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The Art of Editing

I’ve been doing lots of editing recently, both for Wishbones, my debut YA coming out in March 2017 and for my third adult novel, Before I Was Yours, out in July 2017. Every time I edit myself or receive editorial feedback from my agent, Bryony Woods and my editor, Manpreet Grewal, I learn so much about the art of storytelling and writing that I thought I’d share a few of those lessons with you here.

Before I go on, here’s a small note about editors, agents and anyone who gives you feedback.

The best editor is like a brilliant teacher.

A bad teacher railroads you, wants to do it all for you – or to do it in their own way, in their own style; a method that’s guaranteed to kill of your creativity and to bury unique voice.

A brilliant teacher – and editor – wants to bring out your skills and strengths and so your unique voice.

I’m lucky to have two exceptionally talented editors in my life – and soon a third for my YA fiction. Make sure that the advice you receive is focused on making your writing and your story the best it can be. And trust your gut too.

Here are some top tips I’ve picked up over years of editing, tips I’d have loved to have when I was setting out.

Enjoy the process

I know, I know, I’m sounding like one of those annoyingly wide-grinned silver-linings, find a lesson in adversity types. But I really mean it: enjoy the process. Too often, editing is seen as a chore, as the painful, tedious, time-consuming job we have to do to get a novel into shape. We divorce editing from the magic of creation.

But shaping our manuscript (and editing is all about shaping), is just as much about creativity as having light bulb moments and writing our first words. In fact, it can be even more magical.

If our first draft is like the gestational process of being pregnant, editing is giving birth – bringing to life the story within us.

I’ve come to love edits. The feeling that it’s all there, like a beautiful block of marble, and that it’s my job to chisel away until the story shines for my readers. Putting myself in this positive frame of mind also makes the editing process much more bearable – even (believe it or not), fun.

Take the edits a step at a time

This relates to the enjoyment point. It’s really easy to feel completely overwhelmed by the amount of editorial work you have to do on a manuscript that you’ve already spent months – maybe years – of your life on. This is a process I use to break down the process, to take it a step at a time and so make it feel less overwhelming.

a) In my writing notebook, I create a mind map of the big, overarching things I need to change. Things that I need to keep in mind throughout my editing. Making these notes this ensures that my brain keeps working away at ideas and solutions, even when I’m not writing. And having the key points on one page makes it seem less overwhelming too. There’s also great satisfaction to be had from crossing out sections of the mind map when you’ve addressed those particular edits.

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b) I go to key bits of the manuscript and see what I can fix quickly – and immediately – and what will need longer work. Tackling all the smaller edits first makes me feel like I’ve made a real dent in the editing process and as we know, it’s often starting that’s the hardest.

c) Then I go to key scenes that I can rework without re-reading the whole.

d)  Now I dive into the deep end. Page one. Word one. And then line by line, sentence by sentence chapter by chapter. But by this time, I’ll have done quite a bit of editing already, so I’ll be motivated to tackle the whole manuscript.

Be concrete rather than abstract

This is a wonderful piece of advice to keep at the forefront of you mind whilst writing your first draft and whilst editing. In the novel I’m working on at the moment, Before I Was Yours, Rosie, the woman who is about to adopt with her husband, Sam, has longed for a child for years. One of my editor’s notes was to make those longings concrete rather than abstract.

Manpreet wanted me to show the reader what Rosie’s dreams were in relation to having a child – dreams in a specific sense, like what she would do with that child, how she imagined him in her home, in her life, in her relationship with Sam. Manpreet also wanted me to show Rosie’s physical longing for a child – how she wanted to hold a child in her arms and stroke his hair and smell his skin and tuck him into bed at night.

By moving from general emotions (usually in the form of those pesky abstract nouns) to concrete images, my character and her longings became real.

Balance light and shade

John Lanchester once said:

The architecture of life is tragic; it’s texture is comic.

I’ve never heard it put better. What he means is that the big things in live, the overall story-arc, is often inherently tragic. We all experience loss, pain, great disappointment and, ultimately, death. However, in the every day moments that make up our days, life’s texture, is full of laughter, of our human quirks and of joy.

When we write novels, we inevitably show our characters having a hard time of things – otherwise there wouldn’t be a story. But woven into their stories we need to show moments of light, humour and joy.

This is what makes our stories true to life. And because this makes for the most real and powerful reading experience.

Juxtapose humour and pathos

This is just an extension of the above in a more concrete term. In other words, make your readers laugh and make them cry. If you only do one, they won’t believe in your story or your characters. And sometimes juxtaposition moments of great sadness, of pathos, with touches of humour, makes those sad moments all the more poignant.

Maximise moments of emotional impact

You might disagree with this but I believe that what readers want, more than anything, is to feel.

