Bye Bye Darlings: The Editing Gauntlet by Alice Zorn

Farine Five Roses
Alice Zorn’s new novel, Five Roses, is named after the FARINE FIVE ROSES sign that marks the southwest horizon of Montreal and Pointe St-Charles, where the novel is set. Photo: Alice Zorn

 

You’ve finished your novel manuscript and you even – finally! – get a publisher. It took ten years. You have Neanderthal muscles across your brow from frowning at the computer screen. But now you’re home-free. Bingo!

Then you get the first slew of comments from your editor. She’s the objective eye who sees what the book can be, but isn’t yet. Does it begin in the best possible place? Is there too much exposition? Does it have structural integrity? What about the ending? She tells you all the darlings you cherished while you were writing don’t belong unless they serve the book. The clever turns of phrase, the crisp dialogue, the research that shows off your erudition, the quirky events that really happened. Your clean manuscript pages are tattooed with strokes and question marks. Some editors slash with red pen. I’m so glad mine used pencil.

With my first novel, Arrhythmia, I was advised to lop two main characters, cut ninety pages and replace them with new writing. I couldn’t believe it. Hadn’t the publisher already accepted the book? My editor was firm. I had to learn how to rethink developments in the novel as narrative choices. I reminded myself that my editor, like me, only wanted what was best for the book. After all, she brought the manuscript to the acquisitions table, arguing that – out of all the other manuscripts being vetted – mine should be published.

I rewrote those ninety pages because I realized the change was structurally necessary to the novel. And I rewrote them, yes. My editor didn’t tell me what to write, only that the direction I’d originally taken wasn’t the best option. However, I did not lop those two characters. I made them stronger and more integral to the novel. Writing the novel was hard, but editing it might well have been the more profound learning-about-writing experience.

“Writing the novel was hard, but editing it might well have been the more profound learning-about-writing experience.”

My second novel, Five Roses, will be published by Dundurn Press in 2016. I’m at the copy editing stage now. This is the finicky time when syntax, word choice and punctuation come into question. I open the document and scroll through 320 pages with red commas added, words underlined and lassoed to dialogue bubbles. Individual words are highlighted in yellow. A character is cycling along a city street, alert to the nervous rush hour traffic, as she thinks about the police sending out an alert to catch a criminal. I swear at myself for not having noticed. I must have read this page twenty times already! But my brain was in a groove. And as I’ve repeatedly witnessed, my brain is willful in its fondness for repetitions, internal rhymes and alliteration.Now, too, is when I discover that grammatical niceties aren’t as ingrained as I assumed they should be after five decades as a voracious reader. Shouldn’t I simply know all these distinctions by now? Seems not.

And so I learn that there’s a difference between hanged and hung when it refers to a human body that is being put to death. I hung a picture on the wall. The executioner hanged a man. However, a human body that was already dead hung from a hook. I need to know that for this novel, since a character was hanged.

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I had to teach myself the farther/further dance after having worked with a copy editor who changed all my farthers to furthers. He thought further sounded more posh. Fine, I thought. He’s the copy editor. Maybe it’s one of those UK vs US things. For a couple of years I banned all farthers from my writing. Then I had a story returned from a copy editor who had changed some of my furthers to farthers. That was more curious. I finally pulled a tome of grammar off the shelf and discovered there’s a rule. Farther is for physical distance. Further is the abstract concept. You might think that I would already have known this, but I didn’t. And I’m not the only one. I continue to see farther and further misused in books published by reputable houses. (If you want a trick to remember which to use when, think far > farther. Thank you to Carol Weber for this tip.)

You aren’t the best judge of your work, because you’re too close to the writing.You need an editor. Not your partner nor your best friend, who won’t want to hurt your feelings, but an experienced and discerning professional who will help you realize the full potential of the book.

I’m now at the last read-through before Five Roses goes to the design people. I’ve rewritten the manuscript three times since I thought it was finished in 2013. Cutting, puzzling, moving pages around. Lots of darlings sent marching to the recycling bin. At each stage of editing, the book becomes more of an entity that lives separate from me. Which is what it will have to be when it’s sent off into the world.


for QWFAlice Zorn’s book of short fiction, Ruins & Relics, was a finalist for the 2009 Quebec Writers’ Federation McAuslan First Book Prize. In 2011 she published a novel, Arrhythmia, with NeWest Press. She has twice placed first in Prairie Fire’s Fiction Contest. Her second novel, Five Roses, will be published with Dundurn Press in July, 2016. She lives in Montreal and can be found at http://alicezorn.blogspot.ca

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13 thoughts on “Bye Bye Darlings: The Editing Gauntlet by Alice Zorn

  1. Reblogged this on mira prabhu and commented:
    “I’m now at the last read-through before Five Roses goes to the design people. I’ve rewritten the manuscript three times since I thought it was finished in 2013. Cutting, puzzling, moving pages around. Lots of darlings sent marching to the recycling bin.”

    I read Alice Zorn’s terrific post with great interest – since I am editing my own second novel Krishna’s Counsel. She is of course spot on when she sees the author cannot “see” the work clearly. I rely on beta-readers, not professional editors, for various reasons, and not just money. What I loved most about her post is her second last line — “At each stage of editing, the book becomes more of an entity that lives separate from me. Which is what it will have to be when it’s sent off into the world.” Yes, that is the stage every good author/writer must reach – to move from the deeply subjective to a brilliant objective recounting. Thanks, Alice Zorn, and good luck with Five Roses – bet it’s very good!

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  2. Hello! I enjoyed reading the article about how your editor kept you focused, to put it kindly, on improving your work. I am brand new, retired, and decided to try to fill some of my time writing the kind of books I like to read for pleasure. These are in vien of John LeCarre, Graham Green, Tom Clancy. In other words, episponage, conspircey, politcs, who dunnit and why. But the kind of book you will stay up all night to “just read one more chapter or turn one more page.”. I have completed 4 chapters. Now, please don’t slam me hard, because I am just trying to get going. But, can you suggest where I can post my manuscript chapters as I go and get some constructive guidance? I am not able to afford to pay (yet) for professional editing and proofing. But I am posting chapters on my own blog and asking for comments but so far nothing. I was thinking places like this and others where working authors new and old are working on stuff might be the place to get my work checked but then in some cases I realized author like others are competitors are not always inclined to help a newbie up. But, I am a man of faith and hope and am ready to keep trying. For awhile at least. I recall reading the John Grisham, author of “The Firm”, “A Time to Kill” etc spent years and was rejected dozens and doszens of times before realizing some measure of success with his work. And he ain’t no Hemmingway! So I am prepared for a long hard road, but as the say goes, everyone starts somewhere. Besides I just like the act of writing out my imagination so that, in the long run, will probably sustain me. But it would be nice to hear from others what they think and how I could improve so I write, this. And no kidding, I did like your story on the brutality of the editor. My ex, we were married 12 years, was, is a freelance copyeditor, proofreader who red marked, slashed and looped my speech and written work, many time I have to admit to my benefit, but other times because just couldn’t help herself. She edited everything she saw from resturant menus, to billboards, and traffic signs. She is no doubt still at it. I can’t tell because she will have nothng to do with after the divorce in 2013. I would have loved to have her edit my work but I don’t even thing she would accept me as a paying client less do it as a favor. So I am on my own. Any help, gudance, advice you could give would be greatly appreciate. BTW, my ex was an English Lit Major and professiona copywrtiter. I am just a guy who like to read, read, read and for light, fun these spy books are my thing. I am writing because I don’t find the quality of the writers I used to read. Peace, love, and writing.

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  3. Pingback: Achal Rathore

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