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Oct 28

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The Madness That Is Editing

Many writers go through a number of drafts before they get to a finished piece. They start with a full write-up of their book, complete with errors of every kind, and they systemically refine this work through subsequent drafts.

My system is an illogical mess. I don’t complete one full draft and then go back to the beginning – I edit as I go, de-bloating turgid sentences where I find them. I cannot begin a new day of writing without looking at yesterday’s work, which often makes me analyse what I’ve already written instead of get on with what I have to write.

I get into a horrific obsessing state, reading aloud, tapping a pen on the desk even though I don’t have paper in the apartment because, nine times out of ten, I’d rather screw up the crap written on it than hammer out the mistakes. Yet editing is a delicious torture. It’s chipping away at that slab of marble until I see shape, and later precision.

 

Photographer: Dan Patterson

Take the opening page of Torrodil, for example. This is my first attempt:

On the streets of Leitrim, the hustle and bustle of the morning filled the air, joined by the smell of muck from citizens emptying their chamber pots onto the cobbled streets below. As luck would have it, the muck was not satisfied to spend its days wasting away in the summer sun, and chose, as it were, an altogether stickier fate clinging on to the shoes of workers wrapped up in the Monday morning frenzy.

Anna Gray did not say anything when she heard the splodge, nor when she felt the mush start to trickle. There was, perhaps, a slight narrowing of the eyes, a slight snarl undetectable at any range as she went from foot to sky, foot to sky, realising then that it was impossible to be both bare foot and fancy free. On her left the town crier was carping on:

Katharine will fight ‘em in the streets, she’ll fight ‘em in her breeches…Dallina bandits draw near and troops are nowhere to be seen. Is Leitrim safe?…How does your garden grow?: Miracle grow company Soylent Green raking it in as wonder-manure sells like dirt cakes, despite unpleasant odour…’”

I like to start with description rather than talking heads and that’s what I’ve done here. The reader knows the book is set in the past, yet I’m throwing information at them when I don’t have to be, starting with two dependent clauses (highlighted) that make my opening paragraph harder to read. There are also repetitions and references that are overly transparent. You get a hint of style, but it’s a clunker.

Second try:

The hustle and bustle of the morning filled Leitrim’s air, joined by the smell of muck from villagers emptying their chamber pots onto the cobbles. As luck would have it, the muck was not content to spend its days wasting away in the summer sun, and chose an altogether stickier fate clinging to the shoes of workers wrapped up in the Monday morning frenzy.

Anna Gray did not say anything when she heard the splodge, nor when she felt the mush start to trickle. There was a slight snarl as she looked down, realising then that it was impossible to be both barefoot and fancy free.

Katharine will fight ‘em in the streets, she’ll fight ‘em in her breeches,’ said the town crier. ‘Dallina in cinders and bandits on the loose. Where is the cavalry?’

The first paragraph is easier to read since I’ve sacrificed that opening dependent clause. I’ve chipped away at the second paragraph, taking away repetitions. It’s made it feel a bit dry. Who is this girl Anna Gray? What sets me as a writer apart from everyone else? By this point I know it’s going to be a do-over.

Third try:

Anna Gray plunged into Monday headfirst, knees bent, and with two less shoes than the night before. The morning rush would finish her one day. A passer-by, finding her trampled and in hand-me-down underwear, might say she had it coming.

Katharine will fight ‘em in the streets, she’ll fight em in her breeches,’ said the town crier as Anna sped past, breathing in the muck that villagers had emptied onto the cobbles. ‘Hey Anna, another town in cinders. What do you think: war before the year’s out?’

Anna strafed past rabid mutts and Friar McDougall, owner of the county’s clammiest hands. ‘I think Queen Katharine really needs a new shtick. And try peddling something upbeat for a change. “Healer cures man’s pox.” I’m telling you, people would be stuck to you like flies on—’

The girl did not say anything when she heard the splodge, nor when she felt the mush start to trickle. There was a slight twitch as she looked down, realising then that it was impossible to be both barefoot and fancy free.

On second thought,’ she shouted back, ‘work with the crap you got.’”

The opening paragraph is action-oriented, yet displays character without being showy. We understand a lot better what type of girl Anna is in this one – quick-witted, as well as quick on her toes. Whereas the girl in the first draft may have given you a glassy stare if you tried to talk to her, this girl would probably just suggest going some place to get drunk and rage about the world. Yet it’s a bit explicit. The reference to war is in your face, and I’d prefer if the PC brigade read a few more pages before they burned Torrodil for mild profanities.

Final version:

Anna Gray plunged into Monday headfirst, knees bent, and with two less shoes than the night before. The morning rush would finish her one day. A passer-by, finding her trampled and wearing hand-me-down underwear, might say she had it coming.

Katharine will fight ‘em in the streets, she’ll fight ‘em in her breeches,’ said the town crier as Anna sped past, breathing in the muck that villagers had emptied onto the cobbles. Queen Katharine really needed a new shtick. Something upbeat. Man cures Kelgard of pig plague, thought Anna. Bacon sandwiches for all! Yeah, people would cling to that like flies to—

Anna heard the splodge first, then felt the mush start to trickle. There was a slight twitch as she looked down, realising that it was impossible to be both barefoot and fancy free. By the time Anna arrived in the shop, breathless and sweating bullets, the clock tower had rung in ten o’clock, with all signs pointing to an emotional breakdown before noon.”

The excess fat has been cut away, and a parity between dialogue and description achieved.

This isn’t the 1984 of openings. It is a glimpse at character, style and plot delivered in a way that hopefully makes a reader want to continue. Go back and compare it with my first try. Which book would you buy?

 

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  1. Interview With Luke Geraghty, author of Torrodil | Write-A-Holic

    […] the editing process begins. You talked a little bit about how you edited Torrodil in the article The Madness That Is Editing. Could you expand on this by telling us what you learned about editing, which strategies worked for […]

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