Before the edit starts

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When you start out writing it’s easy to look at authors with two, three, four or more books under their belt and believe they somehow have it easier than you, or that your struggles mean you aren’t meant to be a writer. This is very far from the truth.

I’m writing this as the first draft of my third book, Genesis Redux, merrily prints away beside me. I say merrily, but in some respects it’s feels like the creak of a trapdoor beneath your feet while you have a noose wrapped around your neck. My first draft has been resting for over six weeks now and it’s time to get back to work. However, to show you that all writers have doubts and apprehensions, I want to capture the what’s going through my head now, knowing that I have months of editing ahead of me.

Confronting fear

Above all is the fear. It’s the fear of reading my first draft and realising it’s irredeemable. Note I didn’t say terrible. Terrible can be dealt with, in fact I’ve dealt with terrible at this stage in the process twice before. First drafts are meant to be mostly terrible but with enough encouraging signs that there’s a good story in there somewhere. What I’m scared about is that the first draft is so bad, so teeth-clinchingly, sickness-inducingly bad, that there is no way it can be recovered and I’ll have to start the whole thing all over again. This fear is so strong my stomach just flipped as I wrote that sentence. That’s how much I fear what I’m about to read.

I’ve been told this feeling never changes, no matter how many books you’ve written.

Pressure of expectation

Then there’s the pressure of expectation. The nicest part of writing your first novel is that you are the sole source of expectation. That level of expectation can still crush some, but for most of us the challenge is to get to the finish line, to have written a book, and then to see if anyone else will enjoy it afterwards. This is the third book of a trilogy. I’ve been lucky enough to have received glowing reviews for both books but this doesn’t make the writing process easier. It makes it harder. Because what if it’s rubbish? What if I’ve lost whatever it was that people enjoyed so much in the first two books? What if I screw the ending up? Not only do I have to bring this book to a satisfying conclusion, I have to conclude the whole series as well. What if I…

No. I have to stop thinking about it otherwise I’ll never go any further.

Overcoming laziness

I always look on in awe at those committed individuals. You know the ones I mean, those who seem to thrive on pressure, who produce and produce and produce as if they’re in a competition with the rules of physics on how much one can achieve in a set period of time. I’m not like that. I work hard, but inside there is a very lazy person just waiting to break out, and it’s at times like these, just at the brink of committing to something huge, that my inner lazy man speaks the loudest. “Why bother? Two’s a good effort, much better than some. Nobody will hold it against you. Forget about it…”

Time pressure

On top of the above is the knowledge of the sheer amount of time this will take, time I’m struggling to make available. Like all writers, I too have a life outside of writing. I have a job, and if that wasn’t enough I’m also the chair of our local preschool. I have friends (stop snickering at the back) and most importantly, I have a wonderful wife and a young family who fully deserve my time. I’ve written before how writing is a selfish act, but it’s at this point in a project this really hits home.

The tyranny of deadlines

Finally, I have that other form of time pressure looming up ahead of me, the deadline. I’m n indie author so I don’t have a publisher breathing down my neck waiting for the finished book, but I do have my own expectations as to when the book should be ready to go. My first book took 18 months tow write. My second book took just over ten months. This time I’d like to do the same, just to prove it wasn’t a fluke.

And then there is the pressure from my readers, who expect the book to be available in September BECAUSE I TOLD THEM IT WOULD BE. The things we do to ourselves.

Of course, none of these feelings will stop me from editing, which is the madness behind being a writer. There is a story inside me and it needs to be told. I’ve already committed months of my time to get this far, what’s a few more months to finish it off? Plus there’s always the next one to think about…

What about you? Does any of this ring true? I’d love to hear from you.

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6 Things You Need To Edit Your Book

Scissors Truman Capote

Editing is my favourite part of writing. While I enjoy the free exploration and rush of creativity that comes with writing a first draft, it’s in the edit that I really earn my money. The edit can turn a promising idea into a great idea, can turn lumpen prose into gold. But in order to get the best out of editing, you need six important things.

1 Distance

Have you noticed how much easier it is to spot mistakes or areas for improvement in other people’s books? There’s a good reason for that. As a reader you’re coming to the story fresh, with no insight or foreknowledge of what’s taking place. You can only judge the book by it’s words. With your own book it’s very different. You know everything intimately, not just what is written but the back story, what you are trying to imply and what is left unsaid. You know what you mean to say but because of your knowledge you can’t see what you’ve actually written.

