Claire King

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Posts Tagged ‘editing’

On the Penrose Staircase

Posted on: September 18th, 2015 by Claire - 8 Comments

There is a time, when all the drafting is done, all the revising and the copy editing, when you are expected to let go of your story and let the readers take over. Many writers have difficulty with this part. Because as we all know, just one last read through a novel not-yet-published might elicit a change or two that could make the book just that bit better.

It’s possible that part of this is simply that we want our work to be the best it can be before we send it out into the world, even though we all know in our hearts that it will never be perfect. And it takes courage to publish something with imperfections when you’re aware that some people will be quick to point them out.

But I’ve also come to the conclusion it’s because we are no longer the person we were when we conceived the book. We have learned things about ourselves and about our writing at every stage of its creation (well, I speak for myself but I suspect it’s true of most authors). Plus we will have been inspired by other books, other stories, all of that life that has happened in the meanwhile. So the writer you are when you finish your book is not necessarily the same writer you were when you started it.

“Ascending and Descending” by Official M. C. Escher website. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

This week, at the tail-end of copy edits, I found myself putting the final, final touches to a novel I started in the Before Time. Before The Night Rainbow was even published and I had no idea if anyone was actually going like that book, never mind my Difficult Second Novel. It seems so long ago now. I mean, I was actually still in my thirties when I wrote the first words of Everything Love Is and I’ve been writing solidly, making mistakes and learning from them for the four years since.

So it felt strange, sending it off for proofs. Perhaps I’ve lived with that novel for so long that some part of me thought it would just stay with me forever, being tweaked and improved as I grow (into myself?) as a writer. And then the image of the Penrose Staircase came to me. The idea that I had reached a point where I could keep on trying to climb upwards with this book but would always end up in the same place.

It makes sense. This is exactly as it was meant to be. My second book is my second book, just as my debut was my debut. Time for 2015-writer-me to take everything I’ve learned and apply it to the writing of number 3.

The Multiverse of a Novel in Edits

Posted on: June 30th, 2015 by Claire - 6 Comments

Everything Love Is, my next novel, found its home at Bloomsbury in December of last year. Since then I’ve been working with my editor on getting it into the right shape for publication next year and I’ve just handed back my revised-redrafted manuscript just in time for the school holidays to come surfing in on the back of a heatwave.

This is my second experience of having a novel edited and it has been so different to the first time around that I thought it was time for a new post on the subject.

Unlike when I was submitting The Night Rainbow, I knew when I submitted this book at the end of last year that I wasn’t entirely happy with it, but after literally years of editing it myself and getting it to the point where it was clear what it was GOING to be, what I needed was an editor. So I plucked up the courage, hoping I hadn’t gone off half-cocked, hoping that everyone would see through the not-right bits to the heart of the story, and hit send. This story has a happy ending.

fistbump

Then…

In the new year, my editor re-read the novel, this time with an editor’s eye rather than a reader’s eye and subsequently spent a long time trying to put her finger on the elements that weren’t working for her and find a way of articulating that*. I got her (7 pages of) notes back in mid-February and we chatted through them. I was SO happy to have this input. I think sometimes when you are so deep in writing a book it becomes impossible to drag yourself back out of it to look at it objectively. Beta readers can be a great help, but even if asked for useful feedback they are still reading as readers, primarily, and if you’re hoping for publication I think at some stage you do need the professional eye of a good editor.

The kinds of things we were looking at in this stage were fundamental to the shape of the book, like the way of introducing the two narrative voices in a way that best helps the reader get to know them and understand where the two perspectives are coming from; plot elements that needed moving around, scenes that needed bringing to life more, and scenes where I’d relied on excessive exposition unnecessarily.

Helen asked all the difficult questions – difficult for me to answer because they really challenged my understanding of the characters, forcing me to think deeply and question myself , but also the flow of the storytelling – the timing of foreshadowing and the placing of clues in the narrative at just the right moment to keep a reader engaged without giving too much away.

* I think it’s an amazing skill to be able to read a novel draft and be able to pull out the questions you need to ask the author in order to help them improve and strengthen their book.

