Line Edits and How I Go About Them
Here’s a note on editing.
I am working on chapter 23 of ‘Agents of the Truth’, line-checking for grammar, typos, consistency, through-line and style and finding the occasional ‘ouch!’ I just found one right at the beginning of the chapter. The previous chapter ended with a fight, and in my first draft, chapter 23 started with:
Dalston was disorientated. Everything had happened so fast. His throat burned, his lungs tore as he gasped for breath, and the room was a blur through watering eyes. His ears, however, heard the next words without hindrance.
Okay, you say, what is wrong with that? For me, reading it again after some time, it is this:
Dalston was disorientated. First of all, it’s a passive sentence, so not brilliant as a chapter opening and, in the context of a fight scene, passive sentences are not immediate or ‘action’ enough. Secondly, it’s a classic ‘tell’ sentence, and we all know the rule of ‘show don’t tell.’ Dalston was disorientated gives the reader no opportunity to feel disorientation, and therefore, no chance to connect with the character.
Then we have:
Everything had happened so fast. What’s wrong with that? It’s true, isn’t it?
Answer: Yes, it’s true, but it should be what we, the reader, just experienced at the end of chapter 22. In fact, we did experience it because the fight scene was a short, sharp shock, as W.S. Gilbert would have it. Therefore, the reader doesn’t need to be reminded, rather, shouldn’t need reminding. The previous scene should have shown us Everything had happened so fast.
Secondly, it’s a cliché and an opt-out for the writer. Again, if what we’ve just read left us feeling breathless and bashed about, there is no need for the writer to remind us.
His throat burned, his lungs tore as he gasped for breath, and the room was a blur through watering eyes. Isn’t this also telling? Well, yes, but then all storytelling telling, but how do you avoid that?
His throat was aflame. Better, because we imagine what that felt like and, if we’ve ever had a sore throat, we can associate ‘aflame’ with the feeling.
His lungs tore as he gasped for breath. I’m letting that one go, because it tells us he was gasping for air, and the word ‘tore’ is vague enough to make us think of pain.
… and the room was a blur through watering eyes. Yes, well, that’s rubbish, if you ask me. It’s too clumsy. He saw the room through watery eyes, is more precise, but how about, his vision was blurred? Isn’t that, again, telling, not showing?
The room came into view as a series of shifting shadows and wavy outlines, unsettled in his watery vision until he wiped his eyes. Getting there, but too long. Needs breaking up, or editing down, and I might change wavy to distorted, and unsettled to swimming.
His ears, however, heard the next words without hindrance. Eek! I know what I meant to say, but surely, there’s a better way? Do your ears hear? Or is it your brain? Why mention ears at all? It’s Dalston who is hearing, isn’t it?
He heard the next words without hindrance. Simple, to the point, but not good. I don’t like starting sentences with ‘He’ or ‘She’ because it’s too easy. I have read so many books where we have He did this. He did that. He saw this… Maybe it’s a personal thing, but I try to avoid such sentence starts (though I admit they are sometimes unavoidable). Without hindrance… Clumsy! The voice, however, was clear. Simple, and leads into the next line, which is a short speech from another character and the inciting incident for the chapter to come. ‘Mr Blaze. — is hurt. Can you stand?’
(I omitted the character name so as not to spoil anything for you.)
Now then. I am not saying I am the master of this kind of self-appraisal and editing, and you may not agree with what I am saying. That’s fine. In fact, that’s good, because we should all have our own style. What I am saying is that we owe it to our readers and ourselves to be critical of our own work, and should strive to make it the best it can be. While line editing, we have the chance to self-analyse and be as critical as we can or want to be. It’s not easy, and you can tie yourself in knots over it to the point where you mess up your rewrite. That’s why I always keep a copy of the first draft chapters; I can always start again. It also takes time to pick apart every sentence, and if you’re as impatient to publish and move on as I am, impatience is something you must learn to control.
There are times when you become so involved in reading or get caught up with the story, that you let dodgy lines go, and I am as guilty of this as any writer. Again, self-control is called for (or a third-party editor you trust and can pay to do the job for you), and thus, you need to ensure you have set aside enough time for the work.
Currently, I am ‘between jobs’ or ‘resting’ as they say in the theatre, and looking for freelance work, so my own writing is my full-time job, and I have plenty of time for it. If you don’t, then you will have to make time.
The opening paragraph of chapter 23 took me roughly five minutes to rewrite. A year ago, it would have taken me ten, and a year before that, I probably wouldn’t have changed it at all. Experience comes with time and training, and in a year’s time, maybe I won’t need to rewrite as many first-draft paragraphs as I do now. I am already rewriting fewer than I used to because I am writing better first drafts. The message, is to be self-critical, take your time, and always think, ‘Is that the best I can do?
Here’s the paragraph again as I have left it for now. There will be another read/draft once I have finished the line edits on the entire 31 chapters, and who knows, by then I might come up with something even better.
His throat was aflame, and his lungs tore as he gasped for breath. The room came into view as a series of shifting shadows and distorted outlines that swam in his watery vision. The voice, however, was clear.
‘Mr Blaze. — is hurt. Can you stand?’
Dalston wiped his eyes…
‘Agents of the Truth’, the Larkspur Mysteries Book Three, is due for publication in February 2022.