Let’s Paint a Story

Ever come across a book that however boring your morning commute, however limited and insipid the choices of film on that interstate flight, however hard you try, you just find it difficult to get into it? Yes, into it, literally.

It’s got a protagonist, a villain, a lover, a bit of humour, a suspenseful build-up, an exciting climax, and even a good twist right at the end. It’s got all the elements that make a good story. Or has it? Does the plot reflect the reality of the backdrop against which the story was told? Are the characters someone we can relate to, someone as real as the person swiping their phone mindlessly across the metro platform? Can you see, hear, smell and feel the bar or club where the villain picked that fateful fight with the main guy? Do the diction and accent of the characters resemble those of a specific demographic?

If none of these questions yield a positive answer, chances are this book you’ve been struggling to like just isn’t good enough. While it isn’t the reader’s fault that a book doesn’t engage them, it might not even be the fault of the writer whose primary job is to narrate – he or she might be a war veteran, a retired politician, an activist, a tsunami survivor, or a successful athlete. The narrator may or may not have the observant eye of a falcon, which is what adds colour to a story, what makes it tick, bite and engage.

Enter the Creative Editor. Whereas the highly technical Mechanical Editor deals with technicalities and sometimes even style, the Creative Editor points out what isn’t working, the hackneyed phrase, the dull character, the stilted elaboration on frivolous details, and, in the most inauspicious scenario, delivers the sad verdict that the book simply isn’t colourful enough, and  may never be ready for publishing.

Before dropping the brush and palette altogether and leaving the canvas of your story to the “pro”, here are two examples that might help you at least minimise the work (thus cost!) for professional creative editing…

Geographical Colour

… when the flies clustered like syrup in the corners of their eyes, up their noses, in their mouths and ears, they learned the Australian trick and hung corks bobbing from the ends of string all around the brims of their hats. To prevent crawlies from getting up inside the legs of their baggy trousers they tied strips of kangaroo hide called bowyangs below their knees, giggling at the silly-sounding name, but awed by the necessity. p. 94 The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough

Eurgh. If that’s your reaction, well done to McCullough. That is exactly what she intended to invoke by splashing onto her canvas a wild, deep and sticky shade of the famous, or infamous, creepy-crawly ruled Australia.

Demographic Colour

Miss Caroline seemed unaware that the ragged, denim-shirted and floursack-skirted first grade, most of whom had chopped cotton and fed hogs from the time they were able to walk, were immune to imaginative literature. p. 18 To Kill A Mocking Bird, Harper Lee

Poor Miss Caroline with her apathetic school kids. Lee certainly got me there. Without any adjectives on either subject, the author manages to create the scene of utterly uninterested schoolchildren and an inexperienced and endeavouring teacher who is clueless about and helpless against the influence of social background on the younger generation.

At the end of the day, there’s only so much an editor can do. As Picasso lamented:

Colours, like features, follow the changes of the emotions.

The writer’s emotions; your emotions.

Everybody Hates Editing

Argh!!! Get someone to do it for you, it's money well spent.

Editing – Argh!!! Get someone to do it for you, it’s money well spent.

Ever heard of the Oxford comma?

“The ‘Oxford comma’ is an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list: We sell books, videos, and magazines.”

Weird isn’t it? Well you’re not alone if you think grammatical rules are sometimes a bit draconian. I mean, who are you to tell me I can’t put a comma here, or here, or right towards the end of this sentence, huh?

As long as it flows, right? While some writers are more pedantic about writing styles, syntax and grammar, others prefer to freestyle their ideas and sacrifice any adherence to traditional language rules. However, although rules are indeed made to be broken, some writers take it too far. The result is a sloppy, patchy, and unintelligible eyesore of a text.

The wild vagaries of writers aren’t always to blame though. While some writers do try their best to keep Spell-Check and AutoCorrect quiet, anyone capable of constructing slightly complex sentences is aware that a simple there/their/they’re error can cruise past syntax security. You might also know that reading your own book twenty times over doesn’t really stop those subtle typos from hijacking your trip to JK Rowling or EL James status—you just can’t spot them!