We are so numbed by the world, by the routines of our lives, by the tragedies recounted 24h a day on the news, that we are robbed of those moments of true, deep feeling: the lifts of joy, the chest-aching moments of grief, soaring hope and crushing disappointment. Of course we do feel these in life too, but when we do they tend to be wrapped up in all kinds of other complicated, messy things to and so the feelings are muddied, somehow. When we read a story and really involve ourselves in the life of a particular character, the emotional reaction we have can be strong, and pure and powerful and can make us feel alive again. I’m sure you’ve had those moments in great novels, the moments that you remember long after after the details of the story have evaporated.

So, our job as writers, is to allow our readers to feel deeply. That doesn’t mean writing gratuitously tragic or sickly romantic scenes – those won’t move our savvy readers, anyway.

It does mean identifying out the key moments of emotional impact in our narrative arc and making sure that we give these moments the right build up and then the appropriate space to breathe so that they really work for our readers.

Here’s a direct comment from my editor, Manpreet, from the margins of Before I Was Yours, my third novel, out in 2017:

Subtly is great, but do also ensure you’re giving the important moments the weight they need to really hit home for readers.

Giving our readers powerful, emotional experiences is one of our biggest jobs as writers.

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Keep up the pace

One of the loveliest compliments readers have given to me about my latest book, The Return of Norah Wells, is that they couldn’t put it down. I was particularly pleased because it’s not a thriller, which is the genre most people associate with gripping drama. The fact that so many people commented on this – and did so in such a positive way – made me realise how important it is for readers to be propelled by our narratives.

The comments I received were phrased as: ‘I couldn’t put it down…’ ‘I stayed up all night reading it…’ ‘I read it in a few days…’ ‘I haven’t been able to get into a book for ages and this really captured my interest.’

Maybe it’s a sign of our times or maybe we’ve always loved stories with pace but I know that my readers appreciate the fact that my books don’t have long, self-indulgent passages or asides, that I don’t give them pages and pages of naval gazing or background to my characters. That my focus is always: what is happening now in the lives of my characters and what’s going to happen next.

You may want to linger; your reader wants to find out what happens next.

So, I hear you asking, how do we ensure pace. Well, one thing is simply to ‘cut’ (see below) anything that isn’t immediately necessary to your story. If a passage doesn’t deepen character and develop plot (ideally it will do both), ask yourself why it’s there.

Check your chapter endings and make sure that you end on a note of suspense that your reader wants to plunge into the next chapter without taking a breath.

Keep building mystery and suspense. Mystery makes your readers ask: ‘why?’; suspense makes your readers ask: ‘what next?’

Screen play writers are given the advice:

Start late, get out early.

This means: cut the preamble and cut the post-event naval gazing. Both bog down your story. Start in the middle of the action, especially at the beginning of your novel, and, as you craft each scene, think about how early you can leave it so as to allow your readers to long for what comes next – rather than over-feeding them and leaving them feeling bloated.

Manage how you reveal vital information. ‘Delay’ (without unnecessarily teasing your reader) is a great way of building pace. Don’t give everything away too early. Drip feed your readers with juicy, subtle clues which make them desperate to know what happens next.

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Character goals, obstacles & motivations

What does your character want?

That’s probably one of the most important questions you’ll ask of any story you write. My husband and I discuss this often because, as a classically trained actor, it’s a question he was made to ask himself every time he prepared for a role. Your character’s overriding desire – and the obstacles that get in her way – are what your readers will be interested in and it’s what will keep your narrative moving forward.

Your character has to want something concrete too (see notes on concrete versus abstract above). It’s not good enough to say my character wants love or belonging or happiness. Any of those may be true but they are far too general. Happiness means something very different to every one of us. Rosie’s happiness in Before I Was Yours, is having her own child. And even then I have to work hard on showing what it is, in particular, about having a child she wants.

By being specific, your reader will be able to understand and identify with what your character yearns for and so will feel invested in their quest to achieve it.

Beware of your writing tics

One of the questions I always ask in my ‘twenty questions’ series is whether the writer I’m interviewing has a particular tic they’re forever editing out. The answers are enlightening – and there are quite a few overlaps in the things writers have admitted to. Do look at my interview posts, they’re wonderfully fun and enlightening.

Tics might be the use of a particular bit of punctuation. As a young writer I was embarrassingly obsessed with the semi-colon. Now, I have to watch for my dashes. Particular words creep up for us too. In my latest book I’ve used ‘only’ too often. ‘Just’ is a word that many authors admit to using far too frequently. We might also be affected by modern culture and American TV – and this can creep into how we write or how our characters talk. A tick might work on a bigger scale too – perhaps we over-use a particular metaphor or symbol or character type.

The ‘search’ function on word is brilliant at exposing how many times we’ve used the same word or phrase.

Cut, cut, cut

William Faulkner is said to have told aspiring writers:

Kill your darlings.

