We all know that editing is necessary and while it’s highly unlikely that it will ever be completely pain free, over the last few weeks I couldn’t help but notice how much fun I'm having editing my novel. It made me want to look back over what I was doing that was turning an otherwise dreary task into the part of my day I looked forward to most. Here’s what I found:
I took the anxiety out of the process.
It’s inevitable. Some things are going to need to be cut. Saving the portions of writing that you cut in another document or renaming the document lets you preserve the previous draft and gives you a lot of freedom to experiment. Scared to cut something? You don’t have to be. It’s still safe. So chop away. It gets really fun to watch thing disappear and not have to agonize over letting it go. Plus you can always use it later in different ways if you really want to. Deleted scenes become bonus features on DVDs for a reason and deleted sentences might actually just work better in another part of the book or in a companion story. Branch out! Or replace lost text with something mind-blowing that ratchets up the tension and conflict.
I learned things that I can use to make my other stories better.
A few weeks ago, I hired an editor to look at the second draft of my story. (I wrote the first draft in August. At that time, I was doing a quick edit of the previous day’s work before continuing. I finished it in mid-September and put it away until mid-December when I edited it again. In between there were two beta readers). The editor had provided me with five pages of sample editing so I could get a sense of their process and decide whether or not I wanted to work with them. This experience was awesome for me because those sample pages helped me to see that there were a lot of little things, tiny rules of writing that I was not applying consistently. One of them was around the proper formatting of dialogue. It amazed me how even the correct application of dialogue tags can make the story stronger. Everything I learned can be applied to my new or existing writing, so that the editing process is a tiny bit easier when it begins.
The darlings died. It hurt. Just not as much as I thought it would.
My editor also highlighted areas where things weren’t working. For example, they pointed out parts where the story was lagging or where I was starting scenes in a similar way (I had three scenes that began with my character waking up). People who loved me would read these parts and probably not mind at all. An objective and astute reader would not be so patient. Now, I read the first draft (the all story, as Stephen King puts it) and these lulls didn’t jump out at me. But I’m not an objective reader. I do want to tell a great story though. So if a reader is tempted to put the book down or gloss over parts, it’s a sign to me that I have work to do. Thinking about the manuscript from this perspective helped me to cut things and characters that weren’t vital to the story (even if I loved the way they were written) and move straight into the action and emotional impacts of the main story, which made it far more compelling. So yes, the darlings must die-it just doesn’t hurt as much when the overall book is getting better and brighter.
I was reminded to trust my instincts – at least about some things.
Some (in fact, most) of the issues my editor pointed out were things that had already occurred to me as I was editing the book myself. For reasons that I can’t recall, I chose not to address those changes at the time. Here’s an example: during my second edit I was asking myself whether a character was actually necessary. My editor asked the same question. Turns out, they weren’t. It’s a lot of work to edit out an entire character but since I’ve started doing it, the re-writing I’ve had to do has tightened the story considerably. This taught me that it’s important to pay attention to my instincts. I don’t know where our writing instincts come from but I’m going to guess that the way to keep them sharp is to write a lot and read extensively. Reading helps you get a sense of the possibilities, the tropes, the clichés and how to turn them on their heads.
In conclusion, I suppose editing has been fun because it was hugely empowering. I knew the story needed work (they always will after the first few drafts), and it’s been pure pleasure to weed out the unnecessary bits and let the story grow without interference. Before this, I wasn’t exactly sure how to do the pruning. Over the last few weeks I feel like I’m starting to get a sense of what to look for and how to edit in an effective, expedient manner.
Now, there are some drawbacks to editing being fun. The more I learned, the more I wanted to go and start editing basically everything I’d worked on in the last year. I found myself getting flustered because I wanted to edit several things all at once. That wasn’t good. I mean, it was great to have zeal but I had to force myself to focus on one project because otherwise-it’s difficult to make progress. At least it is for me.
Finally, another thing that can be a challenge is knowing when to stop editing. I haven’t experienced this personally yet but I know that other writers who are just starting out have voiced questions about when to stop editing. I’m not there yet, so I don’t think I can offer much insight. I’m on my third draft, after this there will certainly be a fourth and a fifth (I will complete approximately three revisions over the course of working with the editor I hired). I know a lot of writers who are in their sixth or seventh draft. At some point, you will have to make the call about when the story is done and ready for readers. And this may be different depending on which publishing path you choose. Some people say they know its ready when their beta readers or critique partners have nothing more to add. For others, it seems like the publishing house will give it the all clear. What’s common to both of these experiences is that at some point you will stop editing and you will move on to the next phase of the publishing process. I am so excited for that phase! In fact, it’s the final thing that makes editing fun. Knowing that once the editing is done, the book is almost ready to be shared. Really and truly.
Happy Editing Everyone!