Editing: Keepers of the Past
I am now into my final edit of the second Larkspur mystery, ‘Keepers of the Past’, so I thought it would chat about my editing process.
I work by the maxim, Don’t get it right, get it written (then get it right). When I embark on a first draft, I start at the beginning of the story and work through to the end. On some days, I know I’m not doing my best, but I write anyway, and on others, I fly through, marvelling at how wonderfully the story is telling itself. Later, when I reread the draft, I often discover that the slower days produced the better work, and when I thought I was doing well, I wasn’t. Still, the first draft is there, the story is told no matter how badly, and I have something to work with.
In his book, On Writing, Stephen King says that an author should seek to cut something like 10% of the first draft when working on the second. I seek to do this but don’t always find, and I don’t take it as a rule that must be obeyed. Sometimes, I find I end up with 10% more in a second draft, and that’s fine, as long as it’s a necessary and well-written 10%.
For me, the second draft is often a read-through of the first with an eye to consistency of story. Have I said something early on that doesn’t tie up later? Does a character’s eye colour accidentally change? Particularly important to me is the timeline, and because I use dates as chapter headings, I need to ensure these remain accurate. (They are accurate to the calendar from the year in which the story is set, and I check this with publications in the online newspaper archive because not all online date calculators are accurate.) Another thing to look out for is repetition. I often put some piece of vital information early in the story, and then repeat it later, which is unnecessary. What I’m doing is reminding myself to make sure the info is in there, because after putting it in chapter one, by the time I get to chapter ten, I can’t remember if I’ve written in it the story. Therefore, draft two is often about removing repetition. A reader should only need to read something once, and if I find myself saying aloud, ‘Yes, I know this,’ I delete it.
Third (or Fourth) Draft
Here’s where things get technical. I finally know the story and characters well enough, and have the plot, timeline, developments etc. in order, so they can now take care of themselves. What needs attention next is the grammar, and I do what people call a line edit. This is where you go through every single line of the text looking for mistakes. I’m not just talking about typos, I am always on the look out for them, but grammar, sentence construction and use of words. The question in my head at this stage is, Can I write this better? Which I would change to How can this be improved, if I was editing this blog post. (I would also add a question mark to the improvement. I put it that way to highlight how you should be aware of missing punctuation as much as everything else.)
I am currently on draft three of ‘Keepers of the Past’, and at the line edit stage. As an assistant, I use a plug-in to Word called ProWritingAid (PWA). I used to use Grammarly, but it messed with Word so much, I threw it out. PWA offers the writer plenty of suggestions on all kinds of things, and it can bog you down with so many, you end up over-editing. So, use it with care. I check through its reports for basic grammar, overused words, sentence length, clichés, and one they call ‘style’, because, among other things, it picks up on adverb use.
Another habit of mine when first drafting is to bung in an adverb when I can’t be bothered to explain something in a more literary way, and then forget to go back and change it. ‘I never use them in dialogue tags,’ he said sheepishly, because he has done, but only when unavoidable. When PWA tells me there are 17 adverbs in this chapter, and I gasp, I go through and eliminate as many as possible. Often, they are not needed. Here’s an example:
Someone had spent hours twisting and tightening, or it might have been done by a machine, but their labours had ultimately been in vain.
Ultimately been in vain? Why not just, been in vain? We know it happened in the past. I do, though, leave adverbs in speech, because that’s how people talk. Stephen King’s view on adverbs is they are lazy writing. It’s a case of show, not tell. ‘I am not!’ he said, angrily. That might be what you mean, and it’s a quick way of saying it, but, ‘I am not,’ he fumed, thumping the table with such force the crockery jumped’, lets the reader imagine so much more.
It also reminds me to mention exclamation marks! I hate them! I hate them more when they are overused!! I once read an autobiography by a film director known for making epic fantasy films. A brilliant screenwriter and director, but he didn’t employ a great editor. Every other line ended in an exclamation mark. I couldn’t believe it! We had the Money! Yes, okay, so you were excited, and one might forgive the dreaded ! after such an exclamation, but when the story continues with, So, we were off to the studio. There, we attended the auditions! Calm your enthusiasm, mate, that’s just unnecessary, as exclamation marks, in my opinion, often are.
