The Five Elements of Editing

The last time I left you, I believe I was complaining about the mess my manuscript was in half-way through the first round of editing.  Well, I'm proud to announce that I emailed the reworked version back to my editor shortly after one o'clock yesterday afternoon.  I did it - the mess has been cleaned away, the prose has been polished, and any plot inconsistencies have been swept under the carpet of 'I'll explain all that in the sequel'.

I am now free to go shopping for vegetables, re-embrace personal hygiene and reflect on the process of editing, as I have found it.  So far I have detected five vital elements that must be considered if one is to get anywhere with writing.

1.  The Deadline

So many people think this is a negative thing, invented to stress you out to such a degree that you become paralysed and can't work at all.  I have found it to be the opposite.  It's an incredibly powerful tool which, when used effectively, will have you churning out results you couldn't have imagined you were capable of.

In fact, I'm so dependent on a strict deadline that I get nothing done without one.

When I first heard from my editor about the initial changes she wanted me to make to my manuscript, she stipulated no timeframe.  This didn't bother me at first.  'Great,' I thought.  'I can work at my own pace, which is a super fast pace, and amaze her by having the changes done and back to her by next Tuesday.'

Two months later, I realised my mistake.  In my defence, I did change more aspects of the book than I had originally intended (one change leading to another, leading to another twelve, etc.), but it was distressingly clear to me that I was not working efficiently.  I could have done more.  I should have done more.  I knew from past experience what I was missing, and quickly imposed my own deadline.  I would have my editing done by the following Friday.

It was Wednesday when I decided I needed to completely rewrite the last five chapters.

'Five chapters,' I hear you say.  'That's not many.  I can read five chapters in an evening.'  Well, writing them takes a teensy bit longer than reading them.  It was okay, though.  I knew I could do it.  I would just have to cut back on the luxuries of life, like housework and sleeping.

Then Thursday evening came.  I was still on track but I was exhausted, and my partner, ever mindful of my health and sanity, said, 'It doesn't matter if you don't get it done by tomorrow.  You can always finish it off over the weekend.'

Thoughtful, huh?  Sweet.

I didn't take it so well.  In fact, I had to try very hard not to kill him.  While he thought he was being kind and understanding, I felt like I had just run a marathon and the people on the sideline had said, 'Oh, we've moved the finish line down the street and around the corner.  That's okay, isn't it?'

Not okay.  I had divided up my energy stores so I could make it to the end of Friday and no further.  It couldn't be extended or shortened.  It couldn't be renegotiated by myself or anyone else.  It was Friday or nothing.

I finished it at 4pm on Friday, leaving me the weekend free for the final phase, the read-through, for which I needed the second element of editing.

2.  The Company

Writing is a solitary act, yes?

Nope.  Not for me, anyway.  I've heard of writers who won't let anyone else near their book until it's perfect, and even then they're reluctant.  I don't see the point of that.  I mean, I don't call an audience round every time I finish a sentence, but I've found other people's feedback immensely helpful.  Editors, friends, family - whether the feedback is positive or not, it either improves my self-esteem or improves my work.  Either way, I win.

(Note to my friends who asked to see my book years ago and I never gave it to them: I did want you to read it.  I just kept forgetting to give/post/email it to you.)

The other thing about sharing your work, of course, is that it makes it much more fun.  I can't count the times Ian and I have thrashed out a plot point over a glass of red, getting more excited and having more ideas than I ever would have sitting at my laptop by myself.

It also gave me someone to read to.  I've heard from authors and English teachers and writing manuals about how useful it is to read your work aloud - you pick up much more that way about what flows, what doesn't, when you've repeated a certain phrase, whether your sentences make any sense at all, etc. - but I've always felt like a right plonker reading aloud to myself in an empty room.  Never been able to do it.  And reading aloud to the dogs doesn't work, either.  They just never look captivated enough.

That's where Ian comes in.  This last Saturday, for instance, after the crazy Friday deadline, we printed out two copies of my book, sat down at the table and I read him the whole thing.  He stopped me, or I stopped myself, whenever something didn't sound right, and picked up a whole host of things neither of us had noticed before.

He also came in useful with the reworking of fight scenes.  He seemed more than willing to pretend to strangle me on the ground while I worked out whether I could, from there, poke him in the eye.  It might have been the fact that I hadn't done the dishes for a week that made him so willing to strangle me thus.  In any case, he was both helpful and spirited.

It did work up a thirst in us, though, leading me neatly to Editing Element Three.

3.  Sustenance

Brain-work requires energy.  Energy comes from food.  So, naturally, whilst editing, you need to simultaneously eat your own weight in chocolate.

A slight exaggeration, but food and drink are important to the whole process.  For one thing, it ensures that, over the days or weeks or months of your editing, you don't die.  This is useful.  You get more done that way.

For another, meals break up the day and provide not only a well-earned break, but also natural mini-deadlines.  'I will finish this scene before lunch,' or, 'I have to kill off this character before I'm allowed to stop for dinner,' and so on.

But the real reason is that food and drink are just stimulating.  Eating, drinking and talking go together so naturally for humans.  We've been coming together for millennia to do these things.  It's a rare day when you catch up with someone, and food and drink are not somewhere in the mix: coffee with your neighbour; dinner with your friends; drinks after work.  If you took out the sustenance, the meeting would be uneven, the conversation strained.

