Sunday, November 28, 2010

My editing process

I am knee deep in my third revision of my first novel. I just finished editing the fourth chapter of the book for the second time and I'm about to start on the fifth. There are fifteen chapters in total, but the last few chapters are much shorter than the first, so I'm about one fourth to one third done with the third draft. I figure I am going to need to do a fourth draft and perhaps also a fifth draft, but it's getting more enjoyable to work with the manuscript after every pass, so I'm not particularly upset about that.

I actually enjoy editing quite a bit more than I expected to. Right after I finished the first draft, I felt a little dismayed as I looked forward towards all the work I still had to do to "finish the book". However, I've found that I enjoy editing and rewriting much more than I enjoyed writing the first draft of the novel, which was frequently grueling work and not amusing at all.

My strategy for writing the first draft was as follows: just keep writing as much as possible every day. It's all crap, but don't worry about that right now. Even when you don't think you have any ideas, just keep writing. Even when a scene seems impossible to write, just keep writing.

This worked quite well in that it allowed me to finish the first draft (which was about 120k words) in about three and a half months. Of course, much of what I wrote on that first pass really was total crap and has been completely reworked multiple times, but that's not the point. I couldn't have made it better as I went; I didn't have enough perspective. I had to finish the entire thing and then come back to each detail later.

My strategy for editing is a good deal more structured. Many of these ideas were inspired by Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, which gave me a sense of direction where I would have otherwise felt out of my depth.

While working on the second draft, I read each word of the book aloud and reworked awkward sentences and passages, making the syntax sound more natural and improving my word choice. I also deleted about 5k worth of completely extraneous verbiage. Excess adverbs and re-re-stated sentences represented a lot of what got the axe.

Now, while working on the third draft, I have printed out each chapter of the second draft and am working through them one by one using the following techniques.

First, I read through the entire chapter and analyze in broad terms what works for me and what doesn't. Having a hard copy of the chapter in front of me helps me to let go of detail-oriented issues and to analyze big picture stuff instead. During this phase I'm looking at scenes and groups of paragraphs, not individual lines.

I'm able to pick up on a lot of critical issues using this strategy. For example, when I read Chapter One in hard copy, I realized that my main character's emotional reactions didn't feel authentic given the heinous things that were happening in her life. This problem was so deeply rooted in the narrative that changing things line by line would have been ineffective. I'd written almost all of it back before I had any real understanding of the type of book I wanted to write, and I hadn't been able to improve it much with the second draft.

Once I've read through the chapter, I might decide to completely delete some scenes and start from scratch; others might get heavily edited, and others still might get by with only a few adjustments. I rewrite new scenes in a notebook rather than on the computer for reasons I'll get to in a second. For the edited scenes, I simply make notations on the hard copy. Once I'm done, I reread everything I've rewritten or marked up from start to finish. If some parts are still awkward or don't ring true, I work on them some more.

After the chapter reaches what I feel is an acceptable level of not sucking, I type all of it up in a new document. This takes a long time, but it forces me to evaluate every single thing I'm putting in the new version of the chapter-- if I feel like I can't be bothered to type something up, it must not be so great. On the other hand, I know passages are good when I can stay interested while I'm typing them up, even though I've previously written and read and rewritten and reread them over and over again. Using this technique I've also caught some spelling errors that spell check couldn't-- things like "break" and "brake" getting confused-- and I've picked up on sentences with unclear subjects or objects.

I've already learned a lot about editing in the past few months. For example, if I were to do this all again, knowing what I know now, I'd use my third draft strategy for my second draft and vice versa. Knowing that some scenes will need to get rewritten from scratch, I think it would be a great deal more efficient to work on big picture issues first before I go through the effort of reading everything aloud to work on tiny details.

I've started to figure out how to use syntax and sentence order to convey meaning and create clarity. I'm not a particularly poetic writer, so my ultimate goal is to make my words as transparent as possible, clear windows through which the reader can easily comprehend my meaning.

I've also started to cultivate my inner sense of what sounds authentic and what doesn't, what 'works' and what falls flat. It's entirely intuitive. When I read certain passages-- the good ones-- I feel a peculiar emotion I can't completely describe. It's something like satisfaction, but it's tinged with nervousness and physical unease-- let's call it wordlust. Mostly I feel this when I read other people's work, but I'm starting to feel it with my own writing.
Honestly, even if I never get published, the wordlust makes the entire experience worthwhile.

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