By the time a book meets its reader, it is a perfect and polished work of art – a fabulous papery world all of its own. We might have an idea about how this book came to exist – the writing process itself – the author getting a brilliant idea and then taking a few months to write it all down (perhaps in an attic, by candlelight). We might, if our minds are artistically inclined, consider the work of the designer in creating the front cover or illustrations. We might be aware that a ‘finished’ book has to be edited… But what exactly do we imagine editing to be? Cutting out a few unnecessary adjectives or scenes that don’t quite work? A tidying up of punctuation and paragraphing? The truth is, before I embarked upon this whole writing a book lark myself, I had no idea just how massive (and difficult!) the editing process could be… Believe me, writing the book was the easy bit…
1 ‘Write without fear. Edit without mercy.’ There are plenty of trite quotations floating around the internet to do with the art of writing. This is one of my favourites. I think it is very important to write without fear: self-doubt can be crippling in any creative field. It’s the editing without mercy that’s so tough… Favourite phrases, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, even characters… All have to be assessed in terms of the actual contribution they are making to the text – and if they don’t cut the mustard… they’re for THE CHOP!
2 ‘Kill your darlings’ A William Faulkner / Stephen King quotation – oft misquoted / misused, in my humble opinion. My interpretation is this: you must be prepared to cut something even though you love it… It’s important to distinguish the difference between elements of your text that please you personally and those that are effective professionally. I’m trying my hardest to be brave, to listen to the recommendations of my brilliant editor and to be more workman-like in my writing and editing decisions.
3 Pace vs. pretty prose. All this is starting to sound pretty brutal isn’t it? Where’s the poetry in all this cutting, scrapping, chopping and killing? It helps me to remember that all this is for my reader. I’m trying to keep thinking about what my reader needs from the text at each point. Generally speaking, pace wins over pretty prose every time. And those highly original similes will really stand out if the pages aren’t cluttered with them….
4 Scrapyard. This document is my saviour. Every time I cut something substantial from my manuscript, I paste it into a scrapyard document (currently standing at 22,774 words!). This means I feel less panicky about the cuts, because if I really need to, I can work that gorgeous sentence back in later on.
5 Stages of authorial ‘grief’. On receiving a marked-up version of the manuscript (with all the suggestions for changes and cuts written on it), I have found that there are various emotional phases I experience. First comes a sort of denial, then anger, and (after a few days) acceptance… I’ve learned to wait, not to dismiss any suggestions until they’ve had time to settle. The best bit comes after acceptance – that’s when I get excited about the creative challenge of it all. It is difficult cutting out parts of a story, moving bits around, adding in other bits and stitching it all back together. It can sometimes feel a bit like your precious story has become something of a Frankenstein’s monster, but it’s also very exciting…
The important thing to remember while you’re editing is that, even though it can be REALLY hard, your book is getting more and more perfect, and closer and closer to becoming an actual book on the shelf of an actual bookshop that some actual people might actually read… That’s the dream, isn’t it? And if dreams were easy to accomplish, I keep telling myself, they wouldn’t be dreams.
Lucy Strange is very excited that her first novel (title to be confirmed!) will be published by Chicken House in autumn 2016.