Tag Archives: working on a debut novel

Write in Haste, Edit at ‘Leisure’

So, hey.

Editing’s hard. Did anyone ever tell you that before? Well, it is.

Photo Credit: Tambako the Jaguar via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Tambako the Jaguar via Compfight cc

It’s hard for reasons I can’t even express, because I don’t fully understand them myself. It’s slow, it’s painful, it’s making my brain hurt, and it’s making me tired beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. I’ve worked hard all my life – both physically and mentally, sometimes both at the same time – and nothing (not even writing my doctoral thesis) has compared to this. I knew it would be challenging, but this has surpassed everything I expected.

Editing your work involves far more than simply hitting the Delete button when your editor tells you something’s overwritten or unnecessary – if that’s all it was, there wouldn’t be an issue. I have deleted, without a spark of regret, thousands of needless words over the past couple of weeks; I have cringed at my tendency to overuse similes and, much as a chef stuffs cloves of garlic into a leg of roasting lamb, my need to stuff my prose with imagery (see what I mean? That kind of thing – avoid it). That’s all fine. I’m learning things about myself as a reader and a writer, and it’s all good. Some of what I’ve deleted has given me a good giggle, actually, along the lines of what on earth was I thinking when I wrote that? And how did it survive seven passes of self-editing? (Kids: this just proves editing your own work is pretty much impossible. Let my pain be a lesson).

But then there are the questions your editor asks – Why is this happening here, when something else would be better? Why is this character doing x, y or z when a simpler course of action has just presented itself? What do you mean by describing something this way? Can you cut some of the description here because it’s getting in the way of imagination? I think you need to cut this character because they don’t add anything to the plot; can you think of a better way to move things along here?

Holy mackerel.

Photo Credit: Graham Crumb via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Graham Crumb via Compfight cc

This stuff is hard not only because you’re facing up to your own writerly inadequacies – which is tough by itself – but because you’re being forced to face up to the fact that you got so caught up in your own story that you let things like logic and physics and characterisation, dang it, go out the window. I don’t think there’s been a paragraph yet in this book of mine in which every single detail in it has been explained properly – by far the most-used phrase in my edits is ‘help your reader’, by which my agent-editor means sort this mess out, right? Stuff isn’t making sense here, again.

It’s hard to realise that you’ve made mistakes, and that you’ve made them repeatedly throughout your manuscript. It’s hard to realise that they’re mistakes you were aware of, mistakes you tried to avoid, mistakes you were certain you weren’t going to slip into – but you did, anyway, without even noticing. It’s hard to realise that these mistakes mean you need to rethink entire plots, whole chapters, chunks of paragraphs, exchanges of dialogue and character motivations – and that every change you make may have serious knock-on effects for the whole book. Essentially, every change means a cascade of further changes, and it’s hard to catch them all.

I guess, too, that part of me hoped I’d be better, maybe more talented or more of a ‘natural’ or less in need of help – and maybe the hardest part of these edits is the deconstructing of that edifice. It’s easy to feel self-reliant when you’re writing on your own, to yourself, and it’s tough to have it pointed out, however gently, that you’re in need of improvement.

But that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Writing is a collaborative thing, requiring an author and an editor – sometimes a team of editors. It’s not a simple case of ‘lone genius in ivory tower churns out bestseller, effortlessly’ – it takes time, and hard work. Every book is a lesson learned. Hopefully, I won’t make these ‘rookie’ mistakes again, and I’m learning as I go, but I’ll always need someone there with a critical eye, making me face up to the tough questions and forcing me to think carefully about the words I put down, and why. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I’m glad to have the chance to do it.

Now. Time to get stuck in, again. See you on the other side…