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Thursday, June 18, 2015

Things I've Learned Along The Way: Finishing

It's a thrill to reach the final words of your first draft. It's also a catharsis, and sometimes I'll just sit a little numb afterward, riveted by that sense of completion.

Of course, nothing's complete at that point. If this isn't your first novel, you know you've got plenty of finishing work left to do.

I'm going to give you a visual, since a picture is worth a thousand words and no one wants to read me going on an extra thousand words. I made this lace shawl [free pattern here] about a month ago. I hope you'll agree it looks nice (even though I ran out of blocking boards. Sorry.)

It's a really pretty pattern and it's a good idea and the yarn is nice and all that. Let's call that a first draft.

Writers talk a lot about how hard it is to edit. Half my writing-related Twitter feed involves people moaning about editing, and one of the big surprises of my life is how much I love it. I love editing. Editing is about the hunt. It's the hunt for sentences that are pretty good so you can flush them out, isolate them, and turn them into great sentences. It's plucking a word out of a thicket and saying, "You're not doing your job" and replacing it with a word twice as powerful to do the heavy lifting.

Editing is finishing work, and no one tells you its transformative power at first because you wouldn't believe it. Flush with the thrill of finishing your first manuscript (you may even have naively typed "the end" to the amusement of all your critique partners) you're saying to yourself, "It's got a couple of problems, but I love it and it's just right."

When you crack it open again to start the editing, though, you're going to have to fall out of love and start relentlessly criticizing. You're going to find the hidden patterns and open them wide so they're out in the light. And you're also going to find your duplications to cull them out. You're going to find those parts where you hesitate and learn that momentary hesitation means you know it's wrong, and you have to do something about it.

Only writers who've done a full edit on their own manuscript know the insane delight that happens when you realize two characters can easily concatenate into one much-more-appropriate character. Or the dread followed by the relief of highlighting a thousand unnecessary words (that is to say, they were necessary when you wrote them but the reader needn't see them -- ever) and hitting the delete key. Or that breathless moment when suddenly you main character's hidden problem finally confides itself to you and you're in effect holding that character's beating heart in your ink-stained hands, and you know just how to leverage that inner pain to create the perfect transformation.

Agents and editors can tell if you've done this work or if you've skimped on it. They may not know exactly where you deleted five adverbs from a paragraph, but they'll recognize a strong paragraph when they read it. They'll appreciate the speed of reading a manuscript without unnecessary verbiage, and they're going to marvel at your finely-tuned characters.

Complain about editing? It's actually kind of a let-down when there's no more to do. It's a moment of despair: I guess it doesn't get any better than this.

But gosh, is it ever worth it. Because in the end, your finishing work turns your little crumpled story into this:

 Someone's going to stop you in a crowd to say, "You made that, didn't you?" and bedazzled, you're going to say, "Yeah. I made that."

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Loved this post! It sums up the editing process (before and after) nicely. I'm a huge fan of editing as well.

After all, the more I edit, the better my story turns out!