Lorna Fergusson is a novelist, award-winning short story writer, editor, speaker and writing coach who has run Fictionfire Literary Consultancy since 2009. She has also taught on various Oxford University writing programmes since 2002. In advance of her visit to Zürich for this Autumn’s WriteCon, she spoke with The Woolf’s J.J. Marsh.
Why is the editing process so crucial to writers?
Once the book is written, it’s up to you to make it the very best it can be. That first draft is just the start: you need to find the self-discipline and dedication to revise it, over and over, bringing in editorial help if need be. If you want to be proud of your work, you need to think like a professional. That means being able to take criticism and suggestions. It means cutting your beloved prose so that the shape of your story can shine through. It means checking every apostrophe. It means going an extra mile. And then another.
Can you explain a little about the different kinds of editing?
There are four main kinds of editing with quite a complicated range of terminology:
- Structural editing: the big picture. Sometimes called developmental or substantive editing, this looks at shape and form, with a focus on story.
- Line editing: refining your story sentence by sentence, to make the language as precise and expressive as possible, keeping consistency of voice. This is about style.
- Copy editing: this focuses on aspects such as the grammar, spelling, structure and flow of sentences, repetition and redundancy, fact-checking and internal consistency.
- Proofreading: this also checks the technical correctness of the language, typos and inconsistencies of presentation. It’s the task that’s reserved till last, when you’re about to send the work to the printer.
One area many authors encounter is the saggy middle. The beginning is fantastic, the end satisfying but the bit in between is flat. Any tips?
Complicate it. You have a main plot with main characters but they are not the be-all and end-all. They don’t exist in a vacuum. Who are the people around them and what are their stories? Don’t wheel on characters to do something in connection with the main character, then wheel them straight off again—give them their own wants, deeds and outcomes. Sub-plots, that’s the thing. Or dual narratives. Or multi-stranded thriller plots. Or multi-generational saga plots.
Raise the stakes. When your character has overcome a crisis, give them a bigger one. Unleash your inner sadist and give them hell. Throw unexpected challenges at them or make the consequences of their choices turn sour on them. Give them trepidation, guilt and angst. Make them responsible. Give them, at all times, opposition, whether externally or internally.
Give us some advice for a perennial problem: word count. What do you do when your tightly plotted thriller comes in at 120K and the average comparable book is 80K?
When it comes to drastic pruning of word count, the first stage is ‘Blithe Willingness’: you go back to your book full of the optimistic sureness that you can wave a magic wand and ten thousand words will vanish and you won’t feel any regret. Second stage is ‘Increasingly Desperate’: you realise the little devils won’t pack their bags and leave your book without a fight. Plus you really, really don’t want them to go. You invited them, for God’s sake. They’ve got squatter’s rights.
Third stage is ‘Grit Your Teeth and Reconstruct’. You’ve evicted the squatters but things still aren’t right. Nipping and tucking won’t do. You’re going to have to take out whole chapters and rebuild sections of your construct from the ground up. Fun it’s not, but you’ll be amazed how often a really serious edit like this can improve the book.
How do you know when you’ve finished?
You don’t, really! We could all keep tinkering forever, if we let ourselves. I often feel reluctant to look at my published novel, The Chase, because I’ll be bound to see things I’d cut or change. Nothing is perfect and you have to accept that—but the impulse to try to achieve perfection is there. It should be there, if you’ve any self-respect as a writer.
Editing is about viewing your work in a different way, with a kind of distance and as dispassionate an eye as possible. Revision makes you realise how often you repeat yourself, how you have favourite items of vocabulary which you return to over and over again. Partly it’s laziness or habit, partly it’s because you were in the white heat of composition and didn’t want to slow the flow by casting around for the mot juste, partly because the damn book took months/years to write so you’d forgotten you’d used the very same expression five chapters back. This is what editing is for. You have to become the reader with the critical eye, not the writer. In time, though, you also have to become the writer and editor who knows when it’s time to let go.
What words of wisdom can you impart for those of us who get stuck with our writing? I’m not talking writer’s block, more those times when we run out of ideas or find that searching for words is like pulling teeth? Is it better to turn one’s attention to something different for a while?
New writers often worry about how to find ideas. If they’ve had a good idea they worry about whether they’ll ever have another. The truth is, many of us don’t suffer from a lack of ideas. Quite the opposite: ideas pop into our heads, scream out at us from newspaper articles or history books or memories or dreams. Ideas are coming at us all the time.
However, that idea, that story you’re with right now? Yes, the shine may have come off it a little. You may feel you’ve lost that first enthusiasm. But you’ve come a long way with it – don’t desert it now. Stay with it and see it through.
You may want to disengage from the distraction of new ideas and give your current one the attention and focus it deserves. If you record your new ideas in a notebook or Evernote file, they can wait. Good ideas are not soap bubbles, after all. They will endure, if they are any good. They’ll mature and grow in your subconsciousness. And when you turn to them, if you’ve finished your previous story-task, you’ll be able to show them the commitment they truly deserve.
All the same, there will be times when you’ll feel completely stymied. That may be because you have exhausted the possibilities with this particular story. Or it may be because you are too close to it, too frustrated with the problems it’s throwing up. In that case, it can help to distract yourself temporarily, perhaps by writing some flash fiction or poetry or a short story—or even a scene from later in the novel. A brief distraction like this can help to break the logjam. But make it brief. Come back to the original, hopefully refreshed and ready to give it another go.
You have described yourself as an introvert. As an editor and creative writing tutor, how do you manage the balance between engagement and retreat?
There’s an extraordinary paradox at work: people who are teachers, communicators, marketers, whose lives are all about reaching out and helping others, often start a conversation with the phrase ‘I’m an introvert but…’! There are also misconceptions about being an introvert. Introverts do like people and do like talking to them, but they also need to factor in the time and space to step back, be silent, refill the well. Constantly putting ourselves out there drains energy and we have to find ways to restore it. Retreats and workshops are a great way to do that.
Finally, the Woolf’s special question: What is one of your favourite works of fiction and why?
This is the sort of question I find agonising! I think it is because different works fulfil different functions for us: we have holiday reads, comfort reads, nostalgia reads, ‘stretch’ reads. There are all sorts of reasons for loving a book and its literary quality may not actually be the main reason we love it! If you push me, though, I will choose The Great Gatsby. It encompasses so much: structure, tone, narrative perspective, richness of language and theme. I make reference to it in my workshops and courses more than any other book. It stands up to repeated readings. I quoted it yesterday in a lecture I gave on story endings, because it has the loveliest, most haunting and memorable of closures, written in exquisite language.
One of K.M. Weiland’s top recommended editors, Lorna is currently working on her new book, The Unputdownable Writer’s Mindset. You can sign up for advance news and sneak peeks at www.theunputdownablewriter.com and you can contribute to making this book as helpful as possible by taking her short anonymous survey.