Writing is the same, but instead of communing with real people, you're communing with your characters.  Under the influence of food and drink, your characters will talk to you.  In fact, you can control the way they talk to you - about what and how quickly - by the type of snack sitting by your elbow.

For instance, if you're doing a drudge-check for grammatical errors and typos, you need to be alert but not creative.  You don't want your characters to talk, so you don't want to be over-stimulated.  Water and tea work fine for this, with something nutritious but boring for lunch, like a sandwich.

If you're doing some rewriting, though, where you need to think about plot and characterisation, you need something a little more adventurous.  Try a chai latte or an interesting new flavour of soft drink.  Hearty meals also work a treat.  I got over a difficult plot problem with a big plate of sausage and mash with onion gravy and a cider.  Perfect.  (Be careful with alcohol, though.  A little bit will result in inspired new directions in your book; too much will result in a mess both in your word document and on your carpet that you'll have to waste time cleaning up the next morning.)

And if you need to rewrite five chapters in two and a half days?  Sugar.  Go the sugar - cherry ripes and M&Ms and jelly snakes and jaffas, all in a big bowl next to your laptop.  Keep water handy to refresh yourself, but keep the sugar rush going as long as you can.  Your characters will be charging about the page screaming at the top of their lungs so fast and loud you'll struggle to keep up with them.  But, of course, you will because you're on a sugar rush.  I wouldn't recommend doing this for more than a few days, though, for practical as well as health reasons.  With every sugar rush comes the sugar crash.  If you can time these for your normal bedtime, you're gold.

4.  Exercise

Food and drink are not the only way to stimulate productivity.  Exercise (and I can't believe I'm writing this because I've never been a big fan) works too, maybe even better.  There have been times over the last few weeks when I've found myself sitting numbly at my computer, mid-sentence, with no clue how to finish it.  It's like the entire English language departs from my memory.  My brain just shuts down, beyond the reach of mild stimulants like tea.  At that point, if I'm smart, I say, 'To hell with you, entire English language,' and get up, put on my runners and go out for a walk.

And, somehow, the English language will come back to me during that walk.  I don't know if it's the pumping blood or the scenery or the fact that I'm doing something good for my body after days of neglect, but it's like there's a shift in my thinking to something much more positive.  'I'm healthy and active and, oh look, I have a brain again.'  The words and ideas will start to flow again, and I'll walk faster and faster so I can get back to my computer again and get these ideas down.

Exercise obviously has health benefits too.  Since I lost my job and began writing full-time I've managed to accumulate an extra ten kilos, simply because I now spend most of the day sitting at the computer.  It's a sedentary lifestyle, being a writer, but I'm only just working out that it doesn't have to be, and my work actually improves when I'm more active.

5.  The Setting

The workspace.  The ambiance.  The magic place where it all happens.

This is a strange one, and I imagine every writer is different in their preferences.  You hear of writers who can only write while sitting in a certain chair, or only in total silence, or only when they have a particular mug next to them, or only with a purple ballpoint pen and a blue-and-white striped 64 page exercise book.  It's the setting you need to create to put you in the right mind-space.

As far as where I am, I don't think I'm that particular.  I have a desk at home, yes, and probably do most of my writing there, but I've also been known to work on the couch, in bed, on the floor, and my parents' place, at the local café and tucked into a corner of Ian's office.  Some days I'll find I'll work better at one of these places than any other but, for the most part, I'm flexible.  As long as I have a power point or a decent pen.

I'm actually more particular about what I'm wearing when I write.  I have a green tatty cardigan with alpacas on it that immediately puts me in the right frame of mind, but it hasn't gotten to the point where I can't write without it.  I'll often write in my pyjamas.  Not because they're comfy and I'm lazy (although they are and I am), but because I'm trying to create the illusion that it's early in the morning and I've gotten up to quickly get some words out before the day begins.  It's very conducive to productivity, because I'm focussing on the speed, not making every word perfect.

I'll occasionally splash out and wear a top hat or a ball gown while writing, depending on what I'm working on.  It's like the food - I can control how I write by the flamboyance or lack thereof of what I'm wearing.  If it's grammatical editing - trous'n'blouse.  If it's the climax of an exciting new book - cowboy hat.

The only thing that seems to stump me is music.  Now, I can write with dogs barking and dishes clattering and vacuums hoovering (Ian doing the housework I haven't done for a month), but if music is playing, and there are lyrics, and I kind of know the lyrics, I have no chance.  The language of the song drowns out my own language, and I can't block it out.  The same goes for the TV.  I've tried to work in front of it.  I've failed.  The only music I seem to be able to tolerate is classical music - Mozart has a good energy - but not all the time.

Ian, on the other hand, writes with Greenday's "Jesus of Suburbia" blaring out his headphones, over and over and over.  So everyone's different.

I think the conclusion I've come to over this period is that there's no such thing as writer's block.  If I'm not getting anywhere I can't blame it on some mystical, inexplicable force.  It's my fault.  The good news is, it's fixable.  Haven't written a word for weeks?  Dress up.  Stock up.  Pump it up.  Shake it up.  What you write is connected to how you write, so if what you're writing isn't working, change how you're doing it.