Tag Archives: editing

What ‘The End’ means (to me).

So recently I had the opportunity to write those final two words of a manuscript…

These two words

These two words

…and I thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on exactly what those mean, in this context.

The first thing I did after typing those words, was to go back to the first chapter I wrote and re-read it. It sucked. It was about 1800 words long, as a chapter, and 900 of them were dead-boring info-dump exposition back-story. They read like I was writing to myself and still trying to figure out what was going on and how it all worked. Which of course they did, because that’s exactly what they were.

‘The End’ then just meant the end of the first draft, and the first draft sucked in many ways, which is fine. First drafts are meant to suck in many ways. You need–I have found and other wiser writers have said–to give yourself permission to suck in that first draft. Chuck Wendig has said that the draft is where you make the words and the editing is when you make them not shitty (or words to that effect). So having shitty words didn’t bother me so much. I accepted that was part of drafting and that I would begin soon the task of making them not shitty.

Thus, The End is the beginning

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

But it is more than that. ‘The End’ is a culmination of all the work that got you to the point where you’ve written a story. That Wendig link above gives 25 reasons why it’s important for you to ‘finish your shit’ and I can’t compete with 25 (especially when there are, contained in those 25, all of mine and more). So I won’t talk about why it’s important for you to get to ‘The End’. I’ll talk about why it was important for me.

This is the third time I’ve been able to type those words and each time I feel like I’ve put them on a draft which was better than the last draft I put them on. Not only that, this time it was the quickest draft I have written, the shortest length of time between setting down those first uncertain words and concluding the story which grew from them.

I started planning this story on 7th July 2015 and wrote the first 20,000 words or so in that month before putting it aside and going back to the revisions on my previous novel. I picked up on this one again in September 2015, with this story still only 20,000 words. I wrote ‘The End’ on 7th Feb 2016, by which time there was 91,454. That means over 70,000 in under 6 months. Given this was around a full-time job, two young kids, Christmas, birthdays, family visits, life-in-general, I think that’s a decent pace. I can improve on it, but it’s significantly quicker than my previous efforts. Partly this is because of general improvements in my process and craft. Partly this is because of NaNoWriMo.

I had been very skeptical of being involved with NaNoWriMo before. The idea of sacrificing quality for quantity and churning out words for the sake of words seemed at odds with how I wrote, but I decided in 2015 to use it as impetus to get a few more words on this Work in Progress. I never expected to get 50,000. And then I did.

My daily, weekly, and monthly totals

My daily, weekly, and monthly totals

Nano wasn’t too hard at all for the first 21 days or so. I had done significant planning beforehand, I had a really clear idea of where the story was going and who was doing what with/to whom and when and where and in what sequence and why and such.
But it wore me down. That fourth week was a chore. You can see I skipped two days in that week entirely. I basically gave up. But a big day spent sitting for several hours at a cafe yielded over 6,000 words and put me back in with a chance and my stubborn competitiveness helped get me over the line.

I started November with 25,000 words, and that had been the work of July, September and October. By the time December began I was over 75,000 and planning to finish by the end of the year.

I barely wrote at all in December. I was so fatigued by the November efforts I basically did nothing for a week and then I wrote a bit in the second and third week before Christmas etc hit and I did nothing until January was pretty well underway. I decided I’d try and finish by the end of Jan and missed that goal too, but only by 7 days.

Part of the problem was that I felt so close. I figured another 10-15 (on top of my 75) would get me there, and I was writing that basically weekly throughout November, so how hard could it be? But the push to get words down had taken a toll. Those words weren’t always according to the plan, and the plan had to change, and that’s fine, but I found I had lost my direction. I had to go back and re-write and re-shape and then plan again and draft again and cut and create. It was a tough process. I ended up cutting 10,000 words back out over January and the start of Feb. The last three chapters took forever and changed many times.

And so when I did finally get to write ‘The End’ it was deeply cathartic, to know that it was done, and all of that effort had led to a moment where I could feel, briefly, that the story was told.

Thus, The End means a time to celebrate.

