the point, as far as I know, everyone has continued to write following the course and all have reported vast improvements. Every piece of feedback we’ve ever had has been positive. If people derive greater pleasure from their craft and their writing shoots up several levels, I can go to bed happy.
How does the course affect your own writing and how do you as a course tutor improve on your craft.

I’m not sure if the course has a direct impact on my writing but the one thing I do know is that the learning never stops. When we analyse and deconstruct a new piece of writing on the course, it forces us to broaden our own skill-set. Inevitably, that applies to me as much as it does to everyone else.
Can you tell us about your current writing project? 
Debi’s novel is available on Amazon

I’m a bit superstitious about talking about my own projects. All I’ll say for now is that my agent is currently pitching my latest novel. He absolutely loves it but that doesn’t mean he’ll be able to persuade a publisher to offer a deal. I try not to think about that side of things and concentrate on the part of the process that’s within my control: the writing.

Please can you provide me with any links so that readers can find details about the Writers’ Workshop?

I sure can! For starters, there’s the link to the course: http://www.writersworkshop.co.uk/Self-Editing.html
Then there’s the Cloud, the world’s best online writing community: http://writing-community.writersworkshop.co.uk/
Emma’s blog is a fantastic resource and a must for anyone’s who’s serious about honing their craft:  http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/
My blog is a bit more random and eclectic: http://debialper.blogspot.co.uk/
Thank you so much Debi, it has been an absolute pleasure having you on the blog today and can’t wait to hear more about your latest novel!

Other posts in the ‘What does it take …’ series

What does it take to run a successful book tour? by Sharon Goodwin
What does it take to proofread your manuscript? with Jude White
What does it take to design an award winning book cover? interview with Design For Writers
What does it take to be a best-selling author? by Joanne Phillips

By Cathy Bramley

Cathy is the author of the best-selling romantic comedies Ivy Lane, Appleby farm, The Lemon Tree Cafe and A Vintage Summer. She lives in a Nottinghamshire village with her family and Pearl, the Cockerpoo. Her recent career as a full-time writer of light-hearted romantic fiction has come as somewhat of a lovely surprise after spending eighteen years running her own marketing agency. However, she has always been an avid reader, hiding her book under the duvet and reading by torchlight. Now she thinks she may have found her dream job.

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