Friday, August 1, 2014

"But It's Fine the Way It Is . . . "

I’m leading a workshop about indie and traditional publishing at the Breathe Writers’ Conference this October. This is my second year being involved with the conference (sat on an authors’ panel last year) and I’m looking forward to it.

It’s also my wife’s second year leading a workshop. Last year, she spoke about finding the time and space to write (she also wrote a book on the topic, which you can buy here). This year, she’s delivering a talk she’s been working on for some time, on a topic about which she’s very passionate: editing your work. Seriously, that’s what she decided to speak on. Editing.

Now, I suppose that makes sense, considering that, in addition to having been called “[one] of the greatest up-and-coming fiction writers today” by the Saturday Evening Post, she has also worked in the publishing industry for more than a decade, in both editorial and marketing capacities. She loves putting words together, then moving them around, then losing some, then nixing the whole thing and starting over. That’s her idea of a swell time.

She also likes moving furniture around, so there’s that.

I, on the other hand, am the opposite. I like to find the best arrangement right off the bat and leave things be. That couch goes there, and it stays there. That semicolon goes there and I have no intention of moving it. If I didn’t want it there, I wouldn’t have pushed the little key with the semicolon on it. Suffice it to say, editing my writing is not among my favorite pastimes.

Let me just quickly acknowledge that different people work different ways here. Some writers do their best work when they just vomit everything out onto the page and then later sift through it for what’s good, rearrange it, etc., like that one scene in Columbiana with the flashdrive and the puke (which is probably a double-loser of a simile, in that it’s both really gross and also a reference to a movie that only like sixteen people ever saw). Others (people like me) like to work it all out internally, running through every idea, word, and phrase mentally (and, sometimes, orally and aurally, using a digital recorder) before putting anything to paper. And by paper, I of course mean this ten-year-old word processor.

Both methods have strengths and weaknesses, but the major weakness of my school is that we tend to convince ourselves that there is no need to edit. When you’ve lovingly, mentally caressed the words into exactly the right shape (note: we have left the “words as vomit” metaphor behind at this point), you are loathe to change that shape or—μὴ γένοιτο!—slash some words out of existence. And when someone else (say, my editor at HarperCollins) wants to get in there with the mallet and the scalpel, my first instinct is to defend with all necessary force. That’s step one: plant feet, raise battle axe, and shout This is Spartaaaaa! I’m only on my second time through this process, but I can already identify the rest of the steps:
  • 2. Remember that I am contractually obligated to go through the editorial process and that everyone has do to it and that I’m not a beautiful-and-unique snowflake.
  • 3. Bite the bullet and try to change just enough to appease the editor.
  • 4. Realize that the book is getting better.
  • 5. Go back through with the editor’s notes, with an actual open mind that these changes (the vast majority anyway) might improve the book.
  • 6. Finish the back-and-forth with the editor and discover that the book is far better than the one I originally submitted.
I don’t want to move the couches around, but once they’ve been feng shuied to perfection, I do realize they look better and then I find myself ready to viciously defend the new configuration.

Here’s a couple photos to illustrate. They’re totally extraneous at this point, but they were what initially prompted me to write this post, so it seems a shame not to include them:

This is the south wall of my study. It has looked like this for almost a decade (see also: never moving things around). However, I recently acquired a bunch more books, necessitating more shelves (this little square was pretty much the only wall-space not covered in bookshelves).  I knew I’d need to make room for the coffee maker (and, heck, why not also get an espresso machine?), but the rest of the space would still more than accommodate all my new books. Naturally, I was loathe to mess with it, but when my wife started dropping hints about the stacks of books blocking access to her own new bookshelf at home, I finally jumped in and started the project.

Here’s what it looks like now. Upon surveying the completed project, my first thought was, "Wow! It really looked kind of cluttered and junky before, with all that stuff piled and stacked everywhere." I mean, it was fine the way it was and I was happy to look at it every day, but it’s much better now and I would definitely not click the UNDO button, if that were an option in real life.

So the point is: do yourself a favor. Try a little rearranging. Listen to your editor, your critique group, your beta-readers and just give it a try. You may find that you love it. I mean, not that you love editing. Editing is still the worst. But you may love where it gets you.

1 comment:

  1. [via facebook] I hired a writer once, and when I called to review edits with him, he gasped, "Do you mean you're going to CHANGE MY WORDS????" Short answer...yes. I really DID know how to make them better.