Archive for the 'Editing' Category

Anatomy of an Edit

When I first started writing I loathed editing. I much preferred the freedom and playfulness of a first draft. Editing felt like hard work. And it can be. But I think what this actually reflected was my lack of confidence as a writer. When editing you have to be able to make tough choices – cut characters, significantly alter the story structure, change settings, murder your darlings etc. And how do you make these choices? By knowing your craft. Understanding characterisation, world building, story arc and sentence structure all direct how you shape your story. And while these things can be learned, they are only really absorbed with time.

As I’ve become a more experienced storyteller, I’ve come to really love editing. When I first read a manuscript after letting it sit for a good month or so, I can suddenly see all its flaws (and an occasional strength too). I get a flood of ideas about how to make it a stronger story. Instead of getting the old rush of dread I now tend to get excited – all the possibilities! And I think this comes from the confidence of feeling like I know what I’m doing (mostly).

A few days ago I edited an old short story of mine, which I last looked at about 18 months ago. It was far from a first draft, but even so I made some major changes. In case it’s helpful, I thought I’d break down some of the editing choices I made:

I tend to do a basic edit on paper, make some notes, then do the bigger restructuring on the computer

  • Change of tense: The story is a humorous mix of thriller and action. Originally it was written in first person past tense, but it struck me quite clearly that it needed to be in present tense. Even though it’s in first person, the past tense removed the reader from the action. Present tense made it feel much more immediate – it sat you more firmly in the protagonist’s shoes and better built the tension towards the climax.
  • Sentence order: The first sentence is vital. It’s a lead in to the story, the character, the setting and the voice. It was clear that my first two sentences needed to be switched. The same was true for several other paragraphs. The first and last sentence of every paragraph needs to lead the reader in and out of an idea, and with distance I could better see what each paragraph was about and how to do this. I also restructured many a sentence, shifting the stronger words to the beginnings and ends.
  • Beef up the action: My characters have a bad habit of just standing around talking, instead of DOING things. The first three paragraphs of my story set it up well and were a great intro to the voice of my character, but there was absolutely no action. In each one I had to have my protagonist doing things that revealed his character, instead of just relying on voice. The old adage – show don’t tell.
  • Character motivation: It wasn’t always clear why my character was making the choices he was. To make readers better empathise with his drive and his choices towards the climax of the story, I had to thread in some subtle tells about his character earlier.
  • World building: The story is set in the future. On a spaceship. But it was written by a girl (hi) sitting in her suburban home in her PJs. On rereading it a number of words and phrases jumped out as inconsistent within the world of the story. For instance: I had mentioned an astro park, so was setting up an earth that no longer had real parks but instead made fake ones for people to wander through. But then later I compared a man’s arms to tree trunks, which was my suburban voice intruding. It doesn’t fit in this story as trees are not a regular part of their world. My protagonist is a pseudo mechanic in a world of machines, so he’d more likely compare the man’s arms to thick pistons.
  • Bring on the funny: The voice of the story is quite wry and sarcastic. A number of times I dropped out of the voice and had to work to keep it consistent. I also added a few bits of funny to keep up the pace and offset the creepier moments.

There were likely lots of other decisions I made along the way that I’m not even aware of. It took a few hours to finess all the changes, but I’m really happy with how the story has come together.

So I’ve embraced my inner editor. It’s no longer a chore, but a challenge I look forward to. In fact, I so love editing I have started editing others’ work. I’m now doing picture book and early chapter book manuscript assessments through the QWC. And loving it.

Now after waxing lyrical all about my editing crush, I must get back to working on my novel. My latest WIP. My first draft. Hmm … anyone sense a whiff of procrastination?

Word Clouds

For all the word nerds out there, I thought I’d share with you my new favourite toy. It’s called Wordle. If you haven’t heard of it before, it’s a website that describes itself thus:

Wordle is a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes.

Sound like fun? Maybe not yet (unless you enjoy typography like me). But here’s where it gets really good: you can copy and paste your entire novel in there and in the blink of an eye you’ll get an analysis of which words appear most frequently. Here’s the word cloud for the junior fantasy novel I developed through the mentorship with Kate Forsyth, called The Black Luck Stone:

Pretty, huh? But it’s not just fun, it’s also useful. You can immediately see which words you use most in your work. The high use words in this novel are the character names (can you guess who my protagonist is?) and many words specific to the world I created (like wight, bloom and prophesy). But there are other words in there I find interesting. Like ‘face’ and ‘eyes’ – clearly character descriptors I rely on. But also ‘like’ and ‘around’. For this word cloud I turned off the appearance of common words such as ‘a’, ‘and’ or ‘it’, but looking at the frequency of those words can also give you a sense of which ones you over rely on. I’ve discovered I overuse ‘but’ and ‘then’ – something I never noticed before, but now that I have I realise it has the potential to drive others bonkers.

