Earlier on Twitter, I stumbled across this golden nugget of wisdom, so astutely observed by SF Said:
“The truth about stories is that they’re made in the reader’s mind.
The writer’s job is to get out of the way, and let that happen.”
Although it seems an obvious enough tenet, I’m not sure I’ve ever thought about writing my stories with such a clear mandate.
Talk about an epiphany! (I’ve always fancied having one of those.)
As a reader we bond with the story we are reading (or not), and the best stories are the ones where we become totally immersed in the world we are reading about, so that the words fall from the page.
So how as a writer can we achieve such a triumph? Ever since I read the Hunger Games, I’ve been wondering this, and thinking about SF Said’s tweet today has reminded me that I need to try to figure it out, if I really want to make progress with my writing.
Before joining the Golden Egg Academy I knew that I could knock out a first draft that was alright, but I had very little idea about what to do with the manuscript next. I was fine with proof-reading it, and checking the grammar, and punctuation, and checking that the story made sense. I kept an eye out for repetition of words or phrases. I read it out aloud to check it made sense. But beyond that editing was a mystery.
I recognised that I needed some guidance from more experienced writers and, maybe, editors to help me turn an ok first draft into something actually good. Thankfully my SCBWI critique group set me off on the right track. Their comments made me think more carefully about the nitty gritty: the word and sentence level stuff and characterisation. I started to see that when editing you have to try to see things from the reader’s point of view. Getting the balance of ‘show don’t tell’ right and leaving some aspects for the reader to work out from their own inference and deduction were elements that I started to understand.
And then when I joined the Golden Egg Academy I was very excited to have an editor assigned to me. Although I was thrilled by this unique privilege for an aspiring writer, the prospect also made me nervous. But luckily I discovered that a good editor helps you find your own way though the bumps and clunky bits in your book. Having a fresh set of eyes steer you through the editing process has forced me to address issues that I knew needed attention, but was reluctant to tackle, because (guess what?) it involved a lot of hard work.
At the Golden Egg Academy book mapping workshop, Imogen Cooper pointed out that editing was all about being analytical and objective (which is why everyone says hide your manuscript away for 6 weeks after you’ve finished the first draft!). So, once you have something to work on, you really need to take an overview of the structure of your story. She recommended John Yorke’s “Into the Woods”, which analyses the structure of well known books, tv dramas, films and plays. Yorke tells us “storytelling has a shape”, and in his book he explores how stories work in terms of plot and character and shape.
As I started to see the wood for the trees, I took stock of the structure of my book, and decided the midpoint and ending needed the most attention. I have come to understand that no matter how pretty the prose, you haven’t got a hope of getting published if the structure is as wobbly as a botched-job-by-cowboy-builders.
So, now I know: start with the bigger picture- the overarching plot and character arc, and think about the bare bones of the story. After that it makes sense to move on to following different threads through the story, for example tracking each main character chapter to chapter. Or the impact of significant events, or the development of the setting. This takes a really long time, but it is a good way of spotting any inconsistencies. It helps you get to grips with the characters and the world you’re building.
Once you’ve gone through all that, then you can get down to the word and sentence level- line by line editing. Although you feel a bit bonkers reading it aloud, it does seem the only way to get the rhythm and flow of sentences right. I’ve heard fellow Golden Eggs talking about using Scrivener to read it out for you, but it’s not something I’ve tried.
And I suppose at this point you have to proceed with extra caution, especially if you’re writing for children. Having received countless rejections from agents for the first book I wrote with the oft-heard, “We really enjoyed this..blah, blah,blah, but we felt it’s too sophisticated, blah, blah…for our more commercial list etc”, this is the bit where you really have to write like a reader. Actually, the reader: the particular audience you’re trying to entertain and delight (or amuse or scare or whatever) because if you pick a word that’s all fancy and frilly, one that might earn you a top score in Scrabble maybe, and the reader notices that word, then you’re busted. You’ve just smashed the fourth wall unintentionally, and taken the reader out of that imaginary world that you’ve worked so hard to create.
So to come back to SF Said’s point, stay out of the reader’s way. What I want to achieve is a well written book that the reader can’t put down because he or she is so excited to find out what happens next. I want the reader to feel what the character experiences along with the character. I don’t want to detract from that with some clunky dialogue, or superfluous details.
The art of editing seems to come down to the ability to see your story from the reader’s side of things. I’ve learnt that the first draft should come from the heart, but the final product needs to be edited and embellished by a very analytical head with exceptionally high expectations, and a steely and professional determination.
I’ll know when I’ve cracked it: that’ll be the day when agents or editors read my story oblivious to the fact that I’m a debut author, and just get wrapped up in the story. But how long that will take, who knows?