Monday, 29 April 2013

On Writing: How To Edit With Extreme Prejudice

Get out your red pens.
If I hadn't known it before, the last month or so would have proved to me that writing and publishing are two very complimentary lines of work.

Let me explain. At the moment, a large part of my job involves looking at early drafts of manuscripts, most of them by fairly new and inexperienced writers. What I'm noticing is how often, even if the writing is incredible, I feel unsatisfied by the pacing or the construction of the plot. I cannot even count the number of times I have said things like: 'Great idea, but the plot is baggy.' 'Could this be cut?' 'The plot drags.' 'This is so confusing!'

This interests me because, as you (maybe) know, I've just completed a huge structural edit on my crime novel. During this I sliced the wordcount down mercilessly from 85,000 words to just under 60,000, largely by simplifying its plot. I just cannot express how much better the book is because of this. Those 25,000 words of faffy explanation did not need to be there. They were just hanging out, clogging up the plot like leaves in a drain. But, as a lonely first-time writer, I had no idea - not only that I needed to get rid of them, but that I could get rid of them.

And it's not just me. When I read those manuscripts by other writers with my editorial eye I can usually see the great story struggling to get out from under all that dead wood - but I'm not sure I'd fully understand why this was such a common problem if I didn't have experience of doing it (and getting called out for it) in my own writing. So what did I do that was so problematic, and what are those other writers doing? Well, (and I know this is going to sound completely counter-intuitive) we believed our own stories.

You are crazy! I hear you say. Writers need to believe in what they write! And that's very broadly true. You are never going to be able to convince readers of the essential reality of your characters and the situations they find themselves in if you don't have at least a bit of your brain that thinks of them as totally real. Actually, sometimes I try to remind myself that Hazel and Daisy are completely non-existant fictional beings who have no life outside my brain, and the notion is so impossible and alarming that I have to stop thinking about it.

So that's the important and good side of belief. But there's a much more problematic aspect too. Because you are so emotionally invested in your characters as people, it's very easy to forget that you made up everything about them. You decided what colour their hair is. You decided how many brothers and sisters they have, whether their parents are dead, what their favourite food is and whether they prefer cats or dogs. That was you, and because you did that, you are also completely free to dye their hair purple, send their parents to Cambodia and give them a pet snake called Herbert. You can do that. In fact, their entire world is yours, and if something's wrong with it you are allowed to wipe the slate clean and start again.

In short, you do not need to keep anything in your story that is not working for your plot.

And that is the huge, enormous truth that all writers need to learn. My personal plot problem was this: I had made up this enormously convoluted backstory as to why the murder happened. It involved about five characters and resembled a really unfunny bedroom farce. I built it up piecemeal because of the requirements of various scenes - and every time I added a detail, it became The Truth for my story. Instead of questioning the validity of previous flights of fancy, I was buying into the nonsense created by my own past self. The whole monumentally dreaful thing was there because it was there because it was there because it was true.

What I forgot, of course, was that it was only true because I made it up one Tuesday afternoon while I was chopping up carrots for dinner, and therefore I was perfectly free to delete it and start again from scratch. It took my excellent agent turning to me at our first ever meeting and asking, "But does that character need to be part of this backstory? Because I couldn't really work out why she was there, and I think that if she wasn't things would be a lot more simple..." for the light switch in my brain to flick on. The scales fell from my eyes and I realised that there was NO EARTHLY REASON why that character was part of that plot. In fact, there was no reason why I couldn't entirely excise her from my novel. No one and nothing had to be there, because what I'd written was NOT REAL. I'd made it up!

So, to cut a long story short, I went back and took out that major character, as well as about five minor ones, and suddenly my novel worked. It made sense, the plot bounced along, the remaining characters had room to breathe.

What this experience has taught me is that, as a writer, I need to ask myself the hard questions. Is that character necessary? Why is that scene there? Does that plot twist make sense? If not - well, they don't deserve to be there. A pointless scene, or character, or layer of subplot is bad, because it is messing up the rest of my story.

