Edit, Edit, Edit (Reprise)

I touched on editing in a previous blog post, but I thought I’d go into a little more depth this time, summarising the revelations I’ve had through the process and addressing a couple of common misconceptions. The following may be obvious to some, but for me it’s been a case of trial and error (that’s still ongoing). My biggest problem has been accepting the volume of work editing requires; it’s oh so easy to convince yourself that it’s optional and that the raw manuscript is good enough as it is.

It isn’t.

There are, broadly speaking, three types of edit: structural/developmental, line/copy, proofread. The first deals with the big picture, sanding off the protrusions in the plot that trip a reader up. This stage is important. Very important. It’s so important that I’ve told you three times. It’s also the hardest, and the easiest to skip — to a point. I say hardest, when actually what I mean is most daunting. You’ve written your manuscript, poured months of your life into it, and now you need to take a long hard look at it. You know there’s problems — big problems. But changing them is a huge amount of work. Eh, maybe the problems aren’t so big after all. Nah, they’re fine.

No! Stop! That’s the voice of sloth speaking. Ignore it at all costs. Fixing the big problems can be the difference between a three star review and a five, so the time spent cleaning them up is worth it many times over. With Vessel, I have an ending (published in these pages) where the bad guy spills the beans. It’s hackneyed, it’s cliched and it took a lot of fixing. And that’s why I say that the structural/developmental stage is the easiest to skip to a point, because once you start, you can’t stop. If you truly have a story worth writing, and you truly enjoy writing, you will truly enjoy the structural/developmental edit. Why? Because it’s your world, your characters, and you get to learn even more about them. You relive the story in your mind, thinking what if, and when you do, that’s when the fun really starts. So in the case of Vessel I re-wrote the entire ending, and with it came more ideas about the bad guy’s motivations, which in turn lead to a tighter involvement from the protagonist early on and a plot with the added slickness of a greased rat.

This is why this easy-to-skip stage is so important, because it allows you to look over what you’ve done and really get to know it. Think about it: your relationship with the characters is as fleeting as any reader’s after the first draft, and you wouldn’t expect a reader to recall all the details you as a writer need to know to make the story perfect. So you fix the big chunks and the small problems (that you may not even have noticed) fix themselves. And it’s fun, rewarding. It took me a long time to get over that hump and knuckle down, but I’m glad I did. For example, having changed the ending meant that I tweaked another character’s involvement, which lead to an adjustment of a key moment later on, which in turn affected the investment the protagonist had in the whole story. It’s like polishing a dirty window: it seemed fine before, but after it’s a whole new world of clarity and detail.

Next comes the line/copy edit. There’s been a bit of a blur between the developmental edit and the copy edit — that is to say that the smaller character and plot tweaks come under the latter heading. Again it highlights the importance of the the first stage, because approaching the copy edit without thinking about the structure as a whole is like getting into a hot bath with a leap. You ease yourself back into the plot with the developmental edit (having left the manuscript untouched for a few months while working on something else to clear your mind of it first) and then the copy edit becomes a much more comfortable and bearable process.

Further to the refinement of small plot and character details, the copy edit is the opportunity to make the prose flow. Sounds dumb, right? Most people will be reading the book in their heads, so there are no toungue-twisters to trip up on, right? Wrong. Your brain reads just like you read aloud, and if there’s a clunky sentence or an unbelievable string of dialogue, your inner tongue will get just as knotted. So here’s what I do: I read the manuscript aloud. It’s a strange process, but once you get over the sound of your own voice in your ears, you’ll appreciate the value. What hi-fi buffs call PRAT (Pace, Rhythm and Timing) comes into play as much here as it does with poetry and lyrics. Make each sentence flow — it doesn’t have to be a majestic piece of soul-crushing libretto, but it does need to freely move through the brain, and reading it aloud is the best way of spotting the hiccups.

It’s also a great way of spotting fluff. Fluff is the writing that serves no purpose. Think about every line carefully: does it influence the plot? Does it influence the protagonist? If it’s gone, will it make any difference? Be brutal. You may think that simile you’ve devised would have Shakespeare’s knees-a-knocking, but if it serves no purpose other than to show off your literary talent, shoot it. Shoot it dead. This is a novel, not a CV. You may like the way you described the elongated squared plastic tube connecting the frayed off-white string to the dusty blinds, but get over it — no one pays that much attention when they open the blinds. People simply open blinds. Once you get past the horror of snipping away at unnecessary words — even whole sentences — it becomes easier, more refreshing, like cleaning out the attic. You realise that you didn’t need all that junk after all, and now everything looks pleasant and tidy.

The copy edit, for me, is a stage most important for the formation of believable dialogue, and here is where the reading aloud technique pays real dividends: if it sounds stupid coming out of your mouth, well — that’s because it is stupid. Change it. Make it sound like something a person would really say. It can make you cringe to see how robotic your characters really are, spouting nonsense and repeating what others have just said, or just plain iterating points that didn’t need iterating. ‘I’m just going around the back now to the place where I keep my gun next to my lawn mower,’ is a wonderful example of a piece of dialogue trying to do too much. Don’t force it. If you need a nugget of information to be revealed, think of a believable way to do it. Our example shooter here is revealing that the gun is kept next to lawn mower, because we want the reader to realise that he was the lawn-mower killer the whole time — but we don’t want the reader to think that he’s also a blithering idiot that talks like he’s reading a badly written teleprompter. ‘Get my gun.’ ‘Where is it?’ ‘By the lawn mower.’ That’s better.