The complexities of writing this particular book had started to feel overwhelming to me and all this input was exactly what I needed to get it to the next level. I spent the next two months working on this, looking at different ways of responding to the challenges that Helen had thrown down. I redrafted the whole thing, handing it back in in mid-May, but not before I tweeted this:

A month later, Helen came back to me with her feedback on the changes I’d made. Most of them were received very positively, but there were some new changes I’d made that she wasn’t sure about, and on top of that she had now gone on to comment on the manuscript in a much greater level of granularity –  73 specific comments and queries throughout the novel. To deal with these we had switched to commenting and tracking changes in Word. By the time we had both done with it it was a very colourful document. I’d love to show you an example page, but I can’t, because SPOILERS! Thankfully wherever Helen suggested I made a change she had also highlighted the other parts of the story that would need revising if I did (as the implications of the change cascaded throughout the rest of the book).

As I said above, I’ve just handed back my reworking on all these comments so we’ll see what Helen makes of this newest iteration. I have to say that I am feeling really positive now about the way the novel has taken shape. I think with Helen’s help and guidance I’ve got to a stage (copy-edits and last minute changes not withstanding) where I feel happy releasing this story out to the world. So thank heavens for editors, three cheers and more.

fistbump2

One extraordinary realisation I had when I was going through this rigorous process was the overwhelming number of choices we face as authors: the decisions we have to take for the story that turn it into what it will ultimately, irrevocably, become.

It reminded me of the theory in physics that says not only is it possible, but that it makes sense that there are multiple universes like our own, each one just a tiny bit different. So we live in an infinite number of parallel universes, essentially in which all the variations that could have happened in our lives are being played out. Best to let someone like Professor Brian Cox explain this scientifically, but I do think that parallels (no pun intended) can be drawn with writing a novel.

In a 90,000 word novel, there are so many potentially different novels, and all of them could be good. How do you choose your story? How do you know which one is the right one? How do you know which is the best one?

Star cluster Omega Centauri by the Hubble Space Telescope

Star cluster Omega Centauri by the Hubble Space Telescope

 

Footnote 1

For more of my archived posts on revising/rewriting/editing pre and post submission, see these:

 

Footnote 2

Please do also have a look at Susan’s blog below, as she charts the process of revising her third novel, and do let me know if there are others I should link to here as well:

Susan Elliot Wright: “Yes, fellow writers and esteemed readers, it was crap with a capital ‘C’. Thing is, there were those ‘not entirely hopeless’ bits, and there was five per cent gold (potentially gold, anyway.)  I knew that somewhere in that draft was a story I definitely wanted to tell, so I virtually started again.”

I can’t read; I’ve been possessed.

Posted on: August 19th, 2012 by Claire - 6 Comments

I’m going to try and share a strange image with you. And the question at the end is – does anyone else feel like this?

I love reading, and honestly believe that as a writer you have to keep on reading. It nourishes and inspires and I think you can learn from it by absorption. Plus, you know, reading is brilliant.

But I’ve got to in the stages of editing where reading seems like a distraction. I remember this from last time – reaching a point where I had to wave au revoir to my to-read pile, and give myself up to the novel I’m writing.

It’s as though there is only one story, and I have to somehow fit it all in my head, see it all in three dimensions, turn it, live it. Again and again. It’s a little like being possessed.

 

There, I said it. Is it just me?

Editing is turning the pot.

Posted on: August 14th, 2012 by Claire - 6 Comments


potter

I like editing.

I find writing a first draft of a novel like digging the clay from the ground with my fingernails. Sometimes I hit a rich seam, other days I’m scraping at scraps and wondering if there’s any clay left to find. But it all builds up eventually and you end up with enough – more than enough – words for a novel. But they are so not in the right order. And the pile of words looks nothing like a story.

Editing is turning a pot. It feels much closer to creating the vision I have in my head. In fact, when I was editing The Night Rainbow two years ago I wrote this.

