Dredits

Dread Edits, only when I was thinking this through I ran the two words into one in my head. I don’t think I’m alone in dreading the editing process. It’s tedious, it can make a book you enjoyed writing into a boring chore, but it’s necessary. Editing is part of the process, even if, or perhaps especially if, you’re sending the manuscript to someone else for more editing.

I’m not particularly good at editing. I dread it, I put it off, and although proofing isn’t horrible (I tend to read the story backwards, to catch things. That lack of continuity trips up my brain. I started to do this with papers in college and it works well. Your brain is a tricky beast, and it will fill in words that are all wrong, in the interests of helping you. Not helping, Brain!) trying to catch structural issues seems to catch me up in the worst way. Which is why beta readers are invaluable, of course. They aren’t living in your head, with access to all the bits you didn’t bother to write down, but should have in order to make things perfectly clear to the reader.

Which does not mean that you ought to write everything in your head down in the story. I was amused, while reading a novel, to discover a perfectly lovely passage on novel-writing, as was explained to a young woman who had just written her first novel. This is from Anna and Her Daughters, by DE Stevenson (yes, a relative of that Stevenson). Since DE Stevenson wrote more than 40 novels herself, and was rather successful, I like what she said.

“It’s a sort of build up. You have to describe__”

“You don’t build up this sort of story. You don’t describe the scenery and the characters. This sort of story is an entertainment for people who can’t be bothered with long and detailed explanations. You must plunge straight into the middle of the story on the very first page.” She smiled and added, “Here am I telling you how to write a novel… and I couldn’t write a novel to save my life.”

All the same she was right. The beginning was too heavy and it was not until Chapter Four that the story began to get going.

She’s hit on something here that made me stop and think. Editing has flavors – far more than the ‘structural, continuity, and proof’ it has to understand the genre. A romance is going to be paced differently, with different beats, than a science fiction novel will be. And while you can transpose some of those things, because it’s never a rigid structure, if you do too many, the readers will wonder what you are playing at. This is why we talk about reading in your genre when you want to write in it. If you don’t, the book is going to be an Odd Duck, and not necessarily in a good way. Most likely it will be neither fish, nor fowl, nor good red meat (and what does that leave? Cricket flour?). Being fresh and original, oddly, requires a firm foundation in what you want to break away from.

But I shall finish with DE Stevenson’s advice again:

“There were a few other small mistakes… in several places my critic [her friend helping her edit] objected to the phraseology and made me alter it. Bu the time we had done all this the manuscript was in a frightful mess and I said I would re-write the whole thing.

“Indeed you won’t!” declared Mrs. Millard. “Give it to me at once. If you rewrite the story you’ll change the wording and take out all the freshness and spontaneity. You aren’t experienced enough to leave well alone. We’ll pack it up here and now and send it to be typed.”

She’s right, you know. Once you have done the necessary edits, leave it. Send it to your editor, as this is past the beta reader stage – the changes she was incorporating were those that betas would suggest – and then stop worrying about it. Rest, take a long walk, read loads of books that interest you, and then begin on the next book!

 

24 comments

  1. — “You must plunge straight into the middle of the story on the very first page.” —

    “In medias res” is the most reliable technique for capturing the reader’s attention and keeping it. It’s part of why prologues have fallen so completely out of fashion.

    Lawrence Block gave his first mystery novel to his agent Henry Morrison for his opinion. Morrison read it through (“without gagging,” Block wrote), then told him to exchange the first and second chapters; just about nothing else. Block did so…and it sold.

    1. Sort of, and not really, it depends.

      Prologues are good for certain genres to plant information to tell the reader what the story is about e.g.: mystery.

      Prologues used as info dumps, not so good.

      In media res requires a high level of skill to pull of successfully. One is better of introducing the character in a setting with a problem, but this can be done using voice and opinions of the character.

      Pure in media res has to hook the reader, a failure to engage will leave readers thinking why should I care about this character?

      YMMV

      1. This is why I mentioned that you must know your genre conventions. Thrillers ought not begin with exposition. High Fantasy, on the other hand, has a certain expectation.

      2. A good prologue is itself typically in media res — it shows you some action that isn’t otherwise initially relevant.

        Frex, in a mystery, it can be used to witness the murder (while not seeing the murderer) — that way you’ve been dropped right into it, but haven’t yet met the players (so nothing is given away).

