Editing: Where to start

I was about to start editing a colleague’s work recently and it set me thinking about what I look for when I’m editing my own work. I made a list but I know there’s so much more and as a friend said ‘but rules are made to be broken’. That’s true but you need to know what the rules are before you break them.

So, if I was telling myself three years ago how to edit what would I say?

Firstly, read ‘Self-editing for fiction writers’ by Browne and King, ‘Revision and self-editing’ by Bell and ‘Solutions for writers’ by Stein. I think these give a good start to ideas about editing your own work. I’ve read them all three times each over a few years, each reading reinforces ideas, writing gets stronger.

Secondly, write, write, and write. Through writing, we start to incorporate the ‘rules’ and also develop an awareness of when to break some of the rules to create the effect we need.

Thirdly, consider some of these key ideas when editing fiction:

1. Repetition
Words that are used too many times in the same sentence or paragraphs or throughout a section. Think of other ways to show it unless there is no other way and the repetition is deliberate.
e.g. He carried…then she carried another bag…they carried the pots…

2. Cliché phrases
Similes and metaphors that we know are familiar, have heard before. Try to think of a unique way of describing something.
e.g. the sky was blue – try – It was sunny out, a blessed relief following the dull days but a cold night put a layer of ice over the car windows. Jack dashed at it with the scraper. He was going to be late.

3. Excessive words
Words, which if they are cut out of a sentence, don’t diminish its meaning.
e.g. clearly, just, very, now, then,
e.g. he was clearly excited – try – he was excited – or even better, show his excitement – he jumped out of his chair.

4. Linking words
These words, when used, mean that you may need to rearrange sentences to show preceding actions or information before this sentence i.e. if events are in sequence these words are not needed.
e.g. which, that, as,

5. Active versus Passive
Avoid use of ‘had’ unless going into the past of the past. If you get a ‘had had’, find out why and is it really necessary.

6. –ing
Consider use of the definite form e.g. ‘held’ versus ‘was holding’.
-ing is an action in continuous/indefinite form. –ed is the definite form.
Use –ing form sparingly, as needed.

7. Show not tell.
Avoid telling the reader how someone feels, try to show it.
e.g. he said, amazed – try – He said, taking a step back.
Use an action description that shows the emotion.

8. Dialogue tags
If the dialogue is working, then ‘he said/she said’ is all that is needed. The reader skims over these words, using anything else and the reader has to slow down. The reader wants to read the dialogue, not the dialogue tags.

Try to use volume descriptions of said, if needed, e.g. she shouted, screamed, whispered.
It is not necessary to use the dialogue tag to describe what is happening in the dialogue if the dialogue shows it (this is repetitive and superfluous)
e.g. ‘he rejoiced’ when his dialogue shows this already.
e.g. ‘You are right,’ he agreed. Repetition.

Also, don’t combine actions with dialogue tags i.e. you can’t laugh and speak full sentences at the same time. Separate action from speech.
e.g. He laughed. ‘All I can say…’ not He laughed, ‘All I can say…’
‘We’ll go there…’ He pointed to the pub.

Use speaker with tags consistently e.g. he said/she said versus said he/said she. The latter is old fashioned. Whichever way you decide, be consistent.

9. Naming characters
Avoid giving characters similar sounding names, names that start with the same letter or sound e.g. Jim, Jack, John, and Janice met in at the restaurant.

10. Eliminate all trace of the author’s voice, unless author is narrator.
Everything in the work is from the Point of View of the characters (single or multiple), what they say, how they behave, what they see and sense.

Dialogue should sound like your character (time, place, age) not the author.
Also, vary speech – most people don’t speak in really long sentences.
Note: Phonetic dialogue is not always necessary though, can be done subtly.

11. Sentence variety.
Vary sentence length and type. Short sentences speed up the action. Long sentences slow it down.

12. Paragraph length.
Big blocks of writing and the reader usually skims what is in the paragraph. Vary paragraph lengths with the pace you want for the reader. Use dialogue to break monotony of long paragraphs, if relevant.

