Killing one’s darlings

6_00 pmIf you’ve just finished your first draft of your novel, congratulations. Pour yourself a drink of your favourite tipple and celebrate. You’re half-way to completing your project. Yes — I did say half way. The editing process is just as important as the creation of the first draft. If your first draft reads like c**p. Don’t worry, that’s what editing is for. The final version will vastly out-shine the first draft. I promise.

But editing isn’t for the faint-hearted. It’s part of the writing process. Even if you have someone to help, you’ll never be a good writer unless you fully embrace the process. There are three stages of editing: development editing (getting the story right), line editing (getting the English right), and proof reading (getting the nitty-gritty detail right down to that last comma). All these stages are important as part of a process that will result in a polished story.

I’ve just been through this process with my latest novel. And it was more painful than expected. I had to cut 12 scenes, nearly 12,000 words and reassemble the manuscript. And most of the scenes I cut I had edited a dozen times or more.

William Faulkner once said:

“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

He was right. You have to be ruthless when you edit. As writers we fall in love with our words, expressions, sentences, paragraphs and scenes. But it is not our view that matters: we must consider the reader. And if he/she wouldn’t understand an expression we want to use we shouldn’t use it. We also create expectations in the reader’s mind about the story we are telling, and we need to deliver against those expectations.

In my case, I had gone through the three stages of editing without realising that there was a major problem with my story, which I should have found at the development stage. A subplot had grown out of control so that it read as a separate story within the story. I told myself it was all about developing the two main characters’ relationship. But I didn’t need twelve scenes to do it. The answer was to cut them.

Of the three stages of editing the most difficult is the development edit. You have to get the story right. One of the best aids to help you get this right is a simple columnar scene list, where you can use different columns to analyse the different elements of the scene to provide an overview of the story design. Which elements you choose to track  is up to you. For example you might choose the following columns for each scene: point of view character,  plot action (what happens), revelations, character development points, relationship development points, tension source, level of tension, sub plot (if any), set-up/payoffs, and word count. The scene list doesn’t have to be complex; it just needs to give you an understanding of what’s happening and when it happens.

I also learned early on in my business career that any form of writing can benefit from being reviewed. I used to write technical material and find the least technical reader I could find to review it. If they found something they didn’t understand, it was obviously unclear. The same is true of writing fiction. But good beta readers are hard to find.

Line editing is difficult process, but there are spellcheckers and software programs like ProWriting Aid and Autocrit to help you find common  problems like repetition and over use of certain words. They won’t do everything you need to do, and they may flag ‘false positives’ where the text is correct. But if you’re serious about becoming a writer you need to study your discipline and brush up on your gramar.

The final stage is proofreading. However much proof reading you do yourself you will never find all those irritating errors. It is one of the few processes that I would recommend you out source. A professional proof reader is worth their weight in gold.

First Draft

Typing those magic words, ‘The End’, can be a satisfying moment for any first time writer. If you have got that far in your writing, then congratulations. You’ve made it further than most aspiring writers do. You haven’t given up. But then when you read the draft, reality kicks in. Let’s put it kindly: it reads like crap and you start to doubt whether you can write at all. Don’t despair. Take some advice from some of the great writers.

“The first draft of anything is shit.” (Ernest Hemmingway)
“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” (Terry Prachett)
“The first draft is nothing more than a starting point so be wrong as fast as you can.” (Andrew Stanton).

I could go on with a lot more quotes, but I think you get the drift. First drafts are just the starting point of writing. Writing is really about re-writing. Anything you write can be revised, changed, improved and polished. But you can only do this if you have written it first. The bad news is you still have a lot of work to do.

If your first drafts are anything like mine, they probably are not in state that you would want to share with anyone yet. They need to be knocked into shape. Here’s another quote about the process:

“My first draft usually only has a few elements worth keeping. I have to find out what those are and build from them and throw out what doesn’t work, or what simply is not alive.” (Susan Sontag).

So how do you decide what are the parts worth keeping and what needs to be thrown away? It’s all about understanding the story and finding the best way to present it. Before writing, different writers plan their stories in different levels of detail: some using outlines, scene cards and other devices; others writing organically following the lead from their main characters. But once the story is written, the full story is known, and it is up to the writer to decide how best to present it to the reader. In particular, the writer needs to decide:
– Where’s the best point to start the story. (It’s not always obvious.)
– How the story should end. (Get this wrong at your peril.)
– What is the principal source of conflict (main character’s goal vs obstacles) and what’s at stake if he fails.
– What are the key logical story steps and turning points.
– When should key information be revealed to the main character and to the reader.
– How the story impacts on the characters.

Note, this first stage is a structural edit. Look for scenes that aren’t working or that are not key to the storyline. Examine potential alternative endings. Consider removing elements of backstory that are not relevant. Consider whether the characters are acting consistently. But it’s not all about cutting out. It’s also about increasing tension and displaying characterisation by layering in extra levels of detail to bring key scenes alive.