To overcome this you need to distance yourself from your work. The way most writers do this is to put the manuscript away for a month or more and get on with something else. By the time you read it through again, you’ll be able to see it through a reader’s eyes and spot the issues you would otherwise not have seen.

2 To put the story first

Nothing is more important than what’s best for your story. When you read your story back you may find passages of exquisite beauty, but if they don’t fit well into the overall narrative, they need to be cut. You may have included a particular subplot because you like the characters or because you want to explore a particular idea, but if they confuse or slow the overall story, they should be taken out.

The story is king, not you, your ego, your interests or desires. To produce the best work you need to remove yourself from the process. When you edit, always remember that you’re there to serve the story, not the other way around.

3 Knowledge of your market

If you are writing your book purely for yourself, you can skip this part. However, if you are hoping people will buy your book you need to have an understanding of your target market when you edit. This isn’t necessarily so you change the story to meet a generic market need, but you need to understand the implications of the choices you make.

The type of language you use can restrict the size of your audience. Scenes of violence or of a sexual nature will also restrict who will be interested in your work. I’m not suggesting for a minute that you should produce a bland, generic piece or try to please everyone – and as an author who writes for adults, I certainly don’t write that way – but you need to understand the types of boundaries that exist within your target audience before you start pushing them.

4 A process

Before you start editing you need to have a clear idea of the different steps of the editing process and your goals at each stage. Editing isn’t just about ensuring you have  no typos or grammatical errors. It’s about producing the best story possible, including the shape and flow of your story, characterisation, plot, prose, as well as those pesky typos.

I’ve written in the past about my editing process (I urge you to have a read. Don’t worry, I’ll still be here when you get back) and it’s one I plan to use again this time around. The one step I would add having learnt from my most recent book is to have a second full read through before sending it off for it’s final proof. It’s amazing the impact a thousand seemingly minor changes can have on the overall shape and flow of a story.

Whatever your thoughts on whether my process works for you or not, you need to have one of your own before you start.

5 People who aren’t afraid to give you an honest opinion

When you start out writing, the first people you ask for feedback tend to be family and friends. This is great if you have wife like mine who is more than happy to tell you their unvarnished thoughts on your work (and I wouldn’t have her any other way) but mostly the feedback you’ll receive will be encouraging. Your friends and family will either view your book as being ‘good for you’ or believe whatever you do is great. Then there are those who didn’t like your story but don’t want to hurt your feelings.

In order to write the best story possible you need open, honest feedback. You need people to tell you what worked for them and what didn’t – along with the all important ‘why’ – without fear of how you’ll react. Now, if you’ve already done points 1 & 2 of this list, your feelings shouldn’t come into it – OK, they will, but at least you’ll recognise the reaction for what it is and eventually put your anger or disappointment behind you – so you should be in a position to judge any critical comment on its merit.

If you can afford to, hire a developmental editor to help you define the best structure for your story. If this isn’t possible, identify people you trust and ask them to beta read for you. Remember, whatever the feedback, these people only have your story’s best interest at heart.

6 Professional help

Who is your favourite write? Whose prose to you find exhilarating, or characters spellbinding? Whoever you think of, they were only able to produce work to this level with the help of professionals. Whether they were developmental editors as I’ve mentioned above, line editors to help smooth prose or proofreaders to identify any typos or grammatical errors, all of the writers of the books you love had help along the way.

When I published Second Chance I had an editor friend give it a ‘quick once over’ before launch. I thought it was in good shape but he found hundreds of errors. I then published but was immediately told by other friends there were other errors. They kindly sent me a list of over fifty errors. I then sent it to my editor friend for a thorough edit. He found another 270 errors.

My process changed completely when it came to Absent souls, but even after going through many rounds of editing, I recently had another editor look through Second Chance and Absent Souls where they found a few more (thankfully small) things to correct. The good news is I’ve only had one review which marked me down because of typos, but I know of authors that have had their book trashed in reviews because of issues that a professional could have helped them resolve.

You cannot edit your book on your own. No author can. You need the help of professionals, people trained to get your manuscript into shape. While you may not have the resources of a major publisher to pick up every error in a manuscript, you owe it to your readers to produce the best work possible. At the very least, hire a proofreader to tidy your book. You’re readers, and your accountant, will thank you.

 

So these are my list of things you need for your edit, what are yours? Have I missed anything? Is there anything you disagree with? I’d love to hear from you.

