Write That Book - Week 6 - Editing

shoestring trade pbk cover to use
shoestring trade pbk cover to use

Welcome to Write That Book, the free eight week online writing course. If you've missed weeks one to five, covering getting started, characters, plot and lots more, it might be helpful to read them first.

This week we’ll be taking about editing. Once you’ve finished the first draft, then comes the hard bit, the edits and the rewrites. Yes, plural. The first draft is just the beginning. Have patience. Rewrites make the difference between a published writer and an unpublished writer.

Before you even think of sending your book out to an agent or to a publisher, you must make it as good as you possibly can. Some people are excellent at editing their own work, others need help. Here is how I edit a manuscript before it goes anywhere near my agent or editor:

I print out the whole manuscript, read it and make notes as I go along in a (yellow) notebook. If you read this blog on a regular basis, you’ll know that I’m addicted to yellow legal pads.

Some authors suggest waiting a little while before reading. William Trevor puts his writing in a drawer for a year before taking it out to work on it again, and although it is good to get a little distance from your work if possible, I quite honestly don’t have the time for that, so I tend to get stuck in to the editing process straight after finishing the first draft.

For me, there are three stages of rewriting (and I’m sure I got some of this from a book on editing once upon a time, but apologies, I can’t remember the title):

1/ The first rewrite – structure

Step one - I read through my (printed) manuscript carefully, focusing on the overall structure of the book. I use a notebook to jot down thoughts, I scribble on the pages, I put lines through scenes that don't seem to work. Once I've read the whole thing through on paper and made all my notes, I start working on the computer again - I may add scenes, or delete any unnecessary ones. I may even get rid of characters at this stage - kill your darlings as they say. Or I may combine three small characters into one – say a teacher, neighbour and babysitter – they could become one much stronger character rather than three bit players. And many people do more than one job after all!

I re-arrange chapters, and I work on making the opening of the book more dramatic and the ending unforgettable. I add as much drama as possible and cut anything that slows down the action.

This takes a few weeks (sometimes a couple of months, depending on the book) and I find it tough going, but also very satisfying, watching the book’s structure take shape and improve as I chip away at the raw material and re-form it, scene by scene.

2/ Rewriting for meaning

Step two - I make sure everything in the book is clear to the reader. Sometimes I am so close to the characters and the plot that I leave vital information out. I make sure the book runs logically – especially if the time shifts around. And I make sure my characters stay ‘in character’.

I add ‘colour’ sometimes, a couple of lines here and there to enable the reader to imagine the setting; and I take out anything that is not vital to the plot or my characters’ journey.

3/ Rewriting for style

The final step - I work on making the prose as strong and as full of life and vitality as I can. I also work on the dialogue, making sure it’s as good as I can make it.

I make sure every description is strong and not over-written, and I delete any lazy descriptions – ‘white as snow’ etc – and replace them with something more original.

And of course I clean up any typos, spelling or grammar mistakes as I go along – that goes without saying!

After I’ve done the above between two and eight times depending on the book, I finally send it to my agent and editor for their notes. Phew!

If you find self-editing very difficult, or just want another opinion, ask someone you know and trust to read your work. A word of advice, don’t give it to your mother to read – it’s her job to love it!

Ask your reader to be honest. Ask them which parts they liked and which they found slow or boring. Ask them to comment on the characters, the plot, the writing and the pace. Once they have given you their honest opinion, listen to what they have say and try to work out how you can make your book better. Does it need a stronger opening scene; is the action bogged down with irrelevant detail; are there too many subplots vying for attention? Has your reader picked up on the overall ‘theme’ of your book, on what you are trying to say in your work, or not?

If your friends or family can’t help, you could try asking a local librarian or bookseller to read your book for you. If you still can’t find anyone to read your manuscript, never fear. There are professional readers out there who are willing to help you. Cornerstones (UK based) and Inkwell Writers (Dublin based) are two highly respected companies that may be able to help. I've mentioned them before, but they are worth mentioning again.

This is one of my favourite quotes on the editing process:

At one time I thought the most important thing was talent. I think now that the young man or the young woman must possess or teach himself, training himself, in infinite patience, which is to try and to try until it comes right. He must train himself in ruthless intolerance--that is to throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph. The most important thing is insight, that is to be--curious--to wonder, to mull, and to muse why it is that man does what he does, and if you have that, then I don't think the talent makes much difference, whether you've got it or not.William Faulkner, Paris Review interview

Stay Positive

If you get some negative feedback (from outside readers or an editor) try not to get disheartened. All professional writers have to deal with editorial comments and suggestions, it's part of the job, and yes, some are negative. Pick yourself up and get on with making your book even better. Rewrite and keep rewriting until you can honestly do no more. You’ll never be totally happy with your book - even when it’s published - but it will come to a stage when it’s time to let go. And then begins the scary and nerve wracking part - letting go of your baby and sending it to an agent or a publisher, which we will talk about in weeks seven and eight. For now I will leave you with this quote:

Writing is a hard way to make a living, but a good way to make a life. Doris Betts

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

PS After fifteen years of writing, the last manuscript I sent to my editor, Ask Amy Green: Dancing Daze, came back with only three editorial comments - less than a page. Which is a miracle. Maybe I'm finally getting to grips with this writing life!

