52 Weeks of Editing: Week 2—Is There Anything Good To Work With Here?

52 Weeks of Editing: Week 2—Is There Anything Good To Work With Here?
Photo by Dollar Gill / Unsplash

OK. You know there's a piece of advice floating about the writing world about editing? The one that says you should put your manuscript in a drawer once you finish it, leave it for a month, then come back and start editing? Well, I did that for 19 years.

That should've been my introduction for last week's post. Last week was mostly about finishing off and resubmitting my PhD thesis corrections. As of writing, I don't have any update on the outcome of all that work. All I can really say is that I keep pausing and thinking, "Oh my god! I didn't do X!" which probably happens to all PhD candidates at this point.

This week, I'm going to go over a brief history of the revisions I've done in the past, the different versions and why I decided to start again, but For Real this time. Every now and again, I get a message from somebody asking about Amnar, either the books or the podcasts, so I should probably provide a bit of context for all this. Including figures! Pictures! Timelines even!

A Story About A Story

(Academic voice) As you can see from Figure 1, I've done this before. In fact, you can also see from Figure 1 that not only was the 2003 draft not my only attempt at a fantasy series, it's not even the first draft of that story. This is where I should clarify. What I'm talking about here is a specific story that popped into my head in 1999 and centres around the character Io. Yes, named after the Greek woman who got turned into a cow by Zeus.

Figure 1: There Was An Attempt

I often forget about the 1999 draft, because it was very short and written when I was a deeply depressed and anorexic undergraduate. The draft I'm working with here is what I think of as The Real First Draft, the one that ended up being seven books long and I wrote while procrastinating about finishing my first PhD.

If you're one of the two people reading this, you might be wondering about those other re-drafts and revisions, and why I'm not looking at them.

Well, I have a couple of reasons. One of them is that none of the re-drafts were done with any real caution. I had an idea that I should "edit" but wasn't especially clear about how to go about it. I was also busy having a series of mental breakdowns and wasn't inclined to look it up or buy a book on it. Deep down I was probably scared of even looking back at the first draft and really analysing it to see what I could and could not take from it.

Some people only have to leave their first drafts in a drawer for a month before they have enough distance to start editing. Apparently, I need more like nineteen years.

The Process and The Plan

I'm going to be bold here and state that I don't have A Big Formula, Plan, or Course That I've Signed Up For to do this editing work. Yep, I'm winging it. When I pulled out the original printed versions and the surviving textedit files, I didn't know what I wanted to do with them. It could be that the best thing for all of them was to set them on fire, then change my name and move to Switzerland.

That said, I think it's worth documenting the process of looking back over an old draft, the decisions I make and why I make them, not to mention all the useful tools out there I can use. Not to mention, additional research I might decide to do. If writing is re-writing (something I don't do enough of), then editing is a process as complicated and twisty as novel-writing itself.

Finally, aside from taking a year to work on it, I'm not setting a complicated schedule. I've been working on the PhD for over five years, and I'd like to have some time with more space and less planning, to be honest.

And Now... More On The Series

The series was not planned at all. In fact, it wasn't even intended to be a series. I was fully pantsing, writing what I imagined and enjoying myself. When I hit 180-odd thousand words, I realised that was too long for a book, so I split the story in two. This organically produced what became a standard structure: around 182-3k words split into 52 chapters, all around 3500 words long.

On top of all that, while the original Word files survive, the tracking documents I used haven't. I don't know why that is. Back then, each chapter was written in Word 2003, a version of Word that's slightly older than some of my students. Not all of those files are readable, so as I said last week, the first task was to put them all into a single gigantic Scrivener document. That's 1.28 million words. A lot of words, most of which won't survive this process, but does mean that I'm not going to lose the old versions.

Unless the increasingly-likely apocalypse actually happens, of course. Then I had to figure out what kind of a mess I had to work with, and whether any of that was salvageable.

Step 1: Looking Over The First Chapter

As I said last week, I started by reading through the first two chapters in hard copy. Once I'd decided I might have something I could work with, I did a selection compile and turned the first chapter into a .pdf to edit in LiquidText. I had a look at a few different options for this. Initially, I thought I might read the whole first novel through and make detailed notes.

But that would all depend on how this went with the first chapter. (Foreshadowing.)

I picked LiquidText not because I've used it before but because it was on my iPad and it seemed like I might as well start there. I didn't want to edit the original first draft, but work on a copy. I also wasn't editing with the assumption that all I was doing was picking up on bad grammar, commas out of place, and the like. The plan was to make notes on everything I wanted to change and update, not to mention new ideas and thoughts.

LiquidText was tough to figure out when I was also trying to make copious notes. There's definitely a learning curve if I want to use it for the rest of the editing work. Useful, though, especially for making a lot of notes on a single document.

It took several days and multiple sessions to go through just the first chapter. I could only work in short bursts, often doing only a page or two at a time before I stopped. That was down to a combination of my brain being tired from all the hours I'd spent working on the PhD the last few weeks and the need to go through each sentence and everything I needed to change, adjust, make a note about before moving on.

After reading the first chapter and making a ton of notes, I realised that pretty much everything that can be wrong with a book is wrong with this book. Even before looking at the plot (or lack thereof) for the rest of the novel, there are issues with lack of pacing, adverbiage, character development, theme (or lack thereof), messaging...

BUT. It wasn't completely, irredeemably bad. It had potential, shall we say. It could be good.That's when I stopped going line by line. I could see a lot of flaws and problems (a hell of a lot), but I could also see how this might be updated, changed, revised, and turned into something better. I could go through every chapter like this, but I realised that after nineteen years, I wasn't clear on the major plot points of the first book. If I was going to get a clear sense of that, then I'd have to stop line-editing and do something else... (Cliffhanger!)

So, over the next few weeks, I'm going to look at all these issues in depth one by one in order to explore what I did, what I didn't do, and what I might do next with each of these aspects of writing.

Next week: Making a chapter-by-chapter breakdown and the Star Wars: Andor connection.

Personal Addendum

As I write, I'm recovering from that blood donation I mentioned last time. I haven't done much work on Amnar since then because for some reason the loss of a pint of my blood was a bit more stressful on my body than the previous times I've done it. All of the above reads very much past-tense, and not in the "I just did this yesterday". In fact, I did it over Christmas and New Year. So I apologise. I didn't want to overburden the blog with 3k words on what I'd done in one go. Sneaky, I know. Now back to blood-loss recovery...