May, 2017

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Getting down to business

Tomorrow I will have worked through the second full edit of my novel. In the process, I’ve cut over 50,000 words, and there is still more work to be done. I have a list of things I need to go back and change. From hunting and destroying words I use too often (‘just’ and ‘veneer’ are top of the list, who knew?), turning weak verbs (think ‘walk’) into stronger ones (‘stride’, ‘pace’ etc) and re-writing some earlier scenes. Again. They just don’t work at the moment. I probably need to go for yet another run to see if I can sort them out.

Then I get to the business part of this undertaking. Obviously it’s the best novel ever written, but until I have James Patterson on the phone begging me not to knock him off his usual Number 1 slot on the bestseller list, all it’s doing is sitting as a file on my laptop (and backed up in three different places).

So. Find an agent? How do I do that, then? Or go straight to a publisher so I can start my own collection of rejection letters? Or self-publish, because that seems to work for some people?

Hmm… lots to think about. I’ve deliberately held off spending much time on these questions because it would just have been a distraction before now, but it feels like it’s about to be the right time to get stuck into it.

While I’m doing that, I think what I also need is a second, different, external professional ripping-to-shreds of the whole thing. This draft is a lot better than the last one, but is it good enough? If you look at the people authors thank at the end of their books, there’s almost always an editor in there. And I’ve heard enough authors say at book events that their books are only as good as they are because they have a great editor. And after all this time, what’s a few more weeks to wait? Plus I can get cracking on the next book for a ‘break’ from this one.

It’s beginning to sound like a plan.

The unseen heroes

One of the many careers I never pursued was translating. This despite the best hour I probably spent at university being the one where we tried simultaneous translation. It’s fair to say that not everyone got the same buzz from the experience as I did, though. It’s something like turning your brain up to full power and then keeping going. You are hearing one thing and instantly converting it into a different language while still having to take in everything the person is saying.

Translation is as much art as science, particularly when it comes to translating fiction. We’ve all experienced what it’s like when not even the science part works – those instruction manuals where you really have no idea what you are meant be doing. But beyond that is the fun part. Where you get to think about how best to translate a word from one language into another while trying to preserve some of the associations which the word or phrase has in the original. And not give it additional, unintended (by the author) meaning in the translation.

The example we used at university was ‘cucumber sandwiches’. If you’re British, you’ve already got a picture of the exact type, feel and taste of the bread. And the butter, plus probably what kind of plate the sandwiches are being served on. Are you already at the image of the picnic or garden party or sporting event as well? Try translating that into another language. And sorry, but if you aren’t British, you probably haven’t got the faintest idea what I’m really talking about. Unless you’ve watched Four Weddings and a Funeral, perhaps.

And translating the simple Wohnzimmer from German – living room or sitting room? So many associations with both the (correct) English translations, none of which are there in the German. 

I’m branching out of my more familiar English or German language literature and research at the moment. Otherwise I limit both the novels I can read and the areas I can delve into. This means that I am entirely dependent on the translator to produce something that feels like it was written in English while preserving the cultural reference points that place the story somewhere specific in place and time.

And what a difference in the translations of these two books. One originally in Ukrainian, one from the Russian. One for pleasure, one for research. Both were translated into English by non-native speakers. When I was a lad (why not ‘boy’ or ‘young man’ or ‘youth’? – did I use that word deliberately, was I making some cultural reference, saying something about myself…or did I just want to use a different word for a change? – Welcome to the world of the translator), that was a no-no. You only translated into your own language (although we all learned by going in both directions). Times seem to have moved on.

Today, I’m less interested in the stories of these books than the translations. And a few examples will, I hope, show the difference between a good translation and a bad one.

‘The smell of rotting corpses hung in the air as the legal residents of Kharkiv, the capital of Ukraine, carried on their plucky and brutal struggle for existence. […] They hated every person ahead of them in line with a passion that, in more normal times, would have been reserved exclusively for one’s worst enemies. Besides these “legal residents,” there was in the city that year another group of people, possibly even more numerous than the first. This was the group of people with no propyska (the registration necessary for the right to live in the city) and thus no rights.’

There were immediately three issues with this for me.

It looked to me as if the translator came up against a problem right away with these ‘legal residents.’ Maybe there’s a specific term in Ukrainian that just doesn’t work in English. But just putting in something in English, then putting it in inverted commas a paragraph later tells me I haven’t understood what the original meant. Maybe it doesn’t matter, but it’s clunky and it stopped the story for me twice in the first two paragraphs.

‘They hated every person… for one’s worst enemies.’ Is just grammatically wrong. ‘One’ can’t refer to ‘they’. And I think you’d have to have a pretty good reason to use ‘one’ in the first place. 