So what do you do? You phone up The Editors. These guys are vicious error assassins. They usually charge ad valorem fees, depending on how long your book is and how you want the job done. Be it straightforward and mechanical, or sophisticated and creative, the Editor gets the job done. You won’t have to worry about your worst enemies sneaking past built-in grammar checks and getting onboard your paperback or Kindle flights to stardom—nothing escapes the eyes of The Editor.

Scary isn’t it? Yeah, maybe you should be scared. Not only do Editors knock out errors stone cold, some of them knock a big chunk off your publishing budget as well.

BUT, maybe you shouldn’t avoid them altogether. The reality is that the stingy writer who insists on a zero-cost publishing tour and takes on the gruesome job of editing themselves often faces instant death as their hijacked flight crashes and their error-plagued books fall prey to the vultures patrolling the skies of Amazon — the harsh reviewers.

Can’t I just edit my book and republish it? You can, but don’t be too optimistic about a book’s resurrection once it has been published and has started incurring heavily critical reviews concerning poor editing. Once this has started happening, even Aragorn would be hard put to help you. But then again:

There is always hope.

The importance of proper editing

Finishing the first draft of a piece of writing is a great feeling. Although you should be very proud at this stage, you are far from finished yet.

As a writer, editing your work is imperative. It is not enough just to read back over it for spelling mistakes or grammatical errors. Proper editing requires you to look at your writing with a critical eye; you need to be completely honest with yourself about how successful your piece is in its current state. In fact, you need to be utterly brutal.

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Good editing is the key

The following are some tips for editing your work as thoroughly as it needs.

    1. Let go of any romantic notion about ‘capturing the moment.’ You look at a particular scene in your story and see flaws and imperfections, but you don’t want to change anything because you feel as though you perfectly captured the mood at the time of writing. You may well have done, but if you want a story that is polished, professional and stands out, you will need to iron out those flaws. Nobody’s writing is perfect and that’s not what you should be aiming for – you’ll drive yourself crazy. But if you see something that strikes you as needing improvement, then it probably really does need it.
    2. Don’t be afraid to ‘kill your darlings.’ You have a sentence, a paragraph, or a minor character that you really like; but do you need them? Really? What are they adding to the story? Do they really fit, or are they actually spoiling the quality? If you can’t answer positively to any of these questions, then that part of your story is going to have to go. If you take out that sentence or scene, don’t throw it away completely; you might find you can use it again in another piece of work in the future.
    3. Get a proof-reader. It is virtually impossible to edit your work without feedback from an objective party. Ask a writer friend, or even find a ‘writing buddy’ to swap work with. Writers are almost always willing to help each other out, and as long as your proof-reader is not afraid to be honest and has a good critical eye then you will find the editing process much easier. You don’t have to follow every suggestion; if you’ve been advised to change something, but strongly feel this is a bad idea, then don’t do it! Different people will notice and like or dislike different things. Do listen to and think about all the feedback you receive, but sometimes you will need to trust your own opinion too.
    4. Don’t be precious about your work. If you’re the kind of person who has trouble not taking constructive criticism personally, this is something you need to work on if you really want to be a writer. If you ask somebody to be brutally honest about your work, they will be. You don’t only need to be prepared for this; you need to welcome it. Certain things can be disheartening to hear at times, but good or bad, everything will help you along the way.
    5. Don’t be afraid to be drastic. If you think an entire chapter needs to be reworked or a fairly important character is serving no purpose and needs to be cut, then do it. Don’t be wary of your own work. Experiment and make those changes. You might find your entire piece is twenty times better for it.
    6. There is a possibility you will never be happy with your work. Creativity and perfectionism often go hand in hand. It can be difficult to manage, but rather than achieving your notion of perfection, it is sometimes best just to step back and accept that your work is the absolute best it can be. It’s a cliché, but it’s true; we are our own worst critics.
    7. You will know when you are done editing. Once you’re debating whether or not that comma really belongs in the middle of that sentence in line 9 of page 34 you’ll realise that there’s probably little else you can do. You created this piece of work and you know it inside out. You will instinctively know when it is there.

The importance of editing is never to be underestimated. It might not be an easy process, but it’s a very satisfying one; you’ll be amazed at the difference a bit of thorough and honest polishing can make.

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