Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Editing

A wise man (let's call him 'Peter') once asked me about the editing process. Or, as he put it, 'so what's it like having someone else tattoo your baby?'

It's a good question, so I thought it might be interesting to run through what actually happens.

It works like this : you might have spent months/years/decades working on your manuscript. By now, you are far too close to it to see what faults it might have.  You are probably blind to its good points as well. It needs a professional to look at it to decide what works well, and what needs a bit of tightening up. And so your publisher assigns an editor to work with you in order to turn a publishable book into a good or - dare we hope -  a really good one.

It's important that your editor understands what type of book you're trying to write. It's even better if you get on well together. And I'm very fortunate on both counts. He's a frequent visitor to Venice, speaks good Italian and understands exactly what type of book it's supposed to be.

So in February I flew back to London for a meeting. We talked over lunch about what things worked and what things could be made better, and agreed (and this is crucial - nobody is going to force you to change anything) on a list of changes. Nothing too major, but this is a flavour of them :-

- Drop the prologue. Or rather, you don't have to drop it altogether, but just work it in as back story later in the book. But get straight into the plot.

- Chapter <x> is too long. It moves the character on, but not the plot. Trim this back a bit.

- There are one too many scenes in the same bar. Drop one of them. (A shame. I really liked the bar. But when I re-read it I had to confess that this particular scene was obvious word-spinning).

- Could you change character <y>? Not very much, but just a bit? And this was the most interesting part of the whole process. I really liked character <y> the way I'd written him. Maybe a bit too much. So how to change him? It involved rethinking the way he looked in my mind. And then it involved rethinking the way he spoke. Nothing too much but - originally - he would rarely use contractions. The revised character does. Little things like that ended up making a difference. And, I have to admit, the new character does work better.

I trimmed away some scenes which - in retrospect - seemed like obvious padding, and added a couple of new ones which I'm very pleased with. And at the end of this process, I had a book which - surprisingly - was slightly longer in terms of word count yet felt a lot tighter. A bit more thriller-y, shall we say.

The next step is the copy-edit; where your editor goes through the revised manuscript and formats everything according to the publisher's in-house standards (dates, italicisation, punctuation, spellings etc.) and marks up those occasional passages which might have clumsy or repetitious language or where something isn't quite clear (for example : "at the start of Chapter <n> you say the protagonist is not at work...and yet five pages later he refers to finishing work for the day").

Once you've approved the copy-edit; you move on to the first proof. This is your last chance to make any minor changes but - by this stage - they really do need to be minor. At the same time, a professional proof-reader is working on the copy. When you've both finished, the changes are collated and reviewed in-house.

And at this point, your work - as author - is done. Step back from the keyboard. If you suddenly think that scene <a> misses something, that character <b> is too weak or that scene <c> goes on too long - it's too late. And, chances are, you're wrong anyway and your editor would have picked it up.

Here's a picture of a present from two dear friends (let's call one "Peter" and the other "Lou") that they gave me on the very day that I received the news about publication.


It travels everywhere with me. By now it contains over 100 pages of almost-legible scribbled plot notes, character descriptions, fragments of dialogue and things that I just thought might come in useful at some point in the future.

Time now to crack on with the next book...