Monday, 2 September 2013


The good news: after around four months of working every spare minute when I'm not actually asleep, I finally have a first draft of the second Carter Blake novel. The bad news: there's still a ton of work to do.

To be honest, it's not really bad news at all, as I actually enjoy the editing process. It's the time when the book goes from a rough, unfinished state to something that's more like the story I have in my head. Writers are luckier than most, because we get so many chances to go back over our work and tweak it before we have to show it to anyone. I don't envy musicians or athletes who have to produce their very best work in the moment, as opposed to when they happen to be in the zone.

My first draft tends to be all about getting the words down on paper without looking back too much. I work mainly on the computer, although quite often if I'm out and about I'll write a chapter longhand in a Black n' Red notebook I carry around, and then transcribe it at night. Once that's out of the way I can go back through the manuscript and decide what things work, what things don't work, which characters need to be developed more, which chapters need to be moved around and so on.

The actual first page (yes, I do have trouble reading my own handwriting)
I'm pretty sure most of the editing routine I've developed for myself comes from Stephen King's excellent On Writing. Any aspiring authors reading this should do themselves a favour and buy a copy right now, because it's the most useful and genuinely inspirational book I've read on the craft.

As soon as I've finished the first draft of a book, I like to put it aside for a couple of weeks to get some distance from the daily grind of the writing phase. Deadlines don't always allow the luxury of a break, but it's always helpful when I can fit one in. Once it's time to get started on the next phase, I print the book out on single sides of A4 so I can sit down away from the computer and read through it. For some reason, I tend to miss typos more often when reading from a screen. If it's printed out on the page, there's nothing to distract you. Once I have the hard copy manuscript, I sit down with a notebook, a pencil and some highlighters and get to work.

I don't think I'll ever stop printing the first draft out, no matter how good e-readers get.
I'm doing two things as I read through the first draft. Most importantly, I'm finding out how well it reads. Reading a book in one or two sittings is a completely different experience from writing it in small daily chunks of a thousand words or so. The read-through will give me a good idea of what works and what doesn't and what the big things I'll need to change are. As I'm reading, I'll use my notebook to record ideas for new scenes or edits to existing ones.

That's the big picture. The second thing I'm doing is looking for the smaller pieces of work that need done at the level of paragraphs and sentences and words: things like typos and awkward sentences and the places where I need to carry out some research before revisiting. I mark any mistakes with the pencil so I can fix them later, and add any extra detail that needs to be there in the margin.

I like to use real locations, buildings, street names etc in my books wherever possible, so quite often in a first draft I'll have something like:

"Blake stepped out onto xxx street and headed east. The sun was
beginning to set behind him, casting elongated shadows ahead."

This is where the highlighters come in. I use them to flag up any piece of information I need to check for consistency. For example, I tend to use one colour for information about location or geographical description, one for descriptions of characters, one for equipment (weapons, cars, whatever), and one for any mention of time or dates. In the example above, I'd want to check which street Blake was stepping onto, and if it makes sense for the sun to be setting at that point in the story.

It saves a lot of time later on if I can scan through the manuscript looking for any mentions of the time as it ensures I can keep everything as consistent as possible. It also stops a character from having blue eyes in one scene and green in another, or being 'on-camera' in one place when they need to be committing a murder somewhere else. This kind of thing is invisible to the reader if you get it right, but it's always noticeable if you screw it up. The second draft is where I start forcing myself to pay attention to the fine detail.

By the time I'm finished, the manuscript usually looks like a cross between a term paper with a lot of mistakes and some kind of day-glo Jackson Pollock painting. In the chapter on editing in On Writing, King recommends putting a symbol at the top-right of any page where you've made an edit, so you can find the pages that need attention easily. The first draft of this book is 365 pages, and if I'd bothered to do that, I'd have an edit symbol on roughly 364 of them (I'm pretty confident the cover page is okay).

Once that's done, I'm usually brimming with ideas of how to improve the book, and eager to get back in front of that Word file where I can start tidying things up and transforming it into something I'd be happy for people to read. For me, this is when the book really starts to come together.

And that's why I actually quite like editing.

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