Love an edit

I have written a few posts about editing. The last one was titled Editing Hell. The name of the post reminds me of how frustrated I must have been feeling at the time. It also made me notice how time and experience change us. The other day I told someone I loved editing. I have observed this change at work as well. My job involves quite a bit of revising others work and I used to hate it – thought it tedious. I am not sure exactly when it happened, but of late I have felt a growing sense of joy in the process of revising and editing. Yes you did read that right, joy. I must be a geek right?

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I have come to appreciate that as writers, we want to produce work that people love, or hate for the right reasons – like because it touches a nerve the reader has been avoiding. We want readers to immerse themselves in our stories, and if we’re lucky be transformed by them in some small way. But raw imagination is messy. To turn a piece of writing into something beautiful to read takes a lot of work. The desire for our work to tell a good story and to be beautiful can blind us to the purpose of editing – which is to find fault and identify what needs to be changed. I have come to understand that the work of writing a novel, is much more about the editing process than inventing the raw story, so learning to love it matters if we are to achieve our goals.

“The first draft reveals the art; revision reveals the artist.”  – Michael Lee

IMG_0510The more I edit, the more respect I have for those who work as editors. They must find and iron out the faults in order to polish a writers work so that it really sings like a finely tuned instrument, yet balance that imperative with the limits to which they can push a writers ego. No wasted words, no words out of place. And anyone who has had to provide ‘constructive feedback’ knows how hard a line that can be to walk when your hope is to get the best outcome. For many writers their work makes them vulnerable and can be a vehicle for their hopes. Push too far and the feedback can be lost in the others woundedness. Don’t push enough and the work may never meet the authors expectations once out in the world.

“Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.” ― William Zinsser, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

IMG_0505In the moments I feel like I am getting sick of editing I remind myself why I’m doing it. I want to make the work as polished as I can – before one of my beta readers, or an actual professional editor reads it. Because then I will get the best out of the collaborative editing process.

 

Images: Tempest, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

Storytelling and editing

Storytelling existed long before the printed page came into existence. The earliest known discovery dates back to around 14,000 B.C. to the Lascaux Caves in the Pyrenees Mountains in southern France. The story drawn on the walls of a cave in pictures depicted the hunting practices and rituals in the area. The first printed word story was the epic of Gilgamesh carved on stone pillars thousands of years later in 700 B.C.

Rock Art, Utah

Of course oral storytelling has been a central part of human cultures for thousands of years, but dating it exactly, like dating when humans first began to speak, is impossible because words leave no trace in the archaeological record. Over time stories have been used to preserve cultures across generations, to teach social norms and transmit knowledge, to create community cohesion, and to entertain. Storytellers were the healers, the spiritual guides, leaders, keepers of culture, entertainers or jesters, and they transmitted their tales in the form of songs, poetry, orations and chants.

In some senses humans are stories because we are made up of the narrative constructs of our lives. Stories are how we are remembered, and how we remember others. A narrative is a powerful tool, and lives can literally be changed by them. Remember the books that influenced you as a child and moulded the way you think today? Stories give children access to their rich imaginations and deep fantasy lives and build emotional literacy. They help us to make sense of our world as well as challenge us to think about the world beyond our own narrow limits.

Telling Tales, Lamen Island, Epi, Vanuatu

For writers who subject themselves to the monkish like isolation required to create stories, writing is an activity that takes us deep within ourselves and draws us out all at the same time. An idea is often seeded by something that happens in the world around us, but when I look at what I have written retrospectively I usually wonder where it came from.

While I edit I have been thinking quite a bit about the difference between the written and oral forms of storytelling, because I use reading my work out loud to help with editing. Reading out loud allows me to hear the cadence, pacing and rhythm of my work. It puts my writing on display in a way that the written word does not.