The second draft (after the first edit) looks more or less like a finished piece – let’s say a vase. You can at least tell what it’s supposed to be. But it’s still ugly and the flowers would sit badly in it. This is assuming of course that it hasn’t gone all wobbly and you’ve had to start again. That can happen. Sometimes more than once…

The third draft will look much better though. The nuances start to shine through.

Still you keep going. With every spin of the wheel you find another imperfection, and as you correct it you notice that it now shows up other flaws. Will this thing ever be perfect? Will it ever be good enough?

Eventually there will come a time to say yes. But I’m not there yet with this book. I’m only just finishing the second draft and looking forward to the first round of polishing. And the next…and the next.

—————————————————————–

Of course it still won’t be finished, not for this book – first it’s off to my agent and then my publisher and then there’ll be (touch wood) a whole new set of edits. If you’re interested in my experience of the firing, painting and glazing process you can find out more in these posts:

Publishing editor’s line editsCopyedits and Proofs. And not forgetting the book covers!

Photo above via Flickr Creative commons. For (c) see here. 

The Novel Edits (Part 2)

Posted on: January 25th, 2012 by Claire - 24 Comments

In September I met my editor, Helen, to go through the structural edits for The Night Rainbow. If you missed it, you can read about that here. The next part of the editing process, which happened in quite a whirl last week, was the copyedits.

I thought that the copyeditor was there to ‘correct my mistakes’. I was really looking forward to what she would find, because before submitting I’d already done many passes of edits for typos, punctuation, and grammatical errors. I’d also paid attention to ‘continuity’, drawing up detailed maps of locations and timelines with character clothing, mealtimes etc. I didn’t go so far as a style sheet, but I’d thought about it.

Last week was quite an education…

My copyeditor got in touch and she said my book was ‘astonishing’. I loved her immediately. She said she was sending over the queries, and that there ‘weren’t many’. There were, in fact, 10 pages of them. 175 in total. And these were just the queries – obvious typos and missing punctuation had already been corrected without bothering me.

The copyedit was much more than ‘just’ about correcting mistakes. Yes there were some, but attention was also paid to to smoothing out inconsistencies in style, for example where I had used ‘grownup’ vs ‘grown up’. My editor also checked facts, questioning things as odd as ‘are puffballs safe to eat?’ and the correct references made to music. Despite my best efforts there were still ‘continuity’ queries – one minute a door was closed, the next it was open…

Responding to the queries took hours and hours. Agreeing that I should change from one kind of punctuation to another was an easy one. But where the suggestion was to choose a different word or re-phrase something it was much harder. Even though I could agree that it was necessary, working within the vocabulary limits of the narrator took a lot of thought and deliberation.

By the time I reached the end of the query list I was feeling quite anxious. Had I managed to get back into the ‘voice’ of the book seamlessly? Had I made the ‘right’ changes? And what about all the mistakes? As soon as a query drew my attention to something I then spotted the same mistake over and over in the text. Even though my editor had told me that she only queried something once and then it would apply throughout, it was very unnerving to see the repeated mistakes and inconsistencies cropping up again and again.

But the biggest revelation for me last week was that my copyeditor not only understood the rules of spelling, grammar and punctuation (of course), she also understood where I had intentionally broken the rules to use punctuation or rythym creatively. She understood my intention.

Then she worked with that intention, with my rules, to make the writing more elegant, so the words didn’t get in the way of the story.

The whole experience was really impressive, and I found myself enormously grateful that such painstaking attention is being lavished on my book.

Once the queries were dealt with and the TS returned to Bloomsbury,  I asked my lovely copyeditor, Sarah-Jane Forder, if she wouldn’t mind answering a few questions:

1) I edited The Night Rainbow many times before I submitted it. I would have said I went through it with a fine toothed comb. And yet I had 175 queries in total, which you described as ‘very few’! If we imagine I’m towards one end of the spectrum, what does the other end look like?