      3. Dear Miss Pollard:

        — Prologues are good for certain genres to plant information to tell the reader what the story is about e.g.: mystery. –

        If there is any genre in which beginning with a prologue is a more questionable decision than in the mystery genre, I can’t think what it might be. Virtually all mystery writers begin with a conflict, even if they must introduce that conflict by having the conflicted one walk into the Marquee Character’s office and drop a problem in his lap or a gun on his desk. Indeed, the one thing a mystery novelist must NOT do is “tell the reader what the story is about.” That’s literally antithetical to the point of a mystery!

        — Prologues used as info dumps, not so good. –

        And when is an infodump a good thing, pray tell?

        — In media res requires a high level of skill to pull of successfully. –

        So does writing a coherent, worthwhile novel.

        — Pure in media res has to hook the reader, a failure to engage will leave readers thinking why should I care about this character? –

        The entire point of in medias res is to hook the reader! As for “a failure to engage,” that applies to any and every way of beginning a story!

        Did I miss your point, or do we simply see things completely differently?

      4. Dear Miss Pollard:Dear Miss Pollard:

        — Prologues are good for certain genres to plant information to tell the reader what the story is about e.g.: mystery. –

        If there is any genre in which beginning with a prologue is a more questionable decision than in the mystery genre, I can’t think what it might be. Virtually all mystery writers begin with a conflict, even if they must introduce that conflict by having the conflicted one walk into the Marquee Character’s office and drop a problem in his lap or a gun on his desk. Indeed, the one thing a mystery novelist must NOT do is “tell the reader what the story is about.” That’s literally antithetical to the point of a mystery!

        — Prologues used as info dumps, not so good. –

        And when is an infodump a good thing, pray tell?

        — In media res requires a high level of skill to pull of successfully. –

        So does writing a coherent, worthwhile novel.

        — Pure in media res has to hook the reader, a failure to engage will leave readers thinking why should I care about this character? –

        The entire point of in medias res is to hook the reader! As for “a failure to engage,” that applies to any and every way of beginning a story!

        Did I miss your point, or do we simply see things completely differently?

        — Prologues are good for certain genres to plant information to tell the reader what the story is about e.g.: mystery. –

        If there is any genre in which beginning with a prologue is a more questionable decision than in the mystery genre, I can’t think what it might be. Virtually all mystery writers begin with a conflict, even if they must introduce that conflict by having the conflicted one walk into the Marquee Character’s office and drop a problem in his lap or a gun on his desk. Indeed, the one thing a mystery novelist must NOT do is “tell the reader what the story is about.” That’s literally antithetical to the point of a mystery!

        — Prologues used as info dumps, not so good. –

        And when is an infodump a good thing, pray tell?

        — In media res requires a high level of skill to pull of successfully. –

        So does writing a coherent, worthwhile novel.

        — Pure in media res has to hook the reader, a failure to engage will leave readers thinking why should I care about this character? –

        The entire point of in medias res is to hook the reader! As for “a failure to engage,” that applies to any and every way of beginning a story!

        Did I miss your point, or do we simply see things completely differently?

        1. Francis, I’d argue that on the contrary, mysteries are the most frequent users of the prologue, followed by thrillers.

          I’ve picked up quite a few, and watched several more, where the story starts with the last moments of the victim’s life, like a little story-within-a-story, and then once we care about the victim, we follow through whodunnit, or howdunnit, or whydunnit.

          For thrillers, the prologue, even if not specifically marked as such, sets the original incident that’s going to crop up years later to haunt the major players. One was the kids playing in Lebanon, only to be interrupted by fighters and bombers taking out most of the family – and then we cut to the boy fully grown and a terrorist now. Another was a gent trying to escort a defector out of the USSR, and being shot down like a dog. Fast forward twenty years and the protege, all grown up, is part of the great game when evidence starts to surface that maybe his mentor didn’t die after all…

          1. Yes, but usually these are less ‘scenery and character description’ and more ‘in media res’ at a point in the story, but using that to set up the later story. So they aren’t slow…

            1. *waggles hand*

              When I went back and deconstructed them from a writer’s perspective… no, actually, not really. They were very scenery and setting and promises to the reader heavy, wrapped around dialogue and action.