An editor I know recently suggested I actually get someone else to read my work back to me as part of the editing process. She says how you hear your work is different again coming from another person and the exercise can help to further improve it. Getting someone else to read your work is particularly useful for grammar as it makes your realise that commas are far from meaningless markers. They cause a pause, or a breathe in vocalisation that you would not always pick up in silent reading. Punctuation alters the tone of the words they punctuate by indicating a change of idea, an increase in detail, or a change of speaker. Used incorrectly punctuation can confuse the reader, and when we confuse readers we throw them out of our stories.

DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague

I have been listening to a few audio books recently – and I do love an audiobook. They mean I read more because I can listen to them gardening, driving, walking, or when my eyes are too tired for the page. Though you do have to be wary of listening when you go to bed, because whilst it’s a lovely reminder of being read to sleep as a kid, there’s the risk of missing half the tale if you start snoring and the book keeps playing.

Well narrated audio books are an immersive experience that pulls you into the story when the reader infuses it with emotion. They can manipulate the pace by reading faster or slower, and vary tone and pitch for different characters to bring them to three dimensional life. You can’t skim an audiobook the way you can the printed word and in listening you can focus on the bricks of detail to notice how the writer has constructed the story. You can hear how they grab your attention and draw you deeper in, or do something that pushes you away, such as using large slabs of narrative that create distance.

I’ve been listening to Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton this week. It was named book of the year at the Australian book industry award and won audiobook of the year as well as a string of other acclamations. The story is based on Dalton’s own childhood growing up in a suburban Brisbane housing commission amongst drug dealers and criminals. Dalton’s use of dialogue is often hilarious, and his prose is evocative. He uses colorful details and wordplay to describe the minutiae of life and the deepest inner thoughts of Eli, drawing out the young narrators surreal imagination and philosophical meanderings. I’m only about half way though the audiobook but suspect I may want to turn around the read the written version as well when I’ve finished to see what I can learn there.

Main image: DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague

Free Wheeling

It’s the end of the day, of the end of my second week back at work and as may become evident from this stream of consciousness blog, my brain is a little tired and addled. Yesterday it was Bohemian Rhapsody, but ten minutes ago I had the song The Wheels on the Bus going around in a loop in my head, when the wheels on the actual bus made an abrupt stop. As I write this I’m sitting on said bus, and it ain’t going nowhere, having broken down ten kilometres from home when the door jammed open. I’m reframing the experience as an opportunity for more writing time, very Buddhist of me considering what I want most, is to get home, eat dinner and put my feet up.

Buddha Walk, Crystal Castle, NSW

Speaking of Buddhism, as I understand it, the second noble truth is that suffering is due to attachments and expectations, to grasping and clinging. The idea of letting go makes me think about writing practice, when we need to hold on, and when we need to surrender.

I remember when I wrote my first draft, how chuffed I was to complete it, and how attached I was to those 60,000 odd words, little realising the lessons I was about to understand. Learning to edit was about coming to terms with letting go, to absorb feedback and use it to improve technique, to apply critical non-attachment.

It’s a funny thing that us writers can become so attached to those tiny squiggles on the page, invest so much of ourselves in them as if they were a living part of us and we will become less if we let them go.

A Public Practice, Vienna

I often think of writers as being most akin to musicians. When a musician wants to perfect their craft they will spend hours practicing. They study music theory, receive tutoring from a professional instructor, and develop a work ethic that gives them the grit to keep plugging away at it. They can’t afford to get attached to all those notes, to hoard them all and try to prevent them from floating away as they leave their instruments. They don’t think all their notes played in practice are wasted either. I wonder if writers would benefit from thinking of words more like musicians think of notes, embrace our practice as practice, know that not all our words are necessarily destined for the world, and that the cutting and pruning is about honing and perfecting our craft.

