Writer

On editing, wet shoes and the Spanish Inquisition…

Warning: this post is very, very long. Which is slightly ironic, given that its main focus is on getting your word count down.

To quote Ser Davos Seaworth from Game of Thrones, ‘I apologise for what you are about to see…’

DS

 

In my last post I said that I was going to make regular posts on the theme of a year in the life of a book. That post was written on the 16th of June. It is now the 1st of August.

That went well.

And we probably shouldn’t talk about the fact that when I went back to check the date of that post, I noticed that I’d said that something was ‘almost exactly’ a year away. I think it’s best if that one’s just brushed under the carpet.

So it’s the 1st of August and no blogging has happened in over six weeks. In my defence, I did say that the next post would be on the editing process, and the last few weeks have been taken up with…well, the editing process. But I’ve hacked and cut my way through that process and out the other side, and I’m fairly sure I’ve learned something in the process.

Hopefully not to use phrases like ‘almost exactly.’

So, editing.

When I first started trying to write a novel I had a vague idea that editing was something that was done to you by someone else.

Probably an Editor. Who Edited things. Things that needed Editing.

There was almost certainly a Big Red Pen involved.

bigred-collection

I did eventually work out that self-editing is a huge part of the writing process. I think I even became fairly competent at it – at least at looking at a first draft and cringing in the appropriate places. But looking back now, after finishing the most intensive editing exercise I’ve ever undertaken, I can see that those early self-editing attempts were the equivalent of swinging a sledge-hammer at a piece of stone, and wondering why the resulting faceless lump looked less like Michaelangelo’s David, and more like my four year-old’s attempt to recreate Morph out of playdough.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting I’ve produced David II, but I think there are probably identifiable human features. Maybe some fingers and toes. If you squint sideways while in a generous frame of mind.

I’ve learned lessons about editing from all sorts of places. It was covered extensively on the Bath Spa Creative Writing MA, and it’s something that’s come up in pretty much every workshop/writing group/random writerly discussion in which I’ve ever taken part.

But I think I’ve always treated those lessons as nice optional extras. I’ve always had the luxury of deciding whether to ‘kill my darlings’ or let them live long, decorative, but ultimately pointless, lives. I’ve been able to indulge my love of internal musing, and detailed stage-direction type exposition. My characters have been able to discuss – at some length – every stray thought that flits through their heads. Word count was something that obviously crossed my mind from time to time – the judges of short story competitions tend to be pretty unmoved by entries accompanied by little notes explaining that yes, the writer is aware that the word limit is 2200 words, but that paragraph about liberty and fraternity is just too nice to cut- but it was always more of a ‘nice to have’ rather than a ‘this has to happen.’

And then I came to edit The Space Between the Stars.

There was a deadline. A word count target. Editorial suggestions.

There was even a letter.

Before I went through this stage of the journey to publication, I was fairly vague about what happened after signing a contract. I knew editing was involved somewhere along the line, but I knew very little about the ins-and-outs of it. When my editor, Bella Pagan, emailed me saying that she’d be sending ‘the letter’ soon, I thought it better to nod and smile, and not let on that I had no idea to which letter she was referring.

Hester_Prynne
She should have been editing…

It briefly crossed my mind to wonder if it might be a giant red E – like the A in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter – to wear on my clothes, so that everyone would know that I should be editing, rather than eating cake/playing with the baby/fiddling about on the internet, and would beat me with big sticks, while shouting ‘Shame! Shame!’

Okay. I did say that it briefly crossed my mind.

The letter turned out to involve fewer big sticks and more sub-headings. At first it all looked pretty straightforward. None of the suggestions involved sweeping plot alterations or fundamental changes to the characters’ motivations or backstories. For a few days I wafted about in a sort of pre-editing state, thinking ‘characterisation la la la’ or thoughts to that effect. Then I actually sat down and applied my mind to the specific details of how the changes could be made.

This was the point where I stopped thinking ‘la la la’ and started thinking ‘oh.’

Fortunately I was able to get up to London for a meeting with Bella, in which we managed to thrash out the major points. This was the first major lesson that I learned from going through this process: talking things through with someone (ideally someone who knows the manuscript, obviously!) is an incredibly useful starting point. This isn’t just because two heads are better than one, but because, talking about your work can force you to be specific and clear about what it is you’re trying to do. If you can’t communicate a particular point when talking about it, you’re unlikely to be able to communicate it effectively when you come to actually write it.

Also, the awareness that a real live person is sitting in front of you, actually listening to the words that are coming out of your mouth, tends to concentrate your mind somewhat. If you can’t quite look the other person in the eye while outlining a particularly convoluted plot device, it’s probably not the best plot device you’ve ever come up with. When you’re writing, the idea of someone reading it can be fairly remote, and it’s easy to convince yourself that something isn’t that unlikely, or that the distant, hypothetical reader won’t be observant enough to notice that a particular character has decided to do something entirely against their own interests in order to advance the plot.

