Friday, April 2, 2010

It Only Hurts for a Little While

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Editing is painful.

Let’s hold hands and repeat that together, “Editing is painful.”

Editing is when we take off our writer glasses and put on our reader glasses.

On Wednesday, Sharon advised a break between writing and editing your work. A couple of weeks, or more. Why? Because it takes weeks to pry those writer glasses off your face. Only time will help you forget what you meant to say, and see what you actually said.

The space between have written and reading with fresh eyes is a painful leap. It means letting go of your work and approaching it with with the dispassion of the marketplace. Word weeding, yes, but also being frank about what doesn’t work in the story. We’re talking painful on the level of major surgery.

Mentally and emotionally, the author divorces herself from the work. It’s no longer a love relationship. It’s the cold stare of the clinician. Wimpy character? Scalpel! Unrealistic plot twist? Call in orthopedics! Cliched ending? Crack open those ribs - it’s time for a heart transplant!

And then, having discovered what is wrong with the novel, one must have the chops to address it. Change it. Re-write it. How far are you willing to go to take your story from good to great? Five thousand words? Ten? More, I hope.

When writing my debut, Talking to the Dead, I was asked to write a sequel. I was forty thousand words into that sequel when my editor said, “We need to make Talking to the Dead a stand alone.” She had lots of reasons. All of them correct. We made the novel a stand alone. Oh, and while we were at it, the ending didn’t work any more. Between rewrites and the scraped sequel the word count on the chopping block topped sixty thousand.

Did I mention editing is painful?

How many of those words do I regret editing? Zero. It was worth all the pain, all the effort it took to view my work through the glasses of a reader, rather than a writer.

Anais Nin said, “We write to taste life twice.”

If that it true, then editing is tasting the same bit of life seven nights a week for months. You don’t quit until the flavor is exquisite.

So, let us embrace the painful truth of editing. We can and will achieve brilliance, but not the first time we set our pen to paper. Brilliance comes only with intentional effort.

"Will you tell me my fault, frankly as to yourself, for I had rather wince, than die. Men do not call the surgeon to commend the bone, but to set it, Sir." ~Emily Dickinson

Do you have a surgical scar to share? What bones have been set in your writing? What has helped you face the cold hard facts about your work and then be able to set it straight?


Charmaine Clancy said...

I kept trying to justify a flashback (I know!), and one technique in my editing course was to rewrite all your scene summaries (a sentence for each) in order from memory. I wrote them all out and forgot to put the flashback in. It clearly isn't wanted in the story (and I need to just get over it). Good post, I feel your pain :-)

Lisa Karon Richardson said...

I write historicals and I so wanted to include a particular character who claimed to be the Dauphin (i.e. Marie Antoinette's son who is supposed to have died in prison) This man really lived at the time and place specified. He did claim to be the true king of France though he never tried to return to claim his crown.

It was great. Poignant etc and so on. Only problem--even though he helped my characters achieve their goal, his story line distracted from the story I was trying to tell. I hung onto that portion of the story much longer than I should have, but in the end I did pull out the scissors.

Luckily I actually much prefer the editing stage!

Wendy Paine Miller said...

It's sometimes hard being one who likes to learn. It means every time I go through my MS I aim to tackle another aspect of hard core editing.

But I really do smile at the improvements.

I love this blog.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

I completely had to re-write half my novel last fall. It was so hard, very time consuming, but completely worth it.

Lori Benton said...

Yesterday I finished the ninth edit of my historical. 186,000 words at least on the cutting room floor now. Most of them should be there, but I dream of reattachment surgery for a few of them. One scene in particular. It may do for an organ transplant somewhere down the road. :)

"Men do not call the surgeon to commend the bone, but to set it, Sir." Oh, Emily, you said it. It's rare and precious to find a crit partner or beta reader who doesn't flinch from telling the hard truth.

Another great post. You ladies are going to have a seriously awesome writing craft book compiled here if you don't watch out. :)

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

A second look from a different angle is essential. I was reminded of that the last time I went to buy jeans.

From the front, one pair looked fantastic. But it had tiny pockets in back. When I looked in the mirror from the back, I saw two tiny pocket-boats adrift on the Great Sea Glutei Maximi.

Back on the rack, back on the diet. Sometimes we have to do both in a literary sense.

Word verification: ecting. Pretending to vomit.

Bonnie Grove said...

Flashback? It's funny, but when I was editing Talking to the Dead, adding flashbacks to Kate's life before her husband's death was one of the first things my editor suggested. I wrote a few in present tense and found the novel plunged into deeper waters, filled out flimsy branches.
I think we can truthfully say that the story, the novel itself has to be what decides which literary devises we use to tell the story.
In your painful surgery, Charmaine, you had the guts to cut something you loved because it didn't belong. That is PAINFUL!! Well done. Thank you for sharing your surgery scar with us today!

Bonnie Grove said...

Lisa - OUCH! And such a compelling storyline, too. I'm no history writer (filled with admiration for those who are), but I'm familiar with that true story. How fascinating! I can't imagine how painful it was. What did you use for anesthetic?

Wendy: Excellent point. Life time learning sounds so romantic, but it is a commitment to being open to change at every turn. (This blog loves you too, Wendy!)

Kristen: Same question as to Lisa, what did you use for anesthetic??? I have so been there, re-writing nearly half a novel. OUCH!

Lori: Yes! Our murdered darlings (as some editing was referred to earlier this week) can live again in altered form somewhere else. . . maybe. There is hope that we can lift them and find them new homes in another work! I've done this (minimally) in the past. I have a very few bits of spun gold I hope to stitch into another novel.

Latayne! I love the trying on jeans analogy. In my non-fiction book about discovering personal strengths, I write about a time I tried on a pair of jeans that SHOULD have fit. I INSISTED they would fit me. Fought with them, twisted, turned, stuffed various bits of me into the jeans. In the end, I was stuck IN the jeans. Could NOT get them off. I finally worked up the courage to ask the sales girl to help me out of them. She told me to lay down on the floor. I was so embarrassed, She said, "Don't be. This happens all the time."

Steve G said...

Great post! This is about perseverance. As one who goes by with a broom and sweeps up the mess afterwards, I understand this is one of the things that indeed can make a good book great. We spend so much time on the first draft and there is a danger of not seeing it through to the end. By the time it is done, it can be a relief to finally be rid of what has become the baggage that has been hanging around for months.

Kudos to those who do the hardest work of writing so that their work may shine!

Bonnie Grove said...

Steve, you're telling on me, eh?
It's true, you are the one who sweeps up the mess of weeks of me revising, editing, bawling over slain darlings.
I couldn't do this without you.

Samantha Bennett said...

I had a reader from my critique group tell me the first half of my story was slow and boring. (She said it with more tact, but that was the gist of it.) OUCH! After devouring some Dairy Queen ice cream cake and doubting that reader's IQ and general literacy, I got over myself and saw that she was right. So right.

I completely revamped the first half--axing scenes and characters, adding new chapters. Lots of work, but I am SO grateful for that reader's honesty. :)

Bonnie Grove said...

Samantha! You are a beacon of light for all writers to follow.
The feedback hurt - you pitched an appropriate and private fit - then you looked at your work from the reader's perspective and saw the feedback was valuable. WOO HOO!
They should give out awards for that. It's surprising how few writers would have done what you did. Way to go!