 

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So you have finished your first draft…

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As with writing a novel, there is no single correct way to edit your book. If you are working with an agent or publisher, they will help you through the process and give you access to invaluable support from creative editors, copy editors, line editors and the like. Life is not so simple for us self-publishing authors. So, having gone through this process once, I thought I’d share my learnings by explaining the process I will use for the sequel to Second Chance. This doesn’t mean it will be the right process for everybody, but hopefully all of you will see at least one or two things that will be of help.

1 First read through

So you’ve left your manuscript to lie for a few weeks, haven’t you? You haven’t? Then go away and come back in a few weeks.

Stephen King in his book, On Writing, suggests your first act should be to read through your manuscript from start to finish, preferably in one go, to gauge the pace of the story. Well who am I to argue? At this point do not be tempted to start correcting typos or change wording; that comes later. The whole point of this part of the process is to look at your manuscript from the point of view of a reader. It is all about the big things. What works and what doesn’t? Are there sections that bore you or add nothing to the story? Then take out your read pen a strike them through. Are their areas that fly through too quickly, actions taken with no visible explanation or reason? Make notes to broaden these sections out but don’t start making the changes just yet.

Once you’ve done this read through your manuscript again, this time to identify any major errors; plot holes; character’s names, appearance and gender changing unintentionally, or the characters disappearing altogether. Write your notes either in a notebook, as post its, or as I do, on the relevant scene notes in Scrivener. My favourite error from my last book was finding chapters written in present tense instead of past tense like the rest of the manuscript. I have no idea how that happened. At this point don’t forget to add in any notes you made during the first draft – expanding character’s roles, writing out characters altogether, changing locations to fit with later scenes etc.

2 Make the major changes

The next step is to make the changes you identified in step 1. Again, try not to get bogged down in correcting grammatical errors, this is all about getting the structure right.

3 Edit your prose

Now, finally, you can make the corrections you have been itching to change during the first two steps. It is here you smooth your prose, remove stray adjectives, re-phrase poorly structured sentences and, of course, correct any spelling or grammatical errors. My one piece of advice is to edit first at sentence level, then go through again at paragraph level, then once more at scene level. Only then move on to the next scene. The reason I say this is that in my last book I edited only at sentence level, which gave me a series of wonderful sentences but horrible, jarring paragraphs and scenes when I read them back. The major mistake I made was not reading the passages out loud. Doing this not only helps you identify clunky prose and poorly structured sentences, it also helps you catch the many typos that will be hidden in your text.

4 Send to test readers

The purpose of this stage is to sense check the story and characterisation. One of the issues with editing your own work is that you know the story too well. You know the full history behind the story, as well as what is happening but being left unsaid and undiscovered. This makes you blind to any gaps in your manuscript. Another issue is that during the act of writing  your characters have become a part of you. You love or hate your characters because you know who they are and why they are doing what they do, but have you written it down?

You want your test readers to be concentrating on the big things. Ask them not to worry about grammatical errors or typos (though they will). What you want to know is, does the book work? Are there things that are confusing when they aren’t meant to be? Have you given enough information at the right time to make sense? Have you edited out a crucial piece of information? At the character level, do the readers relate to the characters? Do they care what happens to them? What works for them and what doesn’t? All of this information is crucial to improving your manuscript.

5 Adapt based on test reader feedback

For most people, the first reaction when receiving test reader feedback is either that they’re wrong, or that you have written a piece of garbage. Both reactions are normal and also untrue. What you need to remember that your lovely, kind-hearted test readers – who have volunteered to critique your work for free – are desperate for you to produce the best book you can.  Really good test readers give you blunt, honest feedback. They tell you what works and what doesn’t, for them.  Once you recover from the shock, you’ll realise what they say contains truth you have either been hiding from yourself, or too close to the manuscript to see. This is not to say you should accept everything at face value, but you should have a good reason not to. Once you have accepted those points you believe to be right, make the necessary changes to your manuscript.

6 Read through for flow once more

By this point your manuscript may look very different to the first draft with which you started. Now is the time to re-read the whole thing again, just to make sure the changes you made haven’t had a detrimental effect on the flow of your story.

7 Send to Editor

It’s at this point some authors question the need for an editor. But you’ve made all these changes, spent hours polishing your manuscript and now you are going to pay for an editor. Are you crazy? Well, no, is the simple answer.

