Chop. Chop. Chop. Boy, I haven’t had this much fun since I first started writing my manuscript.
First ideas, first words, and first chapters are as lovely as first footsteps in the snow or crisp bed linen. Ian Rankin has a quotation above his writing desk reminding him that every novel is the wreck of a perfect idea. If you’ve written a novel you’ll know what he means. Novel writing is often about survival. It’s about having the belligerence to keep swimming as great waves of characters and plot strands and links and intrigues and relationships and revelations and words, words, words, continue to break over your head.
“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings” – Steven King
Finishing a first draft feels like reaching the beach after swi
mming the channel. There’s nothing precise about where you’ve landed. All you know is that you’ve hit sand and you’re too exhausted to evaluate the massive shifting waters behind you. Those excited hopeful first strokes are long forgotten, and you’re a coughing, spluttering, shivering wreck. But at least you haven’t drowned.
Revision and editing is the chance to re-capture the joy of your work. To chip away the excess and polish up the remaining jewel until it gleams. Doing it properly takes the same concentration and discipline as the initial writing process.
For me, the key to successful editing is the same as the key to successful writing: keep reminding yourself about what you’re trying to do. Looking for plot holes and structural problems is a complicated job, but line editing is not. Your job is simple: make every word count. Make every sentence powerful. Make every paragraph perfect. Make every scene essential. Make every chapter unforgettable.
It’s like combing hair. Taking the tangled and the unruly and making it orderly and unputdownable. And just like the writing, doing it well is a slog. You can’t cut corners. It’s EVERY word, Powerful, perfect, essential and unforgettable. It’s not MOST words, interesting, pretty decent. What would be the point of that?
Brilliant. But how do we do that? Let me introduce you to your new best friend:
I’m not an expert in editing. Not by a long way. But if something doesn’t feel completely right, change it. Go back to The Elements of Style and get anal about structure. Not because there are rules that you must follow, but because Strunk & White were pretty smart and knew a bit about supertuning a Toyota of a sentence into a Ferrari.
Warriors from China’s Qing dynasty killed their enemies with one thousand cuts. You can breath life into your work with exactly the same method. If you can make a sentence shorter you will almost – almost – always add to its impact. The same with a paragraph, a chapter, and ultimately a novel. It may feel difficult to watch your wordcount diminish after the slog of writing your first draft, but a tight, pacey, 80 thousand word manuscript is more of an achievement than a wheezing flabby 120 thousand word story that nobody can manage to plough through.
So how do you choose what to change and what to chop? And who says you should kill your darlings? Well as with everything in writing, there are no rules. But there are some websites with brilliant tips. I really like the top ten tips at DeepGenre. Alexander Kaurin has some tips which are so simple even dogs can do them, he reckons.
And how many times have you re-read your manuscript, only to find a mistake that hid from you during the previous million checks? Here’s some good advice about avoiding that problem from The Blood Red Pencil.