Let me give you an example. Recently I finished the first draft of my second novel. My initial problem is that the word count is much lower than expected at 58,000 words and I have another 12,000 words in redundant scenes that I ditched during the process of writing the first draft. I know my ending and the last few scenes needs a lot more work, which will increase word count. But I also expect the word count to rise for other reasons. As with my first novel I tend to write the bones of the story in the first draft by focusing on the important scenes in a cinematic style as though I was writing a film script. Then I have to layer in sub-plots, description and improve the transitions, which I had skipped over in the first draft. My net word count therefore tends to increase on the second draft.

Not all writers are the same. Stephen King suggests that second draft should be 90% of the size of the first draft. No doubt Stephen King is much better at flushing out the detail in the first draft and he is simply tightening the words that are there. Lesser mortals like me require more drastic action, and a lot more drafts.

Clearly the amount of re-writing will depend on the type of writer you are. Many writers advocate not getting involved in detailed editing until the first draft is complete. I can understand this view. Finishing a first draft as quickly as possible is important and editing can get in the way. Others, like me tend, to back track as they go along to eliminate errors and inconsistencies.

“By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times… Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” (Roald Dahl)

Whatever type of writer you are one thing is certain. The quality of your work will depend on how much and how well you edit and re-write. Don’t be fooled into thinking that first drafts are anywhere near complete. It’s just the start of the editing process.

The First Cut

In my last blog, I said I was taking some time out from writing as I needed to think more deeply about where the plot-line of my new novel was taking me. After a short break, I looked again at the manuscript, which was about a third complete, and my scene cards. In spite of all the planning and preparation that I did before starting my second novel, it was obvious that something was missing. But before I could add it, the plot-line needed some drastic surgery.

The song goes ‘The first cut is the deepest’. The Cat Stevens song was not about writing, of course, but the words seemed to fit my mood as I slashed some 21 scenes and almost 10,000 words from the manuscript. I didn’t delete them completely; I placed them in my unused scenes folder. As I use the Scrivener software, this is a simple process of dragging the scene files to the unused folder. Some scenes might be used later in a reworked form. What was left was a lean more focused manuscript.

Not all writers would agree that you should start editing mid draft. KM Weiland, for example, suggests you should note down what has to change, but to write on as if those changes had been made until you complete the first draft. Only then does she suggest you start the edit process. It’s probably very good advice, particularly if you have problems finishing a first draft. But it’s not the way I can work. The inconsistency in the manuscript would constantly niggle me until I fixed it.

So how do you fix a plot line that doesn’t seem to work? Putting the manuscript down for some time does help to regain perspective. Then you need to stand back from it and try visualise main steps of the plot. Like some other authors, I like to use scene cards to map the steps in the story-line. In my case, I use some specialised screen writing software to play with the cards; but physical cards set out on a cork-board, or floor, can be just as effective. From the cards I identified the three key scenes that held the structure of the plot together. These are:

Turning point 1: The scene that marks end of the set-up sequences in Act 1 and projects the hero/heroine forward on their journey towards his/her new goal. The pursuit of that goal forms most of the action for Act 2.

Turning point 2: This is usually an epiphany scene at the end of Act 2 where hero/heroine finally realises what they are doing wrong. It marks the end of Act 2 and a new direction for the hero/heroine for the climatic ending in Act 3.

The Mid point: This is a scene at the centre of the story where something important happens: a twist, a revelation, false climax or false disaster.

Where I had gone wrong is that nothing important seemed to be happening at the mid-point. By simply asking what is the worse thing possible that could happened, I had my answer. (No I’m not telling you what it is. It would spoil things.)

The idea that something important must happen at the mid-point of a story is not new. Screen writers such as Syd Field have long known that something important occurred at the mid-point of most movies. But it is also a feature of good novels. In fact, James Scott Bell wrote a whole book about the importance of the mid-point: “Write your Novel from the Middle.” James Scott Bell’s thoughts are that you should find your mid-point first. Then you know what has to happen before it and if you know your ending you know what needs to happen after it. The point is it should be something big. The bigger the better.

So if you’re a writer, do you know what your big event/revelation is in your story? Does it occur broadly at the mid-point? And what type of a writer are you — do you make major edits as you go or push on and complete the first draft before starting the edit?

Editing your manuscript

Whether you’re a self published indie author or a traditionally published author, your readers will judge you by the quality of your writing. Not only must you produce an amazing story, with characters that connect emotionally with you readers, but the finished product must be professionally finished and error free (or virtually error free). For an indie author, this can represent a considerable challenge. He/she can outsource the artwork, e-book production, copy edit and proof editing, but these can be expensive processes; particularly as e-book prices seem to be constantly under pressure from 99 cent and free promotions from other authors. Unless you’re one of the few mega-sales indie authors who have made it, then you’re budget is going to be restricted.

In my case, the one activity I do outsource is cover artwork (I am no artist). Most of the other activities (e-book production, editing etc.), I can handle myself, with a little help from family and beta readers.

