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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

GETTING IT RIGHT

"As things are, and as fundamentally they must always be, poetry is not a career, but a mug's game. No honest poet can ever feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written: he may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing." Thomas Stearns Eliot 1888-1965

One of the main activities of a writer's life (and that includes poetry and prose) is editing and revisions. And that's what I've been mostly doing the last two weeks. I actually like editing and find the time passes quickly while I sit, red pen in hand (or, when editing on the computer, red print to mark the errors and suggested changes.) However, I actually prefer editing from hard copy so I always print out my writing for this purpose.

Belonging to a critique group such as my group Scribblers, is important and useful too, because it isn't always easy to see where changes need to be made, or things added. It's good for inspiration and finding out what's working and what isn't. Meanwhile, though, the writer must learn to self-edit, and that isn't always easy because your words are precious and sometimes a passage that is simply brilliant may not necessarily fit and needs to be removed. It's kind of like extracting a tooth without anaesthetic. It hurts to throw your precious words out.

Getting a little distance between yourself and your work is helpful. The parts of my novel that I've been editing recently were written quite a long time ago. It happened that when I first began to write Shadow of the Lion I was working on a word processor. Of course, I saved everything onto floppies, however when I got a PC, those floppies weren't compatable with it. So it meant having to retype everything into my Word program on the computer. I've got most of it done now, and as I've gone along, I took that opportunity to revise and edit. At least, to mark with red in the margins any passages that definitely needed work, and those that can probably be deleted in the final draft without spoiling the flow of the story. It was easy for me to see where the plot dragged due to over-describing, and getting off on tangents. There are places that are extremely interesting and took me weeks to research, but now I can see that they are not necessary at all and don't forward the plot. These will have to either be pared down or deleted.

I was at a panel discussion with some published writers the other weekend, and one of the authors, Jack Whyte, who writes Arthurian and Roman/Britain era books, told how his editor asked to him to remove about 200 pages of his first manuscript because it didn't seem to 'fit' with the main story. He had at one point taken it out, but then put it back in as he was fond of the passage and the character in it. That section, when removed as the editor suggested, became the source of a sequel novel. I believe he's since written about five in that series. So you don't just throw out the baby with the bath-water. You save what you delete until you are absolutely sure you don't need to re-include it, or that you can use it in another story. I never throw out anything until I'm really sure I need to or not unless of course, the writing isn't up to par.

With Shadow, once I made my decision to write it in multiple point-of-view I allowed myself to go as deeply into my character's heads as they wanted me to, to let them go off on tangents just to see where they were going to lead me. In most cases it worked and there were many surprises. It was a good way to really get to 'know' the characters. Sometimes, though, they got carried away and took me with them. In looking over the manuscript now, as I edit and retype, I can see a number of places where I can cut and I'm not going to lose the essence of that character by doing so. Because by now, I know him/her so very well and have been able to convey them clearly to the reader.

My manuscript grew out of an idea to write a young adult novel about Alexander the Great's little known son and heir, and grew into a saga about how greed and blind ambition bring down a World Power. It's taken me years long than anticipated, and is far too lengthy. I worried about this at first, and a friend who is doing a reader's critique (my Persian Princess friend Dinaz) as well as people in my writer's group have often said "We don't want you to cut." But I know I have to, and the exercise of retyping it has given me such a clear insight into what I can safely eliminate and what sections still need some revisions and rewrites. When it comes time for the final draft, I won't have much work to do, and it shouldn't be a problem cutting several hundred pages out of the manuscript. This is par for the course for every writer. You have to accept that editing and revisions will take up a major part of your time. So relax, and enjoy it. The outcome will be a much more polished piece of writing and (hopefully) a successful publication.

"Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reasons that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in one line, but that every word counts." William Strunk Jr. "The Elements of Style"

"Every vital development in language is a development of feeling as well."
T. S. Eliot

4 comments:

Alex Bordessa said...

I'm all for editing (when I have some text to edit, at the moment!) I quite like going back and tightening things up, deleting where necessary, except ... The quote from Strunk appears to me to be more applicable to non-fiction, or report writing. I have to write non-fiction, and can be concise, turn on a sixpence, etc. However, this doesn't work for fiction. For the first draft, I'm way too concise; I get to the point too quickly, don't take time to smell the daisies, so to speak. What I gain in breathless clarity, I lose in depth. So I think the call to cut out unnecessary words/sentences/paragraphs is a tall order for the likes of me (I'm already writing 'short'), and possibly destructive if taken seriously by beginners who have previously written non-fiction; I have seen (unpublished) novels that read like a moderately animated tecnival history book. Yes, they've pared down, but it's not really a story any more. I'd love to have too much, and I'd have fun cutting it down and shaping it!

Wynn Bexton said...

I really believe Strunk intended this for final drafts when every word does count. I don't like to restrict myself by holding back when I'm working on my novel, consequently there's a lot written that, in the final draft, I know can easily be disposed of (no matter how precious my words might be). I write non-fiction as well (travel journalism and memoirs) and the same rule applies. The trick is, knowing how far to pare it down without losing the essence and cadence of the prose.

Gabriele C. said...

I'm on Alex' side. I tend to write short and concise first drafts and have rather too little than too much details. I also edit a lot while I go: usually I put the bones of a scene down and then go back and edit the flesh in. Which makes for slow progress, but readable first drafts.

Except my very first attempt which is an odd mix of passages with a Laxness-like clarity and conciseness and other passages in the wordy style of French epics, lol. I'm editing that sucker right now, and sometimes I hate it. There's just so much wrong with it. But I love the characters.

A connection between writing non-fiction and a concise style? Maybe, I've never thought about it. But most of my non-fiction is in German while my fiction is in English, so for me, those are very different things to write.

Wynn Bexton said...

I think the key is "every words counts". You'd be surprised at the number of words that can be changed or edited out to make (fiction) writing more poetic, images sharper, sentences more concise. Of course with non-fiction writing (mine is mainly travel journalism) I must look at word count too, and that means really paring down without losing the essence of the prose (because,as in my fiction, I'm a 'visual' writer and travel writing must convey a sense of place, using all 5 senses.)

Everyone has their own way of tackling editing and what works best is, I suppose, the best way to go. I am lucky to have a good critique group as well, and that helps to know what is dragging, what is working etc. Consequently, my novel in its current state is pretty well a near-final draft as I block edit and do it as I go along, rewriting, revising, workshopping until I'm satified with each segment. The final editing is going to be much easier because of the system I use but it has made it a slower process, I suppose.