Thursday, December 04, 2008

On Editing

Yes yes, I promise before the holidays to write another "So You Want To Get Published" about what happens once you have that book deal. But as I've said before, it is a very time consuming kind of post to write, and I want to give it due diligence.

But right now I am going to do a shorter post on the art of editing, which sort of fits into the larger post of once you have a book deal. This one however is slightly more philosophical in nature, not quite as technical.


Every author has to do it. Whether it be self editing and going through one's own draft and making things better, or working with beta readers, or working with your agent or editor. Your writing will always be edited.

Often I see questions about editing, "How do I know if I should do what is suggested? What if I disagree?" And this is what I would like to address. How does an author contend with outside suggestions, especially from someone of some status within the industry? How do we edit while still retaining our integrity?

This is where I go back to my obsession with thoughtfulness. When someone offers you an editing suggestion, it isn't enough to just listen to the suggestion and then decide if you like it or not. The most important thing about an outside opinion on your work is to understand the spirit of the suggestion - what is the person trying to articulate to you.

We are human, we are imperfect. When it comes to something as subjective as writing advice, the person sharing it with you is doing a combination of things: she is going off a gut feeling, translating that feeling into practical action, and then attempting to share with you this advice in as clear a manner as possible. This is a tricky translation to make, and not always accurate. My point is that often a suggestion isn't something written in stone, but a something an editor is trying to convey with the best words they could choose at the time. Thus we can't always take each word they say as the letter of the law.

Often you'll get a suggestion that is bang on the money, "D'oh why didn't I think of that?" You might feel a bit stupid, you might be slightly defensive, but in the end, you realise that fulfilling the suggestion will totally make your book stronger. And so you do.

But what happens when you get a suggestion that just doesn't sit well with you? This happens too. Sometimes it is easy, sometimes the editor just made a mistake: "No I can't have her ask her father that question because I killed him off in chapter 2." But sometimes you just don't want to do what the editor suggested, because it just doesn't sit well with you. What do you do then?

This is when you examine the suggestion. This is when you try to understand why the editor wanted you to do something in particular, why they chose the words they did to articulate it, and see if there is a way to do something totally different, but achieve the same effect.

Let me use me as an example.

In Alex there is a sequence on a train. Now my book is episodic, not everyone likes this, but that is the kind of book it is, small mini-adventures within a larger story, a middle section that is an homage to Alice in Wonderland. And the first of these mini-adventures takes place on a train.

I was originally told by my editor to get rid of this sequence.

Needless to say, I didn't really want to do that. But it's tricky when writing something episodic. The point of the episodes are the episodes themselves, not the main thrust of the story. What is the purpose of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party in Alice in Wonderland, how does it serve the greater story? Um . . . it doesn't really. But that's not the point. The point is to have a good time in the moment of it. At any rate this means that in theory, yes, I could have easily highlighted the entire train sequence on my computer and deleted it with little affect to the greater plot.

But, as I said, I didn't really want to do that.

So I had to figure out why the train sequence? Why not one of the other episodic moments in the story? What was striking my editor as "off" about this particular bit? What wound up being the issue was the pacing of the sequence. It was simply to slow and too long. It took up far more chapters than seemed reasonable for just one episode in a greater adventure.

I began to cut. At first I just edited out words, but then I realised I had to restructure the events as well. I took out several characters. I took out several meal cycles. I even gave the meals themselves a fast manic pace, where the second a plate of food was put in front of someone it was whisked away again. I made the entire sequence a whirlwind where the reader really couldn't catch his breath until it was over.

And it worked. Suddenly the train sequence was no longer a dead weight on the book, but a breezy, frenetic episode that was over almost as soon as it had begun. I was happy, my editor was happy, and the book was better for it.

This is what we as authors have to keep in mind when working with other people. First of all it is very important to listen to everything that we are being told, but secondly it is important not to automatically dismiss the ideas that seem just so wrong to us. We need to take stock of them, really analyse them, and then if we really disagree, dismiss them. But more often than not there will be some small grain of truth worth taking away from a suggestion.

We also must attempt, though it is hard at times, not to panic. We need to take a calming breath and just see how we can achieve the exact same suggestion but in a way that suits us as well. I had a lovely correspondence with a fellow MG author who shared that his agent was telling him that he had too much philosophising in his book. He really didn't want to get rid of the philosophising and was feeling a bit frustrated. My response to him was that it is quite likely the agent didn't want him to remove all the philosophising, but rather it was possible he was just being a little too long winded about it (being a long winded individual myself, I could empathise). I suggested that he go through his work and see where he repeated the same points over and over, maybe wrote an idea in a slightly too convoluted fashion. Basically to see where he could go that would not remove any of the actual philosophies, but change the manner with which he delivered them.

Because it isn't an all or nothing situation. It's about working with someone at finding the best of all possible worlds.

And having a bit of fun with the act of problem solving.


Janet said...

Wise words. (I edited the fifteen-paragraph response I was tempted to write...)

Adrienne said...

lol! (and thank you, though I am waiting for someone to comment on my need for some judiscious editing on the post itself . . . )

djpaterson said...

Great post on self-editing, Adrienne. Also to get that context of how the train scene in Alex changed from what you had originally written to what I've read.