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.
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!