For comparison, here’s the word cloud for my junior adventure novel, called Harvey-Potamus Sid: The Not So Adventurous Kid:

Again, the character names are king, but notice any similarities? Eyes and face. Clearly descriptive vices of mine. Even if it doesn’t drastically change the way I edit, it has given me something to consider when I look over my work. And besides, it’s fun, and I don’t need a better excuse to Wordle around than that. Go on then – you know you want to.

Go and have a play

The “Final” Draft

Rabbit - climbI’m about to start the final draft of a mid-grade novel. I say final with a wry smile, because I’m well aware that if it finds a publisher there will be many more. So this is the final one before I send it to my agent. The previous draft involved a lot of rewriting, where I focussed on story pacing, structure, plot and developing the characters. This draft I’ll focus on polishing and tightening.

The next week or so will be spent doing some final planning and research before the hard work starts. I approach final drafts by going through the story chapter by chapter, focussing on a specific list of things I need to develop (as a dedicated Virgo, I love a good list). Lay people often think that many things on my list just naturally arrive in a story, and sometimes they do, but for me they’re not consistently there in early drafts. Early on I’m so caught up in plot, tension and the delivery, that the small elements that ground a story in reality and make it visceral often get overlooked. It’s the later drafts where I make sure EVERY chapter and scene works as hard as it needs to.

Some of the specifics on the list are the same for each novel:

  • Characterisation: ensuring each character is described consistently and that every interaction reveals their unique personality (quirks, strengths and weaknesses)
  • Dialogue: making sure it rings true and that each character sounds unique
  • Weather: weather rarely features until my later drafts – I have to make myself think about seasonal change and its impact on clothing choices, events and character mood
  • 5 senses: ensuring I use the different senses to describe any event (instead of simply relying on visual clues)
  • Poetry of Language: this is what I call making your words sing. I try to focus on each sentence, then each paragraph, making sure they read in a way that rolls off the tongue

Then there are things on the list that are individual to each story. These are some things specific to my current novel:

  • Humour: this story’s voice is quirky, so I need to make sure the tone is consistent throughout and that I’m exploiting every opportunity for humour
  • Time Pressure: the characters only have several days to solve their core problem, and the time pressure is vital to convey in order to maintain the tension
  • Flora / Fauna: the story is set in the Andes, so I need to convey a realistic sense of the wildlife present
  • Reveals: there are several ‘reveals’ in the story which lead to the climax and ultimate twist ending, so I need to make sure I’m building up to these and explaining them adequately (without info dumping)

While doing this draft I’ll also try to tighten the writing, cutting back the words like a weed wacker. In my humble opinion nearly every final draft could be bettered by decreasing the word count. I’m obviously not suited to writing massive, rambling tomes: I love a good concise tale, with room for the reader to bring their own ideas to the table.

So, what have I missed? What do others focus on in that “final” draft?

Setting and the Tax Man

2009-08-23aI’m constantly amazed at how vividly a place can influence my writing. Its feel, its smell, the lay of the land, the palette of the landscape, the way the wind feels when it pulls at your hair. Every place is unique, which is why setting is so important in books. Setting gives us an immediate insight into the mood of a novel. A strong and tangible sense of what kind of story you’re entering and the characters you might encounter.

2009-08-23bI got to thinking about this recently while on holiday in New Zealand. Driving through the patchwork hills, in a climate so different to our own, the feel of the place vividly conjured the setting and characters from a story of mine. While walking along a river, the characters began to interact in my mind again, commenting on the terrain and noticing things I had not. I had a similar experience last year while in England, and on both trips kept a diary of these observations.

2009-08-23cIn the final two drafts of the junior fantasy novel I worked on during my ASA mentorship, these diaries became invaluable. When first writing this story, I chose a slightly more European setting due to a need for a land with clear seasonal change – harsh winters and long dry summers – a climate as hard as the tribes that drive the plot. In early drafts I focussed more on the characters and their story, but in later drafts I had to work to clarify the setting.

