Serpent of Colchis – edits finished!

09Mar09

I finished the edits for Serpent of Colchis on Friday night last week, and have taken a little time out to reflect on the process and understand what went well and what could be improved for the next time . . . I’ve got a fair bit of editing to get through this year!

Using Holly Lisle’s One-Pass method works an absolute treat for me – I’ve used it before and I’ll carry on using it in future. The critical element is to capture the essence of the story – its themes, major and minor plotlines and the main character arcs, and to use these as a guide for the whole edit process. This works well for me, because I start with the big idea and translate that into a story, so I usually have that information to hand. In this instance, it was a little different, because working with an existing narrative, with myth and legend, sets challenges of its own.

medea_evelyn-de-morgan

For example, it surprised me how little actual resolution I felt in the 3 separate myths I pulled together (all involving the same group of characters) and how little relation there seemed to be, when the story is taken as a whole, between one and the next. It makes me wonder if, from a historical perspective, these three narratives really did involve the same group, or if time and the convenience of labelling/branding has meant that the same names from one have been applied to others, to depict certain types of character rather than individuals? From a writing perspective, the challenge was less to resolve that question and more to develop a coherent arc across the entire set to unify them and deliver a satisfying, complete story, rather than staying faithful to the original detail.

With the parameters set in such broad terms, the second phase, the manuscript slog, went quite quickly. In retrospect, I think I could have spent more time. Using the conceptual information as a guideline, an astonishing amount of extraneous detail got chopped out of the story, and I started to notice a number of lazy writing habits creeping in – too much description, too much internal narrative outlining either what had just happened, or what was about to happen, and WAY too many adverbs. The crime of too much ‘tell’ and not enough ‘show’ is one thing – and relatively easy to shift narrative perspective to make these passages active – i.e. contributing to the development of the plot conflicts/resolutions WHILST developing the characters/interactions, instead of stopping everything to explain it all to the reader. It should all be clear from the story, it shouldn’t need additional explanation (and if it does, then this needs to play out through the action, not as an adjunct to it).

I’ve never really understood the big deal with adverbs until this novel. But here, where I’m working with a slapdash Nanowrimo draft, the poisonous nature of the little devils has become apparent to me. It’s lazy, for one thing – write ‘speak softly’ – what does that mean? A whisper, a murmur, a low voiced mutter, a mumble? Each one of those, and I could probably come up with a lot more, means the same as ‘speak softly’, but each is much more precise in meaning and conveys a specific atmosphere. Write ‘speak softly’ and I need to qualify it with an explanation that detracts from the story, because it diverts the reader’s awareness from ‘the story’ to ‘the author’ sitting at his/her elbow muttering. Distracting, and annoying. AND, where adverbs lurk, so too creep in all those passive verbs, the lazy was/had/were axis of evil – immediate slowers-down of action and distancers, to break up the story and take away its dynamism.  These are bad habits I need to break. It will be difficult to do so, because the writing and editing parts of my brain are distinct, and when I’m throwing words at a first draft, I don’t know that I want to be worrying about words to that extent. BUT, if I can train myself out of it, then I win myself a huge saving at the edit stage. I’ll be giving it a try in my next few expeditions into short stories . . .

The concept gave me a firm foundation on which to judge what to keep, what to throw, and what needed to change, and I am happy that the changes I have made have ironed out a stack of inconsistencies, and made the story overall much tighter, much cleaner, and hopefully more satisfying from a reader perspective. I’ll have to wait for the comments from its first readers before I know how far I’ve succeeded on that front. There are a number of areas I’m still a little anxious about, purely because I pushed myself way out of my comfort zone with this one so I’m feeling exposed in all sorts of areas.

Some of the science parts I know are shaky, because science was never my subject – to me, the dividing line between science and magic has always been pretty slim, and some of it is as much about faith as any belief in a deity or other supernatural being . . . but as this is soft SF rather than hard, I’m hoping that it’s credible enough for the genre and this story. Neither of the main characters are conventionally heroic, so I’m concerned whether or not they will generate sufficient interest so that the chaos and destruction that surrounds them holds the reader rather than turns him/her off, and I also hope that the gradual reduction of them as characters from start to end works as a coherent narrative – it almost feels like a reversal of the normal order of things when compared to a conventional space opera. And when it gets down to brass tacks, I’m just not sure about the sex scenes. I knew when I started that these would have to be pretty full-on, because the nature of the erotic, obsessive relationship between the two main characters is what drives the story, so to try to draw a veil or softsoap it somehow was just never an option . . . and in the edits I had a constant fight between ‘me’ who wanted to tone it right down (& fade it out if possible!) and ‘the story’ who dictated that it had to be full throttle. I hope that I’ve come out in the right place, but my fingers still twitch every time I cross it. Lord knows, I wouldn’t want either my mother OR my daughter to read ’em 🙂

Where I think I made a mistake in the manuscript slog was a couple of places where I just circled passages and noted ‘needs tightening up’ or ‘shift perspective’ or similar comments, without actually working through the detail. In those instances, when it came to the write-up, it took me too far out of ‘typing’ mode back into ‘thinking’ mode, and I feel now that I will have to revist some of those flying changes to make sure that I haven’t ripped continuity, or slipped back into bad-habity-writing. In future edits, I’ll put a full suite of notes into the manuscript slog, and then, subject to actually being able to read my own handwriting, the write-up face should be much quicker and smoother.

The process from end-to-end took 4 weeks, in which actual working time amounted to some 19 days once I took out time for admin and half-term holidays and the round of illnesses. Holly reckons on a 2-week turnaround, and I can see that it would be possible given more available time (or a cleaner MS to start with), and I think that will be my ultimate target, however, what I am learning is that real life doesn’t like plans, and will disrupt them, so I need to factor in more slippage in all my planning.  On the one hand, this is disappointing, because it means I can see the end of this phase of editing and reworking of back-catalogue extending further out than it does currently – even though I knew I was setting myself aggressive targets from the get-go. On the other hand, though, I’d rather work at a realistic pace and put my best work into what I am doing, rather than rushing slapdash through it just for the sake of ticking off a progress chart to say it’s done (and then having to revisit it again in such painful detail after either crit-rounds or, worse, a round of rejections).

On the whole, though, I think that the process worked well, and I’m pleased with the story I’ve been left with.

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