Editing your own writing is hard, so today I thought I’d give you a glimpse into my editing process using an example from my novel.
Most of my novel has undergone extensive editing—only a handful of scenes came to me fully formed. I’ve discovered that I have a pattern in the way I write and edit. First, I write the backbone of the scene, really just a sketch so I can work out what’s happening. Then I flesh it out with as many details as I can—I throw in everything I might need, just in case. At this stage, the passage is long and unwieldy and grossly overwritten! But I need that—that’s all my ingredients, and I rely on that stage for something to speak to me, tell me what the scene is really about so I know which elements to bring out when I’m refining it. Once I’ve worked that out, I then pare it right back, taking into account what I really want the scene to show.
The scene I’ve chosen comes from the opening of my novel. It hasn’t always been the opening, though—my novel used to have a Prelude. I loved my Prelude, but it’s not in the book because it was probably a distraction, and the fact that no one misses it means it wasn’t needed.
I first wrote this excerpt in 2012, and this is draft number two or three, from April 2013. It’s narrated by Ida, the main character in my novel, and I used this photo for inspiration:
You’ll notice I changed a few details from the photo to suit my purposes. You’ve probably also noticed it’s quite wordy and unwieldy, a bit clunky even, and the description is quite simple. But at least I captured a feeling, and that’s what I wanted at that time.
Here it is again, but it’s now about two years and ten drafts later:
You’ll notice it’s shorter and I’ve tidied it up a lot. The description of the scenery and background has been whittled down, but I don’t think it’s lost anything. I’ve taken out the parts about the hat-making and embroidery, because I’ve expanded on those in later chapters and they weren’t needed at this stage. I’ve also added that Ida’s carrying a doll and made more of her wanting to be close to her dad, because I thought that was important to set up from the outset. I’ve added brother Bruce into the scene because I wanted to show the whole family, and I’ve swapped Ida’s and Nora’s positions because I wanted to illustrate that Nora liked to keep to herself.
Lastly, here’s the final version, the one that will appear in the book. Another two years and countless rewrites have passed in between:
Because this is now the start of my book, I wanted to launch straight into the action without much preamble, so I tried to streamline it. It meant losing a few lines I liked, but I tried to think of what best served the beginning of my book. I killed one of my favourite darlings, the line: ‘Sometimes I think I imagined it, that we were once a normal family, all of us happy, but this photo is proof that I didn’t’. As much as I loved that line, and still do, it just doesn’t fit with the next couple of paragraphs, nor with how the story continues in general. I’ve also reversed Nora’s and Ida’s sitting positions back to the original because I thought that suited the story better after all, and brother Bruce has gone—his character got the chop!
Before I go, I’ll just add that I couldn’t have done this without input from others. The initial edits to my novel, the ones I made before giving my novel to anyone for feedback, were really just ‘tweaks’ because I was too frightened to consign my writing to the Trash in case I tossed out something that was good. It was really only by showing my work to others and getting their feedback that I learnt what to keep and what to cut. Some of my favourite lines lie in the Graveyard for Dead Writing because although I loved them and wanted to keep them, they didn’t serve the story.
There were many more drafts of this scene in between the three I’ve shown here, but if I’d included all of them, this post would have gone on for pages! At least this gives you a peek into how I work and a glimpse at the editing process and the evolution of a passage of writing.
Feel free to let me know what you think, ask any questions or suggest future topics for these posts.
A reminder that my September newsletter went out during the week. You can read it here or sign up for future newsletters here.
Great post and insights, Louise. It’s really interesting to see all three and read the differences. They all have a distinct voice. I actually preferred the first one (it felt like it had a dreamy, poetic quality to it), but can understand why it had to be edited in the way it was. Love hearing about the process and anecdotes from your perspective as the writer. Thank you!
I did wonder if people might prefer one of the earlier versions to the final one! I can actually see why—the voice is more ‘natural’ compared to the later versions. I’d forgotten how Ida used to sound! I don’t think it would work as the opening to my novel, though. 🙂
Fantastic post. It is great to see the changes (even the back and forth between the girls position) and the reasoning behind them.
Believe me, there was a lot more back and forth and to-ing and fro-ing than I’ve been able to show here! I’m glad you enjoyed it, though. 🙂
This is fascinating! I don’t think I’ve ever examined my own revisions in this way, comparing drafts to each other on a paragraph level. It’s great to see how you’ve streamlined the sentences and made the final draft so clean yet still vivid.
Thank you so much for this sneak peek ‘behind the curtain’!
I hadn’t ever compared them until I sat down to write this post, Fi, and it was fascinating for me, too. As I was re-reading this excerpt and other parts of my manuscript, I felt quite sad that I’d changed some sections as I quite liked the older versions! (Not that I’m revising it ever again!) 🙂
This was really helpful, Louise. I’ve often wondered how much text other writers change from draft to draft. I also liked how you described your process of writing a backbone, then filling it in before paring it back. I’m finding I’m getting better at this method, rather than trying to get paragraph by paragraph perfected before the scene plays out.
And this is just one scene. No wonder it took so many years to do this to a whole novel!
It took me five years to realise this is how I work and to just accept it, Marie! You’ll find your natural rhythm!
I’ve noticed that I write the bare bones, then move on and write a few more scenes, before going back to flesh the first one out. It’s like I needed the scenes further on in order to complete it. Only occasionally, especially in highly charged scenes, does the detail come as I write and I don’t have to change much in subsequent drafts. However, most of my writing has to be dragged out! 😉
I found this insight into your writing process absolutely fascinating, Louise. Thanks for sharing it!
That’s good—I’m glad you appreciated it. Thank you. 🙂
Thanks for sharing Louise. I love hearing about the writing process and how it is for everyone. Your examples have given me ideas for my own work, so thank you! *massive hug*
It’s so nice to hear this might be of use to you! Editing’s a trial and error thing most of the time, so good luck with it! 🙂
Thanks so much for sharing these edits, Louise! It’s always so enlightening to read about how others tackle editing (and writing). I am so excited to read your novel, thanks to this teaser. Please, keep the blog posts coming 🙂 If you haven’t already, a post on your submission/publication approach and journey would be great.
That’s a great suggestion for a future post—I’ll add it to the list. Thanks, Kirsty!
I like having a glimpse into other writers’ methods and processes, too. It all helps, even if their method doesn’t appeal to you. 🙂
Louise, thank you so much for sharing your editing process. I find it really the hardest thing to do, being objective about your own writing. I am sad that one of your lines had to go. The sentence: ‘sometimes I think I imagined it, that we were once a normal family, all of us happy.’ It speaks volumes to me as though there is a whole world behind that sentence that the reader will discover in the book. Look forward to your next post.
I’m really, really sad to lose that line, too, but it just didn’t suit the passage anymore—hopefully you’ll see what I mean when you keep reading! I’ve also told myself that although I’ve killed it in this novel, I can resurrect it in another! Thanks, Deb. 🙂