The finishing touch(es): Fleur Beale on editing
Fleur Beale has written over 50 books for children and teens. Her latest novel is Lyla. Here, she lets us in on the amount of time and work that goes into writing, and explains the importance of the editing process in turning a good manuscript into a great book.
I’ve been writing for 40-plus years and I’ve had 50-plus books published, so obviously I know what I’m doing.
Oh, sigh. If only.
But maybe that’s a bit harsh because I have learnt a few editing essentials since I began writing, although one thing is constant: I can never tell if what I’ve written is any good.
I’m not the only writer to lack confidence in my own judgement and we probably all have much the same methods of coping.
For me, a huge warning sign flashing in vivid neon is this. When I finish a story and am thrilled and delighted because wow! this is the best thing I’ve ever written – I can be pretty sure it’s not good.
When I finish a story and am thrilled and delighted ... I can be pretty sure it’s not good.
I’ve had to learn that time is my friend. The lesson hit home with a short, junior novel I wrote for Mallinson Rendel a few years ago. I finished it and was so pleased with it I confidently sent it off to the wonderful Ann Mallinson. Done and dusted in a day.
I heard nothing for an entire week whereas previously she had got back to me within an hour or two of receiving a story. I rang her. ‘Ann, did you get ...’
‘Ah, yes,’ she said. ‘We need to have a chat about that.’
I couldn’t get off the phone quickly enough. The alarm bells were deafening. I re-read the story and blushed for a week. That story was terrible. I hadn’t shown it to anyone else before I sent it because I was absolutely confident that it was brilliant. I hadn’t waited even an hour to go back and re-read it before I sent it. Why bother when it was brilliant? But with a week between writing and rereading, I could see it for what it was. I rang Ann immediately. ‘Please! Ditch it! It’s terrible.’ Plus profuse apologies.
Now I know to let a story marinate, compost and settle itself. Give it days or weeks before coming back to it with a fresh eye, fresh energy and renewed determination to make it the best darned story I can.
Now I know to let a story marinate, compost and settle itself. Give it days or weeks before coming back to it ...
I have let a story compost for seven years, and I’m not necessarily recommending that as a rule to follow – but it sure did let me see where the weaknesses were and best of all, how to fix them.
It’s a real gift if you can find somebody with a good, critical eye to read a final-ish draft. I’m lucky to have several perceptive family members I trust to tell me the truth.
I’m sorry but this is boring.
I don’t get it.
Um, that word means something different now and you mightn’t want to use it.
It can be difficult to hear negative comments but once I’ve got over the swearing stage, I’m always deeply grateful. Usually too, the critiques bring into the light knowledge that lurked in the depths of my mind.
It can be difficult to hear negative comments but once I’ve got over the swearing stage, I’m always deeply grateful.
Another self-editing trick I’ve taken on board is to read the entire manuscript aloud before sending it off. It takes a few days, my throat gets sore and my voice gets hoarse. But the pain is worth it. And if a writer whose manuscript I assessed had read their work aloud, they would have picked up how often they used albeit and atop. They might also have worked out that repetition of such distinctive words annoys the pants off a reader.
I believe we should always read dialogue aloud. Dialogue is spoken words, so we need to speak them to hear if they sound and feel like natural speech. I suspect that, on average, I will chop each piece of dialogue by half from when it first appears on my screen to the final reading. It’s so satisfying to take to dialogue with a sharp scalpel.
I suspect that, on average, I will chop each piece of dialogue by half from when it first appears on my screen to the final reading.
Once I feel I’ve done everything I can to create a strong story and clean manuscript, I send it off to the publisher and hope like hell they’ll like it enough to publish it.
And if that yes comes through it’s such a relief. But, no time to relax. It now goes through their professional editing process. Do I like being edited? No – I LOVE it! Although that comes with a caveat – I love it when the editor is brilliant and I trust her.
A good editor gets the story. She examines every sentence to ensure it is made up of the right words in the right order. She keeps an eye on the pacing – will the story be stronger if the chapter ends here rather than there? If she feels a character needs more colour she’ll point it out with reasons for her opinion. If a sentence is clunky she’ll highlight it and maybe make a suggestion as to how to fix it – although it is a point of honour to write the fix myself even though I am most grateful for her suggestion – it alerts me to the problem and it points out to fix it.
I disagree with around 1% of her edits – or maybe 0.05%. And then we have an email exchange back and forth where I give in if she is adamant that the change needs to be made because I trust her and when I look at the passage when the book is published – yeah, she was right. I had one exchange with an editor I have only worked with once. The book was a historical short reader set in 1893 in Taranaki. My heroine called her father Dad. The editor changed it to Papa because she felt Dad wouldn’t have been used then but I knew it had been from listening to the stories of my great aunts and uncles. The editor dug her toes in but so did I. Finally, she said, ‘Prove it was used then.’ I went to ProSearch at the library and the librarian was brilliant – she found an article in a Dunedin paper in 1893 that used the term dad. I got my way, but the editor got the last word – she put dad in the glossary explaining it was an informal term for father used in Taranaki in 1893.
A great editor is a treasure. I’ve been privileged to work with one who leaves me feeling she’s delivered a masterclass in writing.
A great editor is a treasure. I’ve been privileged to work with one who leaves me feeling she’s delivered a masterclass in writing. How did I not see that this sentence would be so much smoother if . . . How did I not see that swapping those two paragraphs around would give so much more punch to the chapter ending?
I know how lucky I am to have had stellar publishers who believe in the value of sympathetic but rigorous editing. So much goes into the creation of a book – the writing, those crucial first readers, the professional editor, the designer and the publisher. We all have our parts to play but none of it has any point without the most important element of all – the readers.
So I do know more now than when I began writing – and I know there’s much more to learn.
Fleur Beale started writing in the '80s when she was teaching in a secondary school and couldn’t find stories that resonated with the kids in her classes because there were almost no books about NZ kids and their lives. Writing appeals partly because she can be the boss of her own world.
Her latest book is Lyla: Through My Eyes; read an extract here.