After reading Keith Stevenson’s thoughtful piece on the importance of editing, I began thinking about this process from the point of view of a writer. That is, I wanted to share some thoughts with you not on the subject of editing, but on the subject of being edited.
This is timely for me as I’m in the middle of editing what will be my thirty-second book. There are certain things – like stubbing your toe – that don’t get easier with practice. Being edited is one of those things, but at least with editing there is the promise of something bright and good at the end. Not like stubbing your toe.
Before I start, though, there is one thing I have learned from going through this process thirty-one and a half times. It’s something that I think every writer needs to have tattooed on his/her forehead, backwards so it can be read the mirror: SOMETIMES, YOU ARE NOT THE BEST JUDGE OF YOUR OWN WORK.
Realising this is a vital, epiphanic moment for all writers. The sooner it comes to you, the better. No matter how much you know your work (and it should be pretty well, really), no matter how well you know your characters, your theme, your settings and the vast transformative arc of gobsmacking awesomeness that is your book, sometimes, in fact, you are the worst person to judge it.
For a start, as the writer, you cannot be the reader. The very things that made you the writer – the knowledge of everything that went into the book and everything that didn’t – means you cannot be the fresh, wide-eyed reader who has simply picked this book up because of (ahem) the wonderfulness of your previous work. Or because the cover had a picture of a cat on it. If you strain really hard you can perhaps be aware of a potential reader’s expectations or even their experience in reading your work, but you cannot really put yourself in their shoes. It takes someone else to do that. It takes an editor.
There is also the numbing effect of familiarity. You, after all, have been working on this book for some time. It has – I hope – gone through a number of versions as you’ve revised and improved, taking your first draft and polishing it until it gleamed. The downside of this experience is similar to repeating a word over and over and over until it not only loses all meaning but you begin to doubt its spelling and your sanity. Repetition does strange things to the human brain. Just ask any Las Vegas act where after 10,000 consecutive shows, the front man isn’t sure if he’s saying ‘Hey, anyone here from out of town?’ or ‘I condemn you all to a life of damnation, blood and hellfire! Release the demons!’
A fresh set of eyes. If an editor brings nothing else to the process but this, he/she would be worth their weight in gold. A little bit of distance from the work is a magical thing. After all, writers achieve a closeness to their work that can only be measured in units usually reserved for sub-nuclear particles. Femtometres, stuff like that. In the end, though, you can’t sit with each and every one of your readers, waiting for a tell-tale brow furrowing and then jumping in and saying: ‘Don’t worry about that. It’ll all become clearer in the next chapter.’ Your work has to stand on its own two feet, without you there to provide background notes while the reader reads.
Understanding all the above should help a writer come to terms with the confronting, bracing, revealing process of being edited, but it’s only a start. How do you approach that moment of truth, the time when the first editorial report lands in your lap?
The first step is to read the report carefully – and don’t respond to it straight away. Almost inevitably, the report will be a moment of great ego-testing. The work you spent so much time and effort on, so much sweat and emotion, so much of your brain and heart and spirit has been judged and it’s not perfect! You thought – or hoped – it was and someone is disagreeing!
It’s time for some deep breaths. Deep, deep breaths, perhaps until those little black dots in your vision announce that you’re overdoing it. Whatever you do, don’t immediately pick up the phone or launch into an email response, especially anything beginning with the words: ‘How dare you …!’ Go for a walk. Sleep on it. Let things lie fallow for a time.
After this pause for reflection, re-read the report – with a pencil or highlighter this time. Make note of all those points that, deep in your heart, you knew were issues. Things like that particular plot point you fudged and hoped no-one would notice. Or that beautifully written, but slow, chapter you thought you could get away with. Or that trenchant political point you thought you’d disguised well enough. Writers, here’s a heads-up: editors notice! They’re really, really, good at noticing. They’re professional noticers. They’re so eagle-eyed that eagles have a phrase to describe sharp sight: editor-eyed. And, yes, you saw that one coming.