It was obvious to me when I first read your TS that I was dealing with a very meticulous author. Yes, there were odd things you’d missed in however many edits but that is always the way. I missed things too, which you picked up: remember? My point about the relatively few number of queries, and the absolute ease of my job, was that they were minor things: the odd bit of punctuation here, a tiny bit of garbled text there. Nothing major whatsoever. Many authors, believe me, have neither your eye nor your ear. When you answered my queries you did so with confidence, saying no when you knew absolutely what you wanted. Which is a wordy way of saying that the other end of the spectrum might have multiple typing errors and inconsistencies as well as careless repetition, holes in the plot and characters whose eyes change from blue to brown according to the weather.

2) Many of your queries represented changes that needed applying several times through the book and after you’d mentioned something once I came across dozens of subsequent errors that I’d made (consistency of spellings etc.) Do authors get ‘better’ at noticing these, the more books they write? So fewer slip through to copyedit stage?
I think, the more they write, authors do become aware of certain tics in their writing: words and phrases they perhaps rely on; that sort of thing. It’s great if an author can get it near on 100 per cent accurate (Anita Brookner, whom I copyedited at Cape, was one), but they are rare.
I have to say that I don’t regard picking up spelling mistakes or typos necessarily as part of writing: you can be dyslexic and still express yourself fluently and vividly and with originality, which is the really important thing. If writers made no errors whatsoever, what about us poor copyeditors? You’d be doing us out of a job!

3) In terms of your process – do you read the book first as a ‘reader’, or immediately with an editor’s eye?

I always do a first read as a reader, or as near as I can get to a reader when I’m working (you’ve sussed that in my leisure time I read in an entirely different way), with an eye out for plot, pacing, characterisation and so on. I will also at that point make a note of any inconsistencies of style (‘girl-nest’!) and make a ‘style chart’ to follow for the edit proper. The edit proper is slower, and usually said out loud in my head. I find it helps to hear the words – you yourself mentioned rhythm and I think that’s really important.

4) How did you become a copyeditor? What do you like about the job?

I fell into copyediting! I graduated in English with a vague idea of going into publishing: no more than that. I was lucky enough to be appointed at Jonathan Cape as an editorial assistant working with Liz Calder, one of the top literary fiction editors at that time. Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Martin Amis, John Fowles, Anita Brookner, Ian McEwan: they were all Cape authors. Later, when Liz went to set up Bloomsbury, I followed her. 

I’ll be honest: the job can be extremely tedious (depends what you’re working on!) but it’s always fascinating to work one to one with authors; it can feel like a real privilege, in fact. There’s the satisfaction of making a difference, however small. The devil’s in the detail! Having been freelance now for about 15 years, one of the things I love about my job is being able to work from home, at no one’s beck and call. I like the freedom, I like the quiet! The money sucks: you don’t go into it expecting to become rich. But I specialise in editing literary fiction, and how can you put a price on the pleasure of being paid to read wonderful writing?

 

Huge thanks to Sarah-Jane for taking the time to answer these questions in her busy schedule. I hope you find them as illuminating as I did.

Next steps for The Night Rainbow? First Pages for proofreading in a few weeks, and the cover! It’s also off for translation. Still a year to go until publication, but we’re well on our way!

Bad Nut!

Posted on: July 13th, 2011 by Claire - 4 Comments

Today I was pickling walnuts. A couple of weeks ago I had picked them, and tested them all with a needle to see if the shell had started forming. At that stage quite a few nuts required me to insist quite firmly with the needle before it broke in. Hmm, I thought, maybe they’ll be OK after they’ve been soaked…

So I soaked them all for two weeks, changing the brine regularly. Then I rinsed them assiduously and left them to dry.

Before pickling the walnuts, so as to ensure I am not responsible for breaking the teeth of my friends and family this autumn, I decided to double check again with the needle. A little voice inside was reminding me how my standards on the first cut had not been exactly…exacting.

I tested a few walnuts that were fine. Then I hit a rather hard one, but eventually the needle prevailed.

Hmmm. I like pickled walnuts. I put it in a ‘maybe’ pile.

One by one, I tested the walnuts. There were a few that were simply rock solid. There was no way around the fact that they were dental insurance claims waiting to happen. Bad Nuts! I put them in a ‘No!’ pile and congratulated myself on my ruthlessness.

