Editors: Friend or Foe?

‘Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it…’ – Michael Crichton.

This is enough to make most writers reel in horror. ‘You mean I’m not done yet?!” they cry. “But I’ve been writing this for (insert inordinately high number here) years!”

But, sadly it seems to be a universal truth. I’ve talked in my previous blogs about how much first drafts suck. Because they do, they suck like a breastfeeding octopus. And this is not just the case for new, untrained writers—it is true of all authors, as you can see from the quote above. If there is an author anywhere who published a first draft as it stood, I will eat the 56 copies of my first manuscript that I have laying about the house* (some of those are on thumb drives, too, which can’t be great for my insides—so you can see how serious I am about making my point).

My first book The Enemy Inside is currently on its 8th incarnation (including a title change), and it hasn’t even been published yet! When I think about what my publisher will want to do to it ON TOP of what I’ve already done, I shudder and reach for the gin.

But I can also appreciate the process. The draft I am working with now with my agent is entirely different to the first draft I sent to a manuscript appraisal service five years ago (thank god that crappy draft didn’t go anywhere important!). Characters are more three-dimensional, plots lines are fleshed out, sub-plots appeared and the ending is different. And each appraiser/editor/agent that has got their hands on it has made it a bit better (ok, a lot better).

Of course, there is something you need to maintain during the editing process—artistic integrity. I have not taken on all the suggestions made by agents/editors, because some of them were not in keeping with my vision for my characters, and some of them were just plain dumb (don’t you love how some editors give it a cursory glance and then think they know your characters better than you do?? Bitches—please!). I had two Australian publishers try and get me to change the setting of The Enemy Inside to Australia, which I would not because it didn’t feel it was true to the work. Of course, they didn’t sign me, but I am comfortable with my decision. (Really, I am. I don’t cry myself to sleep at night at all—why, what have you heard?).

We all know that we writers can be a weensy bit precious when it comes to our babies. Like the mother of a newborn with scarily big ears, we do not see the imperfections in the work. We see helpful critique as criticism, and we do not like criticism, we take it very personally (about as personally as telling a mother that her baby has big ears—don’t ever do that).

So be prepared. The editing process is long, drawn out and painful. But worth it in the end, I think. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself as I redraft my second manuscript, Broken, for the third fucking time.

*Promise does not include self-published manuscripts; I’m not a complete idiot.

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Six style tips if you don’t want to cure your readers’ insomnia.

So today I thought I’d share with you a few of the writing tips I have picked up over the years, both as a fiction writer and a journalist. In this blog, I’m trying to preach about brevity, so lets just get on with it.

1. When you are writing a novel, think of KISS. That’s right—keep it simple, stupid! Thanks to the technological age, most people have an attention span just shy of that of a cocaine-sniffing hummingbird. Flowery prose and long-winded descriptions of a single sun-dappled leaf may have been de rigueur in days of yore, but frankly the people of yore had more time and less Apple devices to distract them. So try to say it as simply as possible.

2. Keep the majority of your sentences short, consisting of no more than 25 words. Of course, you will occasionally have a longer sentence in there, maybe one per paragraph, and that’s ok. But avoid, at all costs, the long-winded sentence that just bangs on and on and on about one thing or worse totally changes tack in the middle for no reason and goes off onto some random tangent until the reader gets bored, turns on the television or surfs the net and then completely loses track of what you were say—oh look, a kitten!

3. Another great way to keep the readers interested is to vary the length and style of sentences. So some sentences may be brief. And some sentences, such as this one, may be a little longer and include some kind of feature or qualifier. And then you might want to think about adding another brief one. Change it up.

4. Try and stick to around three paragraphs per page, at least. There is nothing worse than one long paragraph that never ends. I loved the Millennium Trilogy, but fuck Larsson waffles on about some nonsense in there. I skipped pages and pages of never-ending paragraphs and still kept up with the story—as far as I’m concerned, his editor should be dragged naked over gravel by his earlobe. Along that vein, each paragraph should deal with a single idea, and each paragraph should include no more than about three to six sentences.

5. Get to the freaking point. Lee Child’s books are an excellent example of this. He leads the reader straight into the story from the first line. He rarely uses sentences of more than 20 words. He keeps descriptions to a minimum. His main character, Jack Reacher, never stops to admire how the sunlight reflects off a dew drop perched indolently on a blade of grass and shatters into a myriad of rainbow-like colors. Reacher doesn’t give a shit and neither do your readers. No—Reacher crushes that blade of grass under his boot as he trudges along because, frankly, he has places to go and people to fuck up. As a result there are no boring spots, which is why I am still up reading about Reacher at 3am.

6. Of course, you will need have the odd description in there. But, like an all-nude strip club, peel back your descriptions to their most interesting elements. I don’t care how amazing it is, no single thing needs more than 100 words to describe it. A neat trick: whenever I feel like a description is overly long or complicated, I try and fit each single sentence on to Twitter. This helps me narrow it down to the most important words.

Well, this list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a start and it includes stuff I didn’t know until editors started telling me in a not very kind fashion. Hope it helps!

What’s your tipping point?

‘What the detective story is about is not murder but the restoration of order.’ –P. D. James

I couldn’t put it better myself.

People often ask me: ‘How can you write about such violence? Doesn’t it depress you?’ The short answer, of course, is no! In fact I quite like it, being the damaged little soul that I am (insert smiley face here). But the long answer to that question is this: my books are not about the violence, the rape, the blood and guts or the forensic wizardry. My books are about the restoration of order and the carrying out of justice.

And justice is a fundamental principle at the core of all people, regardless of race, religion or personal conviction.

I think that with our court systems the way they are; the lawyers, the appeals and the loopholes, that many people feel like there’s no such thing as justice anymore. Particularly when you see murderers and rapists getting less time in prison than those perpetrating crimes such as copyright infringement.

And with the popularity of anti-heroes like Lisbeth Salander and Dexter, it’s clear that the reading/watching public don’t mind a bit of an ‘eye for an eye’ at all. In fact, they love it.

My books are about the tipping point that exists in all people. I think it was Angelina Jolie that once said; “If someone comes into my home and tries to hurt my kids, I’ve got no problem shooting them.” Hear, hear fellow tigress mommy! I couldn’t agree more! And yet some people I talk to don’t recognise there’s a killer hidden inside and it just takes the right set of circumstances to bring it out.

So my books explore this. What is the hidden tipping point in some people? Obviously it’s going to be different depending on the person; but, how far can you be pushed before the switch inside your head flicks? If you’re me, then being cut off in traffic will do it (mofos are lucky I’m not allowed to mount an uzi on the hood of my car).

But if you are hideously wronged, what would you do to get proper justice? What might you be capable of doing that you never before imagined?

And, once that switch is flicked, is there any coming back?

My main character, Berg, struggles against her dark side and has a deep and desperate need for justice. She has done terrible things to get it. So is she a criminal? Or a dealer of black and white justice in a world that only sees shades of grey? And does she get to make that call?

I’ll leave you with those questions, kiddies. Sleep tight.