Yet the setting only became vivid and real once I had walked the land of my story. Once I had lived the winter that left only the hardiest plants alive, kicked my feet through muddied puddles of leaves, walked under clouds of ash and ice and marveled at skeletal trees greeting the morning sun.

Do you think Mr Tax Man will scoff when I insist that my ski trip to New Zealand was driven by a need to become intimate with the landscape of my story? And is it shallow to set my next story on an island due to a desire for sand and sun? Caribbean, here I come…

Get the Name of the Dog

2009-05-12I’ve started editing one of my novels again and have pulled out my editing bible to help me get back into the right headspace. It’s an unassuming but brilliant little book called Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, by Roy Peter Clark. I suggest everyone buy themselves a copy (I get no money for that advertisement). One editing tool I particularly like was conjured the other day during a conversation with my fiance. It happened after he’d read a review I did of Kathryn Apel’s delightful debut picture book, This is the Mud!, and went something like this:

Andrew: He he he

Me: *frown* What are you laughing at? (I can tell he’s laughing at me, rather than at something wonderfully witty I’ve written)

Andrew: You said ‘beef cow’ in your review

Me: And…

Andrew: Why wouldn’t you just say cow?

Me: Because it wasn’t just a cow. It was a beef cow.

Andrew: You’re so clever, intelligent, witty and wonderful. No wonder I’m marrying you (or something to that effect)

Anyway, the point is that I included that detail because if I’d just said ‘cow’, people would have automatically imagined a black and white dairy cow. When writing is unspecific, people’s minds automatically generate stereotypical and uninteresting landscapes. Small details are an immediate way to conjure vivid images, helping the viewer to feel as if they’re standing knee deep in mud in that paddock with a looming great beef cow. The writing tool this conversation reminded me of in Clark’s book is:

Get the Name of the Dog: dig for the concrete and specific, details that appeal to the senses

The name comes from a journalism office, where the editors would remind their reporters not to return to the office without “the name of the dog” – not because they would necessarily use the detail in the story, but as a reminder to keep their eyes and ears open. Clark also says that “when details of character and setting appeal to the senses, they create an experience for the reader that leads to understanding”, and gives a range of fascinating examples highlighting just that.

All this sounds simple enough, but I still find non-specific nouns lurking in my prose, even on the third read through: flowers and coffee and women that should be tulips and espresso and spinsters. Small details that immediately change the way a sentence rings. Words that give a clear image and conjure a mood the reader can’t mistake. When you say that your protagonist kicked a can, do you want us to see an indifferent nudge with the foot, or a moody thrashing? As a reader, I get annoyed when there isn’t enough detail – my mind automatically fills in the void, and if I’ve gone in the wrong direction, I get frustrated when (a few lines on) they reveal what was actually meant.

Specific, simple, sensory details – quiet but vivid writing – is some of my favourite prose to read. Now back to editing my novel in an attempt to achieve just that…

ADD in Writing

Rabbit - runI’m not talking about Attention Deficit Disorder (wouldn’t that be a curse for writers, who have to spend many hours at their computers writing and editing?). No, I’m referring to the three narrative parts of any tale: Action, Dialogue and Description. During my mentorship, Kate highlighted the importance of being aware of these three forms of narration, and the way writer’s can use them to create a careful balance.

Often when editing, I’ll come across a long passage that isn’t quite working. When I can’t initially pinpoint why, I usually end up discovering it’s because my ADD balance is out:

  1. Action: when something is happening in the story. This could mean pirates are attacking a school bus, or simply a character is taking their dog for a walk. It can be high action or quiet action. Either way, the characters are DOING something
  2. Dialogue: when the characters are speaking (duh). Dialogue is a wonderful way of using each characters’ unique voice to show their personalities and reactions to others and events. Another reason dialogue is so valuable is because it introduces white space onto the page, breaking up the text and giving readers’ eyes a breather. I don’t tend to include internal dialogue in here because that gets absorbed into other paragraphs. I’d tend to include it in :-
  3. Description: any passage describing the scenery, characters’ appearance, internal thoughts or memories, characters’ reflections on things etc

When analysing a slow passage of my story, I might find I’ve used two pages of straight action and haven’t given the reader any description (ie. a chance to orient themselves). Or maybe the dialogue has gone on for too long and it’s become a bit confusing what is actually happening in the book (ie. the pace has slowed). Too much dense text without any dialogue can be a problem too – have you ever found, when reading, that a book can slow down with too many heavy paragraphs? I find myself flipping pages, scanning for any dialogue, and if it’s too far off I’ll put the book down for the night (there’s nothing worse than losing a reader). I also find it takes me longer to pick the book up again.