Last of all is the proofread. This, for me, is the most draining. It’s what I’m on at the moment, and it takes a lot of concentration. It’s also the stage most people believe editing consists entirely of: looking for speeling mistackes and errors from your grammar. The human brain reads ahead, devouring sentences before you’ve consciously got to them, filling the gaps in between. You konw toshe snecentes wtih all the ltretes mlduedd up? You can read them with little difficulty because your brain has already scanned ahead, fixing the mistakes. This also highlights why sorting the rhythm during the copy-edit stage is so important, because the brain can’t fix that and gets stuck when scanning ahead, jarring the reader from the experience.

So far I haven’t really worked out a great way to proofread. I read aloud again, which helps me spot any copy-editing bits I’ve missed, but I skip the little errors with surprising ease. I try to consciously read each word on its own, but it’s hard going and takes a lot of concentration not to slip back into normal reading mode. Fortunately, my partner seems to have an almost eagle-like ability to spot these little boo-boos, so she has been my saving grace in this stage, catching the errors that slip through my brain. That doesn’t stop this bit being supremely boring, though.

The next stage in learning to edit is probably knowing when to stop. A writer’s work is never done, or at least never good enough, and I can’t imagine a read through when I don’t spot something I want to change. I guess for now I’ll have to use my better judgement and, hopefully, with time and experience, I’ll be able to get the feel for when enough’s enough. In any case, Vessel is nearing completion, and with a bit of luck it will be worth the read. Fingers crossed.


4 thoughts on “Edit, Edit, Edit (Reprise)

  1. As Stephen King said “kill your darlings” and that is very true when looking for the fluff and junk you need to dump. Totally agree with you on the reading aloud part and I do this a lot, especially when I sit back and read through what I’ve just written, with a frown because something doesn’t feel right. Read it out loud and ah-ha, there’s the problem!

    Pace, Rhythm and Timing sounds very similar to getting your tags and beats in the right place. In the heat of the moment it’s easy to give the reader information overload in dialogue for example.

    Any further thoughts on your publishing route for Vessel?

    • Reading aloud really is a fantastic method for weeding out those little niggles, especially in dialogue.

      Tags and beats? What do you mean by that?

      Yeah, info overload is really easy to do. I worry that I’m leaving the reader with confused, so I often overegg the dialogue when it really doesn’t need it.

      I’ll be talking more on that in my next post 🙂

      • I’ve been accused by a few beta readers of not giving enough information, or maybe the right information, often with the phrase “the reader doesn’t know what’s inside your head, Dave!” So it’s a strange balancing act between too little or too much information.

        I’m pretty sure tags and beats were called something different when I was in school. There’s always a new buzzword popping up to describe stuff. A tag is a word like “said” or “asked” and a beat is the bit of action that goes around the dialogue. Apparently having both at the same time isn’t good. So you have the beat first: Jimmy licked his lips. Then you add the dialogue followed by the tag: “It’s dry in here,” he said.

        According to a lot of editors or people in the know, having the beat and tag mixed up doesn’t work, or isn’t very effective shall we say, so: “It’s dry in here,” said Jimmy, licking his lips. Is a bit weird because it’s not easy to speak and lick your lips at the same time I guess!

        Also, if you add a beat before the dialogue bit you give the reader something to picture as they read the dialogue, rather than reading the dialogue, then seeing the beat and then piecing it together. Because that way when they read the dialogue their imagination is already creating what they think the scene or character looks like or what they’re doing, and then putting the beat after can have a negative impact on what they thought was going on.

        Swings and roundabouts really. There are rules and trends to writing, and if you can get away with it you can break them. It’s like the issue of where to put the word “said” which baffles me at times. Turns out that it’s old fashioned to write it: …said Jimmy. Whereas it’s better or more modern and popular to write it: …Jimmy said.

        But then I’m reading Charlie Higson’s The Sacrifice (great set of books by the way) at the moment and he uses …said Jimmy all the time, so while it pays to know the difference it certainly doesn’t harm you to choose a style and stick to it!

        • You’re right; it’s so hard to separate yourself from what you already know as the writer to visualise the plot from the perspective of the reader. It can only be a trial and error thing until you get the feel for it, surely?

          Hmm, interesting about the beat and tag thing, I didn’t know that. I suppose it does make sense though, although I’m not sure it’s as jarring as perhaps it’s made out to be! Not sure if I do it myself or not. I probably do… but given the quality of material being published by big houses with much bigger issues slipping through, I’m surprised it’s considered a problem at all :-S

          I tend to mix up ‘Johnny said’ and ‘said Johnny’, although I think I prefer the former. I’d never really given it much thought!

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