Editing — How fiction differs from other forms of writing

edit manuscriptIn the previous blog I discussed some of the important lessons I learnt from editors in the field of business publications many years ago. In this blog I want to look at how I needed to adapt to the world of fiction. As we shall see, it’s not just about spellchecking and grammar checking. Fiction has it’s own needs, conventions, and style.

With fiction, the writer is seeking to create an emotional response in the reader, by making the reader identify with the main character and submerge themselves in an imaginary story world. It’s all about the story and how it makes the reader feel. This is very different from business books that are intended to convey information or advocate a point of view.

There are three different levels of editing to consider in fiction writing:

  • Development edit — does the story work and evoke an emotional response in the reader? And how can the characters, story world and story be improved?
  • Copy/line edit — is the text free of errors, superfluous wording and inconsistencies?
  • Proof reading — is the final proof error free and formatted according to publishers style.

It is also important to understand that all fiction is written from a point of view. A writer will need to choose a point of view and a tense to write in and apply them consistently. The choice of point of view is usually between:

  • First person POV‘I wondered why I was here. Did Harry betrayed me?’
  • Third person limited POV ‘He wondered why he was here. Had Harry betrayed him? But equally the following works too: ‘He wondered why he was there. Did Harry betray me?’
  • Third person omniscient POV‘John wondered why he was there. Harry had betrayed him.”

There is also a second person point of view (‘you’), but it is rarely used in fiction writing.

First person point of view and present tense is often used in YA novels. The difficulty with first person is that the reader only sees what the main character sees. So you can’t write a scene in which the main character is not present.  The advantage of first person POV is the intimacy it creates between the reader and the main character.

Third person omniscient is very much the author’s point of view telling the story to the reader knowing everything that is happening in the story. In the example above, the author knows that Harry betrayed him and is telling the reader this information. Third person omniscient POV creates a distance between the reader and the main character and is therefore less intimate than first person. That isn’t to say that some very successful writer have used this omniscient POV, such a JK Rowling.

Third person limited is my preferred approach for the type of books I write. Like first person, the point of view character in a scene can only see what he/she sees in that scene. But the advantage is that you can have a different point of view character for different scenes. Third person limited is often used in complex plots where the reader needs to know what other characters are doing when the main character is not present in the scene. Third person limited is usually written in the past tense.

Another difference between fiction writing and business writing is that in fiction you can break some of those so-called rules you learned at school. For example, you can:

  • Use sentence fragments. Even one word sentences.
  • Use contractions (Can’t, Won’t etc..)
  • Ignore dialogue tags where it is obvious who is speaking.  For example, after an action beat by a character. And by using paragraph breaks to show a change of speaker.
  • Ignore some grammar rules where it is gives a more natural vocal style. For example starting sentences with a conjunction, splitting infinitives (‘to boldly go..), or ending sentences with a preposition.

Fiction editors also dislike the overuse of adverbs and adjectives, and many dislike the use of semi-colons and exclamation marks. Here are some important quotes from famous writers about adverbs:

The road to Hell is paved with adverbs.
— Stephen King

Overuse at best is needless chatter, at worst it creates the impression that characters are overacting, emoting like silent film stars. Still, an adverb can be exactly what a sentence needs. They can add important intonations to dialogue, or subtly convey information.
–Howard Mittlemark

Cross out as many adjectives and adverbs as you can. … It is comprehensible when I write: “The man sat on the grass,” because it is clear and does not detain one’s attention. On the other hand, it is difficult to figure out and hard on the brain if I write: “The tall, narrow-chested man of medium height and with a red beard sat down on the green grass that had already been trampled down by the pedestrians, sat down silently, looking around timidly and fearfully.” The brain can’t grasp all that at once, and art must be grasped at once, instantaneously.
–Anton checkhov

And on the the subject of exclamation marks and semi-colons:

Cut out all those exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.
F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
― Kurt Vonnegut

So as we can see from the above there is a lot to the subject of editing fiction other than just correcting typos and inconsistencies. In the next blog I’ll look at some of the tools and techniques I’ve used to help me through the editing process.


Editing – early lessons learnt from professional editors

edit manuscript

In this blog I want to discuss editing, why it is so important, and when to do it. I also want to draw upon some of my early experiences with professional editors and communication in the business world.

