Category Archives: Writing and Researching

The Joy of Editing

After months of lying dormant, this blog is about to spring back into life. That’s because I’ve just completed my second book, a sequel to The Day Parliament Burned Down. 

It’s taken about two years to complete: six months of research, about 15 months of writing (roughly one chapter per month with time off at Christmas 2014) and a final three months of editing – all in my spare time. “Three months to edit!”, friends have cried in astonishment, “surely you just need a week? What on earth were you up to all that time?”

Actually, three months is a very short time for the edit. I wish I’d had longer and it felt a real rush. I’m not joking.  Editing can often take as long as writing.  Unlike my first book which was constantly edited as it went along – and during which I wrote the ‘easiest’ chapters first, bobbing around the narrative randomly and unconstrained by a publisher’s deadline (at that point it was still a hobby) – with the second I wrote in chapter order. I was so pressed for time, and the story so huge and unwieldy (24 years instead of 24 hours), that my priority was simply to get something down on paper, no matter how rough it was. Then, driven by my writing timetable, I had to leave what I’d done to move onto the next chapter, not looking back once.  What that meant was that in June 2015 I began to edit the first chapter that I had last set eyes on in February 2014.

This is a salutary experience, and not a comfortable one, but it is recommended. I like to fiddle with words a lot, and hated leaving each chapter in a rough state. However, what it did mean was that by the time I came to do the final three months’ edit, there was plenty of distance between me and the first draft – something which every writer needs. Often you’re advised to leave the first draft in a drawer for a month, or at the least go on holiday and forget all about it so you can come back to your deathless prose with a different eye and with the red pen ready.

As it turned out, the distant chapters I’d written some 12-15 months previously were substantially rewritten or restructured during the edit.  Time had given perspective and a better sense of context. All in all, I reckon I revised the whole book four times during those hectic three months.  Here’s what editing each version meant:

THE DRAFT. This is what I had on my laptop after the fifteen months of writing. It was 5000 words over my contract limit and not fit to be seen by anyone except me.

EDIT ONE.  I went through the whole draft from start to end and a bit like someone working with a rough block of stone or wood, started to  knock quite substantial chunks off it. Bits that were boring, that were self-indulgent, that were slow, all went.  I checked some dodgy facts I had highlighted as I went along which I hadn’t had time to explore, and sorted out some queries I’d noted.  I tidied up obvious spelling and grammatical mistakes. I formatted it according to the publisher’s guidelines, changing the font to Times New Roman, doublespacing, adding in page numbers. I finalised where I wanted the inline pictures to go in the text, and added the final cues.

EDIT TWO.  I went through the whole of Edit One again. This time I spotted repetitions of facts and even a couple of complete episodes that had been duplicated.  They were excised.  I standardised my footnotes, reduced them to the bare minimum, and saved some words there too.  I had created a list of ‘Things to check and add in’ as I had written the draft  but which I used as dumping ground for things I didn’t have time to include.  Now I went back to this and decided what really needed addressing and what could be binned as too perfectionist. Crucial material was still coming to light from some recently published sources so I had to get those in without increasing the word count. Other stuff was deleted, or much reduced to make room.  Getting very attached to favourite passages can be lethal.  You have to kill them off if they are too flowery or just in the way of stuff you really need in there.  It’s a bit like strangling a favourite kitten. Self-ruthlessness was the order of the day.

EDIT THREE.  I had sent Edit One out to some trusted contacts for comment. Edit Three was where I added in their thoughts and changes. Some I had picked up myself in Edit Two. A couple of expert friends didn’t like the structure at one point. Since they both agreed on this (without knowing it) I spent some time moving chunks of the narrative around in chapters one and two which were still causing me continuity problems.  More spelling and grammatical mistakes were picked up. A few remaining factual errors were corrected.  I began to polish the text, making sure that favourite words (every writer has them – I think of them as creative crutches) were not used too often.  By the way, have you noticed yet that  I’m including the word ‘favourite’ too much in this posting? Another word I discovered too frequently in the book was ‘great’ – I was using it and so were the original sources.  I got rid of mine as much as possible to allow the sources to speak for themselves. I made sure I didn’t repeat the same favourite verbs in adjacent sentences or even paragraphs. Adjectives and adverbs were cut back viciously (always a good thing) allowing those I did use to make more impact, and regulating the emotional temperature where required.  ‘Find and Replace’ became my new best friend WORD function. And there are some words which in my opinion you can only use once in an entire book – the really unusual words, which a reader may never have come across.  The two in the book were ‘syncretic’ and ‘anserine’ (see what I mean?).