There were a few where the needle wouldn’t penetrate the stalk end, but a quick poke in the middle and it slipped right in. I put them in a ‘Not sure: To Re-test’ pile.

I then re-tested the ‘Maybe’ and ‘Not sure’ piles, my decisions somewhat swayed, I must admit, by the meagre nature of the ‘Yes’ pile. Some of them I allowed to pass muster. Some, upon consideration, I felt were quite risky, especially considering Granny’s dentures, and I sadly rejected them.

With others I was still uncertain. I dithered, I re-poked. I looked sadly at the paltry yes pile. Surely more nuts would be better even if some of them were slightly crunchy. Surely?

No?

I sighed, I re-tested again. And finally, since it was soon time to get them in the jars before the children needed feeding I finally laid down The Rule.

The Rule: If the needle doesn’t push in at the stalk end it’s a Bad Nut. No exceptions.

I re-needled. I discarded many nuts. And then I looked at my champion nuts and they were good.

bad-nut

And when I felt the happiness of my Good Nut pile it reminded me of my happiness when I had finished my third and final edit, when I was ready to submit, when I had bravely discarded all the ‘Not sure’ and ‘Maybe’ parts of my novel. And I knew in my gut that even if people didn’t like my particular style of pickle, at least they wouldn’t break any teeth.

And the moral of the story – A Bad Nut is a Bad Nut, no matter how many times you poke it. Stop prevaricating and go with your gut feeling. Save yourself time that could be better spent writing and bin Bad Nuts on the first read.*

*NB – You can always go green and recycle them if it makes you feel better. See my post from this time last year ‘The Cutting Room Floor’ , but note also that I never used any of my offcuts after all…

Update: October 2011 and the walnuts are ready for eating. Guess what, they taste great…but one or two have them slipped through the net and are still too crunchy for comfort. I guess what my nuts needed was an editor.

The Cutting Room Floor

Posted on: July 12th, 2010 by Claire - 12 Comments

The much quoted and rather brilliant Kurt Vonnegut gave us eight rules for writing fiction. I’m not a fan of rules, so I have taken them as useful suggestions. One of which is particularly resonant at editing time:

“Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action”

And so, after the first draft is written, we are supposed to set about killing our darlings. Words, sentences, paragraphs, whole swathes of narrative that may be beautifully crafted, descriptive, witty or heart stopping…but are completely extraneous to both the plot and the character.
cutting-room-floorIn the film industry, the cutting room floor is not so terminal. Scenes that didn’t make it into the finished movie are stored tidily, just in case they should ever be needed again. This appeals to the part of me that kept all my university essays for fifteen years and five house moves. To the part of me that finds it hard to discard even one of the drawings that my artistically prolific little girls produce. To the part of me that has kept letters for thirty years, bundled up in ribbons, even though the sentiments have long since faded.

And so, I confess to you here, my darlings are not dead. I couldn’t do it. Instead they are cut and pasted into their own offcuts file – “Dead Darlings” – just in case I should ever need to splice them back in.

This may seem like taking the easy way out, but who is it hurting? It gave me the courage to chop away with gay abandon at my manuscript, and it’s not like they take up any room in the attic.

If it isn’t David it has to go.

Posted on: May 19th, 2010 by Claire - 9 Comments

I can see it. Crystal clear, in full colour. It is perfect, precise, evocative. It will take the reader by the heart and suck them in.
People will say ‘I couldn’t put it down’ and ‘I cried for her’ and ‘You MUST read it’. Truly, it’s a masterpiece, I wish I could share it with you.
But it’s not there yet.

Yep, I’m editing.

david

Michelangelo said it well:
“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”

So here I am, hewing.

As an aside, today my hewing is encouraged enormously by my short story ‘Wine At Breakfast’ making the Bristol Prize long list. It’s true! You can see my name and 39 other short story clever clogs right [ here ]

 

This photo via Flickr Creative Commons, taken from a German advertisement.

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