Monday, 18 March 2013

Editing Your Novel? Burn Your Words!

As writers we must understand the first draft of our novel will never shine. Writing is all about editing. As the muse thunders through my skull injecting ideas into my brain I never want to stop him. That little dude is having too much fun, so I don't interrupt. I join him, letting the words tumble out, while fighting the urge to entertain another entity in my head: the inner-editor. He slaps me, often mocking me, when my spelling and grammar stumbles, or I structure a sentence so badly he grabs my feet and tries tripping me. Dragging him behind as he kicks and screams, I follow the other guy. My friend, my muse. He's the man.

Just get it written. After all, editing is what the follow-up drafts are for. Even then, we must tread with caution; don't hammer all your knowledge into the second draft of your novel.

We read much on the craft of writing, filling our heads with all we can on scene and structure, viewpoint and emotion, dialogue and characters, conflict, action and suspense. All this is piled onto the knowledge we already have of the English language. With that in mind, we cannot attempt to edit the lot in one hit. No chance. If you can, then good luck to you. Seriously.

When attacking such a monumental task as writing a novel, the editing process is easier if broken down, focusing on one or two elements during each subsequent draft.

For my novel, The Shadow Fabric, a series of fifteen drafts have been weaved (I'm on the final stages now, which is exciting). Some may scoff at this number of drafts, but I see writing as an art form; it’s about imagination and creation. It's about allowing your muse to go crazy. The inner-editor with his quest for perfection can be chained to the toilet, with the lights off and no food given to him until the final couple of drafts.

I’m here to share the details of these fifteen drafts. Personally, there’s no way I would've got where I am had I not followed this map.

Some drafts can be done on-screen, but print-outs are easier to work with. And there’s less eye-strain. Naturally, stacks of paper will be used, and this cannot be helped (you’re not wasting paper, you’re fuelling your cause). If you're keen and green, wanting to help the environment, after each print-out go and plant a tree for eco-balance. I've planted a lot of trees in Rye, but that's another story. Another blog, perhaps.

The Plotting

If you're a planner, like me, turn those story scribbles into the first three scenes. Write it, see how it flows. Here you can decide how the story is told, whether it's best in first or third person, etc. Then plot as best you can, bullet-pointing key moments and your all-important twists and turns. A beginning, middle and end should be there (or thereabouts), waiting to be written.

If you make it up as you go
 – indeed, if you're what is known as a pantser – then don't plot, just begin the first draft.

1st draft – Write it

Just get it written. Give yourself small daily/weekly targets and stick to them. Each of these will give you something to work towards. If you're following a plot-plan, know that things will change, stuff will be altered for good or for worse. When it gets going you'll surprise yourself as new plot elements form, and characters will do unexpected things. Don't worry if things fail, that's what the other drafts are for. Just go with it.

As your muse runs off, be sure to have a pencil behind the ear when scribbles are needed for reference later. Your muse will drop a few things you'll need to take note of.

It's vital you do not rewind and edit. Not a thing. Do not give in to your inner-editor! Let your muse amuse himself.

Leave it alone

Yes, type the 'The End' and save the document. Then back it up on a memory stick and lock it in your safe. Be proud! You’ve written a novel. Well done, my friend, how many people do you know who can say that?

It’s painful to leave it, I know, but don’t open that file. Resist. And don’t print it out and read it either. Man, that’s cheating. 
Leave it to simmer… for a whole month. You need a pair of fresh eyes for the next draft. Yes, a month.

2nd draft – Re-structuring

Print it out and grab a red pen (this pen will later change its name). If you didn't worry too much about chapters and scene breaks during your first draft then now is the time to fiddle with things. Even if your scenes are divided, still you'll re-structure where necessary.

There will be some paragraphs which don't work, so draw a box round them next to a question mark. After you've scratched red boxes all over your manuscript, you'll head back to the saved document and begin the changes. You'll be inserting and removing chunks of failed text; things that don't belong. If those deleted parts are big, save them as another file. They may work somewhere else. Perhaps for a sequel?

Of course, you’ll be finding typos and shocking grammar aplenty, but don’t do your head in. Concentrate on the re-structuring of your work. It’s not yet a fine piece of work, it just happens to be the second draft of fifteen. Remember that.

3rd draft – Dialogue

This is an onscreen draft, and is where the technique of Colour-Coding comes into play. It's all about bringing voice to your characters. After all, each one sounds like you, which can't be helped. You're the author, you've created these guys, and they will speak in your voice. It's inevitable, especially after letting your muse run amok.

Give your characters catch-phrases and quirks. Get to know them even more intimately than you did when you first met them. Have fun.

4th draft – Character tuning and emotion

It's time to grab that red pen, now known as the Red Pen of Doom (I caught this phrase from a friend of mine who runs the Brighton Writers Retreat, and I've since noted that it's a popular term among the modern-day scribes). From now on you'll need to print out every draft. Yes, that'll be a lot of paper, so remember to plant a tree for that eco-balance I mentioned earlier.

