The Craft – Part Four: Revision
This is the forth in a series of articles talking with fantasy authors about the craft. You can read the previous posts here:
Revision is a part of writing. Writers who can write perfect prose on their first draft are few and far between. Most have to spend time editing and rewriting, taking the rough shape they have drawn with words and making them more defined and clear. And through doing so, writers learn and improve their writing skills.
In today’s article about the craft, we look at the process of editing with a number of fantasy authors.
I started off by asking what editing had taught them about their writing and how this has fed back into their craft.
“I’m right in the middle of my first set of edits from my editor,” says Laura Lam, “so this question is timely!”
Lam’s first novel, Pantomime, is due for release from Strange Chemistry in February 2013. The book tells the story of a young runaway who joins the greatest magical circus in the whole of Ellada.
“I learn more about craft each time I edit, but I learned an amazing amount when I did the edits for my revision request I received from Strange Chemistry in November of last year. The manuscript I submitted through their first Open Door Month was quite good for being a relatively early draft, but it still needed some additional work to really shine. I ended up gutting it, rearranging it, writing about 40,000 new words in total and tweaking the rest a lot.”
M.D. Lachlan has had plenty of experience of editing. Originally part of the “Lad Lit” movement with books such as Girlfriend 44 and Lucky Dog, he moved into genre with his critically acclaimed Wolfsangel Viking werewolf saga. The latest book in the series, Lord of Slaughter, has recently been released by Gollancz.
“I am more aware of the necessity for ongoing, consequential complication in a plot than I was when I began,” he says, “so I’m always trying to make my characters’ lives as hard as possible in the way that’s most meaningful to them. I write that in fairly naturally now and the question ‘what is the worst that could plausibly happen?’ is never far from my mind. My first drafts are stronger – although my first mainstream novel Girlfriend 44 never had a second draft because I didn’t know you were supposed to do that.”
“A note to aspiring authors,” says Sam Sykes when asked if he has any advice. “QUESTION YOURSELF. Spend time thinking on a sentence that doesn’t look right, a phrase that doesn’t sound intelligible when you say it aloud.”
Sam Sykes’ latest book in his Aeon’s Gate series, The Skybound Sea, was released from Gollancz in September. It is the third book in the series, following on Tome of the Undergates and Black Halo.
“I do one readthrough of the first draft on Kindle and make notes,” says Lachlan. “Then I go through the whole thing on computer checking that all the plot points match up that the person seeking the true ring in chapter one isn’t seeking a dragon by chapter 50, that motivations stay consistent, that people act in the way you’d expect – or at least a historically realistic way. (I write historical fantasy). Then I go through to do a language edit – making sure I rid myself of clichés and that everything is as tight as it can be. Then I run autocrit software to pick up repetitions, lazy sentence construction and any clichés I’ve missed. This is a gruelling phase and may take three weeks. Then I send it off. It comes back with the copy editor’s remarks and I wrestle with those and implement them or don’t. Then it goes back and comes back on proof. At this point I realise there’s a massive hole in the plot and have to edit that at the last minute. Then it comes out and we notice the annoying typo we all missed.”
Lou Morgan’s first novel, Blood & Feathers, has recently been released from Solaris. It is the tale of a woman named Alice who finds herself caught in a war between angels and the fallen. The sequel, Rebellion, is due for release next summer.
“I’m a lot more aware of repetition,” says Morgan. “When I find a word I like, I’m not afraid to use it. Again and again and again. Seeing an entire parade of ‘scrabbling’s marked out in red made me slightly paranoid about that, so there’s one bad habit I’ve already been pulled up on. Whether this will lead to a stronger first draft of the next book, or me simply having more grey hair and bitten-down nails, I couldn’t say.”
“I have hundreds of bad habits,” says Lachlan, “and I’d be thankful if anyone picked out any more. I say ‘he began to run’ or ‘he began to sleep’ all the time and have to chop that out on edit – ‘he ran’ or ‘he slept’ covers it. The editing process has taught me to get rid of adverbs – my early work was full of stuff such as ‘he said, knowingly’ and to hack out power verbs in dialogue attribution – no ‘he opined’ or ‘he cackled’ for me. That said, I did turn into a bit of a puritan on this front and I have allowed myself one ‘he roared’ in the latest book. The character in question is a lion, however, so I think that’s OK.”
“I learned what a lot of my writing pitfalls were and have implemented that into my first draft of my sequel,” says Lam. “Naturally, the sequel will still need rounds of edits, but I’m hoping that by applying what I learned they won’t be as drastic. I’ve also been taking breaks to step back, examine my draft holistically, and going back and editing as I go along. Being systematic works for me.”
“I still write too many passive sentences and have to pick them up on the edit and I still do some hammy constructions such as. ‘XXXX walked into the room. The detrius of a suburban life littered the floor – a photo in a frame, a china dog, smashed and headless, torn curtains, ripped books, a child’s doll. XXXX put his hand to the mantelpiece. There was something wet there. He licked his fingers. Blood.’ I recommend fantasy writers to watch Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. If you’re writing like him I’d do something about it.”
“I have discovered,” says Morgan, “that I much prefer doing edits on paper, then transferring them to soft copy. Like I say, I tend to make life hard for myself…”
“As you work with editors, you will develop your own instincts for what works and what doesn’t work,” says Sykes offering some final advice. “Be daring, of course, and if you REALLY want something in a book, then put it down and see what your editors (or beta readers, writing group, whatever) say. There’s no substitute for this but experience and the more you write, the more you’ll learn what works and what doesn’t.”
Check back next week for our final article in this series: Criticism.