13. Details
Use concrete and specific details (telling detail) instead of the general.
e.g. the garden was bountiful – try describing – rows of peas, beans and mounds of potato plants. An example of ‘show’ versus ‘tell’.

Weave in details through the scene, if possible. Avoid a massive paragraph of description at the start of every scene (one or two scenes may be unavoidable but not every single one, surely)

14. Plot.
How the story unfolds and keeps the reader interested. Does anything feels forced, out of place, take the reader out of the dream?

So this was my list. But I defer to the three books I named above as describing the things to look for when editing your own or another writer’s work; they give excellent examples, way better than mine.
When editing, you want to retain the writer’s voice in the material not re-write it completely the way you would have written it or described it.

To finish, a dip into Strunk and White’s ‘The elements of style’, or any book on grammar, occasionally, to keep the basics in check.

Rules are made to be broken and that applies to everything in this article but I think when you’re starting to edit your own work, or others, the ideas above would be worthwhile considering.

What do you think?

Struggling to finish

I remember doing one of those personality tests years ago and I remember ignoring the results. It was something like…I was good at starting and investigating things but poor on completion i.e. finishing.

So when I struggled to finish the second draft (second attempt at second draft) of my second novel (note: first novel still needs to be re-written and third novel draft to be finished) that I noticed that for the first half of the draft I was flying along with the words and ideas and, hey, life was great, it was a breeze…

But then, when I had to bring it to a conclusion, I seemed to hit wall after wall of self-doubt that I could do it.

So how did I call time and bring a halt to that stuttering of thought…how did I get myself to write the next word, the next sentence, and the ones after that?

I told myself that I can do this. I have been doing this.

To breathe in deeply.

Remind myself; Believe. Listen. Trust.

Believe in me.

Listen to me.

Trust in me.

Told myself, I will be a finisher. I am a finisher. End of.

And then got back to the writing….

Tying up loose ends

I’m terrible. I keep changing things constantly as the story progresses in my novel and thinking ‘ooh, that’s a better idea now, I’ll use that’ and then I have to make note of the change and go back through chapters to introduce the idea or cut out the previous idea from scenes as I feed the new idea in.

Anyway, as usual I got carried away with this on the current novel (perhaps this is one of the reasons the revisions seem to be never ending) and at a meeting with a literature mentor, it dawned on me that if my mentor has questions about the synopsis and I still have ideas that haven’t been worked into the novel then this novel is never going to end unless the ideas are finalised and stop changing.

It gets to that stage of writing that when someone else reading your novel keeps asking questions about it and even though you keep an open mind and accept the critique, you need to ask yourself – if this reader has to ask these questions, what other questions haven’t been answered?

Ok, most of the time I have the answers and sometimes I haven’t thought about it at all. But for every question that was raised, it meant that there loose ends in the novel that had to be tied up. And adding to this, there were also unanswered questions in my own notes that needed to be fleshed out and determined as well before I continued writing.

So to solve the problem, I made a new list called a Fact Sheet – a list of everything I was asked (yes, even if it seemed to be a silly question). Then I wrote about each item, clarifying and/or re-enforcing the facts about it.

The facts were about settings, characters, their backgrounds, the locations, the plot, and the subplots and I added two separate columns to indicate which chapter a fact is hinted at and when it is revealed in full. E.g. character X is married to Mary and has two young boys. Was B’s best man and got him current job at the Institute.

Now all that needs to be done is to review each fact and decide when and where it goes into the story line (Or even, does it need to be known at all – not all back-story needs to be told). Hints and reveals are shown via thoughts, dialogue, and descriptions from the point of view character, for example, as foreshadowing before a fact is revealed. Sort of drip feeding the information throughout the novel rather than going ‘ta da’ at the end and trying to reveal everything in one big chapter.

