Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Helping the book become its Best Self by Miriam Halahmy

All writing requires editing. Very occasionally a piece of writing will arrive pretty well complete, as a gift. I have written one or two poems like this and passages in fiction. But everything will need some sort of revision process. Editing is the process by which writers develop and grow.

My editor, Lucy Cuthew, recently wrote an article about how she edits a book. Lucy’s process is to ask literally hundreds of questions. Her purpose is to try to understand, “What it is a book wants to be.” Lucy writes dozens of comments on a manuscript, including lots of those attractive little bubbles which appear in the right hand margin. “I edit a book,” says Lucy, “by trying to make it the best version of itself it can be.”

I can think of no greater goal for editor and writer than helping the book to become its ‘Best Self’. I want all of my writing to be its ‘best self’. To me this means that I am always striving to improve my writing, always challenging myself to work harder, learn more, take on something I haven’t tried before.

I was very impressed by Hilary Mantel when, after winning the Man Booker Prize in 2009, she was asked what was next and she replied, “To write a better book.”
Sue Gee, prize winning author of nine novels and Head of Creative Writing at Middx University, states, “All writers are apprentices all of their lives.”

In my cycle of three novels set on Hayling Island, I set myself a new challenge for each book. I have used the first person POV, the third person POV and two different POVs, moving between two characters. Each book presented me with the opportunity to try something different - different viewpoints, different dilemmas and different characters, such as characters who don’t speak much English or a major character who doesn’t actually speak at all!

Karl, the second main character in ILLEGAL ( Meadowside, March 2012), is mute for a large part of the book. I have taught children who are mute. Yet it still took me more than a year to work out how to portray this complex character on the page. Karl is one of my favourite characters in the cycle.Setting myself new challenges keeps the writing process fresh and exciting for me.

One of the beauties of language is that we are constantly developing our ability to express ourselves, to describe what we are trying to do. Lucy has given me the phrase, ‘Helping the book to become its Best Self’. This is what I have always tried to do. Now I have the vocabulary to express the thought concisely.

What have you learnt from the editing process?

You can read Lucy Cuthew’s article about her editing process here.


catdownunder said...

This is distinctly spooky because I wrote something on my blog this morning about needing an editor... I have not yet reached the giddy heights of actually having an editor. I may never do it but I think it would be both terrifying and fascinating to have a really competent editor work on something I had written.
Thankyou for the link. I will prowl off and look at it.

JoMacdonald said...

I am currently editing the manuscript of my first novel and this post sums up exactly what I'm tryng to do.

Miriam Halahmy said...

I love spooky stuff cat! Glad this strikes a note Jo.

Stroppy Author said...

Just read Lucy's piece, too. Thank you for both, Miriam - you two obviously work together really well.

Nick Cross said...

I second your comments on constantly challenging yourself as a writer - resting on your laurels (if you have any!) doesn't get you anywhere apart from bored.

It's interesting how much an author can learn from being edited, not least that sometimes you know better than the editor! The creative give-and-take is so important to the success of a book and the success of the author/editor relationship.

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

Speaking as an editor, I sometimes wish every author might be something like you, Miriam!

Miriam Halahmy said...

Ah, that's nice Sarah, but I am very lucky that Lucy and I hit it off so well - really moved my writing on.

JO said...

The linked paper on editing was wonderful - so that's how it's done. Yes, I know my work needs an editor, but maybe I can improve on my efforts by asking it questions (very different from looking for things that are 'wrong'). thanks.

Becky said...

Wow writing a character who is mute for part of the book must be a real challenge. I am very much lookign forward to reading Illegal. Hope the editing continues to go well.

kathryn evans said...

This is so true - I know with every book I write I get better at it but I long for an editor to work with - perhaps more than the validation of a book deal! When you see great editorial partnerships at work it's an absolute joy - and when they fail, when the balance is all wrong - perhaps a high profile author who no one will challenge - I think it shows. I love the Branford Boase for applauding this critical process and BOTH parties involved :o)

Miriam Halahmy said...

Jo - glad you liked the article.
Yes Becky, writing mutism was an amazing challenge and a great character to work with. My writing is very much character-led.
Kathy - Once you are on board with an editor I would think you will be a delight to work with!