‘But editing,’ she hissed.

Last month I reported I’d finished the first draft of my new novel, working title In the Land Newly Risen from the Sea, and was letting it ferment for a week or so before cracking on with editing it.

I’m now stuck well into the editing process, trying to get it finished before my baby bump grows so big I can’t reach my keyboard. Ideally, I’ll have it finished by the end of June, and then give myself six months of maternity leave. Of course, things don’t always go quite to plan, so come September I might be trying to type re-writes with one hand while holding a screaming baby in the other.

One thing I’ve noticed when I discuss editing is that not everyone has a very firm grasp of what it involves – many people assume it’s simply a hunt-and-destroy for typos. That’s actually proofreading, a separate process which comes later.

So if editing isn’t looking for typos, what is it then? Well, the way I think of it is as a three-part process, each part of which involves making a pass over the manuscript and examining it in a greater or lesser level of detail.

The first pass is to check for basic consistency, pacing, and structure. Are there any plot holes? Do the characters’ motivations make sense? Does it have a ‘saggy middle’ where the story meanders around without much direction? Are there too many sub-plots? Or, as I’ve found this time round, are we spending too long with one character’s point-of-view and neglecting what’s happening to the protagonist? It’s at this stage that you might decide to make big changes like changing the order of the chapters or cutting out a big chunk of text.

The second pass is what I think of as the continuity-error search. In the movies, continuity errors are things like a character’s outfit mysteriously changing when they walk through a door, or objects on a table disappearing between shots. With books, you don’t have to worry about every tiny detail in quite the same way – but you do need to make sure that, if you’ve described a character as finding a knife in one scene, you don’t then have a later scene where the knife has gone missing without any explanation.

The third pass is the line edit – this is when you get really down-and-dirty with the details of your word choices, and tinker with your sentences to make them flow better. It’s here that you discover things like an over-excessive use of the word ‘but’ (but I need to use it every other sentence! It’s such a useful word!) or that you’ve described characters as ‘hissing’ lines of dialogue which contain no sibilants. You’re smoothing out the edges of the sculpture, if you want to think of it that way. And yes, if you spot any typos, by all means correct them.

I don’t expect all writers to agree with my three-pass editing structure – in fact, I’m sure each writer will have their own personal approach, and that’s as it should be. But (that word again!) every book is going to need structural and language checks at some point if it’s going to make sense and read well. And of course, once you’ve done all that, then you hand it over to your agent/editor/beta reader to see what they think, and keep your fingers crossed they don’t find too many serious problems…

#writer problems

Being a full-time writer, working from home, is essentially awesome. You can get up whenever you want, wear whatever clothes (or lack thereof) you want, have as much random clutter on your desk as you want, listen to whatever obnoxious music you want at sufficient volume to drown out the screams of the neighbours’ baby.
There are a few things you have to be careful about, of course, like resisting the temptations of excessive tea and Netflix consumption. And a few problems unique to the writer:

  • Googling strange things like ‘how to cut someone’s throat’ and hope nobody is monitoring your search history. ‘It’s for a book, honestly Inspector.’
  • Veering wildly (and frequently) between thinking your writing is a masterpiece and thinking it’s a load of garbage.
  • Answering the door at 11am in your pyjamas and dressing gown and feeling a little bit guilty about it. Not guilty enough to actually get dressed any earlier, mind.
  • Losing track of what day it is.
  • The never-ending fight with the many-headed beast that is procrastination, the inner Hydra which is every writer’s nemesis.
  • Spending the day lost inside your own inner world and then struggling to remember that your characters don’t actually exist and you now have to re-adjust to interacting with real humans. Although admittedly real humans are often more tractable than your creations.
  • The sheer unpredictability of editing – finding some chapters need hardly any work and can be dispensed with in a single day, while others are a complete mess, need extensive re-writes, and take an entire week of hair-pulling frustration to get right.
  • The difficulty of explaining to anyone who isn’t a writer how writing works. Particularly, in my case, trying to explain to people why my characters aren’t doing what they’re told and how long it took me to coax them to go to the location where the rest of the plot is waiting to happen. Just ‘cause they’re made up, doesn’t mean they’re not stubborn SOBs.
  • Getting carried away with writing and forgetting to do basic household tasks.
  • Making lots of cups of tea and then forgetting about them.
    Speaking of… oh crap, another cup of tea gone stone cold. Back later…

