Yesterday, I finished line-editing the third in the Teifi Valley Coroner series – Those Who Can. (We’ll come back to the title in a later post, I’m sure.)
Editing’s a funny business. Some writers rely very heavily on input from their editors and there is a lot of sending suggestions and redrafts backwards and forwards from one to another.
Personally, I’m not a fan of that model. I’m not interested in working collaboratively to produce a book. It’s my book.
That’s not to say I don’t take on board any input. I have trusted readers whose suggestions and responses I depend on, and if an editor spots a huge and glaring issue in the structure of my book, I’ll change it quicker than you can say ‘amended draft’. But I won’t bandy ideas back and forth. Because, at some point, how well a book works and what should happen and when is a matter of subjective opinion.
That was well illustrated when a writer friend asked me if I would read a draft of one of her books (now successfully published) as, after many changes, she was no longer confident that it worked as she had intended. I made a suggestion about changing focus at beginning of the book. Her rueful reply was ‘yes, I agree, it used to start there but then X thought it would be better started as per the current version.’
It’s possible to take too much advice.
Editing isn’t a single process. There are various stages in the editing of a book, at least as far as I’m concerned. (Not so much for others – Lee Child who writes the Jack Reacher novels claims that his first draft is his only draft.)
Here’s my process.
Editing as I write. Generally, I’ll edit yesterday’s work before I start today’s writing. That allows me to get back into the world I’m writing about whether it’s nineteenth century west Wales or fourteenth century southern England and to assess, change and, sometimes, reject completely yesterday’s output. This is an ongoing process and, sometimes, I’ll get to 30 000 words or so and have no idea whether it’s working or not. So I’ll take a day to have a look. Sometimes, it’s all OK and, the next day I just get on with it. Sometimes, something fundamental needs to shift which will change the way I approach the rest of the book so I need to work on that. And sometimes, the whole thing’s not working and I have to start again. Luckily, that has only happened once when I had the wrong person telling the story.
Writing the second draft. Otherwise known as the structural edit. Once I’ve hit the full stop key at the end of the final sentence of a book, my first act is to print the whole typescript out so that – in a couple of months – I can begin the task of editing. First drafts are rarely perfect in terms of structure because editing yesterday’s stuff doesn’t tell you whether that stuff is in the right place in the book. You won’t know that until you’ve finished the book and can see the shape of the whole thing. And to see the shape, you have to read the book as fast as you can so you don’t lose the sense of structure. I’m a slow reader and I write fat books so it will generally take me two to three working days to do that. And that’s if I can stop myself making stylistic comments in the margins, which I normally can’t – at least not entirely. But, really, the only comments that I should allow myself in the structural edit are things like ‘Does this chapter belong here?’ ‘Is this scene necessary?’ ‘Could we put this somewhere else, eg after X has happened?’ ‘This dialogue comes across as stilted’ ‘Isn’t he contradicting himself here?’ and so on. But, because words matter so much to me, and I’m reading the typescript aloud (should have mentioned that earlier) I find it really hard not to change words, metaphors, similes, reword whole paragraphs etc as I go. The fact that I’ve written poorly or inelegantly offends me. However, as I write more and more, I am learning to trust myself and know that I’ll still see those things next time round.
Line editing. As I said, generally I’ll have put the typescript aside for a couple of months while I get on with thinking about and researching the next book. This is so that I get some distance from the book which allows me to see the errors that I didn’t notice when my nose was right up against the laptop screen. But I’ll go through and do the line edit as soon as I’ve made the major block-moving corrections from the structural edit. And this is always a lot of work for me. I’m never satisfied with the way I’ve written stuff.
When I line-edited Those Who Can, there wasn’t a single page that didn’t have at least one thing I wanted to change – a word or a sentence. Some pages were so savaged with crossings out and re-writing that I could barely make sense of what I meant and how I was supposed to be changing it.
Final pre-submission edit. After my readers have read the book and before I send it off to my publisher, I’ll edit again. I’ll consider my readers’ views and either change the book or not, depending on whether I agree. And, inevitably, there will be more line-editing done. Because authors are NEVER satisfied with our work. Left to ourselves we’d go on tweaking and polishing and changing it for ever.
I took part in a book event recently at which one of the panel (a novelist whose work I really like) did a reading. I glanced across at the copy of his novel that he was reading from and the pages were covered in annotations and changes.
Like I say – authors are never happy with our work.