I’m not going to pretend that I know all about how to edit a book, or that I’m even good at it. I’m a writer, not an editor. I like to make worlds – I don’t enjoy slashing them to pieces only to try to stitch them up again. For me, editing feels a lot like hacking off a limb and then trying to reattach it with a rubber band.
But I do have some experience in rewriting and editing books. I wrote the bulk of my first book, The Originals, in approximately one week. I then spent another three years slashing at it, writing whole other narratives, only to hack them out again and start afresh with the original manuscript.
I admit: the hardest part by far is the stage when your editor sends back the MS and, couched in comforting language, lets you know you have a lot of work to do.
Still, there’s something rather amazing about polishing each and every sentence in a work. When I discover a better way of stitching a scene together I’m infused with joy, as though I’ve discovered that I can build an entire Lego town with a few clipped together pieces.
And I have learned a thing or two. And in case you’re becoming a serious writer with a similar sadistic streak, I have a few pearls of wisdom to share.
Nothing is sacred.
Like the generations of Buddhist monks that have come before you, the best thing you can do is let go of any and all earthly connection you have to the Work at hand.
You’re going to have to let go of that precious sentence which sounds so beautiful in your head but doesn’t fit the scene or the character whose head you’re supposed to inhabit. You need to turn that bad guy into a more complex and interesting character. So let it happen.
Let go. The Work is larger than you.
Break it down.
Sometimes a good way to go about big edits is to break them down into component parts. For example: on a first pass resolve to focus on characters or plot; on a second, take a close look at language, and a third or fourth can see you drill down to the level of typos.
This way you have a better shot of not becoming overwhelmed. Books are large, and it’s easy to get lost in the labyrinth of your own creations. Breaking the edits down – even if it’s into sections of the Work – offers you that spool of thread that will lead you out again.
Keep in mind the end goal.
As you swath your way through the fields of prose with that machete you call the DELETE key, you’ll want to keep in mind the raison d’etre of the larger project. What are you really trying to achieve? Are you attempting to reveal the most perfectly lurid mystery thriller ever written? Do you want to craft the most intimate details of a relationship? Take out your scalpel and cut along the lines of that pattern and see what you’re left with.
If you’re going for the big edit, consider keeping a log of what you’re doing. Add it to your narrative Bible if you can, or keep track in a separate Edits journal. This is going to save you time in the long run because you aren’t going to have to constantly race through your MS to figure out what the hell you were thinking.
Listen to your editor.
If you’re lucky enough to have an editor (or a friend who will read your work and give you an honest perspective) do yourself a favour and listen to what they have to say. I’m not suggesting that everyone else is more right than you about the work you’ve created – I’m saying you can learn something from other points of view, and the more resistant you are the less you can learn.
Editing is all about listening: it’s about being responsive to a work of art – as though it’s a symphony – and your job is to make sure all the notes are harmonious.
Besides, editors and friends are far enough removed from a work (ie. not you) to be able to see the holes that you will likely be blind to. Writers fall in love with their works – this is, simultaneously, our Trojan Horse and our Achilles heel – and, ultimately, why we’re the suckers who write the books.
But I think the very best piece of advice I can give any writer facing a manuscript is to be fearless.
Save each and every draft with a different version so you never feel like you’re losing something precious. Then: go boldly where no writer has gone before. Don’t be afraid to take risks. Step out of your comfort zone. See what’s on the other side of that wall.