Buck Up and Edit!
Buck Up and Edit!
The first time I was seriously edited was after I’d written the manuscript that would become my first published book. So, it’s safe to say that I had no idea what I was in for. I envisioned Fitzgerald-era parties being thrown in my honour and weekends in Paris being feted by the intellectual coterie of my Beat-infused imagination, all while men in overalls and newsboy caps slaved away on printing presses to produce the bestseller I had just penned.
Instead, what I got was five months of once-a-week visits to a cramped office on the University of Toronto campus to meet with legendary writer Lee Maracle, only to have my precious manuscript torn apart and pieced back together, sometimes one word at a time. All this to turn my carefully wrought prose into something remotely worth publishing.
How could this be? I mean, the publisher had accepted my manuscript already, hadn’t they? Were they aware of the slow-motion torture I was being subjected to each and every Friday having to face the formidable Maracle while she told me to stop blathering on and on about everything except the point and to just spit it out! This was not what I’d signed on for, not what I’d gotten my huge advance for. (Sarcasm is hard to express sometimes with just italics, so let me just clarify that this ‘huge’ advance is a joke. I could have bought a bus ticket to Montreal with that sum; a one-way ticket, at that.)
One Friday, it must have been about 2 weeks into the torture, I decided, to hell with it! There’s no way I could keep doing this. But, Lee was an intimidating presence, so instead of calling in or facing her, I just decided to not show up. Well, of course, she called me.
Lee: “Where are you? Its 1:30. We have an appointment.”
Me: (feeling brave and terrified at the same time) “I’m not coming.”
Lee: “Are you sick?”
Me: (all at once with no spaces between my words in case they got hitched up in my throat) “I would rather stab myself in the eye with a pen than meet with you ever again!”
-… a moment of silence in which I feel my bowels knot themselves into tight bows ...-
Lee: (amazingly, laughing) “Well that’s good. Now that we got that out of the way, I’ll see you next Friday at 1.”
Evidently, she smelled the newness around my writing chops, which I imagine are located somewhere near the temples, and anticipated this kind of meltdown. I slunk to her office the following week and every week thereafter until the publisher read our final draft- because truly, it had become ‘our draft’ by then- and gave us the final thumbs-up.
The finished product still had the spirit, intent and voice of the original version, but it was a louder voice, a brighter spirit and a clearer intent. Editing had magnified what needed to be heard and buried the ‘plumbing and wiring’ of the story that should be felt but remain unseen.
Editing your writing is a painful, sometimes heart-breaking experience, but one that you are thankful for at the end. One of the greatest gifts of this editing process is to avoid the dreaded and deadly ‘constant edit’; the editing that shouldn’t happen as you write your initial draft.
Susan Bell explains it best in ‘The Artful Edit’ (W.W. Norton and Company, 2007):
“To constantly print out, reread, and perfect your prose is usually a trap: after a month of writing, you often have perfectly laid out phrases that say very little, because you paid attention to their sound far more than their purpose.”
Now, that’s not to say you shouldn’t read through your work to ensure consistency. It’s been said that Hemingway would start each writing day by rereading everything he had written thus far before starting a new section, to ensure the continuity of story and voice. Just be sure to give yourself the freedom to really write, to create, to breathe into the work before you start cutting, pruning and killing off. When you’re done that first draft, then it’s time for the second draft. My novel went through 11 full drafts before it was published; 9 of which were done before it ever left my home, bound for the sharp and competitive desks of the publishing houses. Knowing that there was always the opportunity to edit after each draft kept me innovative throughout the writing process. Knowing that at the end there would be a secondary edit by a fresh set of eyes made me fearless with my voice. And we all deserve to be fearless.
Let’s face it, editing involves critiquing and criticizing, and molding your baby into a better version of itself through boot-camp style exercises can be a hard thing to participate in. But even though your writing can and mostly likely is the most private and precious thing you produce, you owe it the story and the characters to be as clear, loud and bright as possible. Lee explained it this way, “Your writing is basically the purge of the images and words that you pull out of the tornado of story we live in. But re-writing and editing? That’s the actual craft of the thing.”
If you approach the sometimes painful edit reminding yourself that it benefits the story, then it becomes more of an uplifting hike than a downtrodden slog. After all, it’s not even really about us as writers anymore, we are simply here to serve the story. And every story deserves a good edit.