Tuesday, 30 March 2010


Being that the Demi-Monde is my first print book I came to the editing process not quite appreciating what I was letting myself in for. I had originally written a 220,000 word book which after careful - and I thought hard-nose consideration - I chopped down to a little over 190,000. This was the book I submitted to my agent, John Jarrold, and after he'd done a relatively painless edit of his own was sold to Quercus.

The editing process began on 14th December and ended two and a half exhausting months later. The first hint of what was to come was the phrase 'we don't see the need for any major re-structuring'. Now to my mind 'restructuring' is something you do with a house not a book. What next a damp-proof course, a new patio...

All this to me sounded just a trifle ominous especially when it was followed in short order by the opinion 'that we need to get to the action quicker'. What this boiled down to was that the first part of the book - the set-up - had to be truncated. Now this to a non-writer might seem no big deal but when it necessitates the axing of three or four chapters you've spent weeks sweating over, polishing and repolishing it is a pretty serious matter.

The alternative though was far, far worse. There was an idea floated quite early on that we should get to the action not quickly but immediately and the set-up and exposition be dealt with in flashback! AAArghhhh! I hate flashbacks and moreover with a set-up as complicated as the Demi-Monde's I was doubtful quite how I was to do it...if I would be able to do it. This awful alternative did at least galvanise me into taking a cleaver to some of my beloved chapters.

Four of them in fact, including two I really, really liked. Adios 20,000 words.

So now we're at 170,000 words and the worst I thought must be over. But no, now we moved into post set-up territory and gradually the book was pared back with me dumping any extraneous descriptions and superfluous asides like a Captain bailing water from a floundering ship. Characters were merged...characters were expunged...action condensed...action speeded up. And all the time I had to try to make sure the plot remained coherent and plausible.

I learnt that I used ellipses with far too much abandon, so like a recovering addict I swore I'd never go near one again and spent two days eliminating them. Maybe somewhere out there there's an Ellipse Rehabilitation Clinic full of poor sods like me who can't go through life with adding...to everything?

The upshot was when I staggered to the final tape - the phrase 'I'm quite happy with it now' was music to my ears - I didn't know if my book was good, bad or indifferent. I did know it was shorter - 40,000 words or 21% shorter to be exact - and that it read faster. It was a tough experience.

So my words of advice.

1. Set down the publisher's aims early especially regarding target length. It's no use you thinking you've written 'War and Peace' and your publisher thinking you've written 'War'.
2. Stay loose. You've got to believe that your editor knows what he or she is doing and has the best interests of the book at heart. If you fight every trivial change it'll be a nightmare. I decided early on that unless a change a) screwed up the plot, b) screwed up Book 2 or c) screwed up my head, I could live with it. Life is too short.
3. Look for compromises. The Demi-Monde is complicated and there was a reluctance to have too much techno-babble (which I love) in the text so the alternative I proposed (and which was accepted) was to have Dune-esque intros to each chapter. These I think work really well.
4. Be prepared for a long slog. DM1's edit was a ball busting two and a half months (almost half as long as it took to write the book!) and it was hard work. The level of concentration necessary is immense.
5. Ask your editor not to submit his changes in the form of a letter. It's OK at the beginning but as you put the changes through on your computer the line and page number references alter and before you know it you're totally lost.
6. Remember there's always your web site. Now my axed Chapters will be reincarnated as 'Deleted Scenes' so all is not lost on the cutting room floor.

That's it folks. The worrying thing was that when I saw my editor at WHC and asked about DM2 - which I've now submitted - all he'd say was that it needed a lot of work.

Oh Joy!

1 comment:

  1. I have been thinking about writing a book, so your advice is very useful indeed. The only problem is, I don't know whether I'm strong enough to survive the editing process! (I mean, after having survived the actual writing of a book!)