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The trials and tribulations of self-editing

I often begin a blog post with a particular theme in mind and it quickly develops into something completely different. This time, having planned a much-delayed update to developments with the book, my post flew off on a tangent about editing! Hopefully, this insight into my method makes for an interesting post, and might even help someone who’s thinking about going down a similar self-editing path.

In previous blog posts, I explained that, just as I was about to dive into publishing Soulcat, I altered course and wrote Part 2 instead. My book club support team were very excited for the finished product, and eager to buy copies for their friends for Christmas. With that in mind, I set myself a goal to get the book finished and launch it in October or November 2021. It only took me a couple of months to get the first draft of Part 2 written - it was so fun to write from Molly’s perspective, I whizzed through it. But then came the editing. I don’t mind editing, even though the prospect of doing it is daunting, and rightly or wrongly, I chose to do the work myself. Instead of an angel or a devil on my shoulder, I have a perfectionist imp whispering in my ear, which can be an asset for editing, but it also makes the process long and laborious. Once I’d worked my way through the whole of Part 2, I’d accumulated a list of alterations and additions to develop and improve the story. My partner read the manuscript and made some more suggestions, ultimately increasing my word-count way beyond my original plan.

After working through the structural notes, I complied another list, of fine-tune editing ‘sweeps’ to make. Instead of working through the story trying to fix everything all at once, it makes sense to focus on one area of improvement at a time. Hence the reference in my last blog post about likening the process to sanding a piece of furniture; smoothing it more and more with each sweep of the paper, working from a rough grade right down to a polishing cloth for the smallest details. For example, one sweep was for tense irregularities, one was for repetition, one was for excess pronouns, and so on.

Catching incorrect uses of tense was a surprisingly tricky challenge. The story is narrated by Molly, describing past events from a present perspective, which occasionally made for brain-twisting logic.

Repetition was another tricky one, as it’s a pet peeve of mine, and I was disheartened to see so many examples flag up in my own work. Rectifying over-use of certain terms can be incredibly challenging, especially when you’re describing a scenario with specific elements that don’t alter. The website - my preferred online thesaurus - became my constant reference tool. But even with satisfying alternatives to frequently used words, I found myself trying to fit together pieces of an ever-evolving jigsaw puzzle, only with text instead of pictures. I would alter or swap out a phrase, only to spot another instance of my alternative in the next sentence, causing a domino effect of corrections. [Congratulations if you’ve spotted my edits in this paragraph - I’ve managed to switch out seven instances of the word ‘word’!]

I’m a member of Writers HQ, a brilliant source of courses and support for writers. Their Facebook group is a great place to ask for help with tough decisions, and I used it to scream into the void when editing was sending me round the bend. One of my questions in the group was about the correct grammar for ‘the vets’. Vet is short for veterinarian, so should it be the vet’s? Or if you’re taking your cat for a check-up, are you going to the vets? Or the vets’? Of course, one can just say you’re going to the vet, but the singular suggests an individual - a veterinary surgeon rather than a veterinary practice. And don’t get me started on the hassle of having to spell out veterinarian each time! If you read Soulcat, you’ll see that I came up with a creative solution in Part 2, but I’ll leave you to spot that for yourself.

Once happy with the structure and contents of Molly’s story, I needed to get into the nitty-gritty of the grammar. I trialled and subscribed to ProWritingAid, an online grammar-checker. Although it’s more aimed at helping with articles rather than novels, it proved invaluable for helping me with things I thought I knew, but actually I was completely wrong about. Like comma placement. It turns out I’m far more fond of a comma than I ought to be. A bot-led programme can’t catch every discrepancy, and it has a habit of red-flagging things you’re happy with, but it’s up to you to decide which bits of advice you want to follow and which corrections you’re better off ignoring. PWA has a whole host of reports to help you with different areas of writing, so I did several sweeps of each chapter of Soulcat using the available tools. I quickly learned which reports were the most useful and which ones weren’t relevant to me, although my perfectionist imp finds it hard to ignore a highlighted note, even when the text is how I want it. It’s easy to get caught up in the technical-correctness and strip the style and personality out of your prose.

The pronoun report was my biggest nemesis in the PWA editing process. Writing in first or second person, where you’re telling your own story, or that of another protagonist (a cat, in my case) from their perspective, brings with it the risk of filling your work with excessive pronouns. It’s too easy to start each sentence with ‘I’, ‘You’, ‘They’, or ‘It’, which isn’t particularly interesting to read. PWA has a report for pronouns, telling you how many there are in a chapter, and how many lie at the start of sentences. The object is to encourage you to limit your totals below a certain threshold. Given my genre and style of writing, I decided to give myself a little grace on this, especially after working on it for hours and still being one or two pronouns over the limit. That said, I got a buzz from refreshing the page after a spell of editing, to find I’d hit my target and brought down my pronoun use to within acceptable levels. There’s a certain creativity required for this type of edit; eliminating pronouns and altering your sentence structure, without destroying the rhythm of the writing.

Once I’d worked my way through all the reports (around 6-8 sweeps, depending on how much needed altering), I had to go back to the first one and check through the text again. Sweeping through and making alterations was hugely satisfying, but since so much of the text was tweaked during the process, I then felt the need to work through it again from the start. Inevitably, while removing some pronouns, I would have introduced an extra word repeat, or while swapping out similes, I would have extended a sentence length beyond a reasonable word-count.

October became November, and November crept towards Christmas, and all the while I was still knee deep in edits and alterations. The delay to my launch plan was frustrating, but I knew I had to take the time to make my manuscript the best it could be. Some changes I made and some light-bulb moments I had wouldn’t have happened if I’d rushed through this process.

Finally, over a week into December, I felt ready to move on to the next stage. It’s daunting thinking about sending your work out into the world, and I couldn’t help worrying that it could maybe do with just one more sweep through. But, after 3-4 months of editing, I knew it was time to make the call and declare it finished.

I had planned - in theory - a book launch event, to happen in good time for Christmas, but by then it was far too late. As I mentioned in the blog post ‘Soulcat Part 2’, I decided to release it on Kindle only, on Christmas day, followed by a paperback launch in the spring. It is now approaching mid-March and plans have been bubbling away in the background. The paperback is at the printers, the launch event is due to be announced any day now, and a blog tour is booked and ready to go. I’m just waiting for confirmation of a couple of details before I can officially announce my plans. It’s scary and exciting, but I have a very busy - and hopefully fun - couple of months coming up!

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