Did I make the cut? My guide to editing.

Some years ago I wrote about the editing process for Leg It and how I expected to edit Idle Threats. Now that I have finished my third novel, Counterbalance, it is probably time to revisit the process and see if anything has changed.

As always, this is how I chose to do it. It isn’t necessarily best practice and I’m not saying it is the way you should do it but I have picked up a few tips along the way and hopefully some of this is useful to you.

So what has changed in the last few years?

I’ve become more experienced. Practice doesn’t quite make perfect but it helps. The more I write and the more I read, the more I notice patterns and things that work and don’t work.

If I wrote Leg It now, fifteen years down the line, would it be the same? Certainly not. I love the book and it is very popular but I occasionally cringe at some of the writing. A few months ago I took a day out to tidy up a few of the worst crimes in Leg It and republish it without anyone noticing (a perk of being a self-publisher). It still isn’t quite how I would like it but my use of exclamation marks and the myriad of speech identifiers has decreased massively.

I joined a writer’s group, Holmeside Writers, a couple of years ago and it has been invaluable in helping me to improve my writing and understand how to edit properly. Having a team of willing reviewers at your disposal helps but being challenged to try different forms of writing has been the biggest benefit. Attempting short stories with a defined word count or flash fiction, sometimes with a word count as low as one hundred, concentrates your mind on what is important.

I quite often review others’ work and have gained a reputation as a bit of an adverb fundamentalist. Searching out words ending in ‘ly’ and challenging the writer to improve upon them. I take a similar approach to speech identifiers, ‘he laughed’, ‘she shouted’, ‘she implied’ etc. Are they needed? Do they detract from the dialogue? If you give me a piece of work with ‘she laughed discretely’ in it, expect to wake with a horse’s head in the bed beside you.

In the last year I have started using a new writing tool, Scrivener. I love it and it does everything I need it to. The editing process is made simpler with the layout of the chapters making it easy to move stuff around. I also do a search on each character’s name and create a folder from that so that I can read their story in one go and see if it works. It much easier to spot inconsistencies that way. Each character also has their own profile so I can compare against that and ensure that they are behaving as expected.

I make notes against each chapter about whether I am happy with it or what improvements could be made and each chapter is labelled as first draft, final draft etc.

Scrivener doesn’t work for everyone. It seems to divide opinion like Apple products and people feel the need to challenge me about it, almost to the point of wanting an argument. If you don’t like it, don’t use it, I don’t care. I certainly don’t want to waste time defending something I didn’t create. Use what works for you and we can all live happily ever after.

With Counterbalance I have also tried to use The Snowflake Method or at least my interpretation of it to outline the plot of the novel. This has thrown up one unexpected result.

Leg It was originally 125,000 words and I edited it down to 83,000. I planned to hit 100,000 for Idle Threats and edit it down to 80,000. In the end it came out at 80,000, I removed about 10,000 and added another 10,000 to end up back at 80k.

With Counterbalance I was ‘finished’ and I had just under 60,000 words. This was both a shock and a bit worrying. I’d worked hard on my plot outline and knew there weren’t any gaps but 60,000 was pretty low for a novel. When I did my first read through I realised that my plot outline wasn’t quite as tight as I thought it was. Also one of my character profiles wasn’t as detailed as I’d hoped. Asking the simple question ‘What is this character’s motivation for carrying out this particular act?’ revealed that I hadn’t thought it through. He was merely doing what I needed him to so I could get to my exciting end scenes. He needed  a reason and I was stuck.

I bounced the problem off a few friends from the writer’s group and within minutes one of them came up with a simple and plausible reason. Thanks Ray, I wasn’t going to name you to keep your ego in check but credit where credit is due.

Not only did this give me the opportunity to plug the gap by writing more of the story, it also meant I had to beef up the role of another character. Before long, along with a few other plot holes I had noticed, my word count was close to the 80,000 where I’d hoped to be. I still had time to remove 5,000 words that were redundant but they have been stored in a folder and may come back to life as short stories or maybe the start of another novel.

Editing isn’t a one-man job. I realise the value of professional editors and I’m edging closer and closer to using one but as yet, I haven’t been able to justify the expense. Paying for an editor could be the cost of me surviving for another month without having to get ‘proper work’. It may be worth it in the long run and I imagine it is a bullet I will have to bite at some point.

For now I am relying on my group of trusted reviewers. You may find it surprising that I haven’t chosen anybody from the writing group. They have helped me at various stages of the process and I wanted the reviewers to be coming at it with ‘fresh eyes’. Rightly or wrongly, I also decided I wanted my reviewers to be readers rather than writers. Writers can be a funny bunch and will spend all their time seeking out unnecessary adverbs rather than concentrating on the story.

It was important to get a balance of views, each reviewer skilled at looking for different things. One is good at looking at the bigger picture, whether he liked the story and the characters and whether he thought it worked. Another is very strict on grammar and also gave a female perspective. The third was also good at the bigger picture stuff but as a teacher he owned a red pen and wasn’t afraid to use it. They weren’t given specific tasks and there was a lot of crossover but each gave a different perspective. Thanks to Monkman, Susie and Bill, your input was invaluable.

My editing process for Idle Threats was to read it on the Metro to and from work and note any changes needed in Evernote on my phone. I would then make those changes each night. I liked having the lists as there is a certain satisfaction to crossing them off when they are done.

I gave up my job at Christmas so no longer have the commute and noting everything in Evernote seemed redundant when my MacBook was sat right in front of me. I still read on my kindle but made changes as I went apart from the bigger plot issues which I noted in Evernote and returned to later.

I can’t say for certain how many drafts Counterbalance has been through. Probably five or six to get to ‘first draft’ stage and possibly another three following feedback. It was also important to give myself space from the story when I sent it out for review. I worked on other stuff and forgot about it so I wasn’t too close when I got the feedback. If I’d been constantly tinkering, I doubt I would have accepted the feedback as well.

I realise that I have veered around the various types of editing, structural, copy editing etc but I hope it has given some insight into the process I have gone through. Maybe this blog needs an edit.

I’ve tried to think how long was spent writing and how long spent editing. I might keep a closer check next time but I think it was roughly 50/50. If anything I spent more time editing but I’ve had various other projects on the go so it’s hard to tell.

Overall I think my writing is a lot tighter now. Is it perfect? Far from it but I am learning all the time. I’m not sure if writers are ever one hundred percent happy with their work but I’m always striving to get there. Editing is a crucial step in the process.

Is writing or editing more important? Either, both, neither? I honestly don’t know the answer but when I first started out I thought it was definitely the writing and the more experienced I get; I think it is all in the edit. It’s probably somewhere in the middle but ignore editing at your peril.


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