Friday, 19 June 2009

3. Editing... How to completely screw your "Field of Dreams."

So; you're ready to become your own Editor? First things first. Disconnect your smug drive. You might think you've just written the best thing since sliced bread, and you're bound for the dizzy heights of Tolkien and J.K. Rowling; but...
What you have just completed is probably just marginally better than something your pet tom-cat could dash off. You now have to go into Jack the Ripper mode and cut all the crap out of your masterpiece.

The best course of action is to lock it away for at least a month and try to forget you ever wrote it. With luck, when you eventually decide to give it an autopsy, you will have gained a little distance from your work and will have a fresh, more objective perspective when you finally do pull it out and attack it.
Pretend you've never read this stuff before. Print the whole thing off... it's much easier to pick out mistakes from print than it is from a monitor screen.
Have a notepad and pencil handy, and start reading from the beginning. Of course you know the story... but do you? You have written it, so you must do... right?

WRONG. There will be mistakes in continuity. Are the characters consistent through the book? Do the events follow on from each other? (Flash-backs are fine; as long as they are kept within the context and framework of the plot.) There will also probably be lots of commonly over-used words and clichés.
(We all tend to write in the same manner that we speak... everyday clichés are almost guaranteed to sneak in.)
Consider whether each cliché you find has any real literary or informative value. If you have used it merely as verbal shorthand, replace it with a more original and descriptive word or phrase.

A good source for alternative words are any one of the several on-line thesauruses... or, if you really are serious about your writing; the program "Babylon" is one of the best. Here's a screen-shot:

While we're on the subject of software; you might need something to sort out your punctuation. Some authors have written countless books using only commas and full stops... (periods; for our American friends.)
Additional punctuation... (Semi-colons, apostrophes; hyphens, ellipses; etc)... break up long passages, and give the reader a chance to gather their thoughts before ploughing on.

A good guide to correct punctuation is here:

I use a nice little program called "Grammar Expert Plus." It is written in American English, which means it picks up on British English spellings; but it still has many uses. For example; you paste your chapter in; set which parameters it should pick up, and press go. It's very useful for catching repeated words...
eg: "the the"... very easy to do when you're pressing on towards your word-count goal for the night.
Here's a screen-shot of it in action:

The one thing I NEVER use is MS Word spellchecker. I call it "Bill Gates' Gremlin Factory."
It will pick you up on all manner of irrelevant errors, and will also try to sprinkle your work with "Curly Quotes" when you really wanted good old, plain quotation marks. It also has an annoying habit of trying to change the first letter in every line to a capital... (and all the red and green squiggly lines under words it has picked out, eventually make your eyes go funny.)

As you read your masterpiece; fix one thing at a time. A really useful way to find problems that you probably would not otherwise see, is reading it aloud. (The whoopsies will stand out like the proverbial Tom-cat's doodaa's.)
When reading words out loud it is far easier to hear the awkwardness of a wrong word; sentence, or phrase. OK, so you might feel a total idiot if your partner walks in whilst you are in mid-flow; but, if it helps to avoid the slush pile, a red face is a small price to pay.

Save your earlier versions of the book. Hard drive space is cheap... and you might just need to refer back to an earlier situation or character, if the one you've replaced it with, doesn't quite work out.
Don't be afraid to use the "Find button." You might have inadvertently mis-spelled the name of a character or place, somewhere along the line. Once you have found the wrongly-spelled word(s), you can correct them all in one hit with "Replace with."

Now we arrive at the point at which you have to get brutal. Red pen any passages that begin to drag and make the reader lose interest in wanting to turn the page. Everyone... even the famous authors sometimes pad out the storyline to get a decent word count. The trouble is; "padding out" doesn't add anything, it can actually detract from the storyline by slowing down the action. You don't have to tell the reader in great detail, where the main character went to school, or what the parents did in their spare time.

Just as an example of "Hyper-padding" go to the very funny:

and enjoy!

Line editing is exactly what it says on the box... reading each line and correcting as you go; checking for grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. Before you reach this stage in your editing, you will have probably done a fair amount of rewriting, so line editing really should be the last type of editing you do.
A lot of this is really tedious work, but it is important. A clean manuscript tells editors and publishers to whom you are submitting your work, that you are serious and professional. It tells them you are someone they can probably work with. Publishers will often make decisions based on the first few pages, and a tidy, professionally written submission could make all the difference.

A final heads-up... you really should line-edit your masterpiece at least THREE times. If the phrase "Sod that for a game of Tin Soldiers" springs most readily to mind... then you might as well hit "Delete" right now... for you are heading for the slush pile as surely as night follows day.

Next time...

How about a bit of mutual ripping to shreds? (Critiquing; in polite company)... and the most vital component of all... The Dreaded Blurb.

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