And what my publishing job has taught me is that it's not just my issue. Almost every author of every submission that I read could benefit from this advice, to some extent. Writers: I get that you love your creations, because I love my stories and my characters to an embarrassing degree. But as soon as you start to question yourself, you begin to make things simpler. The story flows faster. It makes more sense. It's better.

Because (and here's another important truth) you do not have to come up with the most complex plot in the history of forever to write something awesome. In fact, the opposite is the case. It's the really simple ideas that become the best stories.

Am I still making this mistake? Of course, to some extent. Belief is a really hard thing to cure yourself of. But just knowing that I do it, and that it's problematic, has helped me enormously as a writer - and knowing that other writers do it too is helping me enormously as an editor.

So, my advice to other rookie writers is this: ask yourself the hard questions. And once you've asked them, don't be afraid to act on the answers you give. In short, be mean to your creations. Believe me, they'll be so much better afterwards.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

March reading round-up

Good weekend, Internet! I have several things to share with you today.

First, the two reviews I wrote for The Bookbag last month.

- The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes. It's not out until later this month, but I got my hands on it early, and I can tell you now that is is terrifying, weird, gross and totally brilliant. I loved it.

- Blessed Are Those Who Thirst by Anne Holt. Many, many reviews ago, I wrote about Holt's novel 1222 on this very blog, and now I have reviewed her earlier (but more recently translated) effort. Unsurprisingly, it wasn't a patch on 1222, but it was an intriguing and far more than competent novel. Still definitely worth a read.

I also read a few books in my own time. Now, before you think that I'm falling down on the job, please know that not pictured are the thirty or so Orion Children's and Indigo titles that I've powered through with vast enjoyment. It feels a bit too odd to review work books on this very much non-work blog, so I'll just say that they were all extremely wonderful. I love our list.

Not on our list, though, were these - and they too were all fantastic, in very different ways. I think I've been lucky with my recent reading.

The Coronation by Boris Akunin

I have really worshipful feelings towards Boris Akunin. Recently, I went to a lecture he gave and came away dazzled by his literary genius. He looks like a twinkly silver-haired criminal mastermind, and he thinks so beautifully about what he writes and how he writes it.

In Akunin's lecture, he talked about the snobbery he encounters from people who think he's wasting his talents (he used to translate literary fiction) on silly, populist crime novels. You probably know what I think about that. To me, the Fandorin books are pretty much the epitome of what a really good reading experience should be - a book that's very well-written but also exciting and fun. They aren't afraid to enjoy themselves, and as a result they're a joy to read.

In Russia, Akunin's novels sell more than J K Rowling, and in my opinion they absolutely deserve to. Although each one features sexy aristocratic detective Erast Fandorin, they are all about very different types of crime, told in very different ways, and so they never stop feeling fresh and smart.

The Coronation is a racy tale of kidnap and jewel theft. It's narrated by stuffed-shirt butler Ziukin, who becomes Fandorin's unwilling stooge as they race to save both a child's life and the reputation of the Romanov family. As always, it was hugely entertaining and very clever, and as always, I loved it.

4 stars.

The Dispossessed by Ursula le Guin

I have very high standards when it comes to science fiction. Yes, I want to feel transported to somewhere entirely different, but at the same time I want to feel absolutely connected to the characters who are seeing those strange sights. Because they're having such alien experiences, their essential humanity (even if they're aliens themselves) needs to be in no doubt. They have to be more human than human.

That's why I love Ursula le Guin so much. She's meticulous about creating her alien worlds - everything from geography to politics is beautifully thought through - but she's also fantastic at creating places and characters that feel real. The main character, Shevek, is both clearly from an alien culture and someone who you might meet on the street any day, and although she's obviously using our own world to inform Urras and Anarres, they're more than just allegorical Earths. They're places with distinctive characteristics of their own.

