Editing and Drafting

I’m editing None So Blind at the moment. It’s a final edit before the positively last and really final edit which is the copy-edit – ie the edit you do when the whole thing’s typeset and you’re trying to spot typos, line breaks where there didn’t ought to be line breaks, stray punctuation and other basic errors which irritate the hell (quite rightly) out of readers.

This last-but-not-absolutely-final edit is the last chance I have to make any structural changes I or my editor think the book needs. If I decide to cut a character or a chapter, or insert same, I can do it at this stage but not at the next. So, it’s a big deal.

Fortunately for me, None So Blind went through four structural edits before Freight even saw it so there isn’t a lot of major surgery to do. It’s more cosmetic: line-editing. You know the kind of thing: changing words here and there, cutting out dead wood when you’ve repeated yourself, clipping sentences so that they sound more punchy, making sure timings are consistent and possible, checking that you haven’t left text you thought you’d cut and pasted in its original setting as well as its new home, inserting tantalising chapter endings that lure people on into just one more…

And while this is fun and quite satisfying – like French-polishing a piece of furniture you’ve made, I imagine – it’s nothing like as fun as the second draft.

I love the second go at a novel. As most writers will tell you, the first draft is hard, hard slog. You’re making something out of nothing which is tough going. People often don’t get this. They assume it’s like daydreaming – you’re just letting your imagination run riot, aren’t you?

Well, yes, kind of. But you’re also having to put the things your riotous imagination comes up with into nicely-organised prose. You’re having to structure the products of your imagination into credible scenes. You’re having to people your ingenious plots with characters who might plausibly do these things. And the trouble is, they won’t. The minute people get involved, you may as well forget any plot you thought you had. You assemble your characters to do what you think they’re going to do and then they won’t. They fold their arms, put their nose in the air, turn their heads just at that angle and say No. Or maybe they don’t even do that, maybe they just run into the scene and create havoc, doing things you hadn’t planned for them to do, opening doors you hadn’t seen and letting in people you hadn’t planned for.

Writing a first draft always feels, to me, like herding the proverbial cats. And there are always a different number of cats than I’d anticipated. Sometimes more, sometimes fewer. Characters just step onstage, as above, or sometimes they just refuse to come on at all. Occasionally, I will insist. I will drag somebody onstage and move their limbs about and make them open and close their mouths to say things but – and I hope you’re getting this picture – they have all the life of a ventriloquist’s dummy and I have to let them go and kick them off the stage like so much firewood.

Then, quite apart from characters and plot there’s making your world believable. Obviously, all novelists have to do that, but when you’re writing about a different time, you’ve got to do it more carefully. You can’t assume shared knowledge of the world your charcters are moving about in as you can if you’re writing contemporary fiction. You can’t use casual short-hand references – death metal t-shirt vs button down Oxford, Essex facelift ponytail vs perfectly coloured coiffeur. You have to be more specific, but also more subtle. Readers (and I speak as one) don’t want to hear the clunks as you shunt hand-picked details into place. They want you to help them assimilate the little snippets you’re giving them and to use them to understand the period your novel occupies in a way that both informs them and moves the novel forward.

Add to that landscape, weather, the interplay between characters, the false trails you’re carefully laying and the through-lines you’re building that tie books in a series together and you’ve got quite a lot of balls in the air at any one time. And if they crash to the ground, you’ve not got a pretty pattern in the air any more, you’ve just got a mess and egg on your face. Or possibly balls.

That’s why first drafts are tough.

And that’s why I like second drafts.

Of which more, possibly, anon.

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