Everything you have done to date has been to save time and money for when you get the professionals involved. I’ve learnt to my cost that I am not, and never will be, a line editor. I miss things. Lots of things. My grammar is OK but not perfect. I am very poor at when to use hyphens and don’t get me started on semi-colons. I am blind to certain types of typos. If you have been a regular reader of this blog, some of this will come as no surprise, but in acknowledging this weakness I also recognise that I’ve needed to do something about it. That is where the editor comes in. My editor will help correct the many grammatical errors still present in my manuscript at this point, as well as offering suggestions on how to improve my prose. That’s not to say he doesn’t also offer some structural advice, but that is just a bonus over all the other wonderful things he does.

8 Make changes based on Editor’s feedback

Of course, you don’t have to listen to what your editor says, but in my experience you had better have a bloody good reason not to. I can only think of one or two occasions where I’ve ignored my editor’s advice, and both times he was happy with what I had written and had just offered alternative wordings as an option.

9 Send to proofreaders

If you have the resources, it is this stage where you would send your work to a line editor. I don’t have that luxury, but I do have a couple of  reader friends who have eyes like a hawk and suffer severe physical reaction when exposed to typos. You may say why, having used an editor, should you do another round of proofing. This is because despite your best efforts, you have probably added errors while dutifully making changes based on your editor’s feedback. Or your editor could have missed something; they are only human. I skipped this process last time and as I have written before, my book was launched with, what I found later, over 80 typos in place. This does not mean your book will be perfect, but you should do everything in your power to keep the typos to a minimum.

10 Make changes based on your proofreaders feedback and prepare to publish

The final stage! Well, not quite. You still have a cover to get ready, you need to format your manuscript into the various e-reader formats. You have to produce a pdf layout for print. Then there is the pricing to think about, as well as how you are going to market the book, all of which you should have been preparing while writing and editing your book…

So, is there anything you do that I’ve missed, or do you have any other tips that could help other writers?

Warning – editor at work

I would show you a real page from my manuscript, but there would be way too much red ink (source: writerwin.com)

I would show you a real page from my manuscript, but there would be way too much red ink (source: writerwin.com)

I’ve not blogged recently as I’ve been on holiday for the past couple of weeks. This will amuse a number of my friends who are convinced that I’m always on holiday; that my days are spent with my feet up, watching two perfectly behaved boys entertain each other, or effortlessly churning out reams of text whilst sunning myself on a hammock. What a charmed life us stay at home Dads / struggling writers lead.

Anyway, before we left for the wonderful coast of North Wales , I had finished the latest edits of my manuscript based on alpha reader feedback. I was really pleased with the changes I’d made (I’d had excellent, no holds barred feedback), and was convinced that the book wasn’t too far away from being publishable. In a last-minute moment of inspiration, I saved the book onto my iPad to read while I was away.

This was a mistake.

The first evening, tired after our seven hour drive, I went to bed early looking forward to reading my book. After 15 minutes I felt like throwing my iPad out of the window. It was terrible. The story was good but the prose was clunky. There were also many grammatical errors (for example,  I’d started the second chapter in present tense, only to move back to past tense half way through). Rather than being an enjoyable read, my manuscript was an instrument of torture. I couldn’t understand it. How had I been so pleased with this disaster?

The answer was simple. I’d not given my manuscript the respect it deserved. I’d not read it as a whole for months. I’d been too busy concentrating on individual plot points, accentuating themes and drawing out character traits that I’d lost focus on the prose and the flow. With each edit, I’d increased errors and introduced jarring inconsistencies of style. What was worse, I couldn’t do anything about it. I stopped reading for my sanity’s sake.

Keep the meat and remove the dross - how to edit in the kitchen (source: blogs.kqed.org)

Keep the meat and remove the dross – how to edit in the kitchen (source: blogs.kqed.org)

As soon as I got home, I printed my manuscript out and – pen in hand – started reading it through. I’ve been reading each sentence out loud, to hear any inconsistencies before honing and tightening like a dervish. Then, at the end of each chapter, I’ll read it out again as a whole. Finally, as I type the changes into Scrivener, I’ll have a third chance to improve on the original. My trusty pen has been paring and filleting like a Michelin starred Chef. This time I’ve not settled for good enough, and the process is taking some time, but 100 pages in I’m very happy with how it’s going (only another 350 to go).

What this does mean, is that I’ll be cutting back on the blogging until I finish. I’ll try to commit to one blog a week, but no promises. I hope you all understand, but if you don’t, well, so be it. However, if you do decide not to return, you’ll never get to hear the tale of how I was outsmarted by a fly….

Disclaimer: Any grammar or spelling mistakes in this blog are deliberate. It’s called irony.*

* I may be lying