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.


  1. *applause* Great, great post. Thank you for putting this process/revelation down in words, 'cause it's a really helpful reminder to the rest of us. :)

    1. Thank you! I'm glad you found it helpful - it's something that I have to keep reminding myself!

  2. Most excellent reminder. This happened to me a lot in my first two books, less in my third, and as I build my fourth, I am trying not to let the wrong stuff in, in the first place. But since I failed to do that I cut 17K words instead. Oh yes. 17K words CUT. It kind of feels good, doesn't it?

    I made tea!!!

    1. Cutting wordcount is actually a pretty amazing feeling! I know exactly what you mean. I'm glad you enjoyed the post :)