Chalk and Cheese (otherwise known as Writing and Editing)

If you haven’t read yesterday’s post (which includes a shiny new piece of flash fiction, should you wish for something to distract yourself this Saturday night) you will not know that at around 5:00pm yesterday I found my fingers stilling on the keyboard and myself staring at what could very likely be the last word in my novel. I’d reached the end. Since sitting down, netbook in my lap, in back in June I have been hammering out the first draft of a project. And yesterday, I came to the end.

Wow.

What a wonderfully weird and yet terrifying feeling. There are literally no more excuses. I have a draft. A very rough one, an unedited, un-worked and un-corrected one. But I have written a novel draft.

That’s the hard bit over.

Right?

Nah. Don’t worry, I’m not that naive.

That was the fun bit. Sure, it took a lot of work and determination and a good bucketful (at least) of self-discipline. But I did it. And, here’s the real shocker…largely, it was easy. It flowed. It was fun.

Now…it’s time for editing.

I am infinitely grateful to whatever fates intervened to ensure I finished the draft on day one of my writers’ retreat at Gladstone’s Library. It means I have had all of today to make a start on editing. I am 63 pages/36,000 words down the line and my eyes, head and soul are aching, even if my face is smiling. (Whatever happens now, I have a novel draft, after all. I am officially further along than I have ever been before.)

And I’ve discovered the processes of editing versus writing really are like chalk and cheese.

Drafting a project of this length is, by necessity, something of a sloppy affair. Not being to picky or precious, I found, was the best way to keep my momentum up and to stop myself getting caught in the Editing Loop: a sinister vortex of editing-whilst-you-go, leading to stilted progress and woeful repetition, which I have fallen victim to before.

I learnt my lesson. Now I don’t even correct typos as I go. The narrative is over-stated, the language clunky, the characters are over-explaining things to each other. But that doesn’t matter when you’re drafting (so long as you know it’s happening, of course). Your plot, characters, themes or tone may well change by the end of the draft anyway. Better to have a looser and more malleable thing to work with, rather than something so stiffened by meticulous editing that it is impossible to crowbar in any changes.

(That’s even if you get to the end. My experience is, if you get sucked into the Editing Loop, there is no force on Earth of in Heaven that can drag you back out…save the fatalistic power of ctrl+a -> del)

So it’s been quantity over quality so far. I’ve prioritised getting the plot down, moving the story along and powering through to that last word.

Editing, on the other find, I wouldn’t say is harder…or less fun, even. It’s just…different. I have edited short stories, essays, portfolios and dissertations. I know what’s expected. I know this is the time you take the squishy, bitty pulp and mould it into something strong, consistent, progressive and satisfying. Which is a simple enough process when dealing with 1000 – 10,000 words.

Now I’m staring down the barrel of 144,000 words. A third of which probably shouldn’t even be there.

Meep.

Editing definitely takes more concentration. I found even when I hit cul-de-sacs in the drafting, a bit of hair-tugging and a couple of despairing glances thrown around the room shook the sand from the gears and rendered me able to carry on without too much trauma. Although there were a couple of particularly hairy moments when a cup of tea was needed too. But, by and large, it was a smooth and almost casual process.

photo (1)

I went for a walk to give my brain a break. There were sheep 🙂

Not so with editing. It takes focus like nothing I’ve experienced before. Every word needs to be examined and justified. Are you sure you need that metaphor? That sentence? That chapter? Is this premise being expressed in the smoothest way possible? Are the characters’ reactions realistic and consistent?

Meep again. Playtime is over. This is the Big Game.

Time to initiate the process of taking off the training wheels and seeing if your baby can wobble along on its own. It’s painful, but necessary. And being committed to making your work the best it can be means you have to make yourself do this, and let others help you too.

First of all, it’s going to need a good few read-throughs of your own. You need to have read through it enough times that you can no longer see a single thing that needs to be changed. The beta readers and editors will have no problem pointing out what you missed. But first, you need to get it to the point where you, yourself, are happy with it and can no longer see anything you can change without help.

This is a time-consuming process.

Not least because if you sit and read the same passage over and over you end up not seeing it. You think you’re reading but your brain is filling in what it thinks is there from memory. You know what you wanted to say. Whether you said it or not is another matter.