When you become conscious of these three narrative techniques, you can actively choose which to use at different points. You can pick the perfect one to heighten the drama or peak the emotional tension. You can create a balance that allows the reader to stay within the story, reeling them in at points and letting them breathe at others in order to absorb all the information.

I’ve certainly come across other ways of breaking down the different narrative structures – anyone got others to add?

Writing Rhythm

Rabbit - playLike any work, writing has a rhythm to it. It’s finding this rhythm, and becoming comfortable in it, which makes one able to do it each day. But the more I write, the more I discover that different projects have different rhythms, and that moving in and out of these can be tricky.

For example, when writing a picture book, my rhythm is a little choppy. The word count is so small, so the first draft may be written in a single sitting, but then the editing and rewriting and polishing may spread out over months. I can move in and out of working on a picture book several times throughout a day, with small bursts of time spent playing with words, and much more time spent thinking about it all. I frequently move between writing and sketching – when stuck in one area, I move to the other. Doing the final illustrations is different as it’s much more focussed: once it’s all planned out I often spend up to 10 hours a day working on them (it’s very absorbing).

On the other hand, my novel writing rhythm is more smooth. To write that first draft, I need to get in a rhythm where I’m working each morning, uninterrupted, writing an average of 1000-2000 words a day. I have to let the scene unroll in my head before writing it, and it’s easier to get into this rhythm if I do the writing at around the same time each day.  Editing (especially in the re-writing drafts) is similar, where I need dedicated time to do it every day, so the characters are in my head and the story is unfolding and I keep that regular rhythm rolling.

Moving between these rhythms is something I’m still learning about. After completing the mentorship novel I took a month out to work on a picture book, and so developed a much more choppy rhythm to my writing. Now I’ve returned to complete the second draft of a novel of mine, but I’ve lost my novel writing rhythm. I’m no longer used to sitting on the computer for long periods of writing. My mind is still flitting around as it does with picture books. I’m having to force myself to settle, and pin down the characters and make them play nice.

I know I’ll get there. I can feel the muscle memories flexing as I write, stretching them out.  My writing rhythm will settle once more, but it will take time. And patience. And baking (I made some scones yesterday – a sure sign of a bad day). But the sky is clear today.  I am 6000 words in, and already excited about what I may achieve tomorrow.

Editing Bible

2009-05-12There are many different stages of editing. With my mentorship novel, I (thankfully) have finished the huge, plot altering style editing. Over the last 8 months I have done numerous rewriting drafts, crafted all my characters carefully, explored the hidden folds of my world, reordered plot points and polished the pacing to a high shine.

Next step? The final fiddly edit, a whole other realm of editing. It’s about tightening, pruning, fastidious shaping of sentences, dialogue, the five senses, and making your prose sing. For this stage, I have discovered an editing bible: Writing Tools ~ 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, by Roy Peter Clark.

This book smoothly guided me through the final fiddly edit, reminding me of old techniques I’m familiar with and introducing me to new ones. It’s beautifully set out: each tool has several pages devoted to it, with clear explanations and examples. I’ll likely reread this book again before I begin editing future novels, or at least skim the title of each tool as a quick way to get into that head space. Here are some examples from the ‘Nuts and Bolts’ section:

  • Begin sentences with subjects and verbs: “Make your meaning clear early, then let weaker elements branch to the right”
  • Activate your verbs: this is something I think I’m quite good at, and yet with a gentle reminder, I still found many weak verbs hidden in my prose
  • Take it easy on the -ings: this was new to me, but I found it to be a powerful tool in making my prose more immediate
  • Fear not the long sentence: a good reminder, as I tend to use shorter sentences, whereas a variety offers a more dynamic paragraph
  • Establish a pattern, then give it a twist: “Build parallel constructions, but cut across the grain”

Other great tool titles include: Get the name of the dog, Climb up and down the ladder of abstraction, and Place gold coins along the path. On an aside, yesterday, in the middle of editing, I left my desk for just a second. My adorable yet cheeky little pup, motivated no doubt by the lure of the winter sun splashing over my desk, discovered how to jump from my chair up onto my writing desk. I literally found him as captured below, red pen in mouth, crouched over the chapter I was editing. Now on first glance it may indeed look as though he is simply chewing my pen, but I like to think he was trying to help me edit…

2009-05-12a

The Wall

sewEveryone hits it eventually.  The dreaded wall.  Luckily my wall seems to be made more of a kind of transparent fabric rather than bricks and mortar, so it has slowed me down but not stopped me.  I’ve been working on the third draft of my mentorship novel for a few weeks now.  While the planning was tough, the actual writing has been flowing quite well.  Until now.

