Editing: AKA ‘You asked for this Sucka!’

To date I have mostly been on the ‘Edited’ side of editing and, to begin with, it’s a difficult experience. I’ve talked about it before but, getting redlines? It reaches back to English Lit classes, getting your homework back and feeling embarrassed by the mistakes and affronted by the creative criticisms. However, back in the classroom I didn’t have the emotional maturity to accept those points for what they were. Editors (much like teachers grading creative writing) are there to help you improve, to get the most and the best out of the work. Now I have been given an opportunity to explore the ‘other side’ of editing and I wanted to share that with you so that, the next time you get your redlines back, or the first time you get your redlines back, you might have a better insight into where your editor is coming from.

It’s a running joke that writers (and directors) out in the world get approached by hopefuls with their own manuscripts or screenplays, think the running gag of Adam Shadowchild in ‘Paul‘ (2011). But, rather than a joke, it’s actually something of an honour to be approached this way, to be thought of as an example, or an authority on ‘how this is done’? It’s quite humbling. So, when I was recently approached by S.G. Mulholland to get my take on his new story? Well, I decided from the first that I was going to take the lessons I’d learned from editors I’ve had in the past.

I’m not going to talk about S.G.’s new work, there’s a trust there that I will not breach, but do head over to his website for previews. No, I’m here to talk about the process from the editing side and the things to look out for in your own work to make the experience as painless as possible. I’m not a copy editor, I *need* a copy editor, my grammar can get erratic at times and spellcheck can’t always help, especially when it comes to dialogue, which has it’s own rules compared to prose. In order to get the most out of your work there are several things to watch for.

Passive Voice – Especially in the RPG work that I’ve done, passive voice is a big ‘No’. The difference is showing over doing, viewing over experiencing. In works where wordcount is important, and where you want to engage the reader and keep them turning pages, Active voice is a must. As much as using compelling, evocative language, it’s how that language is used that’s important. To avoid sites selling software, here’s a link to the British Learning Council site about Passive voice.

Another important lesson I’ve learned is when to get wordy. Life is a five-sense experience, even when it’s experienced on the page. But it’s important to balance those immersive descriptions with pacing and the best way to do that is to ask, ‘Is it relevant?’ These days even Tolkien gets pulled up for excessive descriptions and world building but, without that, a book becomes a script, near enough. Balancing exposition and action, world building and character development is the essence of pacing. One of the best bits of advice I got in the early days of Camelot related to a lengthy exposition sequence taking place as the MC’s internal monologue. My partner looked at me and said ‘There’s more than one character here right? Couldn’t this be dialogue?’ and it worked. Rather than just explaining the politics and standing of members of the court it became an interaction that also built up the relationship between the MC and their liege knight. I’ve tried to carry that lesson forward and ‘get out of my characters heads’ as much as possible.

Still, a good descriptive sequence can really hook the reader, ‘Rendered Flesh‘ was an object lesson for me in twisting the knife, using everything I’d learned from my contract work to make the reader squirm. A lot of editing is looking out for those opportunities to either move the story on by cutting back excessive description, or seizing those moments when you can really go to town.

The editing I’ve now done myself, and experienced in the past, mirrors those schoolroom experiences more closely that you might expect. While editing all changes to the manuscript are tracked. Every added punctuation point, every deleted item of text, marked in red on the page, just like those school reports. This is never more glaring when it comes to the ‘obvious errors’, words missing from sentences and the like. Don’t get upset, sometimes your brain writes the sentence faster than your fingers can follow and then, when you read it back, that same amazing organ fills in the blank for you. It often takes a second set of eyes to spot those occasional gaps but, if you don’t have that understanding of what’s happened, it’s easy to see that flash of red on the page as a glaring criticism. Maybe, like me, you have feelings tied to that image. Certainly media properties revel in the negative connotations of red text corrections and grades. But it’s important to remember that all grades get written in red, good and bad. The critiques and corrections might be in red, but so’s the encouragement and praise, and it’s import to provide those too.

Again, the ultimate intent behind any editing should be to encourage the writer to improve the story. What it’s saying, how it’s saying it. An editor isn’t (or shouldn’t) be trying to take your story away, or change it’s fundamental message. The goal is to elevate your work, and for it to remain ‘your work’. Yes, editing is a critical appraisal but, unlike a review, it’s not intended for popular consumption and it’s not an ‘end of’ opinion. It’s an opportunity to get an outside opinion while there’s still time to make a change. If you don’t agree with a proposed edit? Challenge it, justify your creative choices. But do consider where the editor’s coming from, their experience of both the craft and the audience before you buck against the change.

It’s important to remember that, given how the process works, how the changes track on the page? Even a few minor corrections can, at first, seem like a heap of criticism but, no manuscript goes to print unaltered and I don’t think that there’s a book in print today that hasn’t had some errors slip through regardless. The editing process isn’t faultless but it should be approached with the intent of getting the very best out of a piece, and it will be obvious if that’s not the case. I’ll soon find myself back on the the other side of editing so, for now, I’ll just freewheel the creative process and have fun with it. In parting I’ll say this, on more than one occasion a suggestion that might initially have caused me to grumble, has resulted in a tweak or twist that actually had me punching the air in triumph.

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