Five Times Editing Saved My Life
Tidying up my PC lately, I found a folder full of half-edited manuscripts. The pages were a mess of tracked changes and microscopic comments in the margins. Most were broad, structural edits; big problems that need sorting before we were able to focus on the details of grammar and style. After the structural edit comes a closer line edit (style, facts, grammar, consistency), then the copy edit (like the line edit, but even more focused), and finally the proof read (world-class pedantry). The book is refined at each stage of the process: if the proof-reading is a straining through fine muslin cloth, then the structural edit is a big steel colander.
I’ve often heard it said that an editor likes to put their stamp on a book. That’s never been my experience. Mine have simply wanted each book to be the best version of itself. The editing process is like a live masterclass in how to rewrite a book. At the time, I learned the lesson in the moment and didn’t analyse it. Years later, it’s easy to distil exactly what those lessons were. Here are five times a new and expert pair of eyes made me a better writer.
The Burning Air 1
My third novel’s first narrator is Sophie, who is sent compromising photographs of her husband while she’s in labour with their fourth child. An early draft contained a whole chapter devoted to the progression of Sophie’s contractions and subsequent waterbirth. My first reader’s verdict was that it was an interesting account of my own daughter’s birth, but what the hell was it doing in my novel? She was right: I was being indulgent. If I wanted to talk about childbirth that badly I should have blogged it. Sophie’s birth scene was only 900 words long, but it was a digression at the point where I could least afford it. Those first few pages are crucial. Bore your readers here and you lose them forever. In the edit, I cut the chapter at the point where Sophie’s water’s broke. The next chapter picked up ten months later, nobody was confused and nobody had to put the book down to look up the word ‘meconium’.
Lesson learned: Write the book for your readers, not yourself. If your story can survive without this chapter, cut it.
The Burning Air II
Around the halfway mark, my teenage narrator’s beloved but barking mad mother dies suddenly. In my original version, and for reasons which now escape me, I had them dragging her corpse onto a bus and trying to pay her fare across town. My editor and her assistant gently told me that instead of the high drama I was going for, this scene looked a bit…silly. Better, they said, to cut the scene at the moment the body is discovered; the power lies in my narrator’s silent realisation that their only friend is gone. You are, after all, writing a psychological thriller and not Night of the Living Dead.
Lesson learned: Most thrillers skirt the preposterous or sensational at some point. But there’s a fine line between high drama and unintentional humour. Don’t cross it.
The Poison Tree
My first novel originally began with what is now Chapter 2: Karen collects her partner Rex from prison after he’s served a ten-stretch for double murder. Together with their daughter Alice they visit their old house in Highgate, the place where ‘everything happened.’ Early feedback suggested that it felt like the opening to a quiet, literary novel rather than an exciting thriller. My agent’s suggestion was simple but ingenious: I transplanted chapter 25 – where Karen receives a midnight phone call, then drives in a panic through freezing fog – to the front of the book and called it a prologue. Now the book promised the kind of peril it went on to deliver.
Lesson Learned: Those first pages establish an unspoken contract with your reader. Let them know what kind of book they can expect. In this case, excitement upfront meant readers stayed with me through the quieter first chapters because they knew they’d come back to this scene.
The Ties That Bind
Every writer has a ‘book about a writer’ in them and this is mine. Journalist Luke wants to write a true-crime classic and is convinced that the unsolved murder, in 1967, of a Brighton gangster is the story that will make his name. When he’s researching the book, he makes a mistake that threatens his life. My original ending framed the book that had gone before it not as a novel but as a true story published under a novelist’s name. The conversation I had with my agent went a bit like this: Agent: (with her customary tact): ‘I do have some reservations about the self-conscious bookishness of those final pages.’ Me: ‘Do you mean it’s bit wanky?’ Agent: ‘Yes.’ She was right. I’ve since read this twist in half a dozen books, and it’s always felt a little forced.
Lesson learned. Clever twists are not obligatory, and in the wrong place they do more harm than good.
We Know/You Know
Most of my books have got longer in the editing: not a great thing when they’re already tipping 100k words in their first draft. This time, though, I lost FOUR WHOLE CHAPTERS. The book is set in an old Victorian asylum. We see the building converted to luxury flats in the present day, derelict and as a working hospital. It spanned more decades than anything I’d written before and while I knew that years would have to be skimmed, I felt strongly that I should check in on one of my characters from time to time: that the more readers knew about this person, the more they would care. They were little vignettes that were fun to write, but the book could survive without them. (Can you see a pattern here?) In acknowledging how hard it would be to kill these darlings, my editor showed me she had the book’s best interests at heart. A good editor will leave the knife on the table, and let you do the rest. Those culled chapters are still on my hard drive, like deleted scenes from a DVD. I might post them here one day.
Lesson Learned: Don’t spoon-feed your readers. Trusting them to fill in the blanks between scenes shows respect. Also, write a book they can actually hold without spraining their wrists.