Distance helps with this. Put it away for at least a day, preferably longer. Maybe a week. A month, even. Work on something else. Go on holiday. Don’t even think about writing for a significant length of time. (I am aware I have not done this. I finished the draft at 5:00pm last night and was back on it to start editing this morning: but I had a day of retreat to take advantage of and felt it couldn’t hurt to get cracking when the tone of the ending was still fresh in my mind)

You’ll find if you do give it some distance (which I will do once I have done this first round of edits) then your tiresome brain might not be so efficient at putting the sentence in front of your eyes. This helps with typos, with clunky language, with confusing plot points and with inconsistencies.

The other reason it takes time is because it helps to have put aside a decent chunk do it. Likelihood is a reader won’t sit down and plough their way through your whole novel in a day (unless your story really is that awesome, in which case, brillo!) but you, as the writer, need to make sure the plot, tone, theme and voice is consistent throughout. The nature of drafting means it can get fractured. It’s understandable, it’s part of the process. In order to refine it, you need to see it as a whole. The easiest way to do that is to read through the whole thing in one fell swoop. Or as close as you can.

I got up at 6:50 this morning to start this process. It is now 21:02 and I’ve done 63 pages/36,000 words (I did have a break at lunch when I started going cross-eyed). This is a lot slower than reading. It takes focus. But doing it this way means I am satisfied that the first quarter or so of my novel is now adequately paced and flows nicely.

Now for the other three quarters.

It may all sound horribly daunting, or tiresome, but believe me, if you love your project, it’s not. It may have its frustrating and even painful moments but it is never boring. And it’s worth the commitment.

Even if no one else ever thinks it’s any good, even if no one reads it or enjoys it, if I know I’ve done the best job I can with it, I will consider myself satisfied. I will have achieved everything I owe myself.

Obviously, I hope one day people will not only get the chance to read it but will also want to and it would be even more brilliant if they enjoyed it too. That’s all I write stories for, after all: to entertain. I’m not trying to change the world. But that’s another blog post entirely.

Either way, at this stage I can’t live or die by what others will think. Right now I just need to be true to the narrative and sink myself into it like a hot bath, splash about and hope the water that remains in the tub by the end of the process is what was meant to be there.

Apologies for the clumsy metaphor but I’ve now been writing/editing for close to thirty hours out of the last forty-eight and I’m getting a little zoned…

…but I should be able to fit in another hour before bed.

Never has the term labour of love meant had more resonance .

(By the way, if anyone’s interested the last word in the draft is currently ‘look’. Intriguing? Probably not! But there’s thousands of words leading up to this one that hopefully will be. Time alone will tell.)

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11 Responses to Chalk and Cheese (otherwise known as Writing and Editing)

  1. Chris says:

    Fantastic! Well done! Yeah, editing is definitely daunting. I hate to throw out a self-promo like this, but I offer a super cheap rate for editing if you’re ever interested! 🙂

    • jcollyer says:

      Self-promo away 😀 it’s the lifeblood of our business! And thanks so much I will remember that. I may have an
      Opportunity lined up for this one editing-wise but I will probably take advantage next time and/or of I get there in enough time ahead of my deadline. Do you enjoy editing? I sometimes do more so even than writing. It’s so satisfying pulling something together. That is, when it can be pulled together.

  2. Chris says:

    I can’t say I particularly enjoy it, I guess. I’d much rather write than edit. But I understand how crucial the editing process is, so I always make sure to take care while doing it.

  3. Chris says:

    Well, whatever may happen, I wish you the best of luck! 🙂

  4. Found a few great gems in this piece:

    “Better to have a looser and more malleable thing to work with, rather than something so stiffened by meticulous editing that it is impossible to crowbar in any changes.”

    So true and probably the most difficult thing for a new writer to figure out. It’s taken me a couple of years, and I’m still not sure I’m all the way there, but I’ve gotten better at accepting this way of working.

    and

    “It may all sound horribly daunting, or tiresome, but believe me, if you love your project, it’s not. It may have its frustrating and even painful moments but it is never boring. And it’s worth the commitment.”

    Worth the commitment is right. Can’t make an omelette without cracking some eggs, etc. etc… a lot of truth to that cliche.

    Congrats again and best of luck on the editing process.

  5. jcollyer says:

    Thank you so much! It’s a continual learning process, I don’t know if you ever stop learning. The process may be a rollercoaster but it’s a great ride 😀 I’m looking forward to getting stuck into editing, though scared of what happens after that!

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