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.

Mechanical Editing vs Creative Editing: Which one suits you?

You’re sitting on the mahogany armchair on the patio outside your holiday bungalow, the ice in your Piña Colada melting at just the right pace under the scorching but friendly Mediterranean sun, the brim of your Paul Smith sun hat pulled down low while its roasted-straw-scent distracts you from the concluding chapter of the sequel to your one-hit-wonder published less than six months ago. You’re on holiday five thousand miles away, after the twenty-hour autograph-signing and press conference in New York two days ago. But you’re perturbed because your Armani shades are useless against the glare on your MacBook Air… Honestly, really?crappy radiator

You’re shivering hard despite a hot water bottle pressed against your empty stomach underneath two hoodies, a coat and three duvets, in front of the desk that squeaks every time you press what is left of the space bar on your vintage Windows XP laptop. It’s 2am, the smell of burnt toast from the kitchen downstairs and the emphatic celebration and swearing from a video game duel between the male students next door are driving you insane, but you daren’t leave your cocoon and punch on their door to demand peace and silence because the radiator is broken and it’s sub-zero in the apartment building. There’s no deadline for your book, but you’re stressed because this is the third time your book’s been turned down by rude and snobby publishers. Nothing’s working for you, but you’re too stubborn to give up. You need something, but what is it?

Both the hot-shot writer and the subsisting writer are not happy with their respective lives at the moment, despite the disparity in success, because they’re suffering within the same painful process: Editing.

Remember Hemingway’s famous maxim: “Write drunk, edit sober”? That might explain the nightmares faced by the above two versions of you. The more capricious your first draft, the more excruciating your editing hangover. But why is editing such a gruesome experience?

Let’s look at the two types of editing:

Proofreading/Mechanical Editing

Mechanical editing is essentially proofreading. To say that a piece of text requires this type of editing means that it needs to be thoroughly perused and then polished in terms of grammar and punctuation. As the name suggests, it’s a robotic process that involves painstaking attention to detail in order to completely eliminate all errors in spelling, vocabulary, grammar, punctuation and language usage. The editor begins by detecting and correcting straightforward typographical slips, then extends his jurisdiction as far as stylistic infelicities and stops right there. Alterations outside his scope belong to the next category of editing.

Creative/Substantive/Holistic Editing

Creative editing, as its multiple aliases suggest, involves more general re-writing and re-organization for the purpose of improving the logic and flow of the book. In addition to logical changes, sometimes more subjective changes are also introduced and incorporated into the manuscript. Whether it be on the macroscopic scale that includes the reworking of storyline, character, tone or diction, or on the detailed level that assures the accuracy and consistency of minute facts, the creative editing process typically gives rise to the image of an over-caffeinated, red-eyed editor poring over a manuscript.

While creative editing allows for a less constrained type of input, it runs the risk of clipping wings or even damaging authenticity and spontaneity. This is why an author must choose carefully the editor in whose hands he places his manuscript.

Both of these types of editing share a common factor: they represent the archetypal ‘unfinishable’ job. However it is possibly this single facet of writing which sorts out the great work from the sloppy work.

Polish your work but know how far to go, where to stop, and when to call in reinforcements.