The Editing Struggle

There are many phases to writing a novel. There’s the moment when an idea strikes, often at inopportune times, where a surge of inspiration can stop you in your tracks and make you wish you could spend the day fleshing out your story. Then, there’s the joy of putting those first few words on the page when the momentum really starts to pick up like a heavy boulder rolling down a hill and the words just fly from your fingertips as if the story is writing itself. The first draft is particularly enjoyable since it’s about discovering the characters for the first time and really getting to know them. Yes, there are the occasional stops and starts as the story trundles through the middle, but overall, the first draft is exciting and thrilling like a close ballgame that isn’t decided until the last few seconds of play.

I wish I could say the same about editing. Unfortunately, editing is by far the longest and most important part of writing. It’s also the most tedious and least exciting part of writing a novel. Many a novel has died on the vine in the editing phase. The first draft is about getting your story on the page and telling it in the way you think makes it most enjoyable for readers. Editing is about taking that lump of half-formed clay and turning it into a beautiful piece of pottery worthy of display. Sometimes, after much spinning and forming, you just want to pound the clay into some malformed lump and toss it as far away as possible. Editing can make you hate your own story because you’re so sick of working on it.

There are not shortcuts in editing. It’s basically a grind-it-out task that, if done correctly, is worth the Herculean effort, but the payoff doesn’t make it any less exasperating. I’m on my third re-write of Into the Caldera. The first draft came easy; it only took three months to get the basic story down from foreboding beginning to the harrowing ending. The problem is the story didn’t really work in that first draft form. The characters were sharp-edged or too flimsy to be likable. The dramatic backdrop was the most memorable part of that first draft. While I wanted the scenes around Mt. St. Helens to capture the stark nature of that almost alien landscape, I also wanted the characters to be memorable as well. After all, the story was about jealousy and revenge, something the magnificent mountain could neither feel nor embody beyond the Indian legend that is shared in the book.

My first round of major edits sought to soften the sharp edges and fill in the gaps for the characters, but instead of turning my half-formed lump of clay into a pretty vase, I turned it into a bowl made by a third-grader in his first go-round on the pottery wheel. It was a little lop-sided, but if I turned my head sideways, it looked upright. Maybe. Sort of. Okay, maybe not.

Now, I’m on my second round of major edits, and it has been a struggle to keep my faith in the story. What had once been a surefire story of revenge and redemption has morphed into a story mostly about perils of jealousy. I don’t know if it still has the oomph that once ran through the story like a bright red line cuts through a page of black letters. The original story had that stark craziness to it that kept the reader thinking “WTF?,” but it required readers to ignore some important questions that I hadn’t really worked out in that first draft. As I worked out those questions, it changed the very nature of the story.

Into the Caldera is not in my wheelhouse in terms of genre. I had stepped away from the literary genre to try a psychological thriller thinking that it would expand my writing capabilities. To some extent it has, but the irony is that as I rewrite each part, it becomes more and more literary and much less thriller. This is not what I had in mind when I first conceived the story. I guess I’ll have to wait and see what the editing struggle begets.

A Box of Chocolates

“Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.” — Forrest Gump

In the iconic movie, Forrest Gump, the title character uses the box of chocolates quote to explain the whimsical nature of his life as he describes the many things that had happened to him. I love the movie and have actually watched it multiple times, which is something I usually do not do (I have a strange habit of only watching a movie once). This quote came to mind recently as I finished up my latest novel and started the first read-through of the long and arduous editing process.

Most of my writing ideas strike in a flash of fancy usually when I’m doing something that is not conducive to recording my thoughts (e.g. running, showering, driving, etc.), so I turn them over in my head and try to develop them further until I can record them in my notebook. This notebook has far more ideas than I will ever be able to write unless I retire from my day job right now and begin a life as a writing recluse like J.D. Salinger, so the ideas sit on the electronic page of my notebook until I select them for my next project.

