If I’ve been quiet for a while on this blog, it’s because I’ve been editing. And editing again. And reading out loud. Then editing again. And to my huge surprise, it has been a most absorbing and fulfilling experience. I don’t think I had understood what editing really was before now. I think I was living under the misapprehension that when somebody edits your book, they find all the bits that could be better, and they rewrite them. Oh no. Nothing like that at all, as all you experienced writers will know. You get back your whole book with notes scribbled all over it.
Things like “too much dialogue – let’s have more insight into what Tom is thinking” or “too factual – make it more personal” or “What sort of a voice does Tom have?” or even “There’s something a little odd about this line”. There were lots of scribbles of “very important few lines – we need just a touch more to explain in emotional terms”.
Once I had got over the shock, it was an almost liberating experience. Only the Innocent has been an incredible success for me, and I think that most people (not all, of course) have loved the story. So the plot hasn’t changed at all. The same man dies, killed by the same woman, in the same way, for the same reason. But thanks to its success I have been lucky enough to find a really terrific agent, who sees the editing process as part of her remit. I understand that not all agents work like this, so without actually having a clue what I was doing, I seem to have stumbled across the perfect agent for me (with the help of Kerry Wilkinson, who introduced us). I don’t mind in the slightest that she thinks my best seller could benefit from some tweaks, and I don’t actually mind who I share that information with either. Let’s face it – for us indie authors there is a huge amount to learn, and I am the first to admit that. The last thing that we need to be is arrogant.
And so, armed with all 350 pages of my novel, I started to work through the changes. I had also read a book called Self Editing for Fiction Writers, which I found gave me a better understanding of what my agent was getting at with some of her very helpful scribbles. Gradually I became aware of things that I could do that would hopefully enhance the reader experience.
I know that editing Only the Innocent might seem an odd thing to do, having already sold over a hundred thousand copies, but apart from anything else it was great practice for the next book. So I thought that I would share a few of the things that I learned in the process.
Point of View
I get point of view. I always have. I know that you can’t say things like “Laura looked at Tom and thought how tired he looked.” Followed by “Tom sat down. He didn’t think his weary legs would hold him up for much longer.” I knew it was wrong to have thoughts from inside two people’s heads in the same chapter or scene. So I thought I had that cracked. What I’ve come to understand during this process, though, is that it’s all too easy to slip into a sort of ‘cinematic’ mode. All thoughts might come through the correct character’s head, but the scene is almost being viewed as a film and the author is merely watching the action. But with point of view, we need to get right inside that person’s head – see what they are seeing (which of course, doesn’t include themselves), feel what they are feeling. I had to learn to become a participant in the scene, rather than an observer.
Show and Tell
I thought I’d got this too – but there are subtleties that had escaped me. My editing book says that you should never use an adverb to describe how somebody is saying something; it’s what they say that should convey the message. So where I once might have said – “You shouldn’t have come, Imogen,” Laura said angrily – it would now say – “You shouldn’t have come, Imogen. It was a stupid decision. You just didn’t think, did you?” – it’s no longer necessary to say she was angry. It’s pretty clear!
I have to confess that since writing and subsequently editing my book, I have become much more emotional. Embarrassingly so at times! And I know why. It’s because when I am writing, I have to think exactly what each person will be feeling and show that emotion. It’s not enough to write that Laura thought she was going to faint. As readers we want to know exactly how that feels, so as a writer, it is my job to describe the sensation of fainting. “Laura felt the colour drain from her face. The edges of her vision turned black, as if dark smoke was circling her eyes, and the sound of the voices around her became muffled.”
Several people have commented that they couldn’t understand why Laura would stay with Hugo in Only the Innocent. I knew, of course. But maybe I hadn’t conveyed strongly enough how it would it feel to live with somebody who never raises his voice, but at the same time is controlling your every action? Why would anybody stay? So I tried to put it into words.
