So, here I am, editing my 160,000 word first draft.
I’m editing for plot and pace, continuity and cohesion, balance and beauty. Along the way I need to lose at least 40,000 words but that will happen naturally if I do the job properly.
Pace and Plot
The first part of my story shoots off in all directions like a maverick firework: sexual violence, mental illness, female friendships, poverty and disease, attraction and love – and that’s just in the first three chapters. Charlotte (my presumptive heroine) is somewhere in the middle being flipped around like the ball in a pinball machine whilst the reader is treated to lectures on diphtheria, sub-characters run pointlessly amok with knives, and a mysterious gardener talks in botanical Latin.
I reckon I researched and wrote five times more than was necessary for Part One; I was clearly terrified of running out of plot and words.
I have had to decide:
- whose story is this?
- what does she want? (what’s the point of the story?)
And then ask for each and every scene: does this scene change things for Charlotte (for better or for worse)?
Removing Nice But Unnecessary stuff has been painful but ultimately cathartic: elegant descriptions that don’t relate to anything relevant (delete!); sparkling dialogue that doesn’t contribute in any way to our understanding of the story (delete!); profound political comments that would be excellent in an A level history paper but otherwise just sound silly (delete!).
Continuity and Cohesion
This is all about details and descriptions and how these match up in subsequent scenes. It’s easy because after 18 months I know my characters and my settings intimately. It’s hard because I keep changing things (generally to improve Pace and Plot) and if I change one detail then I have to trace it back through the story like a dropped stitch in a piece of knitting and pick up each and every one and carefully put it back on the needle facing the right way.
Balance and Beauty
This is when I can spend two hours composing the perfect descriptive vignette – and then find I’ve already described the sky as indigo five pages earlier and have to start all over again. This is when I realise how often I write superfluous stage directions and make my poor characters repeatedly turn towards each other (or turn away) and look at each other (or away) before actually doing or saying something pertinent. And this is when I notice how often I repeat nuggets of information; chucking a metaphorical handful of grit into a pond rather than dropping one carefully-timed pebble and letting the ripples spread.
There’s lot of information out there about self-editing. Last year, in anticipation of this task, I attended a couple of really useful workshops: an evening seminar run by The Writers’ Workshop and a talk at the University of Winchester Writers’ Festival. Both offered sound, practical advice and nice checklists. I like checklists.