What Five Men taught me about editing

‘Five Men’ is the title of my latest ebook, published on the Amazon site in October 2015. The title reflects the theme of the story: A group of men coming to terms, each in their different ways, with events and attitudes in a changing world.

The writing was done over a couple of months. The basic nature of the story was set within that time. The characters didn’t change from there on. The plot ideas remained as they were. There were some additions of bits of text and relatively few deletions of text. There were the usual checks for miss-spellings, for bad grammar, and for repetitions or clunky gaps. All of this was regarded as the simple editing done as the writing was being rounded off. In this phase the aim had been to push ahead, to get words on screen, to ratchet up the word count.

When the bulk of the storyline was fixed; when the words were ‘sufficient’ (ie somewhere around 50,000); when things were OK but not there yet; when the whole thing needed tightening – that is when I started to think of myself as entering the editing phase, which had various elements to it.

What follows is an attempt to set out some of the subsequent editing actions that were undertaken. Some of these were easier than others and didn’t take too long. Some were major decision-makings where I went backwards and forwards between various options, sometimes rewriting whole chunks only to rewrite them back again when I decided that the first way of presenting things was better after all.

During this protracted set of editings the almost-final text was picked up, worked on, set aside for a while to let it stew a bit and to create some mental distance from it, then picked up and worked on more determinedly. The writing was in ‘almost-finished’ form at the beginning of 2013 but the on-and-off editing, with subsequent redraftings, took around thirty months; far longer than the time taken to write the text in the first place. You can see why, elsewhere, I have said that I see writing as half the work and editing as an at least equally-consuming task.

At any stage, during that period, I could have abandoned the task – particularly as I had other, fresher and more fascinating bits of writing that I wanted to get on with. What kept it alive was a sense that, even if I put the task to one side for a while, this story wasn’t going to let me go that easily. The commitment (and thus the need to complete editing) wasn’t going to relinquish its hold on me.

What provided the spur to get the whole thing finished was the need to clear it out of the way to make space, time and mental energy to forge ahead with those newer writings. Once that point was reached it was a matter of determinedly getting my brain into editing gear and dedicating the time and focus needed to finish the job – which took a month or so.

I hope that the following reflections are of interest or of use.

The five characters were all different personalities. At the same time they were somehow representative of types: The politically-minded trade union organiser; the moralistically-intellectual newspaper reporter; the pragmatic workman; the over-stressed weakling; the unfulfilled artist etc.

Having finished the writing, one part of the editing process was to track each of the characters in turn and check for inconsistencies in their character. Each had ambiguities, and that was intentional. Each, in their own way, had internal tensions to deal with. What was edit-checked were any instances where the character acted totally against their own characteristics.

At the same time each character was checked to make sure that, whilst being typical of a kind of man, they had not been written simply as cardboard cut-out characters. We may all have an image of the strong labour organiser, or the loyal reporter, and I didn’t want the characters to stray too far from those impressions but nor did I want them to be so representative that they were reduced to simple, one-dimensional caricatures, predictable in everything they said or did.

A different editing read-through was to check for context. The main part of the story was set in Manchester (UK) in the mid-1950s.There were parts where the history of the characters referred back to the early 1940s and the early 1930s. The final section of the story took developments on into the 1956-1970 period. Each of these time periods had its own social, political and economic features that acted as context for the men at those times. The editing was to ensure that the men fitted the contexts across the whole time span.

As I wrote the original draft text I developed a number of themes that I felt emerged out of those characters in those settings. One part of the editing was to read through each character in turn and ask myself to what extent they carried the themes or exemplified the themes. Was there any one character that was not pulling his weight in moving the deeper ideas forward? Were there some themes that simply got neglected after a while?

At the end of it all I asked myself, ‘Have I done the best by each of these men? Have I served their interests well?’

Supporting the writing, during the word-production stage, were various bits of research: What were the major historical and political events that the characters might get caught up in? What world events might a newspaper reporter need to be working on? What happened in Manchester (or other places) during each decade? Some of the research was specific to particular events. Some was more generic background.

One part of the story occurred during the bombing of Manchester city centre. The internet was full of descriptions, newspaper accounts, and after-the-event interviews with people. These all provided material that could be woven in to give added authenticity or colour. They contributed to the tone and to the sense of place. Why not include as many as possible at the writing stage?

At the editing stage the bits of research used were scrutinised far more critically. Were these facts, settings and activities being stuffed in unnecessarily? Were they littering the writing, making reading more difficult – being diversions from the main flow; puzzling the reader? Was it necessary to include every detail just because I had it; or was it only to be retained if it had some a real purpose in terms of the storyline?

One key part of the editing became a balancing of interesting or useful context against distracting or superfluous bits of information.

Some of the necessary editing tasks arose as a direct result of the chosen setting (a small four-bed recovery ward in a 1950s hospital) and some came out of the way I had structured the writing (with the main action being over 3-4 days in the same ward).

Having settled on a hospital ward as the setting and the few-days’ timescale for the main episode I found myself writing chunks of text to fill the timeslots: I’ll do the bit between lunch and bedtime now, then the bit between breakfast and afternoon visiting, and later do the evening meal to bedtime slot. There was some tendency for the writing process to begin to be shaped by the chronologies of the men’s time on the ward.

The setting itself – a hospital ward – meant that there were inevitable inbuilt routines: Matron did her rounds; the doctors swept through the ward checking on each patient; the tea-trolley arrived. There were sleeps to be had, meals to be eaten, medicines to be administered, temperatures to be checked and charts to be filled. The routines in the story provided a skeleton for timing the writings. There was, however, the danger of things becoming too predictable, too pedestrian.

