Welcome to another week — hope everyone had a great weekend.
There will be a break in In The Spotlight for a couple of weeks while I gather the next group of writers for you, so might have to come up with something to replace it in the meantime. Hey — if anyone wants to come on and talk about favourite books, authors etc let me know and you are most welcome as I do like a page about books. After all, it’s what we ultimately write for — most of us! Oh and if you have a novel out or a short story collection in your own name please do get in touch and I am happy to welcome you to the spotlight …
Thought I would kick off the week talking about editing. One of the hardest things for writers, especially new writers, is getting to the end of the novel and knowing how to even begin tackling edits. By this I don’t just mean the nuts and bolts tightening of narrative and grammar etc but an up close look at the story itself. This is where getting someone to look at it for you is invaluable but that might not always be possible and perhaps you will save your pennies for a later stage, several edits in?
One of the best pieces of advice came from Richard Adams when he said to me once, across a cup of coffee, “My dear, doesn’t matter how good the writing is, if you don’t have a good story, it won’t sell.”
And I think he is right.
I have talked before about how I’ve rejected pieces from Bridge House that while written beautifully, had no shape, no story. While there are places for this kind of fiction, I truly believe that by definition a story has to ‘tell a story.’ And do it in a way that sets up the question and takes you on a journey of twists and turns to find the answer — and there have to be some surprises along the way so it doesn’t just feel like the same thing revamped.
So one of the stages in editing and I will be starting this process soon with the second draft of I Am Wolf, is to take a close look at how I tell the story (or show it!) and look at this as a starting point.
There are many ways to tell the same story, who is your narrator, how do they narrate (first, second (less likely), third person, what tense? How have you structured it? Does it move around in time? So you alternate narrators …. etc. It’s these big questions you want to start with when you begin the big read-through for the second, and usually the big structural edit. Perhaps you need to really alter the structure to make it work better. Perhaps some characters are little more than filler, and as such could be lost? Or if there is a function in terms of perhaps some key information they provide for plot, can another character take on this function?
I would say this is the phase when there will be lots of ‘killed darlings.’ I don’t mean so much in terms of those lovely prose sections you are loathed to lose (save these for another part, another story even) but the characters, the scenes. anything that doesn’t move plot, reveal character, explore theme.
Functional analysis of plot is really important as a way to see what works and what doesn’t. This is when my spreadsheet comes into its own — when I examine the key function of each chapter, usually one thing like ‘reveal Bob is adopted.’ Then you might have another 1 or 2 lesser but equally important functions like ‘show tenuous relationship with adoptive mother’ and ‘use phone call from brother to show perceived favourtism to non-adopted son.’ And really make it based on just a small number of functions. In fact one of these might simply be to foreground or foreshadow something that’s important later (a narrative device that makes the reader experience more compelling.)
Anything that doesn’t add to the story in one of these ways is essentially ‘filler.’ The more you can focus on function, the tighter the plot will become. Then I would say look at how these functions work — do you want to reveal that this early? Do you need to work on character motivation which is another biggie. Often we see in real life what appear to be pretty random events. But nothing is quite as random as it might first appear ( I have talked about this before as well.) In fiction, while you need an element of ambiguity for the reader, you also want to make sure that key actions for plot are credible. This means not explaining why Bob kills his brother (where did that come from?) but showing how his actions are motivated. This comes down to even the simplest of actions. We need as readers to buy into why and how a character acts and feels and this is about weaving in elements of back story subtly and showing in his actions patterns and aspects that readers understand. I remember a discussion when I was working on the novel While No One Was Watching with my MA tutor. I used the opening as part of my final dissertation. She questioned the motivation of our reporter when he discovers an old woman wandering in a park claiming the little girl she just found is her little girl who disappeared 50 years ago, the day the president was shot. The tutor said why was a reporter for a small time newspaper that bothered about that?
Now my initial reaction was of that of course he would be. This is a small time local newspaper where not a lot happens and this in intriguing, surely? But later I examined her question (as we should do with all critiques) and I realised that there did needed to be more — she was right. So what I did was build into the opening the sense that our divorced struggling ‘Sunday father’ was failing at his job too. He had lost interest in it all and was ‘going through the motions.’ This tied in with his story and one of the themes examined in the novel, that of a divorced father who never really came to terms with the divorce. So now we see the change from the rookie that would have once devoured any story, now in his late thirties having lost his spark. So there is reference to a conversation with his boss and a need to pull his finger out. What this provides is more of a motivation — a need to find a good front-pager, even if it is only a local paper. So now we have more reason for his actions. Could this story, that he thinks might not be anything at first, really be that a little girl has disappeared from the grassy knoll when Kennedy was shot and is still missing? Or is this just what the confused mind of an old lady with dementia thinks? AND if it does check out is this the front-pager that will resurrect his career?This latter point will provide more an enduring motivation for the whole story And actually when you read the ending and his decision what to do with the story he does uncover, his change as a character because of the story, is shown much more dramatically in his actions. So this small point that I thought was an MA tutor being too ‘pedantic’ actually was really important. But until you read the novel of course this might not make a whole lot of sense to you!
So look at function and character motivation I would say as the biggies when you first begin a BIG edit. The grammar, typos, clunky phrasing are all as important, but there is little point in correcting all of these when the chapter, scene, character might not even make the final cut. So begin with story.
I hope this makes sense. I will talk some more about this and other aspects of editing with reference to my novel as I edit. At the moment I am re-reading it (bear in mind While No One Was Watching went through about 8 edits (2 big structural ones) before it was ever sent out) and the publisher says the edits for publication will be more fine edits. I am waiting to hear what they are! But certainly for I Am Wolf I now need to address the issues I have discussed as this is only a first draft.
Also make sure you look at the shape of the story with reference to the story arc at this stage of editing. Because I Am Wolf was a short story first and one that was polished as it was published in the Gentle Footprints collection, I know the story arc is solid. But of course an adaptation to a novel means its shape has to have changed so I need to make sure it still works.
Think that’s enough of my ramblings for a Monday morning — work calls,
Have a great day …
Oh and thought you might like to see this if you haven’t yet … in my local paper this week (tenuous tie in I know!) … and also well done to anyone that also made it onto the Bath Short Story Award longlist as I was delighted to find one of my stories on this weekend 🙂
If you want to read it and can’t — it’s on my Facebook Fan Page that I want everyone to LIKE if you can!!! LINK