“To write is human, to edit is divine.” – Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
This month I had the honor of critiquing someone’s novel. I read carefully and with gusto. I read for pace and plot and character. I read to find holes and places where it lagged. The author had done a lot of work so my job was easy. This isn’t always the case.
What do you look for when you read another writer’s work? Even if I know the person well, I try to distance myself and forget what I know about her. I tell the truth and don’t sugar coat my responses. But it’s helpful to be kind. If something’s not working, I just point that out. And, I don’t necessarily try to fix it. People who have read my work often make suggestions as to how to fix a problem. They want to help. More often than not, however, the thing they suggest is flat out wrong. It won’t work for the story or it won’t work for me as the author. I listen and note that there is something wrong in that place or near that place, but I try to find my own fix.
So how can you be more helpful to people who want you to read their work? I always find out how far along they are in the book. Is this a first draft? Is this their thirtieth draft? How long have they been working on the book? Is this the first year or the fifteenth? This makes a difference both in what I look for and how I handle the comments. I am unlikely to agree to read a first draft unless someone is just so stuck they need help figuring out if they have a book at all. And in that case, I read with such a gentle touch that most of my comments will be about what is working. I will apply lots of praise and, instead of criticism, ask questions. “What did you mean by this?” or “What are you trying to say?”
No matter what stage a writer is at, I always ask what they want. Do they want a line edit, fixing all the punctuation, or do they just want an overview of the big picture. I have a hard time not marking spelling mistakes, but I’ll do my best to focus on the big picture if that’s what they want. If a person is in later drafts, I’ll dig deeper. By later drafts, the author has gone deeper into the work and really needs a heads up about what a reader thinks. Hopefully by then they have also developed a spine around the book. I won’t be mean, of course. That helps no one. But I’ll really focus on the honest truth.
It’s so touchy. We writers have such fragile egos. We want help, but we mostly want you to tell us our words are lovely and that we should go have a cookie then send our work to anyone who publishes. It’s hard not to take any feedback, positive or negative, personally. This is our work. Our baby. But we need to learn that feedback is not personal. It’s about the work. That’s a good rule. Take nothing personally. If only I could make that stick.
“If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.” ― Yogi Berra
National Novel Writing Month 2014 has come and gone and I’m happy. The ginormous manuscript about running my first marathon which was 114,400 words on October 31, 2014 now stands at 83,228 words approximately the length of many published memoirs. The secret? A quantifiable goal.
You’ve heard me talk about National Novel Writing Month again and again. Why does it work for me? There are many reasons, but this month it was the ability to turn something that seemed like an overwhelming challenge into bite size pieces I could work on every day.
I made two complete passes through the document. During the first half of the month and the first read-through in November I found words, sentences, paragraphs, and whole scenes that didn’t belong. I removed approximately 1667 words per day. During the second half of the month and the second pass I gave myself credit for the amount of time I spent clarifying unclear passages, remedying inconsistencies, and turning the thing from a bunch of scenes into a book. I was ruthless. At the end of the month I had the equivalent of the golden 50,000 words needed to “win” NaNoWriMo in my own rebel way. Having a tangible method of tracking my progress gave me the motivation to get the work done.
The book still needs more polishing. It’s a long way from being ready to send to an agent, but I nearly have a draft for Ed, my husband and first reader, to review.
Do you create quantifiable goals? How? I’d love to hear your methods.
“The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.” —Philip Roth
There are two main kinds of revision: big picture restructuring and small picture polishing. In big picture work, I move whole pieces of the book around and reshape the thing from the spine up. Sometimes this means adding new sections or cutting out whole other parts. The beginning becomes the end and vice versa. This kind of editing has to come first.
The second kind of editing is my favorite. This is the word choice editing. It’s grammar, punctuation, spelling, syntax, rhythm, and sound. This is where I remove all the unnecesssary words like “very” and “a lot.” It’s where I decide if I really need that second that. I rewrite the passive verb sentences into active voice. I polish and polish and polish.
The book I’m writing about running a marathon is still in the big picture editing phase. I am so tempted to jump into knit-picky grammar, punctuation, word choice, line by line revision, but that’s not what it needs. I err on the side of polishing since it is my favorite kind of editing. This will cause trouble. Unless I have the shape of the book down, doing smaller scale revision is a waste of time. The section I am so lovingly polishing might not even be there on the next draft. How much more difficult will it be to cut if I’ve just spent two weeks crafting it?
So I have to force myself to only look at the big picture. What can I cut? Not just words, but what whole sections? Is this part necessary? Can the book live without that? Does this section go as deep as it needs to go? What else does it need? How can I bring it to life?
Do you have a favorite form of editing? How do you help yourself do the kind of work you least enjoy? I’d love to hear about it.
“Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.” – Henry David Thoreau
Last month during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) I edited out 50,000 words from a 193,000 word manuscript. It wasn’t easy. Partly because I am a writer and partly because of mental heath issues, I fall in love with my words. They seem hard won. Perhaps I just like to hear myself talk. But this document grew beyond anything I had intended or from my worst nightmares. I worked on it for a year and wound up with a monster.
I used the structure of NaNoWriMo to ease the editing process. I gave myself a goal of removing 1925 words each day since we were traveling at the end of the month and I would get no work done while we were gone. I started at the beginning of the book and read chapter by chapter asking myself difficult questions.
Does this scene belong? Does it move the story forward? Does it belong here? Could it be said in a better way? What is the point I am trying to make? Why should the reader care? Can I make it more interesting? Can I cut the scene altogether?
I was as honest with myself as I could be. Some days I removed only a few hundred words, but most days it was closer to several thousand. I found whole sections I could easily delete. I had repeated myself, drifted off-topic, or not made sense. These had to go. I found other places where the work held its own and those sections I kept. I wound up with a book of 140,000 words and a story that made sense to me.
There is more work ahead. Ideally I will remove another 50,000 words. I have stepped away from the book for now to let it breathe. The next edit will require even more self-honesty and brutal cuts. Some of my favorite parts will have to go. That is the work of writing. The first draft I wrote for me. These later drafts, and there will be many, are for the reader.
I’m reminded of the motto, “To thine own self be true.” This doesn’t mean I get to spoil myself or be sloppy. It means I must be honest with myself. Tell myself the truth. In editing, this is the only way.
“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” – Mark Twain
National Novel Writing Month has officially begun. During the 30 days of November, folks all over the world will attempt to write 50,000 words of fiction. This year I’m a NaNo Rebel since I’m not writing a new novel. Instead, I’m doing “Reverse NaNoWriMo” by attempting to remove 50,000 words from a 193,000 word manuscript.
I enjoy the NaNoWriMo structure and have used it for the past nine years to create or revise. The local NaNoColumbus group, libraries, and the Thurber House host write-ins where others are also working on their books. The NaNoWriMo website offers forums where I go to ask questions, offer tips, or socialize between writing sessions. The website also features a list of published authors who have used the NaNoWriMo structure to do their work. There’s even a special forum for the “NaNo Rebels.”
Since this is my first re-write of this particular manuscript, I’ll be doing a “big picture” edit in which I’m trying to create the shape I want for the book. During October, I reviewed each scene and determined which ones needed the most overhauling. Now that NaNo has begun, I’ll work through those scenes to distill them to the essence of what the book is about. Sometimes this is as simple as removing words and rearranging sections. More often, however, it requires an entire rewrite of a scene, a chapter, or the entire book. It will be good to have the support of my fellow “Wrimos” (that’s what we call folks attempting NaNoWriMo) in this endeavor.
Where are you in your writing process? Is it a time of creation for you or, like me, are you in the throes of revision? I’d love to hear about it.