Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Editing your novel: Notes from the frontline

Please excuse my uncombed hair, how my teeth match my fuzzy socks, the way I seem to be winking when my indirect gaze falls near you—it’s just a twitch—the spaghetti sauce stain on my shirt. You see I’m editing my novel.

These sharp teeth of mine, the ones that have stricken some of you with sickish, curious fear, have been doing their work on my own thin bones. Cannibalistic as that sounds, it’s all for the best. I can inflict my furious red pen on others, but it’s all spitting into the wind if I can’t turn that same pen toward myself.

I am reddened, my friends.

Let me stagger closer, collapse in the nearest chair, and begin by asking a question, and then tossing my experience into the fray. Here is the question: What is editing?

My experience: Editing is letting go of the childish notion that excellence in any way resembles good enough.

Says who?

In my case, ‘who’ is my agent. An astute reader, who, I am sure, dons a cape each morning and flies above the streets of New York City performing feats of pure heroics for the benefit of writers like me. But not only writers. A good agent works for writers, a great one also works on behalf of readers. She analyzes a manuscript looking for the best possible reading experience. And then she talks to the writer about how certain changes in the manuscript can fulfill it’s reading potential. My agent, Claudia, is one of these.

She said, “Bonnie, I think we’re 90% there.” (There is that sweet spot, the giddy good place that makes publishers take notice.) “But, with some changes, I believe we can get closer to 98%.” She had my attention. 90% is good enough. Which we know isn’t good enough.

She pointed out two changes. Two. Such a small number. But this is a novel, and even one change is connected to a hundred others. Two becomes two hundred. I listened closely, and as she spoke it became clear: she is right. Brilliantly, utterly, maddeningly right. I must make the changes. One is an addition. The second is a subtraction. In all, I suspect the changes will mean writing another 15,000 words (give or take), while editing out an existing 300.

How will I accomplish this edit? Here’s my checklist:

1) Listen to people who are smarter than I am (in my case that means my agent, and my brilliant friend Sharon Souza who also read the manuscript. When I finished talking to my agent, I arranged to talk to Sharon via Skype to check her experience against Claudia’s. They matched perfectly).

2) Ask focused, germane questions. As Claudia and Sharon each shared their reading experience with me, I asked questions about theme and plot. I didn’t ask if they liked my writing, or if they noticed this or that clever twist. I centered my questions on their impressions and experience, not what I had hoped they noticed.

3) Make detailed notes. I took notes throughout both conversations, capturing Claudia’s and Sharon’s thoughts, and adding my own ideas to the mix here and there. Both of them sent me follow up emails with their thoughts reiterated. Very helpful.

4) Create a game plan before jumping into edits. I took months to plan the novel before I started to write, and I need to take some time (not months!) to plan how to work the edits organically. In my case, it is made easier because I have detailed plans of how the story is structured, therefore I can start tinkering within a day or so.

5) Read the manuscript again before writing new scenes or drastically editing others. In my case, because the majority of edits is happening in the last half of the novel, I’ve printed out and read those chapters for a couple of reasons: a) rereading will ensure my edits maintain and heighten the voice of the novel, b) I’ll be sure to pick up any dropped threads of character, plot, or theme that aren’t addressed in my notes, but need to be to keep the edits organic.

6) Be kind. Writing is re-writing. I need to be ruthless about the changes, not with myself. So, I turn my furious red pen to my writing, but buy myself some flowers.

Now, please excuse me as I go in search of my notes. And a toothbrush.

Got a story from the frontline? Stagger over and share!


Susie Finkbeiner said...

First of all (this is so cute); I was snuggling one of my 3 year old boys this morning while reading this. He saw the picture of all of you ladies at the left. He said, "Look at that family".

I just thought that was quite perceptive of him. (Proud Mama Moment).

Okay, I'm editing right now. There are three major changes that I need to make that require me to fix little things along the way.

I was thinking about this process last night. It truly is a love/hate experience for me. But, you're right, it's not about me. It's about the work. {Ah}

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Okay, the words on this post showed up small, small and they need to be big, big because it's good, good. My agent & smarter than me peeps need to tell me to stop repeating. :D

Love this. And number one is such a cool thing to grasp. Seeking those smarter than us is a GOOD thing.
~ Wendy

Nicci said...

Love it, Bon. A great perspective and necessary for a successful edit. I'd add a step 7, though. 7) Sleep well. Eat well. Exercise. I can't tell you how many authors I've had to remind to eat. You can't work well without nourishment, nor sleep, nor exercise.

Love YOU to pieces. And can't wait to read your published novel.

Bonnie Grove said...

