I am approximately two-thirds through the second pass of edits on ‘Emmeline’. I have long dispatched the purple prose and the overwritten sentences and now I’m on to the slightly nigglier plot issues, the things which left my agent scratching her head as she read and which I was hoping nobody would notice (fatal mistake, by the way). I’ve been making some big decisions – things to leave in, things to leave out, whether this particular piece of plot is needed, exactly how many baddies one slender book really requires, how much faffing about is feasible or realistic, and whether I’ve been consistent in my characterisation. They’re all big decisions, but luckily most of them are easy. This isn’t because I’ve suddenly become an editing and/or writing genius, but because it’s obvious what’s not working, what will never work, and which things I should just allow to gracefully retire. Other things I’m fighting a little harder for, and I’m preparing my ‘defence’ as to why they’re still there despite my agent’s advice to the contrary. I’m hopeful that once she reads my reasons, and understands that I didn’t just fling scene after scene into the book purely for something to fill the pages (and, of course, that I strengthen the book and make these scenes more vital), she’ll relent.
It really is, in so many ways, like writing a thesis and preparing an oral defence all over again. I’m having flashbacks to 2008, which isn’t, all told, a good thing. The only bright spark in the situation is that I’m not as afraid of my agent as I was of my doctoral examiners.
I’m also flitting about the country these days, zooming home to visit my uncle (who is still in hospital but doing really well – and thank you to the very kind folk who are still getting in touch to ask me how he is. Do keep up the good wishes!) which makes consistent work on the book pretty hard. It’s been a few days now since I looked at it, which is no harm in the long run. Time away from your work when writing and/or editing is something to be cherished. It just makes my fingers itch and my brain start to bulge with things I want to fix and need to change, and I’m only at peace when I’m sitting in front of the computer again, tapping away.
One of the writerly errors I make (and, hence, one of the things I’m having to edit the hardest, particularly on this pass) is over-description. It’s a strange thing: I tend to go nuts over the minutiae during scenes in which the reader, to be perfectly honest, probably doesn’t need all the help I’m giving them. Then, there are scenes which could probably do with a bit more fleshing out, but which I leave that bit more sketchy. There’s a scene in the book, for instance, which takes place inside a sort of laboratory/aircraft hangar, in which an injured woman is lying on a metal ‘grille’ floor, bleeding from a wound in her back. There’s a walkway not far from where she’s lying which leads to a stairs. I (almost literally) described the angle of the light being refracted from each metallic surface and gave the width, in millimetres, of every section of walkway and the depth of the tread in the stairs – all for nothing. Anyone can imagine a metal walkway leading to a metal stairs. Right? It’s not exactly 2001, here. Then, there’s a scene later in the book where a dogsled team (complete with driver, of course) comes across the burning wreckage of a downed aircraft and mounts a brave attempt at looking for survivors. Weirdly, I was far more loose with my descriptions here, flinging around terminology and unfamiliar words with abandon.
Guess which scene worked loads better? Big hint: it didn’t involve stairs.
I think I tend to over-describe when I’m not confident about what I’m writing. For whatever reason, I have a personal interest in dogsledding and I’ve read about it in various other books, so it seemed natural to just talk about it in a relaxed way. I don’t explain the terms I’m using – they’re not really important to a reader’s understanding. What’s happening is clear. Interestingly, my agent didn’t make any edits at all to the dogsled teams; her cool, analytical pen passed over them without once making landfall. However, in the scene which involved the hangar, and the stairs, and the metal floor, and the bleeding (all things which might, in some ways, be considered more familiar to the average reader) I got way too tangled up in describing things which didn’t need to be described, and she employed a slash-and-burn technique when it came to editing. In fact, she advised me to get rid of the whole thing.
The whole thing.
I didn’t, because I feel I need it for structural reasons. But I have pared it right back to the bone. And it has done the scene the world of good.
That’s not to suggest it didn’t hurt, though. It did.
Writing a book, and then having it edited, teaches you a lot about yourself. Your patience levels, for instance. Exactly how much of a diva you are. How many times you use the word ‘just’ in any given paragraph (far too many). And sometimes you learn that you’re capable of having a good idea, and writing about it well, which makes all the pain worthwhile.
I’m off! Catch you tomorrow for some freshly-written fiction. Till then, adios.