The phrase has become a bit of a cliche now but the advice is still worth considering. Darlings tend to be the parts of our stories that we’re a bit too proud of. The phrases and scenes and character actions we think are clever or literary. The reason we need to kill them is because those bits of our stories are usually more about us as writers than about our story and our characters.

Readers can spot a show off from a mile away and it usually switches them right off reading our stories. Our showing off moments break the spell of our stories.

Other things, beside these darlings, to cut, include:

  • Repetitions;
  • Anything which slows the pace;
  • Over-explanations (see point about trusting your readers);
  • Sentences, paragraphs and chapters which don’t either deepen the reader’s understanding of character or develop the plot;
  • Cliches. If you’ve heard it once before, question whether you should being using it;
  • Avoid abstract nouns (love, hope, joy, sadness…);
  • Question every adjective and every adverb. Try to chop them and ask yourself whether this makes your sentences stronger;
  • Focus on verbs and nouns. These are what make your writing lean, strong and engaging.

It’s helpful to think of your manuscript working on three levels – this is something I mention to my writing students:

  1. Word level
  2. Sentence level
  3. Text level

Keep questioning whether your writing is as a strong as it can be in each of these three areas.

Cutting can sound painful but actually, it’s hugely rewarding to watch the shape of your story becoming more defined – like that block of marble which the sculptor chisels until her statute takes shape. When I was in my twenties, an older, wiser, writing friend told me:

You’ll know when you’re a writer, when you start boasting about how may words you’ve cut rather than how many words you’ve written.

Tough love advice – but true.

Trust your readers – and assume they are cleverer than you

It is very, very easy to make reader feel patronised. Readers are quick, clever, good at spotting patterns and picking up on clues and making deductions. Spelling things out for them, going over old ground, over-explaining, can take all the fun away from our readers.

The most helpful way to think of this as follows:

Your readers complete your stories.

This means that, creating a book is a joint venture. You write the initial story but it comes alive in the imagination of your reader. That means they need to work a bit too!

Edit like a reader, not a writer

This is maybe the best bit of advice of all. The more you get into the head of the reader – and how you, as a reader, respond to the books you enjoy most – the better your editing will be and the more courageous you’ll be about making those cuts.

Ask yourself whether your reader is bored or excited or sad or laughing from their bellies. Ask yourself whether your reader wants to find out what happens next or whether they’re yawning and about to put the book down. Ask yourself whether your reader will care about your characters, cheer for them, long for them to succeed and feel deeply when they don’t.

Ask yourself about how your reader will feel when she reads your first page. Imagine her in a book shop flipping through different paperbacks. Will your first page make her take your book straight to the till?

Do the same with the ending. Will your ending make the reader want to throw your book across the room in frustration. Will she be disappointed because it’s all a bit too glib and neat to ring true? Will she be confused? Will she be moved? Will she cry? Will she feel satisfied? Endings are trickier than openings in this sense. Most of us know how to craft an engaging opening that throws our readers right into the heart of our stories. Knowing how to tie things up successfully is a trickier business, but keeping our readers in mind is always the best way forward.

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Amplify what’s working

Coming back to teaching, over the last twelve years of teaching teenagers, there’s something important I’ve learnt about about offering feedback. Too often, we simply point out what’s wrong or what could be improved. In the last few years I’ve made a point of highlighting what’s good and suggesting that students amplify this. We all have strengths in our writing, things that come naturally to us, things that people comment on when they talk about something they enjoyed in our fiction. So we needed to learn to maximise those.

Learning to build on our strengths is just as important as learning to overcome our weaknesses.

The more you write, the more you’ll come to understand what makes you writing strong. If you’re lucky enough, your agent, editor and readers will comment on this too. Make this your trademark. Work on it. Make it stronger. Build the muscles you have already.

Afterword: if you don’t have an agent or editor to offer you feedback

I realise that I’m hugely lucky to have two such great teachers in my life, an agent and an editor who are both invested in helping me write as well as I can. But for a long time, I didn’t have this. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t seek out feedback.

One way I found feedback was by setting up a manuscript group. I simply put some ads in papers and, as a result, met two of my very best friends with whom I still write today.

Another was by regularly attending writing courses. Look up courses run by The Arvon Foundation, they’re awesome.

Another was by finding some trusted friends and family to read my first drafts. Be a little careful with this too. I always bristle when my mother makes a criticism of something I’ve written but she’s usually right, so I always go back to her with my books!

You will have a cacophony of voices in your head and you can choose to go with the opinions that resonate most loudly for you – and also the ones that are repeated. If everyone is saying that a bit of the plot doesn’t work, they’re probably right.

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Recommendation: The Artful Edit by Susan Bell. This is one of the very best books on editing that I have read and gives a wonderful account of F Scott Fitzgerald’s relationship with his editor, Maxwell Perkins, as they worked on The Great Gatsby. 

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