Me, celebrating

Me, celebrating

 

So what now?

Now I have sent the finished draft off to beta-readers. I won’t look at it now for a month. Then I’ll print it out, chapter by chapter, make my own notes and consider the feedback from my readers and start the process again. Because ‘The End’ is the beginning. And one day in a April or May I’ll be able to come back to ‘The End’ having revised the draft and ‘The End’ will again mean that it is a time to celebrate and reflect.

In the mean-time…

I started something new today. It’s just a series of thoughts and ideas, a totally different story in a totally different world to the last two I’ve written, but I think it has some legs and somewhere to go.  I have 6,000 words down, of which about half are genuine words and the other half notes and planning and reminders and suggestions.

It’s a near-future sci-fi with cyberpunk influences and it opens with a Hemi-powered Charger, some old lovers, a night drive, a quiet bar, a secretive job offer, a computer chip, an ambush, a knife fight and plenty of gunfire.

So the process begins again. Hopefully in six months I’ll get to ‘The End’ of this one.

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The re-write is complete

Phew!

Now that was more an effort than I realised it would be.

I removed about 40,000 words from my manuscript over the past few months. That’s nearly a quarter of its weight!

Many of these were removed on a line-by-line edit: clarifying sentences, dealing death to adjective clusters, seeking out adverbs remorselessly and casting their brutally beaten bodies from my work. I did away with many dialogue tags. I found ways to say with ten words what I had said with twelve or fifteen. I found all of these little slivers of fat that still clung to the meat of my tale and I carved them off with a wicked sharp blade.

Then I had to really get stuck in.

This wasn’t my first pass with the scalpel, and on a project this size trimming fat didn’t shrink the manuscript by the requisite amount, so I started cutting away at the muscle, the flesh, in some cases the connective tissue. That hurt. I lost some good stuff I think. A character was erased from existence. Another had his role cut significantly. Two characters became so peripheral that to survive they had to undergo a melding of bodies and minds and become one. Details were lost, poignant moments, not-quite-salient anecdotes, slightly obscure back-story, geographical references, subtle foreshadowings… but these things ultimately were bloating the story into something more than what it should have been.

So now I have 131,000 words. Still big by the standards of a debut novel, but it’s a manageable big.

I asked a few agents (through the wonder of Twitter) what would be a maximum word-limit they would consider as a submission from an unpublished novelist and the answers were in the range of 140,000 to 150,000. I’m happily below that upper limit, and I’m sure the manuscript is much better for it.

I said at the outset that my goal here was not necessarily to become a professional writer, not even necessarily to become published, though both of those are measures of success. My goal is to become a better writer, and whatever comes as an outcome of this process I feel that the process has already achieved some success toward that goal. I made brutal decisions, but they were the right ones. Some years ago, perhaps even some months ago, I would have baulked those decisions, and I would have remained in a comfort zone of bloat and easy-living. That is not a good place for a writer to remain.

I also now have a much clearer delineation of writing and editing. When I was starting I would open the document and start editing the material I had just written the day before, and so writing was a crawl. I would write a couple of hundred words in a day, but then spend a day or two editing those before adding another couple of hundred and restarting the edit process. It’s a dysfunctional approach. It’s the wrong one. To borrow from Chuck Wendig:

“Writing is when we make the words. Editing is when we make the words not shitty.”

I believe I have done that. I believe my words are not shitty.

And now? Now I get the query letter dressed up. Now I nail that synopsis. Now I go back to Chapter One, Page One, Paragraph One, Word One. Now I make that opening irresistible. Because this week the queries go out (agents be warned) and I think I’ve got a good chance now of putting my best foot forward. That might or might not lead somewhere, but at least I’ll be stepping out knowing I’ve put the work in to make it possible.

 


The continuing importance of editing

I’m under 150,000 words now on the continuing project to bring my manuscript down to a publishable size. Given that the upper limits (especially for an unpublished author) are in the 130 – 140k range I still have some work ahead of me, but I feel it’s going well.

