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Whittled Words And Shiny Sentences

The joys of editing


What’s it like to be a writer? It’s a question that I’m often asked and, until recently, my answer has been a little prosaic: writing is a desk job, just like any other. There are, of course, some obvious perks – eavesdropping in cafés in the name of research, ‘having ideas’ as you lie in the bath for an hour – but books don’t write themselves. As I tell anyone seeking advice on how to start or finish a novel, you need to sit down every morning and write. If you do that, and set yourself a reasonable daily word count, you have a fighting chance of completing a book. ‘Doesn’t sound like much fun,’ someone replied recently, which got me thinking. I wasn’t being honest. I love writing.

I currently have to produce one novel a year, a contractual obligation that requires the discipline of a nine-to-five office routine. Perhaps that’s why my answer to aspiring authors has become a little joyless. After ten books, I’ve forgotten how lucky I am to earn my living as a full-time author. I take for granted all those wonderful things that I relish in the span of the writing process, from initial idea to final proof. And chief among them, for me, is editing — the second draft in particular. The polishing and shining of sentences. The whittling of words. Fleshing out characters and layering plots. The process of colouring in rather than drawing outlines. Of course, there is always some heavy lifting to be done on a second draft – the removal of a storyline here or an entire character there – but I’ve come to understand that rewriting is ultimately about identifying and highlighting hidden patterns and connections. A psychiatrist might call this apophenia – finding patterns where they don’t exist – but I consider it a fleeting gift, unique to the editing process.

Last month, as I went through my editor’s typically forensic notes on my first draft, I suddenly saw ways to thicken the sauce, to give my story more flavour. Echo a trait of my main character here with something in his nemesis’s background there; ramp up the nicer qualities of my villain; deepen the bond between the femme fatale and her victim; tether the present more tightly to the Faustian past, twenty-four years earlier. Not major changes in themselves, but the overall result was a satisfying gestalt.

I write psychological thrillers, which rely more than other genres on scattering clues and misdirections throughout a driving narrative. Timing is everything. What I call the order of the reveal. It’s like setting a cipher that needs to be broken, but only just. One memorable morning as I sat at my desk, working away on the second draft, I thought that if, in that moment, I was given the Enigma code to crack, I could have done it. My synapses were fizzing in a way that I’d never experienced before. I was in the zone, as sports people say. It didn’t last long, of course – I was soon forgetting what I’d walked to the village shop to buy – but it was a precious moment that offered respite from the more humdrum rhythm of my writing routine. It also got me thinking about the mechanics of assembling a novel.

I tend to write three drafts in total, based on initial notes from my editor and then more notes from my copy editor. I do a lot of self-editing of the first draft as I go along, but I try to keep moving through the story. I can’t say I enjoy writing that first draft. It’s akin to how I feel at the end of a run. I take no pleasure from the run itself, but few things compare to the euphoria afterwards. Typically, I might rewrite 200 of the 1,000 words I’ve written the previous day, before writing another 1,000 words. I’m certainly not one of those authors who just throws down whatever comes into their head, hoping that it can be resolved in a second draft. And I can only admire the approach of Raymond Chandler, who wrote with such energy and speed.

In an interview with Irving Wallace in August 1945, Chandler said: ‘How I work? No regular hours. Can’t keep them. Start in morning and go as long as I can. I work very fast, but I work for the waste-basket. I never revise phrase by phrase and line by line. Instead I rewrite entire things I don’t like. […] I’ve written 5,000 words at one sitting, and I always write [a] final draft. The faster I write the better my output. If I’m going slow I’m in trouble. It means I’m pushing the words instead of being pulled by them.’

Nor do I subscribe to the commonly held theory that a first draft is you telling yourself a story; a second draft is when you tell it to others. Maybe I’m too proud, or I’ve read too many students’ scratchy, unedited essays, to save something on my computer at the end of the day that hasn’t been at least partially edited.

I do wonder, though, what would happen if there was one of those awful printing errors you sometimes hear about, and my publisher accidentally sent the first draft off to the printers. Would anyone actually notice? A lot would be missing, but it would still be recognisable as the story I was trying to tell. Which is not the case with some more memorable works of fiction. Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective, Sherlock Holmes, for example, was originally called Sherrinford Hope, and his companion was Ormond Sacker. ‘Holmes and Watson’, ‘Hope and Sacker’…maybe the prototype pair would have caught on. Maybe.

William Golding also made significant changes to the final draft of Lord of the Flies. Written in the classroom while he was supposed to be teaching, the book originally contained mystical undertones. Simon’s death, for example, was almost Christlike in its martyrdom. No one wanted to publish the book until an editor at Faber retrieved it from the reject pile and suggested that Golding dialled down on the mysticism, a request he reluctantly agreed to. (He may have needed the money.)

Most controversially, Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee was belatedly published in 2015, when it was billed as a long-lost sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird (Lippincott 1960). It was only later that it emerged the book was, in effect, a first draft of Lee’s bestseller and no one really knew whether the ailing, 89-year-old author was happy to see it published at all. (She died some seven months after its publication.) There are many differences – Atticus Finch is a racist in Go Set A Watchman, for example – but some passages of description are almost identical:

This from Go Set a Watchman (chapter 3, page 26):

Jean Louise had often wondered, but never asked, where she got her corsets. They drew up her bosom to giddy heights, pinched in her waist, flared out her rear, and managed to suggest that Alexandra’s had once been an hourglass figure.

And this from To Kill A Mocking Bird (chapter 13, page 127):

She was not fat, but solid, and she chose protective garments that drew up her bosom to giddy heights, pinched in her waist, flared out her rear, and managed to suggest that Aunt Alexandra’s was once an hour-glass figure. From any angle, it was formidable.

Interestingly, when Lee submitted Go Set A Watchman in 1957, her editor described it as ‘more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel’ and oversaw a series of revisions. To Kill A Mockingbird was published three years later.

Sadly, I’m now done with my new book. I’ve tried to spin out the edits for as long as I can, knowing that it doesn’t get much better than this, but it’s back to the coalface for me as I begin work on the next novel. This time, however, I will strive to enjoy the first draft, the run itself, mindful of what editing pleasures lie in store. And I will look more favourably on the general job of being an author. In my mind, I will always be working nine-to-five in an office, otherwise I’d never finish another book, but I have come to realise that writing is a far from routine job, full of unexpected pleasures and occasional pain. ‘There is no rule on how to write,’ Ernest Hemingway explained to Charles Poore in 1953. ‘Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly. Sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.’

There will always be days when it doesn’t come easily or perfectly. And I will never escape the irrational fear of not having another idea for a novel again — a dark place that I’ve visited after finishing each of my ten books. But these are small drawbacks that make the fruits of our labour sweeter. The next time someone asks me what it’s like to be an author, I’ll be honest. It’s a blast.

No Place to Hide, by J. S. Monroe (Jon Stock’s pen name), will be published by Head of Zeus in April 2023.

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