The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.
While editing is not a particularly inspirational topic, it is no doubt a useful one. It is also a topic that is on my mind as I recently completed a first draft of my novel and am about to embark on the long process of editing.
Lots of people despise editing, some fear it, others enjoy it. I belong to the ‘enjoy it’ camp. Editing is part of the creative process but there is less uncertainty involved. It’s safer because the outcomes are already known, though inevitably with the safety comes a reduction in the magical process that unfolds in the first draft as we find our story. The roller coaster ride of the first draft becomes a merry-go-round in the second draft and I find this a welcome chance to catch my breath after all the excitement.
When I am writing a first draft, I politely ask my Editing Self to leave the room because it inhibits the writing process by undermining my confidence and forcing me to stop and start as I check for imperfections. My Editing Self requires me to question too early the value of a scene rather than trust that it is there for a reason. And it insists that I get caught up in the intricacies of vocabulary and sentence structure instead of concentrating on the broader sweep of theme and story and character. For me the writing process is predominantly intuitive and I follow my nose, allowing one scene to dictate the next, one character’s actions and reactions to lead the plot and a theme to emerge and then weave its way through the story I discover along the way.
When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.
Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Many people simply equate editing with tidying up grammar and spelling in a manuscript but there is a great deal more to it than that. Line editing should come at a later stage once the bigger issues are dealt with, because if we get lost in the detail we fail to see the larger problems in our stories: the gaping holes in our plot, the underdeveloped characters, even the rhythm and flow of the pace. When we embark on a second draft we invite The Editing Self back into the room as it is a vital part of this next stage and works with the Writing Self to further develop the manuscript. At this point, while we work scene by scene, layering and enriching, we are also taking our awareness to the big picture. This is an intense and exhausting process as we try to hold the entire manuscript in our head, following the many disparate threads introduced in the first draft, developing some, cutting others, adding foreshadowing, backshadowing, ensuring our characters are well motivated and convincing, our plot plausible.
When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.
I agree that it’s important to cut our stories back, keeping only what is useful, but I generally do most of this cutting at a later stage – perhaps draft six or seven. The earlier drafts are more about colouring in the lines I drew in the first draft, deepening the themes and ensuring the entire manuscript holds together, while in later drafts I zoom back in to the detail, looking at the rhythm and flow of the language, repetition, over explanation and continuity, sometimes tidying sentences, sometimes cutting entire scenes that I no longer deem necessary.
Editing is a long process and one we are often reluctant to engage with in the midst of our euphoria over finishing a first draft. But it is a worthwhile process that shows respect for the art and the craft of writing, as well as for ourselves and our readers. The development of new technology, a surge in creative output and a frustration with the exclusivity of publishers has made it easier and more attractive for authors to choose to self-publish. I love seeing writers take control of their books in this way but the down side is that many books are being published before they are ready. Few writers are capable of editing their work up to a publishable standard. Most of us (myself included) will need a professional eye at least once in the process.
Those of us lucky enough to have a publisher waiting impatiently to receive our next manuscript will be able to go through the editing process with a professional editor; first structural editing, then copy editing and finally completing a proof read. But this is for the privileged few and most writers are on their own in this regard. With each new writing project our skills develop, as does our understanding of what is required to fulfill the potential of that project. It’s rewarding to go back to our manuscript and clearly see both its strengths and its flaws, knowing we have the tools and the skills to further develop its strengths and fix its flaws. However, there is always a moment when I believe my manuscript has reached its potential; a very dangerous moment indeed, because inevitably it has not. From experience I’ve learned that this is the moment when I should seek outside help from a structural editor, in order to gain the distance I need to see what more needs doing.
When people tall you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
Inevitably I don’t agree with or act on everything the editor says but I have reached a point where I can distinguish constructive feedback from personal reaction, as well as understand the subtext within the suggestion, and in so doing I am generally able to discover my own creative solutions to problems others identify within my manuscripts. It is only when I have acted on the advice of a professional editor that I feel ready to send the novel to my agent. Of course it’s not perfect, no manuscript ever is, but there does come a time when we must let it go despite its imperfections. We can and should strive for perfection in order to ensure that our manuscripts fulfill their potential but we should not expect to achieve it. As Neil Gaimon writes, ‘perfection is like chasing the horizon.’ Perhaps we should be grateful that perfection is so elusive for if we did attain it would we ever write again?
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