Re-work and Edit
Re-work And Edit
In this session, Barbara Trapido, author of Frankie and Stankie and Brother of the More Famous Jack, advises on how to take that draft and make it shine. This will focus on:
Getting It Down
Revising as Child’s Play
Tools and Techniques
Making It Real
Syntax and Style
Feedback and Criticism
If you are reading this, then you’ll have already got some way into your writing. You may even have got to the end. Or you could be half-way through. Congratulations. I hope you’re excited, because if you aren’t excited by what you’ve written – if you aren’t in love with it, then your readers won’t be either. So give it your very best shot. Don’t treat your work as though it’s an exercise. This is not a practise run for something better that you plan to write – this year, next year, sometime, never. Your commitment is now. Your aim is to get the stuff as good as it can be.
Getting it Down
First, a little prologue to the business of editing. I hope you will believe me that everybody needs to edit. Nobody is that good on a first draft. Most of us are even worse on those embarrassing, scribbly preliminaries to first drafts – the ones that, in my case, are to be found on the backs of cheque books and electricity bills. The important thing is to get it all down. What I’ve learned over the years is that, instead of spending nine months polishing the cadences of my first paragraph, or deciding whether chapter one should really become chapter two, it’s best, as far as possible, to push on and get the thing down.
Once it’s down, your morale will be higher and you’ll have something solid to work with – something deeply flawed, undoubtedly, but possibly richer for not being too censored at birth. What you’ve written will probably shock you with its repetitions, its uninspiring lumps of description, its purple patches, its clumsy, over-long sentences, but be brave! This happens to us all. And nobody needs to see your early drafts, except you and God – and he may not be looking.
There’s no need, you see, to write as if the boy next door was going to sneak in and steal your diary. Your drafts are your private world until you’ve refined and polished, shaped, cut and slashed. So loosen up and don’t indulge in embarrassment, or in the sort of false vanity that refuses to let you put anything down on the page unless it’s perfect before it’s begun. Don’t censor yourself before the event. Get writing. Get it all down. This is about being intuitive. It’s about being wide-ranging. So think of your writing as something more like dreaming. Catch all that magic on the wing before your brain rubs it out. But now, let’s get editing.
Believe me, there is going to be a lot of editing and re-writing. You’ll be appalled. Getting it right is much harder work than lots of first-timers realise. What I see, as a tutor, is mostly typescript ‘novels’ that are really just half-way drafts, but the writers think that they’re novels. So have some pride and don’t be lazy. Work it and re-work it until it shines. What you want is an artefact, not a collection of pages. There’s no pleasure for you in sloppy writing and there’s even less for your readers. If the writing isn’t taut and clear, if it isn’t musical, if it isn’t energetic, if it isn’t positively inviting a reader into a world that you’ve made, then what is it for? Your job is to be an enchanter. So don’t bend your reader’s ear like a party bore. But let’s forget about the reader. Editing is about becoming your own reader. Do you enchant yourself?
So take on board right now that the language is the story. The language makes the story, creates the world, gives the characters voices, paints pictures. It is a surgeon’s scalpel rather than a broadsword, so use it well.
Revising as Child’s Play
Revising is very hard work, but don’t think of it as drudgery. It’s a special sort of work. It’s exciting. It’s more like playing. This is the great compensation for all those hours you’ll steal out of the night. It may be a long time since you were a child and your writing may be telling the saddest tales, but it’s still about being playful. So make sure that there’s space in your mind to play. Don’t get pompous.
When children play, it’s a serious business, for all that it’s good fun. Because, through role-play, through rituals, through clapping rhymes, through talking out loud, through relishing sounds and movements, children are learning their way around a new world that isn’t yet familiar. They are learning by acting out – finding out about all the people and situations they might have to deal with.
So that’s your other job as a writer. To play and to discover, even if it means shouting at pretend people, or crying into the mirror. If, right now, you are reading through your drafts and they seem as dead as doorknobs, it’s very likely that your scenes aren’t ‘acted out’. What you’ve written may read like an essay. Too much reportage? Too many ideas? Too much banging your readers over the head with your views on gender or the environment? Or have you simply unloaded your life’s grievances via some thinly disguised real-life characters? Now you have got to become those characters – even the ones you hate. You must act out that story.
You may be a twenty-six year-old radiologist, or a middle-aged driver for Thames Trains, but there is no reason why you can’t change shape and make those exciting journeys. Through playing you can really become that canned food heiress, that ghoulish aunt, that orphan child.
Try thinking of your writing, not as something on a page, but as a kind of theatre. It’s 3D. You can move around in its spaces. Not only will your revision become a lot more fun, but you’ll find that your views on gender and the environment have got in anyway. Your life’s grievances will be there, but they won’t be boring people. You’ll have turned hard times into gold. Think of Dickens. Does he whinge? No. He makes theatre.
Tools and Techniques
You might be thinking, ‘Well, I haven’t got the time for all this.’ But
you’ve always got time for the things you love, because you’re always thinking about them – in the bus, in the doctor’s surgery, while pushing swings in the park. If need be, you’ll carve hours out of the night. You’ll get up two hours earlier. It might make you less efficient in your real life, because you’ll forget to get off at the right train stop. Or you’ll think, ‘Why am I at the station, when I should be in the dentist?’ But those are good signs. You can edit anywhere, because you don’t need high-tech tools. A computer and printer are good, but don’t under -value an exercise book on your knee. I find an audio- tape player indispensable and some writers like a thesaurus for those times when they’ve used the same word three times in a sentence and they just can’t think their way round it.