Rewriting and Taking a Leap of Faith

I’m just back from holidays and about to start working on the first rewrite of The Shoestring Proposal (working title – sequel to The Shoestring Club which will be published in February 2012 - so for 2013, gulp!). After this rewrite it will go to my lovely agent, Peta for her notes. And once we are both happy with it, the rewritten draft will wing its way to my editor in Pan Macmillan. So step one: I’ve printed out the manuscript, made some early notes and this morning I’ll start reading through the pages and make even more notes. It's slow going, but it works for me.

I know it needs a lot of attention, I know one of the characters in particular isn’t quite right yet and I’m not sure about one of the story strands. I also need to do some fact checking. Rewriting is a vital part of the writing process and demands a clear head and a brave heart.

Yesterday I read JoJo Moyes’s blog (with thanks to Melissa Hill for the heads up on Twitter). This is what she said about rewriting one of her books:

So, four days ago I took the decision to cut 70,000 words out of my finished book, and rewrite them. Yup, I’ll say that again. Seventy thousand words. Or, to put it another way, a shortish novel. I didn’t do it lightly; even now, a few days on, it feels a bit like an amputation. The most I have ever cut at one time is around 5,000 words (a chapter). When I talked about it to friends this weekend I found myself saying the words with a slightly-too-giddy laugh “I’ve just deleted 70,000 words of my latest! I know! hahaha!” and using the kind of voice that suggests an imminent lurch towards a gin bottle. But I had handed the manuscript over to my agent in June, and a month’s distance – and a barely perceptible edge to her words which told me that while she loved it, she didn’t love it as much as the last two – meant that something had to give. In today’s unforgiving publishing landscape, you can’t afford to put out a book that you – or your agent – doesn’t believe is not just good, but the best darn thing you have ever written. And here is the galling thing. I think I knew. The book – The Girl You Left Behind – is a dual timeframe epic about love, betrayal and nazi-looted art. Half of it is set in German-occupied France in 1916 – a subject I thought I would struggle with. But no, that part of the book flew; it was the modern plot-line that refused to take off.

And from 20,000 words on, a little voice at the back of my head kept whispering that it wasn’t quite working. I tinkered. I rewrote. I told myself that it was a huge subject, a complex plot. I reassured myself that I had often felt ambivalent about finished work. As writer Debi Alper tweeted me afterwards: “It’s hard to draw the line between clever gut and inner critic.” By the time I handed it over, I knew I had done a good job. But that little voice was still there, muffled but insistent. And then I sat down and checked the proofs of my finished book, Me Before You, which will be published in January, and I made a horrible realisation. The Girl You Left Behind was just not as good. So here I am, 2000 words in to a 70000 word rewrite. I have no idea how I will get it done in time. I suspect a return to the 6am writing stints will follow (bleurgh). It will be stressful and, as a freelance, it will cost me money. The good news is this (and believe me, I need some good news): even 2000 words in, the new plot feels right. (I’m going to assume that’s my clever gut talking. And not an ulcer.) But it has taught me a valuable lesson. Firstly, that buying yourself a month away from your work in progress is a really useful thing. And, secondly, that if a little nagging voice is repeatedly telling you something is wrong, then, guess what? It probably is. And the sooner you can accept that, take a step back and re-work it, the less likely you are to be working out how to rewrite an entire novel during your summer holidays.

70,000 words! Brave, brave woman. But sometimes courage is what it takes; courage and conviction and, above all, the will to work hard and to stick with it until you get every scene, every word right. As I’ve said time and time again, writing is all about rewriting. It’s part of the craft of writing; it’s part of every writer’s life. And it’s also what separates the published from the unpublished.

So here I am – at stage one. I’ll let you know how I get on and what changes and decisions I make along the way as it may be useful to you. Documenting it will certainly be useful to me and help to keep me motivated. And as my head is still drowsy from my holidays, I need to focus. Focus, Sarah. Back to the book! (And there is the small matter of Amy Green 5 also – which I’ll be starting next week – ah yes, the joy of juggling!)

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX