The Comfort of Experience

As I continue working with Rob on the final cut of The Road Out, I keep getting reminded of the gulf of experience that exists between us.

I am learning very quickly, according to Rob. However, every chapter I receive back from him has me face-palming as he points out the obvious mistakes, time and again.

I am reminded of an incident from many years ago. When I was in my late teens, we had a visit from my father’s uncle. He was in Australia for a senior sporting event, the name of which escapes me.

He was a distinguished gentleman in his sixties, who was an outstanding squash player. He took me to the local squash courts and kindly gave me some instruction. After this, he approached the court pro, asking him for a couple of games to get some practice in.

The young pro looked this elderly gent up and down, sighed resignedly and agreed with a tolerant smile. What followed was hilarious for me, as I sat safely outside and watched this greying gentleman take the young pro apart. While the young man, in his twenties, threw himself around the court, the older chap stood casually in the center of the court. He never took more than two or three steps in any direction, and made sure the ball landed as far away from his opponent as possible.

The game ended when the young pro went down, slipping on his own sweat. My great-uncle helped him to his feet and imparted some instruction to the young man, which he received graciously and with a new-found respect for this elderly gentleman.

I now find myself in the situation of the young squash pro. Rob calmly and quietly edits a sentence to say exactly what it said before, with half the words and a tenth of the fuss.

It has become a game between us, in a way. As we progress, I manage to find and eliminate more, while Rob is losing his lead. But the old dog still has the lead on the rookie, and that’s for sure. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not turning a lengthy novel into a novella, by any means. What is happening is more elegant than that.

With Rob’s guidance, the story itself is emerging from the manuscript. With all the removing and reworking, the wording that obstructs the story from being played within the reader’s mind is disappearing. At the same time, some newly stripped down sections end up built back up, using the scene to expand the story and characters.

This is what all the guides, books and websites that give editing guidance are essentially pointing at; get the story into the reader’s imagination as cleanly as possible.

My two biggest problems  are now very apparent to me. The first issue is one of tense, I stray towards the past tense, a lot. The second is brevity. Consider this little paragraph:

John had to go to the grocery store down the street, he had discovered that he needed both bread and milk. He had got a pen and paper and wrote a quick list. He then went to the front entrance and put on his hat and coat, because it was raining. When he got to the store, he grabbed out his list. When he had found the things he needed, he then paid for his purchase and headed back out into the rain to make his way home.

That is a classic Drayman paragraph, and I bet many snickered into their coffee as they read it.

In the first pass through, I would re-arrange the order of events into something less chaotic:

John had discovered that he needed both bread and milk.  He had got a pen and paper and wrote a quick list. As it was raining, he put on his coat and hat at the front entrance. He then set off to the grocery store down the street. When he got to the store, he pulled out the list he had made. When he had found the things he needed, he then paid for his purchase and headed back out into the rain to make his way home.

Okay, so now it’s in some sort of order. A few words were changed in the process, which happens all the time. Now we need to address the tense. Using the past tense suspends and interrupts the flow. There’s also a lot of needless words. Let’s get it into the present and trimmed down a bit:

John discovered he needed both milk and bread. He made a quick list. As it was raining, he put on his hat and coat,  and set off to the grocery store. At the store, he grabbed the things he needed, paid for his purchase and headed back out into the rain to make his way home.

Now, it’s in the present tense. However, for the information presented, it’s still a lot of words. So next, we need to ask ourselves, what is needed to get the story across?

John needed bread and milk. It was raining, so he donned his hat and coat and headed to the store. He grabbed what he needed, paid for it, and went home.

There, now we have the bare bones. The reader is not in the dark as to what happened at all, in as few words as needed. Now though, we need to ask ourselves; have I used this paragraph to my benefit, in any way? What can I do with it to aid the story? Let’s have a look:

John opened the fridge and frowned at a lone bottle of out of date milk and a moldy slice of bread. Wonderful, he thought. He shuffled to the front entrance and reached for his hat and coat with a sigh. Still raining, typical. Ten minutes later he entered the store and fumbled in his pocket for the list: Bread and milk. He mumbled an apology to the teller as he handed over a pile of small change. The shopping bag swung gently against his leg as he trudged home.

If we review this now, we have utilized the paragraph to create both mood and character. The preceding stripped down paragraph (If you can call three sentences a paragraph), gets the job done and could be all that’s needed. The last one can be used to help the story along while encompassing a minor event.

Perhaps this will give you an idea of the task I am in the middle of. Whilst the above example is exaggerated and contrived for the purpose, I am clearing this kind of thing away from the story as an archaeologist might clear vines from an ancient city. There’s a good story there, we’re both convinced of that. It simply has to be changed from an amateur’s manuscript into a professional book. Chapter 16 of 31 is on the slab at the moment, here’s hoping.



2 thoughts on “The Comfort of Experience

  1. A nice illustration of the editing process. Reducing verbiage almost always improves the writing. Learning how to self-edit, and using professional editors, are vitally important steps for self-published authors.


  2. Holy moly. I hate to think what he’d make of my amateur scratchings then… to extend your analogy, likely got lost on the way to the squash court and once there found I’d forgotten my racquet.


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