Once they are selected, I usually put together a rough outline to guide the arc of the story, but I’m never truly beholden to the outline. As I’m writing, I change things as the mood takes me. A character may begin life as a grown man when the idea first pops into my head, but may hit the page as a little girl by the time I actually write the story. Scenes, settings, and characters are all fluid until I complete the first draft.

It takes me about six months to finish a first draft because I only write about five hours a week – an hour each weekday morning. I share that hour with other writing work such as short stories and posts for this blog, so there’s even less time devoted to the draft than the five hours per week. Occasionally, I find some extra time to write, but for the most part, it’s five hours max. A lot can change over six months. For example, my entire mood about the project can change. Sometimes, I lose momentum, start another project, or simply bog down with the story line.

The other factor that affects my novels is that I don’t write sequentially and I often move chapters around after I’ve written them. For my latest project, The Fire Within, which just entered the editing phase, I wrote the first and last chapters in the beginning and filled in the rest over the course of seven months. Even the middle chapters were written in a haphazard order. I had no idea what I was going to get when I finally finished the novel and read it from beginning to end. Would it flow properly? Would it convey the emotion I was trying to capture? Would readers like it? These questions still remain open as I’m doing my first read-through.

In the end, my novels are comparable to Gump’s box of chocolates. I never know what I’m going to get until I do that first reading in the editing process. I like the element of surprise. It makes writing all the more fun.

To Write Is Human, To Edit, Divine

Recently, at the Seattle Writing Workshop, I met an agent during a pitch session and pitched a novel that I had written over a year ago. When I was finished with my pitch, which went okay but not as beautifully as I had imagined in my head, we still had some time left, so he asked me what else I was working on. I talked about the novel that I had finished after the one I had pitched, and he perked up. He seemed more interested in that one than my original pitch idea. He asked to see that one, too, and I readily agreed.

While both manuscripts were technically “done,” (no book is truly done until it hits bookstores) and had gone through a few revisions, I had wanted to read through the second one at least one more time before I sent any part of it out. Nevertheless, I was determined to get both manuscripts to the agent. Agents rarely request full manuscripts on the first meeting (at least that’s been my experience). They typically want a synopsis and the first ten or so pages. If they like what they see, then they request the full manuscript. I knew I had to deliver these manuscripts as soon as possible while my meeting was still fresh in the agent’s mind.

The day after the workshop, I began re-reading and editing the second manuscript in earnest – all 400 pages of it. It had been at least six months since I had read the book, and my eyes were fresh to the material despite living and breathing every word on the page for so long, I found things I didn’t like, small errors that drove me mad, and opportunities to clean up the dialogue. Fresh eyes really helped. I bet I could go through it again in six months and find more things. Maybe manuscripts are like wine; they get better with age because you have fresh eyes on the material. In the end, I was able to get the manuscripts out to the agent in a few days (huge sigh of relief).

Editing is not my favorite writing activity, but it’s a skill that is required. I typically write a first draft and do an immediate reading and editing session with the material before I hand it over to my beta readers. Then, I let the manuscript sit for a few months and work on something else. Working on something else takes my mind off of the material and refreshes my perspective on it. The more I edit my own material, the more I realize how I’d like to have a professional editor helping me. Such a person would have a cold-blooded instinct that would really make my work shine.

In my nonfiction work, I have had the opportunity to work with a wonderful editor who is sharp-eyed and very skillful. I love working with her when I submit articles to this┬átrade magazine. She can take good work and make it great just through her suggestions and edits. I’ve compared my articles side-by-side, and her edits have clearly improved the material. I only wish she was available to edit my fiction work. I believe we’d make a great tandem because her editing skills are beyond reproach.

While I haven’t made it through the entire publishing process yet, I know the value of a good editor, but not just any editor will do. I need one who understands my style and approach and does not attempt to overwhelm that with over-editing. A bad match could change the whole tenor of the work and kill the project in its infancy, but a great match would take the project to a whole new level and increase the chances of success. That would be heaven indeed.