So the meeting was extremely useful.

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Please don’t take me to London again…

We’ll gloss over the fact that I may have given the baby a lifelong hand-dryer phobia, by attempting to dry my waterlogged shoes while he was about three feet away from the World’s Most Powerful Drying Device in the Pan Macmillan offices.

The next step was the actual editing. Or rather the first strand of the actual editing.

I’d always thought of editing as one big amorphous task.

Editing. I am Editing. Look at me Editing.
(Please don’t hit me with a big stick.)

But one of Bella’s tips was that it would be a good idea to make the agreed changes/additions before starting to think about fine-tuning and getting the word count down, so that I didn’t feel constrained. This made me mentally break the task down into different strands which proved to be a bit of an editing revelation.

IMG_2339
File your printed notes in an appropriate
place – the floor is a popular choice…

I went through the manuscript four times in total. The first run-through was to look at Bella’s detailed editing suggestions, which included cuts, tweaks to remove repeated words etc, comments on places where it wasn’t entirely clear what I was getting at, and queries about plot and character. I did this edit on paper, jotting ideas about the proposed changes as I went along.

I then carried out what I would consider the main edit – adding in material, making small plot changes, tweaking timeframes etc. I did find that a lot of the extra material already existed, having been cut from earlier drafts. Another lesson learned – never discard anything!

You know when I said I went through the manuscript four times? I meant five*

tt2
No-one expects to have to edit their manuscript
four…no five…wait six times…

*Channels Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition. “Our chief weapon is surprise!… Surprise and fear… fear and surprise… Our TWO weapons are fear and surprise… and ruthless efficiency! Our THREE weapons are fear, and surprise, and ruthless efficiency… and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope… Our FOUR… no… Amongst our weapons… Hmf… Amongst our weaponry… are such elements as fear, surpr… I’ll come in again.”

Five. Definitely five.

I think.

The next run-through was fairly quick, and was just to check that the new material hadn’t created any major continuity issues.

It had.

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Wibbly wobbly timey wimey…

People were having heated disagreements about things that never happened. Someone fondly remembered someone else who was now a horse. (Don’t ask. These things happen when Editing.) Time also appeared to have warped in various places, and tempting though it was to attribute it to Doctor Who’s ‘big ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff’, realistically someone was going to notice.

Once all the plot holes and worm holes, and quite possibly black holes, had been sorted out, I then started thinking about the word count. This is probably the editing strand that benefits the most from a separate approach. Dealing with it this way allows you to approach the word count edit with the kind of narrow focus that you usually only get when trying to cut a short story down to a word limit for a competition or submission. It lets you concentrate on very specific aspects of your writing, identifying bad habits, repetition, and places where you tend to be unnecessarily wordy, without breaking off to think about plot points or character motivation.

I found that I fell into a rhythm about halfway through the first word count edit, and things started jumping out at me. The second word count edit was effectively about applying the lessons I’d learned in the second half of the manuscript to the first half. I was surprised how easy it was to shed another few thousand words on that second run-through.

I then did a sixth – “Er, amongst our weaponry are…” – quick read-through to identify any errors or clumsy language. This final edit turned out to be primarily about identifying the places where I’d made a cut too far – usually just a word at the end of a sentence, or a ‘he said’ that was needed to distinguish between two speakers.

I then did one final check. I nearly didn’t bother with this bit, but it turned out to be a very good job that I did. I went back through Bella’s edit letter and summarised what I’d done in relation to each of the various headings. This summary included a breakdown of the word count of each chapter, and where that chapter started and ended. This threw up a fairly major issue. The various changes and cuts meant that, while most chapters were in the 2500 – 4000 word range, there were two complete monsters, one accounting for around 10% of the total word count. There was also one extremely important chapter which came in at just over a thousand words. I therefore had to do a final tweak to bring those chapters in line with the rest of the manuscript.

So, that’s where I am in the editing process. The manuscript has gone back to Bella. I believe it will then return to me. And go away again. And then come back again. And go away again.

Possibly. This is a steep learning curve.

I’m fairly sure I now know things I didn’t know before. Or if I did know them, on some basic level, I certainly didn’t know that I knew them, if that makes sense. All together now: there are known knowns…

Anyway, hopefully this summary of Things I Have Learned While Editing Stuff might be useful for people who are approaching the same exercise, whether at the pre-publication stage, or at the self-editing stage.

Editing Top Tips

1) Talk it through with someone. Someone can be your editor, your agent, your writing group, your beta reader, or anyone who might have useful insight. Ideally, it should be someone who knows the manuscript, but if you have friends who are writers, they may well be able to understand what you’re trying to do from a brief explanation, particularly if they’ve seen your work before.

2) Break the edit down into different strands – don’t try to deal with all aspects in a single run-through.

3) Do at least one of the early edits on paper. Yes, it’s a lot of paper and printer ink, but you’ll find that your writing looks completely different on paper (or on a Kindle screen) than in Word or Scrivener. I’m not quite sure why. It might just be that taking it off your computer screen and into a more ‘finished’ format, puts a bit of distance between you and your work.