A Long Road Home, Nevada

My commute is a long journey, but hey, so is writing a book right? I’ve been editing for a long time now, and it occurred to me this week how my approach to the task has changed over time. It was a hard lesson, well learnt, when I did a structural edit of an early draft and realised I had to cut and rewrite all of the first five chapters. I think I put down my manuscript for a full week, fuming over the realisation, before I could bring myself to do it. Now after much application, I have become detached and carefree about editing, happy to cut and slash and relegate large chunks of text to the bin. I enjoy allowing fresh ideas to surface as I rewrite and rework, and apply what I have learnt to improve my manuscript.

…Oh, here comes another bus, and I must get on it.

Main image: London Bus, Esperanto Museum, Berlin

Editing Hell

Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange in three weeks to earn aquick buck and Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote The Gambler in a few days when he was broke and desperate due to his compulsive gambling habits. But these books are the freaks, the anomalies driven by some kind of demon writing force. At the other end of the spectrum, J.R.R. Tolkien took twelve years to complete Lord of the Rings.

Brunswick Picture House, Brunswick Heads

It was Ernest Hemingway who said the first draft of anything is shit. Some famous writers have completely trashed their first drafts and rewritten them, the published work unrecognizable from the original draft – think William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

I have listened to many writers being asked how long it takes to write a book in interviews. Most published authors seem to answer somewhere between one and ten years and they may produce as many as fifteen drafts (though the most I’ve heard quoted was 30).

There is endless advice available on how many drafts it takes to write a book – the three-draft method, the five-draft plan, the seven-draft process. But the more you listen and read, the more it becomes clear that there are as many ways to write a novel as there are writers.

Queensland Museum, Brisbane

What most writers seem to agree on is that the first draft is the vomit draft – your writing is focused only on extracting your imagination to get a version of your story on the page. It’s great fun to write and terrible to read. After that all bets are off. One thing is certain, you have to learn to love editing, and be prepared to kill your darlings, because you will probably go through many more erasers than you will pencils.

How people edit depends on how they write their first draft. For example I have noticed that I find dialogue relatively easy, but tend to leave out the protagonists internal emotional life in a first draft which I have to go back and write it in later. I also have some pet words I like to repeat over and over which I go back to and delete or change.

I have started work on a checklist for my editing to try and make it more efficient and have included it below. It is not exhaustive and I will continue to work on my ‘cheat sheet’ as I learn more about the editing process. I also think about editing at the microlevel of the scene, the mid-level of the chapter and the macrolevel of the overall story. Most of the following list is drawn from the works on my links page Books on writing, particularly the text Self-editing for fiction writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.

