Editing: dead darlings, flashers in the woods and someone stealing your shoes

So the blog has been a bit quiet for a few months, largely because (a) I was being a productive writer and (b) there was a heatwave. Probably more (b) than (a), but let me believe my own lies at least…

In the past few months, I have written a highbrow piece called Sentient Zombie Space Pigs, which has today received a very lovely review from John Freeman at Down The Tubes. I’ve also been compiling Vol 3 of Disconnected, our comic anthology of stories set in small towns – we’ll be launching that at the Comic Art Festival in Kendal later this month. And I’ve been discovering the joys of editing.

Editing, it turns out, is hard. You thought writing the great novel was the tough bit? Nah, that was just you spilling your wordy guts out onto the page, with no regard for the consequences. Now you’ve got a screen full of words and, lurking in the middle like a flasher in the woods, a story.

I finished the draft of a novel at the start of the heatwave. I followed standard advice, and put it away for a while. I drank some Pimms, worked on my suntan and thought what a lovely life a writer leads.

Then I remembered the novel.

Switch on the computer, open up the file, stare at it blankly for a while thinking “this bit’s good, this bit’s lame”. I read it through. Liked the middle, but not the beginning or the end. Killed a few darlings. And I thought: what’s all the fuss about? Editing’s easy.

Overnight, a demon awoke in my brain. “You call that editing?” it said. “That wasn’t editing. That was just reading and patting yourself on the back for having produced 320 pages. That beginning: it stinks. That ending: it’s twee. And the middle, the bit you liked: stodgy. Oh, and by the way, you’ve got weird hair and strange shaped toes.” (My demons like to multitask.)

I ignored the demon (the heatwave continued, my tan was looking good). But he kept coming back. And I realised that I really needed to engage with editing. And that meant having a process.

Serendipity is a writer’s best friend. I read an article about a first time novelist which referred to a book: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. (Other editing books are available.)

I read the book and thought: wow, this is complicated.

I read it again and thought: OK, now let me take all of these different approaches to editing, all of these lenses through which I’m supposed to view my story, and come up with a process.

The process said: read the story and look at different elements each time. There are a lot of elements, so maybe look for more than one at a time, otherwise you’re going to get very bored of your own writing. Look for “macro” things: mood, voice, point of view in scenes, themes. And look for micro things: repetition, typos, punctuation, adverbs you don’t need, cliches. My second favourite bit of editing advice (after Kill Your Darlings) is this:

Read everything aloud and change a word every time you are tempted.

The new word will be better than the old one. The old one is probably one you used a lot in your draft. It turned out, in my first draft, that people always “leaned in” to talk to each other and that the bad guys all smelt of cigarettes and diesel. The new draft has people talking without swaying back and forth, and the smell of the bad guys gets a bit less attention.

Key to the process was the keeping of lists (I love lists). I wrote a list on a spreadsheet of all the different ways in which I was going to review the draft, and ticked each one off as I completed it. I also kept a list of all of the edits I was going to make (for reasons of administrative incompetence, I was reviewing a PDF, which meant I couldn’t just change the text): this way I know that I identified 450 edits in 320 pages, approximately 3 of which were typos.

My other tip: read your document in a different format to how you wrote it. If you wrote on a software programme (I use – and love – Scrivener), then export it to Word or a PDF. Print it out. Put it on your Kindle. Create the experience of reading it as a book, not as a work in progress. You’ll see where the page breaks fall, how long your chapters are, whether you’ve got screeds of description without a paragraph break in sight. And it will feel new. Like a friend you haven’t seen in a while rather than the one that’s always hanging around wanting to borrow your shoes.

I’ll stop now. Eight hundred and something words on editing suggests that I need some editing, but I don’t want to end up in some self-recursive spiral (NB. I don’t know what self-recursive mean, but it sounds like the right word). Plus: it’s October 6th and the heatwave hasn’t quite finished….

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