I’ve made up the Fact Sheet and I feel like I’ve cemented the unanswered questions now. Plus everything on the Fact Sheet is going to help me with my synopsis. Onwards we go…

Getting over the initial fear

Getting over the initial fear of putting pen to paper, placing my fingers onto the keyboard, opening up the last draft, checking my notes, starting the corrections, adjustments, editing my work, working on the millionth (it feels like it) revision of a chapter or a scene, some days feels like the hardest thing in the world.

Knowing that the chapters and scenes that I’ve looked at and edited will work better, read better after their revisions and convincing myself to keep going because this next chapter, this next scene, after I put in the changes I’ve identified that it needs, will be better. It will sing, exactly right, exactly the way I want it to. I’m getting there.

So, today, I feel the fear, the worry inside that tells me ‘what if you are wasting your time, what if this novel is crap?’ and I try my best to ignore it, that malicious little voice, and I shout back ‘But I’ve seen it, I’ve seen the precious fragments in my writing that tell me I’m mastering this craft, I’m doing this, I can do this’.

And then I tell myself.

‘Do not be afraid. Write. You deserve to have your voice heard and your words deserve to be read.’

P.S. I feel like I’ve been editing forever…thank goodness I sorted out all the plots and subplots, this should work better now. All I have to do is keep going, with a little faith…No, with a lot of faith.

The second draft edit

As we weave our way through the process of trying to get at least one novel published, many options are presented for editing that we try out to determine if they will work for us.

I watched a video about editing and in it an author said that you will have to cut out half of your book, cut out whole scenes, just cut, cut, cut. But he didn’t explain what you have to cut.

For a beginner novelist, I think that this is overwhelming advice. When I heard him say that, I thought why didn’t you tell them it like this, see below, which is a bit more realistic than just ‘cut, cut, cut’. So these are my thoughts…

During the editing phase of your novel:

1. You will cut, revise, and rearrange most of your novel to pull the best from it in the revision and editing phase.

2. Initially, using a top down approach, you will look at the structure as a whole, examining the scene and chapter intentions through the whole novel.

3. You identify which chapters and scenes were a nice detour during the first draft but now add nothing to move your plot along, unless part of interesting sub-plots. These will need to be cut unless they are revised to incorporate plot elements that move the plot forward.

4. You will look to see if additional material is required to improve missing sections or holes in the plot.

5. You will look at which scenes require revision of their structure to make the plot work better within them. Sometimes a scene can work harder by being combined with another one. This includes situations where you have too many characters – which ones can be combined into a single character.

6. When you have completed the overall rewrite to ensure a better structure for your plots and subplots, you analyse plot within each chapter and within each scene and then within each paragraph. Make every sentence in your novel work harder for every word contained within it.

7. And when your heart has stopped breaking with all the changes you’re going to make, then you will remind yourself that this can all be done in small bite-size steps.

8. You will learn how to flick between creator and editor continuously during this process.

9. You must also keep reminding yourself that you are a writer and you will complete this novel.

Does this sound closer to your editing process?

Struggling to revise

Revision is tough. I’ve done very little over the last week, couldn’t write at all for four days. Felt bad. Tried to be positive. Did not work.

I’d decided to aim for a target of 10,500 words to be revised every week and I’m not making that target. My aim was to complete the second draft in eight weeks but it’s not working out and I’m feeling a bit, more than a bit, de-motivated this weekend. I’m supposed to be at 31,000 by now and have only 25,000 worked on.

It’s a catch between – do I need a break or is the section I’m working on boring me senseless?

I decided that the idea was still sound and I needed a break. So I got four days and three walks in. Did loads of reading, a painting and free-writing. And telly and cooking and housework and general sorting out of things that should have been done if I wasn’t writing.

What did I get done since my break? Well, six pages of notes later and I suppose I did get two chapters written more the way I wanted them to be, new scenes added to reinforce one of the sub-plots and loads deleted and re-written. Revision is so gut-wrenchingly ruthless; cutting good writing because it doesn’t do its job. But when a chapter is revised and pulls the plot along properly, it really sings!

I’m not making my target but at least the chapters feel better written. I’ll tackle the next one tomorrow. Make a dent in it. Literally.