The Numbers Game

It’s nearly the end of November – or, as it’s also known, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). In a few days’ time, millions of would-be writers will be emerging from their shells, blinking in the morning light, having (we hope) banked at least 50,000 words on their novels in thirty days. I haven’t done NaNoWriMo myself this year, but I did set myself a writing challenge – to produce 60,000 words over twelve weeks on my fantasy-novel-in-progress, The Silvergreen Sea. My self-imposed writing regime has worked well so far, and I reached that milestone – my planned half-way point – a week ahead of schedule. So well done me – my sit-down-and-crank-the-words-out approach is thus far successful, in its own terms at least.

How about in any other terms? I’ve noticed that, when people ask me ‘how’s the writing going?’ they are sometimes bemused to receive a firmly quantified answer rather than a vague ‘fine, thanks’, and I can’t make any claims to rigorous quality control. Or indeed, any quality control. For the moment, it’s a numbers game: before you can polish your words, you have to write them. And there’s something very reassuring about the daily accumulation, the steady progression towards my goal.

Of course, there’s a strange tension between my neatly measured progress, and the nebulous nature of what I’m actually doing. I can claim I’m half-way through, but is my finished book going to be precisely 120,000 words long? Probably not. The truth is that I’ll just have to keep writing until I reach the end of the story, whether that takes 80,000 words or half a million. And then I’ll have to edit, revise, re-revise, cut, add, trim, make some tea, re-edit, re-cut, re-re-revise, cry into my cup of tea, feel like deleting the whole thing and throwing my laptop into the Trent and Mersey canal, cut some more, re-re-re-revise, call it finished, send it to my agent, await her comments, and then probably do a whole lot more editing and re-re-re-re-revising after she points out the gaping plot holes. I can pretend it’s a numbers game for now, but when was the last time you read a book review which said ‘the author wrote 115,765 words. Jolly good.’?

I’ve sometimes heard writing a novel compared to running a marathon. That’s true, only you don’t know how long your route will be when you start running, or where it’s going to go, and once you get to the end, you may have to go back and run by a different route. Also, you’re not running, you’re writing. So it’s not much like a marathon, really. It’s not like anything, except itself, and the only way you can learn to do it, is by doing it. And the real measure of success isn’t how many words you’ve written, but whether it makes the reader wish you’d written more.

But hey, 60,000 words is good progress, so I’m going to give myself a pat on the back and a G&T.

Pedantics & Semantics

Warning: todays blog post may cause some of my more pedantical readers to literally explode in rage.

In my humble opinion, good writing is about many things – characterization, dialogue, description, plotting – and its often impossible to determine which is the crucial criteria. But for some people, theirs only one thing which matters: strict grammatical correctness. Now for many years, I was as proud a grammer and punctuation peddant as they come, the scourge of apostrophized plural’s wherever I found them. More recently, however, I’ve become increasingly laissez-faire. Why then have I turned to the dark side, become an apostate of the apostrophe?

Well, one reason is that many things which wind up grammar pedents aren’t really problems. Like the objection to words comprised of a mixture of Greek and Latin roots – who cares? What do you call you’re television? The proculvision? In the past, I’ve been called out for using ‘ize’ instead of ‘ise’ on the basis that ‘ize’ is ‘American’ (and therefore, inferior), when actually, its perfectly acceptable in British English, and the prestigious OED agrees with me. I’ve yet to hear anyone put forward a convincing reason why one shouldn’t be able to merrily split as many infinitives as one likes, or use a preposition to end a sentence with. And I’ll start a sentence with a conjunction if I want to. Why should ancient style guides restrict me today? Hopefully, I can express myself well enough in 21st-century English without pandering to the whims of dead grammarians.