Read It Out Loud
Here is my best advice for editing and revising. READ EVERY WORD OUT LOUD. Read your stuff, not once, not twice, but several times. At first you’ll keep stopping and scratching things out and scribbling over your printouts. You’ll be thinking ‘Ouch!’ as you keep on making changes. At a certain point, read the revised draft into a tape recorder and play it back. You’ll still be thinking ‘Ouch!’ but probably not so frequently. Correct it and record again. Eventually you’ll have your own story tape that you can take in a Walkman to the park.
The great thing about reading your work aloud is it helps you to hear it as though you were somebody else. Is it boring? Is it pompous? Is it dead? Is it too much like reportage? Who wrote this stuff, anyway? Stop, think again, act it out. Now you can sit back and be the audience. Don’t just read it. Watch and listen. Watch the action in your mind’s eye. What do you see? Be vivid. Be particular. Do you write in generalities? Do you skim? Then re-write it! Make it concrete.
Be a Camera
Here’s a trick. Pretend to be a camera. What do you see through that lens? Stalk your own scenes. Get closer. Get CLOSER. Eavesdrop. Whose is that garden gate I’ve never noticed before? What do people say? What do they really say? Maybe it’s nothing like those little coherent lectures you’ve given them. Maybe it’s less formulated. Maybe there are more broken sentences. Often people aren’t quite saying what they mean. The meaning is in the spaces between the lines. It’s oblique.
And remember that even clever, educated people aren’t forever talking about Virginia Woolf. They’re asking if anyone has fed the dog. They’re grumbling that nobody else will ever fill the pepper grinder. With a camera, you can vary your range. You can do close-up and distance. You can be like John Constable. So don’t do paint-by-numbers.
Here’s another trick. If you feel you haven’t got a real grasp on a character, then take that person right out of the context. Try taking him out to tea. Put him opposite you in a cafe (your kitchen chairs will do). Get the character to talk to you. Look at him. Listen to him. That way you’ll find out about him from before and after he enters the time frame of your book. You’ll become aware of the mole under his right eye and the way he fidgets with his watch-strap. You’ll notice that he lisps.
Making It Real
Reading aloud and acting out will make you notice if your scenes aren’t real. No matter how fantastical your material, my advice is, always think about the solid space in which the action takes place. Know the doorways, the staircases, the tables and chairs, the windows, the woodland, so that your characters can enter and depart, or sit, walk and talk. Maybe draw groundplans. Otherwise the action will be like those bad still-life paintings where the fruit is floating above the bowl.
Now let’s consider a paradox that lies at the heart of writing. You need to get very close. You need to inhabit a character’s brain, walk around in his shoes. But you also need to estrange yourself, to stand back and become your own audience. You need to watch your characters objectively, especially if they’re based on you! So ‘cast a cold eye,’ as Yeats says.
Quite often, for example, with a first-time writer, I’ll get a typescript in which it’s obvious that the writer considers the heroine to be utterly charming and attractive. Yet what I see is an irritating show-off who steps into the text to start belittling her partner, or being a nuisance to everyone on the train.
This is because, for me, that character is a stranger and I’m not yet ready to make the sort of allowances that the writer is, who knows and loves her. So don’t root for characters. Love them, but put on those magic, see-as-others-see-you spectacles. Watch the action. Think.
Syntax and Style
Now come the important revisions of syntax and style. Punctuation and spelling are things that some writers find threatening. I’d say don’t worry – so long as your punctuation is good enough not to distort your meaning. And spelling, I think, is basically a bit so-what. It’s more important in your CV and in your job applications. Use a spell check if you’re insecure, but spelling won’t mess up the music, though howlers can distract. Someone else can always fix the commas. Avoiding the following problems is much more important to the content of your writing.
One Thought per Sentence
When reading aloud you’ll notice not only the lapses in dramatic realisation, but all the little faults in the quality of your sentences that could be shooting your story in the foot. You don’t need heaps of grammar knowledge to tell when a sentence is a muddle. It’ll be illogical and hard to grasp. You’ll probably stumble over it and have to stop half-way through. Most likely, it’s because you’ve got more than one thought in that sentence and the thoughts are knotted together. So make it into two sentences.
You don’t have to put every single detail that you discover in your playing about into your book. In fact, description overload is usually indicative of a writer who hasn’t got a hold on the characters and is trying to compensate for this. Does your read-aloud tell you there’s too much description? Description can be all on the outside. Powerful writing evokes from the inside- out. Learn to notice the difference.
Short and Long Sentences
There’s nothing wrong with a good long sentence and we don’t all have to write like Hemingway, but short is easier to get right. Reading a long sentence aloud will immediately make you aware that you’ve got the words ‘but’ or ‘because’ more than once. Then there are the dread personal pronouns. Have you used ‘he’ or ‘they’ more than once? That’s fine if it’s entirely clear who ‘he’ and ‘they’ are. Is ‘he’ always the same ‘he’? If not, get rid of the sentence. It’s a mess. Break it up.
Long and Short Words