Tag Archives: tips for editing a long document

*Tears Out Hair*

So, I’m editing.

It would be brilliant, wouldn’t it, if we could just write and have done with it. If every word that spilled forth in our first drafts was the most perfectly crafted jewel, settling happily into place without a whimper. Sadly, however, this is not true of anyone (no matter what they tell you), and if anyone who wants to write is reading this and believes it to be true, then please allow me to dispel the notion.

Photo Credit: bsolah via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: bsolah via Compfight cc

Editing is what it’s all about. That doesn’t make it fun; far from it. But it’s unavoidable.

However – for the first time – I know that, right now, I am not the only person editing my work. As I labour away on the manuscript for ‘Web’ (not its real name), my wonderfully patient and hardworking agent is hacking through ‘Emmeline’ (also, not its real name), and I can’t help wondering how it’s going, whether she’s found any major clangers, and/or whether she’s now regretting with every fibre of her being that she ever offered me representation. I’m very lucky (and I know it) to be represented by an agent who likes to edit, who works with her clients to get their work as polished as possible before submitting it to publishers; as well as that, as an editor she has worked with the likes of Roddy Doyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce, which is simultaneously impressive and terrifying.

Roddy Doyle. Frank Cottrell Boyce. And me.

Anyway. It’s best not to think about these things.

Yesterday, I finished my first read-through of ‘Web’. It’s not terrible, but it’s not great. I’m going through a bit of a crisis, actually, because I’m pretty certain that ‘Emmeline’ is a better book, albeit very different in style and tone; surely, one is supposed to improve from book to book, and a writer is meant to get better the more they write – right? Well, not if I’m anything to go by. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I am still very much wrapped up in ‘Web’; I’ve only just finished the first draft, after all, and the first read-through is still fresh in my mind. But I think it’s more than that. I think it’s my instincts telling me that ‘Emmeline’ was more original, more interesting, better structured and paced, and that ‘Web’ is far more pedestrian. Having said that, it’s reasonably interesting until about three-quarters of the way through, when it seems to fall apart a bit. I’m not sure why, yet, but I’m hopeful I’ll figure it out.

I am the kind of person who finds it hard to see other options when a first draft hasn’t gone the way I wanted – I’ve set the story down, now, and it’s a huge challenge for me to see that it can actually go in any one of thousands of other directions. It’s like my brain settles itself into a groove, like a river cutting through rock, and that’s it. Getting some distance from the text will help, but I am pretty sure that even if I left it alone for months I’d still manage to come back to it and fall into my old patterns again. This is why it’s so important to have someone else edit your work – it’s practically impossible for anyone, no matter how talented or good or experienced – to read their work the way an editor would. It’s even tough to read your own work the way a reader would. Distancing yourself from it is the best thing you can do, but it’s not foolproof.

How brilliant is this bookshop? I'm pretty sure anything you'd read in here would seem like the best thing in the history of the world... *resolves to track down said bookshop* Photo Credit: pedrosimoes7 via Compfight cc

How brilliant is this bookshop? I’m pretty sure anything you’d read in here would seem like the best thing in the history of the world… *resolves to track down said bookshop*
Photo Credit: pedrosimoes7 via Compfight cc

I hope that my feelings today are a combination of my natural tendency to be hard on myself coupled with the fallout from my ‘speed wobble’ earlier in the week, and not a consequence of my disimprovement as a writer. It would perhaps be better to remind myself that I have managed to bring a story seed to a complete first draft in little over two months, and that is something I should celebrate, not lament. It’s also good to remind myself, from time to time, that working hard, and fast, means that you don’t have a lot of time for reflection, and that it’s easy to forget that simply completing a book is a great achievement. If I didn’t have a first draft, I’d have nothing to work with at all. Second drafts and third drafts and published books can’t exist without first drafts, after all.

Also, as someone very wise reminded me last weekend, it doesn’t always follow that the book you, as a writer, love the most is the book your readers will love the most. I might feel that ‘Web’ is not my best work, but something about it could appeal strongly to someone else, and they might take something from it that I hadn’t even seen. Also, ‘Emmeline’ – which is my favourite of the books I’ve written so far, even though I know it’s not flawless – may never be read by anyone but my agent and me.

Gah. This writing business is tough, y’know? And not always for the reasons you’d expect. Lucky I love it, I guess!

 

 

Drafting Dos & Don’ts, or Missives of a Maniac

So, yesterday marked the beginning of ‘Tider Mark II Draft II’, truly a red-letter day in my life, and – I’m sure – in yours. Me being me, and my life being what it is, though, nothing went to plan; in this as in everything I make a mess of, however, I managed to learn some stuff. It’s my civic duty to pass it on, so that those wobbling in my footsteps might avoid the same pitfalls and experience no delays as they ascend the misty heights of Mount Brilliant.

