Friday, 1 August 2014

E is for...Editing by Annie Burrows

Novelista Annie Burrows is writing a series of short articles about the things she's learned since becoming a published writer.  And presenting them in alphabetical form, for some obscure reason known only to herself.  This month, she's reached the letter E...

I'm never satisfied with what I write.  I even go through my emails a couple of times before hitting "send" to make sure I haven't included any typos.
But that kind of pernickety attitude is essential for anyone who wants to become a published author.

I don't think anybody can sit down and create a brilliant book in just one draft.  I certainly don't know anyone who claims to have done so.  But every author I know has a slightly different way of getting their writing up to a standard they feel ready to publish.

Some people edit as they go along.  At the start of their writing day they will read over what they wrote the day before, and only move on when they're satisfied with the quality of the prose.

That approach has never worked for me.  I get so bogged down in the grammar, spelling, and so on that the story usually grinds to a halt.  On my first draft I have to just write the basic outline of the story as fast as I can, before I lose control of where I want the characters to go.  At least, that is what I aim for as I write.  But whenever I print out and read back this first outpouring, I nearly always end up clutching my head in despair.  Because what I thought was a brilliant story turns out to be an absolute mess.

However, recently I've discovered that others have a similar experience.  And have even coined a phrase to describe the method.  It's known as the "sandbox" approach.  Basically, my first attempt to tell a story is like flinging a great mound of sand into the sandbox.  It's shapeless alright - but I have everything I need to create a fabulous fairytale sandcastle once I set to with a bucket of water and a spade!

 OK - I've got my heap of sand.  How do I turn it into my fairytale castle?

Well, basically, I want the story to flow from beginning to end.  I want to build tension, to keep a reader turning the pages.  I want every sentence to drive the story forward, whilst showing the reader something about the leading characters.

But exactly how can I achieve this?  You have all heard the adage that you should "show, not tell."  But you need to be careful not to overdo the little "tells" you think add to characterization.  It's all very well having
your heroine twirling a tendril of hair round her finger to denote how nervous she is, rather than just saying "she was nervous".  But if you have her twirling her hair every two or three pages she'd going to become tiresome. (Likewise - the hero shouldn't be grinding his teeth at the slightest provocation.)

Setting the scene is important to draw your reader into the world you've created, but over-long periods of description really slow down the pace.  I'm jolly glad I discovered this, because I'm not very good at descriptions.  When I first started trying to write books, I used to sweat for hours over details of a house, or a room.  Nowadays I just tend to give the hero or heroine's impression of their surroundings, how it affects their mood perhaps, and leave the reader to fill in details for themselves.

Some writers will advise you to leave a manuscript for a week or so before reading it over, so that you can come to it with a fresh eye.  This may work for some of you, but again, I have to confess it's not a technique I find terribly helpful.  You see, I tend to see what I think I've written, rather than what I have actually typed.  Printing it out, so that I'm looking at my work in a different medium from the computer screen, does help me to spot some mistakes and weaknesses.  But nothing is as effective as reading the story out loud.  If my tongue gets tangled up, that is how the sentence will feel to a reader's eye.  And if I say it differently to how it appears on the page, I change the text to how I said it - that makes for an easier, smoother read.

And yes, going over and over and over a manuscript before sending it off to a publisher does take some patience.  But I've heard the act of creating a publishable story likened to reducing a fine sauce for a fine meal.  And everyone knows you can't make a good béchamel, in a hurry.  You get lumps.
And who wants a lumpy novel?

 Annie's next book is "Lord Havelock's List"
If you'd like a chance to win an advance copy, and judge for yourself whether her story is a lumpy sauce, or a fairytale sandcastle, she is running a giveaway on Goodreads, with 3 copies on offer, starting Saturday 2nd August 2014.

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