Saturday, August 13, 2011

On Editing, from the Writer's Viewpoint

I'm given to understand that there are people for whom editing is a delight.  Writers who enjoy the process of taking their rough work, and sprucing it up until it looks just the way they want it to, like some sort of Martha Stewart of the fiction world. Samuel Johnson, a man never at a loss for something to say, wrote "Read your own compositions, and when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out" Which makes one wonder what exactly he left out, as a grant many of the things he wrote were quite fine. But in any case, it suggests he was more than willing to do a mass of editing and suffer the indignities of removing passages he quite approved of, all that sort of thing.

I am not one of those people.  I never have been, and I rather doubt I ever will be.  I enjoy the end result well enough: looking at a book or story after its been fixed up is very pleasant indeed.  Sometimes the changes have been small but meaningful; sometimes they're large and impressive; but in any case they are there, and especially to the author they're usually quite noticeable. But it's much like the process of taking a very long flight, or of making a wildly complicated meal. While the end result is grand, getting there is not, as they say, half the fun.  It's all work, unpleasant and grinding and disagreeable.

Whenever confronted with an editorial statement, my first reaction is, well, reactionary. I bluster. I huddle round my poor defenseless words like a broody hen around her eggs.  I metaphorically hold my breath until I turn blue, in hopes that the nasty comments will just give up and go away.  They don't, of course; being written, they have no concern for my tantrums and egotism, and they wait patiently for the storm to pass. After a bit, I discover that the comments are almost always justified; a few may be a matter of taste rather than serious contextual issues, and taste can go one way or the other, but that isn't very common. Really, one almost always discovers that any editorial note, given by almost anyone at all, has some substance. That's the first hard part of editing: just looking at all those notes, and realizing that each one attaches to something one has written, and proclaims it broken and defective.  Which it almost assuredly is.

So then one must change things up. How much to change, though? Sometimes a note is quite helpful: it will state what the problem is clearly, and succinctly describe what needs to be fixed, perhaps even telling one how to fix it. This is uncommon, however. A writer will usually be faced with something vague. "This is awkward" is a common one, or "Please revise for clarity". Both of these are perfectly acceptable notes, of course, but they leave the author a bit stumped at times. A read through of the offending bit may get the author to think that there is awkwardness or lack of clarity, but the writer is the least likely person to see such things, and at times won't be able to figure out what the editor is talking about.  Poor fellow, he will then still make changes, because there's a note, but perhaps not for the best. Too obvious instead of too obscure; jarringly simple language; broken sentence structure. I've made bad changes, and will again, I'm sure, and it's not the editors fault for unclear notes, but my own for failing to see my own faults.

Then there are the larger issues, of course. Unbelievable motivations; flat characters; poorly realized settings.  Things that require real work scattered through the piece: a few extra descriptors here and there all through, and a juicy new scene, and more explanation, and clearing out the dead wood of bad scenes, all to make one secondary character acceptable, or the quiet town seem a quiet town instead of a farm, or a city, or whatever it seems like instead of what you meant. That sort of thing can be a lot of work, because not only must you achieve a goal, you must also make sure not to leave behind any remnants of the old version.  But one often does: a line here or there in some hidden paragraph of the story, where an old version shows through, confusing all future readers until someone finally calls it to your attention.  Sometimes it's a name change that didn't take everywhere; or a time change that was missed in one place so that for a moment an afternoon surfaces in the middle of the night; or an entire shift in characterization betrayed by one sentimental instant that should have been excised.

And then there are the real doozies.  Sometimes an editor realizes that the story you're telling is entirely wrong in execution, and while there's a good bit, or good bits, in the work, it's not what it should be.  Take the same characters and put them in the big city, for instance. Move the action from a one day affair to a slow monthly progression. Change everything but the central idea, including genders and relationships, but make sure to keep the same emotional feel.  I've not ever done this, but I've seen examples of it. And I don't know that I could do it. I have a particular weakness for not wanting to write something if I know how it turns out, and general revision I can do by not thinking of it as actual writing (it's revision, you see), but recreating a piece, that would be a real and perhaps impossible challenge.

As you might guess, I'm in the middle of edits on various things right now. They're going well enough. I should perhaps be working on them in some fashion, but I'm waiting for feedback at the moment, so instead I can write a nice long post about the process. I'm not wasting time, is what I'm trying to say. But of course I am doing just that, because I could be working at edits even without feedback. A critical eye has been applied, and I can now see the tatters and worn patches better, and should work on them on my own.

Only I don't like to. But there's a lot of work to get to, and so I must. I suppose I will go and look for any passage especially fine, and select it, and think of deleting it. I won't, but I'll consider it for a long while.  Off to it, then.

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