Monday 12 July 2010

Waging War on the Editing Demon

Back in November 2008, I finished writing my first novel. I already had two unfinished novels to my name, but I have to give some credit to NaNoWriMo for impelling me to actually get to 'The End' - without the daily 'deadlines' required to make the minimum 50,000 words by the beginning of December, I doubt I would have been able to maintain the impetus to get the story of Fowlis Westerby out of my head and onto the page.

The intervening time has seen me flirting with short stories, flash fiction and now a web serial, as I procrastinate like hell so I can avoid the dreaded 'rewrite' process. All of the writing manuals advise you to leave a manuscript to 'breathe' before you return to it, so as to develop some kind of distance from your own work and revise with a more objective eye, though I think eighteen months might be pushing it! Eisley Jacobs kindly wrote a guest post about her own editing process back in March but today I'm going to discuss my own process, and how it relates to my first novel.

Step one is easy - it involves printing out a hard copy of the whole manuscript. For the environmentally conscious among you, I did this using single spacing, a size 10 font and printing on both sides. (Helvetica was designed to be readable as small as 6pt, simply so that the writing in the New York phone book could be small enough to read, and thus stop the book being about a foot thick). I simply read through the manuscript, making comments and notes as I go. So far, it looks like I've scrawled 'expand' across most of it - NaNoWriMo is great for motivating you to get the words out, but in a lot of cases that's all I was doing; a general brain dump of ideas. Many scenes require expansion, or explanation. Even during this initial step, no matter how much I am tempted, I do no actual rewriting - not until I've read the original manuscript in full.

It is very tempting to rewrite as you go, but you can only get a 'bird's eye view' of the story as a whole when you read it 'as is'. You may fix what you think is a problem in the opening chapters only to discover you've created another one later on - by re-reading the whole thing, you may realise that what you think is a problem on page 10 is actually necessary for the events of page 98 to make sense.

This is the point at which I now find myself, with a hard copy covered in multi-coloured notes, comments and even doodles. The next step is go back through the work and actually do an initial rewrite to incorporate the comments I've made, including those dreaded expansions. I'm expecting the word count to shoot up, although the addition of new material will probably end up simply balancing out the elimination of the frequent adverbs I've found (I try hard not to use adverbs in my fiction these days, but apparently I still thought they were a good idea in 2008).

The thing that strikes me the most is that although there are passages that make me cringe, or sections where I can tell what I was getting at but now find the writing clunky or uninspired, I still enjoy what I've written. It's clear the point at which I really got into the story as the flow improves about a third of the way in, and the number of comments drastically reduces. I've even re-read these sections twice, to make sure I'm not just skipping the 'bad' parts in my desire to get it out of the way.

The writing is quite clearly 'mine', even though it has obviously both improved and matured in the course of almost two years. This does raise the question of whether or not my writing will change again by the time I've rewritten this draft! Could I get stuck in a cycle of always rewriting a draft, only to put it away, and come back to it to rewrite it again? This raises my final question, that I throw open to all writers (or even editors)...

Would it be possible to endlessly revisit the same manuscript and never declare it 'finished'? Furthermore, how many existing books could have been improved by just one more editing pass?


Anonymous said...

Is there a danger of "over-editing" a manuscript?
I've never written a novel (I think the idea scares me stoopid - all that planning and writing and brain cell destruction), but even for short pieces, the editing process seems a little daunting, trying to objectively improve your own work. I think even with time and space to breathe, it must be hard to see where and how to improve a manuscript.
When I have written my first draft novel, I'll let you know how the editing goes.
The "bird's eye view" technique is a good concept. I'm going to use that for editing a couple of flash pieces.

Benjamin Solah said...

I have wondered about this myself. I haven't really done much in terms of editing longer work but can already get this feeling into my second rewrite of a novella I'm working on.

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