There’s always a place in a manuscript (often several) where the writing gets really tough.  For me it was a particularly tricky scene to write – smack bang in the middle of the novel – the dark point for my protagonist.  Writing through this scene and out the other side has been hard work.  I’m pretty stubborn though, so even in these stages I still write every day.  On the good days, I do well above my daily word quota, but on days like these I just skim the minimum.

It’s not unusual that during the difficult stage of any novel a new idea comes along to tempt me with its freshness.  Christine Bongers recently blogged about this phenomena, using a really clever analogy.  But like Chris, I’m finding ways to work on both projects.  The new idea has become like a reward, which I only get to work on once I’ve gotten through (at least) my quota of words for the novel redraft.  It’s also a very different project: a picture book, where I get to play with words and images.  It’s actually the perfect project to start while redrafting a novel, because the smallness of it is quite refreshing.  I’m also finding that, since starting the new project, I come back to my novel each day with more energy.

The new idea came after yet another person asked if I’d done anything with Squish, the small rabbit that runs across this blog.  So essentially, I’m fighting the wall with a small white rabbit.  He must know kung-fu, because he’s certainly doing a good job of it.

Note: My working title for the story was ‘Squish, the Small Rabbit’ but for obvious reasons it has since changed (just read it aloud).

Editing Blues

Rabbit - sitThere’s no point in dancing around it – editing is hard work.  And if right now you’re wondering what I’m talking about – if you’re thinking I’m mad and are telling me through your computer screen that editing can be fun – then either you’re in an earlier stage of ‘fun-fiddly’ editing than I’m talking about, you have selective amnesia or you’re a robot.  Take your pick.

The editing I’m talking about is gritty, finger skinning, brain twisting, eye gouging, painfully hard work.  The editing I’m talking about is the part of the writing journey that will test your commitment to the process.  It will make you question why on earth you want to be a writer (and conveniently forget the joy of new ideas and characters that consume you and and all those lovely butterfly things).  This editing will make you question whether you have it in you.  It will push your brain out your ears.  BUT: I guarantee you that every writer, be they new or experienced, has felt this way.  And probably has experienced all these doubts at some point during each and every book they’ve written.

Based on the above rant, you may well have guessed that I’m going through a tough round of edits.  A few weeks ago I received Kate’s assessment on the latest draft of my mentorship novel, and she bravely, patiently and honestly guided me through how to take my novel into its third draft.  My reaction has nothing to do with Kate or the way she approached it – she has been an absolute dream to work with.  She even invited me to bang my head against a wall, saying this is how she often feels at this point in the editing process.  It’s always nice to know you’re not alone.

Luckily I’m sitting on the cusp of the ‘hard work’ mountain.  After some serious time spent world building, pushing all my major and minor characters further, significant reorganising of the plot points, and detailed (scene by scene) analysis of pacing, I’m almost ready to start the rewrite.  For me, this means I’ve just reached the editing summit and am about to start gloriously frolicking down the other side.  The lure of the writing has been the light at the end of my ‘plotting’ tunnel, and it will be so much easier due to the tooth pulling work I’ve just done.

There’s a great guest post over on Rachelle Gardner’s blog talking about this exact process.  It’s called ‘The Hell Formerly Known as Editing’, and Terry Brennan discusses the editorial process he went through after selling his first book.  He’s refreshingly open about just how tough it’s been.  It’s certainly not for the faint hearted, but we all need a little brutal honesty every now and then.

I know most of the time I need to believe that writing is wonderful and exhilarating and a constant source of joy, but if you’re serious about this (and are aiming for publication), this also needs to be balanced by the knowledge that some bits of writing are just plain hard work.  So, protective gloves on, helmet buckled tightly, safety goggles in place, and back into the fray!


About this Blog…

A blog of ramblings about the world of writing and illustrating for children, by an author / illustrator who might just have a thing for rabbits.

Katherine's picture books, 'Squish Rabbit' and 'Brave Squish Rabbit', are out with Viking (Penguin, US) and UQP (Australia). Please e-mail if you would like her to blog about something in particular.

All text & images  Katherine Battersby

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