Monday, July 28, 2008

Editing...somebody stop me!

Leah asked a question that's not uncommon when it comes to writing. Editing - how do you know when to stop?

The short answer is, I don't. My editors will confirm this. I edit every single chance I get, which is why they may have a few more gray hairs than otherwise. Heck, I even edit and revise my grocery lists.

However, by the time one of my manuscripts gets to my editors, I'm just tinkering -- changing a few words per page, or adding a sentence or two. For me, that process could go on indefinitely -- or until I was so completely sick of the manuscript, I couldn't bear to look at it again.

I also know, though, that when I've reached that stage, I'm looking not just at the trees instead of the forest, I'm studying every blade of grass. That's a sure sign it's time to let it go and let fresh eyes have a look at it, eyes that may find I'm in the wrong forest entirely, so who cares what the trees are like, let alone every blade of grass?

But okay, how do I even get to the grass-examining stage?

I write a messy first draft. I don't worry too much about external details or description here; I'm just trying to get the activities and especially the development of the relationship between the hero and heroine down on paper.

Then I go through and revise. I figure out if I've got everything I need, too much of what I don't, and if I've got the scenes in the right order (by myself -- nobody reads my drafts and I'm not in a critique group). Then I do a second draft (cutting and pasting -- I don't rewrite the whole thing!).

How do I know when I've got things in the right order, that the big revisions are done?

Gut instinct. It just feels right to me. I can't explain it any better than that, I'm afraid. This is, I think, the one big advantage having to read a lot and widely for a degree in English Lit -- but anybody who's read a lot will have trained their writing instincts, too.

I go back through the whole manuscript, fine tuning and rewriting and adding or deleting as seems necessary. Some scenes don't need much work at all, other ones will need more. Again, I just do what feels right. I may do this more than once, and I generally need to see the new version(s) on paper to really get a feel for the story and what I've done, and if I've done it the way that seems best.

At every point in this process, I'm revising and editing the wording, trying to find the best way to say or describe something. It's continuous.

Eventually, I'll arrive at the tinkering stage. That's when it goes out the door. If there's something seriously wrong with the story or characters, I'm not going to see it now. As far as I can tell, I've done everything the best way.

Does that mean I have done it the best way? Or at least in a way my editor agrees with? Generally, because they've gotten the general gist of the story from my synopsis, but it could still have problems. An editor may have questions about something that I either didn't think of, or cut out (oops). Then I have to go back and revise again. It's a lot easier if the question/problem occurs later in the story, because every major change affects everything that comes after.

Do I always agree? Pretty much -- because it's been my experience that if an editor has a problem with something, so will everybody else. I've made a mistake, then got so busy looking at the grass, I didn't see it.

So if you're tinkering? I'd say it's time to call it a day on that book. If you're on your tenth draft and you're still moving scene around? I'd say it's time to make some decisions (not always easy, but still) and stick with them.

Because here's the thing: you may be right, you may be wrong, but if you're trying to sell, you've got to call that book finished at some point, or you'll be working on it forever. And getting bored and sick of writing, perhaps, which would be a shame.


Leah Braemel said...

Ah, Margaret, you've put your finger precisely on my problem again. Forest first, then trees THEN grass.

(Unfortunately sometimes I start looking at the grass when I should still be letting the forest grow (as in first draft). *Bad Leah, Bad!*

Back to planting some more saplings then ...

Margaret Moore said...

Well, long grass can be distracting, which is why I continually revise and edit the "small stuff" as I go. But when it gets to the point where that's all I'm doing? Time to say so long to that ms.

Leah Braemel said...

Hmm, right. I have a manuscript I wrote last year, that I've been considering rewriting - since my writing has (hopefully) improved and I think I can strengthen the storyline. I haven't looked at it since last October, but I can tell you the problems with it without looking. Now I'm wondering whether to just to start fresh, or consider it a first draft and do some major pruning?

Margaret Moore said...

Do you love it? Do you love it enough to spend hours and hours on it? Do the characters still grab you?

When you read it, do you feel excited by the idea of reworking it, or do you just think "I don't want to believe I wasted months on this."

If you're still enthused, if the idea of getting back into it and living with those characters again really floats your boat, then I say, Give it a couple of weeks and see if the enthusiasm holds. If it does, keep going.

But if not? Might be better to move on.