Category Archives: Editing

Writing Fiction: Twelve Down

My novel just got fatter.  By about 14,000 words.  Which, for a novel which was about 57,000 words in its last version, is quite considerable.  I blame the younger female lead.  This whole rewrite has been about putting her in place of the previous male character.  Must have worked, if only by the word count.  I certainly enjoyed writing her chapters.

In my last post, I had just worked out that I had 12 significant alterations to make, from minor to major (apologies to Ella Fitzgerald): rewriting a chapter, making sure that both sides of the novel (told from two different points of view) are consistent, or just getting the names right.

Starting in on the list on New Year’s Day, I was relieved to find that I had written some initial notes and suggests under each alteration heading.  By the first week, I had knocked off six of them, though it’s taken me the rest of January to complete the rest.

The process with each one has been the same:

  1. This is impossible!
  2. I’ll read through and see how it sounds.
  3. Ooh look, I could that…and that…and that.
  4. (Reading through new version): it might be better if I do this…
  5. Actually, that’s all rather good.
  6. On to the next.

So now, for the first time since last January when I started this rewrite, I have finally put all the chapters into a single document.  And that’s where the fatness came in.  I had been expecting that I would still be struggling to reach 60,000, so the 71,000 came as a pleasant surprise.

The next challenge is to read it through from beginning to end and make yet more notes on what needs to change.  There will be things.  Not least, the shifts in style between the two points of view, which have been effectively written years apart.  We’ll see.  Back into the fray…

Writing Fiction: Knots

Oddly, I’m fine with a list of chapters to rewrite.  It’s the unexpected knots that can knock the wind out of me.  In this case encountering the mysterious case of the number of elderly woman’s sons.

In one chapter, the first one turns up; in another, they are seen together; in the third, it’s just the second son.  But there have been various rewrites, and in some, it all drops down to just one son.  This makes sense, as it stops the cluttering of minor characters.  But in the version I’m rewriting, the second son turned up.

My heart sank at the prospect of having to rewrite and/or decide the question of one son or two, again.  Fortunately, a moment of clarity at the end of a meditation, and the discovery that the other chapters matched the one-son solution, made the actual rewrite quick and fairly easy.

I feel as if I have permission to go on with the next of my listed chapters.

Writing Fiction: Me and Pack of Post-its 2

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I am always slightly amazed when things I had intended to do actually happen.  Normally, it’s just me plodding forwarded through a hailstorm of self-doubt.  Ten days ago, I set out to put one-line summaries of all the old and new chapters of my novel onto Post-its, so that I could sort out the new structure.  Yesterday, I finished – hoorah!

It may sound like a simple enough task, but the problem I had faced was that, in a novel of alternating points-of-view, the established character, Elspeth, had eighteen chapters; the new one, Joy, now had forty.  There were all sorts of meanderings and shenanigans.

The first thing I did was to set the Post-its aside.  It was clear that, initially, a temporary format wouldn’t be enough.  I needed a reference document where I could note chapter numbers and any amendments, as well as the basic plot line.   I created a table on Word, one column for each character.  Just seeing the names there, side-by-side, Elspeth and Joy, I felt a real sense of potential.  I know a lot more about Joy now and together they complement one another.  The story is quite different to what I envisioned when I started writing six years ago.

I had intended to leave the discarded character’s (Barry) chapters out of Elspeth’s column.  But I realised it would raise questions for me about the original structure when it came to review.  I also found it helpful to mark the quarter, half and three-quarter points in the story.

Two things immediately became apparent.  First, Joy, a comedian, needed an opening chapter setting out clearly who she is.  Secondly, there was no obvious point at which she had agreed to work with Elspeth – and she lacked a convincing motivation to do so.

Transferring the chapters from columns to Post-its, each character’s point-of-view chapters got a different colour.  This made it obvious where there was doubling, or lack of balance.  Some nice shortcuts presented themselves, and I was able to drop a chapter I’ve always had a problem with.  I read the order of the first-quarter chapters out to my girlfriend, and it was interesting to watch her reaction and get feedback.

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Overall, I’m pleased. A project to rewrite the novel, that started in January, is on track. I like the new character, she brings energy that was lacking.

Onward to the next stage. There are chapters to create, rewrite and edit. Eventually I’ll have a pre-draft draft. One that needs just one more polish to be declared a finished version.

Writing Fiction: Me and a Pack of Post-its

Second stage of the twelfth draft done.  All the new chapters I had written to introduce the new character have now been revised, to make them even more reflective of that character.  Some had already been re-written for writers’ groups.  But it now means the forty-two chapters with her in them are up-to-date.

Which leads to the next stage.  The novel is told from two characters’ points of view, by alternating chapters.  By my estimate there are about twenty-one from the established character and now forty-two from the new one.  Somehow, they’ve got to fit together.

One the reasons for the disparity is that, in writing the new character, I allowed myself to follow hunches and go off-piste, meandering away from the boundaries of the original structure.  Very good for creating the freedom for the character to flourish; not so good for putting it all back together again.

