I’m line editing. After almost three years of writing words into my first novel, for the last month I’ve been taking them out, one by one. With two line-by-line passes through my draft, I’ve shrunk 107,000 words to 98,000, dipping below that 100,000 word marker beyond which, apparently, novice writers venture at their peril.
Line editing is an interesting if tedious technical exercise and it’s involved a few tactics, amongst which:
- Culling 99% of occurrences of these words: really, rather, just, quite, very, oh, so, well and suddenly. I said a silent prayer to the twin gods of Search and Delete.
- Appraising every instance of verb + adverb and replacing many, many of them with… a more descriptive verb. Yes, you can’t escape that one. I love my well-thumbed Roget’s more than ever now.
- Interrogating every adjective cosying up to a noun and consigning two out of every three to the scrap-heap. I’m ashamed to admit, there were places where an inexplicable, suffocating, weighty chain of three adjectives dragged down a noun. Oops.
- Radical surgery on long sentences and complex constructions.
- Repetition, repetition, repetition: Eliminating the second and subsequent instances of a favoured word of the day – over and over.
- Sometimes it’s obvious who’s thinking or saying something. Deleting he/she said/thought where it isn’t needed dealt with another hundred or so surplus words.
- It doesn’t always matter what a character is wearing, or what colour eyes they have. In fact, as far as I can see, it only matters when it tells you something about the character that is useful or relevant to the reader. Physical descriptions resembling witness statements have gone; only selective, telling details remain.
This literary fight-the-flab regime has been a good deal more effective than the one I’m (still) trying to impose on my extra physical pounds. Aiding the process of editorial expurgation was an e-book I purchased recently (no, I’m not going to tell you what it was). Clearly never having been subjected to a disciplined editing process, this book was overrun with an abundance of wasted words, superfluous sentences and drawn-out dialogue. Reading it (or, I confess, just the first 20% of it) made me realise how irritating – and dull – it is to plough through pages of rambling narrative, bloated with excess detail. I saw where my first novel would be without the rigour of a line edit.
It’s not perfect – how can it be? But it was a serious job, diligently executed. Doubtless if I’m fortunate enough to attract the attentions of an agent and a publisher, there will be a second and even subsequent culls. But for now, it’s enough.
This weekend, my first novel went out to two test readers. Now all I want to do is hide under the duvet and eat ice cream.