So, here I am, sitting with my novel after a first meeting with my new editor. There are revisions to make and things to think about. I am delighted to do both. I've been exceptionally fortunate in my book editors. They do their job: spotting authorly digressions, catching phrases that shriek 'I'm a writer', plot malfunctions. I do my job: imagine a person, a situation, a world and try get everything down intact.
I've occasionally been less lucky with newspaper editors. Well, to be fair, not editors so much as sub-editors, who are rather different beasts and may, in the great internet revolution, be disappearing. Many journalists wouldn't miss them. Sub-editors are supposed to improve copy, correct solecisms, iron out silly mistakes. Ho hum. I once wrote a piece in which the age-old conundrum pitching freedom against determinism made an entry. The sub changed it to freedom and determination. I was mortified. My name was on the piece, not the sub's. I did get an apology from the real editor but never discovered whether the sub understood his mistake.
In books, editing is an art. It's the eye that sees what the author doesn't see. A good one can make your book, a bad one can ruin it. It's an arduous job, since some manuscripts need major corrections. Rather like Canute's ship, an author may, in the end, ask rather despairingly, when does it stop being mine and turn into somebody else's? But it's the author's book, of course, since the author had the idea and put in the hours. However, a good editor certainly deserves more than a mention in despatches: a good editor deserves a sustained round of applause.
My novel needs a small re-ordering. Yet even the smallest re-order has large reverberations. You have to unstitch your book, lay out the pieces, move what needs to be moved, then restitch, amending and recalibrating seams which are now out of kilter. I do it through total immersion. From the moment I take out the first stitch, I don't leave my manuscript - at least not mentally - until I've got the whole thing tacked back together.
I use two screens: one for the original text, one for the rejigged text, and I have a working copy which, were it paper, I'd attack with scissors and sellotape, much as, when I worked at Westminster, I used to attack lists of amendments to parliamentary bills. Marshalling amendments, we called it. Now I marshall my own text.
When editing, you realise your best friend is the delete button. Oh, how hideous it is, selecting words, phrases or whole paragraphs over which you've slaved so assiduously, then clicking them into oblivion. But oh, how much better the text is without them. When I tell people that before I send a manuscript to my agent I've often deleted 20,000 words, I think they think I'm either lunatic or hopeless. It's hard to explain to non-authors that quite apart from being lunatic and hopeless (I'm often guilty as charged), sometimes these words act like scaffolding: you need to write them even if you're going to get rid of them.
As I'm busy deleting, re-ordering, re-writing, I think of Victorian writers like Thackeray or George Eliot. It's enough of a pain moving chunks of text through the computer's copy and paste function. What on earth was it like when done by hand? Writing rooms must have been carpeted in novel - a whole house crackling with Middlemarch, a whole street paved with Vanity Fair. My editing is confined to my desk and despite my love/hate affair with the delete button, I've no wish to return to the days of tearing up and tossing on the fire. Editing is hell. No need to make it look like hell as well.