Going Under the Knife

One of the best pieces of writerly advice I ever read was this: don’t compare your first draft with someone else’s finished product. In other words, don’t read published books and despair that your own writing isn’t of the same standard. To do that is to forget that the writer of the book you admire has been through draft after draft after draft, and then several edits either with their agent or an independent editor, and then perhaps several more at the hands of their publisher. How could you expect your own writing – which you’ve worked hard on, of course, but which hasn’t had any of that editorial help – to measure up? You couldn’t, of course. Every single book you love, and which is currently for sale anywhere, started out as a first draft, full of holes and hand-waving and ‘I’ll fix it later’-itis; they all needed help to get where they are.

And you know how ‘help’ sometimes doesn’t feel like help – say, when you dislocate your shoulder and the doctor yanks it back into the socket for you? Yeah. Well, being edited feels a bit like that. You know it’s absolutely necessary, and that it’ll make everything way better, but it’s going to hurt. It’s not going to hurt forever – in fact, the pain of it is but a moment, in the larger scheme of cooking up an idea and making a book out of it, which then goes on to outlive you – but you still don’t want to face up to the fact that you have to go through it.

Yeah. So, I started my edits yesterday.

Photo Credit: Mike Schaffner via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Mike Schaffner via Compfight cc

To be entirely fair, though, I have to admit that, so far, they haven’t been as painful as I imagined. I have found myself quite happily slicing out whole paragraphs of overwritten purpleness, keeping my eye on a tendency to repeat words in quick succession (I almost wrote the word ‘out’ twice in the same sentence there, but – ha ha! – I caught it, just in time!) and realising, weirdly, how often I have my characters make the same gestures over and over. People grab one another’s hands a lot in my book as it stands, but once the editing scalpel has been passed through it, all that nonsense will fall away. Hearts currently do far too much hammering, and breaths are doing a lot of catching and glooping and stuttering – but their days are numbered. I’m like Zorro, except with the Delete button.

Harder than excising hundreds of hard-won words, however, is the fact that reading my editorial notes has made me think, really hard, about complicated plot stuff that, to me, seemed obvious. My agent (the most hardworking woman in the British Isles, and no mistake) has flagged up several places in the story wherein what’s happening makes zero sense, and that was harder to take than any slaughter of innocent adverbs. I got quite angry with myself yesterday, in fact; if I haven’t been clear, and the reader doesn’t get what I’m trying to say, I told myself, that means I haven’t done my job properly.

For rule #1 is: If a reader doesn’t understand what you’ve written, it’s never the reader’s fault.

This is a major issue, but it’s not a novel-breaker. It would be a massive issue if I hadn’t a clue what was supposed to be going on at those points in the story, either, but luckily that’s not the case. The only thing keeping my own heart from hammering my ribcage flat and my breaths from turning to porridge in my lungs is the fact that I know what I want this book to be; I just haven’t done a clear enough job of expressing it. I thought my subtle hints and my oblique references to stuff were enough to get the message across, and I thought – because these characters came out of my head and I know them inside-out – that it was clear as day when they were being sarcastic, or lying, or evasive. Now that I’ve had the privilege of reading my own story with editorial notes appended, I can see that I simply haven’t given my reader enough to work with at several points in the text. That’s my fault – that’s an error with my writing style. But it can be fixed.

It’s going to be a long, hard, and slow job of work to get these edits done. Yesterday, I toiled for hours and got about 60 pages in (less than a quarter of the book, in other words), and that was only shedding excess verbiage and fixing overwritten sentences and rejigging dialogue tags and cutting away unnecessary sentences which were slowing down the action – the bigger issues, like unexplained plot, will be tackled in a second sweep.

Then, it will be back to my laser-eyed agent for another critical assessment, and after that we’ll see. One thing I know for sure is this: it’s going to be a better book when I’ve finished this process than it would have been without it. Painful as this book-surgery is (for there’s no anaesthetic against this particular knife), it’s the most important part of the process.

So, I best get on with it, then. This slicin’ and dicin’ ain’t gonna do itself, right?

3 thoughts on “Going Under the Knife

  1. Maurice A. Barry

    From around 1999-2004 I was involved in the creation of a textbook series (not my first, mind you) that broke new ground in that it worked to incorporate the latest “standards” document along with a more “constructivist” approach to teaching. The process went something like this:
    draft 1: “book map”, more of a fleshed-out outline
    draft 2: publisher made some straightforward suggestions which I followed. I completed the first draft for review by Department of Education “committee”
    draft 3: committee said work was “too traditional” I had too many examples and explained far too much; needed to replace explanations with questions. Sighed and did as told.
    draft 3: external reviewers politely asked if I’d lost my mind. Where were the examples and explanations. As it was, book was of no value to students. Was only too happy to put original explanations and examples back.
    draft 4: committee looked at revised version and freaked. “We told you to take the examples and explanations out”. Did as was told.
    draft 5: pilot teachers said book was useless without examples and explanations. Publisher suggested we put back half of the examples and some of the explanations.
    draft 6: committee looked at revised version and called a teleconference. “Why have you continued to leave in the examples and explanations when we said we wanted leadin questions instead?” In the end settled for me putting the remaining examples at the end of the chapters. $#@&$@!!!
    draft 7: pilot teachers still not happy but unable to make suggested changes back. Final coyp edit.
    All through the nineties I’d authored numerous math and physics textbooks. After that series, though, I’d decided that if the teachers could not have final say I was “out.”
    …and I was. I found other ways to explore the desire to create learning content and all was well.
    What’s the lesson here? The editor is generally right but not always. In the end, give it serious thought, ask around if necessary, but do what you think is best 🙂

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks! God, that sounds tedious. And frustrating! I don’t think I’m quite at that level of confusion yet, though there are things I’m finding easier to accept than others. I agree with 99% of the ‘cutting out the flowery language’ edits, but some of the larger stuff… well. We’ll see!

      Thanks, Maurice. God bless your patience! 🙂

  2. Pingback: Step One: Write Without Barriers; Step Two: Cut, Cut, Cut! | Full-Time Writer Mom

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