May 10, 2014 by jcfarnham
If you’re a writer, you edit. It’s as simple as that. Some of us however are more hardwired to doing it than others. On one side of the duality, some writers can’t stop minutely tweaking their sentences as they go. On the other side, you have to hog tie some writers and refuse them their half-hourly coffee hit until they actually do some god damn editing!
I fall somewhere in the middle… technically.
I used to edit myself far too much. To the point where I never got any work done at all. Thankfully NaNoWriMo, and the learned friends I’ve made on the occasional SF/F group, have trained me out of that habit. I can’t say I enjoy it (does anybody?), but knowing that I should have a completely finished, more or less publishable story when I’m done pushes me on.
I’ve learned a lot of things from editing my own work (and that of others actually). Here’s just a few of them:
1. On voice
If you’re the kind of person who writes a book and then throws it immediately to the wolves, stop that. Stop that this instant.
I’m a firm believer in cleaning up your own damn mess. And that includes your manuscript. Why?
Firstly, If you constantly defer to someone else to tell you whether your story is worth anything, you’re never going to develop your own style. Oh sure, if you have a good editor, you’ll have a half decent book, but it’ll read like they wrote it for you. You should always listen to your first readers, but you should be doubly careful not to start sounding like them.
Secondly, do you really think the internet is going to wait for you to become a better writer? If you throw out any old crap you’ve permanently hobbled your reputation. That’s it. No future sales for you. To an unpublished writer like myself, getting this right seems the most important thing. I’d never want to be seen as an amateur.
2. Craft, craft, craft… and then some.
Before wading knee deep into the fetid but surprisingly tasty waters of editing, it’s hard to gauge just how much work goes into a truly great book.
You think: Yeah, this is awesome. I totally had fun writing that. People will love it! And you’d be wrong. In-depth, bat-shit crazy, personal, nail-biting, hack n’ slash editing teaches you, if anything, the current state of your writing skills, and just how much better they could be.
In this case, the grass is greener. You can always improve.
You can’t imagine how much I learnt about pacing by digging through a completed manuscript.
The year is 2011, I’d just won my first NaNoWriMo. 50,000 words worth of space opera. Yay me! Only… the pacing was all over the place. I’d crammed at least two novels worth of material into one decidedly anorexic manuscript. The speed at which things happened was ridiculous. You never had a chance to get to know the characters because low and behold they’d already flown here, and done that, and saved the universe, WHOOPEE… no.
Though I’ve since shelved that novel (more on that later) that experience taught me just how important pacing can be. Never again will I ignore the speed of narrative. It’s a tool like many others, yes, but one you have to get right. Rubbish pacing turns people off quicker than … well I don’t know what your turn offs are. Sheesh!
4. The Importance of Characters
There’s more to your characters than meets the eye.
Once I got the hang of going back to manuscripts and really working on them, I began to learn the real worth of my characters. Some I loved with all my writerly heart, but they didn’t have a place in the story. Some I hated, but they turned out to be damn near vital. Hell, one or more characters have had to be flat out merged together into some sort of lovely chimera.
Once you get over wearing the rose-tinted glasses of brain-baby adoration and delve into the nitty gritty of their real meaning in your plot, you open up whole universes of questions.
Study how good characters work, study some basic psychology, study archetypes, research, research, research. The worst thing in the world is vapid characters that go nowhere, do nothing and exist for no reason. Give them something to do.
Either fix them or cut them, but first learn to realize what they actually mean to you.
5. Keeping it real
I briefly hinted at this above, but editing teaches you to keep it real. Your freshly finished manuscript may be a labour of love, of blood, of sweat and tears, of gallons of coffee and a dram or two of whiskey. It may seem like a shiny diamond, but, at the very most, its a gem-encrusted turd, or an untapped word mine.
The quicker you learn this the quicker you can get to really making something out of it. I don’t know a single professional author who made a lasting career out of blinding publishing the first thing to fall out of their brain pans. This is a business, no matter how much it feels like a hobby.
6. Cutting the muck
After enough hours of editing you gain a kind of sixth sense for mucky sentences, poor construction, and trite narrative. Often the best passages need to be cut.
Though I seriously hate the idiom which states that if you love a chapter in your manuscript you should blindly get rid of it, there is a hint of truth in there.
DON’T get rid of chapters blindly, please, please, please, but learn to let go. Not every passage is right for a manuscript, no matter how brilliant it seems at first. Likewise, lines like “it took two hours to get there” sometimes might need to be expanded upon and promoted to full chapters in their own right.
Having trouble getting your novel to, you know, novel length? Well, see if there are any chances for character and plot development you skipped out on in your rush to get through the plot. Go wild. Follow the other fork in the road and see where it leads you.
If it doesn’t work out you can always cut it.
7. The Shelved Novel Phenomenon
Until you finish drafting and attempt to edit your first full story, you’ll have a severe case of the “everything is awesome”-brand wool pulled over your eyes.
No matter how much you love that one novel what you wrote, sometimes you have to get down to brass tacks. Some novels, novellas, stories, books, or whatever, will never truly work.
However, that’s not to say you should burn them with fire.
For what it’s worth, I’m giving you permission hoard the hell out of those failed stories, my friends. I’ve lost count of how many times an idea I scribbled out over half a decade ago suddenly dropped into my brain cell, had nasty sweaty intercourse with my current train of thought and gave birth to a genuinely good, fully realised story seed.
Like I said. Don’t throw too much stuff away. You’ll almost certainly regret it.
What has editing taught you? It’s different for everyone. My lessons may not be your lessons. Hell, you may be Stephen King, in which case I just need to shut up and stop trying.
One thing that is certain is that editing teaches you what kind of a writer you really are beneath all those layers of “I think, I might, I wonder…“.
Don’t take who you are for granted. Learn. Grow. If you’ve always pantsed your writing, don’t be afraid to drop it and plan instead. We human beings are great at kidding ourselves.