I’ve been reading through the novel I wrote last year in November and December. When I finished it, I read the whole thing aloud to Angie, night after night for maybe a week. I haven’t been able to bring myself to reread more than the first few pages of it since until this month when I’ve been up against a deadline with some writing cohorts. Now I know why: the first pages aren’t very good. They’re slightly terrible. Reading them I became tremendously discouraged, because I had really liked this book. But then an amazing thing happened: as I read, the book became better. Which is to say, as I wrote it, the writing became better. It’s not even throughout and it needs the revision I am visiting upon it, but it hits its stride about 15 pages in, and I was able to hit my editorial stride and read the whole thing, taking notes, making my comments in the margins, and in general being the kind of editor I always wish I had–someone like me!
The time I’d taken off also gave me the distance to be willing to jettison those first 15 pages, to realize that my character might be happy being madly in love with his fiance the whole book through but that it really didn’t make for an exciting plot, and to see that my character was wussing out on taking action not because that is more “realistic,” but because I’d been so tired while I was writing the book.
Now I have to rip out the seams and move pieces around and then resew it, without leaving gashes and tears or the bumpy hint of new scars.
I want to do everything I know needs doing before my cohorts read the manuscript because I want their critique to give me new information. I also want to keep close to my own personal vision of this book before I hand it over to readers; I fear I was mislead in my copious revisions of my last book because my goal became to please absolutely everybody and that is not only impossible and way too much work, it is actually opposite to the goals of art. These have to do with personal vision and the often uncomfortable edges where we do not all think alike or see eye to eye.
So here are ten things to keep in mind when you want to be your own best editor:
1) Read as if you were a stranger. Give yourself the time away from the material to be able to turn a fresh eye to it, to know what is exciting and what doesn’t really make sense, and also to be able to be moved by your own work, surprised, even.
2) Don’t get discouraged if the beginning isn’t strong. You were probably warming up there. Keep reading!
3) Mark what you like as well as what puzzles, frustrates or irritates you. We often can get into an editing frenzy when we go back to make changes and forget what worked about the book.
4) Keep a “to do” list as you are going, so that you will be able to go back through with ease and also so that you can review your notes and make decisions about what to do, but mostly so that you see that while the work ahead may be enormous, it is finite. (My list is seventy items long!)
5) Make a list of characters as you are going. You can make other lists, too: I started one, during that opening, of settings I might make use of later in the book. I don’t think I’ll really need them, but it helped to make me more willing to cut those pages when I thought that I might be able to use the parts I liked elsewhere. I also made a list of suspects, since my novel has an aspect of mystery to it, and in writing so quickly and without a plan, I had planted a lot of red herrings.
6) Make time to do this work. Enlist the help of your family, mate, coworkers or friends. Let them know that you have a project and a goal. As with writing, it can help to report on your progress to someone. Celebrate the milestones, too. Share the excitement of reading through your book manuscript.
7) Get involved with the story and trust your intuition. As we read a good book, we usually make guesses about what is going on: did that person just lie? Is that person hiding something? Should that person be going down that dark alley? Our guesswork as readers can be our best plotting as writers–you may find out who done it or why or what’s really going on when you read they way an involved reader does, rather than when you have your writer hat on and are trying to map a plot.
8) Harness the energy of the moment. If you have an idea of a scene, and you get all excited about it, by all means, go with that momentum and write as much as you can in the moment. We often imagine, when we are feeling inspired, that that feeling will always be there when we think of a particular idea. In fact, the next day, our few notes on something may be drained of energy–so if the horse starts to gallop, hold on and ride to the finish line. Or, you know, something like that . . .
9) Let other books be your teachers. Turn to the writers you love most for advice . . . all found in the books they’ve written. Look back to see how one built her plot, how another created a feeling of love for all of his characters, how a third used setting to create a strong atmosphere. When you wander in bookstores or the library, let yourself be bouyed by the brilliance that is out there.
10) Consider this your “learning how to write a book book.” When I wrote my first book, I called it my “learning how to write a novel novel.” This was tremendously freeing and challenging. What I’ve since learned is that each book teaches me how to write that book. Approaching your work as a student–not an amateur, but a professional sitting at the feet of your craft to learn–allows you to write better than yourself, to become better than your best, to innovate, which is to say, to create.
Revising a book? Join my online course Building Your Book. Early enrollment discounts in effect until Dec. 21, 2008. Visit my courses site for more information. Also, sign up for my newsletter to receive montly writing tips (in the right margin of my home page). See you on the screen!