And finally we have the classic ‘I need to explain this’ issue with the propyska. There’s clearly a desire to keep the Ukrainian term, and I find it helpful to keep some of the original terms. But there are simpler and better ways of dealing with them. For example: ‘This was the group of people with no propyska. Without that one piece of paper, they had no right to live there. No rights at all.’ I would have to know Ukrainian to be sure that was the proper meaning of the original text, but the sentence(s) just flow better.

You don’t notice good translations. Just as the author has got out of the way of the story, so has the translator. Every translation is a compromise because you simply don’t have equivalents for every word in both languages. But what you can do it try to keep the sense of the original. The pace, the tone, the overall feel of the language.

‘Noble scrunched up his face as if all his teeth had started aching at the same time. Tabaqui seemed to enjoy that. He even pinked up a little. He lit a cigarette and looked at me with the all-knowing smile of a veteran.’

Thank you. Much better. You just don’t notice anything. 

Translating is a tough business. I tried translating a book from German a few years ago on the basis that it hadn’t yet been translated into English. I probably still have the draft of as far as I had got lying around somewhere. There were simply so many phrases where I had to stop and think, how do you get that across in English? They went into the ‘come back to that’ category. Maybe one day. If I think a story is worth it, but it won’t be that one. It was more of an intellectual workout than a sense that the book should be better known.

So for now, I’m grateful for the translators, even the ones who aren’t as good but make it possible for me to do research in areas that would otherwise be unaccessible to me. Because learning Russian or Ukrainian really isn’t on any list I have tucked away somewhere. Thanks to these heroes behind the scenes, I don’t have to



Does it matter?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about one of the fears when writing a book that makes unreasonable psychological demands of the author – that someone else will get there first. The other fear for me is whether I can answer this question about the book: Does it matter?

Does it have to?

For me, yes. I’m not going to get all existential about it, though, and delve into what even the question means. Matters to who(m – pedant)? How do you decide if it matters? Define your terms, man! Actually… no.

It has to matter to me first and foremost. Which means it has to be more than ‘just’ a story. But let’s wind back a bit first… it has to be first and foremost a story. That’s what my current edit is about. If the first draft is finding out what the story is (believe me, I wasn’t sure for a long time…), or telling yourself that story, the second is about telling the story to someone else. And doing it better. A lot better. And – this, I suspect, is the real bit – getting out of the way of the story.

Seriously, you would not believe the amount I can cram into one book. Cryptic references that almost nobody else will get. Oblique parallels between different cultures and societies. Specific words and phrases that mean way more than anyone is going to twig. All of which means that in my first draft, way too much of it was my voice. Yup, pretty much all of what I just listed off. It’s not that I don’t think that’s fascinating and everything, but it’s not Natalie’s story, and that’s what I’m writing. Her story. Not mine. (Note to self: got that yet? – and yes, just take that other line out that you liked so much. Or the paragraph. Actually, that whole scene isn’t actually doing anything, is it? Honestly, it can go. Highlight. Control-X.)

So is that it? It’s just a story?

Not for me. It can be enough, though. Some stories ‘just’ entertain us. Nothing wrong with that and I’ve read and enjoyed many books that are not trying to be anything more. Others are written in a way that challenges us with the writing itself. Fine, if that’s your thing. 

And me?

It has to be a story I think needs to be told. There are so many that could be told. Someone else can write them, and I’ll be happy to read them. But the ones I need to write? – I know them when I see them. They just out at me when I read or hear or see something. There are enough other fragments of stories kicking around in my head that I know I’m not going to end up sitting down and writing, but there are four that I’m pretty sure are going to make it into a full blown story. Because I think they tell us something about ourselves. Which starts with – they tell me something about me that I need to figure out.

What did I need to figure out in the current novel? Ah, that would be telling. But don’t worry. I know. And now I am busy taking that back out again and letting Natalie tell her story. Because it’s way better than anything I could tell you. 

Will anyone else care? I hope so. But I’ll write the story either way. And that’s because I also know why I am writing it. As Simon Sinek says, you have to ‘Start with Why’ you are doing something. Once you know that, you’ll figure the rest out. And that’s a lot of fun.

Building a house – or a book

The work on the house is now almost done. We have been saying this for a few weeks now and each time it has been true. On reflection, I think the process of creating a book is a lot like a building project.

When you first start, it’s a total mess:


Ideas everywhere in no discernible order. At least with a house, you have an architect who knows what is going on. With a book, you are architect, builder, project manager, joiner, plumber and general gofer. Sometimes all at once. Mainly unpaid. No, scrub that. Entirely unpaid.

Then you start to put things together, but it’s still not looking like anything you would want anybody else to see. For good reason. And it does feel like you are wandering around in the dark…

So you carry on. Just keep going. No matter the weather or your mood, you have to persevere. Then something starts to take shape and you think, maybe this isn’t going to be so bad after all. Just don’t focus on all that mud.

