I was delighted to attend Emma Darwin’s BPA workshop on ‘Editing your Novel’. Emma’s memoir This is not a book about Charles Darwin, an account of her struggle to write a historical novel based on her family, was described by the Daily Mail as ‘a masterclass’, which certainly made me curious to hear what she had to say about the editing process.
Emma began by stressing that it’s important to understand drafting and editing as two different processes, even if you do drafting in the morning and revising in the afternoon.
‘When you’re drafting, you’re in a dream in the way that you hope the reader will be. You’re experiencing your characters and sometimes they don’t behave as you want them to, but the fact that they’re not doing what you want, shows that they’re real people. Very often you’ll be letting the story decide where it’s going.’
As a writer who can’t scribble two sentences in a row without tweaking the first, I forced myself to receive this lesson. By obsessively editing, I’m taking myself out of the dream-world of the story. I’m censoring my characters before they can show me their wild sides. During the drafting process, we must learn to remain calm in the presence of messy sentences.
EMMA’S HOT TIP #1: If you come across something that could stop the flow of your draft, write a holding sentence in square brackets and come back to it later. Fiction doesn’t have square brackets so you can easily search for and rewrite it.
We discussed practical ways to read your work like a reader. Emma finds that when she does this, the things that as a writer she didn’t get quite right will jar. She suggested changing the font or printing a hard copy (black laser printers are fast and cheap), or even ordering a paperback version through Lulu so it feels like you’re reading a published book. I’ll often download a chapter as a PDF so that I can’t edit until I’ve read it all the way through.
The easiest way to learn how to step outside your writing and experience it like a reader is to try being a reader of someone else’s work. Emma suggested this is the core reason the workshop format is so often used in creative writing education. You learn so much about your own work and develop a capacity to step outside it. In my four years of workshops in London and Norwich, there were countless times I made a comment on a writer’s manuscript and recognised the same issue in my own. There were also times I shared a critique that the workshop group at large disagreed with, and I was forced to reconsider some of my views on what makes ‘good writing’. We have to edit our work to communicate with a broad readership; I’ve learnt to be careful of writing to myself.
So Emma’s advice is not to get bogged down in solving the problems initially. Mark up what you find. Write comments like ‘Right events, boring writing’ or ‘awk. (for awkward)’. Develop your own shorthand. Fix small mistakes, sure, but don’t make any edits that are going to pull you from the flow of reading the novel.
Have a plan of action. Log the problems and THEN get into problem solving.
EMMA’S ADVICE ON PROBLEM SOLVING:
Deal with the big things first: stakes and arcs. Character. Settings. Plot elements based on research. There’s no point polishing a paragraph if it’s going to get cut. (That doesn’t mean you might not polish a paragraph to the nth degree and still cut it at the last moment.) Macro to micro is normally the preferred shape.
‘Start by thinking: Is what we’re hoping for getting bigger? Is what we’re fearing getting bigger?’
Nail down the physical aspects.
EMMA’S HOT TIP #2: Use a building you know to base a setting on. It doesn’t need to have sentimental value. It’s just quicker than making it all up from scratch.
EMMA’S HOT TIP #3: Work on Word track changes with ‘no markup’ so the manuscript looks clean, but you can still revert to the previous draft.
I found it comforting when Emma said she usually does around four rounds of problem finding and problem solving before going to an agent or beta reader. Doing lots of editing doesn’t mean the work isn’t good. It means the work is going to be the best it can.
Emma’s only rule of writing: DON’T FIDDLE.
‘Don’t open the file unless you know what you’re doing today.’
If a change somewhere else in the text occurs to you, make a note of it and deal with that next time.
Moving on to discuss structure and plot, Emma said there’s nothing wrong with having a few main characters, but the writer needs to know who to root for. They need to especially care about someone. ‘Whose story is it?’ is crucial.
She emphasised the importance of CHANGE. If nothing changes from the beginning to the end the story isn’t working. The change should happen to your main character.
- What is the change?
- How much can you get rid of that isn’t about the change?
What does the character want to GAIN? Emma asked us. Wealth? Dominance? It’s worth knowing whether what they want is the same as what they need. She made me think about what puts my characters under pressure and this helped me to think about how I’m arranging the plot of my novel.
When Emma said ‘How a character talks and thinks is shaped by their personality,’ my first thought was that this should be obvious to most writers, but then I considered the amount of times I’ve steamed ahead writing scenes of dialogue and interiority, and immediately edited said dialogue and interiority, before deciding for myself exactly who my characters are and what motivates them. Get to know your characters, then refine their speech.
EMMA’S HOT TIP #4: Once you’ve started writing, reconsider the perspective and tense you’re working in.
We spent a while thinking about PSYCHIC DISTANCE, a concept explored by John Gardner in The Art of Fiction, asking: How far in or out of a viewpoint character do you want the reader to be in the present moment? Emma provided a handy scale, which you can view on her blog. Level one is objective, full of information. It’s like a long shot in a film. As we close in, we get more individualism; level 5 is completely subjective. Most fiction spends the majority of its time in levels 3 and 4, but it’s best to slide up and down the spectrum. Don’t jump from one level to another, but think about what works for each moment and the flow of the paragraph. Emma also described it like this: Level 1 is pure narrator and level 5 is pure character.
‘Being aware of psychic distance is empowering.’
My instinct when I write is to stay as close as possible all the time. I want the reader to feel that intimacy with my perspective character, but Emma explained that the closer in you get the less context there is. Some things might be hard to understand. That’s why you’ll rarely want to stay close for the whole text.
Our final lesson was how to spot FILTERING. ‘Don’t remind the reader of the frame they’re seeing the story through,’ Emma said. We did an exercise, looking through a passage for phrases such as, ‘I saw that …’, ‘I remembered that …’, ‘I thought that …’ These phrases can be helpful, but it was remarkable how many we could take out without it affecting the story.
We covered a lot of ground. Emma said it can be difficult to look for different kinds of problems and solutions at one time, like looking for Christmas presents for five different people in one shop. She suggested we try doing them separately, a filtering edit, then a psychic distance edit, etc. Someone who struggles with punctuation might do a punctuation edit.
I left inspired to be a confident editor of my own work. From now on, I won’t fiddle, tweaking odd sentences here and there, moving with my mood, but I’ll make a plan of action, re-assessing each aspect of my novel from the big things to the little.
I hope these reflections will be helpful as a reminder for those of you who attended and a taster for those who couldn’t make it. Find more writing advice on Emma Darwin’s blog This Itch of Writing, and stay tuned for news about our upcoming online workshops.