The Making of High Moor: Part 2 – The evils of editing
I don’t know about the rest of you, but pretty much every book that I’ve ever read about writing goes into excruciating detail about how to create your first draft. I’ve read about plotting, themes, characterisation etc until its come out of my ears. What almost all of them fail to talk about is what you do next. The dreaded second (and third, and fourth, and fifth) drafts.
I am very lucky to be a part of a small critiquing group on Zoetrope.com. I am the only horror writer there. The other writer’s genre’s of preference range from fantasy to autobiographical, young adult to chick lit and a wide range of subjects in between.
We post a chapter a week, and everyone reviews everyone else’s work. This was useful during the creation of my first draft, because it pushed me to complete at least a chapter a week. In addition, having authors from different genres reading and commenting on my work meant that I got a very wide selection of comments that I might not have gotten if I’d joined a horror only group. It also meant that I was reading stuff outside of my chosen genre, which was a great help in the parts of the book where I was not setting out to scare the life out of my reader.
Not all critique groups are as supportive and lacking in ego’s as the one that I am in, for which I feel blessed. If you join a group, I strongly suggest you look at the comments being made. The last thing you need is for some arrogant kid to spout bile and venom over your work.
The incorporation of these comments into my manuscript (or at least the ones I agreed with) was my second draft. At this point, most of the plot inconsistencies and the worst of the punctuation errors had been picked up.
So, that was the second draft done (often in parallel to my first draft). What next?
The third draft was, in many ways, the most difficult one for me, because I had to go back through the novel with a fine toothcomb, looking for specific things, which I’ll try and list below.
Point of View errors: This was something that I was rather prone to in my first draft. This not only relates to characters knowing something that they should not, but also shifting the focus of the scene. There were a couple of instances where I would play a scene out in the POV of one character, describe their feelings etc, but then find that I’d jumped into the head of another character and talked about how they were feeling. The other way this would play out was if the character whose head I’d been in left the room and I jumped into the head of one of the others, or at least left the “camera” floating around in the room after the POV character was gone.
Passive Sentences: This was another killer that cropped up in the first draft more times than I would care to admit. A passive sentence is one where the subject of the sentence is having something done to it, instead of “doing the doing”. I’ll give you a quick example.
Passive version: “John was hurled backwards.”
Active version: “The impact hurled John backwards.”
As you can seem the second sentence is stronger than the first. Passive sentences, especially in the middle of big action scenes, can rob a piece of all its power and immediacy.
Adverbs: The dreaded adverb is one of those things that all of the books on writing tell you to weed out and destroy, wherever you find them. All of those words ending with “ly” – quickly, slowly, painfully. You get the idea. Often an extra sentence of description will do a much better job than the adverb in conveying the scene to your reader. Its not always practical to get rid of them all, and I leave them in conversations, because that is how people speak.
Gerunds and weak verbs: This is something that I wasn’t aware of when I started writing the book (it’s been a long time since I did English at school). The early chapters tended to have an awful lot of words that ended in “ing”. Too many of them in a paragraph (or even a sentence) can be distracting for the reader, and can often be replaced with a stronger word. In my third draft I looked at every instance of an “ing” and tried to replace it with an “ed”. I didn’t always work, but in most cases, the “ed” version of the word made the sentence stronger.
Repeating or overused words and phrases: This is another one that’s easy to miss unless you are looking for it. Its not just using the same word twice in rapid succession (within a couple of paragraphs) but its also the overuse of things like “was” and “when”. Not only that, but its looking for repeats of sentence structure and little phrases or bits of description that are the same in different parts of the book. Its not an easy one to solve in some cases. There are only so many ways to describe werewolf transformation scenes and often I found myself falling back on little phrases over and over again.
Contractions: This is something I see all the time, in books by pro authors, and I find it very distracting.
Which sentence sounds better.
“I would not go over there if I were you.”
“I wouldn’t go over there if I were you.”