Susie: Your son wins the "most cute and astute" award! You should be proud of that boy, he sees recognizes love when he sees it. Thanks for sharing that!

Strangely, I like editing. I don't see it as something removed from the writing process (which I also like). It's another form of writing. Only redder. :)

Wendy: I fixed the small print. Blogger is evil.
Seeking out those who are smarter than us is the right first step. And not as easy as it may sound. Writing is solitary. It can be hard to get out there and find people who can read and comment on your work. Persistence pays.

Bonnie Grove said...

Nic: Great #7. You're right about self care. Writers go into this weird white-knuckle stage when it comes to editing. A state of perceived suspended animation where they think they can live like cartoon characters and give up the necessities of life until the edits are complete.

We need to listen to Nicci, as she is none other than THE Nicci Jordan Hubert, owner of Nicci Jordan Hubert Editorial (and the woman who has talked me down from many a ledge): You can learn more about Nicci at her websites:

Nic, the love is returned. Thanks for stopping in today.

Dina Sleiman said...

Ugh. I haven't had to do this in a while. Don't remind me :) But I will say, I've learned not to open a critique until I'm in the right frame of mind to deal with it, and to give it a little time to sink in before I try to apply anything.

I've made major changes to novels including chopping 40,000 words, changing the protagonists characterization, switching protagonists, and completely restructuring. OUCH! But it's always worth it.

Melissa Hambrick said...

You know how when you see that woman, that perfect mom whose children are always impeccably dressed, whose make-up and hair are always done--with lipstick, no less--and who always has the latest cute trendy outfit on? And you just happen to see her at the grocery store, shrieking at her child,covered in dirt and chocolate from secretly swiping a candy bar he didn't even ask for, and the baby in the cart is crying, with snot running down his face, and she has on faded yoga pants and flip flops that are two different colors? And at that moment, you totally sympathize. But then you also feel really good, because it's nice to know you're not alone?

Yeah, that. Something about your post reminds me of that, Bonnie.

Steve G said...

The analogy is off. Our kids have never stolen candy, Bonnie almost never wears make-up, doesn't do yoga, and the three times the kids did not do well at the store, she left the cart and went home without the groceries. It simply took a lot of hard work and intentional living to get to this point. She lives her life with more authenticity than anyone else I ever met, and yes, she is just normal like everyone else. The thing that sets her apart is how smart she is - she's the smartest person I know - and sometimes that makes people want to put her on some kind of pedestal. That is the last place she wants to be.

All of the Novel Matters ladies are like that in how they live out their lives. They are just everyday women trying their best with what they have. You are not alone, and, in fact, that is why this blog exists - to share this journey of the craft and art of writing with those who are on the same path.

Anonymous said...

Steve, what a nice thing to say; nevermind about your glowing compliments about your wife. I happen to agree with every one of them. Bonnie is the bomb.

Bonnie Grove said...

Dina: It's amazing how important the changes are, even when they are difficult, they are worth doing. And even when we need to make such changes, the story begins and ends with us, the writer. That's a great feeling.

Melissa: Yep, we're all human under the skin. Maybe even above it. :)

Steve: You are sweet. Now I'm reddened for a different reason. Love you.

Sharon: Mwah!

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Steve, perfectly put. I love the NM ladies!

Melissa Hambrick said...

Steve is totally a keeper.

I love knowing that all of you ladies are plowing through this writing thing with me, although I'm early enough in this thing to feel like I'm just peeking in the windows. :) It's good stuff, knowing there are others out there going through the same stuff, another way the analogy to motherhood totally sticks. Having another friend (or a whole blog of them) in the trenches means that SOMEONE has to have the answers for how to get gum out of hair, or how to get the reader to empathize with a completely flawed character. What a painful, wonderful, beautiful process creating is, and how proud and thankful we all are to be part of it--and to have others along for the journey.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

I have a work that is the size of Canada, with exotic, fascinating cities spread apart by wide open grassland or tangled forest. My editing consists of compacting, folding events over so they occur earlier and then shuffling the reactions of the characters to suit.
This is fundamentally part of the writing experience, not separate at all. The thrills, chills and spills are as fast and furious as the raw inspiration.

Bonnie Grove said...

Melissa: There is no magic bullet in the writing process. So often, we need to learn how to find the joy in the journey. If the focus in on the product, we lose so much of what this is all for. It's so empowering to be surrounded by loving people who understand and cheer and sweat along with us.

Henrietta: We are at opposite tasks. I tend to write so tightly that now my agent is asking me to unfold more of the end part of the story. Maybe you and I should sit beside each other and my tight writing will rub off on you, and your unfetterednes will rub off on me!