Whenever I get revisions back from my editor, her cover letter says something like, “Overall, Phil, I think the plot of The Alcoholic Mercenary is excellent – you’ve brought in all the key elements of the noir genre, combined them with tight writing…” (actual). In this instance, Georgia noted my “tight writing”. The tightness is not because I’m excellent at my job— a wordsmith like Winnie used to be— but because of the editing processes I follow. This issue of the blog describes those processes.
Editing is by far the longest blog in A Technical Approach to Novel Writing. That is no accident. Editing a manuscript is the most difficult — and important — part of the novel-writing process, regardless of what approach is used to actually write. Quality is key. Once again, my opinion flies in the face of Stephen King’s adage that readers don’t care about quality, only about the story. I would argue that Mr King’s theory depends on the reader more than anything.
|Take The Thursday Murder Club as an example. At the time of writing, there are ~100k reviews on Amazon. 64% are five-star and 3% are one-star, and a further 3% are two-star. Reading the one and two-star ratings, a common theme is the poor quality of the book. Admittedly, it is a multi-million selling phenomenon, which obviously supports MrKing’s theory, except — in my opinion — the story is not particularly good, either. I believe The Thursday Murder Club sold because of the celebrity status of the author, not because readers don’t care about quality.|
Today, it doesn’t really matter whether a writer intends self-publishing or to go down the traditional route, as far as I am concerned, it is still necessary to edit. Maybe it is my previous career talking, but I want my books to be the best they can possibly be, regardless of what my readers want. I can take negative reviews on the chin — though not very well, they hurt — but if they refer to poor quality work, then I have failed.
So, Who Pays the Ferryman?
The publishing world has changed where book quality is concerned. Gone are the days when publishers would foot the bill. In today’s market, they can’t afford to and expect an MS to be as near perfect as possible when it is submitted. Similarly, if an editor receives a manuscript that is not up to a certain standard, they are likely to refuse it. It is not an editor’s job to rewrite a poorly written book. A marked deterioration in the quality of books from an editorial perspective is not an accident. I heard that publishing houses have switched the onus onto writers. It is now not uncommon to find a glut of typos and grammatical errors in books released into the market, even by reputable publishers like Penguin — never mind the redundancy developmental and line edits would have removed. There has also been an explosion of purple prose, no doubt because self-editors believe flowery and ornate passages constitute good writing and there is no one there to correct them.
I suspect this fall in quality is because writers — given the choice of either paying the publisher to edit or doing it themselves — will do their own editing. “If I can write, then I can edit”, I imagine to be something said quite regularly in the writing community. This might well be true to a large extent, only not the writer’s own work. A common human trait is to read what is expected and not what is present. This becomes triplicated when auto-editing. I was an editor by trade but I will always have my books at least line-edited and proofread by autonomous professionals.
So, there it is, I pay to have my books edited. Sounds a bit like a baker going to the local supermarket to buy bread, but it is the reality of the world I inhabit. That said, it is still important to have my MSs as near perfect as possible before I submit them to my editor, so I employ a complex editing process.
What do I Watch For?
The obvious answer is typos and grammatical errors. However, a good edit goes a lot deeper than that.
I suppose — like everything I do as a novelist — how I edit is heavily influenced by years in the technical documentation arena. From a wet-behind-the-ears specification writer to a senior manager in a global SW company the key was always the same: getting the message across. I don’t believe the key should change just because the arena I am in is now creative instead of technical.
Editing in the technical world is based on style guides, such as the Chicago Manual of Style, The IBM Style Guide, and the Microsoft Style Guide, as well as internal guides. In my later career, as an editor, writing internal style guides was my responsibility. The last style guide I wrote couched terms like clarity and brevity, redundancy, accuracy, consistency, and navigability. These are all terms that can be — to a greater or lesser extent — applied when writing a novel.
Clarity, Brevity, and Redundancy
The writing should be clear and precise. When reading, I hate having to reread sentences because they are unclear. It detracts from the reading experience and slows down the story.
In terms of brevity, I do not write sentences of thirty words when twenty would do the trick (never allowing that guideline to affect pacing — if I want to slow it down, I write longer sentences). In On Writing, Stephen King says cut, cut, cut, and cut again (paraphrasing). I would hate to think how big The Stand was before the cutting commenced, but he’s not wrong. So, what is it I cut?
