Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The evolution of a novel - editing

OK, so to backtrack a little, I will talk about the initial editing of The Kult.

I believe that since the publication of my first novel, Evilution, I have learned a lot, especially about the process of writing, and I’m still learning. It’s easy to string a couple of words together – the art is making those words the best ones possible for what you are trying to say. Now I won’t claim to be an expert on the matter, but when I write my first draft, I pretty much just let the writing flow without bothering too much how good it is. That’s where the editing comes in after.

Now some people might be able to get away with a couple of edits. Me, I have to keep going through whatever I’ve written a number of times before I’m anywhere near happy with it. My edits are an ongoing process and go something like this:

After I’ve finished the manuscript, I leave it alone for a few weeks to let the dust settle. It’s much easier to look at it then with a more critical eye. On the read through, I look for many things, such as the following:

Are my characters engaging? After all, they have got to drive the story forwards. The reader has to care about them and engage with them, especially on an emotional level. For that reason they need a journey. They need a goal, and they need obstacles in their way, with dilemmas and decisions to make.

I believe anything you write in a novel has to either inform about a character or drive the story forwards. If it doesn’t, then I cut it out. I can probably expect to delete about 10 to 20% of what I’ve written just because it doesn’t really add anything to the story, and makes for boring reading. Then I look for redundant words and anything that stands out as flowery prose. There are many redundant words that can be deleted quite easily, many of which are those words that make a sentence passive instead of active, and by the deletion of which, the sentence becomes much snappier and easier to read. Prime suspects are the words ‘had’ ‘that’ and ‘was’. Here’s an example:

‘The scowl that his face had been wearing was replaced by a mischievous grin.’ This is a passive and wordy sentence. I would make it active by rewriting something like this: ‘The man’s scowl melted into a mischievous grin.’ That cuts 14 words down to 8. A near 50% reduction that makes the sentence flow much better. Also, where else would the scowl be but on his face? So the use of the word ‘face’ is unnecessary. It’s a redundant word.

As I use Microsoft Word, it’s easy to use the ‘find’ function to highlight the passive offenders mentioned above (had, that, was) and then to see if I can delete them or rewrite the section wherever they appear.

Another thing I look for is cases of ‘telling instead of showing’. The difference between the two is that ‘telling’ is the reliance of simple exposition. ‘Showing’ is the use of evocative description. For example, I might first write:

‘Prosper felt sick.’ That’s telling you how he feels. In the rewrite I might write: ‘Prosper’s mouth watered and he clutched his stomach, doubling over as he tried not to vomit.’ One sentence states a fact, the other paints a picture.

I also like to delete adverbs, those pesky words often ending in -ly. Here’s an example:

‘He ran quickly into the room’. One solution is simply to delete ‘quickly’. But to make a more powerful sentence, you could write, ‘He charged into the room’, or ‘He sprinted into the room’.

After I’ve been through the manuscript a few times, I like to pass it on to a beta reader, someone I trust to be honest. They will undoubtedly spot things I missed, leading to yet another rewrite or two.

So that’s my initial editing process. As you can see, there’s a lot to consider and look for, which is why it takes me lots of rewrites. It’s all about the words. Finding the right word(s) can make your prose shine.


Neil Jackson said...

It's a shame you didn't tell about how Fangtooth was taken from an 80,000 word tome to a tight, taught novel at 55,000. It would have been good to have got YOUR feelings as you saw weeks of work hit the cutting room floor.

I think sharing these emotions along with why it was done, are just as important.

Shaun said...

I haven't spoken about any publishers edits yet, only my initial ones.

onipar... said...

Pretty cool. Your process is similar to mine, actually. I also have to go through a number of edits (which never bothered me with short stories, but is KILLING me with the novel).

Also, I'm about to use that find function with the offending, "seemed." That little bastard SEEMS to crawl into every available space.