So, there you are. Your novel is finished. You admire it, congratulate yourself on finishing it and then arrive at editing.
Editing a novel is like killing a puppy, but much more messy. I should mention that I have never actually killed a puppy, but hey, I’m supposed to be a writer…
Now I understand what cleaning the Augean stables must have felt like for Hercules. I’ve done my final edit before a copy editor gets hold of my novel and I know that I’ve missed something. Despite scrutinising each and every one of 128,000 words in microscopic detail, I know that some of my best lines could be removed.
After a lifetime of making films and videos, the process of editing was one I always enjoyed. It was not only a polishing process but the piecing together of diverse footage – after much time, money, blood, sweat, tears and bacon sandwiches – to make a coherent whole. I loved that. Finally seeing the script made flesh and come to life was a delight and part of the whole thrilling process.
So, why do I and many other writers find the process of editing a novel so painful?
It could be that a novel is more complex than a film. Film is visual and is encapsulated by the imagination of others: the writer and the director. A novel can be heavily nuanced, rich with textured layers of meaning and still be open to interpretation by an individual. Very few films can rival that density. It could be that editing a novel may involve changing the original idea in some way and my dear, old subconscious awakens from dreaming to rage against any change.
Or, it could be that I am a lazy sod and winnowing the grammar for error is a tedious business that seems unending when the next novel is clamouring for attention. The latter is pretty likely…
But, editing is necessary. And, other people should be involved in the carnage.
Why? Because no one can catch all the errors: no one person can cover all of the bases.
This weekend I will watch the Grand National at Aintree, Liverpool. Lots of horses will leap over impossible fences; some will fall and one will win. If I see the novel as a horse, I begin to understand. The horses that make the least number of mistakes will be there in the final furlong – the race to the post.
What separates the winning horse from the second placed horse? Fitness? All the horses are fit. The jockey? The National is a brutal test of human and horse and one of the few races in which jockeys who are almost amateurs can race against professionals and win. Luck? If one horse stumbles, ten can fall, including the best, so luck plays a part.
That sounds like a novel, to me. If the novel is fit, in the sense that it’s well written with a good storyline and characters, then it’s in the race. If any of those attributes are not present, then it was a DNS (Did Not Start) and is, by definition, not in contention.
Amateurs versus professionals? With the advent of electronic self-publishing the differences have become blurred and can only be judged by what is called in the British film industry, ‘bums on seats’ or how many people buy the novel. In fact, like the National, gifted ‘amateurs’ can beat ‘professionals’ because readers could not give a flying fig about those terms, but will read anything that is good to read. As one winning jockey said, ‘Nobody told the horse I was an amateur.’
What about good, old-fashioned luck? I could write fifty thousand words about luck and never come close to explaining it. You and I know that you need a large dollop of it to be successful at anything. So, like horseracing, one has to minimise the effects of ‘unluck’ and keep out of trouble. For a National jockey that means being hyper-aware of the state of the turf, the proximity of other horses, the height of the fences and a sixth sense for impending accidents.
For a novelist, minimising ‘unluck’ means being aware of flaws in the novel, plot holes, clunky dialogue, overwritten passages, overuse of adverbs or adjectives, wooden characters and cutting unnecessary meanderings that don’t move the story forward.
It’s called editing. And it hurts, because it’s meant to.
In my new novel, forty pages of prose have been excised. Most were simply superfluous, but three pages took me three weeks to agonise over before surgery. The three pages of scene took place in Madrid and involved Michael, my male protagonist and Kate, my female protagonist. The pages were a logical result of their growing love for each other in the face of a timeless, unspeakable evil (unrelated to editing) and I was pleased with them.
But, the more I read those pages the more I realised that they were fluff. Not relevant. Kate and Michael’s love is explained elsewhere and better. I loved the feel of those pages, which is why it took me so long to kill them, but they interrupted the flow of the story and had to go.
As I watched them disappear into a file marked ‘Fluff’, I felt a pang of remorse, but when I read the chapter again I wished them well and deleted the file.
Now, I have a novel that I would like to read. Sadly, I know the ending. Unless my characters spring yet another surprise on me! Ah, my mind is going, due to a surfeit of Bakewell Pudding and Caol Ila 18 year old whisky, both taken medicinally to assuage the pain of editing.
Can’t wait for the next edit.
Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers. T.S. Elliot