Personally, I am guilty of repeating messages worded slightly differently. This is redundancy. My editor actually finds most of these, but I do try before I submit the manuscript. The various audio edits help this (see the following). Redundancy is a major headache for documentation in the IT industry. Someone who has just bought an enterprise-level software platform doesn’t care about the team’s brilliance when developing it. They want to know what the story is. In today’s reading world, this is also true. Readers don’t care about all that flowery exposition writers tend to think is indicative of good writing. They want a story they can lose themselves in, not a story they have to dig out from a purple flowerbed.
On top of my redundancies, there are, of course, the redundancies created by adverbs and adjectives. The King wrote, “the road to hell is paved with adverbs” Although guilty of breaking his own guideline, once again, he is not wrong.
Accuracy is key for me. Whenever I read a novel with inaccurate statements it turns me off. It is not only historical novels that require research. I recently reviewed an epic fantasy novel, where during training the sword master instructed his pupil to watch the feet of an adversary. Advice that would result in immediate death in a battle scenario. A little research (or a line edit) would have prevented that error. Another inaccuracy was in Patriot Games where Clancy had Queen Elizabeth commanding the Prime Minister, which, of course, does not fit with the British political reality. Only a little research would have prevented that faux pas.
It is important to be consistent. I reviewed a novel recently where the author switched between metric and imperial throughout the story. This immediately made me aware that a professional line edit hadn’t been done, or if it had, hadn’t been done well. Consistency also refers to characters. They should be consistent except when breaking consistency is an intentional plot device. If your main character enjoys farting after eating, they should do so throughout the story.
Navigability is — in today’s world — the least important aspect of novel writing. It comes down to a table of contents because indexes are not usually present in novels. However, with TAM — because it is set in Italy, and includes Italian slang, I included a glossary. For the electronic version, it was necessary to convert the glossary into footnotes so readers can easily access definitions with a minimum of distraction from the story (enhanced navigability). Some might say glossaries are not commensurate to a flowing story, but neither is confusing a reader. I have received five-star reviews because I included a glossary.
Overused Words and Literary Devices
I am yet to meet an author who doesn’t overuse something in their writing. One of my favourites is “look” and its variations (looked, looking, looks). During the final editing phase of After Gairech (2021), my editor found 411 variations of look in a book of 90k words (350 pages), sometimes, several on the same page. Too many. This type of overuse is easily fixed. As well as using alternative words, I fix individual repetition with methods that don’t require a thesaurus, such as restructuring places where they occur. For example, I find I often use “look” in dialogue tagging, which many experts would frown on anyway. With a restructure, I remove the tagging and the “look”.
It is not only words I watch out for. Another irritating habit is the overuse of similes and other literary devices. I recently reviewed an ARC of fewer than 300 pages (real: Amazon cited a print length of 320 pages, but many of those pages constituted front and back matter, as well as white space) that had 311 occurrences of like, most of which were similes (I didn’t bother researching the as similes because 311 is already high). Reading it was like being beaten over the head with a half-inflated sumo suit (pun intended). It was as though the author thought simile to be indicative of good writing. Perhaps, in some other hands, it might have been, but not only did the author overuse them, but they also did it extremely badly, “…like a hedgehog that has wrapped itself in paper beside the bins to keep warm”, being one example, where the author was describing wrapping on a present. With a lack of opposing thumbs, or intellect, I would defy a hedgehog to wrap itself in anything. Not only is this a bad simile, but it could also be classed as purple and redundant.
So, before I send a manuscript to my editor, I do a trawl of overused words and devices, metaphor and simile in particular. When I find metaphors and similes I make sure they work and if there are too many, I rework some of the occurrences. When I find words repeated several times on a page, I do a search to make sure there are not too many occurrences throughout the book, and not only on the page in question.
Show, Don’t Tell
To some degree, the creative writing world is filling out with the same level of jargon that has been plaguing the technical world for years. When I see sweeping generalisations like “show, don’t tell” I want to pull my hair out by the roots (I probably would if I had any). I challenge any writer to write a book without any telling in it. Just as I challenge any reader to enjoy a book without any telling in it. Where is the cut-off from showing before it becomes plain old purple prose? I am sure I don’t know, and the more I read about the subject, I am sure I’m not alone. What Chekhov is alleged to have said was, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass,” which is paraphrasing something he wrote to his brother, but gets the gist. Most so-called expert definitions I have read simply use it as a license to advise writing purple prose, missing the point entirely. One I have often read in different guises being, “If your manuscript is short, make sure you are showing and not telling…”, which I would reword to “…make sure there is a balance between showing and telling.” I saw a question from a writer recently that said how do I show that the house is red? If I had responded to the question — it wasn’t directed at me — I would have countered with, “does the house colour matter”, but that’s a slightly different question. The real answer would be, “you can’t”. The show, don’t tell advocates, would propose varying levels of exposition, but eventually a variation of the statement, “it’s red” would need to appear.
