Writing a Fantasy Trilogy Part 4: The Edit

Disclaimer: Ye gods, this is no how to guide. This is just an on-going collection of thoughts as I work my way through the process. They may or may not be useful or entertaining to people; it is more likely they may well end up providing a great deal of amusement to me when I look back over my posts and realise what a load of nonsense I was talking. So please do not think I am laying down rules here or instructions – I am just laying out some writerly jams. Or something.

(Here are the first three parts, on ideas, planning and writing the first draft. For this post, the great Captain Picard will be assisting me. Please note: this post covers editing a single book within a fantasy trilogy, not editing a whole fantasy trilogy in one go because, sweet Christmas, I am weak)

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Jean-Luc is so ready for this.

So here we are. You’ve battled your way through the first draft and have emerged blood-soaked and steaming, and clutched within your shaking fists is the raw material of your book. Bloody hell. Well done. Seriously – lots of people talk about writing books, lots of people even start them, but only an awesome few get to write ‘The End’. Buy yourself some sort of ridiculous present and bathe in the glory. Enjoy it.

Because this is where things get sticky.

Now, the first thing I need to address upfront is that your editing process will vary wildly. Fine, everything about writing varies wildly, but in particular, your editing process will look different depending on whether you are a published writer or not. In the end, of course, you’re doing the same job and the work will look very similar, but if you have an awesome editor helping you, your support structure will be different. So here is the process as I am experiencing it currently (this may or may not be helpful, but it might at least be interesting):

Editing The Ninth Rain, or, How Clever People Poke Me onto the Right Track With Big Sticks

1 Draft zero sits before me, a heap of words and mistakes and adventure and banter. Here and there, I have already highlighted sections that need work, or stuff that needs to be removed and rewritten. I take a notebook and write down everything I already know needs to change. There will be a lot of things, from the very large (‘restructure this fictional religion’) to the very small (‘change this guy’s name, it sounds too much like penis’). All of these things will have been bugging me, and it will be enormously satisfying to get them out of my head and onto the page. Then, I will go right back to the beginning of the book and do a big, speedy, rough-and-ready edit. At this stage I am attempting to get the thing into some sort of readable shape so someone else can lay their eyes upon it without me having to die of shame. At the end of this draft there will still be problems, but its okay, because there’s plenty of time to sort them out.

2 Draft number two goes off to my agent, the brilliant Juliet Mushens. I specifically wanted Juliet’s opinion on The Ninth Rain, because it was the first in a new series and I was having the severe wibbles over it. Not all agents are so involved editorially, but Juliet is a) brilliant b) knows what makes a book work and c) reads faster than any other human being. Once she had read the book – sending me the occasional dramatic text message exclamation as she got to certain bits – we had a chat over the phone about what things needed changing/tightening up/flinging into the sea.

The role Juliet has here is the key to all editing: A FRESH PAIR OF EYEBALLS. As you will know, when you’re thigh deep in first draft, it is very difficult to zoom back out and see it from a distance again (especially when you have word-guts all over your trousers), and near impossible to spot all the flaws. Bringing in someone who can look at it afresh can give you a whole new perspective – and if it’s someone who knows their literary onions, even better.

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Drink lots of tea during the edit. Picard knows about tea. One teapot is not enough for Captain Picard.

3 Draft number 3 includes Juliet’s tweaks, and all the other tweaks I’ve thought of in the meantime. After a bit of hysterical double-checking, this draft goes off to my brilliant editors at Headline.

~There follows a brief rest period, where I wander about aimlessly trying to remember what it is I do when I’m not writing, until I remember it’s video games and get briefly obsessed with Dragon Age again~

Then the editors come back to me. This will take the form of an editorial letter, which basically sums up all the stuff you need to do in a friendly and pithy manner, and then there will be the manuscript itself, with comments marked up in track changes. You read the notes. You read the comments. You have a little sit down.

This stage is always a bit odd. It is exciting, because through those comments and changes you can glimpse the gleaming spires of your finished novel. It’s also really satisfying to see all the ways in which the thing can be made better. It may also make you feel like a bit of a berk, because inevitably there will be problems you have missed, continuity errors, character motivations that didn’t quite land, etc. So you might feel the need to sulk for a little while. I usually do, but it’s all part of the process of absorbing what needs to be done. Sulk for a bit, grumpily eat some cake. Maybe re-arrange all of the toys on your desk. And when you come back you’ll be ready to kick some ass.

From there onwards, things are fairly simple. You attend to the areas that have been flagged as needing attention, you fix your cock-ups and you smooth down the rough edges, working your way through the document. As I said before, your editors are the fresh pair of eyes you need, but more than that, they are the EXPERT pair of eyes, the eyes that can also see the gleaming spires of your finished novel and know how to get you there. Listen to them, push back when you have to and be prepared to learn a lot. From the big edit (sometimes called the structural edit, because this is where all the big shit goes down) I move on to the copyedit (beloved of all writers everywhere… cough) and then the proofread, and then, BAM. It all moves much faster than you think.

