THE UNSPEAKABLE EVIL OF EDITING

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 writersT.S. Elliot

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About J.D.Hughes

Fiction writer. Supernatural Horror Mystery AND SOON THE SONG. Supernatural Thriller, NORTHMAN, on Amazon and three short stories: BOMBER, ISSUE 49 and THE 500 on Amazon and Smashwords. New novel to be published mid 2016 (if the ghosts don't interfere!)
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27 Responses to THE UNSPEAKABLE EVIL OF EDITING

  1. kyoske says:

    I think it is so fascinating that most people fret about editing because they are attached to a piece of writing. I find it more just annoying, in the way you describe. Sure there is the occasional fretting over a few pages that are lovely, but for the most part, it is just a pain to do.

    For me, I think it is agonizing, because I compare editing to writing. When I’m writing, I’m on an adventure with my characters (I don’t really outline much, so I discover along with them) The journey is exciting. Editing has been less so. I would compare it to going on an adventure with a film crew, expecting to review the footage and see a feature film. Instead, you find out the camera team was often out of focus, or unable to keep a steady hand, making everything appear jerky and unprofessional. So you have to go back in and edit, maybe even reshoot, in order to get the tape to accurately depict the adventure.

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    • J.D.Hughes says:

      Nice to meet you, Kyoske!

      I think you describe the editing process accurately. Like you, I do very little outlining and although it’s exciting to watch the storyline and characters develop, it can make editing a lengthy process ( but I wouldn’t change it!).

      Like

  2. Lene says:

    I am still in editing hell, in the thick of it right when where you start to lose track of the point of the whole exercise. I have gone over every word and every comma so many times they no longer have meaning, instead becoming just squiggles on my monitor. This helped. Not just because it made me remember that there’s a point to the whole thing, but also because of the laughs.

    Also thanks for reminding me that the Grand National is tomorrow. Now I just have to find out which Canadian channel shows it.

    Like

    • J.D.Hughes says:

      When I said I’d finished, Lene, what I really meant was I will be chasing meaningless squiggles in my dreams, as you will!

      Yes, there is a point to it all, but sometimes the itch to get on with something new is overwhelming…like now. I bet you have the next one circulating in the back of your mind trying to shove the old one out of the way?

      The ‘going’ is good to soft for the National, so it should be a good race, hopefully without the horse deaths of last year.

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      • Lene says:

        Oh, yes. The itch to write is overwhelming. I have ideas tripping over themselves to get out. Taking a lot of notes. And then I go back to editing. Sigh.

        Great race! I love it when the riderless horses keep going – one was even in the lead for a while! 😉

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      • J.D.Hughes says:

        You could always hire someone to butcher your work as I am about to. Finding a good editor is like finding your true love, but more painful when you split.

        It was a good race but two horses died, so maybe not so good from another viewpoint. Oh and I lost £10 I could have spent on editing…or a cover…

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      • Lene says:

        two horses died?? I missed that (blasted North American coverage). Definitely not good.

        I’m springing for a copy editor – can’t afford a substantive one (it’s my first book). Hoping to make enough on it that I can hire one for my second book.

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      • J.D.Hughes says:

        A pro copy editor will do a sample edit on a few pages and you can see if they get the idea of your novel. If they don’t, then it might be a good idea to find another one – otherwise… extreme pain. Also, a good copy editor will suggest changes, apart from grammar, punctuation etc., but will not shove them down your throat. This is also advice to myself. Must try to remember it 🙂

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      • Lene says:

        Thanks for the tip! (mine’s non-fiction – novel’s a couple of years down the line, after I finish current Plan). I’ll remind you later if you forget. 😉

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      • J.D.Hughes says:

        Apologies, Lene, I did forget. I’m so wrapped up in fiction that I can no longer discern reality. It’s still a good idea to get a sample, though.

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  3. Lisa says:

    Great post JD! I’m not editing yet, but it looks like I’m gonna suffer!

    Like

    • J.D.Hughes says:

      Thanks Lisa. Think of it as a penalty for the enjoyment of writing. It’s necessary because it helps to refine your writing. My only real concern is that it’s possible to edit the life out of a novel. Which is why I prefer to read novels with the odd mistake rather than those that are so clean they have lost the edge; but many disagree with that viewpoint.

      For what it’s worth, my advice is to write and let the words flow, rather than editing on the fly, but you will find your own way.

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  4. Liz says:

    You’re just lucky you’ve finished the first draft of your novel! I know I work in a more “working” draft form (that, after the first draft is completed, it’s in pretty good shape), but still. Congrats on finished the first draft!

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    • J.D.Hughes says:

      Thanks for the congrats, Liz. Unfortunately I don’t deserve them since this is my fifth and final draft. You’re lucky that you can hit it after one draft, but you may be better organised than me – not terribly difficult, I must admit. I tend to plough on without much attention to refining as I write and it always means a lot of work later!

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  5. You might not believe how many drafts I’ve done, but then this is my first book. No, make that in the hundreds if you count the editing. I wondered what editor you use, even though I’m not ready yet. I’m barely in chapter 5 going from 3rd to 1st person due to some beta reader critiques. They were right, no matter how much drudgery the rewrite. Like you, I want to minimize my “unluck.” And I’ve had to cut favorite scenes too.

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    • J.D.Hughes says:

      Welcome to my humble blog, Sher. I can believe your comment about drafts. I wrote a novel in 1985 (now residing in a dark drawer) and self-edited it twenty two times. Didn’t make much difference, it was still rubbish!

      My editor is English simply because some dialogue is colloquial and would be difficult for, say, an American editor. My only advice about editors is to make absolutely sure that the person is on the same wavelength and get a sample edit. It’s like being married. if you find someone who understands you, you have found the meaning of life.

      It’s an emotional journey this writing business, but such an exciting one. When do you think you will publish?

      Like

  6. Thanks so much for commenting on my blog post. I’ll be visiting yours, now that I know about it.

    I’m in the middle of editing for an agent request. It’s amazing, even though I’ve gone over the MS many times, how knowing a certain industry professional will look at it changes the way I view it. Suddenly I’m cutting where I thought I couldn’t cut any more. For me, this is one of the big reasons to at least attempt traditional publishing before going indie. I think I’ll end up with a better product, no matter how it reaches the world.

    ~Debbie

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  7. Tammy Salyer says:

    Great post. Yep, it hurts, and yep, a good dram of single-malt will assuage all but the worst of the pain. Congrats on your pending release!

    Like

  8. wow this blog is so interesting! I like learning stuff here =P

    Like

    • J.D.Hughes says:

      Cheers! I like learning stuff here, too. I’ve been on your blog and “telling a book that you did your best but maybe it’s me, not you, something like that”…cracked me up!

      Like

      • hahahah i am a weird creature… books talk to me… for real! They made me a kleptomaniac because when I am the shop, they are screaming to be bought and taken home because they feel like crap if you just ignore them and place them on the shelf for years. The books at the bottom pile are the saddest ones. They feel crappier than crap and they say they hope they just turn to pulp because of the intense waiting and boredom to be loved. =P

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      • J.D.Hughes says:

        Maybe you have the basis for a novel there?

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      • well, it’s currently on progress =P but the one i finished is about a whore who eats paper and letters from the men who wants to have sex with him/her so that he/she can be whoever or do whatever they want.. Sir do you have any other blogs or anything? I am very interested to read more of you.

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  9. J.D.Hughes says:

    Have you published it yet? Interesting concept even though I can’t understand the premise. Is paper eating a popular pastime? I must have led a sheltered life. Sadly, I have just the one blog.

    Like

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