EDIT FOUR. Finally, I was nearly there. I’d polished the words until I’d gone cross-eyed (though I’m sure others will disagree). I spent some time further tightening the Prologue to make the opening as dramatic as possible and again avoiding repetition (you try finding ten verbs for bombs falling and you’ll see what I mean). I resorted to a thesaurus at one point. Finally, I finished the short epilogue which I had been leaving till last, even though the words had been forming in my head for weeks.  Then my book was ready to go to my publisher as my:

FINAL SUBMISSION. But now a whole new round of editing starts.  It will be sent by my Editor to readers for comment, then to a Copy Editor (for structural edits) and finally once typeset to a Proof-reader. Watch this space.


A (Re)Treat for Me

I had been longing to go to Retreats for You for at least a year, ever since I heard about it via Clare Mackintosh and Emma Darwin‘s blogs. For the last nine months I’ve been collecting together research materials and reading around various topics for Book No 2. Writing the latest will be a very different proposition from No 1 which was pretty much complete by the time I got an agent and a publisher, and had been gestating over eight years. Then I had no time pressures; now I do, plus less spare time on top of the day job due to all the talks and teaching I have taken on since No 1 (which I love doing, but it does eat away at writing time).

What better way then, I thought, to kick off the writing phase for No 2 which will last 18 months, than to go to a special, magical, place where (it was said) writers performed great feats of word production? So last Saturday, dodging floods and fallen trees on my way, I headed down to Devon with a crate of reference books and my new laptop ready to dig in. And when I returned on Wednesday afternoon, I was at least 7,000 words better off. I had written one and a half chapters, making me six weeks ahead of my schedule and incredibly motivated to continue. I’d also managed to wrangle four different bibliographies and lists of manuscript references into a single manageable document for the first time since I’d begun. This makes me feel marvellously in control of where I’m heading.

Photo: A writer relaxing by the fire before dinner at Retreats for You.

Retreats for You, run by Deborah Dooley with her partner Bob Cooper, does seem miraculous. Everyone will have their own experience of it, but here is what worked for me. Deb is firm that writers are ‘looked after’ while they are there. No plate-clearing, washing up or bedmaking is allowed, or anything else which ends up distracting you when at home. She whizzes round while you are eating breakfast to make sure there is nothing needing a bit of displacement tidying when you return to your room. My room was airy and comfortable with a strong wifi (which I really needed, in order to check online sources all the time). The view from my desk over the village square at Sheepwash was charming. The writing day was punctuated by yummy meals and help-yourself snacks from the tins in the kitchen. At six o’ clock a large glass of wine was brought up to my room, to fortify me in the hour before dinner.


As a result of this combination of deliciously relaxed isolation from everyday life, with a steely backbone of regular refreshments to give some structure, I ended up writing for at least four two-hour stretches each day, sometimes more. Writing isn’t compulsory though. People go to relax, think, read or paint. Deb makes it clear that it’s your time to do with as you wish, and if you want to accompany her on her bodyboarding trips to Bude (she is super-fit as well as being a great cook and a prolific journalist) then you’re more than welcome. Or you can sit by the huge inglenook fireplace reading all afternoon, as I did on Tuesday. Other writers who were there when I was went swimming, or took country walks, and it was fun catching up with them at mealtimes: finding out what they were working on, how they’d come to writing in the first place, and what their dreams for the future were. You could be as sociable or as private as you wanted. Nothing was compulsory, other than being looked after.

What a treat.



One Year On…And the Search Continues

Today is the first anniversary of publication of the book.  A lot’s happened.  Many lovely people have got in touch to say how much they enjoyed it. New accounts and relics of the fire have come to light.  The reviewers liked it.  It was book of the week/year in some papers.  And – ahem – it was nominated for various prizes and even won one.

But one thing hasn’t happened, and that’s the discovery of the body of Chance (if you don’t know who he is, you’ll have to read the book!).  The search is still on.  Let me know if you find him, and in the meantime I’m on the lookout for him day and night…

A possible contender for Chance at the National Railway Museum, York…