In this draft, make sure every character in every scene is doing something and they’re not mute, staring at the clouds whilst others take centre-stage. This can add extra conflict you didn't foresee, so make the most of it.

On top of this, be sure to have your POV (point of view) character reacting to scene events. Show emotion. And when those moments are tightened, reveal their emotion in slow-motion. Make the reader feel it.

5th draft – Facts and details

Make certain you haven’t been lying about anything. You know, like details on architecture, or how many bullets are in a gun-clip. Indeed, what does the roar of a gun in your ear actually feel like? What does a corpse smell like?

Make certain everything is real. We live in a world where people know these things, so you must be precise in your details. Leave nothing to guess work.

A useful online group is Rayne's Research Club, set up by fantasy and horror author Rayne Hall.

6th draft – Senses, metaphors and clichés

This is fun. Your characters have five senses to play with, so make the most of them. You have to ramp up the sights and sounds, the smells and even the tastes. Describe what the surface of the door feels like when your POV character pushes it open. Make the reader be there as well.

When it comes to using metaphors and similes, be sure to make them original, and remove each and every cliché you find. Plus, be honest when it comes to any hackneyed phrase which may have snaked its way in.

7th draft – Openings and cliffhangers

Use the same print-out from the last draft for this one (save a tree). Each chapter must begin with a hook and end with a cliffhanger.

Personally I love it when I read a book where the chapters finish on a butt-clenching hanger, and so forcing me to read the next one. You know the feeling: just as it's time to put the book down your eyes scan the first few words of that new chapter and smack! You're hooked.

Leave your project alone (again)

Put your masterpiece aside for a week or so this time. Not too long, just enough for things to cool down. Get on with the sequel or something. You have plenty of ideas left over from this story. And remember those deleted segments? Well, expand and go play!

8th draft – The 10% edit

After time away from your project, you'll be surprised how much it’s changed after so few drafts. The characters are more vibrant and the entire story is structured like a real book. Feels great, doesn't it? You’ll even read things you’ve strangely forgotten, and that’s always a weird one. Get a biscuit and dunk it in your tea. Things are good.

I've quoted this before in a previous blog (Free critique) and I'm doing so again: Stephen King advises "2nd draft = 1st draft minus 10%". Okay, so this is draft number eight but we get what he means.

This is where you must burn your words. Be ruthless with the delete key. Get rid of those unnecessary little buggers that weaken sentences. Look for and kill those demons which can litter your otherwise smooth prose.

Search for: look, could, smile, hear, feel, said, very, then, just, only, quite... There are plenty others which can vanish from a sentence, leaving no scar. Delete, delete, delete. If you’re honest with yourself you’ll recognise you don’t need them. They make your sentences puffy and disgusting. Turn your nose up and slam that delete button.

As an extra, recognise those words you tend to use excessively. Laugh at yourself and find them. Then kill them. My favourites are: seem, watch, halt, become/became, that and but. Also I discovered my characters were nodding at just about everything.

There are many more likely suspects. Get rid of the words you don’t need, and make certain each one in every sentence holds its own and is getting across precisely what you mean to say. Think about it, if a sentence is ten words long, then find one to delete.

Also on this draft, look for particular words which are repeated in the same paragraph, and even on the same page. Grab a thesaurus and use a more powerful word in its place.

This can be the most eye-opening draft of all.

9th draft – Adjectives, adverbs and tautology

Okay, so it's time for more paper to be used as you need to print another copy of your work. You're going to grab some more unnecessary words and hurl them into the abyss.

Too often we can be wordy and so it's time to eliminate as many adjectives as possible, and strengthen with nouns that leap from the page.

When it comes to adverbs, please, lose almost all of them. And those you keep, make ‘em count. Only have a few in the entire manuscript. They’re not big and certainly not clever, now isn’t the time to reflect on what your primary school teachers told you. Don’t have a character walking slowly, have them dawdling. Don’t have them looking at something interestingly (I mean, seriously? Interestingly shouldn’t even be a word!), have their eyes show you they find it interesting. Yes, we’ve all heard the show-don’t-tell thing. That rule applies here as it does everywhere else.

As far as tautology goes, I surprised myself with this one. If you're unfamiliar with the word tautology, look it up, but if you can’t be bothered let me give you some examples which I found during my editing:

     'She shrugged her shoulders.'
     'On unsteady legs, he staggered into the room.'
     'He nodded his head.'
     'My heart slammed in my chest.'

You see what's happening here? Needless to say, I deleted them... Laughing at myself, big time.

10th draft – Conflict cranking

Time to crank up the conflict, make it breathtaking. Attack each scene, especially those all-important first few chapters where it's a must when gripping the reader. Remember, one of those readers is going to be an editor.

Incidentally, this draft gave me new ideas, and so I chose to add new scenes as a result. In one addition, I made characters argue, and this drastically changed their relationship, leading to more conflict. I'd so far lost 20,000 words from a first word count of 101,000 (that's what burning words means). For me, this draft proved to bulk it up once again, and it'll do the same with yours.

