So, you’ve rested your novel and you’re ready to begin the close editing stage, right? If you’re jumping into this series late check out Part One.
Well, here we go guys; say goodbye to the carefree fun (pain) of #amwriting, and say hello to the agonised screaming of #amediting. The close edit really is the fun part, though, so don’t worry too much. Save your tears, tissues, and tequila for the hand editing stage.
The basics and the bigger picture
When you first start editing you should look at the bigger picture first and foremost and then slowly narrow your focus. There’s no point in correcting the spelling of a manuscript that may well change entirely before you are done, after all!
Start with what I call the foundation features, or four C’s; these are the things on which your whole novel/story hangs. The big stuff. These are;
- Contributing Style
Any novel or story needs conflict if it is to draw attention and interest from the reader. It should begin with conflict, and progress because of conflict. Consider even the most mundane opening scenes from a successful book and you will find conflict, no matter how subtle or visceral.
Filth (Irvine Welsh, 1998) starts with a protagonist at war with his society, his world, and his colleagues;
“Woke up this morning. Woke up into the job.
The job. It holds you. It’s all around you; a constant, enclosing absorbing gel. And when you’re in the job, you look out at life through that distorted lens. Sometimes, aye, you get your wee zones of relative freedom to retreat into, those light, delicate spaces where new things, different, better things can be perceived of as possible,
Then it stops.” Pg 3*
Survivor (Chuck Palahniuk, 1999) begins with a more direct conflict; a protagonist who has hijacked a plane, and is telling his story to the black box;
“Testing, testing. One, two, three.
Testing, testing. One, two, three.
Maybe this is working. I don’t know. If you can hear me, I don’t know.
But if you can hear me, listen. And if you’re listening, then what you’ve found is the history of everything that went wrong.” pg 289
Palahniuk adds to the sense of conflict and intrigue, as you will have noticed, by having his page numbers reversed; they count down to the end.
When editing look for the conflict in your story, and cultivate it; ask yourself if it does enough, does it provide motivation and tension, is it believable?
Your character is the focal point of your story, whether you have only one main character or a group you need to put real time into making sure they are strong. By this I mean rounded, unique, and living. They need to breath.
A strong, recognisable voice and consistent mannerisms, as well as a realistic understanding of what your characters can reasonably do (don’t make them flawlessly successful!) are key. Example of instantly recognisable character voices can be found in first and third person, but three examples which truly blew me away are;
Lovey Quinn, The Book of the Night Women (Marlon James, 2009),
“People think blood red, but blood don’t got no colour. Not when blood wash the floor she lying on as she scream for that son of a bitch to come, the lone baby of 1785.” Pg 3.
Logen Ninefingers, protagonist of The Blade Itself (Joe Abercrombie, 2006),
“Say one thing for Logen Ninefingers, say he’s happy. They were leaving, at last. Beyond some vague talk of the Old Empire, and the Edge of the World, he had no idea where they were going and he didn’t care. Anywhere but this cursed place would do for him, and the sooner the better.” Pg 570
Lina Vilkas/Arvydas, Between Shades of Grey, (Ruta Sepetys, 2011),
“The train churned forward. The rhythm of the rails tormented me, screeching and banging. They pulled me away from Andrius, further into an unknown. The metal lamp swayed above like a pendulum, illuminating hollow faces, throwing shadows throughout the carriage. Janina whispered to the ghost of her dead doll, giggling.” Pg 255
Whether you write in first person or third it is essential that you ensure that the characters personality and mannerisms are maintained when editing; you should check for speech patterns, tone, attitude, and reactions. In third person this is less prominent, but, in cases like Logen Ninefingers (Abercrombie, 2006) you can build a sense of the characters outlook through sayings, mottos, and their outwardly reactions to stress and conflict.
Consistency in tone, structure, point of view, plot, and tense are essential when editing. Look for plot holes, sudden changes from past to present tense, slips in point of view from one character to another, or from omniscient to one particular character, and of course in the structure of your story.
Following the “Hero’s Journey” plot structure only to switch to a more stream of consciousness literary structure will be baffling at best, and at worst could cost you readers and opportunities.
All this means is; does your plot lead your prose, or vice versa.
If a sentence or section becomes so beautifully wordy that it swamps the meat of the scene and jars the reader out of the action it should be cut. I have no doubt you can write beautifully, but the majority of genre fiction readers want a story before they want fluffy clouds of literary prose.
While you will, over time, develop a style all your own you should still endeavour to write in a way which complements your story. Consider Cormac McCarthy; he writes in a style which is undeniably his. His writing is instantly recognisable, and yet subtle changes in style can be recognised between each book, though they are all, arguably, literary fiction. Consider
No Country for Old Men (McCarthy, 2005)
“I sent one boy to the gas chamber at Huntsville. One and only one. My arrest and my testimony. I went up there and visited him two or three times. Three times. The last time was the day of his execution. I didn’t have to go, but I did.”
The Road (McCarthy, 2006)
“When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more grey each one that what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.”
Blood Meridan (McCarthy, 1990)
“See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark, turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves. His folk are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water, but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster.”
I used the first page of each book for comparison, and though I have no doubt you’ll have noticed the differences yourselves, I’ll run down the basics. You most likely picked up on the lack of immediate conflict in Blood Meridan which is found in the other two; this is an older work which I would say hangs on the cusp between a shift in overall style. Blood Meridan was antiquated in style even when it was published, but now you’d struggle to get this opening scene by an editor worth their salt. Keep that in mind when reading to hone your own skills.
The view point, macro, micro, first person, changes in each excerpt, as does the sentence structure and tone of voice. Even the amount of punctuation fluctuated in McCarthys writing; his works are as much visual as they are literate. He changes their presentation as well as his own voice for best effect. The Road is shockingly devoid of any punctuation other than the period. Commas, semi-colons; these are things left behind. His work is as visually sparse as the world he writes. No Country for Old Men employs less punctuation than the average novel, but is written in clipped, hard sentences where the Sheriff takes up his first-person narrative.
In short, McCarthy’s style contributes to the story rather than taking away from it.
You don’t need to employ such extreme measures yourself, but ensuring that plot, not prose, leads your story is a key element of self-editing.
Once you have thoroughly checked your manuscript for these key features, and corrected the document of course, you can count your close edit done, put the manuscript in a figurative or literal drawer, and crack open that wine so you and your work in progress can rest together. Once you’ve done that check out part three for final push!