Friday, 22 April 2011

All About Editing - Juliet E McKenna

Do you love editing, or hate it, or somewhere in the middle?

To begin with, I think we need to define our terms when we’re talking about editing. There’s line editing, which is the fine detail stuff; making sure there are no confusions between ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’, checking in case you’ve used the same adjective twice in successive paragraphs, making sure attribution of dialogue is clear if ‘she’ is talking to ‘her’ and all that kind of thing.
Then there’s the structural editing, which is to say, the rewrites and revisions that are essential to turn the first draft into a finished book. Some writers do this working alone while others send their rough draft out to test readers and/or their editor and then work on refining the text on the basis of that feedback. Though a writer who does those rewrites alone will still need feedback from a fresh set of eyes to tell them what needs polishing up in a final pass. I work like that and the comments I’ve just had back from Jon Oliver at Solaris, on the draft of Dangerous Waters, may have been less than a page’s worth but every word was useful and pertinent.

Love editing or hate it? I’ve found my attitudes to both these essential processes changing over the years that I’ve been writing. Initially, detailed editorial feedback was essential at an early stage, to highlight where I was going off track. I was tremendously lucky in my first editor Tim Holman at Orbit, who taught me a great deal. Since I don’t generally need telling something twice, the amount of rewriting I had to do once he’d seen the first draft, got less and less with each book. Which isn’t to say I don’t still do a lot of rewriting between first and final drafts. It’s just that I don’t need an editor to tell me where I’m going wrong; I can spot that for myself now and generally avoid heading down a dead-end or an unnecessary diversion.

I used to find that rewriting a real trial though. Necessary but such hard work after the fun of writing the first draft. Nowadays, I want to get the first draft down as quickly as possible so I can get on to the rewarding business of those rewrites, really refining and shaping my story. Similarly, I used to find the line-editing/copyedit phase rather dispiriting. It was like getting homework back from teacher covered in red pen. Nowadays I see that as my chance to put the final gloss on the story and that’s far more satisfying.

Do you edit as you go? Or do you start only after the first draft?

I start each writing day by re-reading what I wrote the day before and as I do that, I will almost always do some line-editing as I go; cutting out repetition, clarifying descriptions or information, generally tightening things up. I do my very best to resist ripping up huge chunks and starting again because I could so easily end up just going in circles. Even when I really don’t think a chapter is working, I tell myself to leave it lying and move on. The real work starts once I’ve got that first draft completed, so I can take a step back, see the big picture and then go back in to fix the issues which I now see with the benefit of that greater distance. Trying to do major structural edits as I go would be impossible; I couldn’t see the wood for the trees.

Do you have a definite method for editing? If so, would you like to share something from it?

The further I get into a first draft, the stronger the temptation to break off, go back and rewrite becomes. Because when you’re on Chapter 18, you’ll realise you can add bits to Chapter 3 foreshadowing this event. Or you realise that what you need Our Hero to do now contradicts something he or she said in Chapter 12, so that needs sorting out. To avoid doing that and getting distracted from what I’m actually writing at the moment, I make notes as I go, to remind myself what I need to look for in the rewrites phase. I refer to those notes, and add to them, when I go back and re-read that first draft in one hit. Then I’ll make a list of points to address as I revise the draft and that really helps me focus, as well as often flagging up new things I hadn’t spotted.

Any tips you've learned from your experience?

I don’t expect to get it the right first time anymore. As a journalist pal tells me every time I whinge over coffee about a chapter that’s not flowing, ‘don’t get it right, get it written.’ Once you have something to work with, you can always make it better and it’s all part of the process. Following on from that, I know there’s nothing to be gained, and a lot to be lost, by getting defensive when you’re getting feedback.

I’ve also learned to be ruthless discarding chunks of prose and even whole characters in those rewrites. Earlier this year, I binned a five thousand word chapter between the first and final drafts of Dangerous Waters, because once I’d addressed some issues with the beginning arising from a change of focus towards the end, that chapter was simply no longer needed. Worse, if I’d kept it in, it would have slowed the plot and distracted the reader from the overall narrative. So it was left behind like an oxbow lake when a river in spate cuts a new course.

Anything else you would like to add - pet peeves, things that make you want to pull your hair out (editing related), joys and wonders of the process?

In a dozen books so far, I’ve only ever followed one piece of editorial advice and regretted it. My then editor felt really strongly that Irons in the Fire needed a prologue to help new readers into this world and to set up the events of The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution. I wasn’t convinced but he really was and since he was coming new to the world whereas I have it all at my fingertips, I agreed. Since then, I’ve read so many reviews liking the book but wondering what’s the point of that prologue...? Ah well, we live and learn, and I’ve no qualms telling people that if they don’t like prologues, they can just skip it.

I owe my regular copy editor Lisa more than I can possibly say. She’s worked on all my books one way or another and again, she’s taught me a tremendous amount. Her eye for detail and continuity is awesome, and she’s saved me from making a fool of myself a good few times. To give just one example, in The Swordsman’s Oath, there’s a duel and afterwards, Ryshad, the swordsman of the title, goes to strip down and wash himself clean of blood and sweat. Only there’s a fresh alarm, so he grabs a weapon and heads out. Lisa pointed out he didn’t actually put any trousers on first. Did I really want him naked for the rest of the chapter? Er, no, and I am so glad she caught that!

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