Editing is REALLY important. Yes, we all know that the last thing we want to read in a book is a spelling error, but I am not just talking about spelling and grammar here. That is proofreading. What I mean is that EDITING is really important. Just as redrafting is really important. You want to know how important? Well here we go:
The Blood of Whisperers, the first book in The Vengeance Trilogy, is out next month, so I thought I would take the time to share about the editing journey. I first wrote an original draft of this back in 2007-2008. It was called the Errant Pawn then (have a good laugh over that working title) and it was terrible. I left it for years and eventually scrapped the entire thing. Then at the start of 2012 I wrote it again and kept only a few names and binned everything else, and it was SO much better. But that was still the first draft. It began like this:
I would be there soon. I had been telling myself so all afternoon, an afternoon that seemed to stretch so long it melded into yesterday, into last week and last year. There no longer seemed to be seconds, just step after step of aching feet and legs so tired I felt sure that the moment I stopped walking they would never move again.
There are worse beginnings, but it’s pretty dull. I had it read by other people, took in all the criticisms and rewrote 90% of the book. The new beginning went like this:
The girl would not stop screaming. Her hysterical sobs scythed through the summer heat. Men were shouting too, but their words were buried beneath the thrum of my pulse beating in my ears. Leaning my head back against the rough stones of the alehouse, I tried to slow it each gasped breath. Let them not find me, I begged. Let them not find me.
Oooh action. But there is bugger all character and worldbuilding in this first chapter and although the book was significantly improved over all, it wasn’t right. Book take multiple drafts and rewrites to get better. Another 60% rewrite ensued. And, if you are anything like me, the first chapter, and specifically the first lines will be the last things you get right. Eventually it ended up like this:
We are judged. That is what the Sixth Law says. It says the gods are always watching. That they can hear the whisper of our souls.
Finally it was ready to go to my editor. I am my own worst critic, but I am not a stranger to the pride most writers feel when they look over their books, and my months of beta reads and rewrites held me in good stead. The book was well received, but good luck if you think you can produce a publishable book without the assistance of an editor. My editor and I went through many passes of the book and it made a huge difference. Here are some before and after samples:
This was my first visit to Shimai, but I had little desire to look about me. Much like any other town the evening was full of people. Shopkeepers closed up for the night, merchants went in search of lodgings, and everywhere swarmed the usual army of lantern boys, climbing posts and buildings to reach each string of lanterns, tinder caught between their teeth. And yet despite this bustle there was a sense of purpose, of people going from place to place with quick steps, barely lifting their gaze from their feet.
On every corner guards wore the Emperor’s colour.
It was my first visit to Shimai, but in the fading light it looked much like every other city. Shopkeepers were closing their shutters and bolting their doors while late arrivals hunted for lodgings. Street merchants filled the dusk, stalking citizens with their produce, their food trailing mouth-watering odours and their hands held out for coins. A boy was lighting a string of lanterns overhead. Perched like a sparrow upon the eave, he held the tinder between his teeth, a bag of candles hanging from his waist. The city bustled around me, yet I could feel uneasiness. People were going from place to place with quick steps, eyes turned warily toward the emperor’s soldiers on every corner.
And another. Before:
I spat the water back into the pool. Clutching my tunic close I turned, heart hammering. Monarch was there. The day had all but drained away, but there was light enough to gild the tips of his dark hair. He stood between the trees, fingers curled around his great bow, Hatsukoi, his thumb thrumming the string.
I tugged the laces and the bind sprang loose, releasing my breasts. The relief was not untouched by pain, and for a moment I crouched with my forearms pressed to my chest, staring absently at the forest floor. When the sting had subsided, I began to wash, dunking the cloth into the bucket and running it over my body – underarms, breasts, neck, back – wherever I could reach without removing my breeches. With cupped hands I drank, swishing the water around my mouth.
A footstep, barely audible. I spat the water back into the bucket and turned, heart hammering, arms folded across my chest. Monarch was there. The day had all but drained away, but there was light enough to gild the tips of his dark hair. He stood between the trees, fingers curled around his great bow, “Hatsukoi”, his thumb thrumming the string.
There are places where whole sections could be deleted, places where there was pronoun confusion, poorly chosen descriptors and despite my efforts to be rid of them, unnecessary adverbs. *shudders* My editor deleted ‘down’ every time I had written ‘I sat down’ because it wasn’t needed. She pulled me up on repeated words and misplaced capitalisation. Yes, she also corrected spelling errors and grammatical problems, but the job of an editor is so much more than that. The job of an editor is to make your book the absolute best it can possibly be, but they can only do that if you listen to them!
Love your editor! It is a partnership.
Writer’s Block. Everyone has heard of the term, some terrible fate that is waved before writers as yet another stumbling block along the road to a finished project. It is like a disease, the equivalent of the common cold, a term bandied around so much it has lost all significant meaning.
But what is it really?
