rewriting

Blog header: Twenty Years a Writer

Twenty Years a Writer, Part 5: Editing Process

Writers frequently talk about their writing process. Editing needs a process too. In the early stages, some call it “rewriting,” reserving the term “editing” for polishing prose and correcting errors.

At first, I had no editing process; I simply read my manuscript, starting at the beginning (again and again), and tweaked in an unstructured way, fixing typos in paragraphs I would end up deleting next time around. Then I joined a critique group and had to figure out how to deal efficiently with feedback from other writers in a way that would improve my work-in-progress.

Eventually, I worked out a process. I can see progress from one session to the next, which wasn’t the case when I was just flailing around. Even more important, I know when I’m finished. Now I find editing much less demanding than the brain-to-text process of the first (or “proto”) draft.

Some writers prefer to print their manuscripts for editing. I actually dislike printing, but I do find it useful to make a copy of the document and mark it up with different colours and notes to myself.

Sometimes, I’ve found, editing is not so much a matter of adding or deleting stuff, as re-ordering it.

I’m always surprised by how much text I move around early in the editing process. Sentences and paragraphs — even entire scenes — go in different directions and end up far from where they started. Some paragraphs get taken apart and the parts moved to different places. Is my thinking that disordered at the first draft stage?

Actually, yes. At that point, I’m intent on turning ideas into words and getting them down. I don’t revisit what I’ve written until the whole thing is finished and typed up with a word processor, which is when I start editing. In the hurly-burly of writing the proto-draft, it’s not surprising that I often overlook the optimal order of occurrence. (Look at all those o’s!)

Order of occurrence is important, not only for physical events but for characters’ thoughts and emotions. Something has to happen before a character reacts to it. Sometimes, story elements that belong together get separated and must be reunited, unless they’re really two instances of the same thing, in which case one of them should be deleted.

Because of what I think of as “word count anxiety,” I crank out a lot of words at the proto-draft stage, so I have to lots to delete at the editing stage. When it comes to sentences or whole paragraphs, I sometimes edge up to deletion by first highlighting the problematic text and adding a note, in all caps so it’s hard to miss: IS THIS NECESSARY? (See image above.) When I revisit that spot later, I move the highlighted stuff to the bottom of the document. If what’s left works without it, I blow that material away or put it into a separate “Deleted Stuff” file. (Torture your darlings before you kill ’em. Or put ’em in jail so you can torture them later.)

I make several passes through the manuscript, targetting specific problems. First I look for plot problems and order of occurrence issues. Then repeated material. Then the list of my personal problem words. I work from big issues to niggly details, leaving the final check for typos, omitted periods, quotation marks, and question marks to the VERY END.

A sad truth is that many small errors are introduced during the editing process. That’s why it’s best to deal with the fiddly stuff (typos, extra spaces, missing punctuation marks) AFTER operations that involve adding, moving, or deleting chunks of text. To borrow a simile from woodworking, there’s no point in polishing something that still needs to be shaped or sanded.

I suggest following something like the following steps, in this order:

  • Structural stuff: deleting or adding scenes, moving paragraphs and sentences
  • Continuity stuff: finding and fixing plot holes and inconsistencies with names, physical characteristics, and similar details.
  • Polishing the prose: finding and fixing clunkiness, repetitions, awkward phrases, sub-optimal words, etc.
  • Finding and fixing grammatical errors, punctuation errors, and typos
  • Final detailed proofreading, paragraph by paragraph, starting at the end and working backwards. (That forces you to see the words and punctuation marks, rather than reading the story.)

Some of my first manuscripts were created before I trained myself not to follow periods with two spaces, and before I started using proper em-dashes. Word’s Find and Replace function is great for hunting these out and fixing them.

In fact, the Find function can be really helpful when searching for many of the infuriating small errors that hide until after a book has been published, and leap out cackling wickedly as the happy author is perusing their newborn. Author and blogger Virginia S. Anderson has compiled detailed tips and suggestions for using Find in several posts, the first of which can be found HERE.

The only word I always search for is “that.” It’s amazing how often it can be removed without harming anything. I wouldn’t do a global search and delete, however; sometimes “that” is just what you need. And each of my works has had its own set of “pet” words, like “glow,” “mutter,” “forces,” or “ultimate.” They’re useful, but are also memorable enough to annoy readers if they turn up too frequently.

Fellow writers, what is your editing process? Methodical or improvised? Do you enjoy editing or think of it as torture?

