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Bears with muskets

Here’s how writing works:

You get an idea for a story (or, actually, a book of almost any kind.) You write it down.

In one way, what you have is a bit rubbish (because it is a bit rubbish.) And in another way what you have is perfect, because it exists. 

So then you start to edit and prune and change characters and reknot your plot points. As you do all that, you do have a general sense of craft. Economy with language is good. Plot needs to be in constant flux. Beware of creating too many viewpoint characters. And so on.

In the early stages of your writing career, that craft knowledge is really important. It’s a compass that prevents you skedaddling off on long journeys to the wrong place. As you get more experienced, the craft knowhow still matters; it’s just that it becomes more like second-nature. You don’t think about it as much.

But the thing that ultimately steers your editing isn’t some manual on How To Write, but it’s your own sense of what feels right on the page. Take this random paragraph from a work-in-progress:

The bears love any excuse to go shooting. They make long trips into the hinterland. The sound of their musketry echoes across these plains, echoing over the flat earth. This fire isn’t particularly accurate – most of the carcasses have been not shot, but clawed to death – but it’s an impressive haul. Four elk, three reindeer, any number of geese, some cormorants. salmon. A mangy wolf.

That feels interesting, doesn’t it? A book you might to read more of. But it’s also, to my mind, not quite right.

There are some obvious – technical-type – problems, such as the repetition of echoes / echoing. But there are also some things that bother me, that might not bother somebody else. Is hinterland quite right here, for example? It’s a geographer’s term that came into use at the end of the nineteenth century, and then mostly in the contexts of industrial planning or economic geographies. The setting of this little paragraph is mid-sixteenth century and very far removed from that kind of context. To me, the word just feels wrong. It might perfectly well sound fine to you.

And while I like the list of animals at the end of the paragraph, it feels underwhelming. I’d want to enrich it.

Also: “any excuse to go shooting” feels a bit pallid to me. These are actual bears with actual muskets and that sentence doesn’t quite seem rich enough to honour that set-up, so I’d want to find more interesting words there. Trips, likewise, seems a bit bland.

And the sort-of joke about the bears and the inaccuracy of their shooting seems a bit muffled, somehow. I’d want to make more of it.

Some of these feelings seem purely personal. Others seem like ones that most editors would agree with. But, either way, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the editorial judgement of you, the author. That’s it. That’s the whole deal.

So if I were scrabbling away at this paragraph, I’d end with something more like this

As for the bears, they love any excuse to get out their muskets. They make long forays into the back-country. The sound of their musketry echoes across these plains, whistling over the thin earth and flat rock, a pebble skimmed over water. It’s not clear how accurate this fire is – most of the carcasses that eventuate seem to have been clawed or bitten to death, not shot – but the heap of the dead is impressive nonetheless. Four handsome elk and a pair of skinny calves. Three reindeer, one of them pregnant and with two kids inside her. Any number of geese. Some cormorants. Salmon. One mangy wolf.

That definitely feels better – that is, more reflective of me. If you had your hand on the same paragraph, you might have had some similar concerns but ended in a different place. (And do notice that on this occasion my edits made the paragraph longer, not shorter. There’s no rule that says editing can’t add text as well as subtracting it.)

That’s an example of editing in microcosm, but not all editing happens in microcosm. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of the editing process is the way you learn to understand your own book.

Yes, you might start a project with some broad idea of why your Big Idea has resonance. But as you edit your book into shape that broad idea will take on a ton of detail. You’ll find, almost certainly, that there are more depths to your book than you had ever realised.

Here’s how things have panned out with my current Fiona Griffiths novel, the one that’s been delayed about a million years.

That book is set in a secure psychiatric hospital. My character was, as a teenager, hospitalised with mental illness and she has an abiding fear of such places. OK. So far, so good. It’s pretty obvious that the setting and that character make for a nice complementarity.

But how exactly? I wasn’t sure how to bring those two things together. In particular, the end of the book caused me real problems. I knew I needed a big climax but nothing I quite put on the page seemed to deliver. Then – duh! – I realised that my character needed to experience drug treatment at the hands of a hostile doctor. She needed to be give psychotropic drugs being given for malign reasons – and her sense of self needed to fracture under the load.

That’s really different from most of my endings, which are a bit more pow-biff-bam than that, but it was obviously the right one for this book.

If I plot out how that understanding actually came to me, it’s roughly like this:

  • Write 80% of the novel
  • Feel dissatisfied
  • Fiddle away at the part I’ve written, try different strategies, fix things that need fixing. All this was self-editing, albeit work done before I’d completed the novel.
  • Feel dissatisfied
  • Sketch out possible endings, most of them involving big all-action drama, along the lines of my previous work
  • Feel dissatisfied
  • Scratch away a bit more. Drive the plot forward. Edit old sections.
  • Then realise that I’d never properly picked up or understood my own theme. I’d had Fiona reacting really badly when she first arrived at the hospital, but that story had no proper ending. My chief baddie in the book is a doctor; I had to get that baddie injuring Fiona in the way that Fiona most feared.
  • Relief! Delight! A sense that I know what I’m doing
  • Finish the book
  • Feel pleased, because I now know this book has legs / Feel dissatisfied because there’s a lot of work still to do
  • Go back and start the editing process yet again. (I’ve done lots already.)
  • Come to bits that I had never quite liked in the past, but didn’t know what to do with. For example, my hospital had never quite felt isolated enough, or like its own little kingdom. But now I knew how Fiona would be ending up (as a patient in that selfsame hospital, with her life very much at risk), it felt much more obvious how I wanted to deal with the hospital’s isolation. Scenes that had baffled me before just fell into place.

There’s lots more still to do. Lots of plot smoothing, lots of simple writing edits. But now that I have my keystone in place – Fiona gets drugged; Fiona almost dies – I know that everything else is just a matter of time and work.

