Thursday, 27 December 2007

Beware - editing in progress.

It’s weird, being at home all day and not writing. Home is my workplace, the kitchen (or occasionally the living room) is where I write so it feels strange to be sitting here reading or watching DVDs with the boys instead of in front of my laptop. By today (ie not quite a week since I last touched the work-in-progress) the fidgettiness was too great and I had to do something. The Ultimate Frisbee Freak was out doing what he loves best, the Bass Player was ensconced in the front room with his girlfriend and Family Guy DVD, the Other Half, being some species of angel, was doing our tax returns (I don’t do numbers and forms freak me out totally) so I was free to play around with words to my heart’s content. I started editing the most recent chapter.

The generally accepted lay-off before your work starts not to feel like yours and you can, therefore, achieve the distance necessary to savage it is six weeks. (Though one of the ancient Greek writers said you should bury your scroll in a jar for three years and forget about it before coming back to it in a completely objective state of mind. Seems a little extreme…) I was giving it six days... Unwise. I waded in with the computing equivalent of the red editing pen (mark and delete) and cut a swathe through last week’s efforts. Too wordy here, too colloquial there, this person sounds too much like you (ie me), that person seems to have forgotten he’s Welsh, why does he sound like a nitwit… there was nothing I was pleased with.
‘That’s quite a nice bit of description’ a timid bit of me suggested as the heavy DELETE hand looked like descending. I read it again. Nice. Hmm.
‘I think maybe you’ve caught what you wanted that person to say rather well’ the timid half of me, gaining courage, suggested. I read it again. Growl. No. Could do better. DELETE.

Mood plays a big part in editing. Sometimes you’re not in objective enough a frame of mind – you might be too pleased with yourself, allowing blatantly weak writing to slip through and reproach you in a later draft or – like today – you might be in a combative state, swingeing about you with the cutting edge of literary endeavour, determined not to let yourself get away with anything less than wonderful prose. Why am I in a combative mood when it’s the lovely Christmas holidays? The Puritan work-ethicist in me says that days and days of sitting around watching bad TV, eating empty calories and drinking too much alcohol is bad for me. And, I’m sorry to say, it’s right. I need treats now and again, a shared bottle of wine here, a box of chocolates there. A lovely book to be read all day every now and again.
All my mental space was filled up with sugar and spice and all things over-indulgent. I was in the mood to be harsh with myself. The hair shirt of literature hung around my shoulders.

Bah. After twenty minutes of self-flagellation when the chapter in question looked to be in serious danger of being reduced to a couple of paragraphs so tightly-worded they made text-speak look like purple prose, I stopped and hit SAVE.

Why the hell did I delude myself (and everybody who reads this blog) a few days ago, that editing demands any less time, effort and mental space than actually composing in the first place? In actual fact, it probably needs more. Instead of just pouring the whole thing out in a big splurge of subconsciousness, you’ve got to be alert to subtleties, nuances, resonances with other bits of the book; your ear has to be open for similies you’ve used before and things which characters have become too fond of saying. Although in real life people repeat themselves endlessly, if you make your characters do it in your books, people get fed up and assume that you didn’t edit tightly enough.

To be fair to myself, I’ve had six days of (almost) unlimited reading of exceptionally well-honed and edited prose so the first draft of my rawest and most recent chapter was never going to measure up. So, if an hour here and there for the next week isn’t going to work, what am I going to do to stave off madness and familicide? I suppose I could brave the sale-hitting hordes and go and work in a coffee shop in town every morning while everybody else is still in bed. (Why is it that I can work surrounded by strangers whereas even one family member in the house at home and I’m hopeless?) Or I could give up trying to work and wait until things return to normal next week...

What do you reckon, people of the blogosphere?


David Isaak said...

Well, I think the most important rule of editing was stated by Hippocrates (admittedly in a different context): First do no harm.

There are some days when perfectly adequate prose looks like crap. There are even some days when outstanding prose looks like crap. These are not days to edit.

How does one recognize these days? Boy, I wish I knew...

Alis said...

Recognising those days... hard, definitely. But at least we're probably both at the stage, now, where we don't have many days when we mistake crap for outstanding prose!