Posts Tagged 'Editing'

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?

Training Wheels

Perspective is a funny thing. It twists your viewpoint around, so things you once knew to be true suddenly look very different. I recall many pivotal moments in life when this happened and the world shifted around me into a new shape. And that’s exactly what happened after I signed with my agent and got my first book contract.

Exactly one year ago, before I had either, like many aspiring authors I imagined getting a book contract meant you’d ‘made it’. I looked at published authors with a kind of awe. I imagined them to have answers I didn’t, to know things, to possess a kind of confidence I lacked. I was always surprised to hear when they expressed self-doubt about their work. I’d think: but they’re *insert-name-of-famous/successful-author here*. How could they doubt themselves?

I’m finally where I always wanted to be (and loving it by the way), but the world has shifted around me and suddenly I’ve realised that I’m actually at the very beginning again. It’s like graduating from junior school, feeling incredibly grown up, but then realising that you’re at the bottom of the high school. I still feel uncertain. I still don’t have all the answers. And I still feel just like me – a kind of dorky blonde girl who sits in the back room of her house, playing with words and colours in her PJs.

I may have a book contract, but I feel like I’ve just been handed my first set of training wheels. At first it terrified me – I worried I should have felt more professional and experienced – but I’ve realised it’s actually ok. I’m enjoying learning, figuring things out as I go, listening to more experienced people around me, growing with each step. I’ve recently received my first set of edits from my delightful editor and art director, and they have been so generous with their time and encouragement and feedback.

So I’m using my training wheels, gaining experience with each test ride and slowly learning to coast. Before long I hope to be riding with more confidence, maybe even leaving the safety of the backyard and taking to the roads. Then again, perspective is a fluid and flighty mistress. It’s likely that by then something else will have happened, and the world will have shifted once more…

Illustration Wednesday

To an outsider, my work methods may seem a little manic. It could look like I flicker between projects with no rhyme or reason, but it’s not true. Having several projects on the go at once not only helps me to stay fresh, but also provides me with time to think. I’ve learnt that much of writing and illustrating is thinking – allowing the stories and characters space / time to grow in my mind.

For instance, recently I drew little Piggy-Wilikins for the first time, simply to get him out of my head, but his story hasn’t arrived yet so afterwards I moved onto the next project. I know when I return I will have a story for him. The next project was the new rabbit story I mentioned below. I’d written a few drafts of the story and had some basic character sketches, and was finally ready to do the character designing (some of which you can see below). With that done, it’s not quite ready to be put to a storyboard yet as I want the story in my head a little longer, so I set it aside and took up the next project. So now I’ve gone back to a story that’s been around for a while – one I storyboarded out a few months back. I’ve just started the final art, which has to be my favourite part, watching the book appear in front of my eyes.

The other stories are still there, comfortably seated in my subconscious, mingling and growing and preparing themselves for the next stage. They’ll let me know when they’re ready.

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

Editing Roller-Coaster

I’m a logical sort of gal. I don’t like accepting anything ‘just because’. I like to get to the bottom of things – the real reason, the cause, the fault. Why? So I can fix it. I’m like this with writing ups and downs. I’m currently wrangling with the 3rd and final-ish draft of a mid-grade adventure novel and day to day my mood varies widely.

Some days I’m up. I’m positively joyful, loving editing, believing in the story, adoring the characters, daydreaming about this being the next Harry Potter (ok, so I’m never THAT up). I feel like a writer. I feel good at what I do. I feel worthy and productive and like I could do this for the rest of my life.

Other days I’m down. And the downs get pretty deep. I wonder why I’m writing this story when the plot is banal, the characters cliched and the writing woefully unsalvageable. I wonder how on earth I got through two previous drafts without abandoning ship. I daydream about other professions – so when I’m found to be the fraud of a ‘writer’ I am I can make a silent exit. I consider changing my name and skipping town.

The Sherlock in me wants to know the cause of these ups and downs. ‘It’s just a writer thing’ is never enough. So I go through all the possible whys for getting down. It was a chapter that needed more work, so it challenged me more. I got a rejection that day. I had lots of other stressful things on my mind which were the real cause. I needed a day off. I’ve had another story circling my mind, so I couldn’t get into the voice of this one. I had too many e-mails demanding my attention. I had someone asking to see the ms and was feeling the pressure.

So many possible reasons. And you know the conclusion I’ve come to? It’s just a writer thing. Ha (see the humour? Me neither). There’s something about working in creative industries that lead to more self-doubt and ups and downs than other jobs. It’s just the way it is. And although there really are lots of reasons for this, I don’t think there’s a way to fix it. Even in ideal conditions I still get down days. So what can you do?

  1. Accept it: day to day ups and downs are mostly out of your control
  2. Embrace it: gotta love yourself, foibles and all
  3. Give yourself a break: don’t sweat it too much. If it’s a particularly heinous day, take some time off
  4. Bake: scones and cookies will cure what ails you

Sorry. I think that was self therapy more than blogging. If you managed to stick with me to the end then feel free to add your own solutions for dealing with the downs. By the way, is anyone quite as amused by the WordPress snow as I am? Ah, Christmassy happiness.

