Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Editing yourself, Part One

Barbara here. It's Wednesday morning, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, the grass is nearing the six inch mark, and the weeds are happily choking out every semblance of a real flower in my gardens. And I've got a book to work on. So I hope this is going to be a short post.

As usual, my Type M blogmates have provided the inspiration for today's thoughts, which are along the lines of NOW THAT I'VE WRITTEN THE SUCKER, HOW DO I MAKE MY BOOK BETTER?  From Vicki's tale about the man who accosted her at a book signing with his self-published book under his arm to Aline's story about the joys of rejection letters to John's listing of Chandler's ten commandments for the detective novel and Marco's experience on the editorial side of the table, these posts all address the hard work involved in transforming an incoherent, soggy first draft into the best book it can be.

Some authors, especially those at the beginning of their (often short) careers, think that first draft is the best it can be. Others, often mid-career authors, fiddle and tweak endlessly with the twenty-ninth draft, always finding one more thing they can improve. I know many authors, myself included, who edit their already published novels on the fly during public readings. Oh damn, that's a useless word, or That doesn't make sense like that! Most of the time, a book can be made even better with a little more tightening, a little more enrichment, a little more focus ...

It's a long road from the first draft to the final brilliant product, there is no roadmap, and there is no triumphant THE END sign at your destination. Usually it's a deadline. At the moment I am standing at the beginning of that journey, staring out across the field, and contemplating the long slog ahead. Being a pantser, I have written this novel without a clear plan or outline, exploring where it would go next and wondering whether it would ever come together to a proper end. Now it has, sort of, but I have about 90,000 words of plot holes, missing, inconsistent or irrelevant characters, characters who have morphed from good guy to bad guy, ragged timelines (Wait, it is still Tuesday? or my favourite OMG, it's Sunday, they won't be open/working.), and settings that are missing in action for entire scenes.

The first task is to fix all that, the best I can, by myself. Before another soul sees it. Critiquing groups, beta readers, editors, and agents can't see this mess; they wouldn't be able to see the gem at the centre of it all, let alone polish it to perfection, until I have done the best I can to fix it up. How, I ask? In this week's blog I will talk about this initial macro-self-editing process, and in my next post two weeks from now, I will talk about finer editing, "on screen" vs. "hard copy" editing, and the value of fresh eyes in the form of other readers.

Each writer has their own technique for rewrites, each with its merits, so I will just describe mine. I am from the pre-computer era, so much of my process is old-fashioned. I write my first draft longhand, producing a scribbled, scratched out jumble full of arrows and "insert here" notes all around the edges of the pages. When I can't remember where I was or have reached a stalemate in the story, I transcribe this material onto the computer in Word. I know there are writing software programs out there, but it took me long enough to figure out Word after being forced to relinquish the much more writer-friendly but now defunct WordPerfect, and I think all the whistles and prompts and sidebars of fancier software programs would crowd my brain. I don't like structure or rules; I just want to free-flow.

It's during this transcription process that the first rewrites occur. I add, subtract, enrich, and clarify the text on the fly. Plus, I open an additional Word file called "Notes on ..." and if the fix is too complicated or I can't think how to fix it, I note my ideas in this file, along with other plot or character ideas that I think of as I go along. In this fashion I chug through the first draft, forging ahead in longhand and then transcribing it and adding notes to my burgeoning file, so that by the time I reach the end of the book, the computer version is not too far behind and I have pages of notes waiting for me to address in future rewrites.

Once I reach the end, I finally know what the story is about, who did the crime(s) and how the story is resolved. So a lot of the huge plot holes and character problems are self-evident. Some of my concerns and potential solutions in my "Notes on ..." file are now irrelevant, but I read through them all, pick out the gems, refine them, and brainstorm new ideas on how to fix the book. The whole of the book needs to be in my head, along with the potential solutions, so that I can juggle and adjust it as a whole. One cannot do this initial macro-editing piecemeal; the book has to be worked on as a whole. This is a huge brain exercise that I'm hoping will go some ways to staving off Alzheimers. Plots and subplots and characters oh my!

Once I have this pile of notes, I start to read the novel on screen, incorporating as many of these adjustments, insertions and deletions as I can, as well as fixing the obvious typos and minor inconsistencies that jump out. Often at this point, to help my poor brain out, I write an outline with a word or two describing each scene, to help me see the flow. This often leads to further adjustments as the plot holes and problems leap out at me.

Once I have done this initial massaging to fix the major plot holes and character problems, I print the whole thing and begin a more intensive rewrite on hard copy. I'm still looking at the overall picture, adjusting characters and pacing, elaborating and clarifying, but the smaller details often jump out as I go along. I may go through several print versions as they become too messy to focus on.

At a certain point in these reprints, I will tackle the timeline, to ensure consistencies in time of day and day of week, setting, weather, etc. I will label the beginning of each scene with those details, and fix whatever problems I uncover. Sometimes this leads to interesting new twists, for example if I discover one day is forty hours long, so the action has to be split into two days, or has to take place in the dark, etc.

Besides plot holes and problems in character and timeline, tying up loose ends is another crucial part of the rewrites. I keep a special little note in my file of the things that need to be resolved or explained in the denouement. As much as possible, I try to integrate these into the story as it unfolds, so I don't end up with thirty pages of explanation at the end of the book.

In reality, there is no clear line between macro and micro-editing, but the key thing is to fix the bigger problems before working on the finer details. In my next blog, I will tackle the latter, and also the uses and abuses of beta readers. Meanwhile, I'd like to hear from other writers. what is your process, and do you have a writing or editing software program that really helps?


Patricia Filteau said...

Thanks for tackling the editing process Barbara. My first book went through nine drafts before it went to the editor where it had two more rounds. Would I rewrite the entire thing again today? Absolutely! It had a deadline and it was time to move on. Book 2 is going into draft six and I know it will be a whole lot better – because we grow as writers. Unless a writer is blessed with the luxury of mentorship through MFA or PHd creative writing programs many of us learn as we go. Self editing, beta readers, every course – online and live, seminar, the invaluable input from fellow writers, reading, reading, reading, walking with your book, talking with your book and setting your book aside all contributes to the editing process. Ultimately the book must go to an editor – depending on the genre – sometimes more than one type of editor. The relationship that develops with a writer's editor can be the most valuable input to the process. It becomes rather intimate as the explorations of thoughts, ideas, concepts, considerations are exposed to' the good, the bad, the ugly' and yes to the exquisite and sublime as well. – Sometimes very hard decisions have to be taken – time is a best friend and worst enemy – when producing a book that is the best an author can accomplish at that time. ... and don't forget to edit the cover layout and content. It is often overlooked – with egregious consequences.

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