Which brings me onto another reason: language evolves all the time, and yes, some neologisms may seem ugly and unnecessary, (I must here confess to an abject horror of the word ‘gifting’) but if other people find these words useful and elegant, and their readily understood, why should you try to artificially restrict there means of expression? And that, I think, is the heart of the matter: being picky about such things doesn’t actually help those who are less well-educated to improve there language skills, it just pisses them off, or, worse, makes them feel stupid.

Now, theres clearly a time and a place for pedantrey – when your beta-reading a manuscript for instance, or editing a press release. But in most instances, I don’t honestly think it’s called-for. Sure, if someone’s got in such a semantic twist that they’re in danger of being misunderstood, then it might be a good idea to quietly point out the difference between say, prostrate and prostate – but otherwise, if you’ve got yourself understood, then isn’t that the whole point of language? And if your genuinely so illiterate that you can’t make yourself understood in writing, then shouldn’t that be a cause for pity, for polite and understanding aid, or even for political action to improve educational standards, rather than for sneering? Between you and I, snorting in laughter at others’ ignorance of grammatical shibboleths doesn’t make you look clever. It makes you look like an over-privileged snob, chortling at the plebs who didn’t have the same good fortune as you to benefit from a decent education.


Should you foreshadow, or should the ninja space whale come as a surprise?

I am currently editing (or, rather, re-editing) the revised version of my novel, The Heartland of the Winter (having managed to piece back together the work I lost in last week’s Tea-on-Laptop Disaster). One of the things I am trying to decide is how much foreshadowing to do. Some readers have suggested I should do more; some have said it’s fine as it is. Ultimately, of course, I need to go with my own judgement, although being so close to the work can make it difficult. Part of the problem is that the tale changed in the telling: for the better, but this does mean the earlier parts of the book were written with a slightly different climactic scene in mind.

Ideally, what you want as a writer is that the reader will be initially surprised by the twists and turns of your plot, but will then say ‘of course, it had to be that way!’. It’s a delicate balancing act: give away too much early on and it’ll be predictable, give away too little and your revelations will come out of nowhere, leaving the reader feeling cheated. If your character uses a get-out-of-jail-free card, you need to show them picking it up earlier on – but not too obviously.

As well as the general issues around foreshadowing, there are some issues which are peculiar to the fantasy genre. One is that you’re not restricted to real-world rules. Which is part of fantasy’s appeal, but can also be its downfall if you resolve your plot by just making up new bits of magic on the fly. A hallmark of well-written fantasy is that the author creates a world which has its own internal logic, so that any magical or otherwise fantastic solutions to the characters’ problems feel consistent with what has gone before. IMHO, Robin Hobb and Anne McCaffrey get it right; Naomi Novik does not. Since the fantastic elements in my story are quite downplayed, my current issue is more around character motivations, but I expect this is something I’ll have to deal with in future books. Assuming I get around to writing any.

The fact that fantasy books often come in series is the source of another potential issue, namely that you need to start foreshadowing stuff which will happen not just later in the same book, but in a subsequent volume. As the gap between set-up and pay-off widens, readers may completely forget about something that happened two books and five years ago. Or you may have the opposite problem: that the fans have guessed everything in vol.3 by the time vol.2 comes out. The internet makes it very easy for fans to put their heads together and figure out what you’re up to. The author is then left with the options of either carrying on as planned, only it won’t be much of a surprise any more, or making it up as they go along. The 7th Harry Potter book suffered from this: fans had already figured out who R.A.B. was and the identity of the final Horcrux, so JKR threw in some previously-unheard of stuff about Deathly Hallows which left many feeling a bit cheated. A Song of Ice and Fire may well be headed the same way. But hey, I think this falls into the category of ‘problems I would love to have’. And then the ninja space whale killed them all. The End.