Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Q & A 123

I realize the weird humor of complaining to an editor about the difficult process of editing, but there you go. I’m really having just one big, good time editing the novel I’ve written. Editing has really been, so far, harder for me to do than the long and (largely) pleasurable process of writing was in the first place. Well, that may not be true. I‘m not sure anymore. I may be so frustrated right now that I can’t remember, but still, right now, that’s what it feels like from where I’m sitting, curled up in a big chair, sulking, with sheets of novel and notes all around me, in a frazzled state of mind, and wishing it was late enough in the day to pour myself a generous glass of wine.

The first problem has been that my writing got stronger as I wrote my way through the novel, so that I now find myself needing to rework beginning chapters. I tried the cut and paste approach, but the voice was too blotchy and wasn’t very strong when I tried patchwork, so I ended up reworking the first several chapters.

Then, I realized the underlying themes of the book had changed and developed throughout the time I was writing, so I reread with that in mind. Then I tried different things with language usage, and changed things back and forth, and back again.

And I may have set myself up for some frustration without knowing I was doing it, because, as I was writing, I’d kept a notebook (which grew into two and then some) and I wrote down scenes and sections of thoughts and other things I wanted to include, and I’m now working on including the sections I hadn’t already worked in, which is much more difficult to do, if it’s going to be done well, than I ever imagined.

Anyway, I could use some advice on how to organize myself, and I’d like to know, for peace of mind, if this kind of editing on a first novel passes for anything like normal. Maybe then I won’t feel like I’m going nuts, and worrying that I’ll never know when I’m finished.

1. First of all, if you spent the whole weekend Christmas shopping and failed to come up with the perfect gift, Evil Editor's books are always appreciated and often cherished. Visit EvilEditor.net. What? Oh, right, that wasn't the question. That was a question?

2. You're finished when your book is in print. Even after you get it so good it sells, your editor will probably want you to change some things, and then after your editor thinks it's perfect you'll get to read the proofs where you'll spot a few typos and a glaring error in continuity. You'll be highly annoyed if you find something you want to change after it's published.

3. There's no right way to write a novel, but when you start your next novel you might want to try reading (and editing) the four chapters that precede the one you're working on before you start working every day. Many people write the novel straight through and then edit, but you sound like you might be better off going over each completed part many times as you go. It takes longer, but it's in better shape when you finish, which reduces the sense of panic that sets in when you realize that your first draft is a first draft.

4. It's not unusual to go through what you're going through. After you've sold three books and they've been successful bestsellers, and you're working on your fourth book, guess what? You'll still go through it.

5. It's never too early for wine. I pour it on my breakfast cereal instead of milk. Just remember, red with Wheaties, white with Rice Chex, rosé with Cheerios.


AmyB said...

Wow, that sounds eerily like my own editing process.

I took 3 months to write the first draft of my novel. I then spent the next 9 months editing it... and I'm not done yet.

Anonymous said...

If you're trying to lever in new sections because you like the writing or the action or whatever, and they don't quite seem to fit, maybe they actually belong in your next novel?

Anonymous said...

It's really hard to know when to call the thing a trunk novel, shove it aside, and start a new project, but that might be the eventual outcome.

Subbing episodes to lit mags as shorts might give you some helpful feedback regarding the merits of this project, but maybe not. Novel episodes tend not to be competitive as shorts since matters remain unresolved in novel chapters that would need to be resolved for a successful short story. So it might be a great novel, but unsuitable for lit mags. Or it might have chapters you can adapt as shorts that actually get accepted and published.

The right critique would be good, but the danger of "supportive" critique is that gushy encouragement will keep you working on a tired old project long after it was time to move on. The danger of less "supportive" critique is that you'll get discouraged and ditch something that was on the verge of greatness.

Sometimes it helps to work on something else for a while. Then you can return to the old project. Or not. Taking a screenwriting class and doing an adaptation of your novel might be a really helpful way to get insight into structure issues and improve your dialogue.

