Editing planetfall

The last blog post was a little light relief, a short description of the pens and notebooks I use when I write. (But hey, you got some photos with it.)

This blog post follows up on that, and will lead back to the technical issues of writing creatively. I’ll get back to writing about particular characters in planetfall after this blog post.

I normally start writing long hand. Not always, but most of the time. I do this for several reasons. First, writing can be quite lonely, and writing long hand is best done in a cafe where I can be surrounded by people (ha! and look mysterious and author-ly). Second, when I’m trying to find those first few words, the mechanical nature of moving my hand back and forth across the page feels more interactive than having my fingers hover over a keyboard, watching that blinking sentinel of a black cursor on a white laptop page glare at me. Third, I like to draw.

Now let’s explain this drawing thing. I can’t draw like an artist. There are no secret sketch books filled with pen-and-ink compositions waiting to be discovered. No, in that sense, photography is my creative, visual outlet (see my photography on Flickr). Ever since I was a teenager writing in English Language classes, I have doodled first before starting to write. I’ve written previously about storyboarding planetfall, which combines my habit of doodling with my approach to starting writing.

When I start to write a sentence in a fresh writing session, I often sit and doodle. But these days, in my Moleskines, I doodle without touching the page. I wave the pen nib over the paper and sketch invisible patterns. I see blank lines form traces over the yellow-ish page of the Moleskine, and as quick as they’re formed, they fade. This, combined with the hubbub of background chatter, forms a sort of audio-visual white noise, quietening competing thoughts and dimming distracting inner eye pictures. At some point while waving this pen-as-magic wand, the nib will be attracted to the page, the doodling loops will form the recognisable sigils of letters, I will see the scene in my head, and it will download to my hand and onto the page.

It is because of this process that I prefer to start writing stories and each fresh writing session by hand. I can get to a similar point on a laptop, but it takes a while. It’s generally only after having typed for some minutes that I can see through the laptop screen – well, let’s get this right, that I stop seeing the laptop screen and letters appearing one by one – to the movie playing out in my head, and can access that download sensation.

Which brings me onto editing.

Once I’ve written in long hand, I return to my flat and type up the writing. This allows me a first pass at editing. While reading the long hand and stumbling with my fingers over the keyboard, I notice missing words, clunky sentences, half-completed thoughts, uncompleted cross-references, areas where the scene is sketched but not coloured in. It is this process which acts as a first edit and a first chance at re-writing.

The second pass at editing comes in a couple of different forms, and neither is my preferred second option. The first way is to have a day or so’s break and re-read recent text on the laptop. This I generally do if I’ve written a new long hand scene knowing I’ve jumped a little bit, and need some filler sections. In those circumstances I will need to re-read the last couple of pages to get back into the scene and what’s come already, so I can properly fill in. Sometimes this fill in can be a line, a paragraph, or several pages. The second way, which I do for everything I write, is to print it and read it like a book, with a red ink Uniball gel pen to hand. I make editing notes as I go along. Quite often the editing notes consist of lines through entire sentences or paragraphs: deleting previous writing is a shame, but it is absolutely fundamental to producing the final text. Often I will change words or phrases, pick up my punctuation (I over-use commas) or write new sections. I deliberately chose red pen as it links back to those early days in school, and allows me to occupy another version of me, a separate, slightly more objective version, one that is modelled on teachers and is expected to criticise.

The third and final pass at editing (before the writing goes to other people to read) is the most critical and also the most painful.

I read the material aloud.

Every single word, every single sentence and paragraph and page.

This is a very powerful tool for self editing. I find it painful for two reasons. First, I don’t like my voice. Second, when I read my work, I can get a pretty good sense of how it would sound to someone else (with my voice included). The presumption of embarrassment of someone hearing nonsense is very strong. Yet this is a strong feedback loop. Once you hear your work out loud, you get a very different feel for it. You can hear the sounds, the rhythm, the way different words rise and fall and complement each other. You can finally hear the tone of your work, which can be fundamentally different to how it sounds in your head.

When we edit by reading, we use a limited number of senses. There is the look of the words on the page, and there are the sounds heard by our inner ears (by which I mean, the mental constructions of our internal monologues) and the spatial feel of the words and story in our head: the space it creates and the form that takes.

When we add real sound to this, coupled with the tangible, mechanical feel of our jaws and tongues moving, we add extra dimensions. The story comes alive (or fails to…) in different ways.

A poet would use the process to match sounds to each other within the metre of their verse. I do some of this, sometimes, if it feels important, although I am no poet and do not always have a sense of lyrical sounds in the text.

The simplest thing I get from reading aloud is how difficult it is to read the words. If my tongue really stumbles over certain word combinations, then it will be harder for someone else to read with their internal monologue. If I can smooth the sentence aloud, I know it will read more smoothly to someone else when they read to themselves. (I have had this direct feedback, unprompted, from a friend who proofread part of planetfall book 1: “It reads like someone’s reading it to you,” she said.)

The process is also important for creating a visual environment. Stories have an oral/aural history. The sagas of old were told around camp fires and in huts and caves in the dark. They had to create an inner, visual world for the listeners, both as distraction from the nightmares that stalked the night outside the protected circle, and also so that as many senses were utilised to help the listener remember the tale. I have a tendency to be a very visual writer, to rely on visual creations of scenes to transmit the story to the reader. If the work isn’t read out loud, if I don’t check how it hooks into those feedbacks between our sense of sound and sense of vision, then it will fail to make the final leap: to evolve that internal silent movie on the cinema screen of your mind, into a talkie; a moving picture with original soundtrack.

Editing is a very important process in writing. The writing starts – for me – with a connection between movement and inner vision. When I type I exploit the same mechanism. When I edit I edit visually. But when I do the toughest edit, I combine as many senses as possible – I add sound to the movement and images. This whole process always leads to significant changes to the text, and most authors at some point have spoken on this. To finish, here are two quotations from people deeply involved in (and far better than me at) the writing process:

Harry Shaw: “There is no such thing as good writing. There is only good rewriting.”

Michael Crichton: “Books are not written – they’re rewritten.”

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