Tuesday, April 28, 2020

6 Essential Truths about Editing a Novel, Learned the Hard Way

Revision is one of the most exhilarating and, at the same time, daunting aspects of writing a novel. Although typing “The End” does mark an important milestone—after all, you just created an entire world out of nothing—“The Beginning of the End” might be a more fitting tag. A successful novel must satisfy on so many levels (language, logic, characterization, world-building, theme) that is can take multiple passes get everything working together to maximal effect.

I recently finished revising, for the umpteenth time, a novel that I wrote over five years ago. Back then, after several rounds of revision, I sincerely believed the novel represented my best effort and could not be improved in any significant way.

How wrong I was!

The current version of this novel is so much stronger that I’m embarrassed I ever thought those earlier versions any good. In many ways, this latest version hardly resembles those earlier incarnations at all.

When I began writing fiction, I had no idea how important—and lengthy—the revision process was. Since I’m a plotter who writes very slowly, agonizing over every sentence, I naturally considered those sentences, and the chapters they comprised, more or less “finished” once I squeezed them onto the paper. However, once I started critiquing the work of other writers and seeing how their manuscripts evolved and strengthened over multiple drafts, my resistance to editing softened. I’ll now be the first to admit that only through extensive serial revisions can a novel reach its fullest, most satisfying potential.

Experience has taught me these truths about editing:

1. You can’t know the real story until you have the entire thing down on paper.

No matter how carefully you plan out your story ahead of time, new ideas surface during the act of drafting. The more you write, the more you discover about your story and characters. It is difficult to know exactly what you are working with until the entire mess is down on paper. Only at that point can you see the relationship of the parts to each other and to the whole. Over time, I’ve learned it's much more effective and artistically freeing to plow through the initial drafts of a story, focusing on plot and character development without getting hung up subtler issues, especially language. Once you’ve got a mass of lumpy brown clay on your wheel, you can begin to spin and tease and shape it into something beautiful.

2. If you have misgivings about some aspect of your story, don’t ignore them.

Listen to your heart, as the old song advised. If, once you have your initial draft on paper, something doesn’t feel right, figure out what it is and fix it. Don’t be afraid to change things up just because you wrote them a certain way first time around. I see now that in earlier versions of my novel, I had forced the plot in a certain direction because the story had too many characters. I had to distribute motivations and actions among them all, making it very difficult to fit all the pieces together in the end. I managed to do it, but this forced resolution never rang true. Removing a couple of characters crystalized motivations and allowed the resolution to evolve in a more natural and convincing way. I would have saved much time and mental anguish if I’d admitted earlier on that those characters, intriguing though they were, unnecessarily complicated the plot.

3. Focus on one particular issue per revision.

A single edit doesn’t have to fix every problem in a manuscript. Often, it is more helpful to read through a manuscript several times, focusing on different aspects with each read. For example, read through first for plot continuity and plausibility problems. Strengthen characterization on a second read. On a third, find ways to clarify theme. One of my last revisions, for example, focused solely on deepening a certain relationship in order to achieve a more emotionally satisfying dénouement. Although it is difficult not to polish as you go, try to save language tweaking for the final edit, after all cuts and additions have been made. You don’t want to waste time fixing awkward phrasing or repetitive wording in passages that might disappear for other reasons.

4. Other eyes are crucial in determining what's wrong with or missing from a manuscript.

After working on a novel for years, it is difficult to have enough distance to assess its flaws. A trusted reader, be it a well-read friend, a critique partner, or a skilled agent, can uncover issues and make suggestions that could lift your manuscript from good to great. It can be useful to have different people read subsequent drafts, so that their impressions are always fresh and not colored by what they remember from before.

5. Less is more.

This truth, the hardest for me to learn, is now the mantra I repeat over and over as I review my material. It is easy to locate and excise superfluous adjectives and adverbs, repetitive phrasing, and wordy transitions. However, less obvious things can bog down a manuscript: excessive internal thought, projection of future events, detailed stage direction, unnecessary description, filler dialogue. Over-explaining, my particular weakness, can also bloat a draft. Trust the reader to fill in gaps and make connections—readers want to play an active role in the construction of sense. The goal of editing it to remove the dross so that the gold can shine.

6. It can always be better.

Now, instead of dreading revision, I look forward to it. I embrace it as a challenge, rather than evidence of failure. It is exciting to see a strong, engaging text emerge from a flabby mass of words and ideas. Though he spoke of sculpting, Michelangelo's words capture the purpose and joy of editing:

"I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free." 

Free the angels in your own work! Happy editing.

Do you have any editing tips or techniques to share?

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