Writing Wednesday: How I Edit

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The first pair of Wrangler jeans was produced in 1947. They now, in 2014, make jeans in over 500 styles. They are, without a doubt, one of the cornerstones of the American denim market–they even offer a one-year warrantee with each pair of jeans. I’ve probably owned a few pairs of Wranglers in my life–not that I look at the brand on my jeans, but we probably all have, just like we’ve probably all had a cup of Folgers coffee, or eaten a bowl of Campbell’s soup.

Why do I mention this, you wonder? Well, simple. To set this up:

I pants harder than Wrangler Jeans.

You heard me.

I am a pantser from here to Ragnarok. I start a novel with no idea–aside from the basics, like ‘here’s a story about a man and a woman who’ll wind up accidentally saving the world’–no idea what’s going to happen in it. I know my characters and am excited about them, in the same way you’re always excited to meet new acquaintances. (‘Oh, so you’re a one-eyed harridan with dirt under her nails and a penchant for cold-blooded murder? How lovely to meet you. I’m Em.‘) As cheesy-cheese crappity-crap as this sounds, the story writes me and not the other way around.

I mention this because my first draft looks shittier than the toilet of a four hundred pound man subsisting on Taco Bell enchiladas. Names are misspelled. Names are changed. The goal of a chapter changes midway through the chapter. Scenes are ended, with FINISH SCENE HERE appended in yellow highlightered text at the bottom of them. Some scenes are missing entirely.

My first draft of Aurian and Jin was, I believe, about 55,000 words. The finished novel is about 95,000. What happened, you might be wondering, in the in-betweens to create that extra novella’s worth of text?

Editing. A looooot of it.

Now, I keep reading around the interwebs that editing is fun. I’m sorry, but no. It’s not. But, much like paying your bills and not doing (too many) drugs, it’s one of those not-fun things that you need to do, and that you can derive a certain amount of smug satisfaction from doing better than your friends. If you’re a pantser like me especially, you need to edit like a motherfucker. Hell, I probably spend twice as long editing as I do writing the damn thing.

I wanted to give you guys a look at my editing process for Aurian and Jin, to give you an idea of what works for me. It might not be what works for you–editing, like writing and dying, is something you have to do alone, and nobody’s going to sit you down and give you the Excel spreadsheet version of how best to do it. But here’s my method, and may it inspire you.

1) Write your first draft. Don’t stop, don’t go back and make sure this scene makes sense with the previous one. Just go with it. If you’ve got an idea, you got it for a reason. You’ve as long as you want to figure out what that reason was.
Note: I’m not advocating not editing in your first draft at all. But I will advocate doing it minimally–just little things that happen to catch your eye here, out-of-place phrasing and typos and such, Leave the big stuff for later.

2) Let it rest. I think this step is necessary. Take a month and start another story, write a few poems about sunsets, catch up on your housework, go out in the sunlight and visit your friends, who are wondering what the hell happened to you. Give that first draft time to fade into the back of your mind, and think about it as infrequently as possible. This way, when you go back to it, you will’ve stopped thinking you’re Faulkner reincarnated, and will be ready to face the surgery you’re going to have to do with some degree of steady handedness and honesty.

3) Read it again. Try to imagine you didn’t write this shit. It helps me to bring it on a trip, or to the beach, or somewhere else I would usually bring a paperback book. Try to judge your own writing objectively–what works here, and what doesn’t? What do you like, what don’t you like? Where are your characters out of character? What scenes–and trust me, there always are these scenes–define your characters?

4) While you’re thinking these things over, go back through and do a cosmetic edit. Is a character Harold on one page and Kumar on another? Fix it. Are the mountains black in one scene, reddish in the next? Fix it. The one that always gets me here is eye color–I went through three full edits before I realized my main character Aurian had grey eyes in some parts of the book and brown eyes in others. (A note: this sort of thing isn’t all on you. You’ll have beta readers later on to catch it too).

5) Now, go back and finish your unfinished scenes. Craft these scenes into a whole–you should have already laid the groundwork for this in your first draft, but here’s your chance to really buttress the leaning literary tower. Does Aurian have a lute in the first few scenes, and do you feel like this lute defines something about him–his settled nature, maybe, his unknown past, his attachment to the only sort of life he’s ever lived, even though he was meant for something greater and more foreign? Now’s the time to bring the lute into the story in a few choice other scenes, when he’s missing home, when he’s doubting the decisions he’s made. Such things are ‘visual’ cues for your reader when they aren’t too strongly handled.

6) This is about the point in Aurian and Jin where I realized there was something missing in my story. It bothered me for weeks, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Eventually, I realized–this was a story that depended almost totally on an understanding of Jin’s past, the past of a taciturn and deeply troubled ex-solider, and I was telling and not showing it the whole fucking time. How out-of-character is that? I added in about 30,000 words to the story at this point, creating a sort of second interweaving novella out of Jin’s backstory. It worked much, much better. The backstory sections are, honestly, some of the best parts in the book, and give it a little bit of the seriousness (as well as Jin’s POV) that was lacking in the first draft. Because of the backstory sections you understand Jin, who isn’t at all a talkative person, much better than you could’ve if she’d attempted to explain herself.

7) Cosmetic edit again. Honestly, I did this at least once a week. Some people bitch about ‘ohmigaaawd, don’t your eyes just kind of glaze over, though?’ No, no they don’t. And if yours do, try harder. Don’t edit like you read. Pay attention.

8) This is about the time you should give your story out to your beta readers. You’ve polished up the loose ends, taken care of the worst of the problems, groomed it for glaring typos and changing names. It’s ready to be read. My personal advice here: don’t tell them to look for anything in particular, unless it’s the cosmetic stuff. You want their raw dog reactions. You want them to read it as though this isn’t a book by their coworker/family member/friendly fellow carpooler.

You also want there to be about twenty of them. What? you say, aghast. That’s twenty people who probably won’t buy my book when it comes out!

Here’s the hard stuff, pretty Polly. These everyday people in your life probably don’t really want to read it anyway, except out of curiosity to see what Auntie Emily put to paper. They’ll buy a copy anyway because they love you and want you to feel good about your sad self-publishing self. And if you choose twenty of them–if you can muster twenty people who fall somewhat into the niche that makes up your possible market–four of them might actually do it. And these are good people. You will love them forever.

9) Edit again, looking at your beta readers’ notes. Did chapter three strike Uncle Bjornsson as a little off? Is it because there’s a real problem with it, or because, as a paraplegic stroke victim, he has a problem with your portrayal of paraplegic stroke victims? If the latter is the case, you might want to listen anyway. The man knows what he’s talking about.

Take your readers’ advice to heart. If they notice a problem, and it isn’t expressed in terms of ‘OMG I just hate Monkshood eolbxff!!’, there’s probably a problem.

10) This is the part where, if you can afford it, you should take your work to a professional. I highly recommend this: however, I also can’t afford to do it. So, this is the point where you hopefully go to a professional, and I go through about ten more times on my lonesome.

11) I tend to go through, separately, for these concerns:
* Are my characters in character?
* Is my writing stylistically consistent?
* Could I say this in a way that’s less wordy? Are my verbs strong, could
I use fewer adjectives/adverbs? (I have a problem with this, and it merits a whole separate edit. You might have similar foibles.)
* Are there any ‘false leads’ in here? Do all the guns in the first act, in other words, go off in the third? Are there perhaps too many guns? Not enough?
* Are my places well described without being overdescribed? Can I picture this place just from reading about it? Do my eyelids dip and flutter during that four page long description of the castle?
* Is there any scene–any damn scene–that does not in some way further the plot of this story, or hold within some type of conflict? Man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself, etc. Delete empty scenes.
* These characters all want something. Am I getting across whatever that is? Do they get it/ not get it?
* Does my rising action build smoothly?
* Does my climax (with resolution) resolve all the major questions asked in the story?
* Can I get away anywhere with showing more and telling less? If I showed here, instead of told, would it be a major block to the flow of action in my story?