Showing versus telling is, of course, something that requires balance. If a writer wants fast-paced edginess at some point in their story, they are likely to lean towards telling mode. Exposition skirting speedy events (such as a chase) can lessen the impact. On the same token, wham bam thank you, mam, is unlikely to increase sales of a romantic novel. The emotion needs to be evident.
|Is wham bam thank you mam showing or telling? Discuss.|
What’s My Process
When a writer thinks about editing their work, if they are a newbie, they might picture a stack of A4 sheets and a red pen. They might imagine a process of (for want of a better cliche) crossing eyes and dotting teas (error intended). However, editing a novel — and indeed most other documents — is a complex process done throughout the document’s lifecycle, which includes a lot more.
I’ve read many different interpretations of the editing process. Some I agree with, others, not so much. The following are the editorial stages I use during the production of a novel:
- Developmental Edit
- Daily Edit
- First Draft Read Through
- Second Developmental Edit
- Audio Edit
- External Edits
- Format Edits
|I have often heard new writers ask, “When will I know if my book is ready?” As far as I am concerned, it is ready when the steps in this list have been completed.|
I will describe each of them in this blog issue, and explain the benefits I derive from them.
Essentially, in my process, dev editing is testing the story arc of a novel, which means filling gaps and removing redundancy, as well as testing timelines. Officially, dev edits would cover things like character development and dialogue as well as story arc, but I cover that aspect in the second dev edit phase because I perform this edit on my scene plan.
As mentioned in my previous post, I keep a spreadsheet of scenes, which is numbered and includes things like actors, POV, plot points, and status. On average, a crime novel should be around 80 to 90k words. For me, a scene usually ends up between 800 and 1000 words and so I aim for around 100 scenes in my arc. This is not something set in stone. For example, an earlier novel I wrote (The Reticent Detective, 2019) had 120 scenes in the original arc, many of which were cut before I went to print.
The following is an excerpt from the structure of The Alcoholic Mercenary (TAM).
There are several columns.
Scene: A brief description of the scene. It doesn’t need to be elaborate, just a pro-memoria.
Plot points: What the scene contains in terms of moving the story forward. Some schools would say each scene needs a minimum of three plot points, but I don’t agree. As long as a scene moves the story on, it can have as many or as few as required. In this regard I use three CCCs: change, causality, and conflict:
- Change is the essence of any story. Each scene in a story should cause some form of change, or a development. In TAM, when Boccone arrives in his hometown, he’s convinced nothing has changed but it has — his mother died and his brother is in prison; when he left ten years before, Rosa was not the boss of a Northern Naples clan. In essence, the changes are profound.
- Causality refers to the domino effect. Nothing in a story should happen without a reason. Something must cause it. Readers hate it when something has been added just to make the story work. Stephen King covered it extensively in Misery, where the psychopathic nurse got annoyed because the writer tried to jerry-rig the return of his dead heroine, Misery, with a blatant deus ex machina (the hand of God, transliteration). It has to be believable. In TAM, Boccone returns to help his brother in prison, which leads him to seek work from the syndicate, which leads to him refusing to kill on Rosa’s behalf, which leads to Rosa wanting revenge, which leads to the freeing of Beni and his getting involved in the murder of a US navy officer, leading to my female hero’s investigation.
- Conflict is what keeps a reader turning the pages. Conflict can be external (crooks shooting at each other; loved ones fighting) or internal (the hero trying to decide the right course of action). Internal conflict leads to the protagonist making choices, which are key to my version of the seven-point story arc.
So, when I edit a scene, I make sure it contains at least one of the elements— thereby moving the story forwards. If not, I’ll either modify it or cut it.
Working Y/N: I leave this column blank until I get to the second dev edit stage. It is an indication of whether the scene is contributing successfully to the arc. Writers must be ruthless here. Sometimes it is hard to admit that a scene is not up to standard. In the writing community, this is known as “killing your babies”.
What to do: When the answer to the previous column is no, what action needs to be taken. Actions can include rewrites, deletion, the addition of a new scene, and so on. It is very important to be objective during this process. If a scene doesn’t belong, get rid of it (don’t throw it away, keep an outtakes file). Things to look out for are info dumps, padding — which means writing to reach a word count target — (I read a book recently where the author spent a whole chapter describing a retirement village, a pure info dump and redundant. A good edit of the MS would have removed it.), throat clearing.
