Line by Line

As a girl, one of the eternal truths I learned (along with ‘other people care a lot less than you’d imagine about your life,’ and ‘tears are very rarely worth it’) was ‘If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well – and, that usually means it’s going to take forever and drive you ’round the twist.’

Well, quite.

You’ll be pleased, perhaps, to know that editing continues apace on ‘Emmeline.’ It’s, at once, the most dreary and the most exciting thing imaginable. It’s great to feel the book taking shape under my hands, and it almost feels cathartic to slash and burn my way through stupid sentences and pointless description and continuity errors that would be embarrassing if anyone else had a chance to read them, and I’m really enjoying the act of indulging my inner pedant.

But, as well as that, it’s hard. It’s hard work. There’s no way around it.

Image: cutestpaw.com

Image: cutestpaw.com

One of the most useful things that editing on paper does is it forces you to read your work as though it was already a book. I know that sounds a bit ‘out there,’ and perhaps it is, but that’s how it works for me, at least. Reading on-screen feels a little informal; it makes my brain think I’m reading a Work-in-Progress, where errors don’t really matter too much. When I’m reading on a screen, my work is in a permanent ‘holding area’ where nothing needs to be finalised or corrected because, on some level, you’re always thinking: ‘there’ll be another draft after this. If I miss something, no big deal.’

Printing out your work and going through it with a pen makes you realise – this is a big deal. Printing makes it more permanent. Printing means investment, of time and effort and money, and that fools you into taking it more seriously. Printing something reminds you that there is an end-game in sight; this is what you’re aiming for. You’re shooting for a day when your words will be down on paper, permanently, like the ‘ever-fixéd mark’.

Even if – as it does for me, right now – it feels so far away that it’ll never be a reality, you have to keep heading for that permanence. You have to keep believing that every tweak, every removed comma, every excised sentence, every smoothed-over paragraph, every cliché bopped on the head is bringing you closer to that goal.

Image: picturesof.net

Image: picturesof.net

Editing requires hard work. Writing the book requires hard work, of course, but somehow editing takes a different sort of effort. Writing the book can feel a bit like freewheeling – you feel a certain wild joy as you put something together for the first time, and as you watch an idea that you’ve nurtured and grown finally take shape. Getting to the end takes huge effort, and sometimes – when you’ve struggled over the line – you feel like the work of bringing forth the idea is done.

Except it isn’t. It’s only beginning.

Just like you can’t bake a lump of dough whole if you’re trying to make perfectly shaped cookies, or thinly-rolled pastry, you can’t deliver a freshly slapped-together book to a reader and expect them to be able to digest it. The ingredients are all there, present and correct and in the appropriate quantities, but it’s just not right. It needs shaping and refining and – crucially – it needs the unnecessary bits trimmed away. ‘Emmeline’ was full of errors in its first draft – the character wearing a dress in one scene, and trousers in another; Thing’s eyes were green in one chapter and brown in another (this is so common as to be embarrassing); characters were short and stumpy in one chapter and tall and willowy in another – and that sort of thing is bound to cause dyspepsia when it’s read. It’s depressing to read other books where the idea is there – the ingredients are all used, and used well – but the finishing hasn’t been done to quite the right extent. It makes me more determined to make my own work as sleek as possible, as well-formed as I can, before it is sent anywhere. I don’t always succeed – I am, needless to say, still learning the ropes – but it’s something to aim for.

Luckily, as I’ve read further and further into ‘Emmeline’ (I’m now just over halfway through, again), I’m spotting fewer and fewer basic errors. I’ve stopped mixing up eye colour and appearances, and Emmeline’s clothing has decided what it wants to be. This means that I can pay even closer attention to the plot, in particular those parts where my eye skips or my brain turns off, because those are the parts which need the most work. If you find yourself skimming over any part of your writing, then it’s vital to force yourself to go back over it in forensic detail. Perhaps you’ve tried to patch over a major plot hole in such an awkward way that you don’t want to deal with it, or perhaps it’s just that your story sags at that point, becoming turgid. Either way, it can’t be allowed to remain unchecked. It’s as difficult a thing as anything I’ve ever done, this ‘forcing myself’ to go back over my own work when something in me really doesn’t want to – it makes me feel like I have a stroppy teenager in my brain, refusing to clean up their room.

But just as a teenager can be coaxed, so can your brain. Changing up your working environment always helps me; something as simple as burning a nicely scented candle or making a cup of coffee can work wonders. Reminding yourself how great it’ll feel when the work is done is also a help, sometimes. Taking a break and getting some fresh air is also vital.

But the most vital bit of all is never giving up. Hitting ‘print,’ taking up the pen, turning on the critical brain, and understanding that, with every correction, you’re bringing yourself one step closer to your goal is the most important thing you can do – and not just once, but day after day after day until you’re done.

So, like I said. At once the most exciting, and the most dreary thing imaginable. But, like anything that’s important, it’s absolutely worth it.

Image: menaulhead.wordpress.com Artist: Kevin Spear, 2009; kevinspear.com

Image: menaulhead.wordpress.com
Artist: Kevin Spear, 2009; kevinspear.com

 

 

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