Next time: Don’t Forget to Justify!

manuscript and notebook She Who Comes Forth work in progress

The Tail of the Tale

 

Back in January, I typed “finis” at the end of my work in progress. Since then, I’ve gone through it twice, once to find gross errors and inconsistencies, and a second time to streamline the prose and reduce the word count.

Everything went swimmingly (a word to be used sparingly or not at all) until I came to what’s still called #15, which is the final section of the novel. (I haven’t decided where to put chapter breaks yet). The crisis and climax happen in #14. Why, some may ask, is another whole chapter needed?

In music, there’s something called a coda. Here are some definitions, snipped from Wikipedia:

In music, a coda (Italian for ‘tail’) is a passage that brings a piece (or a movement) to an end. Technically, it is an expanded cadence. It may be as simple as a few measures, or as complex as an entire section.

Coda (It.) (1) The tail of a note. (2) The bars occasionally added to a contrapuntal movement after the close or finish of the canto fermo. (3) The few chords or bars attached to an infinite canon in order to render it finite; or a few chords not in a canon, added to a finite canon for the sake of obtaining a more harmonious conclusion. (4) That closing adjunct of any movement, or piece, specially intended to enforce a feeling of completeness and finality.

Notice the bits about creating “a feeling of completeness and finality,” and “obtaining a more harmonious conclusion.” Also that it may be “as complex as an entire section.”

Prologues are a contentious subject among writers, but I haven’t seen as much discussion about devices to end a novel. I’m not talking about epilogues, which are disconnected from the story, both chronologically and otherwise. Some novels need what might be called a “literary coda.”

Such a device directly follows on from the events of the preceding chapter. It’s a kind of runway to land the reader gently rather than leaving them gasping in midair after the crisis (even if there is a sequel, but especially if there isn’t). Or maybe it’s like the gang getting together at the pub after the big game instead of going straight home. It’s a chance for the reader to linger a while longer with the characters and setting, savouring the reading experience. (Assuming it was positive, of course).

Loose ends (some of them, anyway) are tied up and a few final revelations presented. Going back to music again, the final chapter is like an encore, a way of prolonging the story for the reader who just doesn’t want it to end.

Back to the WIP. The first half of my final section was fine, but the closer I got to that “finis,” the more obvious it became that my main character (who is also the narrator) had been taken over by someone else — me. She was no longer talking about what was important to her, but rejoicing that she had arrived at The End. She was voicing my emotions, not hers.

The last paragraphs had an overly reflective tone, dwelling on earlier events already known by the reader. They didn’t sound like a 21-year-old with choices to make and apprehensions to deal with. The voice was that of the middle-aged writer who was almost finished. “Whew, we’re all done, and isn’t that great!”

A rewrite was in order.

A couple of things I had to keep in mind:

  • Until a book is published (and really, not even then, if it’s an ebook) nothing is unchangeable. I’ve had to persuade myself of this repeatedly while writing this novel. Just because my characters do or say certain things doesn’t mean I can’t change them or even (gasp!) delete them if they aren’t working. I am, after all, The Author.
  • Unless a scene or chapter is 100% horrible, wrong, and bad, I prefer to work with the existing text than to go back to a blank page. Some may consider the blank page a fresh start, but I don’t need blank page anxiety at this stage. I do, however, recommend making a fresh copy of the section to be edited before slashing and burning. The original, with all its faults, is safe until the rewrite is done.

This rewrite turned into the usual dog’s breakfast, with different colours and highlights marking problematic text, new text, and text moved from elsewhere. Then there were my exhortations and critical comments to myself, in ALL CAPS, so I didn’t overlook them.

SWCF screenshot pic

This is actually a selection of random paragraphs from the “Deleted Stuff” file, but looks just like sections of the actual manuscript, post-rewrite.

The rewrite is done and I’m happy with it. We’ll see if that satisfaction persists. I need to go through the whole manuscript again (at least once), this time zeroing in on words I may have used too often or inconsistently. Then there’s the matter of chapters. I’m excited about that, since I’m planning to give them titles instead of numbers.

About which I’ll post later.

knitting, yarn, lavender purple

Unpicking and Re-Knitting

At a recent meeting of my critique group, it was brought to my attention that something should happen at an earlier point in the narrative. I sort of knew that already, so didn’t need to go through all five Stages of Receiving Critique (denial, argument, brooding, grudging acceptance, rewriting). I jumped right to rewriting. And swearing and hair-tearing.

