On Editing

All the writers in the world are about to collectively balk at this statement, but I’m going to say it anyway:

I’ve come to really enjoy the editing process.

Let me clarify that:

Once I know what edits I’m going to make, I really enjoy the editing process.

The worst part about editing (or about starting a book, or starting anything new, really), is not having a clue what you’re doing or if/when you’re going to start feeling like you know what you’re doing. For some people, this part is thrilling. For me, it’s torture, but I was the kid throwing up on the first day of class every year up to seventh grade (maybe college) because I was so overwhelmed by the change in routine. I have a hard time with the beginning of things.

The great thing about editing (once you know the edits you need to make), is you already have material right at your fingertips. No more scratching your head to figure out how the book should end. You already know that. No more wondering who your characters are at their core – you (should) already know that too, although perhaps one of your revisions is you need to communicate it a little more effectively in your next draft. It’s all there in front of you, just waiting to be marked up with a red pen!

And the best part is, with each stroke of the delete key, you are actively improving upon your manuscript. That’s a very satisfying feeling.

I’ve developed a system for editing that helps me feel a little less overwhelmed by the process:

1) Once I’ve typed the words “The End,” (which I don’t actually do, but you know what I mean), I walk away from it. For at least two weeks. I can start on a new project or a short story just to keep my writing muscles from lapsing, but I can’t do anything with that finished draft for two weeks. I need to cleanse my palette in order to come back to it with fresh eyes.

2) I make a list of things I think might be problematic. After two weeks, you’ll think of some. Trust. I’ve learned while writing a draft to make a spreadsheet with each chapter having its own line. I keep track of word count and pages as well as major happenings in the story. This is a HUGE HELP in editing. It helps you recognize plot holes, extraneous chapters, and remembering all the little details that will need to be incorporated somewhere else if you decide to remove/change a chapter. When it’s time to start editing, I go right to this spreadsheet and add the column “Edits” and then insert where I think the problems might be and how to fix it. Now you basically have a roadmap to editing, and all you have to do is go through and do it!

3) Each new draft I do actually goes through TWO read throughs. The first is electronic. I literally open the document and start reading it, line by line, cleaning up crappy sentences and moving around backstory so I can bleed it in rather than flooding my reader with it. I also have my above referenced spreadsheet open so I can keep in mind more major edits I need to make.

4) After my computer revisions, I print it out and bind it. I wait at least one week (again, cleanse the palette and come back with fresh eyes). Then I read it with my trusty red pen. No matter how many times you electronically edit your book, you will catch so much with that red pen it’s almost embarrassing. This also helps you put yourself in your reader’s shoes–although not totally, because you know things your reader doesn’t know and it can be hard to “forget” them–because you’re actually holding the book in your hands.

5) Make the edits I red-penned in the hard copy.

So that’s how I edit. It’s intense, but having a system (even if it’s drastically different from mine) really helps! The above process doesn’t mention feedback from others, which is intentional. I always do a second draft BEFORE I send out to beta readers. Reason being, not even my worst enemy deserves to have to slog through my crappy first draft. The third draft is when I basically repeat this process but using the feedback I’ve collected from others. See here to read more about receiving critique.

On Receiving Critique with Grace

Recently I was accepting into the Womentoring Project (@WomentoringP), and I’ve been working with the lovely and generous mentor, Louise Walters (@LouiseWalters12), author of Mrs. Sinclair’s Suitcase. I was at a point where I had revised my MS many times and had gotten a lot of interest from agents based on my query and sample pages, but ultimately was rejected without much helpful feedback as to why. I was so excited that she chose me, and a little unsure what to expect. She gave me some great, honest feedback about what was working and what wasn’t, and I was super grateful…

After about a week.

Guys, it’s never easy to get critiqued on your work. It comes from your heart and soul, and showing it to others is the literary equivalent of having a baby and then asking someone if they think it’s pretty. It’s hard. It’s scary. And no matter how professional and gentle and diplomatic the response you receive, and no matter how much positive feedback is sandwiched around it, anything that varies from “It’s the most beautiful baby I’ve ever seen!” is crushing to the writer’s ego. So when I first read the feedback, my confidence went into a nosedive. Despite all the nice things she said, I only focused on the things she said needed work, and for a couple days I was completely miserable. Because 1) I knew she was right, 2) It became clear (without her saying so outright) that the beginning of my book needed a major overhaul, and 3) Because I had no clue how to do it.

So, first, even though my heart was stinging and my mind was cycling through horrific, unkind thoughts about myself and my abilities, I shot off a quick email thanking her so much for her feedback. After all, if you’ve ever beta read someone else’s work you know it’s more work than just reading pages. It’s like reading a book but without the fun of it, because you’re looking out for everything from the major things like character development, continuity, and plot points to the little things like grammar and punctuation. And if the writing style isn’t your cup of tea, this can be quite a chore. Even though I was despondent, I wanted her to know I was appreciative of the work she’d done.

Second, I got good and truly depressed. See above re: ego.

Third, after a couple days of that, I tried something new: I made myself stop thinking about it. In the state of mind I was in, I wasn’t going to be able to make any kind of good decisions about how to move forward. I kept opening the file only to tearfully close it again a few minutes later. So, I said to myself “Self, it is not for you to solve right now,” and I mentally pictured myself physically tucking it into a distant, dark fold of my brain (that I imagine also understands how a car works and all the different rules of football), and left it there. Every time I started thinking negative thoughts about it, I said “Ah ah ah. Not yet,” and pushed it back down. I set a time limit, that I could live in this state of denial for up to two weeks, while I worked on another project.

Miraculously, after one week I was sitting and watching TV, giving myself permission on a Friday afternoon to be a lazy bum, and it came to me. I suspected all along I would have to rewrite the beginning, but suddenly this idea wasn’t so daunting. Suddenly I would start here, move this chapter up, move this chapter back, cut out this chapter, add this scene instead, etc. As Louise told me in her feedback, “I know it sounds like an awful lot, but all novels are an awful lot of work and it can take a long time to get them right.” Reading through her feedback with rested eyes, I was able to hold on to more of the positive things, and the negative didn’t seem so bad. Because 1) I knew she was (still) right, 2) I had accepted the fact that the beginning needed a major overhaul, and 3) I knew exactly how to do it.

So I made a list of all the edits I had to make, chapter by chapter (lists do for me what Valium probably does for other people), and I set to work. Slowly but surely, a new draft came together. And, after much editing, I sent off a new copy to my mentor. About a week later, I got her feedback. She loved the new beginning, but mentioned a few entirely new overwhelming things that needed work. And of course my mind went immediately to “HowdoIfixthisit’stoomuchIcan’tdoitmybookiscrapI’mafraudI’mgivingup,” but this time I remembered my process. I thanked her so much for her hard work, I allowed myself to be mopey that the MS needs more work for only one day, tucked it away for another, and this time I only needed that day and a half before I started my list.

The message here is: it’s okay to be sad when you realize your MS isn’t perfect, and frustrated that there is more work ahead on something you’ve already poured so much of yourself into. You’re human. You’re a creative, you have ALL the feelings. But if you really believe in your MS (or if you did ten second before you received your critique), it’s not okay to give up on it. Give yourself a minute, dust yourself, and get back in the ring.