Most of the words cut so far came from some major changes:

I cut a character. In one sense he was minor, but I had a plan to develop him much further later in the story. When some of that got chopped he became even less significant in his earlier scenes, and so, brutally, I cut him. Not an early death… he never existed.

I have restructured the opening chapters. Originally they were all weighing in between 3 and 4 thousand words and most had more than one narrative POV, so I changed the structure of the chapters to have each be a single narrative POV. They’re shorter, punchier and arranged so that there is a more logical flow. I think it has done wonders for my pacing and has  also removed the last vestiges of their being a really clear dominant POV character, so that now several POV characters each progress the narrative and each give us insights into the events from their own perspective.

I also restructured the plot in the opening, partly to facilitate the narrative changes, and partly to streamline the plot. In one chapter in particular the various changes I had made over time had caused a great deal of confusion. This chapter was (and is) a crucial nexus for the characters and I think it now does a better job of drawing the threads together and scattering them, where before it just drew them in and left me with an ugly tangled mess.

So the process is a positive one. I have lost a lot of words to the cutting-room floor and many of these I believe were quite good ones. I’ve lost scenes I liked, because they no longer were needed, or no longer made sense. I’ve lost some nice prose, some sharp dialogue, some insights into the characters and how they maintain themselves in the world… but in return I’ve got a leaner, fitter plot, I have thinned out some of the exposition chunks into a nice exposition stew (there’s a better metaphor for that I’m sure. Perhaps I’m hungry? Certainly I’m tired).

So I need to cut at least another 10,000 or so, possible 15,000, and I’ve made the major changes. I’m back to the start and going through, chapter by chapter, finding superfluity and error. It’s difficult and at times tedious, but it’s necessary and ultimately a very positive thing. Today I cut 750 words from a chapter. That’s probably a higher than average edit.

If I can cut 500 words from every chapter by this process I’ll get to the end of the book having carved out another 17,000 words or so, and I’ll be right on target!


… and continue…

So I’ve got more than 50,000 words which have survived these revisions (in fact 53,300-ish).

That’s the good news. It represents 18 chapters of the novel and I’m hitting the point where the narratives are becoming quite divergent so there will be (I’m hoping) some chapters upcoming from POVs or in locations which are only minimally affected by the necessary changes.

I’m on page 177 of the word document (out of 633) and the total is still hovering on 195,000 words (so I’m more than 25% of the way there – kind of). I’m thinking I’m going to have to cut a whole scene, or perhaps whole characters / sub-plots to really get this thing down the the lean piece of writing I think it needs to be.

Big job, but I accepted the challenge, and if I’m going to go around calling myself a writer I’d better be doing some writing to justify the tag.

If deep cuts helped Cormac McCarthy produce Blood Meridian then who am I to puff out the chest and insist all my words are worthy of being spared?


The revisions continue…

I’m struggling to find an appropriate metric to evaluate my progress on this project at the moment, so let’s just deal with raw figures.

I have 93 pages of completed (revised) manuscript. Currently that equates to about 30,000 words (I’m being really rough here).

The total word-count on the document is 197,698 words. That means I only have 167,698 ish words to revise in the next five weeks (when Genrecon arrives).

That’s the road ahead. The road behind though is a little more encouraging: that 197,698 figure is down from 240,141. If my maths is not mistaken (by which I mean my ability to operate the calculator app on my phone) I’ve cut 42,443 words. That’s a good chunk of writing gone. The original Word page count was 766. Now it’s 638. I’ve cut out 128 A4 pages of 12 point Times New Roman.

It also means that of the (approximately) 75,000 words I’ve reviewed through this process 56.6% of them are gone. More than half! In a way that’s liberating, but in another way it’s terrifying. Yet I have faith in the process. I must have faith in the process.

This manuscript was flabby and lazy. For year it had built up its corpulence until it was too sluggish and stubborn to fight back, but now I’ve come to whip it in to shape and by November I want it mean, lean and undeniably impressive!

Five weeks. 167,000 words. 545 pages.

*cue ‘Gonna Fly Now

Challenge accepted.