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Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Editing historical fiction, my way

I am in the middle of edits for two of my books, one a young adult novel and one a 400 page adult novel. These are the edits I make before I send out to my agent, a publisher, or in some cases the public. There will be other edits later, but as some publishing houses edit very heavily, some hardly at all, it pays to be picky with your work.

Recently I have seen a plethora of writing books suggesting that you should edit in 'one pass'.

This does not work for me because of the amount of research I need to check. So here is my editing process. It takes as long as the actual writing of the book.


I always work with a printed copy of the manuscript, and initially I am editing for story. 
I read like a reader and not a writer, to identify  whether the nuts and bolts of the story work. At its heart, story is about change, so if it's getting static, alarm bells ring. I mark parts that are slow or boring with a big red pen. Though sometimes boring does not mean cutting stuff, but adding more detail to make it interesting and bring it to life. 

Usually the first time I print out the draft it needs a lot of re-working -  new chunks need to be written and others lopped off. At this stage I do extensive re-writes. That copy is then like an old rag covered in scribble and crossings out and is re-cycled onto our log-burner!

After more work on the computer to streamline the story, I'm ready for a more detailed edit. Usually I send this newer version out to some readers so I can incorporate their comments when I work on the next edit. One way of speeding it up is to mark all the pages that need edits with sticky post-its. I use the same manuscript and just go through it with different colours for each editing pass. Then with the copy next to me with its rainbow fringe, I trawl through the manuscript a page at a time making all the necessary alterations. At this point I am usually fuelled by coffee, a looming deadline, and a desperation to get it finished and move onto the next book.

Here are the passes I make:
  • edit for character. Go through each major character's arc of action and emotion. Check what they are doing in the scenes where they are absent, and try to refer to these actions in the scenes where they are present. Get a sense of their daily routine - for example how long it takes them to dress, their relationship with servants or 'betters', and their class in relation to other characters. Check how they are feeling;  that it is consistent, and that it has development.  Make sure their attitudes are consistent with the period.
  • edit for theme. Highlight any themes that drive the novel, make sure sub-plots echo these themes. Look for metaphor, symbol and meaning. Try to find parallels with today, and highlight  them. They will be useful when you have to promote or tell people about your book.
  • edit for time-scale. In historical fiction it is particularly important to get dates right, and for the narrative to fit within certain fixed parameters or historical milestones. Check travelling times - horseback and boat are very slow, but mail can be surprisingly quick.
  • edit like the most eagle-eyed historian. I have made small errors in my books, (really sorry ) but not because I did not care - I did my best to make the history right! Often it is little things (like the taking for granted of walls and hedges before the enclosures act) that catch you out. Question everything and double check your research. Keep notes in case someone queries your sources. Make notes about where you have changed, bent, or ignored  supposedly 'known facts', and why. Two books down the line you might not remember why, but an expert reading your book is bound to write to you and ask.
  • edit for anachronistic dialogue, and for dialogue that fits the character. It is easy to slip into modernism in dialogue, and the quickest way to lose your historical atmosphere. Seemingly innocuous phrases like 'Oh my God' have taken on a distinctly teenage flavour since OMG!
  • edit for good English - cut out uninteresting language, spelling mistakes, faulty grammar and typos, or get someone else to proofread it.
My novel grows about 10% during this edit as I re-work dialogue, fill plot loopholes and deepen character.
What is your editing process? Do you have any tips or tricks?

Sunday, 10 May 2015

History, Mystery, Humour - A Cruel Necessity by L C Tyler

'A Cruel Necessity' by L C Tyler is unique - crime fiction set during Cromwell's rule after the English Civil Wars.

What makes this mystery different is the intentionally humorous twist. This is a period I love, and L C Tyler has done a great job of bringing it to life, in all its grubby glory. The plot includes the spying activities of Thurloe, the nebulously changing factions of Roundheads and Cavaliers, and the sheer difficulty of identifying a murder suspect in the era before forensics. 

Our main character, John Grey, is a very likeable trainee lawyer, intelligent but naive, and his blundering but well-intentioned attempts to bring the murderer to justice are thwarted at every turn by men (and women) more world-weary than himself. The delights of this novel lie in the clever and witty dialogue, and in the satisfyingly complex plot, which includes code-breaking and red herrings galore, and even a brief appearance by Pepys. 

Right up until the end I was as baffled as Grey, but when the resolution came, it was a corker. Clever, witty stuff, and I hope there will be many more in this series.

If you like the name Araminta, (sadly out of fashion right now!) you might also like The Painted Lady by Edward Marston, another historical whodunnit featuring a woman of this name, but very different from the Araminta in 'A Cruel Necessity'.  This time the novel is set later in the seventeenth century after the Restoration, (my favourite period) and features sleuth Chistopher Redmayne the architect, and his sidekick Constable Jonathan Bale.

Both books are pleasurably tight and compact reads at just over 300 pages.

Publishers: Constable & Robinson, and Allison & Busby.