So this is the second post in the three-way blogapalooza I’m sharing with Anna Branford and Sally Murphy. Because it’s part of a series, I’ve followed the same format for the title, but the first thing I should say is that I think it’s misleading.
You don’t ‘get edited’. I’ve never ‘been edited’. It’s not a passive process in which the writer sits back and waits for the editor to tell them what needs to be done. It’s a dialogue – a back-and-forth that begins with the text, moves to the editor, bounces back to the author, who returns to the text, then bounces it back to the editor, and so on thusly for the term of your natural life (or so it can seem).
When I show people the six-page editorial letter for Annabel, Again, or a marked up draft of Surface Tension, I get some interesting reactions. Some people actually draw back in horror. But isn’t it your story? How can you let them? From time to time I hear people – often aspiring writers – talking about the way publishers insist on ‘changing’ people’s work, to shape it to fit their own set of parameters.
But really, that’s not how it works. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. If a publisher were to take this approach, I too would walk very quickly in the opposite direction.
My experience of ‘being edited’ has been that in every single case, my manuscript has emerged from the process as a stronger, more satisfying version of itself. Editors, in my experience, are the savvy, objective readers who guide your manuscript towards becoming the best version of what it is already trying to be, rather than steering it towards being any kind of version of something else.
The truth is, I love editing. I love everything about the process. I love taking the lump of clay (what we so often optimistically call ‘the final draft’) and seeing it get flattened and kneaded and hammered into shape (for more gratuitous pottery-writing metaphors, click here). Of course, I’m the one doing the flattening and the kneading and that’s a confronting and difficult thing when you thought your beautiful sculpture was already finished, but it is also very satisfying when you have confidence in the process and the endpoint you’re working toward.
I didn’t always feel this way, though.
My first experience of being edited was something of a shock, actually. It was many moons ago when I was being mentored on a YA manuscript. This was really the first piece of fiction I’d ever written and I thought it was brilliant. It got me a mentorship and I thought I was on my way and many accolades were just around the corner (publication would happen first, of course, but I knew I had that in the bag).
Then I got the first part of the manuscript back from my mentor, a well-known YA author, and it looked like this:
It’s a little hard to tell from the picture, but I would estimate that close to 70% of it was highlighted in yellow. And when I uncovered the colour-coding key, cunningly buried a few pages into the manuscript, I discovered that yellow did not, in fact, mean, “Alert! Awesome writing!” but rather, “You could probably cut this bit.”*
Going through that process unstitched me and then put me back together again. I learnt so much. I learnt not to be precious about what was on the page. I learnt that it was raw material, to be flattened and kneaded and slashed and burned and various other agrarian metaphors.
And I learned something else, too.
Because my mentor and I were very different writers. At one point, I began a chapter with the line, “A bomb went off at school today” and my mentor wrote, “Oh, thank Christ! Finally something is happening.”
Unfortunately, he had commented before reading my next line, which read, “Oh, not really. That kind of thing only happens on Home and Away.”
To be honest, my first reaction to his comment was, “I can’t work with this guy. He seriously thought there might be an actual bomb? I don’t write like that. I … I… I… mememe mybookmybook blahblahblah.”
Then I took a step back. Because it wasn’t about the bomb. I didn’t need a bomb. And he wasn’t really suggesting I did. What I needed was, exactly as he said, something to happen.
I had not actually realised that I’d written approximately 50 pages in which nothing at all happened outside of my character’s head.
I’m not saying you can’t write a story like that. Maybe you can. But at the very least, it needs to be a conscious choice. You need to know that you’re doing it. And why.
That’s part of what editing has done for me. It’s helped me understand that when I write, I’m making choices. And that there are other choices, other possibilities; that the way things are is not the way they must be.
It’s made me realise that I do have a voice, that what I think of as simply writing the story the way anyone would write it, is actually me writing the story the way only I would write it.
It’s helped me own that a bit. To be aware of the choices I’ve made. To interrogate them and be open to alternatives. To defend them when necessary.
I would never have put a bomb in that story. And no editor would ever ask me to. But they would certainly point out that nothing had happened yet, and ask if that was what I had intended, and was I thinking about the consequences for the story, and my readers, and were there perhaps alternatives that might be considered? And yes, I know, Meg, that you want to write a ‘quiet’ story but there’s ‘quiet’ and then there’s dead, you know? Food for thought?
Food for thought, yes. Suggestions, possibilities, guidance. These are all part of the process. But no one tells you what to do. It’s always your story. Editors know this. And what they are really good at doing is working out what the story is trying to do, and helping you find ways to do it better – in the context of your story, your style, your voice.
On a couple of my books, I’ve done what I thought were close to total rewrites during the editorial process, stripping them back and rebuilding them from the ground up. But when I put them back together, and sat back feeling satisfied with what I’d achieved, I realised that the seeds of everything that made the final version stronger were there in the first version, sleeping quietly. Waiting for a canny editor to come along and tease them out, to guide me towards them.
This in itself is a spooky art, I think, and I suppose all editors are different in terms of how much guidance they give, how directive they are. And perhaps that varies depending on how they read the author.
Personally, I don’t like an editor to be too directive. I don’t particularly want suggestions on how to fix things, possible directions the plot might take, and so on. I’d rather just have the problems laid bare, maybe get a nudge this way or that, but essentially find my way to the solutions myself.
At the same time, I recognise that’s a bit of a tightrope for an editor to walk, and they can’t know what my particular preferences are, so I try not to be too much of a delicate flower. If an editor says, hmm, what about this? and it seems like a sensible suggestion, I’ll explore the idea. Even if the impetus comes from elsewhere (and doesn’t everything, anyway?), I’m still going to make it my own in the writing of it.
Along the way there is much discussion. Debate. Disagreement. You can argue. You can fight. But it’s not a battle of wills between two opposing sides. It’s both of you fighting for what you think is best for the story.
I like to fight. And I’m kind of stubborn. I tend to think I know best. It’s my story after all. But that’s not what I meant! She just doesn’t get it!
But here’s a thought: If she doesn’t get what I mean, maybe I’m not saying what I think I am. Maybe what I meant hasn’t actually made it onto the page. Maybe I’ve got some revising to do?
I’m stubborn, but I’ve finally learned something very simple. I cannot see my own blind spots. They are, by definition, blind spots. I think I’m getting slightly better at avoiding certain things – ‘being’ edited feeds ideally back into self-editing, after all – but I still need my editor to thwack me every now and then and tell me to just stop it. Stop overwriting. Stop telling endless, quirky anecdotes that slow the pace at crucial moments. Stop circling and circling around the point and just explain what you mean. Sometimes exposition is good. TELL, DON’T SHOW!
And so on.
I’ve lamented my particular writing tics in other posts. If you’re interested, you can read more here and here. Did I mention I have a particular weakness for overwriting? For rambling? As demonstrated in all those places, and also here.
The final thing I’ll say about editing is that I don’t think it ever really ends. Even after a book is published, I’m still editing it, in a way. I’ll change things as I read, to smooth them over, to shift emphasis. I’ll wonder why on earth I did this and not that.
The French critic and poet Paul Valery once said, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” That feels particularly true of poetry to me, but to a certain extent I think it applies to all writing. We shape and tighten and remix and unpick and rebuild and at some point we have to say enough! and then the binding goes on, setting everything in stone, and on we move to the next shiny thing.
And having said that, I have said more than enough and hereby abandon this post.
* If you’re wondering what green means, it means “This bit is actually quite good.” See those two-and-a-half lines in the middle there? That bit.