Which is why, yesterday, I stood in the Rymans opposite Charing Cross Station, looking at their full range of Post-its: heart-shaped, arrows, full traditional squares, little flappy ones, colourful spirals.  I picked the pack of small-squares.  Four different colours, one for each character and the extra ones for their subplots.

I’ll go back through the chapters, write a brief account of each on a Post-it, then see what it all looks like when I arrange it all on the table.  The advantage being that they are easily moved around.

I’m looking for a clear structure and perhaps new insights into the ways in which their stories intertwine. I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to let go of some more writing I like.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

Writing Fiction: Unfinished

There’s a great exhibition on at London’s Courtauld Gallery at the moment called ‘Unfinished.’ Incomplete art works from their collection. In Virgin and Child, painted by Parmigiano in 1527, Mary appears to have an extra foot. She doesn’t, it’s just that the angles are wrong. Also, there’s a large patch of brown paint in the lower right-hand corner, and the Virgin’s clothes are only indicated – by fat ribbons of paint.

My first-draft chapters are almost always in a state of disrepair. Big clunky paragraphs, from which sentences will later be lifted, naff dialogue which need several more goes, characters who say things out of turn…and character.

Early on, I learned this was okay. It was even desirable. The freedom of being able to write off the top of my head brought big errors and unexpected rewards.

I’ve just written a chapter that I knew had to have a certain kind of resolution. But when I started, she was ranting about him in her head, and he was staring at a sandwich. I let it run and things started to happen in unforeseen ways.

The final result was a mess. The first two paragraphs, at least, will have to go. But there are hopeful signs: a line of dialogue in the middle, some neat choreography at the end. I’ll just have to see how it works out. Maybe, shift a foot, paint in the background, fill out those ribboned clothes.

Writing Fiction: Huh?

I’ve been getting a lot of question marks on my feedbacks recently. Two different novels, two different writer’s groups. But the question is always the same, ‘What is happening?’ ‘I don’t understand,’ or just plain, ‘?’

Have a look at this. It’s from the opening of a chapter:

‘It’s not all about you, Ellie.’

‘How can you possibly say that?!’ It was hard to express outrage in a poky, ill-painted backstage room, but Ellie was doing full hands-on-hips. ‘You’re talking about me, aren’t you?’

Ciaran sighed like a man who has just watched a ball sail past and land inside the line. He nodded at the list on the wall. ‘You’re on second, so you’re on second.’

Thing is, you may or may not be confused by this, but I know exactly what is going on. It’s backstage at a comedy club. Ellie is trying to persuade the booker to allow her to go on as the first act of the evening rather than the second. He doesn’t want to let her.

Two questions were raised. Firstly, saying that a ball lands inside a line can either mean you’ve won or you’ve lost, depending on the game and which side you’re on. Secondly, the sentence, ‘You’re on second, so you’re on second.’ This might indeed be something that a booker would say for emphasis, but could sound nonsensical.

So let’s look at how I might give the readers a break. I could change the dialogue to, ‘You’re second on the list and you’re staying there.’ It’s a bit explainey, but I could live with it. I could also describe what they’re looking at. ‘Ciaran stabbed his finger at the neatly-typed list blu-tacked to the wall.’ If I get rid of the repetition of ‘list’, it should work. As for the tennis analogy, I’m not so attached to it. Now that he’s ‘stabbing his finger’ he’s become less passive anyway.

‘It’s not all about you, Ellie.’

‘How can you possibly say that?!’ It was hard to express outrage in a poky, ill-painted backstage room, but Joy was doing full hands-on-hips. ‘You’re talking about me, aren’t you?’

Ciaran stabbed his finger at the neatly-typed list Blu-Tacked to the wall. ‘You’re on second, and you’re staying there!’

One of the advantages of this is that the attribution is accompanied by an action and a further description of the room. Which means the reader is more likely to be able to keep up, and helps with the immersion I was talking about last time.

But I can feel myself getting antsy. Why can’t everyone just understand what I mean? Except, they clearly don’t. And the new version seems to work better.

Hmmf.

Writing Fiction: Already Signed Off

There is a training company in East London called Happy Computers. They have put in place a very interesting form of delegation: as soon as a task is delegated, it is signed off. Whoever has taken it on has full responsibility for seeing it through, and that includes approving the final product.

When I mention it to people from other companies they react in different ways: ‘they’ll just hand in shoddy work,’ ‘they won’t bother,’ ‘as manager, you have to approve all tasks because you have the knowledge of the overall work.’ All legitimate points. But there is another way of looking at it. Being given total responsibility means there is no one else to fall back on, no sense that someone will rescue you, the responsibility is yours.

Most writers want to be published. But what if that were a given? Anything you write will be printed and publicised. Wouldn’t that make you look in a different way at what you have produced? There will be no agent, editor or publisher to correct it. But you will have to live with the reactions of those who read it. Are you ready?

What strikes me immediately about this is that I might want to go back and make a list of the things I’m not so sure about, then work on them. My main male character, for one.

Reflecting on her career so far, the singer Jessie J has said, ‘I had to be the artist, I had to be the drive, I had to be the visionary.’

Friends, family, fellow writers, mentors, agents, editors and publishers fall away. Responsibility for what you have written lies with you. It has already been signed off.