There were practical things to edit-check. I had to reassure myself that I hadn’t suddenly got two lots of doctors’ rounds on the same day, or forced the men to miss out a night’s sleep. There was also the danger that the hospital routines would over-structure the writing and itself become the main story rather than simply being used as props for the main thoughts and actions of the men characters.

A substantial focus of the editing was thus removing any over-routinisations, any too-frequent repetitions; any sense of ‘and before anyone realised it was teatime again’. The routines were a necessary part of creating the sense of place (Hospitals being defined by series of routines) but could become so relentless that they might begin to not allow the men time to think.

It was another balancing act. The setting gave a structure to act as an armature upon which to sculpt the action but it should then remain almost unnoticed inside the story that had been constructed.

Another relatively simple bit of editing, but one that needed scrupulous attention to detail, was the hunting down of inconveniences, improbabilities, impossibilities and likelihoods.

An early proposition was that one couple had two children with another baby on the way. Later in the story I felt sorry that I had asked this harassed woman to carry such a domestic load – dragging two little children on the bus with her each time she wanted to visit her husband in hospital. In one editing sweep I killed off the two children and left her with just the unborn one. I simply revised the initial text to say that the newly-expected baby was their first. The two innocents weren’t important to the plot. No-one missed them. I’m sure the woman was very grateful to me. If nothing else, later in the tale, it enabled her to get some time for herself.

The improbabilities were things like me having, in a key scene, a pair of young things going to a dance on the evening of Whit Sunday. Dancing on a Sunday? Highly unlikely in 1950s Manchester. Or using the word ‘scam’: Was it in popular use in the 1950s or was it a more recent bit of terminology? I headed off to my Modern Dictionary which helpfully gave a sense of first usages.

The impossibilities included letting the reporter work on world events before they could have happened; or having a patient go for electric shock treatment before it was introduced into the UK.

Sometimes the editing was helped by having charts or timelines in front of me for constant reference. One timeline set out the key events in the lifeline of each of the five men (birth, marriage, jobs, moving house, etc) against each other and against the background events in Manchester, nationally or internationally.

At a much more practical level, I got frustrated that the men in the hospital ward wouldn’t stay where I had put them. They kept hopping into each other’s bed. In one sentence Man 1 looks across at Man 2 in the bed opposite. Some pages later, Man 2 is in the bed next to Man 1. A quick diagram showing who was supposed to be where helped as a rapid reference tool for checking such situations and getting consistency in the men’s relative interactions around the ward.

The two substantial interconnected issues that really held the whole thing up were linked to deciding on the sequencing of the snapshots of each man at three or four points in their lives; and connecting this with the core action of them being thrown together, by chance, in the same end of a small ward in one hospital in one city in Northern England.

The key puzzle fragments were:

Donald in 1956; Donald in 1941; Donald in 1931

Jimmy in 1956; Jimmy in 1941; Jimmy in 1931

Phil in 1956; Phil in 1941; Phil in 1931

Ben in 1956; Ben in 1941; Ben in 1931

(Davey in 1956); Davey in 1941; Davey in 1931

Donald, Jimmy, Ben and Phil interacting on the ward in 1956 – on Day 1, Day 2, Day 3

This gave me seventeen chunks of text that I might arrange in a number of different ways. I could choose to:

  • describe each character as they developed through 1930s and 1940s until, fully-formed, they meet on Day 1 in hospital.
  • describe the disconnected lives of the separate men in 1931. Jump to catching up with the disconnected lives in 1941; show how their lives come together in hospital in 1956 – and describe how they interact over Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3.
  • start with the action – they all arrive on the hospital ward on Day 1; jump back to dhow the events that put them there; track the men’s lived back through the 1940s and 1930s to explain the things they say and think whilst spending time together over Day 2 and Day 3 on the ward.
  • take other possible variations

Running alongside these decisions were the common editing ones of voice, point of view and tenses:

Describing the hospital scenes was best done through the eyes of an omnipotent external observer … but was it better to describe things as happening there and then (Donald goes to the dayroom; Jimmy thinks about what he has just heard on the radio…) or describe things in the past (Donald went to the dayroom; Jimmy thought about what he had heard on the radio)?

It seemed right to let each character speak for himself as they described the events that led up to their being admitted to hospital. (I went weak and fainted ….) – but, again, there was the option of sometimes making this more active by using the present tense (I go weak and faint …).

Things then got complicated when a character (in the present) on the ward in 1956 started describing themselves (in the past) through recounting their earlier experiences.

I tried various combinations for sequencing the men’s lives and their days on the ward. I tried different combinations of the more passive description of things (in the past tense) and the more active descriptions (in the present tense) – sometimes having an observer tell the tale and sometimes letting the character speak in the first person.

There were pros and cons to the various choices but some emerged as preferable to others. Eventually the whole thing settled down into the structure that is there in the final version. All that remained was for me to go back over the whole thing for consistency of voice, consistency of tenses and so on.

Almost there, at the last read-through (and these read-throughs at this stage were best done out loud) was checking for ‘flow’ – ensuring that there were no clunkiness of phraseology or clumsiness of repeated words.

At some stage a halt had to be called on the editing process. The text had to be thought of as good enough rather than perfect. At that stage simply publishing was all there was to do.

I have read Five Men through a couple of times since it went out there in published form and, although Amazon has a facility that allows me to go back and revise the text, my approach is to leave it as it is and move on to those other bits of writings that are now pressing hard for my attention.

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