It's normal to have a love/hate thing going for your manuscript. You need them both. The love keeps you working because you know it's good stuff, the contempt keeps you working because you can see it's flawed. If it's still not published, but you've run out of either love or contempt -- call it a trunk novel: you're done.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it's totally normal for this process to take a long time and seem chaotic. If you want a disciplined approach, some writers print out their manuscript and color code themes and characters to get the balance right. Some go back and revise for one character at a time, or one theme. There are as many ways as there are writers.

Personally I find revision far more fun and satisfying than writing a first draft, but not everyone agrees. Still, you might try not calling this "editing." Rewriting, revising -- that's WRITING. That's the part where you take the blob of formless stuff you spewed out and shape it into something just right. It's the part where you make your story sing. Get some joy out of it and stop viewing it as some thankless chore that comes after the REAL writing. This IS the real writing!


Church Lady said...

Oh, I love these snarky words of wisdom:
If it's still not published, but you've run out of either love or contempt -- call it a trunk novel: you're done.

And I love EE's breakfast recipes.

And I also love books, writers, editors, most agents, campfires and marshmallows, cute avatars, and Xmas presents addressed to me.

Good luck, Author. You're closer than you think.

Margaret said...

Sounds like exactly what I went through the first time I tried to edit a novel. No, you're not weird.

150 said...

Oh gawsh, I know. My WIP is giving me fits. I'm about this close to signing up for a remedial English class just hoping that someone somewhere can teach me to edit.

Wonderwood said...

Sheeeit, I revise my opening three paragraphs every time I open the document. Well, I might not revise them every single time, but I read 'em with a critical eye. I still like the opening, but I don't love it yet.

I do hate the plot issues I keep stumbling over. I have moments where I think, "Fuck this, it's the wrong story." Then I have moments where I think, "It's in there, I just haven't quite found it yet." Try writing a mystery without knowing the outcome. It's a slow process if you're stuck with my brain, which I seem to be.

I'm with MB, the fun part for me is the revision. This is my second novel. On the first one, I struggled with the editing process. Mainly, because it sucked so bad. This time around I love revising, because what I think is good, ends up being so much better after I've revised it twelve thousand times. I'm doing almost exactly what EE suggested. I read and revise the two most recent chapters and then start writing new stuff. It helps get my mind in tune with the story, and I think it helps with continuity of voice. The end result, up to this point, is a fairly polished piece of work, that will probably (hopefully) only need some tweaks when I finally finish the fucking thing.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, EE. I know someday you're not gonna wanna do this anymore, but I hope that day is far away.

What you mentioned about reading and editing preceding chapters before moving forward sounds like something that would work better for me. I’m going to try to go back and use that while going through this novel, to see if I can insinuate some order into the chaos that mb mentioned. Because there’s definitely chaos now, and it’s leaving me stopped cold sometimes.

Anon 12:31, you’re right, and I have set aside some of what I wrote for the follow-on novel I have sketched out, but most of what I wrote in notebooks I scribbled down either while driving, or when otherwise occupied – and most of it had to do with this novel, so… I’ve got some sorting work to do, and some decisions to make.

Anon 5:32, thanks for taking the time, and thanks for the advice. In a scattershot way, I’d tried a little of it – late last year I sent the first chapter of my novel, rewrote the ending to make it capable of standing alone to two lit mags, receiving a note back from one that they liked my writing but the piece wasn’t right for them, and suggested I send more. I felt pretty good about that, as that chapter had been written off-the-cuff and briefly/succinctly edited.

I’m not a critique group person, for the reasons you mentioned. This blog is as critiqued as I wanna go – and it works for me.

Yeah with the love/hate thing. I’ve flipped those feelings back and forth so many times, I’d like to say I’m numb to them, but I’m not.

I’m trying to finish so I can send this out, but it seems to have its’ own timeline.

Also glad to hear from others that I’m not out there hanging in the wind alone.