Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Martin Stewart on the editing process

A guest post from TBA client Martin Stewart.

Back to the Future was nearly called Spaceman from Pluto. Toy Story’s initial storyboards cast Sheriff Woody as a sarcastic bully who picked mercilessly on Buzz. In Melville’s first draft, the opening line of Moby Dick was ‘Call me Princess Consuela Banana-Hammock.’

Okay, the third one isn’t true, but the point stands―it always pays to edit thoroughly.

The first thing to say is that I love editing. Really love it. I love examining sentences like they’re troublesome pistons, tweaking and finessing their actions before laying them back, purring, into the novel’s engine. That part is bliss―far more luxuriant and pleasurable than the hard graft of hewing out words in the first place.

So I approach edits with something of a song in my heart, and I would suggest that this is the first thing needed to be successful in editing one’s own work―the moments when your readers raise issues with your novel should be looked on as gifts. Even input that might seem to be a commercialised threat to your immaculate vision must be embraced and delighted in―viewed as an artistic challenge rather than an affront. Rather than fear the changes, we must think: ‘this is going to make my novel better, how amazing and exciting!’

I have some experience of editing in my fledgling career as a writer. The first big one came when my agent, the Fabulous Molly Ker Hawn, suggested that a shadowy character in my MG novel wasn’t quite working―and should be either developed or cut. This was a big change either way, affecting much of the text. But rather than feel dispirited, I was thrilled, and went through some of the processes detailed below to make the changes and emerge with what we both agreed was a stronger novel.

If you’re serious about writing for publication rather than as a pastime, you must understand that you are producing a commodity for sale and its being judged in those terms can be clinical. Faced with this, you will almost certainly abandon or give up on several novels in your journey: and you will gain something from every project. My debut novel (Riverkeep, out spring 2016 from Penguin UK!) features two characters swiped from a half-complete draft of an earlier work, a monster from a short story that sat in a folder on my desktop and was never read by another human being and a structural device from a novel I wrote nearly a decade ago.

Accepting that a particular project hasn’t worked is not a defeat―it is an exercise in the development and refinement of your talent and voice in which you should delight. Each project you set aside takes you a step closer to the one that will work beautifully, and it will stand more strongly on the shoulders of those previous attempts. Think of the abandoned drafts as a Shed of Wonder, to which you can wander and tinker when in need of inspiration.

This applies equally to the process of killing your darlings in an edit.

Be honest and brave. Neil Gaiman said that when a reader identifies a problem they are almost always right, and when they suggest a solution they are almost always wrong. So listen to your readers and find your own answers. What needs work? Dialogue? Pace? Are you rushing to the best bits and need to let the reader breathe? I know I overuse words. I like ‘flesh’ because of its immediacy and intensity, which is great―but when it pops up on every page it rather loses its impact. I also overwrite in first drafts, but while I love some of the phrases and little pearls of detail in these chewy, looping paragraphs I know they are standing in the way of my story and the rhythm I need to bring the reader into my world. They have to go. And when they do my book will be better―a good 1000 words will be a great 850. Rejoice! Hazzah! Cut cut cut!

And every little gem that is bravely cut goes into the Shed of Wonder.

I have some processes for my edits.

Highlight (credit Sara Grant for this tip). I highlight the words I overuse, characters’ names, paragraphs I know don’t scan well when reading aloud, colour-coding for clarity. As well as making them easier to find (and impossible to ignore), it’s a quick way of scanning to see proximity and frequency and sits well alongside…

Playing the numbers game. Using the Find function on Word lets me check how many times certain words or punctuation marks appear (I’m a devotee of semi-colons; I must rein this in at all times). How many pages appear between characters’ appearances? Too many? Is the reader going to forget people or events as a result? Is one of your minor characters popping up too frequently and threatening to take over the story? Or are they not mentioned enough and fading into the background? I used this to edit Riverkeep so that a particular plot strand occurred more evenly, and I know that the gaps between its appearances are 20, 30, 40 and 30 pages―far more regular and reader-friendly than before.

Making tables to dissect challenges. This is a huge help to me. I am a disorganised person, but I find order in edits. When faced with the MG edit mentioned above, I pondered how to solve it by making a two-column table of all the character’s appearances and noting beside it some ideas that might work instead. By looking at it in isolation it was easy to see the changes’ shape throughout the novel’s arc and far more manageable than scrolling back and forth through the text, rereading in a panic. A solution was quickly found and implemented, and it turned out not to be such a big deal! I always make tables of all the points raised by my readers and detail the changes. It makes it easy to see how they’re going to interact and nullifies their sense of threat.

But the main thing is the mindset. The edit is where your novel goes from good to great―where you learn your own foibles and develop your skills. It is where serious writers are made, and great works born.

So thicken your skin, build your own Shed of Wonder and edit coldly in the pursuit of brilliance. And sing songs of joy as you go, for those hard, clinical editorial notes are truly the greatest of gifts.

Martin's debut novel, RIVERKEEP, will be published by Puffin in Spring 2016. Follow Martin on Twitter at @martinjstewart.


  1. Thanks for the excellent (and timely) advice!

  2. This is such a fabulous article. Thank you for sharing.

    How long should you work on revising a novel before you abandon it to the Shed of Wonder?