30th May2013

Zoë Sharp – Attack of the Killer Red Pen!

by Lloyd Paige


Let’s say that on a Friday afternoon you type “THE END” on the last page of your epic masterpiece. Would you honestly expect that by first thing Monday morning it would be up on Amazon ready to become the latest bestseller?

It’s entirely possible, of course. But sensible? Erm … no, not really.

But sometimes when you download and read a sample of a new e-book you get the feeling that’s exactly what happened. In many ways I can understand it. A book is a long-term project, a real love-hate relationship. Far more perspiration than inspiration, it often feels like trying to fight a lion in a phone box.
And when that fight is over you want some form of celebration—a reward—for sticking with it to the very last full-stop. Publication is the goal you’ve been working towards for weeks, months—even years—and now the writing is done you want it out there and you want it out there RIGHT NOW.

Anybody who mentions editing at this stage is going to sound like the parent who mentions homework at the end of the school week when the sun’s shining and all your pals are hanging around on the doorstep scuffing their toes and asking if you’re coming out to play.

I’m sure I’m not going to be the first to tell you that not just editing but GOOD editing is vital. It’s different from test-readers or beta-readers. They are usually enthusiasts who are already fans of your work and can’t wait for the next instalment. Asking someone to wade through a book in typescript form is a big favour and they need to be keen and hardy souls to do so. I cherish my own test-readers and I’m not saying for a moment that you should forsake them, but a professional eye really is worthwhile.

You need someone who is going to look at the structure beneath the story, who will tell you if they think the first act is too slow, or the last too scrambled. You need someone who will tell you if your character arcs fizzle out, or you’re relying on a deus ex machina ending. Of course, even when you’ve found your highly skilled professional editor there is still the Rule of Thirds to remember:

• One third of the advice you follow.

• One third of the advice you consider.

• And one third of the advice you ignore.

Working out which third is which, however, is the tricky part …

I admit that I find editing hard work—almost more so than writing the book in the first place. This is why I try to edit as I go rather than write myself into a corner and then have to unravel it on the next pass. I usually work from an outline but that doesn’t always make things easier. Mostly, by the time I reach the end of the book the red-pen corrections on my outline form a far greater percentage than the original black ink. (Another reason my outlines always have E.& O.E. in small print somewhere in the bottom corner.)

I’m aware though that however much self-editing and reshuffling I do as I go along, it’s still going to need a thorough editing. For this reason I always keep a summary of the story as I write. A fresh para for each chapter giving a rough idea of day and time-of-day, weather, what happened and the gist of any dialogue, as well as any injuries my characters might be afflicted with. It’s very easy for somebody to be limping heavily in one chapter and be miraculously restored to health in the next.
By the time I’ve finished, my summary can run to twenty or thirty pages and keeping it updated when the book is flowing can seem a bind but it does make editing far easier. If a flashback is needed, or you need to lose a sub-plot, having them marked out in a document that’s a tenth the size of the book itself makes life much easier. Trying to work out where to lace in a new sub-plot when you’re working with hundreds of loose typed pages—or even worse the doc on screen—is enough to drive you to distraction. Trust me on this.

I also create a Style Guide doc as I go. Into this go all the words that might crop up with alternative spellings, abbreviations, etc. Often there are two ways of spelling a word, both of which are correct and so won’t be caught by a spellchecker, but you need to be consistent throughout.
The bit that takes me longest on any new project is the opening of the book. It’s not where the story starts, it’s where you choose to introduce the reader into the story. And often you can jump in much further along the line than you initially think. This is another reason why I write my jacket copy for the story before I begin, so I have a good idea of what the reader will already know before they even get to page one.

Once I’ve made my editorial changes—correcting timeline, geographical or other errors and checking my facts one last time, there’s still the chapter editing to do. It’s instinct when you’re writing to end a chapter, at the end of a scene, when sometimes it makes better dramatic sense to break it in the middle.
I also print out and go through with a Killer Red Pen trying to slay any unnecessary words. These stragglers can usually be best picked off by reading sections out loud, although I don’t recommend this for train journeys unless you want to make strange new friends…

I could go on and on, but to sum up:

• Don’t rush the book into production.

• Put it aside for as long as you can bear so when you re-read it, you’re looking at it with fresh eyes.

• Have a few initial test-readers give you their gut-reactions.

• Hire a professional editor and apply the Rule of Thirds as subjectively as you can.

• Look at your opening and your chapter breaks carefully to increase the tension.

• Have a few more test-readers go through the second draft.

• Make sure your jacket copy makes you WANT to read the book.

• Proofread both before AND after the book’s been converted for e-format.

• Remember me when you’re famous!

Word of the week: Facinorous meaning atrociously or extremely wicked from the Latin facinus, a deed, especially a bad one.


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