A Quote for all Seasons

I love quotes. I’m a long time collector, gathering together others’ words and storing them away for times of need. There is something inherently comforting about a quote that perfectly captures what you need to hear at a certain point in life. I found this more than ever with writing. Some quotes spur me on when I need encouragement. Some comfort me when I’m feeling precious. Others make me laugh when I’m getting too serious (a fault of mine). So I thought I’d share some with you, just in case there are other word collectors out there…

A quote to quiet the inner writing critic:

All first drafts are shit ~ Ernest Hemmingway

A quote for chasing an elusive muse:

You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club ~ Jack London

Quotes for when I’m sick of editing:

A book is never finished, simply abandoned ~ Rebecca Huntley

A writer is someone to whom writing is more difficult than it is to other people ~ Thomas Mann

Quotes for when I’d rather be on holiday than writing:

Because I’d always wanted to be a writer, I decided that when I left school I needed to go out into the world and collect experiences, so that when I had enough I could write about them ~ Prue Mason

Writing is long periods of thinking and short periods of writing ~ Ernest Hemingway

Quotes for those who think children’s books are easy to write:

Writing a picture book is like writing War & Peace in Haiku ~ Mem Fox

Art is the expression of the most profound thoughts in the simplest way ~ Einstein

The difference between the right word and the wrong word is the same as the difference between lighting and a lightning bug ~ Mark Twain

Quotes that capture why I write for children:

On the seashore of endless worlds children meet.  Tempest roams in the pathless sky, ships are wrecked in the trackless water, death is abroad and children play ~ Tagore

I believe that the only lastingly important form of writing is writing for children. It is writing that is carried in the reader’s heart for a lifetime; it is writing that speaks to the future ~ Sonya Hartnett

To be a successful children’s writer you will need to get in touch with your inner child, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that inner children are all sweetness and light. They can be argumentative, unreasonable, uncontrollable and highly irritating. You will need to embrace these qualities of your child as well … invoke the forces of anarchy, chaos, silliness, danger and magic ~ Andy Griffiths

Quotes for when I need a laugh:

Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read ~ Groucho Marx

I love deadlines.  I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by ~ Douglas Adams

Writers are very private people who run around naked in public ~ Katherine Patterson

I’d love to hear other people’s favourites. There is always room for more words…

Fattening up your Characters

I don’t mean literally – no need to go putting your characters on a high carb diet – but a lovely blog reader recently asked how I develop my protagonists, and I find the process is a lot like fattening them up. When starting out you begin with just bones – the bare outline of your main character. Through time, research and writing you start to build up their flesh, and in the final stages you add quirks and traits that lay their skin down over top, leaving you with a 3D living breathing character. But how do I get there?

Bones:

  • I often begin with a small kernel of knowledge about my main character. Something that’s important to them. The hint of their voice or personality. A snippet of conversation. A glimpse of how they look or how others see them. Like any story, it starts small, but you have to begin somewhere
  • Help the bones to grow: I use my natural writer’s curiosity to ask question after question. Who is this person? Why are they important to this story? What about them and their needs could drive a whole novel towards its end? Where do they come from and where will they go? The questions start out big, but become more specific as the story narrows down
  • First draft: once I know enough about my character and their story, I begin the first draft. That’s when I figure out how little I really knew…

Flesh:

  • I only truly begin to understand my main character once I have sat with them through an entire draft, watching the way they speak and move and react to the world. By the end of it I have a more through understanding of them, and need to go back in draft two to make sure they’re acting consistently
  • At this point I also make sure that the person I want my character to be isn’t inhibiting who they actually are. As writers we need to let them be their own person, even if they do things we would never do
  • Character profiles: before draft two I use a detailed set of questions to plumb the depths of my character’s personality, from their childhood through to their desires, strengths and weaknesses
  • Character sketches: as an illustrator I draw these myself, but others I know find magazine images of people who perfectly capture the look they’re after. This is important not only to make sure you describe your character consistently, but to ensure you’re conveying their personality through their physical appearance – how they stand, hold themselves, dress etc.

Skin:

  • The skin: the nitty gritty details that make us all individual. For me these traits develop over time, after being with my character for several drafts
  • Encourage the details: I do this by imagining my character – watching them move around, putting them in various situations, wondering how they would react to something joyous or uncomfortable or during a confrontation. As I walk around day to day, I wonder how my character would react to the situations I face, or what they would do in place of characters on TV
  • Collect foibles: writers are great people watchers. I’ve always been fascinated by the quirks people around me have – the words they use, the way they speak, the ticks and mannerisms that make them unique, the walk that means you recognise them from behind. If you can give your character unique mannerisms, they’ll suddenly become very real

It’s easy to get intimidated after reading a brilliant book with characters so real you wish you knew them. But don’t feel you have to know everything about your main character before you start writing. It’s all about layering. All writers layer, adding more character details with each draft. Characters will always begin as bones, mere shadows of who they will become. I’m currently at the ‘skin’ stage of a middle-grade adventure novel, and certain minor characters are only just starting to feel real rather than stereotyped. In a few more layers it will be ready.

What techniques do others use to develop character?


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

Released Sept 2012:

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