NSFWG member Mark West on editing. The chapbook story mentioned, "What Gets Left Behind", was critiqued by the group during the summer of 2011 and published in 2012
You know how, sometimes, you enjoy an activity that’s a little bit uncool - or disliked by others - and although you maintain your love of it, it’s always under a cloak of secrecy? Well rather than stand there, hands in pockets and a tinge of blush in my cheeks, I’ll stand proud and say it loud - I like editing.
There, I’ve said it. Admittedly, half the people who started reading this have now gone off to do something a little more exciting instead, but for those who are left - thank you - bear with me.
According to Stephen King’s brilliant (and, I’d say, fairly essential) memoir of the craft, “On Writing”, there are two types of writer - the ‘taker-out’ and the ‘putter-in’ - and all of us, broadly, fall into one of those camps. My friend Gary McMahon is a ‘putter-in’ and his early drafts are astonishingly concise - by comparison, even I struggle to get through a reading of my first draft. In fact, it’s become a matter of absurd pride to me that nobody else has ever read one of my first drafts - I tried it once, about fifteen years ago and I’m still waiting for the feedback. My first draft is the dumping ground, the place where everything I know about the story comes out (and I often have to write things I know won’t survive the draft, just so I can completely understand the characters journey from point A to point B). That works for me, because when I go back to the second draft, I have plenty of material to work on. It also means I cut a lot out - my novel “In The Rain With The Dead”, for instance, was 126,000 words in first draft and published as 104,000 words.
Editing is essential, as important a part of the process as coming up with the idea and the act of committing it to paper. In fact, if you want a timeline, it’s - think of a story, write the story, edit the crap out of it. Editing is where you refine what you have in your head, where you refine that personal and original vision into prose that’s tight and concise enough for everyone else to see that same vision.
What’s also important to remember is that not every writer makes a good editor. Yes, most of us can pick up some grammatical errors or punctuation problems but hey, if you’re like me and have an occasional issue with apostrophes, if you got it wrong the first time, you’ll probably get it wrong when you redraft too. So here’s my advice - get some readers in. I tend to call my happy little band “pre-readers”, but I’ve seen them referred to as ‘beta-readers’ too - it doesn’t matter what name they go under, get them. And audition them too because a reader who loves everything a writer puts out isn’t any use in the editing process at all.
I’ve been very lucky, to build up a steady band of pre-readers over the years. I have my kid sister (and boy, is she a tough crowd to please!), a few non-writer friends (one works in medicine and puts me right on matters of grue and gore, whilst another is scathing even about stuff he likes), a handful of writers for the technical side of things and my wife, who looks at the whole package. I’m also lucky enough to belong to an excellent writing group - Northampton SF Writers - and they are very thorough. For individual projects, I might draft other people in, but the core remains the same. And what purpose do they serve? They read what I consider to be an edited draft and then have at it - does it work for them, does the language flow, do the set-pieces work, do characters name or attributes change (as can happen), is it believable (story AND character) and, most important of all, did they enjoy it? I take in their comments and read all of them, even if I end up ignoring perhaps 50% of them. I’ll make changes where I can plainly see I’m wrong or, if they all say something is rubbish and I disagree, I’ll make the change and see how it works for myself. Then I’ll move onto the next draft and get that pre-read too (though by a smaller crowd this time - strangely, for some people, one run is enough).
The key thing is, the pool of writers grows larger every day, the call to the buying public gets louder every day and you need to stand out from that throng. One way is to have a story as tight as you can possibly get it.
With electronic publishing now a viable means for just about anybody with Word and Internet access, editing is more important than ever. Some people reading this will remember the PublishAmerica business, around 2000/2001, where there suddenly seemed to be thousands of horror novels being published, most with dreadfully designed covers and poor use of fonts, all of them proclaiming themselves the next big thing in horror. In my experience - yes, I read some - the covers weren’t the worst of it and the closest they got to horror was that they were nigh on unreadable. The same, if it isn’t already (thinking of that lady who wrote “The Greek Seaman”), is undoubtedly going to be true of Smashwords and Kindle.
Horror is an odd genre, in a lot of ways. I love it, because it’s rich and varied and covers the spectrum of human experience. Others love it because when it hits, it hits big. Think of the paperback horror boom in the 80s, when anything with a skeleton on a black cover could get published. Was it quality stuff? No, of course it wasn’t and the poor quality of it helped to sour readers on the genre. I think that happened with the PublishAmerica issue - people bought the next big things in horror only to discover that they were poorly written, sloppily edited rubbish. So what happens then? That’s right, another bust for the genre as consumers are fearful of taking a chance on new horror, in fear that “its like wot tht idiot writ”.
As an example (and breaking my cardinal rule), here’s a comparison between the first draft of "What Gets Left Behind" (my Spectral Press chapbook) and the third:
The summer holidays were already underway and, for Mike and his best friend Geoff, the endless sunny days lay ahead of them like uncharted waters, holding promise of adventure and fun. Having been to see “Raiders of The Lost Ark” at the old ABC in town earlier in the month, on their own, had only fuelled their imagination. Mike now owned a brown fedora hat his uncle had picked up for him from Heyton, though he’d had to take off the ‘Kiss Me Quick’ band from around it.
It’s not bad, is it? It wouldn’t win any prizes, but it gets the point across and there’s a nice little bit of nostalgia in there. But how does it affect the story? Does it slow it down, does it branch off, is it necessary?
The summer holidays were already underway and, for Mike and his best friend Geoff, the endless days lay ahead of them like uncharted water, promising adventure and fun. Having seen “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” at the old ABC earlier in the month only fuelled their imaginations.
The thrust is still there, but you read it and go - you know the kids are on holiday, that they’re looking for adventure and that Indiana Jones is going to be a factor. That’s all you need to know.
The best editing in the world won’t make up for poor writing, but good editing and good writing can combine to make your story much more powerful. Maybe powerful enough for the casual reader to think ‘Hey, I liked that, I wonder if he has anything else out?’
Edit, people, it’s what makes your words make sense.
This originally appeared on Steve Lockley's Confessions of a technophobe website, as part of a series on writing tips from various authors, in June 2011.