A simple definition of editing from Google is as follows:

Editing is a stage of the writing process in which a writer or editor strives to improve a draft ( and sometimes prepare it for publication) by correcting errors and by making words and sentences clearer, more precise, and more effective.

I think all writers will agree that the quality of a publication depends in part on the effectiveness of the editing process. There is nothing more infuriating than finding errors in a published work, or having a review that disparages your work because of errors. Patricia Fuller explains the importance of editing in an interesting way as follows:

Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing out of the house in your underwear.

So if we are all agreed about the importance of editing, who should do it? The first stage of the editing process should always be done by the writer before submission to an editor. The second stage of editing should ideally be done by an editor, subject to a final review and edit by the writer.

CJ Webb explains the intensity of the writer’s process as follows:

Edit your manuscript until your fingers bleed and you have memorized every last word. Then when you are certain you are on the verge of insanity… edit one more time.

If a writer cannot use and editor, then he/she should leave the material for a significant period of time (months) before attempting to edit the material, and approach his/her review as if he/she were reviewing someone else’s work. The time gap will help to enforce an element of objectivity over your work. However, if you wish to publish your work I would always recommend the use an editor.

So how should the writer prepare his draft for the editor? Should he wait to complete the first draft before starting to edit, or edit as he/she goes along?

This is one of those areas where writers will have differing views in much the same way as they differ in their attitudes to detailed planning.

There are writers that write a scene, and then edit the same scene the following day before starting a new scene. And at the opposite extreme, there are writers that refuse to edit until the first draft is complete. For example, Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones says:

Don’t cross out. (That is editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn’t mean to write, leave it.) Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. (Don’t even care about staying in the margins and lines on the page.) Lose control. Don’t think. Don’t get logical. Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, drive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)

This is what I would describe as ‘free’ writing. I have tried it in ten minute bursts, and it can be wonderful for developing a scene. But while you might find some gems in the material you will also generate a lot of garbage. I couldn’t bear to endure this approach for a 70-90,000 word first draft. I guess like many writers I am a bit of a perfectionist and leaving something wrong would continue to irritate me until I corrected it. But I can see the merits of Goldberg’s idea of getting the story down in writing as quickly as possible, and not being paralysed by perfectionism. If you’re like me, there is a happy medium somewhere between these extremes.

As W. Somerset Maugham once famously said:

There are three rules of writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.

The point I am making is that writers write and revise in many different ways. You need to find out what works for you. The one point writers do agree on is that revision is a vital part of the process.

My first experience of external editors was in the 1980s. In those days I was the editor of a technical newsletter for a global firm of accountants. I was also the author of four technical books published by Euromoney, Tolleys and Farringdon Press. I won’t bore you with the details of the publications. But they were subject to detailed technical review by a large number of technical experts, an internal communications expert and an editor from the publishing industry.

I learnt a very important lesson: there is nothing more permanent that the published word. It follows that any technical publication has to be correct. The more technical eyes that review the material, the better. But technical eyes are not enough. It also has to be clear and concise, and this is where an editor or communications consultant can add value, even if they are unfamiliar with the technical nature of the material.

My first experience of a consultants review was a painful experience. He congratulated me on the excellent quality of my draft, but returned it to me covered in red ink. Any writer that has received his/her manuscript from an editor like this will understand the emotions that this can create. I thought I could write — and all this red ink! But as writers we can learn an enormous amount from this process.

One of the first lessons I learnt was the need to write where possible in the active voice. You have probably heard the same advice. For example, if you say “I slashed my sword across his throat…” It sounds much more effective and in character’s point of view.  Whereas “the villains throat was slashed…” sounds like we are in the author’s head, not the main character’s head.

But there is another reason for using the active voice. It is so much clearer about who is doing what to whom. For example, if I write “It is recommended that…” It is unclear who is recommending the action. It is far more clear to say “The Government recommends that…” 

Many of the lessons I learnt when writing business publication about the importance of consistency, clarity and brevity helped in the transformation from business writer to fiction writer. But there is a world of difference between technical writing and creative writing. In the coming blogs I want to deal with how editing fiction is different from other writing, the grammar rules you can break to write creatively, and some of the editing tools that helped me.

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?