The mysteries of children and editing


 I must be having a bad influence on my kids.

Maybe it’s the fact that they often see me sitting at my computer, typing away, or scribbling on some manuscript page with a red pen (makes me look like an old professor of mine, I guess). Or maybe the writing bug is genetically transmitted, and both of them have somehow caught it, nestled away in some dark corner of their DNA strands. Anyway they both decided (one for a homework/competition, the other just for fun) to write a story – or in my seven-year-old’s case, a whole book (with illustrations)!

After furiously tipping and tapping on the keyboard, for several hours over a weekend, they were both ready to show me their hard word, and asked what I thought and how they could make it better.

Which made me burst with pride, and laugh while I remembered my own young self testing a typewriter for the first time before my teens, and becoming so engrossed I couldn’t be shifted away from it for an entire Easter holiday.

Anyway, now I had to help them edit their stories, in a way – and possibly use this exercise to teach them a few of the things that I’m supposed to know.

First came the young one’s book: I was not going to touch the language or correct any mistakes, which left him a little disappointed, but what he wanted was help in setting it out correctly. Which involved formatting dialogue, something I’m actually quite rubbish at, as my own proofreader had already pointed out while going through Zero Alternative.

So I stuck to the basics and I showed him when to use inverted commas for direct talking, and how to start on a new line when some other person had started speaking, or when things were being thought directly inside a character’s head. But when he asked why people sometimes used a comma before the end of a line, and sometimes a full stop, I had to revert to the old “read it loud and see where you’d like it to pause”, which left him looking decidedly unimpressed. And then he asked me when he should start a new paragraph, which sort of stumped me. How do you explain it to a seven-year-old?

I tried with “When the action pauses” and he said it never did, his story was always exciting.

So I tried “When you change setting” but he said that wasn’t enough – he wanted more paragraphs, like in my book. Which brought me to the point where I fell into explaining how sometimes you use it for emphasis or to let the reader catch his breath, or when you’ve finished explaining an idea… and obviously he got bored, picked up his football and started running around the house. He had a point – my explanation was jumbled, because it’s actually harder than it seems. You just feel when it’s right, most of the time, and I’m sure he’ll come to the same conclusion.

And he’s stopped doing it in the middle of a sentence, (for purely aesthetical reasons) which is a good result!

Then along came my twelve-year-old daughter, and that was harder. She’s already a skilful writer, with a great vocabulary and a knack for sharp description and a very slim style. But her story was a little confused, with too many characters and a slippery point-of-view. Which meant I had to think about how to explain what didn’t quite work and how she could fix it – and the difference between the omniscient narrator and strict third person. Because she would start with one then shift to the other, which often meant it wasn’t clear whose head we were in for a while.

She’s already learnt the trick of starting a scene late, and leaving it early, but when she asked why she should use one type of narrator or another it forced me to think. They both work, in reality, and while I use the strict third person, which has become almost de rigueur, I realised that there was no definite reason. It’s more a question of contemporary taste, and of what we’ve been reading, but a lot of the classics use the omniscient. In fact, it would be interesting to see some more new books written in that style – no reason why it shouldn’t work, if used skilfully.

To which she replied that she hates old-fashioned books and cleaned up her manuscript in strict third person. Fair enough.

But all in all it was wonderful, and interesting, and it made me realise again how hard it must be to edit a book properly.

Keep your editors well, and feed them regularly – they have a hard job, and one which will make your story better!


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