The second one sounds much more natural, even though the first one is “proper” English. The only time I miss the contractions off is when I have a character who’s first language is not English, as they are more likely to use a more formal speaking style.
Descriptions: Good descriptions can bring a book to life, but if you go overboard in the way that Stephen King (for example) can sometimes do, you run the risk of the reader skipping over paragraphs (and sometimes pages) if the descriptions go on too much. The inverse is also true. Without enough description, the story can feel flat and the reader can struggle to imagine the scene. In many ways, sorting this out is very difficult because you will often find yourself trimming some beautifully worded paragraphs that you are extremely proud of, but don’t move the story forward. I have tried to give a paragraph of description at the start of each scene to put the reader in the setting. I tried to cover as many of the senses as I could – what the character saw, heard, smelled and felt. This is more my writing style I suppose, but I hope that, by giving that initial vivid paragraph I have created a mental image in my reader’s mind that will last for the next few pages of action or dialogue without needing too much in the way of reinforcement.
I edited a chapter at a time, going over it as carefully as I could. Once I was happy with the chapter, I loaded the entire text into a Text to Speech app and played it back while I read along on the page. I cannot overstate how useful this step was. It helped me pick up on incorrect words that the spell checker had missed and made punctuation issues really stand out. I will admit that it does sound like you are reading an audio book narrated by Stephen Hawking, but I found so many errors that I’d missed because I was using an additional sense instead of my eyes.
So, after the sixty or seventy hours that I put in on my third draft I was all done. Right?
At this point, I’ve probably made my manuscript as strong as I can without outside help. This is the time to call in your beta readers.
Again, I’m very lucky in that I have a fair number of very talented writer friends who enjoy horror stories and pretend to like my writing. The beta reader’s job is to go through the novel and tell me about any parts that don’t work. Anything that breaks up the flow of the story, contradicts other parts of the book, or that just doesn’t make any sense. This is important because my work-shopping group only got to read a chapter at a time. The beta readers will be the first time that anyone gets to read the book as intended and can see how the story works as a whole. My beta reader comments for High Moor are coming back at the moment, and by the end of next week I’m hoping that I’ll have them all in.
Of course, depending on the number of people involved, you are likely to get conflicting comments back. One of my beta readers hated the ending, while the others absolutely loved it. It boils down to looking at each comment and deciding whether or not to take their recommendation. If more than one beta reader picks up on the same issue, however, then no matter how much you like the part of the story that they are referring to, you probably need to make a change. These guys are a sample of your audience and should be selected because they like the sort of book you have written. Ignore them at your peril.
So, the book is back from the beta readers, you’ve incorporated the comments and draft number four is finished. Am I done yet?
Again, no. There is one more draft to consider. Probably the most important one and the one that far too many indie authors ignore. It’s time to get a pro editor involved to give the manuscript a final polish.
A professional editor will sort out any punctuation errors that you missed and give suggestions on how you can improve the book. Prices vary by one hell of a lot. I looked into this, and was quoted prices as low as £400, going all the way up to £2400, with timescales ranging from 2-3 weeks to 4 months. I would suggest that the best way of assessing a freelance copyeditor’s ability is to send them the first chapter of your book (or first 1000 words) and ask for a sample edit. Most are happy to do this, and it will give you a very good picture when you compare the edited versions and the comments against one another. The £2400 sample edit was considerably more in-depth than the £400 one, for example, but even a cheaper edit is better than none at all. Just make sure that they send you a version with “track changes” turned on so that you can approve or reject their changes, one at a time. There will be a temptation to hit the “Approve all” button, but I would advise against it. Everyone makes mistakes, even editors. Go over the changes. Approve the ones that you agree with. Ignore the ones that you don’t.
At this point, with hard work and more than a little bit of luck, you should have a completed manuscript. I’m not there yet, as High Moor is still out with my beta readers, but I’m getting so close I can taste it.
Next time, I’ll talk about how to turn that manuscript into a book and all the other things to consider before it hits the shelves.