“She had no words to describe it – just thoughts, images and feelings. The hollow sensation she felt when she knew without him saying a word that Hugo was displeased, and the disproportionate joy she experienced when he smiled at her with some degree of affection. Actions and attitudes that would seem normal in most relationships took on a significance of monumental importance and flooded her with hope. But the master puppeteer knew just when her desperation point had been reached, and always rewarded her with nothing more than a kind word or a gentle kiss. And of course, over time these moments became rarer and therefore infinitely more precious.”
I needed to strengthen – and perhaps even explain – the process of non-violent abuse, and how it builds over time. I have to confess to getting very annoyed by reviews that say things like “no woman would put up with that behaviour” – and I do wonder occasionally whether some people exist on another planet, but as a writer it is my job to make it believable to everybody.
When I write, I go to a lot of trouble to work out detail about my characters. I know when they were born, where they spent their early years, what food and drink they like, and what they look like. In my latest book, I have even found pictures of people that I think depict my characters well. But have I described them adequately? My self editing book says to describe characters with enough physical description to picture them – concrete details, rather than generalisations (such as “A good looking man in his thirties”). But it’s more than that. How do they speak? What’s their general tone? Do they have any mannerisms (in speech as well as in actions). It comes back to getting inside their heads and being that person.
Some months ago, I gave a five star review to a book by author Chris Orcutt. The novel was called A Real Piece of Work, and it wasn’t really my sort of book as it was a story about a private detective agency. But I loved it. I couldn’t put my finger on why his book stood out, but it did. Interestingly, he has just published his second book in the series, The Rich are Different, and I have started reading it. Having just gone through the editing process, I finally understand why I love his writing. He somehow manages to convey everything you need to know about a character in a few words:
“He was 5’8” of lean muscle, artificial tan, and teeth – the whitest teeth this detective had ever seen. Somehow I got the sense he handled a lot more around here than the skeet trap.”
Orcutt’s style is very tongue in cheek, but his level of description – not just of characters, but of the smells, sounds and tastes of his surroundings – somehow manages to take you there.
One of the biggest and most significant changes in editing Only the Innocent was to the action. I have noticed in reading a lot of indie books that the focus is often on what people are saying rather than doing, and so the scenes may lack movement. I was guilty of this too, in some places. But people’s movements so often demonstrate what they are thinking or feeling. So if Laura spends an inordinate amount of time poking the fire, could it be because she doesn’t want anybody to see her face? If she kneels on the floor at somebody’s feet, is it because she is imploring them to understand? Sometimes by how they move, how they sit, what they are doing with their hands, we are able to convey their emotions, but not only that – we can give the reader visual clues about how the scene is playing out.
I don’t know quite where I picked up this tip, but it makes such a difference. I sat in a quiet room (more than once) and read the whole manuscript out loud. Not only does it help with identifying errors, but it really helps with stilted phrasing, particularly with speech. It’s possible to read quite quickly – much faster than if you were reading the book to somebody else for their enjoyment – but I would strongly recommend it if you’ve not tried this before.
Let’s be clear about this. I have a lot to learn, but I am loving every minute of it. I read a quote the other day (which I now can’t find) – but it was a very famous author commenting on the fact that no writer should ever consider him or herself an expert. We are all still learning. And that is so true! I am under no illusions that I have suddenly honed my writing skills to perfection, but each day I discover something new about writing, and that is so exciting.
I thought the editing process would be a nightmare, but it’s somehow a really exhilarating experience. I will always be a writer of accessible fiction, and have no aspirations to write books of intellectual merit. But the more that I can learn about the craft, and the more emotion and realism that I can add to my books, the happier I will be.
If I had my time over, I would seek out a really good editor before publishing Only the Innocent. I’m sure the new version is not perfect, but for those of you out there who are on the exciting self-publishing track, give some thought to professional editing, or alternatively buy yourself a good book and pick up some tips. It won’t be as good as having an editor, but it will certainly help.
Only the Innocent has now been republished with the changes, and I will be fascinated to see the feedback, and as always, get your comments on this blog post.