But that’s just the framework that’s in place really. There’s still a lot to do behind the scenes – the bit nobody else ever sees.

Eventually, it’s done. The first draft. And you think, that’s looking pretty decent. I can’t see anything wrong with it.

So you fire it out. And you get a snagging list back. So you start to go through it, and pretty soon…

Yup, you’re back to the drainage. Because it isn’t right. And the walls are the wrong colour. The radiators are leaking. And the shower doesn’t work because the water pressure is too low. To be honest, you always knew it was too low. You just hoped it wouldn’t matter. But when one shower doesn’t work at all and the other one manages only to drip out of half the nozzles, you know something has to be done. You can try denial, but after a while it will be you that is stinking if you don’t get that shower working.

Right now, I’m sorting the metaphorical drainage, walls and painting and hoping the pipes don’t suddenly spring a leak now there is real pressure on them. Once you’ve been away from the house or the book for a few weeks, you come back and you see everything that’s wrong. But you still love it. And you know all those things you’re now spotting can be fixed. It just takes time and patience and a large dose of honesty. It’s going to look lovely, inside and out. It’s just not quite there yet.


And when a neighbour clears away an acre of trees and you are left with this view from my desk, you can start to believe it will all be worth it in the end.


On being edited

Here’s one piece of advice you will receive when you have written a (draft of a) book. Don’t ask family and friends what they think.

Why not, I hear you cry? Surely you can trust them to give you an honest opinion?

Yes, you can. And I have absolutely sent the first draft to a few people either whose opinions I wanted as readers and/or because after all this time, I thought they deserved to see what has come of it.

But the truth is that it’s not enough. Not by a long shot. Not to make a book as good as it can be – however you want to determine that.

The scope of my first solo edit of the book achieved… not a lot. I got rid of (most of, I hope) the blatant inconsistencies in the plot. The things that changed later on and I had to go back and change earlier in the book. All of which was necessary, but not sufficient. I was – and knew I was – still far too close to the text. I couldn’t see what was wrong with it, what needed to be changed, and what was redundant. And, critically, I think, I couldn’t see the problems with the style of writing I had slipped into over time. The repetitions of phrases, the words that should never be there in the first place, the excessive philosophising. It all matters, some more, some less, but it all makes a difference. 

If you want real feedback, you have two options.

Ask an editor.

Or ask another writer.

Yup, we writers can tell you everything that’s “wrong” with someone else’s writing – or rather, what jumps out at us. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong. Everyone will write differently but knowing what someone else with an understanding of and feel for writing helps us to make sure our own writing decisions are conscious.

Remember my blog on ballet corrections? This is the same. Specific correction is what really helps.

“I liked your book.” “It was rubbish.” Not so helpful. Why is it good or rubbish? And where did you see that? And what, exactly did you like or hate? I could go on…

So I gave it to a writer. Here’s what the first page came back looking like (the next 79 were similar):


Wahay! Now that is helpful (and what a professional editor would do – there’s a reason they get a mention in authors’ list of thanks). Do I agree with every comment and every suggestion made? No – and I was not supposed to. But every one is valuable because at the very least the text with comments needs to be re-considered. In the case of my prologue, re-written. But here’s the thing. I kind of knew that already. I knew it wasn’t quite right, I just couldn’t put my finger on why. Now I can. The voice wasn’t quite right. So I’ve changed it. The story isn’t (much) different, it’s just told better.

So what else have I learned from being edited to exhaustion?

  • I was concerned that I was writing too much dialogue, so I dialled it back. Too far, it seems.
  • Two lines of dialogue can replace a paragraph of description – and be much more effective.
  • I have way too much philosophising in there…
  • And way too many stray comments and descriptions.
  • And boy do I drag some stuff out. Cut it down, man!
  • I know the theory of writing fiction. I’ve read the books. What I needed is the comment in the margin that says “show, don’t tell” against a particular section. Then I’m fine, I will change it.
  • Cutting a 5,000 word scene down to 500 is sometimes the easiest thing in the world to do. When you have enough emotional distance, you know when a favourite passage or scene just isn’t needed. A holiday will do that for you.
  • After 80 pages of detailed comments, I’m making the changes myself (which was the point). Remember the adage about teaching a man to fish? I had to be taught to edit. And now I’m seeing what’s wrong and hacking it to pieces. This has the secondary benefit of reducing the word count. It’s just too long in the first draft. Which I also knew. But now I can see what to slash without losing the bits I care about because they are worth keeping. And along the way, some tiny themes are slipping away because I originally included them because I wanted to, but they don’t add anything and in some cases detract from what the story is really about.

All of which just goes to show that everything I said about correction in ballet applies to editing fiction. When it’s done well, it’s beyond valuable. I guess that makes it invaluable, then.

On I go then…