The lessons from these reflections? Well, a few actually, but including these:

  1. Editing is big and small. It’s about changing individual words and it’s about getting massive ideas about how the end of the book needs to work, with consequential changes for absolutely everything else.

  2. Your ability to be dissastisfied and remain dissatisfied with your text is key. It’s that “not yet right” feeling which guides you to a better book. It’s probably also why writing can be so arduous as well as so joyful. That relentless dissatisfaction with your work – that’s the very feeling that makes it better.

  3. Bigger ideas often guide the smaller scale ones. So take that work involving bears and muskets. Food and cannibalism are themes in that book, so the the list of game – food, in this context – needed elaboration, and the pregnant reindeer with kids inside her was, in a way, a graphic, if ghoulish, representation of cannibalism. It’s not that readers will notice such things exactly, but the more you look to add those touches, the richer and more coherent the final manuscript becomes. A perfect manuscript has a kind of holographic quality to it: the whole embodied in the part, and vice versa.

  4. But also: smaller scale ideas often guide the bigger ones. It was writing a scene between the doctor-baddie and Fiona that made me realise, she needs to be drugged. Specifically, I was fidding around with the scene, because I was dissatisfied with it. That dissatisfaction with how the scene was playing out sentence by sentence led me to the realisation that would end up solving The Big Problem with the book.

  5. And: it’s work at the coal-face that fixes things. Yes, I believe in long, thoughtful dog walks as a way of solving plot conundrums. But most of the actual breakthroughs come when you are mucking about with text – actually writing it, or actually editing it.

This long and baggy email is, in a way, a big fat preamble to one final message:

I’m doing a self-editing webinar – for members only – on Tuesday 6 July. If you’d like me to rip your work apart, like a bear savaging a reindeer, then send me a chunk in advance of the session. Do that by adding a comment to the "self-editing webinar" blog post here. And remember the event is for members only. If you're a non-member, please don't submit work as we won't be able to use it.


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Comments (6)
    • Hi Harry, I'm not usually a fan of the crime/thriller genre but, after reading all your emails, I feel like I want to know more about Fiona Griffiths. I know you only use your own books for examples to get your point across but you'll be pleased (or maybe indifferent, I don't know) to learn that I've just ordered the first two in the series. If I don't like 'em I'm sure my wife will.

      By the way, why did you have to make one of the reindeer pregnant? That almost put me off my Friday afternoon pint! ... Almost.

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      • As ever, an informative read.  Beware of creating too many viewpoint characters. I would if I knew one when I saw one. 

        The hospital episode was intriguing.  I shared, somewhere in this forum maze, a first chapter of my novel I'd worked on hard, then discarded entirely, on advice of good and helpful souls here, on the grounds that it was entirely backstory, in the countryside, and not a great start for a book about the inner city. 

        But a section of it was based on my experiences, having to visit a secure psychiatric hospital, often in dead of night. It was, honestly, called The Towers, and being gigantic, I often used a subterranean passage from the rear of the building to get to the wards at the front.  This endless, straight basement corridor was similar to London's Underground - tiled, with fluorescent lighting and at ankle level, low arches set into the walls with faint, floor level illumination of my route.

        One night, extremely late, I stooped to look through the arched windows, no more than a foot or two high.  To my astonishment, I saw rows of people at tables at a level, in the earth, lower than the basement.  What work, if any, they were doing, I never found out, but I never used that passageway again.  I was young and thought it none of my business.  But now?  I'd demand to know what was going on.  


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        • I have found that the smaller changes, nuancing, can create the most work. Bigger changes can create some of the least. It seems to me that it is the fact that we truly do not understand the world our characters reside in or the characters themselves, that leads to some of the conundrums that we face. 

          I have definitely had the experience of adding rather than subtracting words. Confronted with a problematic sentence, the character and I take a step back and find that the answer, as in life, was to go another way. More words and better expression and changed direction saved the day.

          Along with the ability to be dissatisfied/critical with one's own work, I would add the ability to know when to say enough is enough. To have someone trustworthy to give an honest appraisal on the work along its journey, especially whilst learning the craft, is very important to make sure Inspector Semaphore in his battered Ford Anglia doesn't turn into Inspector Gadget. Jericho has a renowned and successful course that includes that sort of invaluable writing support. That is in addition to an appraisal of a completed manuscript. Jericho has an admirable service for manuscript appraisal, too, and well worth the gelt. The journey of self-editing is one I find improves the more one has good experiences of the work we have done. The harder and deeper the cuts and better the outcome the more the reward.

          There are many quotes re. hard work. Oscar Wilde said (with regards to things worthwhile) something along the lines of:– If something is worth doing it is worth doing well. If something is worth having it is worth waiting for. If something is worth getting, it is worth fighting for. And if it is worth experiencing, it is worth finding the time for. Pretty much sums up writing, and to a degree, reading. 

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          • It is comfortable to read about writing craft, because 'craft' implies that, by learning, applying and practicing some tried and tested techniques, my writing will improve. I like editing, and I love research. I am strong on dissatisfaction with my WIP and, although I don't have a dog anymore,  I still go for long, contemplative plotting walks. 

            As a child my favourite poem was about a man who spent so much time deciding what to do first, that he didn't do anything at all. I realise I am in danger of falling into that sticky trap. I need to write, but first I might just look up a few essential facts. 

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            • Hi Harry. As ever your ideas and suggestions are so helpful. I was thinking about your ideas for your WIP re Fiona Griffiths. You might like to read The White Garden by Australian writer, Carmel Bird.  You will certainly get some inspiration re a hostile psychopathic doctor and the misuse of psychotropic drugs.  Cheers 


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