To achieve anything we require the energy to do it, the inclination to do it, the drive and the ability. That is true of all things, and when something is lacking, work becomes difficult. It happens with everything. I got a quarter of the way through painting the outside of my house and then stopped, and a year later I still haven’t taken up the brush again. Some people might call this ‘can’t be assed’, but there is more to it than that. I am far from lazy. I work every waking minute of my day and I look after two small children and manage a household. I live on six hours of sleep. What happened was I lost my drive to paint, because that obsessive energy was being poured into writing.
I did a post a few days back about how much effort writing takes. It is not a job for dreamers so much as obsessive perfectionists. It takes a lot of energy even if one doesn’t get up from the computer for hours at a time. True writer’s block is when you just don’t have that energy, when something else has taken control of your head. I stopped writing for months when I was renovating the house and when I was pregnant, and at those times you just put the pen/keyboard down and don’t even think about it. Wait until the energy returns.
What is NOT writer’s block?
Writer’s block is not sitting down to write and being sure every word you’re writing is awful – that’s just being a writer.
Writer’s block is not struggling to know where the story should go next – if it doesn’t flow on its own then there is something wrong with it. Cut back to where it all went wrong and try again.
Writer’s block is not when you begin losing interest in finishing a project – again that is just being a writer. Every book I’ve ever written has taken longer and longer to slog through by the time the end comes, especially at the end of a trilogy. It begins to feel like you’ve been writing this book FOREVER and it will never end and you want to do something new but you can’t until this one is done. Don’t fall into that trap or you’ll never finish anything.
If your writing is just flagging then chances are, just like with real writer’s block, there is a problem. Something is wrong and the energy is lacking. Look for passive characters – ones who have things happen TO them as opposed to causing things to happen. Look for situations where the plot has constrained a character to act out of … well… character. If you have decided the plot and then designed the characters to fit that plot you are likely to run into these problems a lot.
So the difference? Writer’s block is a lack of energy where you can’t even THINK about writing, when another aspect of life has become more important.
Not really writer’s bock is when you are struggling with a piece of work that just won’t write itself. If this is the case then consider having someone else read it, because there is almost certain to be a problem you haven’t seen.
Ok, so it’s been a while since I wrote a blog post. Time is precious, even to an obsessive workaholic like me. Sometimes people ask me why I have to work so much. My answer? Because writing can be bloody hard! And this is why I get really annoyed when people say: “I could write better than that author.” or “I could do that if I had more time.” or the shudder-worthy: “Everyone has a book inside them.” It’s like when my brother yells at the football. Why yell at players? You couldn’t do any better. You haven’t even touched a football for years.
So, think you’re better than Stephenie Meyer? Think you could write faster than George R.R. Martin?
Then bloody well go do it and good luck to you, because I think there are some truths about writing that no one has told you.
Writing a story is easy. Kids can do it. You take a character and make things happen to them. Susie goes for a walk, she gets lost in the forest. She meets a friendly dragon, helps him cook his breakfast, then he shows her how to get out. Done. My three year old comes up with stories like this all the time. But few would argue that it is publishing grade material. Do you know why most writers take at least a year to bring out a book? Because that is how long it takes to make it GOOD.
So what do you do? You write a first draft. Great, well done, you have some characters and they do some vaguely interesting things, or even some very interesting things if you’re lucky. This stage takes me about 5-6 weeks for a 100,000-120,000 word novel. It’s exciting. If you’re a fly by the seat of your pants writer like me it’s really exciting because you don’t know what your characters are going to do until they do it. It’s the best part of the whole process, the part where we get to be storytellers, not just glorified typists. But now what? Do you submit your amazing work to a publisher? No, almost certainly they would throw it in the bin. Self publish it? It’s easy to do, but please don’t. It isn’t ready. You have to put it aside. You have to leave it, and when you do come back to it you have to be critical and tear it to pieces so you can rebuild it better. You write another draft. You fix the plot holes, ramp up the tension, take out the characters that don’t need to be there even if you really like that one line they have about goats.
Great. Second draft is done. Off to the publisher now? NO! Give it to someone else to read. And no, I don’t mean your partner, your best friend or your mum, unless you are fortunate enough to have a great literary critic about you. Give it to someone who reads a lot, who you trust to tell you the absolute truth no matter how much it might hurt. These people are your true friends. People who say “It’s good” are no use to you. You want the people who have the balls to say: “Why the hell does Johnny go into the sewers anyway?” .. “Don’t you think dragons and elves are a bit… well… cliche?” Or even: “Dude, it’s shit. I didn’t like your character and I wanted to throw the book in the fire.” – because these opinions aren’t any good to you if you’ve already self published it.
Ok, so you have your readers (yes, you need more than one). These are your ‘alpha readers’. Fantastic. Let them read it. Listen to EVERYTHING they have to say. You can’t be a precious ass at this time and defend everything. If they see a problem most likely there is a problem and you have to at least take it on board. Then you re-write with all of these comments in mind. Fix the pacing. Give Johnny a damn good reason for going into that sewer. Spice up the pointy-eared fantasy staples or take them out. Then give it back to the readers. The same ones, a few new ones, hunt around for even complete strangers if you have to. These people are your ‘beta readers’.
