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.