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I don’t walk any more. Instead, I stroll, pace, stride, march, shuffle or stagger. There are over a hundred different ways to walk in English.
And then there’s looking. Or is it gazing, glancing, ogling or staring? Just not all at the same time.
And do not get me started on contractions. Just don’t.
Yes, I’ve been doing even more editing. Much more detailed this time. Part of the trick seems to be to visualise the scene and exactly what is happening. How exactly is that man moving, and how can I describe it in one word, giving something of the action and of what’s going on in his head at the same time? This, I think, is part of the reason Stephen King says writing is telepathy. I have a picture in my head and I want to get it into yours. Or at least the elements that matter for the story, the rest is down to your own imagination.
And it’s done for now. It’s taken up to 13 hours a day to go through the whole book again in a week and a half after finishing the first major edit, including reading it out loud over and over again to find the parts that just don’t flow. A lot of them weren’t necessary and fell along the wayside, others just needed rewritten, a few only required a word to move position.
Doesn’t look like much, does it? Wait till you read the rest of it…
In numbers, it’s now almost 60,000 words shorter than the first draft. In paperback book terms, that’s somewhere around 200 pages less. Yup, that’s a lot. I still think you’re getting a lot of bang for your eventual buck, though, as it’s still almost 600 pages, but they’re now faster, crisper pages. Or at least I think they are. I’ll find out soon enough, because today I fired the book off to an editor for another possible hatchet job. And now I can forget about it for a while while it’s someone else’s problem. Which is a good thing because my brain has had enough for now. It needs a chance of scene. That means three things.
First, clear everything away. All those bits of paper, random notes, ideas for scenes, snippets of conversations between characters, random phrases that came to me in the car that one of the girls scribbled down for me, and the large pile that is the previous printed draft.
Second, read a James Patterson book because all I want right now is something enjoyable to read. I don’t care if he goes around killing off all his characters, it will be brilliantly written.
And third, get stuck into Ukrainian history. Not the nice parts, of course, but the era where I think there’s another story that hasn’t been told. I have a stack of books to get through and, unlike last time, I think I have a better idea of what I’m looking for. I need the parts that can make a story come alive, feel real, and do the historical reality justice. The academic parts I can happily leave to one side. The good news is that I have the basic storyline, most of the characters, and absolutely no idea of how it ends. Or what exactly happens along the way. So this will be fun. And maybe I’ll even get to write something at some point, rather than just cut chunks out. Until it becomes time to do that all over again.
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.
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…
There is a reason for my blogging silence for six weeks. That, it turns out, is how long it takes me to write the first draft of the novel from beginning to end, and it doesn’t allow for an awful lot of head space devoted to anything else.
Right now, I’m back in Berlin for a week. It gave me the total space I needed to do nothing but write and walk (not at the same time) for the first few days, eating when I remembered to and just doing one more scene…and one more…and just one more…maybe one more before I stop… then it was done.
I spent a long day walking through Leipzig reacquainting myself with the city where Natalie (all names you’re hearing for the first time are of characters in the book, and all bear no similarity to etc etc etc) went to university, and finding the place unrecognisable from when she was there (because it was unrecogisable from when I was there – they have been knocking down all the parts I knew over twenty years ago). I could still retrace her route between the two university building she was in, but as for the rest – too much has changed to be able to see where anything else happened, until, with an hour before my train back to Berlin was leaving and a 45 minute walk from the station, I finally found the place I needed, unchanged in forty years and exactly where she would have gone with…ah, no, not telling you that bit. The lights, I admit, are a modern addition, but this was what I had been looking for – the kind of thing you know when you see it:
Today, I walked for hours through Berlin tracing routes to make sure they worked, to see what became obvious only when I actually retraced someone else’s steps, and then I checked what I could see when I stood on the corner of a street I had previously only imagined, and saw that it was slightly different when I got to the spot. Ninety something percent will never get written down, but I will know that the descriptions I do include will be right, even if I am not going to start listing off every street name (seriously, some people do that, and when it’s set in Berlin and they get it badly wrong, I get pretty grumpy).
I think I am finding that this part is also helpful to allow me to let go of some of the characters. I have way too much invested in them and spend too much of the last couple of days of writing bursting out into tears as I got towards the end. I’m sure I’ll go over it again and think, what was that bit meant to be about?, but right now, I’m just reliving events that happened here when I was only just born.
Here’s what I’ve learned over the process of getting this far:
- No matter how good or bad any of this turns out to be (and everyone’s going to have an opinion!), it took me a lot longer to get it even this far than I had ever imagined. A lifetime – and a career – of writing non-fiction is not a good preparation for writing fiction, except for the part that means I get a kick out of the research!