11th draft – The first three

Here, I’m talking about the first three words of your story. Make these work. And then look at the first three sentences. Would these hook a reader? And what about the first three paragraphs? Is this really going to make them turn the page?

You follow the pattern, and we’re onto the first three pages. Fill them with conflict and a taste of what your novel's about. Don’t bore them with a "this is Bob and he’s having his breakfast" moment, begin with Bob writhing on the kitchen floor because someone's kicked him where it hurts.

Finally, we have the first three chapters – which is often the amount an agent or editor requests when submitting manuscripts. These chapters should be rammed with conflict and intrigue. Make them shine!

12th draft – The backward edit

This sounds odd, I know. It is a weird one, but I read it somewhere, so bear with me. This draft is a scene-by-scene analysis. Whether it’s a chapter break or a chapter itself, each and every one must have a level of independence. It must support itself, detached from the rest of the story which has evolved up to that moment.

Reading from the end to the beginning will highlight any flaws or assumptions you made as the author. It's easily overlooked – after all, the whole damn thing is your baby.

Begin with the epilogue or last chapter/chapter break, and finish with the prologue or chapter one. This not only brings out curious anomalies, it also highlights awkward sentence structures which will shock you.

Go slow with this one. Okay, the story won’t make sense, but you’re reading the sections individually. Give it your most critical eye, and keep that Red Pen of Doom to hand.

13th draft – Continuity

Print this out in actual book-format (this will be a later blog): Page set-up should be landscape, set the formatting to two columns and the paragraphing to single-line spacing. When it’s printed it looks like a stack of actual book pages. Don’t worry too much if you’re not fully conversant with your word processing package, it’s just a favourite technique of mine.

We're here to make sure the nurse doesn't wheel the patient from the room one moment, and the next the patient's back in the room again with no explanation. Find those moments where your character leans forward twice, or where she throws the bloodstained garment away and later on she's twisting it in clenched fists. Continuity is a tricky thing after all these edits, so be sure to keep awake through this draft.

Certainly look for other stuff, anything at all; just don't be too hard on yourself. It is easy to start hating what you've written because you've been close to it. Be objective, certainly, but not too critical.

14th draft – Typos, grammar and spelling

Use the same print-out as the previous draft and go back to page one.

Although you’ve been going over spelling and grammar throughout each draft, there will inevitably be things overlooked. No matter how detailed you've been (even with the previous couple of drafts), somewhere there will be a full-stop and comma snuggling, hoping you won’t find them. There’ll be a repeated word here and there. Find those sneaky buggers!

The eye and the mind play tricks, you must remember that. Sometimes, even reading a sentence repeatedly you won’t see the the mistake. When you’ve been so close to a project as you have with this, your eyes will skim. It’s a pain, true, yet you must expect it.

Read over this draft as slow as a zombie drags its feet. And moan, just as much, when you find those errors.

15th draft – The final read-through

Print out a fresh copy of your novel in the two-column format previously mentioned. Give it a title page, make it look good. Feel it, stroke it, weigh it. Excellent going, you've finished. Almost.

Leave it for a week. Yes, again, just leave it alone. You'll be tempted to read it, but again put it away. Stuff it in a drawer and go on holiday or something. When you get back, grab the Red Pen of Doom and give it a once over. You'll find a few things, but... sorry... we're still not finished...

Go Back

Your project is close to completion, I promise.

I’m afraid you must return to draft two. Before you go back, however, why not find a few beta-readers for some honest (non-biased) feedback? These guys are hard to come by, and it's not always best to use your loved ones because they'll think it's amazing you've written a book, and the halo-effect will cloud their judgement. I must add here, Helen (my wife) is hugely supportive and often dangerously honest when it comes to me writing shit. She tells me so. She's my alpha-reader, certainly.

When you go through all the drafts again, it should be okay to use only one hard copy for the lot. Go through each edit with a critical eye, covering the elements in question. This time it'll be a faster process (not too fast, don't skim), and the Red Pen of Doom won't be too overworked. Hopefully.

I trust this helps you as much as it's helped me.

One last thing: the photographs on today's blog were taken on a camping trip in Rye, East Sussex. A place where I go to reflect, read and write... and burn stuff. On this occasion, it wasn't just dead trees. I burned a heap of words.

Thanks for reading, and good luck with your novel.

Now, go burn those words!

All photographs are courtesy of Chris Shoebridge (Professional photographer and camping buddy).

Special thanks to Rayne Hall for her Word-Loss Diet course (the Kindle edition equivalent is now available), and also Susanne Lakin's Manuscript Critique Service. Both provided me with their invaluable knowledge to fine-tune my novel.

Author photo (c)Christopher Shoebridge
Mark Cassell lives in a rural part of the UK with his wife and a number of animals. He often dreams of dystopian futures, peculiar creatures, and flitting shadows. Primarily a horror writer, his steampunk, fantasy, and SF stories have featured in several anthologies and ezines.

His debut novel, The Shadow Fabric, is a supernatural story and is available from Amazon.

Twitter: @Mark_Cassell Facebook: