Editing, and the Importance of Coffee

I am a smart person.

This is not bragging; it’s just genetics. I don’t think brains guarantee you much in this life – certainly not success, or love, or prosperity (or talent, for that matter). They’re just another tool to apply to the world, and it’s just as easy to let them sit and gather dust than to use them.

I say this, because my brain is sometimes painfully literal, and people who think of me as bright are sometimes shocked at the degree to which I can be dense and inflexible. I am shocked myself, once the big, obvious light dawns.

Here’s the big, obvious light du jour:

Editing involves actual writing.

Yes, I know. Who knew? But after seven chapters and a prologue, it has finally dawned on me that editing, in many cases, actually means rewriting. This is possibly not true for everyone, but it’s true for me.

It’s not rewriting from scratch, of course – at least, it’s not rewriting everything from scratch. Chapter 7, I am discovering, has a structure and pacing I’m pretty pleased with. It’s a slow-down-and-breathe-a-little chapter, and I think it works reasonably well that way.

But huge chunks of it, it turns out, were little more than outlines of what I wanted to say. I would have written this one about 10 days into NaNoWriMo, and I was becoming conscious of the fact that if I didn’t get moving I wouldn’t get the whole story down by November 30. So I sketched in thoughts and visuals, and got the important dialogue down, and made sure I had a good transition at the end of the chapter: my heroine finishes a cup of coffee before embarking on a dreaded but necessary errand.

Editing this chapter has been like turning a handful of bullet points into an essay. Most of the pieces were there (although I had to sow a few extra seeds of discontent I hadn’t put in initially), but they weren’t actually written yet. And here I thought I had a finished draft.

I do understand why NaNoWriMo tells you not to use the month to work on an existing piece. Editing, despite the prevalence of rewriting, is not the same thing as generating that first pencil sketch of a story. Editing is like oil painting: layer one color, let it sit a few days, add another, see if it fits. First drafts are about getting the ideas down. Editing is about time, focus, and attention to detail. Editing is about actually telling the story.

After seven chapters, I have established a routine, of sorts, for my editing. It goes something like this:

  1. Read the chapter aloud, and correct any grammatical or structural errors as I go. It’s critical for me that I read aloud; it forces me to read every word, and it makes awkward passages far more obvious. It’s also a great way for me to make sure my dialogue is realistic.
  2. Fill in missing or incomplete scenes. Here I try to shift back into NaNoWriMo mode, and silence my inner editor. What’s important is that I do this for the entire chapter in one shot, rather than rewriting the same paragraph over and over and never moving on.
  3. Go to step 1, and repeat the cycle as necessary.

I have come to see editing like combing my daughter’s hair. I have to attack it carefully, gently, and a little at a time. If I rush, I just force the snags further down, where they are bigger and harder to yank out.

It’s daunting, to be honest. When I read through the whole manuscript, the first 9-10 chapters are the cleanest, and here I am gritting my teeth over Chapter 7. It’s only going to get worse, although I’m hoping practice will help.

Regardless of all the work I’ve had to put in to Chapter 7, though, it has felt easier than editing Chapter 1 (which was a far more finished product). So while I am recognizing, perhaps for the first time, how much work I have ahead of me, I am becoming more hopeful that I will actually manage to get through it.

Not that there aren’t setbacks. I was feeling pretty good last night after my latest comb-through: I’d filled in some visuals and fleshed out some thoughts. I’d tightened the dialogue and hinted – very gently – at a few events coming down the road. It was not perfect, but it was close to the point where I could put it aside and move on to Chapter 8.

And then I realized: Nobody had given my heroine any coffee. All of this setup, all these conversations, and nowhere has she actually acquired that cup of coffee she is finishing at the end.

Stupid, stupid brain.


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