4) Watch out for repeated words and phrases – most writers have verbal tics. They can easily slip through the net if you’re trying to do all aspects of the edit at once – mainly because you’ll be going slower, so you won’t cover as many chapters in one go. If you’re just looking at word count, and therefore going faster, you’re far more likely to think ‘hang on, didn’t someone just raise a deliberately provocative eyebrow two chapters ago?’

5) Watch out for excessive ‘stage direction’. If you’re the kind of writer who visualises your characters moving about, screenplay-style, it can be very tempting to detail every aspect of a scene, including which way your characters are facing, whether they’re making eye-contact, how long they pause before speaking, what steps they go through while making a cup of tea etc. Most of this can probably be cut. Readers are pretty good at filling in blanks when it’s very obvious what is going on. So ‘The following morning she climbed out of bed and shoved her feet into her jeans before pulling her t-shirt over her head. After brushing her hair she went downstairs and opened the cupboard to take out a mug….’* can become ‘The following morning she made herself a cup of coffee and…’

* disclaimer – This has been exaggerated for explanatory purposes. I’m not that bad. Honestly!

6) Similarly, watch out for convoluted ways of indicating the passing of time. Paragraph breaks can work surprisingly hard in implying a move to another scene or part of a scene.

‘Fine.’ He turned and walked away.
After he’d gone, she got up and went back outside where she…

vs

‘Fine.’ He turned and walked away.
Back outside, she…

7) Watch out for unnecessary dialogue tagging. Not every line in a conversation needs a ‘he said’ or a ‘she said.’ Some parts of the exchange can stand alone, and in other places a piece of (necessary!) stage direction can stand in for a dialogue marker

He walked over to the kettle, his hands shaking. ‘What do you expect me to do?’ he said. ‘This isn’t my fault.’

vs

‘What do you expect me to do?’ His hands shook as he picked up the kettle. ‘This isn’t my fault.’

8) If something doesn’t make sense – a metaphor, a gentle musing on the nature of life, the universe and everything – have a good think about whether it needs clarification (in extra words) or whether it can just be cut altogether. Be aware of authorial intrusions – they tend to be wordy!

9) Lose adjectives and adverbs wherever possible. The same meaning can often be conveyed by using a different verb.

She ran quickly

vs

She sprinted

10) Look for places where you’ve over-explained something, or gone on just a little bit too long, whether in dialogue or exposition. Do the extra words add anything?

As she pushed a quick series of buttons, the image on the screen came into focus.
‘That’s it,’ he said. ‘Hold that frequency.’
She pressed another button.

Do we need to know that she pressed another button? Probably not. Unless it’s a really important button obviously. If the next line is ‘And then the planet exploded in an entirely unforeseeable fireball’ then the button probably needs to stay.

 

And this is what other writers had to say on the subject of getting the word count down…

 

Read it aloud to an easily bored reader. You yourself will be aware when you bore them. Soon you will internalise that reader.

Sometimes a pure numbers game will help. For my first published novel I was given the ghastly task of cutting it by 25% in a few weeks by the publisher.. ‘Impossible,’ I thought, but it wasn’t. Journalists write to length all the time.

Cut out all cups of coffee and tea, also fictional writers sitting at computers.

Maggie Gee (novelist and Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University)

 

Cutting out the word “was” in most cases. Sounds punchier and modern.

‘The sky was cloudy and dark with the threat of rain ” becomes “Dark, cloudy sky with the threat of rain.” Grammar check will always tell you it’s a fragment. But I love fragments.

Debbi Voisey (short story writer)

 

Be ruthless on rambling. Cut routine movements/actions. Cut whatever slows pace. Cut passive language which distances reader from narrative. Cut favourite bits if they don’t serve the story.

Jan Barker (short story writer, @barjaycee)

Look out for passive language and turn it round, you can almost always cut out a load of words. Look for any adverbs and see if you can take them out and change the sentence to show the same meaning.

Paula Harmon (short story writer)

 

I try and eliminate ‘that’ and ‘very’ – almost always unnecessary.
Another thing I sometimes do with long and unwieldy sentences is paste them into twitter and see how I can change the sentence to fit within a more limited space and still retain the essential meaning.

Marc de Faoite (short story writer, @marcdefaoite www.marcdefaoite.com)

I applied the razor to every word that was not essential, and this stripped out about 5,000. Then I identified the least essential themes, removing them one by one. This lost another 15,000, but then I had to go through the script again from beginning to end to rebalance it.

John Sheehan (writer and historian, Harrogate Terriers –
From Strawberry Dale to Passchendaele – A History of
the 1/5th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment in the
Great War
, pub: Pen & Sword, Jan 2018)

 

Dialogue is always a good place to start – can it be said in fewer words? Does it need to be said at all?

Dianne Simmons (flash fiction writer)



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