              For people who know their recent Middle East history, Just opening the prologue with “Beirut, 1983” will immediately tell them a hell of a lot about the scene, the action, and the players. When you open with kids playing football (soccer) in Beirut, 1983… you know a destruction of innocence is coming. And that there’s going to be a revenge character arc. And terrorism.

              …and that’s just the first paragraph, when we’ve just met the boy scoring a goal with the football.

              1. …and now that I realize that because I look at that opening paragraph and see that, and consider that a whole lot of information, and think that since we don’t get to the inevitable (retaliatory, but the kids don’t understand that) airstrike until paragraph six, the opening is slow…

                …Might explain something about my writing style.

      5. And then there’s the “Ice monster prologue” of epic fantasy, which starts action in media res in order to lure the reader through the long slow of worldbuilding and introductions to follow, because they know if they make it, there’s going to be epic battles and terrifying thrills, and the ice monsters will come back…

  2. I just lopped a chunk out of the WIP, because it cluttered the story and didn’t add to the flow. Writing that chunk and getting it just right took, oh, half and hour or so. Pruning it out? A lot less time. I don’t like that. I don’t like pruning my Prescioussssssss. Ahem, sorry. Some edits are OK (add bit about McGuffin, located repeated words that are repeating so often they get repetitious), others are not fun at all.

    1. I’m not a fan of machete editing. In my observation, the desire to lop away usually comes not from the scene being needless, but from it being insufficiently developed. It came out of your head for a reason (at least if you’re far enough along as a writer to occasionally finish a story, and don’t have a habit of irrelevant subplots) — the trick is to find the connection, and use it.

      I have a prime example in my own Epic. Some 10 or 12 years ago I wrote what seemed to be an orphan scene, what looked like a rest stop between panics. It didn’t relate to anything else, other than an offhand remark from 10 years before. Last year I realized how it fits in… and without changing more than single detail of description, it became an integral part of the worst fright of my MC’s life… and anchored a series of other events that had been resisting arrest, so to speak.

      1. This was a discussion of theology and congregational behavior. Show will work far better than tell in this case, and will keep the tempo of the story moving.

  3. Heh. My technique with college papers was not to start them until 3 AM on the day they were due, so that I wouldn’t spend hours re-reading and second-guessing and doing minor edits. Of course, that was when I didn’t particularly care about my grades. (Because my father used to say, “If you get over a C in some required course you’re not interested in, you’re working too hard.”)

    With books, OTOH, I really don’t want to add avoidable errors to my existing failings, so I generally do at least 3 proofreading passes.

    1. A’s or B’s in the required gen ed classes give you more slack in the GPA for not getting kicked out of the upper division courses with the most advanced material in your major. And it is better to look for classes to satisfy the gen ed classes that are interesting enough to be worth studying.

      I may just be too lazy to want to take any class that is boring and worthless.

      Of course, these days it may be easier to shop around for transfer credits, and at least find an instructor and curriculum that are tolerable.

      Sure, a high GPA is worthless if you were not able to use it to get a starting job after school. If a degree is worth getting, I would expect to find myself wanting to know the material better later, and wishing I had learned more from this or that class, even if I thought it wasn’t important at the time.

  4. I don’t know how it works now, but when I was at UT there were a number of classes that, in theory, everybody had to take – no shopping around. And most of them were deadly dull, because why work on making a class interesting when you have a captive audience?

    1. May depend on the school. I know that some of them, you aren’t automatically enrolled in anything but the online ‘this is how the university works’/’the university has x service’/sensitivity training/safety courses. Might be a size issue. If your freshman/sophomore/junior/senior cohorts are in the thousands, you probably have trouble actually teaching the same course to all of them. At which point, you start having acceptable courses for a requirement, and might as well have more than a few. On the other hand, perhaps with Covid, and the big push for online courses, we may see a system developed that can manage teaching the same course to thousands or tens of thousands of people. That is with credit, as opposed to just the self paced stuff that is for motivated people who know how to study.

  5. This has been quite helpful – my first book was edited into a hot mess. I put it aside finally, as I couldn’t figure out how to unf**k it. Finally got going with another work, bogged down just now (the pandemic has sucked all the good out of me). If I could just figure out how to get my husband out from under, I might make progress.

Comments are closed.