- Over the last few years, I think I have probably written around 500,000 words. That’s five times the length of To Kill a Mockingbird (told you I liked the research part) and most of it will sit in a folder stuffed full of handwritten pages or in computer files – but all of it was useful because all of it was part of the learning process.
- In the process of writing all that, I gave up twice. As in, totally decided this was never going to happen and I should just accept it and move on. Then the next day, I decided to have another go. Dealing with the emotions of this kind of writing is part of the challenge.
- You can spend a lot of time finding out how other writers ‘do it.’ Stephen King, for example, says write 2,000 words a day, no matter what, then leave it. It works for him, not for me. But what all successful writers say is read a lot and write all the time. It turns out that, for me, I scarcely read anything else once I’ve started for real, and all I do is work from beginning to end, getting down 8-10,000 words a day towards the end of each of the main sections because I just could not imagine stopping for anything. I had to find out what happened (there were some things which only came out towards the end, which answered questions I had been trying to figure out since the beginning) and I just had to get to the end of the story.
- Plot it out. Oh my goodness did I fight against that one. Many, many times. Then I saw a plot outline which James Patterson did for one of his novels, and something clicked. It worked for me. I just opened up the outline and wrote what I had said happened in that scene. No worrying about whether it worked or not, because I knew I had already dealt with what came next, and that there was an ending it was all leading up to. I did change the odd thing as I went along, but that was more as I was finding out things myself. But even with that, I kept telling myself, I don’t know how this works out – then I went through all the scenes ahead of me and realised that I did know. It turned out that I actually plotted the whole thing while I was ill for two months and thought I had got nothing done at all, then I had a look and saw that, somewhere in that time, I had managed to get from beginning to end. I had just forgotten that I had done it.
- Fast works for me. I probably already knew that, but I did try being disciplined, along the lines of so many words a day and then stopping. And it did help on the days when it just wasn’t working and I said, you just have to get it down and change it later. But I found that too many days were either, I don’t know what to write for this scene, or I don’t want to stop now. So I accepted that I was always going to have to up the intensity massively and immerse myself in it. It’s addictive. Deal with it.
- Write every day. Sorry, family. Yes, on Christmas Day as well, but it was only about 1,000 words.
- Yes, you will start to think and feel like your character sometimes. Note to self: stop writing characters who like cigars and French wine. It’s not my fault, it’s just who Theo was. And I dealt with Theo’s character not by drinking and smoking but by telling LoLo what Theo had said recently and judging whether it would stay or not by how much she laughed. When she said weeks later, ‘what was that thing Theo said?’ and laughed all over again, I knew I had at least one line that was a keeper. When your teenage daughter goes around quoting what one of your characters said…wow.
- Delegate. Yes, seriously. I wrote a lot by hand until I simply could not write fast enough without every word looking like a line with a few bumps, and I paid the girls to type it up for me. They almost got it all done as well. As I said to them, at least someone is making some money from my writing. Pity it’s not me!
- All those words I wrote along the way… there’s at least one other book in there and I figured out on my long walk today how I can use it. I have a good chunk of the next book sitting there, and it’s something I care enough about, I just needing to turn it into a proper story and written like that now. And then there’s the other book I plotted out in the course of a 14 mile run a few weeks ago. Running is good for that. Got the main character, got the set up, got an idea of how it might play out, and got the historical (1800s for a change) period it might mirror. Oh, and a title for that one. Emma. I tried writing a few scenes the other day to see if I had her voice, and I started to like it. So there’s a pipeline for the future.
- The main thing I think I’ve learned is that it’s the story that matters, not everything you know. You want to show someone how much you have learned about the facts, write non-fiction. You want to tell a story which brings it to life? – write a novel. The remake of Battlestar Galactica was memorable for me for the writers’ comments on the final episode where they said something along the lines of, We knew it was all about the characters, and that final episode is just beautiful as a result.
So, first draft done, now it’s on to the editing. Which I keep saying to myself is ‘rip it all to pieces.’ I already know (because I peeked) that I am going to hate some of what I wrote at the beginning, and that’s fine. I have a better sense of the characters at the end than I did at the beginning, some things have changed along the way, there’s the odd plot hole I created later on that I need to fix now and I already have one character who is just going to disappear, that you will never know anything about. Sorry, Max, love you but you didn’t add anything I needed, and did I mention that the first draft is waaaaay too long for you to be in the next version? 215,000 words is too much. So now I get to be ruthless. I am so looking forward to that.
See you again in another six weeks when I’m through with the big edit. Then I get a holiday. Literally. In the meantime, I get to eat again. And read books. This is going to be weird…