Thanks to all who read and commented on last week’s post about community. It seemed to go down pretty well – perhaps writers aren’t such a solitary bunch after all.
There’s hope for us all yet, eh?
Today’s post is a doozy and I feel like I should start this one especially with a caveat: there’ll never be a hard and fast rule for writers. We come in all shapes and sizes and the thoughts I share here are based on things I’ve seen work, things I’ve seen not work, and from the input of a group of other authors and editors … but it still won’t be right for everyone. Think what I’m saying is swill? That’s fine, as long as you have your own system and as long as you keep on writing.
Writing about writing (for me) tends to fall into one of two camps: the more generalized / inspirational / philosophical pieces (Why do we write? Where does it come from?), and the pickier, more technical stuff (Dialogue tags that aren't 'said' - always bad? What's so wrong with adverbs?).
And, of course, there's always the issue of editing.
Editing isn't fun, but it's where bad writing becomes good, and good writing becomes great. Nobody gets it right first time. A composer doesn't just jot down a tune and leave it at that - they work over the whole thing again and again, finding the flaws and smoothing everything over. Insert whatever further analogy you'd prefer here; the crux is that after you write, you edit, or you're fooling yourself and putting out low quality work.
It seems to me there are three different things you're looking for in editing. For ease, and to make it seem like what I'm saying is totally true and not at all made up by me, I'm going to call them Sweeping, Sifting, and Sticky
Let's have a look, shall we?
By sweeping edits, I mean just that. It's a big picture, all-encompassing kind of thing. It's reading through the story, cover to cover, and seeing if the whole thing works as a single unit. It's a bird's eye view of the book, and the things it shows you are pace, narrative voice, tension, and conclusion.
Pace is easy. When writing, you take sections at a time then stitch them together. Read the whole thing, as a sweeping edit, and you might be surprised. Does hardly anything actually happen for the first 200 pages, and then everything important in the last five? Or were you so excited when you started that you swept through the opening and the character introductions, and now they seem rushed and too thin?
Narrative voice here means checking for consistency. A novel of more than 30-40,000 words means you probably wrote it over a couple of months, at least. Things change. The last chapters especially, where you've gotten comfortable with the voice you're in and know how it should sound, can end up very different to the more hesitant opening lines. Sweeping through, does it morph and change? Sometimes that's OK, if the plot requires it. Does it seem odd? Edit.
Tension goes along with pace. Something needs to happen that's not in the final chapter to keep people interested - this is the hook that agents and editors want - except there has to be more than one in an entire book. Are enough things happening to keep people invested right through to the end? (Remembering, of course, that unlike you, they don't know there's a satisfying ending coming. You’ll need to inspire them to continue!)
Conclusion? Well, it's the end - but the end of all the threads of the story, and not just the main one. Have all the questions you raised throughout the entire book been answered? Are the characters all accounted for? You'd be amazed how easy it is to completely forget about Stanley, the lovable but haunted postman who you had wander into the woods in chapter five and then forgot about. Readers probably won't forget. Where did he go? Conclude!
We're coming down from our bird's eye view now to look at what actually happens per page. It's time to take narration, dialogue, exposition, etc., and see how your writing actually holds up. Look for clunky phrasing, speech that would never sound natural if it were actually spoken, word usage, and paragraph breaks. Particular turns of phrase that seem so right, so genius in the early hours of the morning (after your fourth coffee and your ninth whisky), may shock you into a rude awakening when you read them a few months later. Did you write that? Really? Why? Kill it.
Speech is a hard one. Dialogue has to be natural enough that people don't think it sounds forced or robotic, but still needs to be filled with meaning, and not just filler, or editors themselves will wonder why it's there. Try reading it out loud, if you don't feel silly. Make sure you didn't use characters names too often - in real life conversation, how often do you use friends' names when you're addressing them? And remember that people rarely get through three or four sentences without someone interrupting. It's not rude - it's how conversation flows. Characters who get to monologue in a book are being too forceful and it's your job as much as other characters' to cut them down a bit.
