On Writing: What the editing process is like for a writer?

Based on my radio interview on CakEhole last week with the wonderful Julie Mullen, I decided to write a blog post about editing. We discussed it on her show, as so often writers think it must be an awful process. The belief is: you’ve written it, so it must hurt to change it, right? Not at all. It’s about creating the best novel you can and a careful process and expert help is the best way to achieve it.

I really enjoy editing: I edit my work as soon as I start writing a novel, and during my writing, as I go through every chapter and check, revising and upgrading. I try to improve the novel as I go, and again after I’ve finished. There are even more improvements when an edit for the completed book comes back to me from the publisher. The later editing process can be a light task or sometimes I’m asked to look again at something more specific, like doing a little more work on a character. But editing is a mental exercise I absolutely love.

One of the questions I’m often asked by other writers in writing groups is about how authors react to being asked to edit their work. Some people seem to think that having an editor make suggestions for improvements is somehow a criticism or an invasion of the creative process, that an outsider is interfering with some precious finished piece of art. That’s not at all the case: writing 90,000 words of a novel means that it won’t come out perfect the first or second time of checking through and all writers want to make a story as good as they can for their readers.

Some writers use beta readers; they’ll ask trusted friends, family, or they’ll pay professionals to read their work and give them feedback. The first consideration is that the story, the characters, setting and the themes will work for a reader. Then the written style of the piece will need to be improved: all writers make mistakes. Repetition of words and phrases may occur, or important exposition details may be omitted and will need to be added in for clarity and the best effect. Then there are the sentences that don’t sound right: a better choice of word may make all the difference. That’s before we start on the typing errors and the flying commas.

Working towards deadlines can be stressful, and perhaps sometimes writers fear that their current book won’t be as exciting as their last, or that they’ll never be finished on time. But that’s what our editors are for – to keep us safe from getting things wrong. 

Editors are great people: I work with editors who are really better than great, who mix positivity with honesty so that I’m alerted to how I can make my story the best it can be. After all, the most important thing for any writer is that readers enjoy the finished story and can relate to the characters.

The writer does all of the work to think up an idea, a theme, characters, then shapes and creates the novel. I’ve had edits where I’ve hardly had to change a thing. A clean edit is wonderful as there only remains basic work to do, but a story and a style can always be improved. 

On occasions an editor might say ‘Have you considered…?’ Then there’s always a penny-dropping moment, the total realisation that two heads are better than one, a concern that has already been wriggling in the back of my mind comes to the front and it’s really clear that a small change is the big difference that will make a more satisfying outcome. 

I love the mental challenge of editing: it can be quite emotional though, as a writer has to immerse herself fully in the whole novel and it’s always hard work, reading the same chapters over and over and upgrading until it’s right. But it’s a pleasure, not a chore. More than that, it’s a chance to learn. Writers pick up on their own regular mistakes and therefore will make them less frequently; they pick up on habits and rethink them. And as my mum used to say, practise makes perfect or, in my case, it makes progress. I love the idea that I get to know myself better as a writer through the editing process, and that I can become a bit better at what I love; I can become sharper. 

An edit is to be embraced, not feared. It’s really very enjoyable and therapeutic, like spring cleaning the house but without all the boring cleaning. So, for all writers out there who are anxious about the editing process or think it may be onerous, please don’t worry. It’s our chance to shine brighter, to learn to hone our skills, and to work with gifted and experienced professionals whose one aim is to support our work, to enable the finished article to be even better. I believe editing is a blessing, not a bane, a lesson, not a chore.

Bring it on! It might even be fun.

On Writing: the importance of setting

Once a week, on a Wednesday, I appear on a community radio show, ‘CakEhole with Julie Mullen,’ and we talk about all things to do with novels and writing for fifteen minutes. It is one of the highlights of my week as Julie is so much fun to chat with. Based on our conversations, I thought I’d blog a little about the craft of writing.

I’ve belonged to several writing groups over the years and for me, it’s important to be part of a collaborative group that shares both the process and the end product of writing. During the MA, I realised how much better a writer I might become by working with other skilful, creative people. At that time, five years ago, I was lucky enough to know a group of writers that included performance poets and artists. I made great friends and was truly inspired at the same time. 

Then I moved house and sought out a new group to share ideas with. I fell on my feet when I discovered a local group, all keen, talented, and super-supportive. They write in a variety of styles and genres, which gives me much to think about and learn. They astound me every time I hear their work, helping me to consider the impact of my own writing and to constantly strive to make progress. At the moment we can’t meet regularly, but we post our writing on a Facebook page to each other once a month.

Recently I joined a Zoom writing group and that has been a really useful opportunity. Led by an experienced author, we share our work each week and we encourage each other to develop and learn. At the moment, we are discussing the importance of how writers use setting in novels and I’ve enjoyed listening to the many viewpoints. A book of our shared work will be published imminently.

One person in the group said she loved stories about locations she knew well: she found it satisfying to read about a familiar place, one that she’d visited herself. Someone else suggested that a completely new setting might be more interesting, dicovering a different place, a fresh experience. Then people considered fantasy settings, exotic settings and, of course, in this lockdown time, places where we dreamed of being.

Our discussion moved to how a setting can tell us something about the inhabitant, and we attempted the fun exercise of creating any setting we wished, then we would choose someone else’s location and create the character who might exist there. It was really interesting to read everyone’s ideas.

I selected another writer’s choice of a garden, where a hungry visitor had come to forage. It was, probably intended to be the home of an animal such as a fox or hedgehog, so I created a completely different character who was standing at the edge of this grassland, looking for food to feed her or his young.

Here is my response to the above stimulus:

He tugged the blanket around his shoulders as a blast of icy wind sliced through the thin fabric. The woollen hat warmed his scalp but his eyes watered and he still shivered. His skin was leathery now; the days in the camps, the exposure to wind and rain, then harsh sunlight, had made him tougher, leaner, and deprivation had brought a strange gleam to his eyes.

At least there was grass here in the garden. Back at the camp, it was just mud, tents and heaped rubble, little to eat, meagre shelter from the rain. Mahmoud and Amira needed food, they cried during the night and here, at the edge of a farm, there might be pickings. He was desperate; the raw, aching hunger in his belly was constant now.

He gazed down at his legs, thin as poles in torn jeans and, as he passed a hand across the roughness of his face, he recalled that back in Damascus he had filled his clothes well: he had taken pride in his trimmed beard and glossy hair. Even without a mirror, he knew that the itchy bristles beneath the hat held dirt, his cheekbones were sharp: a front tooth was missing: he rarely smiled now. But, even worse, pride, dignity had slunk from his shoulders, and a hunched man begging for food stood in his place at the edge of a desolate farm in Calais. Farid held himself stiffly against the cutting wind with no idea of what he would do next.

The reason I love working with this writing group so much is that we can examine the importance of elements of writing, like setting. We considered how much location influences us as writers, then we considered the impact of what we’d written on readers. We honed our own skills, shared our work and developed understanding of how setting can influence the readers’ experience or enjoyment of a novel.

A strong setting can transport a reader to a place where new and exciting experiences may readily happen: a setting may inspire dread or delight. Creating an interesting and appropriate location is part of a writer’s toolbox, to fire the reader’s imagination. In my latest novel, Chasing the Sun, setting is all-important: in these times where travel abroad is limited, a story where the central character has adventures in Spain and Mexico can transport readers to a sun-soaked destination where the sights, the food and the culture are absorbing.

As a writer, it’s really good fun to try and evoke different places, then the next step is to consider the characters who might inhabit them……