Be warned, though: if you're looking for a pacy sci fi read, you won't find it here. In fact, in terms of its actual contents, The Dispossessed is slightly boring. The story of mathematician Shevek and his quest to discover the principle of simultaneity, there are a lot of scientific concepts and very little action. But somehow, in the hands of Ursula le Guin, this dull material is made to sing. Shevek is such a believable main character that I passionately wanted him to succeed, and when he does - in a scene where he finally writes out the equation he's been searching for his entire life - it was such an emotionally recognisable moment that (I am not exaggerating) I had tears in my eyes. Yes. Ursula le Guin made me cry over some maths.

I'm pretty sure that, in terms of sci fi, no one does it better than le Guin. I loved this, and the only reason why I'm not marking it higher is because, when I read it many years ago, I remember loving its companion novel The Left Hand of Darkness even more.

4.5 stars.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

One of the best things about writing fiction is that you're allowed to decide what's true. In the world you create, you make up the rules - and as soon as you've made them up, they become the peculiar reality of that part of fantasyland. Philip Pullman, for example, made up a world with daemons partly because he saw paintings of people with their pets and thought but what if they weren't just pets? What if they were really part of those people?

Much along the same lines, Ransom Riggs looked at a series of weird old staged photographs that he and his friends found in charity shops, of sepia people dressed up in faceless clown costumes, or hovering five inches above the ground, or with an extra reflection, and thought, but what if these weren't staged? What if they were real?

So he wrote a book in which they were. As I tweeted at the time:
 If Miss Peregrine's was just a great story I would still have loved it. I mean, a group of superpowered children living a secret existence on a hidden island of time? I'm sold. But Miss Peregrine's is a great story intertwined with an amazing (and totally terrifying) series of images that lifts it into being something even more special. It feels and looks precious, and it's very, very clever.

I'm all for ebooks in general, but this is one book that needs to be touched as you read it. It's very different from anything else I've read for a very long time, and - as I said in my tweet - I adored it.

4.5 stars.

Amity and Sorrow by Peggy Riley

There's been a lot of talk about this book lately. This always makes me a bit trepidatious, in case it turns out to be a case of mass hysteria. Having now read Amity and Sorrow, though, I think that in this instance the crowd has wisdom. It's an extremely well-written and weird take on sex and God in the American midwest, a novel that evokes its setting so vividly that, even though the weather is struggling to get into double figures in England at the moment, I was transported straight to the dust-dry heart of the Oklahoma summer.

The novel follows ex-cult member and first wife of fifty Amaranth, on the run from her abusive husband with her daughters Amity and Sorrow in tow. When Amaranth crashes her car at a remote gas station, the three are stranded, forced to assimilate into what is, for them, an alien world. But while Amity is happy to learn that it's OK to do things like read and go inside houses, Sorrow (who was the cult's oracular wunderkind) reacts to her freedom in a way that, to most readers, is going to seem completely insane. She spends half of her time crouched over a pot of water trying to have a vision of God (also known as her father), and the other half setting fire to things to bring about the Apocalypse. But although this may seem crazy, I think Riley has a point. Her story gives a balanced and intelligent look at the effects of brainwashing that doesn't (as many such books do) just show its ex-cult member characters shouting "Hooray!" and embracing the wonders of A&W's and network cable with open arms.

Plural marriage really fascinates me, partly because I just can't wrap my head around the emotional weirdness of it, and also because I have had to trot out the same no-actually-the-Church-of-Latterday-Saints-has-not-condoned-polygamy-since-1890-so-my-mother's-family-in-no-way-resembles-the-one-on-Big-Love explanation approximately one thousand times, whenever someone finds out that most of my relatives are Mormon. I think this is a sensitive and believable exploration of the issue that understands why someone would get into that kind of situation while it still concludes that it's a pretty terrible idea. I'm impressed.

4 stars.