So on this calmer, more considered re-reading of your editorial report you’ll see a whole bunch of stuff that you really knew anyway. No, you haven’t been found out. All that’s happened is that you now have a second opinion. A very good second opinion that you need to take seriously.
In a way, these points – the ones you suspected anyway – are easy enough to take on board. It gets harder after you accept these and work through the rest of the report.
This is where you come to where the editor has identified weaknesses that you didn’t suspect. Many of these will make you wince, or cry ‘ouch!’ or do both – but that’s okay. If you react like this, you’re probably agreeing with what the editor has pointed out, especially if you slap your forehead and mumble something about ‘What was I thinking?’
After that, though, there are more parts of your book that ‘may need attention’. These range through the whole gamut of ways that a book can go wrong. Pacing issues. Character motivation and inconsistencies. Failures of logic or plausibility. Inadequate backgrounding. Too much explanation. Not enough explanation. Internal contradictions. Errors of fact. Authorial intrusions. And I really wish I hadn’t started this list because it’s endless and if I stop now I’ll privilege (ahem!) the preceding weaknesses over the ones I haven’t mentioned and I don’t want to do that so instead – look over there! A bear!
After you’ve sorted out these challenging issues, you’re probably left with a handful where you really don’t agree with the editor’s view. And I mean, REALLY don’t agree. When you first read the report you probably disagreed with most of the points therein, but once your wise author-sense kicks in (that’s like ‘spider sense’ but you don’t have to get bitten by anything to achieve it) you generally end up seeing the editorial wisdom in identifying these issues. At the end of this journey of self-discovery, however, there are likely to be a few points that you simply feel are wrong, or misread, or off the beam. This is where you have to trust yourself and to know what you’re trying to achieve with your work – and here’s where I’ll contradict myself without a blush: sometimes you are the best judge of your own work. The tricky part is knowing when you are and when you aren’t.
Right. Once you’ve read and understood the catalogue of issues in the report, it’s teeth-gritting, loin-girding and soul-searching time because you need to change your story. You’ll be looking for fixes. Quick fixes (yay!) and more complex, time-consuming and headache-making fixes (boo!). You’ll be doing some large-scale work, ripping out walls and knocking over fences and you’ll also be doing some very delicate scalpel work. Much the same as when you wrote your first draft, really. You’ll have brainwaves that will have been prompted by something the editor noticed and when you follow this through you won’t have just propped up a saggy bit of the narrative, you’ll have introduced a whole, new, fascinating character arc. You’ll have to make hard decisions about that secondary/tertiary character you loved writing because of her sassy comebacks and curious choice of hair colour and you’ll end up deleting her because the book worked better without her. You’ll sweat over how to bring those two characters together because the book was unbelievable without such a meeting. You’ll gnaw a knuckle trying to figure out the best way to make that bank teller – the one whose fate will affect the whole town – a bit more appealing than the cardboard character you hoped was an everyman type.
My particular worry here is similar to what computer programmers face. When fixing one error, it’s easy to introduce another … Making a change in Chapter 3 to remedy that shonky character backstory infodump can have a ripple effect, necessitating that you track down the consequent issues it causes, and to fix all of them, too. Sometimes, a fix that appears quick can have the sort of knock-ons that make you sit bolt upright in the middle of the night and scream out: ‘But he can’t do that! He’s her nephew!’
It’s painstaking stuff and it can make you rethink everything about the book you began writing so long ago, but this is the craft. Step by step, working hard, to improve something you created.
Is this easy? No! Is it worthwhile? You bet. Naturally enough, it’s made simpler if your editor is on your wavelength before the process starts. It also helps if the process becomes a dialogue, a discussion with give and take, a free expression of views. Sometimes copious amounts of wine are involved, sometimes not.
Having gone through the process as many times as I have, I know that when you reach the other side of it, once the editing, revising, reworking and rewriting is finished you will have a better story in your hands. And, after all, isn’t that what it’s all about?
Remember: a good editor makes you a better writer.