Where was I? Oh, yes…
I have my next chapter open for editing and have run my PWA report, asking it to identify overused words. I always get a shock at this point, and here’s why. This is, verbatim, what the report says:
Overused Words Check
was/were. You have overused this word compared to published writing. Consider removing about 7 occurrences from 122.
One hundred and twenty-two uses of was/were!? The chapter only has 3,882 words in it – and never use exclamation and question marks together, btw. Nor abbreviations such as btw, unless you can justify doing so.
Overuse of was/were and had suggests not only lazy writing, but passive verb use and too much back-flashing. The report also highlighted 80 occurrences of had, and here’s more of the example text, pre-edit. (I have highlighted the overuse.)
Joe, my deaf character, is trying to make sense of some ancient symbols, one of which is a rope. While doing so, he reminisces about his time in the workhouse oakum shed, where his job was to unpick lengths of old rope.
As he worked, Joe often wondered who had put the ropes together. Someone had spent hours twisting and tightening, or it might have been done by a machine, but their labours had ultimately been in vain, and he wondered how they felt about that. The rope had done its job, it had held sails, secured vast ships to dockyard bollards, or perhaps tied down tea chests as the ship braved the distant oceans. He wondered what the rope had seen, what it would know, and tried to imagine life aboard a ship…
I’ve not edited this chapter yet, but when I do, I might rewrite the section thus:
As he worked, Joe often wondered who first put the ropes together. Someone spent hours twisting and tightening the threads, but in the end, their labours came to nothing, and he wondered how they would feel if they knew. The rope played its part, fastened sails, secured vast ships to dockyards, or kept cargo safe as the ship braved the wild oceans. He wondered where the rope had sailed and tried to imagine life aboard a ship…
Slightly better, and it might read as odd, because, here, it is out of context. It was an example of how easy it is to overuse certain words. Others to watch for include could, feel, know and see in their various forms (felt, knew, knowing, saw, seen, etc.)
The point of this section was to point out how finickity it can be to improve a manuscript, but how much better the finished work will be because of it. The danger, however, is over-editing. Being too nit-picky, you can ruin a sentence, paragraph or entire chapter by fiddling with it too much. It’s possible to lose the sense of the writing, the feel and the style, so you must watch out for that. Using PWA along with my own decisions, it can take me two hours to get through 4,000 words. ‘Keepers of the Past’ ran to 105,000 words in the first draft, so that means the line edit will take me about 26 hours. (Perhaps I should take it up as a profession and offer my services?)
While all that is going on in my office, my husband is in the sitting room reading through the first draft. His job, which he does willingly and for free, is to make sure the story makes sense, to point out any obvious repetition, and anything he thinks is unnecessary. Only yesterday he came to me to say most of one chapter was not needed, and unlike the rest of the book, he didn’t enjoy it. I suspected that would happen, because when I wrote it, I thought, ‘I like this part, but is it necessary?’ He gave me the answer I knew I should have found for myself, and the lesson there is, when editing, always trust your instincts.
Or, as our family doctor used to say, ‘If in doubt, whip it out.’ If you have read the Clearwater series, you won’t be surprised to know our family doctor was called Dr Markland.
After I have done my content, structure and line editing, I send the MS to be proofread by a professional proofreader. I am lucky enough to have discovered the editor and proofreader Ann Attwood, and highly recommend her services for being reliable, honest and knowledgeable.
Once back from proofing, the MS goes through another read to check the proofs, of course, but also, by then, I’ve had some distance from it, so I can take a fresh look. From then on, the novel is on its own and out there in the big wide world, and I can cut along to the next one and start the process all over again.
Next Week’s Blog
I intended to give you the first draft of the unnecessary chapter, pre-editing, so you can see what the fuss was all about. Part of ‘Keepers of the Past’ has to do with the mystical number nine, and the cut chapter delves into numerology and the strange way in which the number nine works. I found it so fascinating, I wrote a whole chapter about it, where foul-mouthed Frank takes us through its mystery. Totally not needed (apart from containing a plot point which I can easily move), it’s now in the cuts folder, but I will share it with you next week.
Until then, keep reading, and I’ll keep writing.