Self-editing is, however, a very difficult process and can take as long as the writing process itself. It is always easier to edit someone else’s work than it is to edit your own. This is because you see what you expect to see and not what is necessarily written down. Sometimes simply putting down the manuscript for a few weeks before starting to edit it can help refresh the mind. Another trick is to tap each word with a pencil — it slows down your reading and forces you to read each word. Also reading out aloud can help. Some authors have suggested reading sentences from the back of the manuscript to the front as a way of looking at the construction of each sentence separately. It sounds as though it might work, but I have never tried it. Others have advocated using voice readers to listen to the text played back to them. I can see how this might work, but I haven’t got the patience to listen to Dalek’s voice for two days.

It goes without saying that all work should be spell-checked and grammar-checked, although the grammar-check function of these programs is usually pretty limited. I use both my Apple Mac spell-checker and my Word 2010 spell-checker on my windows based system, and then I run both again when I have finished checking. However, don’t use the spell-checker as you write — the predictive function in the program may well choose a word that is correctly spelt, but not the right word for the context. Note that spell-checkers will only pick up spelling errors, so they won’t pick up words that are spelt correctly, but are used wrongly.

Here is a list of some homonyms (words that sound the same with different meanings) that can be particularly troublesome:
– Its and it’s
– To and too
– No and know
– They’re, their and there
– Affect and effect
– Principle and principal
– Compliment and complement

Getting these wrong can show you up as complete novice. You need to get them right. There are many more like this. I find it useful to keep a list of words that are particularly troublesome for me and then use the ‘find’ function in the word processor to find each one so I can individually check it. For some reason my brain works differently when I’m typing from when I’m checking.

If you find one mistake in the text (a spelling or inconsistency) it’s worth while checking for other occurrence of the same error. If you’ve made the mistake once, you have probably done it again. One of my favourites is ‘fro’ it is a straight mistype of ‘for’, but ‘fro’ is a genuine word which the spell checker will not pick up. Another one of my examples is ‘sue’ — a mistyping of ‘use’. I also seem to have a maddening habit of typing ‘Amercian’, but at least the spell checker finds those for me.

Another problem can be words that might be one word, two words or a hyphenated word. If you’re not sure — check. I use both the Oxford and Cambridge online Dictionaries. When they both say the same thing, it’s reasonable to assume they’re right. But they don’t always agree!

It can also be useful to use a style manual to ensure consistent use of the way words are presented (caps abbreviation etc.). I use the Oxford Style Manual, but that’s because I’m British and stick with British English usage. My spell checkers are similarly set to British English rather than American English.

It’s always useful to have reference sources to turn to turn to when you’re editing. Stephen King once said that the only grammar source you will need is William Shrunk and EB White’s “The Elements of Style”. It is great little book to refer to and well worth the read. I also like Claire Kehrwald Cook “Line by Line”, Grammar Girl’s “Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing”, and Gary Lutz and Diane Stevenson “Grammar Desk reference”. It might seem strange to have so many US publications on grammar, so to restore balance I also refer to John Seely’s “Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctation” alongside the “New Oxford Style Manual’.

One famous writer once said that writing is all about re-writing. Certainly to become a good writer you need to be able to edit effectively. In this blog I’ve tried to share some of my tips. What’s your experience of editing: loath it or love it? Do you have any tips I might have missed?

There’s no such thing as writer’s block

That’s what I thought until a young writer contacted me recently asking for ideas of how to get around writer’s block.  She had had some success as a writer and was finding it hard to get started again.  That very success seemed to be the cause of her anxiety, and that was holding her back from starting again.

The more I thought about it, the more I realised that if writer’s block exists, it has nothing to do with a shortage of ideas to write, or knowing what words to start with. Quite the opposite.  It’s a form of paralysis caused  by too many ideas to choose from, and a nagging self-doubt that any of those ideas will lead to anything of real quality.

I’m sure all writers have spells where we are distracted for periods. Writing is a solitary activity and it’s easy to get distracted by e-mails, social networking, marketing – anything other than writing.  And I think it is here that we can lose some of the passion to write and let self-doubt creep in. We write a paragraph and it looks like c**p, compared to the work we’ve published before.  We seem to forget that all first drafts are rubbish, and it’s only after the editing and polishing that the draft will begin to shine.

Some of the writing  gurus say that the answer is for all writers to set  word count targets per day, or per week; turn off the e-mail, Facebook etc. and focus on writing the first draft.  They also suggest avoiding redrafting until the first draft is complete. Others have said that they will start the day editing the work finished the day before, but will not go back any further.  This way they can keep up the daily count.

It’s probably all good advice, but it is not for me.  I write when the creative juices are running.  When I’m not happy with a scene,  I sometimes leave it for days to let my subconscious work on it.  Then I go back and redraft the scene, and any further structural changes before moving on.  The time I spend thinking about the problem, for me, is just as valuable as the time spent hitting the keys.  But then again, I’m fortunate, as writing is a hobby for me; it doesn’t have to pay for my board and rations, and I don’t have any publisher’s targets to meet.

If you’re a writer, have you ever experienced writer’s block?  And if so, what was your solution?