Cover to Cover IV: Learning to Love Editing

editThis is the fourth entry in my Cover to Cover series which follows a story idea from inception until potential publication.

Several months back in my third entry, I talked about owning a first draft and how to get through it to the end. Well, in August of this year I finished my first draft. Allow me a moment to do a happy dance. I spent the next two months editing. I’ve made it publicly known to anyone that will listen how much I hate editing.

Something happened through the process though. I started to actually enjoy my editing sessions. “Love editing? I’d sooner feed myself to a chimera.” Maybe. But I’ll show you how I changed from an edit-hater to an edit-relisher.

1. Your First Draft Looks Uglier in the Morning

I’m sure you’ve been there. Writing your first draft, enjoying the hell out of it (as I’m doing now with my new project The Bloody Unicorn). All your characters are witty and intelligent, your plot is on point, and your prose is sharp. I think this may happen because of a natural high we get from writing a new story. Once that story has sat out in the sun for a couple of days, it might start to smell a bit. Your characters are rambling, the world-building doesn’t make as much sense as you thought, and there are rampant inconsistencies. Editing is like taking industrial strength cleaner to your manuscript. Scrub away the mistakes of previous months of work that you didn’t notice in your writerly drunkenness.

In my own experience, I noticed I suffer from “Character Overload Syndrome.” This has happened to me in almost every fantasy story I’ve ever written and continues to plague me. My solution was to go through my manuscript and determine if I needed all these named characters. Sure, I love Red Mulcor of Basilisk Tooth (or Guard #2), but maybe he deserves to be in another story. I had to ask myself some questions. Could I combine some characters? Would they be missed if I just got rid of them completely? All in all, I’m much happier with my cast than I was originally. Sometimes editing can make a huge difference in that regard. Even if you love your first draft (which makes you an anomaly) you may find that spending time editing allows you to make the parts you love sparkle that much more.

2. But I Love That Part (Said in Whiny Voice)

When I started my edits, I killed so many scenes that I personally enjoyed. I even eliminated characters I thought might be important. I shed a little tear now and again. However, “killing your darlings” exists as a phrase because if you don’t do so your novel may become “too precious.” I learned to love killing scenes. I was an indiscriminate serial scene killer. I guess I enjoyed slimming down a novel I felt had become bloated and plodding in some parts.

There may have been tens of thousands of words I’ve thrown out, but I think in the end I made the right choice. It’s hard to really know for sure until you get your book in front of critique partners and beta readers. In this case, trimming fat did wonders for my novel. I may even still have more trimming to do yet. The point I’m trying to make is, don’t be sad to kill scenes you love. You can always transplant them to other novels or find some way to rework them so that they’re doing the best work they can do for your novel.

3. Meat on a Skeleton

I consider myself a “skeleton writer.” Meaning in my first drafts, I do a lot of basic groundwork, write vivid descriptions when they come to mind, and focus on dialogue. This means in later drafts, I have to not only cut scenes, but also add scenes. It becomes this bizarre puzzle piece scramble. No, that doesn’t fit there. I need a new piece. Or this old piece got coffee spilt on it. It’s too soggy. Need to dry it out. (OK, I’m stretching for metaphors here.) When editing, it’s not always going to be about cutting, cutting, cutting. Sometimes you need to add more spice, more unicorn meat, whatever the case may be.

I did this a lot by giving my main character more time for narration. I feel like this has allowed more insight into my sole POV character and given me more freedom to explore the world through her eyes. In previous versions maybe her feelings felt more sparse.

Sometimes you need to add, sometimes subtract. I loved adding more than subtracting, but that goes back to some weird deep-seated resentment of elementary school math or something.

4. Hate It Until You Love It

Editing has to be done. If you’re an edit as you go type or an edit at the end type, it eventually has to happen. I dreaded getting to that point. But once I got deep into the edits I started to discover new things about my characters, cleaner ways to get from point A to point B, and even cooler ways to describe some demonic beast’s shaggy mane. Editing can either be like pulling teeth or it can be making the perfect sandwich. I like sandwiches better, so I’ll go with that.

The best ways for me to figure out how to love editing were the following:

a. The novel’s going to look so much better with a new coat of paint.
b. This scene is uglier than a bog hag’s back boils. Let’s cut it.
c. I think future readers will like this more if it’s not a horrific tangle of fishing line.
d. Edits are good. Repeat, edits are good.

5. Bonus: NaNoWriMo Editing (The Bane of December)

I know it’s difficult to jump right into editing after doing NaNoWriMo in November. Some people suggest letting it stew for a bit, while others say it’s best to do edits while they’re fresh. I’ve done both. I think doing edits in December has worked a lot better for me personally. The main point is to not let your NaNoWriMo project sit unattended for too long. You may find yourself victim to the Creative ADD faeries that may whisk you off to some other adventure.

This is probably the first novel I’ve written in which I enjoyed doing the editing. The reason is because this is the first novel I’ve completed from beginning to end without ever thinking, “Am I going to finish this?” Edits were always part of the equation and I figured I can either whine about it every day or learn to love the process in some fashion. To be honest, I still don’t completely love it, but I’m getting there. Kind of like my relationship with blue cheese.

Are there any surefire ways that you’ve learned to embrace the editing process, or do you still grumble your way through it? Share your thoughts below!

For discussion of all things fantasy-related, check out Philip Overby’s Fantasy Free-for-All.