Sifting edits is a good time to make sure you're not either using the same word over and over, or using words that are a tad incongruous in their setting. I have no problem with adverbs - some do - but there still has to be a limit before the reader gives up and drowns, lost to despair. Make sure words work for you; the right one, in the right place, at the right time. After this, you can look at things like paragraphs, chapter breaks, etc. The book should flow, with changing scenes and locations easy to follow.
Not the 'I dropped my jam sandwich on my manuscript' kind - though that would need dealing with. No, this is the least fun of them all, sadly. It's punctuation, grammar, spelling, consistency checking, and fact checking. Ones where you need to get stuck in.
Go through your book with a fine tooth come, and find those tiny, annoying things, and fix 'em. The good news here is that there is a right and a wrong answer. Unlike voice, or tension, where you need to feel it, and treat it as art, these sticky edits are objectively correct or incorrect. Commas work a certain way. Colons do, too. If you're using ' or " to mark speech, be consistent. Don't change halfway through. Ditto place names, or the weather. If you start the novel in winter then forget that and have a character in the next scene in shorts, you've slipped up. If they need to travel to London, hop on the train, and it takes half an hour from Edinburgh, you've slipped up. (Some would say if you're writing about Britain and the trains work at all, you've slipped up, but let's not go there right now...)
Fact checking's on you, too. Is the capital of Portugal really Barcelona? Seems suspect. Can you really buy a house in cash? Would that will have been publicly available the day after she died? These things can matter. Things that happen unrealistically only for the sake of plot - because the plot needs them to, with no discussion about it - can be a mark of lazy plotting. Lazy writing isn't worth people reading, a lot of the time. Make sure you world is complete and works within its own rules.
So, yes. Some ways of editing. Some will work for some writers, others won't. The key, though, is that writing gets better the more you polish it.
And who doesn't want better writing?
One more thing on this topic…
"Read your own compositions, and when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out." - Samuel Johnson
The importance of not editing your own work - by which I mean, of course, not being the only one to edit your own work - can't really be overstated. If there were set rules of writing, and there was a Number One Rule, it would be, to my mind, Edit, Edit, Edit, but then right underneath it would say ‘But get someone else to, as well.’
When I finished my book, EREN, I gave the manuscript to friends and family, and they got back to me with things that I know I couldn't have caught. Lots of typos, yes, but those are the ones that anyone paying attention could catch. No, the things my beta-readers highlighted are the authorial blind spots - the twists and turns of plot and narrative that I, as the writer, was too close to see. You lose sight of certain problems when you're in too deep and you know the story backwards and forwards. Already in my head are all the previous drafts of EREN, including those phantom scenes that no longer exist, or the big reveals that never actually got written, but that I remember.
There's been some good catches, too. For example:
Thanks to a scene cut out long ago, a character walked into the protagonist's bedroom, put a tray down on a chair and proceeded to ignore it and walk out again. The tray once carried breakfast - in the current manuscript it remained a random and perplexing gift. It's now gone. Bye-bye, phantom tray.
In a retelling of the Three Little Pigs, the first pig ran from his house of straw into his brother's entirely different and much safer house of... well, straw. Woops. Good catch there. House of wood. I know my stuff.
In a previous draft, Oli falls and hurts his wrist, and it bothers him throughout the following chapters. That scene was cut months ago, leaving several inexplicable references to his painful wrist entirely missed by me (since in my mind, it all made sense. But to fresh eyes…)
And endless other small things - grammar, strange phrasing, confusing pronouns...
My point is, editing has to be done by you and by people who aren't going to offend you by pointing out that your work isn't completely flawless and award-worthy. Yet. And you have to choose not to be offended by criticisms. They'll make your work better and stronger, and why would that bother you?
Patience is probably key. Write, but then use all the will power in the world not to put it up on the net that same day, or send it off to agents and start spending your royalty cheques. Get better at writing by, just sometimes, not writing.
Right. Next week, query letters and submitting your manuscript to agents. Almost there, guys! Are any of you submitting, or working on query letters right now? Let us know in the comments below.
Simon P. Clark
Simon grew up in the UK before moving to rural Japan to teach English for three years after graduating. From there he moved to New Jersey, USA, where he works as a writer. His first children's book, EREN, is represented by Molly Ker Hawn of The Bent Agency. He blogs about writing and publishing at http://www.simonpclark.com
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