A Tense Situation? It depends on your point of view – the task of editing my writing

I am in the middle of the final editing of ‘Five Men’. This is an ebook that I hope, very soon, to put up on the Amazon Kindle site to sit alongside my four other  ebooks  already there.

This has prompted me to think about editing: Its necessity; my attitude towards it; the approach I take; the different difficulties I encounter each time; and so on.

I have said a number of times (and need to remind myself from time to time) that my planned change in life-activity is a five year transition from thinking of myself as Geoff Bateson: full-time manager employed by the local City Council, to being justified in thinking of myself as Geoff Bateson: the writer. I am well on the way through that transition. Being a writer, though, is only half the story.

My chosen route was to write a variety of things, in a variety of ways, with a variety of motivations. Some of the writing output would end up as ebooks for purchase. Some of it would be freely available via my www.thewordsthething.org.uk website. Some would be content on a couple of blogs (including this one setting out thoughts about my approach to writing). All of these routes require me to write as well as I can. All of them also require that I act as editor and publisher in addition to simply seeing myself as a writer.

Previous posts on this blog have dwelt on my approach as a writer and some thoughts on publishing. I want, in this post, to think aloud about editing.

Other writers have talked to me about their writing. Fewer have talked about their real, sustainable plans for having any writing put out in public, published formats. Fewer still have talked about editing. Where it has been mentioned, it has often been in terms of ‘How much I have enjoyed doing the writing: How much I dread the chore of editing’. That isn’t, however, how I see it.

Having ideas, playing with those ideas, filling them out through research – then getting the ideas down in the best order, using the best words, with a sense of direction or flow: all of these drive the writing along to a version where it can feel finished.

Writing can be fulfilling, fun, exhilarating. It can also be frustrating and difficult. The aim is to produce a final text that works in a number of different ways, and writing is only one part of that. The other part, editing, can be just as frustrating and difficult, but also just as exhilarating and fulfilling.

I edit as I go along in the sense that I will occasionally stop and amend a sentence mid-flow. I read through chunks of writing and make immediate corrections to punctuation, amend the way some things have been phrased, swap a better word where one doesn’t feel right, and so on. I will rearrange paragraphs if it helps. None of this is focussed on so substantially that it gets in the way of letting the writing move itself along. The aim is still to get the writing finished in a fairly acceptable form.

Once I have a ‘finished’ text I see myself as being maybe halfway there. The balance tips: This is the time to try reading the text as a ‘reader’ rather than as a ‘writer’. I become an Editor whilst still having my Writer head on.

Let me say from the beginning that not only do I see editing as a necessary part of self-publishing, I also see it as part of the overall ‘authoring’ process. I wouldn’t be happy being very creative and productive if all I had to show, at the end of it all, was a rather shabby text. Editing is part of the thinking-as-I-write process. It is also part of the reflecting-on-what-I-have-written process. It then goes way beyond that to what some people think of as the ‘chore’ or ‘slog’ of editing. This stage is, to me, less of a boring necessity and more of an interesting puzzle. Does this tie up with that? Has this character stayed ‘in character’? Should this section be left until later, or chopped altogether? I enjoy such puzzles, as the challenges they are. I also enjoy the editing processes because I see each redraft (and there can be many!) getting firmer and more robust.

Each of my four previous ebooks have taken different amounts, and different kinds, of editing.

‘It’s Murder on the Eleven’ had a main character who was narrating the story, but I wanted to vary this by occasionally getting some external view on the action. It also had a range of major and minor characters who came and went at various points in the storyline. Because of this it needed time checking on three main things:

a)      Had I consistently kept to the same names for the various characters all the way through? (Two male minor characters had a habit of swapping names when I wasn’t looking).

b)      Had all loose ends been safely tidied away?

c)      Did changing points of view from main character narration to overview observer disrupt the flow? (Some readers like it, others find it unnecessary. Personally I liked it, so that is what I stuck with at the editing stage).

Another Glorious Day’ needed quite a different editing process.

a)      One main character was alone with his thoughts and memories. Had I successfully followed the sequence of days and nights as time passed (and as he went out of his mind and back again)? Were there unaccounted for jumps in time or unintentional repetitions of bits of the same day?

b)      In his thoughts I occasionally referred to the titles or words of various songs. Were there times when a phrase might be taken as a breach of copyright?

c)      I had a number of alternative endings at one time and had selected the one to go with, the one that felt right for me; but would this feel right to other readers?

The latest text, ‘Five Men’, is taking far more editing than any of the others – which is what has set me off reflecting on the editing process.

As the writing was coming to an end I asked myself, ‘Can I write a short description of the overall storyline, or even capture it in a single strapline?’ If not then does that mean that the writing is probably too disjointed or confusing? Will readers too easily lose the plot (or lose the enthusiasm to continue reading)?

There were sections that have been pruned out. These were the parts that had taken on a life of their own, demanding to be stuffed in there somewhere simply because they were the outcome of some interesting bit of research and were too ‘precious’ not to use – but which ended up being distractions. The challenge to me was to feel brave enough to cross through whole pages or whole sections and let them go.

I thought that I was almost there with ‘Five men’ so, as usual, I left it alone for a little while as I got on with other things. Coming back to it after a few weeks I was surprised how much new editing was still necessary. I made some changes, of one sort or another, on at least 20% of the lines of text. Few pages did not have some crossing-out of a superfluous word here, or correction of punctuation there, or an arrow where a sentence has been shifted around. A lot of this stemmed from the structure I set out with and have been exploring through the writing.

‘Five Men’ is about men who end up, by chance, together in a small hospital ward in 1950s Manchester (UK). It starts by recounting, from each person’s perspective, how that man ended up being on the ward. That was the easy bit – rather like writing a series of short stories. It then went back in time, for each of the men, to the 1930s and again to the 1940s. Having explored the background and character of each man, the story gets picked up again from their arrival of the ward, this time being told by an omniscient narrator. The omniscient narrator presents its various problems. Telling the tale from whoever is being focussed on at that time can leave the reader wondering who is talking at any one time; can lead to disjuncture and fragmentation.

So, in Five Men, there was a clear danger of having too many points of view (the various men plus the overview narrator) and too much switching of tenses as each man is in the present, or looking back to the past, or anticipating the future. Much of this was dealt with at the writing stage but there were still lots of inconsistencies to be spotted and changed at the final editing stage.

I am still enjoying the puzzle of getting it all straightened out. I still have the last-minute option of changing the structure around. At the end of each editing session the text feels stronger so, although it is not there yet, I feel that the end is in sight. Meanwhile, it is time to edit this Post and then get back to the enjoyment of puzzling a bit more about those men and their hospital ward.

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