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:
- 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?