Starting as I mean to go on. Not a week into the year and I’m already annoyed. I have a really low annoyance threshold lately – don’t know what’s wrong with me. Probably has something to do with launching merrily into a first edit of my current barf-draft and hitting a plot-knot of grotesque and Gordian proportions.
In chapter fucking two. Kill me.
I have a special and intense hatred for that feeling when you know deep in the itchy back of your brain exactly what is wrong with your novel, but the answer’s not coming out anytime soon. It’s busy. It’s got better things to do. It’s got to hang around making your brainstem itch, scratching itself, napping and giggling. Sometimes the only way to force it out of there is to talk about it and talking is something I really don’t do very well.
“So what actually is it?” Man asked me. “What is the problem?”
So I said. “It’s like…um…well, it’s sort of. There’s a thing and it’s like ‘argh’ but then it’s like ‘ohhh!’ and then it’s all like ‘oh shit – wow. I owe him an apology.’”
He gave me the sideeye, nodded and continued playing Skyrim. Which was fair, because I hadn’t really given him much to work with. My brainstem continued to itch. I went off and watched the Sopranos boxset he gave me for Christmas and then I ate all the prosciutto while standing up in front of the open fridge.
The problem, as it turned out, was that I had a lot of unnecessary blether that wasn’t doing anything. I used to spend my days agonising about sex scenes (as in, how to write enough to satisfy the genre requirement and still crowbar in a plot somewhere.) and now I spend my days agonising about séance scenes. How many is too many? I don’t know. I think you can get away with anything so long as you make every scene work.
I don’t mean ‘work’ in the wanky, Newsnight review sense of the word – I mean work. Real work. Every scene must pull its weight, plotwise. Every scene should do something, reveal something – show me plot, show me character, show me backstory. You know you’re looking at a candidate for the cutting room floor when the writing is doing none of these things. Prose, like everything else, benefits greatly from getting its arse off the sofa and developing a work ethic.
This is why first edits are so frequently painful. It’s amazing how much pointless word spew comes out in a first draft; not for nothing is it often known as the Vomit Draft. You look back and realise you have puked out page after page after page of irrelevant crap, awful gibberish. Utter bibble.
And you have to read it so closely, to try and identify those important little nuggets of plot and character and all the good stuff and then try to reform them into something wonderful, something that flows and feels completely natural. It’s one of the most craftsmanlike, mechanical parts of the writing process and it often gives sensitive, snowflaky writers a bad case of the heebie-jeebies because writing is apparently supposed to be organic and creative all that voile-shirted, pixie-fart shit.
Ironically, of course, a couple of close edits and closer attention to the nuts and bolts of your storytelling will make your finished product look that much more natural – minus clunk and that dreadful square-peg-in-round hole feeling when motivation or action doesn’t match the character. Sarah Waters is an absolute genius at this – her novel Affinity is an example of everything in a story pulling its weight. Every little Chekov’s gun goes off by the end, every emotion or backstory carries an echo. It’s pared down and beautifully restrained, doubly impressive considering that Waters is a notorious research junkie and must surely feel that burning desire to geek out over every little delicious historical tidbit. But she doesn’t. Affinity is a great book for writers if they want to learn how to edit their work. I’d also recommend The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, for the opposite reason – here’s a glowing example of what not to do.
Jesus, I wish I didn’t get curious about super-hyped bestsellers. I appreciate that it’s very difficult to edit a book if the author is dead, but someone could have given this a few more passes. So far it’s like watching a drunk Swedish zombie walk slowly around in circles, continually mumbling about laptops, sandwiches and rape.