Editing when you’ve yet to be published

So how does this all work when you don’t have an agent and an editor waiting to help wrangle your words with you? As I mentioned before, you’re essentially doing the same work, you just might need some different (or extra) tools to do it with. Some writers looking to start submitting their books do employ freelance editors to look over their work – I don’t have any experience of that, but I would definitely advise checking out what you’re getting before you lay down any moolah (perhaps people could recommend decent freelance editors in the comments?). Outside of that, here are some bits and bobs I have found useful in the past:

The Chapter-by-Chapter edit
This is brilliant for when you’re not working to a deadline. After the first, brutal edit, the one where I fix everything obvious, I get a new notebook and go back to the beginning. Each chapter gets a page in the notebook, and under the chapter heading I write a brief summary of what happens. Then, in a different coloured ink (red for me because, you know, edits) I write down everything that still needs changing.

Then I move straight to the next chapter, and repeat the process, all the way to the end. Then, and only then, do I start a second edit, and as I work through all that red ink, I tick off each section so that I know it has been addressed. Job done.

It’s a long process, and I don’t really get time to do it in such detail now (hello, deadlines!) but I think it’s a great way to avoid being overwhelmed by the edit, especially if you’ve written a very long book: looked at chapter by chapter, your book becomes easier to digest, with a small set of problems to be solved for each section. Totally doable. Also an excuse to use more notebooks.

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Look, this is just a random picture of Angry Captain Picard I found, so it had to go in.

Beta readers
When you don’t have an editor or an agent nearby, these can be vital. Again, it’s the FRESH PAIR OF EYEBALLS necessary to get your book into shape, and chances are if you are writing seriously you already have a little group of people who help you out with this. We all have different needs from our beta readers, and I suspect we all approach it a little differently, but for what it’s worth, here’s some stuff I learnt about it over years of forcing friends to read my work:

– It might take a little while to find the right bunch of people. I know that initially I had quite a few friends who were very keen to read my work. I sent out the document to a range of reactions – some people never ever mentioned it again (possibly horrified by the book and what a terrible hack I am), one or two came back with ‘yay this is great!!!’, and a precious few sent me back detailed notes…
– Keep the note givers. The ones who enjoy your work but are happy to tell you what does and doesn’t work, to point out the bits they felt were lacking.
– Be wary of any who tell you exactly how you can fix it. That job is yours, in the end.
– I had a very low number of beta readers, no more than four, because I felt like more opinions than that would start to muddy the waters. However, again, other writers like whole roaming packs of beta readers to feast upon their novels.
– Remember that you can disagree, and that you don’t have to take every opinion as the ultimate truth. If more than one beta reader sees the same problem, you may well need to fix it. If one beta reader has a gigantic rage against beards and demands that you remove them all from your book… well.

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We all know that TNG got good when Riker got a beard, right?


Developing your own Eyeballs of Insight

Learning to think critically about your own work is vital. You also need to be able to balance that with a confidence in your own abilities. So much of writing is about walking a tightrope – if you fall to your left, you sink into the stinky bog of My Writing is Worthless Why Do I Bother; fall to your right and you’re oozing through the treacle-like Hey I’m Pretty Much a Genius I’m Going to Send my Magnum Opus to an Agent Immediately and Get Really Salty When They Reject It. Keep your eyes on the far cliff edge, Brave Writer.

Read published books and ask yourself: does my book sound like this? Can I imagine opening a book in Waterstones and reading my prose there? Look at the books you love and ask yourself what it is that makes you love them. Take that knowledge and apply it to your edit. There’s no easy way to develop a critical eye (and in a way it can be a pain in the arse – when I’m mid-edit, I suddenly find it very difficult to settle on a book to read. My critical eye is awake and blazing like bleedin’ Sauron’s and I can’t enjoy anything) but it will always take time. Writing is a long game (soooo very long) and behind most published books are a little queue of books that never made it to the light of day because the writer was still learning.

But. It. Is. Worth. It.

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Interloper!

So, apologies for the rambling nature of this particular post. I feel like I’m learning about editing every time I go through the process, and everyone has a different method. One of the biggest surprises to me since being published is how much truth there is in the saying writing is re-writing. It really, genuinely is. The terrible and brilliant reality is that the first draft is the tip of the work-iceberg, and the edit is where all the serious blood and sweat is shed. But it’s also the stage that leaves you with a book at the end… and that’s what we’re all here for.

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Captain Picard is reading your book! In his jimjams! How good is that?