Scene intentions: or what I should have written in the first place.

Twenty thousand words into a second draft and I feel myself faltering. I look at the next chapter and think – what is the point of it? Honestly, what is the point, what is the intention of this scene, this chapter, what is supposed to be happening?

Scene and chapter intentions are critical. When I was attempting to do the second draft of my first novel I didn’t use them properly and I’ve had to put that novel aside because it’s not working. For the second novel, I’m using the information given in the book ‘Nail your novel: why writers abandon books and how you can draft, fix and finish with confidence’ by Roz Morris, to produce a sheet with a timeline, scene and chapter intentions.

Note: This book was recommended in another publication called ‘The new author’ by Ruby Barnes who was a writer who’d completed the same course I did in creative writing, a year or more before me.

Every time I get stuck trying to figure out what I need to revise in the next chapter, I write out a mini-plan for it, remembering that the chapter will have a natural beginning (draw the reader in), middle section and end (leave them wanting more) and I think of the flow of the scenes within that chapter. I write down exactly what the scene is for. For example:

Scene intention for Chapter 6 Scene 2: B interrogated by C and David, B finds out about E.

I also jot down reminders of what exactly needs to be covered in that interrogation e.g. C asks B why didn’t he say anything? David takes control, shows video of E.

(I use the first letter of each main character’s name, faster than writing in full)

Revising the second novel is working better than I thought it would. Even though I wrote the scene and chapter intentions for the whole novel after the first draft (remember first drafts can’t be held up, write them without the inner critic), as I approach each chapter I find that I may revise those intentions or the intended purpose of the scenes to make the chapter work better – still keeping in mind the build-up of the overall plot and subplots.

The other book which I use for editing is ‘Self-editing for fiction writers’ by Renni Browne and Dave King. I’ve read it three times over the last year. I need that information firmly embedded in my brain.

So on we go…happy editing.

Reading it out loud

I got this wonderful piece of advice from a teacher.

When editing your work, read it out loud to yourself. It does seem strange when you first do it; you are conscious that anyone nearby is wondering why you’re talking to yourself. But you get used to it very quickly.

Reading out my work to myself, I can pick out the words that I stumble on, pauses in sentences that require a full-stop and shorter pauses that may require a comma, especially in dialogue.

It’s an excellent technique and helps you hear the beats within a piece, the resonance of words complimenting each other and the dissonance of those that don’t – be it an intentional choice or not.

It also highlights repetitive words (unless consciously written to emphasise a critical point) and the repetition of a character’s name where he or she may suffice.

Bear in mind that reading your work out loud is something you do when you are moving towards the last draft of a novel, you could do it earlier, but if you have re-writing or structural changes still to make then it’s very hard to part with finely edited work. Also, it’s a good habit for short stories and poetry.

Eventually, reading your work out loud to yourself becomes as natural as breathing. Indeed, one day you will have to read your work to an audience so best do it beforehand in private.

Write your own damn novel!

This is something a tutor used to say to our class when we were learning to give critique to fellow writers.

As a writer, with all our insecurities about our own writing, we get feedback from everywhere. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s basically like a stab to the heart, the pain is excruciating and we run over and over the criticism in our minds, adding to the already self-doubting scripts running full-time in there.

During the course I did last year, whenever everyone was giving feedback to another writer and the discussion would get heated up about what each of us was recommending to that budding writer (based entirely on our own limited experiences), our tutor would call a halt to it and tell that writer (I adlib slightly here):

‘You’ve got all this feedback, written and verbal, but in the end it’s your novel, you’re doing all the writing. So write your own damn novel. You can take the feedback or not, only you know what bits of feedback you need to keep.’

P.S. I note that there is, of course, an alternative situation where that statement is also applicable. When family and friends ask me how my novel is going and then give me a surprised look when I say that I haven’t finished yet. I do try to explain that I’ve finished a first draft, I’ve written a second draft but I may need a third re-write. Anyway, they don’t get it. It’s at moments like this that I also feel like saying ‘Write your own damn novel!’