The algebra of edits

A few weeks ago I got the list of edits for my book. A big page of things I need to change, ridiculous repetitions (I’ve mentioned Nancy Drew, like, five times), and plain stupid mistakes  (like saying something happened six weeks before when it was more like six months. DUH!)  Not easy to look it, so I took a deep breath and made a lot of notes on things to do. A classic avoidance trick that doesn’t involve, y’know, actually making the changes. Then I sat and looked at it. Then I did that ‘oooo –eee—urrrrr’ noise you did as a child when you didn’t want to do something. Mu-um, it’s not fair! I can’t dooooo it! Then I sat and looked at it some more. I counted the days to handing it in – less than three weeks.

It was sort of interesting to feel that edge of mild panic with my writing. For years now my only deadlines have been self-imposed, and what needed to change was only coming from my own intuition. Quite often, I felt I just didn’t know what to change at all. Like I’d come to the end of what I could do with it. So I’m thinking, this is interesting. It’s like a university essay crisis. Maybe I can lie on the floor of a library and eat sweets and laugh hysterically (we were allowed to do this because we had an 24-hour library, in which not much work got done but lots of intrigue went down). So I indulged in some gentle panic.

Then I went to York for the Festival of Writing, and realised how lucky I am to have this deal, and I really must GET ON WITH IT. So I did a bit on the train, starting with drawing up a timeline for the book. I’ve always been sort of proud of how I don’t plan, just write it all down and keep the plot in my head. Especially this one, with three narrators and quite a convoluted plot involving a police investigation and a trial (handily I know exactly nothing about either of these things, necessitating lots of emails to people begging them to help me and then emailing back saying, I know you said this wouldn’t happen but could it, could it ever happen, because I really need it to, pleeeease?). Turns out some  planning would possibly have helped a lot. Finally I got down to it, and after that things went surprisingly fast. I’ve added scenes, cut words, tried to weed out those pesky Nancy Drew references, and so on. I invented a minor character and killed him off (RIP Stephen the gay solicitor. You’d have been great if I had any lines for you to say). Now I have 10,000 extra words and some less mild panic that the editor might not like it any more.

This kind of editing is like algebra, and can melt your head in a similar way. If X is one thing, what does that do to Y? If Z fancies P, what the hell is C doing the whole time? What time is Loose Women even on the TV and why do my characters keep watching it? What IS the time difference to Singapore? See, head-wrecking. The whole equation of the book can change and you have to remember and adjust accordingly.  If I said this happened in October, have I said elsewhere it’s June? (Yes, because I am stupid). Would character 1 know this at this point? Why on earth is character 2 behaving in this way? I actually want to give the characters a good slap and tell them to stop angsting about like some episode of Dawson’s Creek circa 1999. But then, it would be a much shorter book if they didn’t get themselves into some emotional tangles. Editing is sort of the opposite to the happy headlong rush when you write the book, totally in love with your characters and their dilemmas. It’s like the sensible side of life when you do your tax returns and set up direct debits and other dull but necessary things. It’s not as much fun as the love bit, but you need it to make the book stronger.

So, if I’ve learned anything from this rapid editing period, it’s 1: planning tools are actually quite useful. I might not scorn the idea so much in future.

2: It’s not really that bad if you do some planning, or indeed actual research, before you write the book.

3: I really have some kind of obsession with Nancy Drew

4: Mild panic is quite motivating

5: You can do anything if you put your mind to it and your bottom on the chair. You wrote the book in the first place, so you can damn well fix some minor issues with it. GO!

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