POV: This column reminds me of which character has the point of view in each scene. From an editorial perspective, this helps to pinpoint issues with POV hopping. If you read Dune, you will notice Mr Herbert constantly hops between POVs within a scene. Since Dune was written, things have changed, and it is no longer acceptable to hop points of view in that way. Don’t get me wrong, Dune is still a fantastic book, and I would give it 5 stars all day long. Of course, an omniscient narration does not face this issue. However, omniscience is not the flavour of the day for modern readers. Similarly, first-person narratives do not face the issue.
|Remember, I don’t wait until my scene plan is complete before I start writing.|
Each morning, before I pick up my quill, I edit what I wrote the previous day. This is a sort of copy edit, looking for typos and grammar errors. It is important that a writer refrains from doing this while writing because it will distract them and they could end up in a loop. If the writer does not have any editing experience, there are lots of apps out there to help this process. I won’t list any here, because a Google search would be more efficient. These apps cannot replace the formal copy edit that takes place after the first draft is complete.
|I don’t spend an inordinate amount of time on this editing phase. In-depth copy editing takes place at different stages in the book’s lifecycle. I basically use this edit to make the professional editor’s job easier.|
First Draft Read Through
This read-through is where I wear the hat of a reader. It is important to have gained distance from the manuscript before reading it. When I finish the first draft, I print it and then leave it in a drawer for at least three weeks before starting the read-through. When reading, I do not stop to make notes or edit. If something glares at me, I stick a coloured index marker to the page and carry on reading. After I finish reading, I go back and mark up where I left the markers.
Second Developmental Edit
I do the second developmental edit after the completion of my first draft read-through. I complete the scene spreadsheet with the Working y/n and What to do columns. This constitutes the first draft rewrite. Because I run a developmental edit on my story arc, I find this edit is more of a formality than anything. However, I usually remove several scenes as a result of this editing phase. I also, occasionally, add scenes. For TAM, I actually removed an entire chapter that was more throat-clearing than anything.
Self-editing is prone to failure because when a writer reads a passage they wrote, it is common to read what they think should be there, rather than what is there. I catch myself doing this all the time. Many will say “read your work aloud”, which is sound advice, as far as it goes. For me though, it doesn’t work. I still miss syntactic and repetition errors. I guess that the same rule applies to line edits: I read what I think should be written, rather than what is written. So, is there a solution? I suppose the logical answer is to have someone else read. But won’t the same issue apply? Yes, if the reader is human. If the reader is an app, then no. Apps will only ever read what is on the page. They might get the pronunciation wrong and most of them sound robotic, but they do the job.
I use two forms of audio editing: during the writing of the first draft I audio edit each Google Doc before I paste them into my skeleton, and I do a full MS audio read-through and edit as part of the rewrite process.
|I think an audio edit is probably a writer’s best friend. I find a great many of the issues in my novels during a read-aloud edit. Especially things spellcheckers wouldn’t catch (that instead of than, for instance) and issues with repetition.|
For the full audio read-through, I create a PDF file with all extraneous text stripped out: front and back matter, as well as header and footer text (page numbers in particular). In this way, the PDF reader in Edge only reads the story.
I read along with the screen reader (in my head). This helps me to maintain concentration. I find a screen reader that highlights the word being read is the best sort. When I spot any errors (for both audio edits), I stop the reader and fix the issue, before continuing.
I leave the line edit, copy edit, and proofreading to my editor. Because I have plotted the full arc and my work plan has informed me of when this is going to happen, I can plan accordingly. During the external editing phase, I work on something else (usually the garden, eight raised beds and a polytunnel take work).
I know when my MS comes back, it is going to be a mass of red lines and questions. This doesn’t depress me because I am aware of my limitations when editing my own work. My editor invariably starts the cover letter with very positive feedback before tearing me a new one through the manuscript. Rather than depress me, it gives me confidence in her because I know she is doing a great job herself. I would be suspicious of edited works which came back with few comments.
|It is important not to just implement the editor’s comments wholesale. I always read and analyse Georgia’s comments before I do the updates. Sometimes my expertise is greater than hers. For instance, in an earlier novel (After Gairech, 2021) I used hurley to refer to the game. My editor said hurley is the stick and the game is hurling. This is true, as far as it goes. However, Dublin slang calls the game hurley as well as the stick.|
What do I mean by format edit? Some might suspect I am talking about old-fashioned “galley proofs”, where a writer checks the printing proofs before the book is printed. This is not what I mean. The first time I published a book after it was in print I found a series of issues that neither my editor nor I had seen during the editing phases of the manuscript. Since then, I have taken to running an edit on both the eBook and the paperback versions of the MS. This catches issues missed during the editing stages.