You must view your work with the clinical eye of a forest fire: burn down the old to make room for the new. Unless you are descended straight from the muses themselves, the first draft is going to be a ragamuffin of a creation in desperate need of some TLC. For me personally, finishing that first draft is a mixed blessing; I’m elated that I actually saw the project through to the final sentence, and I am simultaneously terrified of the mountain that is now looming before me. The editing process takes up the vast majority of my project time; to use an over-worked example: if writing were an iceberg, the first draft would be the little blip on the surface, but the editing is the hulking beast just below the water line. Suffice it to say, it’s a large investment. I have never been able to take the image I have in my head and get it down on paper perfectly the first time. I don’t think I would trust anyone who could do something like that, it just isn’t natural.
I wish I had a series of masterful tricks and rules to impart on the best practices for the editing endeavor, but alas, I do not. I stumble through the process blindly, just like everyone else. It’s really just a matter of grit and determination. I do, however, have my own personal set of guidelines that I try to follow when I reach this stage of the game. I am not a pro, but thus far they have worked out well for me. Spoiler: it involves a lot of reading and re-reading.
If I had to condense my editing theories and boil them all down into one word, it would be: distance. There is nothing more important than giving yourself space to find perspective on your project. It’s more difficult than you would think; these stories take up our lives, we pour our hearts and souls into them, we string one word after another even when we don’t think we have the energy to complete one more sentence. So to take something that is so personal and try to view it with a clinical eye can feel next to impossible some days.
What, you may ask, is the easiest way to create distance between you and your project? Well, it is no different than creating distance between you and a friend (and no, I am not telling you to have a few too many drinks and decide to have an ‘honest conversation’ with your novel about the new man in it’s life). Time- that is the answer- time creates distance, its only natural. After I finish the last sentence on my novel, I close it up, and stick it on a shelf. Then I work on something else- anything else to get my mind off of the old project and immersed in something new.
In a few weeks, when I finally feel like I am ready to start digging down into the trenches, I will take it down, dust it off and crack the cover open. The first read through is going to be the easiest part. This first round is always where I get a feel for the way my story is presenting itself to the reader. I take care of any small corrections: spelling, grammar, name usage, etc. I also make a ton of notes on scenes that need to be changed, impressions that I get and new additions that have to be worked in. Personally, my first drafts always wind up feeling a bit too ‘fluffy’ for my tastes. So this is the point where I start modifying my word choice and adding some tougher scenes to force the grit to bubble to the surface. It’s always important to pay attention to the building blocks of your story and view how it unfolds to an outsider. I want to capture the big picture before I start tearing at all of the little pieces of my work.
The second round is where the true damage will take place. In round one I am merely an ember; in round two I turn into a raging fire, burning through my work mercilessly. Do not go into this task lightly, my friends. I come ready for literary war at this point. Never charge at that first page without being fully armed with your pen, willing and able to slash through the enemy letters without batting an eye, using copious sticky notes as your shield. This is where most words will be shed, each one fighting for their right to survive through to the final production. There can be no mercy when you are a warrior of the words; everything must have a purpose, the prose must tighten their ranks like the Spartans, each character must fall into their proper role, and all plot holes must be expertly paved over. You forge your work in the fire, making it stronger because of the trials it must endure at your hands.
I’ve found that a thesaurus will be one of your best friends at this stage, test your boundaries, pay attention to the connotation of your word choices, and whenever possible, condense. You can easily give a stronger emphasis to the underlying feel of your novel simply based on your word choice. For example: saying that someone is anxious will give you a stronger feeling than saying that they are very worried, the same way that saying you cherish someone gives you a warmer feeling than that you simply like or love them. Be intentional with the words that you choose, they will become your voice.
Pay attention to your characters and make sure that they remain true to themselves throughout the work, consistency will really give your novel the polish that it needs to become a believable piece. I go so far as to test the dialog: reading their quotes out loud to get a feel for how natural my word choice and inflections are. Are these things that you can actually picture your character saying or do they need to be changed? Do they have enough conflict? Never make anything easy for them; add some drama by strategically placing a few more problems for them to overcome.
When you are all done go back and do it again, as many times as you need. Keep tearing it down and rebuilding it until you feel like it has finally matured enough to stand up on its own. It’s not an easy process, and I know my system is a bit labor intensive; I’m sure someone else out there has a much easier way to go about this. But it’s always worked for me, and editing is one of those things that I firmly believe should not be rushed.
September is the month of going back; I’m pulling out old projects, dusting them off and pushing through until they feel ready. It is one of the most difficult parts of the process, but it is also one of my favorites. I love re-reading scenes that I once wrote, getting lost in a story of my own creation for a fleeting moment and rediscovering what I once loved about these characters. It feels great to dust off the pages and make them shine. I can only hope that the second, or third, or fourth draft will finally sound like the story that I had in my mind, the one that kept me awake at night before I was able to get it all down on paper.