Tag Archives: Editing

Writing Fiction: Me and Pack of Post-its 2


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.


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: 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.


Writing Fiction: Palimpsest

One of Elizabeth Bishop’s most famous poems is One Art. Apparently prompted by the suicide of her partner, and the loss of her mother at an early age. It’s a cool analysis of the process of loss with a barely disguised cry of despair/anger/confusion at the end. These are the first two stanzas:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster


Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

The poem is rare as a work of art, because we have every one of the 16 drafts it took to get it into its final shape. This is from the first version, the poem at that time called The Art of Losing Things.

The thing to do is to begin by “mislaying”.

Mostly, one begins by “mislaying”:

keys, reading-glasses, fountain pens

– these are almost too easy to be mentioned,

and “mislaying” means that they usually turn up

in the most obvious place, although when one

is making progress, the places grow more unlikely

– This is by way of introduction. I really want to introduce myself – I am such a

fantastic lly good at losing things I think everyone shd. profit from my experiences.

16 drafts later, the poem has become a villanelle (nineteen lines; five stanzas of three lines each, rhyme-scheme aba, etc). The only lost object from the original are the keys. They are now a starting point which builds to whole continents, and takes in a watch (she had apparently just lost her mother’s watch, her one remaining physical connection.)

What interests me, is the way that, in any creative act, certain elements from earlier drafts will show through. Either sharpening their meaning, or altering it in the process. I have paragraphs and sentences in my second novel which I recognise from the first draft but are now set in a different context. Poems, films, novels, paintings often build up in this way.

There’s an interview on the Film Four website with Jonathan Glazer, the writer/director of the film adaptation of Under the Skin. He describes how they worked at getting the character to develop between three key moments: an encounter on a beach; falling to the pavement; and deciding to change her behaviour. He says:

(It’s not) just what you write, it’s what you find, it’s how you edit, how you re-edit. What you rewrite, what you reshoot, what you re-find, what you re-edit. It never stops. It’s always in flux, until you can almost feel that curve in the right angle.

So the key moments remain, but the intervening action is crafted. Later, he talks about the decisions that were made about the music:

That’s what’s interesting about the process of making anything. One the one hand you’re completely attached to it and on the other hand you have to remain completely unnattached to it. You just don’t know when things are no longer going to be important to you. It’s all in orbit all of the time.

The BBC progamme Bible Hunters, showed how scholars in the nineteenth century travelled to an Orthodox Greek monastery in Egypt. There, they discovered gospels written on parchments. Significantly, an original Mark gospel with no events after Jesus’ death – no resurrection. But more, on some documents there were earlier versions clearly visible. Evidence the text had been added to or amended. The documents are called palimpsests. Parchment where the writing is scraped away to leave it clear for new writing. They mirror the way that elements of earlier versions can still be seen in any creative act.




Elizabeth Bishop


The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.


Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.


Then practice losing farther, losing faster:

places, and names, and where it was you meant

to travel. None of these will bring disaster.


I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or

next-to-last, of three loved houses went.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.


I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.

I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.


–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Editing: Eye Drift

Some time ago, I finished a free-writing exercise for my current novel which left me with 160,000 words to work with.  Reading it over, I found myself naturally skipping whole paragraphs and then suddenly alighting on a sentence or two, or a page of text.  When I read back over what I had missed out I found that, in my opinion, I had been right.  This suggests a very quick and simple method of broad-stroke editing.  But what’s the mechanism at work here?  And can it be trusted?

The eye shift is a common phenomenon in reading.  According to Wikipedia, it was a French ophthalmologist called Louis Emile Javal in nineteenth century who noticed that people read through a combination of ‘fixations’ and ‘saccades’ or shifts.  A skilled reader shifts every quarter of a second, and fixes for 200-250 miliseconds, taking in four or five letters at a time.  For 15% of their time they’ll be going back over the text.  Poorer readers shift less, and fixate and regress more.

Which is all very interesting.  But what we’re talking about here is the eye drift.  The point when your brain thinks, ‘I have had enough of this,’ and starts searching around for something more engaging in the text, often missing whole sentences or paragraphs.

So, what makes it start or stop drifting?  There is a great deal of research, for example, into ‘readability’.  The Fleisch Kincaid Test used by Word bases its scores on length of sentences and number of syllables per word.

As an experiment, I put in the opening paragraphs from Love in Time of Cholera by Marquez, and Best Kept Secret, the latest Jeffrey Archer novel.  The first starts, ‘It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.’  The second, ‘Big Ben struck four times.’  The first got a score of 15, indicating a reading age at university level; the second got 10, or 15-16 year olds.  This means that the Archer should be more readable than the Marquez.  But my previous experience with a Jeffrey Archer book (Kane and Abel) is that after a paragraph or two I got bored and ended up skipping the whole thing.  So, if the Marquez is harder to read, why do I drift less?  A simple answer to this might be that, as a post-graduate, the reading age is more appropriate.  But I’m reading the latest Stephen King novel at the moment, which rates the same as the Archer, and really enjoying it.  To say nothing of Hunger Games, which can be read by 8-9 year-olds, and I happily rattled through all three parts.  So, something else is going on.

The full first paragraph of the Marquez novel is:

It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love. Dr. Juvenal Urbino noticed it as soon as he entered the still darkened house where he had hurried on an urgent call to attend a case that for him had lost all urgency many years before. The Antillean refugee Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, disabled war veteran, photographer of children, and his most sympathetic opponent in chess, had escaped the torments of memory with the aromatic fumes of gold cyanide.

What holds my attention?  Not just the use of scent and colour (gold cyanide, no less) but the hints of unrequited love, adventure, the brief but full biography, and the friendship.   The language is poetic and feels like a finely carved piece of ivory.

But one person’s ivory is another’s dead elephant.  A lot of people would drift through the Marquez, but eat up every line of the Jeffrey Archer.  In her Fiction Bitch blog, Elizabeth Baines says, ‘Reading is a dynamic process in which a complex array of things come into play: the reader’s taste, mood, expectation and, above all, education – by which I don’t mean formal schooling but cultural immersion.’  Too right, mate.

Elmore Leonard once said, ‘I leave out the parts that people skip.’  But it might have been more accurate to say, ‘…that I skip.’  When you’re editing your own work, beyond spelling and basic grammar, you tend to be guided by your own taste.

There is also the question of how the eye drift as an editing tool could possibly work at such speed.  Research that followed Javal’s initial observations shows we only take in information during fixations not shifts.  This would suggest that a drift only feels like a drift.  What is actually happening is a series of fixations, though less than during normal reading.  This is probably aided by the fact that you have a sense of what you have written, and memories of particular passages.

I’m not sure I’ve completely established why this technique seems to work – or if it does.  All I can say is that it works for me.  I’d be interested in other people’s thoughts.

By the way, The Fleisch Kincaid score for this post is 8, which means it is readable by 13-14 year-olds.