Aaaw, *man*.  Image: tywkiwdbi.blogspot.com

Aaaw, *man*.
Image: tywkiwdbi.blogspot.com

So, without further ado, here is what I learned from yesterday’s editing. Reading it, one would be forgiven for thinking I had never edited anything before, ever. This is so far from the truth as to be laughable. It makes me wonder about the state of my brain, and its ability to retain what I put into it.

Anyway.

Things learned (so far) from Tider: Draft 2

1. Don’t mess with (what you think is) your only copy of your text

So. Picture the scene. I opened my computer file, and all was well. Birds were singing, sunlight laughing through the window, the world was a multi-hued picture of sheer unadulterated beauty, and so forth. I may even have giggled and sung soprano, à la Snow White, c. 1937.

This is the kind of look I'm aiming for, right here. Image: animatedfilmreviews.blogspot.com

This is the kind of look I’m aiming for, right here.
Image: animatedfilmreviews.blogspot.com

I’d been happily snipping and cutting and editing and making huge editorial decisions for goodness knows how long when a realisation hit me, and it was akin to having a giant, cold bucket of slop poured over my head. It put paid to the singing and the sunshine, let me tell you. That realisation was:

What did I think I was doing, messing around with my only copy of the text?

I’d been doing really well, I thought, saving as I went and being really careful to back my work up to my USB stick, as I always am. Every change I made, I’d saved it. I seem to have been so interested in making backups of my edits to realise how stupid it is to edit any document without making a backup of the whole thing first.

So.

First thing you don’t do when you’re editing a long and important document is this: don’t start hacking away at it without having a backup made of the entire thing. What happens if you decide later that your editorial decisions were wrong? What happens if you preferred it the way it was before you started editing? What happens if you delete something vital by mistake and you don’t realise it until it’s too late? None of these will become disasters unless you don’t have a full copy made of Draft 1 before you begin.

2. Don’t lose the password to your new phone with all your notes in it

Perhaps this one is very much a ‘me’ sort of problem, and has arisen because a) I’m technologically challenged, as you know, and b) I got a new phone recently, which requires a different password to be entered for every tiny little function. It is enough to drive one to the brink.

What my new phone does have, however, is a wonderful note-taking function; I’ve been making great use of it for the past week or so, ever since I learned how it works. I’ve been ruminating on plot twists and character motivation and possible endings and even writing a back-cover blurb (it’s great for focusing the mind on the important bits of your plot, FYI). The only drawback to this is that I tend to forget stuff once I’ve made a note of it. Once it’s in the phone, it doesn’t need to be in my head. This is all fine, if getting into the phone didn’t require the same levels of dexterity, quick thinking and chutzpah needed to outsmart an ancient booby-trap.

Okay. So, I swipe the screen, and enter the password... the *what?* Image: impassionedcinema.com

Okay. So, I swipe the screen, and enter the password… Hang on, hang on. The *what?*
Image: impassionedcinema.com

Of course, I eventually worked it out. Of course, it turned out to be the simplest thing in the known universe. And, of course, I felt like a total pillock when I realised this. But the short version of this story is: keep a good hold of your passwords. At the last count, I have twenty-three of them. Don’t lose ’em or mix ’em up, particularly when your nuggets of wisdom regarding the dramatic climax of your work of genius are stored safely away behind ’em. Capisce?

3. Don’t worry too much about formatting page layout, &c., as you go

Perhaps this is as clear as day to most people. To me, however, it is a challenge. I’m the sort of person who has to have everything perfect – it helps me to keep a handle on the document overall if I know all my paragraphs and page layouts are okay. I’m not sure why this is, because having perfect page breaks has zero effect on the document’s contents. In any case, I tend to stress myself out over things like making sure there are no ‘widows and orphans’ (in terms of sentences, naturally), and that all the proper indents are in place, and that every new speaker has their own line in blocks of dialogue, and all these other things that don’t really matter until the final edit. They’re very important – don’t get me wrong – but when you’re up to your neck in the middle of your second edit, don’t stress if a paragraph isn’t perfectly laid out. Seriously.

The final point, however, is probably the most important one. Are you ready?

4. Don’t start freaking out until you remember you emailed yourself a copy of the document two weeks ago

If I had remembered this first, I could’ve saved myself all the stress I went through during Point 1, above.

My peace of mind has been irrevocably damaged. I mean, I'll never look at a USB stick the same way again... Image: evangelicaloutpost.com

My peace of mind has been irrevocably damaged. I mean, I’ll never look at a USB stick the same way again…
Image: evangelicaloutpost.com

Yes. After I had spent goodness knows how long freaking out over all the work I’d lost from being so eager to begin my edits without making a backup, I realised I’d emailed myself a copy of ‘Tider’ a while back, which had the original version of everything I’d edited. So, then I started singing again and the sun came out, and everything was rosy once more.

Let this be a lesson. Not only do you need to be clever enough to make backups, but you need to be clever enough to remember you’ve made backups. Take it from one who has suffered, so you don’t have to.

Happy Tuesday! Together, we’ll make it through.