Rewriting a completed scene, especially one that’s mostly dialogue, is HARD, even when you want to. It’s got that finished look, prettied up, polished and (you thought) perfect. And even when you have to admit it isn’t perfect, taking it apart and remaking it is a painful process.

In this scene, the characters do things and say things. There’s an internal logic to the sequence of actions. The last words spoken by one character cue the first words of the other. Yanking globs of text from one spot and moving them to another requires a rebuild of the receiving area to rejig that internal logic.

After a couple of minor fits, I decided a logical approach was needed.

First, I identified all the bits of text to be moved and highlighted them in different colours. Topic #1 (turquoise) had to be dealt with before getting into Topic #2 (green). Stuff I didn’t know what to do with was yellow. Directions to self were in upper case purple text.

Well, at least it was colourful. (And so was some of my language).

Once I identified the relevant pieces of text, I had to decide where to move them. Then I adjusted those areas so the incoming text would flow seamlessly into what was already there.

Then I started CTRL-Xing and CTRL-Ving. Some sentences changed colour several times and moved enough times to earn frequent flier points before settling into their final spots. My head started to spin and ache, and certain short words spiced up my internal dialogue.

“No, you can’t put that there! She doesn’t know that yet!”

“He can’t start talking about that until she’s asked him about it!”

“That doesn’t make any !@#$ sense!”

AAARGH!

A number of metaphors sprang to mind — taking apart a piece of woodwork held together with dovetail joints and moving the pieces around, or unravelling parts of a sweater, re-knitting them with a different pattern, and ending up with something that’s still a sweater.

In the end, of course, my efforts were worthwhile. The scene works better, and a reader won’t have any idea of the strain and pain that went into its creation.

rubiks cube

Which is how it should be.

Now back to reading about the geology of the Valley of the Kings, and whether the sediments include concretions.

They do! Another plot point nailed down! Progress!

Images courtesy of Pixabay.

10 Simple Steps To Reno a Manuscript

So you’re cleaning out your files of works in progress, false starts and abandoned projects. Delete, delete, delete. Crumple and dump. It’s going great. Then you start reading.

Cancel plans for the rest of the day and follow these steps:

  1. Pull up (or out, if in a drawer) the old manuscript. Dust off the real or metaphorical cobwebs.
  2. Read the manuscript.
  3. Realize it’s pretty good. Decide it needs to be published.
  4. Sit down to give it a quick edit, or type it into Word (if a printout).
  5. Realize it’s pretty bad and needs to be beaten into shape.
  6. Highlight. Delete. Patch in new stuff. Highlight. Ctrl X, Ctrl V.
  7. Read it over again. Decide it’s much better and just needs another once-over.
  8. Three minutes into the once-over, realize it’s a big mess.
  9. Patch in more new stuff. Highlight. Delete. Highlight. Ctrl X, Ctrl V. Repeat Steps 6 through 9 as needed, pulling hair (if any) to relieve stress.
  10. Publish. OR say “Nuts to that,” and start writing a brand new version something else.

Last week I remembered a sort of by-product of my first novel that I stashed away on a floppy disk (back in 2001, this was). Like anything with that brink-teetering, obsolescent technology feeling, it suddenly seemed worth another look. And bonus! I found a printout, so didn’t have to dig out the old grey, 2-inch-thick Toshiba laptop from the previous millennium to read it.

After a quick read I thought “Wow! This is great! An almost lost gem. So I hastened to key it in to a fresh Word document.

Tip: If you’re not sure about the quality of a piece of writing, print it out and try transcribing it. Typing out every single word reveals a multitude of faults. A couple pages into transcribing the almost lost gem, I was making parenthetical comments in the text, like: (Geez! Enough already! You’ve already said this three times!)

Pop on the thinking cap. Think, think, think. Result: a better idea of what the piece has to look like.

Back to the manuscript to start the beating-into-shape process.

Right now, it’s been reduced from 10k words to about 6k. Some paragraphs have been moved so many times their little heads are spinning. Others have been highlighted in an array of colours meaning “Delete” or “Consider deleting” or “Repurpose.” Lots of new text has been added (and changed, and deleted, and moved).

I’m reminded of remaking a garment. Turning a pair of pants into a skirt, for example. Or a dress into a smock. Or a silk purse into some sort of unmentionable. One of those projects that seems simple at first blush.

And to complicate things, I’ve already designed a cover image for this story. (Trying out Canva!) So I have to to make it work! Look for more in the next couple of months.