52 Weeks of Editing: Week 5—Editing Through The Overwhelm or When In Doubt, Research!

A carved pumpkin with blue smoke coming out of it.
Photo by Colton Sturgeon / Unsplash

Oh god, oh god, oh god. What a week. Actually no, what a day. This is not good, not good at all. I knew this week would be a weird one when I was told, very late last week, that I'd start teaching again this week. Allow me to note for the working world: two working days is not enough notification for your autistic person over here.

I had no idea what day(s) I'd be teaching until the afternoon of the day before.

If it'd just been teaching, it maybe wouldn't have been so bad, but this week has everything in it besides that. Teaching was three consecutive hours, high-tailing it across a very large campus from room to room, feeling like I was already on the back foot because I only got told about this the day before.

This is in the same week that scaffolding went up on our house prior to roofing commencing, that I had one of those terrifying calls with a government official, my partner was suddenly scheduled for a job interview on the fly, and I had to attend a couple of unexpected meetings that went on for hours.

Therefore I come before you today to admit that no, this has not been a great week for editing.

I don't have enough brain, enough emotion, to cope with this week, and we've still got at least another day of it to get through.


There has been some progress

I get that I'm being really scatty about this at the moment (see above for all relevant excuses and apply as necessary). I'm not going about this in anything like the most methodical of ways. But as much as these writing and editing courses will tell you that you can be methodical, my experience has been that a lot of writing and editing, especially major structural edits, to a novel or series, is anything but.

I have done things this week. Not the things I expected to do, and not the things I thought I'd have to do. But they are vital things that need to be done, that I knew I'd have to do eventually, but had no idea what form they'd take until they showed up in the way I needed them to.

All that sounds probably a bit unhinged, so I'll sum it up in one exciting word: Research!

Not your regular research though

I have this strange way of doing research. I'm not great at sitting in libraries (or indeed any spaces that aren't my own home), and although sometimes you know what you need to know about for any given fiction, that's not always true. And even when you do think you know... do you though? I mean, really?

Here's the problem. Creativity is this ethereal, magical, esoteric thing that is almost impossible to pin down. In between those spreadsheet prompt questions you find in most books and courses on creative writing (especially fantasy and science fiction) and the answers lies something that goes by the name of "research" but isn't nearly as structured or well-thought-out as that.

Back in 2020, I tried out a "30 Days of Worldbuilding" challenge. I failed about halfway through, not so much because I didn't have ideas, but because depression and failure to do enough research and take time to nail down which ideas worked tripped me up. I've now done two PhDs (waiting on the results for the second, still), and even that kind of research requires a lot of what can only be described as "fuck around and find out" time to reach the end result.

The FAFO fictional research non-method

OK, so I'm babbling now. At the start of this process, I figured I'd stick to the time-honoured tradition of working through the standard features of all novels. I'd spend time on plot, character, structure, setting, specific scenes, tone, voice, and all those other glorious things.

Instead, we're into the second month and all that's derailed because I need to do that thing where I just sit around absorbing information and seeing which bits are useful and which aren't. This is research, Jim, but not as you know it.

What I've been doing this week has been all about setting, or tackling the problem of what I now think of as the Superficial Terrible Evil. For the longest time, I've known I needed more depth to both the individual antagonists and the world they come from. That's not Amnar, that's somewhere else.

Initially, I'd conceived of these antagonists as home-grown. Their leader is a dictator who has come from Amin Duum, and takes it over by whatever means he has at his disposal. I spent time reading various books that I thought might be relevant, trying to find a way to make that work. I had ideas, but none of them felt right.

This is why I say that a lot of this process is impossible to pin down. It's that feeling you're looking for. It's a sensation that makes you nod your head as all the ideas spin out and you know you're on the right track. It's not a thing you can take a course to learn about. Or at least, I haven't found that in any of the courses I've ever taken on writing.

This is the bit that's so weirdly esoteric.

Books, books, books

I started the year reading Lea Ypi's autobiography Free, which is about growing up in communist Albania. Then I went on to read a few other books in a similar vein. These are great texts, and deeply informative, but I didn't have that sense that something had twigged.

Then, almost by accident, I came across Caroline Elkins' Legacy of Violence, her new history of the British Empire. I can't even remember why I decided to take a look at it. Maybe it was pushed into a feed somewhere, or I was looking for interesting books to improve my quite frankly awful understanding of the history. But there it was. I read it. I was hooked.

I feel odd even writing this, I'll be honest. I vaguely recall advice from George R R Martin that one should read history in order to build a solid fantasy world, but I still feel uncomfortable saying that here I am considering something so impossibly dark. I'd been considering the idea that actually, the antagonists came from outside Amnar—that they were a hostile empire—for a while. But it's when I type it out in black and white, along with admitting the process of researching that, I find myself with an emotional itch at the back of my head.

Because at least to some degree, this isn't my story to tell. I can't describe the lived experience of being subject to a hostile external cultural force. I am part-Irish by descent (in the sense that I could claim Irish citizenship if I wanted), and my grandfather ran afoul of the British government as a result at one point, but I have no lived experience of that.

This is something that must be handled with extreme sensitivity and care. For now, I am considering how the structure and tools of this particular empire functioned, and how that might be applied in Amnar. After all, I'm not telling a story intended to sit in true-to-life historical context, and as I deepen my understanding of Amin Duum at this time, I have already drawn on my knowledge of other empires, elsewhere. But still, I'm aware of all the tiny nuances of things I may miss, simply because I've never directly lived it.

Survival Strategies

For now, this is all I have the energy for. I've collected another set of Kindle samples with a view to getting more books with perspectives from around the world as I start to develop ideas. This is how I'm surviving a week full of overwhelm. I'm reading. There's no pressure here. It's a way of developing my ideas while there are too many other things going on for me to think creatively.

As an odd addendum, I did find something useful coming out of reading prep for teaching over the next three months. I'm working on a course about the modern history of mental health treatment (modern as in 1790s to now), which has spawned ideas for a story I'd always wanted to write about an antagonist in the Amnari world. I hadn't realised this could be helpful until now.

This is why this kind of work is so tricky. You very often don't know what you need until you come across it. Then you have to be cautious how you use it and think about it. Hopefully, next week will be a little quieter, and we'll actually have a roof by then so I won't have to deal with so much noise.