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Arranah
6 years ago

Anne Marie,

Yes, I’ve seen Merlin. It’s not on now, unfortunately. They did some weird things with it. My favorite characters were Merlin, of course, and the dragon. I didn’t like Morgana or Uther (sp?) at all. I didn’t like some of the things they did with Gwen. But on the whole it was a good show. One show I like now is How to Train Your Dragon. But I understand that future episodes are going to be on some other station that I don’t get. I like creative stories that take my mind to all kinds of possibilities. I think they free the mind. I’m also a painter, and right now I’m working on painting a lady phoenix. I’ve risen from my own ashes numerous times. It’s all part of the same process…what is possible.

Last night I got to thinking about how small people’s lives are, how restricted by convention and tradition. Fantasy writing can help free people from that and in the fun of it all, help guide us to more unique possibilities. That’s what I go for.

Anne Marie Gazzolo
Reply to  Arranah
6 years ago

Yes, that is why I like fantasy too – the freedom it gives you. 🙂 I got the Merlin series out of the library and liked the changes they made to the story, especially with Gwen and Lancelot. Merlin is my favorite too. 🙂 Good luck on your art too. That is great to be able to do both writing and art. I can only do stick figures, but God has blessed me with the ability to paint with words, and I am happy to do that!

Arranah
Reply to  Anne Marie Gazzolo
6 years ago

For me it’s not a matter of abilities that that I was blessed with. I wanted to paint. I wanted to write. I kept at it long enough to develop the skills for both. With the painting I found Jerry Yarnell on PBS. I started following his how-to shows in 2001. I practiced and practiced ad infintum. My most recent painting took me 26 hours. When I was first learning a painting would take me 80 – 120 hours. Often the ability to do something, just means we want it badly enough to be persistent.

Yes, it is nice to do both.

Anne Marie Gazzolo
6 years ago

I agree with Arranah about calling it rewriting. I am on the seventh version already of my fantasy, and I am not yet even with a full first draft! And like her, I am discovering some stuff belongs in another story. I also keep finding out more about what really happened, so I stop and put more ‘meat on the bones’ and then continue. I loved that part of your essay the most. I will put even more meat on in future drafts.

God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

Arranah
Reply to  Anne Marie Gazzolo
6 years ago

Anne Marie,

Good to know that someone else calls it by that name, since that’s what it is, rewriting. I do exactly what you do. I have no idea how many times I’ve rewritten it since starting this one, and I think I’m only 3/4th of the way through “first draft.” I’ve always written fantasy into my novels, but I’m doing more of that now. It makes them more interesting. I can always come up with scenes, but I don’t want to be trite. So right now I’m trying to figure out what to have my two characters in the afterlife do next. I sure wish there were some good tv shows that would inspire me. When Babylon 5 was on, nearly every week it would inspire me. So much of what’s on now is “same song, 100th verse.” Guess I need to do a Babylonathon again.

Anne Marie Gazzolo
Reply to  Arranah
6 years ago

Arranah, you were the one that inspired me to think of it that way – rewriting vs editing 🙂 Much better to think of it that way. As far as TV shows go, have you seen the BBC Merlin series? It’s astonishingly well acted and written.

God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

Sharon Reamer
6 years ago

I love editing. It’s that magical time when once the work of getting the words on the page in the first place is done, they can be fixed. It’s my mantra when I’m editing. It can be fixed. Cutting scenes, adding them, all the things you mentioned, the place to do this work (for me) is during the editing phase.

Part of the ritual is to print out the ms and read it all through (fixing typos is the only thing allowed) before making any major changes. Requires a lot of coffee, but it works well for me.

Arranah
6 years ago

I don’t call it editing. I call it rewriting. Editing to me is when you have a final product, and you need to add comma and such. The first draft of most people’s writing kind of sucks. Unfortunately, some of them make it into print that way. I’m delighted to get through the first draft. I can then go back and make everything flow and tie things together. Of course, I’ve been doing this for a long time. And each first draft has been rewritten repeatedly as I go along. I often start back at the beginning again and again so I remember what I said before, and I can build on it. I don’t just write straight through.

Yes, it’s frustrating. Yes, sometimes my favorite characters belong in another story, but…and that’s a big but…it is part of this wonderful process called creating. I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. I become too weird if I stay away from writing very long, since writing is my therapy. I use my characters to work the bugs out of myself.

I love your writeup, Philip.

Skip Knox
6 years ago

I embrace editing because I don’t draw a line between editing and writing. It’s all just writing. I’ve never been able to identify a clear break between Draft 1 and Draft 2 or any of that.

Angela
6 years ago

Great post and well timed, I just got the first round of comments back from my beta readers and gosh it was touch! But was I began editing I found I was really enjoying it! I cut some scenes, embellished others and am feeling much better about my novel. You’re right, maybe the editing isn’t so bad after all.

Woelf Dietrich
6 years ago

I used to hate editing. It takes me a while to get started on the first draft, but once I do it’s pure magic. So I love writing the first draft–the process, not the resultant mess–but I recently discovered that I also enjoy building on that earlier draft and I find the process now even more rewarding than doing the first draft. The first draft is all about discovery, while subsequent drafts and editing are all about making the story work and look beautiful.

Daniel Adorno
6 years ago

I have a love/hate relationship with editing. I made the horrible decision to allow my first novel to sit for eight years before editing it and boy did I loathe that chore with all my being. However, it was also a very rewarding experience because of all the great scenes and dialogue I was able to add to the story that would have never materialized if I hadn’t gotten rid of all the junk I wrote in the first draft. Overall, I love how you describe the necessary evil that is editing: “[We] can either whine about it every day or learn to love the process in some fashion.” Thankfully, I’m learning to love it and seeing the amazing benefit of a polished final draft after putting a manuscript through the ringer!

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