The Daemon and the Prig, by the man who saw the torturer's horse.
The red spot in the monograph

How do you eat an elephant?

A writer friend - a short fictioneer turned novelist - cried for help on a forum:

So, I've been through the script of the novel and edited it and made masses of notes. I have reworked plot strands on paper and in my head and done lots of character development on the underwritten men in the book. But now I actually have to sit and put this work into the script and I just don't know how. I feel like I know you're supposed to eat an elephant one spoonful at a time, but there's no spoon, just one massive elephant to get through. Help. I am now procrastinating to the point that even my husband has noticed and commented on it. That takes some doing.

"Bird by bird", I found myself saying, and if you don't get the reference, it's here. Once you've decided what needs doing, as my friend has, the answer is, indeed, spoonful by spoonful. But what kind of spoon?

First, confine your worry to - say - the first page, and don't worry about the following 299. They can wait. Then recognise that the three things you're trying to do in revising a novel are change things, cut/shrink things, and develop things. So:

  1. What on that first page needs changing?
  2. What needs cutting?
  3. Where on that first page are the chances to develop the things which are still a bit latent?
  4. And what, if anything, are the implications of these three actions, for the rest of the novel? No, don't go and get embroiled in hunting down and smoking out those implications now, just make a note that they'll need dealing with.

Well done. Now, how about tackling page two?

But actually, saying "Look at everything you need to do on the first page" is only really because it's the easiest way to make the point. I don't, myself, find it easy to do all the different jobs at once, on even a single page. Your list of things to do will be made of many different kinds of things, from sorting out the lost-letter plot in the last third, to getting the geography of Exeter right across two pages of chase scene, to strengthening Auntie Ethel's voice all through. Think about a list headed "Renovate the House". Do you list what needs doing room by room; do you make one list for the builder, one for the plumber, one for John Lewis; or do you make one list of things to paint when you can afford the paint, one of things to put on eBay when you've got the time, one of things to move from room to room when your weight-lifter sister-in-law is free to help? For me, trying to see how to do so many things at once is like going into a shop and trying to find Christmas presents for ten different people at once.

So with your monster list of the things you need to do, I'd suggest you can tackle it one of three ways:

  1. apply that list, item by item, to the first chapter/section/chunk. And then to the next.
  2. take one item from the list, and do it all the way through the novel. Then take the next item.
  3. sort out the list into kinds of work - say, structural work, characters, voices, plots - and tackle one category at a time, all the way through the novel.

Either way, I'd encourage you not to hop around, for reasons that I explored here. And although I'm keen on doing things longhand, I do think that processess like working your way through the whole novel, sorting out a piece of plot everywhere it appears, are much easier to do on computer. If in doubt, make a copy of the file before you start, so that if it all goes horribly wrong you can revert to factory settings if you need to, or merge the two and get clear sight of what you've done. Good luck!

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