The Importance of Being Edited

Editing is the part of writing that takes your flabby text and trims it into something that works. If the original idea is good enough, editing makes it shine.

Some people, like my friend Hamish and writer Gail Carriger, enjoy editing. Drafting is a rough activity, like cutting a form from a block of marble. Editing lets you file off the rough edges, polish surfaces and make your prose shine. Unfortunately, I don’t like editing much. It’s slow. It reminds me of planning dinner parties: I want to come up with the menu, do the shopping or cook the food – not all three. It’s like having the meal three times over. I lose interest. (In the food, not the dinner party itself.)

Editing is inevitable, however. At first, when I realised that I spend two or three hours editing for every hour I spend writing, I thought there’s be a way of cutting down on editing. If my first drafts were better, editing would be faster. If my ideas were more thoroughly thought out, my first draft would be better. The conclusion to my thought experiment was that to edit less, I needed to write less. On the one hand, that is true: less text, fewer changes. But on the other hand, writing less means producing fewer stories and not learning the lessons that each teaches me. My aim is to write more, not less.

Fiction writing is very different from the technical writing I’ve been doing for years. There, the structure is everything. You work out the structure, do the research and fill in the words. It’s easy. To me, writing fiction is still difficult. There are so many possible structures, voices and approaches, so many different words to choose between. Editing helps me pick the right ones.

I might not much like the process of editing, but  I do like the effect it has on my text.

Reading fiction for research

Last year I wrote a novel as part of NaNoWriMo. It was great fun and I produced many words. I’ve been editing it down into something that can be shared with people not my boyfriend ever since. As part of this process I’ve been doing research to make sure that I don’t lie more than necessary.

Research can be great fun. You learn a lot of interesting stuff. But only a fraction of what you learn will feed into the final story. Sometimes I research things and realise that none of what I’ve just learn needs to go in to the story. It’s like doing research for an academic essay: only in first year do you include everything you know. After that you do a lot of research that you don’t refer to. (Hurrah for bibliographies: you can show off in fiction writing too but most of the time no one cares. Unless you get it wrong.) But that’s for a different post.

A lot of my research has been in and around the type of novel I wrote last year. This means reading many, many books in the same genre. Yay, you might think, but no, it’s not all good. Urban fantasy, which is one name for what I wrote, is fairly popular at the moment. There’s a lot of books out there set in modern settings but with an alternative super-natural edge. I’ve found that there’s a particular type of this kind of fiction that I don’t love. It’s vampire fancier fiction.

It gets on my nerves

When I was 19 I fell in love with Lestat. When I was 23 I fell out of love with him again. Many years later I have completely lost interest in the problems of going out with a vampire and rather enjoy the kind of tales where there is no vampire romance or, indeed, no romance. (Gasp! According to the research I’ve just lost the female audience. Because we’re all the same.)

The spurious love story is one of my pet peeves. It irritates me equally in films and books.

What I read

Here’s a list of what I read as part of my research:

  • Ben Aaronovitch: Midnight Riot, Moon Over Soho
  • Brom: The Child Theif
  • Gail Carriger: Soulless
  • Larry Correia: Hard Magic, Monster Hunter International, Monster Hunter Vendetta
  • Laurell K. Hamilton: Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter (1-11)
  • Deborah Harkness: A Discovery of Witches
  • Charlaine Harris: Southern Vampires (1-11)
  • Kim Harrison: The Hollows (1-8)
  • Tobsha Learner: The Witch of Cologne
  • Malcolm Pryce: Aberystwyth Mon Amour
  • Phil Rickman: The Wine of Angels
  • Brandon Sanderson: The Final Empire

(Why are the H’s so very prolific?) Sometimes I go too far and read too much of what’s of no use to me, but there you go. I think I’ve had a fairly good grounding in contemporary urban fantasy and caught some steam punk and other genres too.

What I like

What I have found is that I have a European, and possibly male, sensibility. I get bored with descriptions of clothing and hair styles. Colour is good: I like background and texture, but there’s only so much detail that I want.

I like solid characters from a moral universe similar to mine. Overt religiosity, sexual squeamishness or intolerance irritates me. (Unless there’s a reason for it to be there.) My cultural upbringing shines through in my tastes: I’m northern European in my attitudes. This is what I learned by doing research into my genre. It wasn’t what I had expected to learn. My hope was to unlock the secret of a successful urban fantasy novel.

Maybe I did unlock the secret only to find that the ingredients bore me.