And the last and biggest is simply:

* Does this work for me?

12) After all this, you’re about done. Turn your manuscript in, lookit your galleys. Make your last corrections. I just proofed my galleys last week, and d’you know what? I STILL found typos. I STILL changed a few things around in the first chapter.

In fact, all I have left to do is go to fucking print.

I’m not going to lie to you guys. I am happier than a pig in shit. I am HAPPY to finally be done editing. Editing, after all, isn’t fun.

Now, of course, all I have to do is start editing the second one.

But I have to say this about editing. Remember–please Jesus, remember–even if you’re self publishing, you are still publishing. This is your immortal work, a testament to your ineffable genius. So edit it like it is. Make that fucker look beautiful. Take your time. Be meticulous. Get help when you need it. I keep seeing the term ‘over-editing’ popping up around writerly internet habitats, but you know what? There’s no such thing.

I’ll talk more about editing later in this blog, because I think it needs to get talked about, and very rarely does. All writing books have a chapter on it, but it’s usually a sad and thin little chapter, as though this wasn’t where the writer spent most of their goddamn time. The truth is, a lot of work goes into editing, and work just isn’t conductive to the idea of electrifying literary inspiration.

This is because inspiration–the ‘muse’–doesn’t exist.

Editing does.

Work with what you have.

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3 thoughts on “Writing Wednesday: How I Edit

  1. LOVE THIS. I’m more of a Silvertab panther (if that’s Wrangler, don’t laugh).

    First, you write like I do. The silly book tells me what’s going on, and not the other way around. In the first draft, at least. I ride the roller coaster up until the last word, then I painfully crack my neck, walk away from the coaster, and return with a spanner and spare bolts to work on it.

    The good news is, the second time I ride it, it’s 50/50 it’ll end at a cliff, and you know how those coaster rides work: strapped in a rickety cart, a hundred feet out of the park, and sinking in a deep pool of despair.

    Not really. I enjoy the editing process. Especially after I’ve let the dough rise, and I’m eating bread instead of licking the spoon. Usually, it genuinely FEELS like I’m reading someone else’s text, because my writing style has changed, the topics I’m writing on have changed, etc.

    I’m excited for your book. If you want to do a guest blog spot on my site, you’re welcome to. I’d love to ask you a bunch of random questions for you to answer. I’ll even… I dunno. Post a link for your book on my Facebook. Why not? Might get a few bites.

    And I can’t afford 20 beta readers, so I had to buy editing services. Unfortunately. I don’t think I know 20 people, let alone find more than two willing to read my stuff. Hahaha

    And that Monkshood. eolbxff!!

    Muse exists. Heh. *insert band joke here* But there’s no such thing as an editing muse… Although you added Jin backstory, which during the editing process, could be because of muse-like inspirationings. Thought about it. Dominate.

    High fives to you, my friend!

    1. Oh, you’re safe from me laughing. My knowledge of jean brands is less than encyclopedic, and the best I can usually do is tell you if the ones I’m wearing are clean or not. Sometimes, sadly, not even that.

      I envy you folks who enjoy editing. For me it’s just a chore, the hack n’ slash through the forest that precedes the final boss battle. It uses up all your damn health potions and saps your energy. If I could write a brilliant first draft and just have that be it, I’d do it, but we all know how that would turn out.

      Any time you need a beta, I’m here for you. I need some new reads–I’ve been on a Terry Pratchett kick for the last week or so, and I do need a voice in my head that isn’t British, sensible, and fond of puns. (I’ll take two out of three, at least.) I was an English major, which means absolutely nothing regarding my skill at employing the English language, but I guess my grammar’s all right and I have a basic concept of How Plots Work.

      I’d love to do a guest post! You should do one on mine, too–maybe close to when your book is due out? I appreciate the support, mate, it means a lot.

      Oh, and. Muse might exist, but their time is running out. *cymbal*

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