Monday, July 24, 2006

Editing—A love affair

How’s this for consistent? The second week of our blog and we’re already switching spots. You’d think we were drunk.

(Boring truth is that Molly’s out of town for a long weekend, and I’m off to Atlanta on Tues, so switching days made sense.) For those of you keeping score... Molly will be back with a fresh post on Wed.

This week, editing’s been on Molly’s mind (I’ll let her tell you why), so we thought it’d make a fine blog topic—one big enough to revisit at some point, I’m sure.

Not having had the privilege of working with an actual editor yet, self-editing is all I can comment on.

First, let me say, contrary to some (most?) writers, I LOVE editing. While there’s nothing better than those magic moments when fingers are flying and words are hitting the page and turning into characters and eventually a story, my first-drafting-fun is tempered by that terrifying, uncomfortable thing called the blank page. Also by a ferocious beast called self-doubt. Yes, I can work through those things and get books written, but I’m much more at ease once I’m working with something I know works on some level—or I can make work.

Pulling apart a manuscript and putting it back together is hard often frustrating work, but most days it’s like doing a puzzle to me. Actually, more like debugging a computer program. Not that I’m a computer programmer, but I have done some programming. (Actually, I was the focus of an article in Business Week, some time in the early 1990’s, called “Programming Without Tears”. Article was about not-formally-trained-in-computer-science business people, who programmed for a living. But I seriously digress.)

Editing to get the story right is like debugging, because you have to come up with a hypothesis of why it’s not working, formulate a solution, execute your plan and then test it again (read it) to see if the problem’s fixed. You can also make changes for purely esthetic reasons—to make it look better, easier to use, more elegant in its design. And once things are running smoothly, it’s like detective work to find those well-hidden bugs that might only trip power users, I mean careful readers.

I admit manuscripts don’t crash, so it’s harder to deduce there’s a problem in the first place, but the more experience I have under my belt, the more I know when my own stuff isn’t working. When I don’t know? Well, that’s another reason I love Molly and Sinead. They’ll tell me. Especially when they’re drunk.

In the editing stage, I’ve deleted characters, added characters, split a single character into two, changed the identity of the antagonist, added major plot twists and changed the book’s structure. In one manuscript, I didn’t even know a pivotal secondary character was gay until I was revising his part of the book. And this was for a book I’d plotted in advance. I've done more detailed plotting on my current work in progress, than I've done in the past. I expect (but not with certainty) that this will mean fewer huge revisions, but I’m glad to have discovered I'm capable of a major overhaul. That knowledge will, I hope, take the fear out of facing a real editor someday--soon, I hope.

Beyond editing for story, I’ve also come to realize that editing is where a lot of my voice goes into my work. I know this goes against what many writers think. It goes against what I thought at first, too and I do believe you can edit the voice out of your work. Still, I'm the opposite. I find that when I’m in first-draft-mode, except on those rare "magic days", everything comes out either too wordy or too flat and I need to invoke my secret super-power identity, Anal-Wordsmith-Girl, to mold it into something interesting (I hope) to read.

The books, Make Your Words Work, by Gary Provost, and Self-Editing For Fiction Writers by Browne and King were pivotal in helping me discover this facet of my “process”. I knew early on (had a good teacher) that it was best to avoid really’s and usually’s and very’s, but like many writers—particularly of chick lit, I think—I thought those extra words were what created my voice and the voice of my characters. It was kinda thrilling to realize they weren’t. That by trimming my words to the bare essentials, by working with sentence structure and strong verbs and rhythm and beats, I could create a voice all my own—without those extra words.

But every writer is different, which is why talking about this stuff over drinks is such darn fun.

I’m ready for a drink. Order me a Smithwicks.


Marcail said...

This is an upbeat and encouraging blog for those who dread revisions. I have the bad habit of revising as I go and taking forever to finish the first draft. So much time, that I often lose interest and definitely momentum.

Maureen McGowan said...

There's no one way, Marcail. I know lots of successful authors who revise as they go. You need to discover what works best for you. Me? I found it could be paralyzing.

Sara Hantz said...

I revise as I go - having a detialed plan to work from. So, no huge changes. I find what you do, Maureen, really scary, lol.

Margaret Moore said...

Frankly, I don't have the patience for a long outline, and even when I try, my characters take off and do more interesting things. Who am I to argue?

And about voice: I want my book to sound as if I just sat down and started telling a story without interruption. That only comes with later drafts, when I can work on larger "chunks" at a time. The first ones are too choppy and the voice can vary, depending on what I was thinking/feeling at the time. What I'm trying to say is, my voice becomes more consistent with the later drafts. (And I would have said that better if I'd revised this a couple more times...)

Alli said...

Maureen, thanks for a great post! LOVED it - and I totally get where you're coming from. I write by the seat of my pants and find if I stop to edit my work as I go I lose the rhythm. My favourite part by far is editing - I find by the time I get to editing draft II+ I know my characters much better and can add little nuances I missed in the first draft as I was too busy getting the story down. Plus I love jigsaw puzzles. :-)

Molly O'Keefe said...

Nice one - Maureen. That's a really interesting revelation that you actually edit your voice into your work. But I also think (FOR THE MSOT PART) you know when to say when. I for one get to that perfect fine line of voice and then tip right over it and edit it all out.

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