Guggenheim Museum, New York
  1. Openings: are they clear, engaging and connected to emotion? Do they raise a questions or hook that makes you want to keep reading? Was there a hint of conflict?
  2. Character: are the characters unique and interesting? Do you care about them (or hate them), do they have believable weaknesses, motivations and challenges?
  3. Characterization and exposition: let readers get to know your characters gradually by showing who they are. Look for where you have too much exposition – describing characters or their history – how much do readers need to know to understand the story and when do they need to know it? Take out what isn’t critical.
  4. Emotion and narrative voice: Read each main characters dialogue aloud – do you detect a unique voice for each, does what they say fit them? Do you feel like you get inside the main characters head? Are you emotionally connected to them?
  5. Drama and story: Is there tension in every scene? Is the story well-paced and does it have forward momentum? Are the stakes high enough? What could be cut/shortened? Are there gaps that need to be expanded?
  6. Themes, subtext and moral dilemmas: what themes and moral dilemmas emerge? Can you see subtext?
  7. World: is the world created unique and interesting? Have you told your reader enough, or too much about it?
  8. Prose: do the story and the characters feel believable? Is it easy to read? Is anything confusing? Is there a strong and consistent point of view? Does it make you want to read on?
  9. Dialogue: is there too much, or too little? Does it reveal character? Is there subtext? Check for emotions mentioned outside of dialogue – they are probably explanations – cut them and see how the dialogue reads – if it’s worse re-write it; are there any verbs other than said? Minimize benign verbs like replied or answered as they are obtrusive to the reader – where possible get rid of speaker attributions all together if it’s clear without them; Have you referred to a character more than one way in a scene ? – it’s confusing be consistent. Do you have the right balance of dialogue and beats (the action interspersed through a scene) to keep you reader grounded? Are your beats too repetitive? Do they show your characters?
  10. Dialogue sound: Read out loud. When you are tempted to change a word – do; does your dialogue sound realistic with enough contractions, fragments, run-on sentences? If your dialogue sounds stiff – is it exposition in disguise? How well do your characters understand one another? Do they mislead one another?
  11. Show and tell: Have you got the right balance between narrative summary and enough real time action? If there’s too much narrative summary can you convert sections into scenes? Do you describe or show your characters feelings? Cut all explanations of feelings (angry, sad, happy) and show them instead.
  12. Be proportionate: Are the characters you develop most fully the important ones throughout the story? Are the descriptive details you provide those your viewpoint character would notice? Do all the subplots and tangents advance the plot? If there aren’t any, should there be? Have you got on your hobby horse and spent too much time on a pet interest?
  13. White space: are your paragraphs too long or are there scenes with no longer paragraphs – Have you got the right balance?
  14. Rude bits: do you use too much swearing? If you have sex scenes, how much do you leave to your readers imagination (you don’t want to win the bad sex award, do you)?
  15. Words – remove unintentional word repeats (I have tendency to use realized and looked way too much) Word hippo is a great resource for synonyms; search and find ‘ly’ adverb – most of them are probably superfluous particularly if they are based on adjectives describing an emotion; minimize ‘ing’ words and ‘as’ phrases; remove extra words; sentences that don’t make sense; if you have lots of short sentences, would they be better strung together with commas? Minimize exclamation points and italics.
  16. Check spelling and grammar.

I recommend focusing on each of the editing elements separately.

What would you add to this list?

Main image: Mount Yasur, Vanuatu

pile of dictionaries, pruning implements and an orange

The big prune

From the age of about eighteen through to twenty-two I lived in households sans television. The result was that I read voraciously. At one point I set out to read a dictionary cover to cover. It was the Longman Concise English Dictionary and I read all 1,651 pages. I still have it on my bookshelf held together with sticky tape.

There’s some great word games you can play with reference books like guessing the correct meaning of obscure words or who can come up with the most synonyms. The synonym, now there’s a beautiful thing. Found in a thesaurus – the treasure chest of words. A guy called Peter Roget, an avid collector of synonyms, developed the first thesaurus in the 1840’s and it’s my favourite reference book. A must have for editing. I’ve been doing some short story and chapter editing recently and the thesaurus has been getting some exercise.

I was thinking about editing whilst I was out pruning the fruit trees the other day, as you do. It turns out that editing and pruning have a lot in common. According to the online power thesaurus, edit and prune have twelve synonyms in common, and are synonyms for each other.

The thought processes for pruning and editing have a lot in common also. Is this the right place to cut? Will it improve the structure? How much should I cut? I also discovered that both pruning and editing are much harder with a puppy in tow. I’m thinking of changing Harpers name to Distractor, though Destructor might be more apt given the hole recently chewed in the sofa whilst watching Paris Texas. Maybe she just thought she was pruning.

Citrus and rhubarb are the garden produce of the moment in the food store until spring arrives. This roast rhubarb recipe is simple and delicious served on yoghurt for dessert or for breakfast.

Ingredients:

  • rhubarb
  • orange zest
  • orange juice
  • honey

Method:
Cut the rhubarb into finger length pieces. Remove the zest from the orange and juice the orange. Mix zest and orange juice with honey to taste (I usually use a ratio of one orange and its zest to one desert spoon of honey). Combine and mix all ingredients in an oven proof dish. Arrange rhubarb into a single layer, cover with tin foil and bake for about 30 minutes at 180 degrees Celsius. Serve hot or cold.