My editing website is www.helpingwritersgetitright.co.uk
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[Elizabeth Bailey discusses what she’s learned about editing]
While editing for others, I’ve learned a great deal about editing for myself. At one point I realised how easy it was to use clichés instead of trying for a different way to say things. I found out how I drop out of POV without noticing; how I’ve allowed the momentum to drop by getting self-indulgent or chucking in unnecessary paragraphs of introspection which are holding up the story.
I have always been conscious of overkill with emphases and deplore my early texts spattered with italics and exclamation marks. Thank goodness I got the rights back to them and was able to edit all that out before self-publishing anew. I remember being told by my editor that a heroine was two-dimensional. I didn’t know what it meant at the time, but now I do. The character wasn’t fully rounded. I’ve been able to sort her out as well.
Having begun in theatre, I’ve never had trouble creating dialogue. But I have to watch to make sure it serves a purpose in the story and isn’t just an exercise in impressive stage fluency. Oh, and because I’m writing historically, often the characters tend to sound the same and I have to remember to inject speech differences.
It took me some time to learn how to refrain from intruding as the author. So tempting to tell the reader about the characters, instead of weaving characterisation into the narrative structure.
But I didn’t know all this when I started. I learned some of it just by writing. Having taught drama and learned a great deal about my own craft in so doing, I found exactly the same phenomenon popping up when I began to assess and critique. The learning curve became, in a way, my self-teaching curve. When I came to put it all together in a book about editing, I discovered exactly how much I had learned from helping other writers.
“What’s Wrong with your Novel? And How to Fix it” does not set out to be a writing manual. Rather it is based on what I found to be the most common problems arising to stop a novel from getting the attention it deserved from potential publishers. Mostly it’s got nothing to do with story. It’s almost always about how the story is knitted together.
PTQ – Page Turning Quality – is the name of the game these days. Ask an editor or agent what they are looking for and they will tell you they’ll know it when they see it. They may mention genres in particular, but really all they want is a story that grabs them from the first sentence and doesn’t let go. The books that set new genres are exactly that. Stories the editor just couldn’t put down.
And that’s really all this book is trying to help with. What’s getting in the way of the reader reading on? What’s stopping them becoming so involved they can’t help reading just one more chapter before they put the book down and go to sleep? Why are they tempted to give up and just flick through a few more pages to see if it pulls them in again? Why, in a word, has the story lost them?
Losing the reader is really easy. Holding them to the page is the skill. That, to my mind, is the where the writing craft comes into its own. I don’t care what genre it is, literary or commercial fiction. If the reader starts skipping paragraphs looking for the next interesting bit, you’ve had it.
Fortunately, one can learn what to do and what not to do. It comes with experience, and with being edited by others (also a helpful learning tool). But there are short cuts to learning the tricks of editing your own work, and that’s what I’ve tried to set out in the book.
The mantra my clients likely get tired of hearing is “cut to the chase”, but that’s the single most important skill to learn in my view. Knowing what works and what doesn’t work. What’s relevant and needed? What can be done without? Get that right and you’re pretty much there.