Great. Now you’re starting to get somewhere. But you know what? You aren’t there yet. How many drafts and changes do you have to make? As many as it bloody well takes to come near perfection. I draft, I have readers, I draft more, I keep this going until there is no plot holes, no slow patches, and I am carrying these readers with me on the edge of their seats. Then the story is finished, but the book is not. From there chances are you need to cut words. Some people work to a percentage, 10-15% cutback. I go with the flow, but keep an eye on the math. Read the work aloud. Are there difficult passages to read? Highlight them as you go and fix them up later. I’ve found loads of problems this way that I might never have found otherwise.
By now you are probably wondering if a book is EVER finished. And the answer is that it has to be. There comes a point at which the effort is no longer worth it. In the early drafts you are dramatically improving your manuscript. By the time you have the story right and are fixing the words, you are taking it from good to great. But after a while every editing run you take through your work is going to change less and less, and somewhere we perfectionists must draw the line. It is finished. I might never be able to read it in print for fear of finding a sentence I could have improved, but it is finished and I will not touch it anymore.
It is nothing short of torture. But it is a torture I love. So this, this is why there is no book inside everyone. Everyone has a story to tell over a beer down at the pub, just as everyone can be funny, but that doesn’t mean we should all become comedians. There is a big difference.
So next time you idly think about how cool it would be to write a book – don’t. It is not for idle dreamers. Writing is for mad people who would self-flagellate if it hadn’t gone out of fashion.
Making up book titles is both the best and the worst part of book production. When you hit on one that works, that not only sounds good but also works for your book and isn’t already taken, there is no better feeling. But, as happens all too often, it just isn’t quite right.
Here is a sample page from my notebook from the attempt to find titles for all three books of The Vengeance Trilogy.
There are many more pages where this came from. This was one of the last brainstorming pages. Earlier pages were all words and there were many false starts and many many bad ideas.
There is something magical about a title. It is likely to be the first thing any prospective reader knows about your book. “Hey, have you read BLAH?” … Think it isn’t important how it sounds? Think again. Say your title. Say it in a million funny voices if you have to, anything to see if there is a problem with the way it sounds. One of my early working titles for this story in its very early stages was The Errant Pawn … bad idea. It looks ok in print, but when you say it out loud it inevitably causes a bout of sniggering.
Titles have to capture interest, yes, but they also have to signal to a reader what genre the work is in. Various ideas that showed up in my notebook sounded like the wrong genre. “The God Within Us All” sounded too spiritual. “Dig Two Graves” sounded like a crime novel. If you pick up a book called something like: “The King of Sparta’s Daughter” chances are you’re going to be reading an ancient greek romance as opposed to a blood-thirsty adventure, although either way there is likely to be a whole load of sweaty spartan warriors, because some things transcend genre.
And as if there wasn’t enough to deal with, titles also have to steer clear of cliche and coming across as too generic. In fact, really good titles are very hard to come by. Two of my absolute favourites are “Heaven’s Net is Wide” by Lian Hearn, which has emotional connotations as well as giving you the impression lots of characters are going to die, and “Red Seas Under Red Skies” by Scott Lynch, which is just beautiful. The first book in his Gentleman Bastard Sequence, “The Lies of Locke Lamora” is also a great title, the alliteration really makes it work.
Perhaps there is a good reason why titles don’t usually fall to the author. But for those authors who have to do such things for themselves, the moment you get it right, when you wake up with the name on your lips, when it comes to you while you’re dashing about trying to get two little kids in the car, it is magical. Absolutely magical. It might yet turn out there was a better title, but when you see some of the bad titles that come out on the shelves I think it is safe to say that is true of every book ever written.
Writers are terribly curious beings. We have to be, because we have to accurately depict things we have absolutely no experience of. I’ll let other writers speak for themselves, but I have never stabbed anyone, never smelt a corpse and never been injured beyond a household burn or two. So how can I write about these things? Find someone who has!
Thank you Google!
Just in the last few months I have googled enough strange questions that I wouldn’t be surprised to receive a visit from the police! What could explain questions like: “How high does blood spurt when a head is decapitated?”, “What does burning flesh smell like?” and “Does a knife wound hurt more when the blade is going in or coming out?” [Answers: About 7 inches, scarily like a BBQ, and coming out.]
I’m sorry officier, but I’m a fantasy author. Perhaps that says something about the way my mind works, that spending hours reading about the various smells that come from different parts of the human body when it’s burnt doesn’t bother me, rather it intrigues me and I begin to think of interesting ways I can use this information. Of course there are lots of other sources one should use besides google and wikipedia, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find my local librarian seriously worried by my loan history as well. But does this make me a dangerous person? Or even a morbid person? Well, no. When I sit down at my computer I write the story that comes to me. I have characters and I put them on a page, and what happens from there is, to a large extent, out of my hands. In fantasy there are often high-stakes situations and a lot of moral grey area, which means terrible things tend to happen. I don’t set out to write them. I don’t revel in the gory details, but when the story demands they be written, I demand that they be written with the greatest degree of knowledge I can come by – short of stabbing myself in the gut and describing how it feels.
And yes, take from this that decapitation and stabbing occur in at least one of my books …