A Time to Edit

I’ve been revising and re-writing the first 10 or 12 scenes for my current project. I have about 16,000 words but I can only submit 14,000 words to the competition I’m working on. I need to bring my editing skills to the fore.

Recently, the first 10 pages of the book were subjected to a group critique. The major criticism related to scene description; readers felt I had not given them enough information to know where events were taking place. This is called ‘white space’, a sense of action or dialogue happening without any images in the reader’s mind of where people are at the time. I’ve shied away from writing descriptive passages because they can be pretty boring or, worse, evidence of a writer being self-indulgent and verbose. Looks like I’ve gone too far in the other direction.

I’ll be doing a read-through of my 16K words and looking at each scene a few times to pick up different types of problems. First problem will be setting; ensuring details the reader needs to get a sense of where events are taking place are included, without drowning the reader in exposition. Major details need to appear early on – day or night, inside or outside, light or dark – and more descriptive, evocative points can be woven in as the scene progresses – a floor becomes a polished timber floor, and so on. I’ll look at whether I’ve become fixed on only describing the visual. If I have, I’ll see if I can use other sensations – touch, taste, smell and sound. The challenge is to accomplish this without increasing the word count or slowing the pace of events down too much.

I’ll then try to gauge how much backstory I’ve included – too much or too little. There only needs to be enough to let a reader complete the scene without becoming hopelessly confused; too much exposition is boring and the reader will never make it to the second page.

I have to take care with how many characters I introduce in these early scenes and ensure they have distinct but not alienating names. Speculative fiction (sci fi/fantasy) writing does have this little problem with exotic names. Some readers get really mad if the names are too odd or impossible to pronounce; others don’t want to see too many characters with mundane names – spoils their sense of escaping into a different reality. More on names another time.

The dialogue will need to be reviewed, usually by being read aloud to make sure it sounds right. I will also think about what each line of dialogue reveals about the speaker or how it advances the narrative. There’s no point in having empty, meaningless chit-chat in a book; I might as well spend a paragraph describing exactly how a character ties his shoes on every morning.

I need to watch for obvious signs of lazy writing; cliches and borrowed words, vagueness and lack of detail. Phrases like ‘he felt as if’ and ‘she started to feel’ must be excised; too many references to where characters are looking – ‘she looked up’; ‘he met her eyes across the crowded hall’ – should also be cut.

Throughout all of that, I have to trim the text by 2,000 words.

The dreamy, creative writer side of me will be put aside for the next week or so, letting the ever-ready to criticise, analytical side of me take over. I will have my three-colour pen set to red. I will attack my manuscript without sentiment. I will be cold and ruthless. I will be Editor!

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2 Comments on “A Time to Edit”

  1. Cliff Burns Says:

    I always enjoy first drafts…but, man, editing is the bane of my existence. I am an unrepentant perfectionist so I will work and work on a piece of fiction (or poetry) until I wear holes in the page (and my psyche). And the weird thing is, I’m making all this effort to make the story or poem read more NATURALLY…

    Good luck to you, sounds like you’ve got a good handle on the editing process. Stick with it…

  2. leedublin Says:

    Hi Cliff – nice to meet you. I’ll be honest and say 99% of what I know about editing has been learned from others who know what they’re talking about. I’ve attended 4 workshop sessions this year on editing, as tutored by a successful author – what she’s been saying has made a lot of sense. I agree with you – there are times when you feel like you’re making things worse, not better – like a finger painting taken too far, everything starts to meld into a grey, gloopy mess when your intention was to make it simpler and clearer. Still, it’s all good fun, eh?


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