I hate editing.
I hated editing essays at university, I hated editing VT segments working in TV, and I red-hot-with-a-passion hate editing my manuscripts. Going in to the process feels like stripping naked and diving into a vat of treacle. Then having a swarm of wasps launched at you. And then walking over hot coals.
My first manuscript got drawered mid-edit as I had lost all sense of any of the words that floated in front of me on the page. And my head was close to exploding.
I know many people who feel exactly the opposite – who see editing as where the magic happens, where you get to mould and shape your original, newborn thoughts, to gather the random ideas and thread them together into Something Special. I envy those people, God I envy those people. Every time I talk to one of those people I consider asking them to crack open a fortune cookie with me in the hope that we might do some kind of Freaky Friday-esque mind swap.
So anyway, I have recently come to the end of a big edit. And after a few weeks of rocking in the corner in the foetal position, I’m now ready to talk about Things I Did Better This Time Round which meant that my manuscript didn’t end up sent to the drawer colonies with its sad, incomplete older sibling.
1. I took a decent amount of time away from my manuscript once I finished the first draft.
Everyone tells you to do this. I thought I had done this with my previous MS, but looking back I think my ‘decent’ amount of time then was approx. 3 days (it’s just TOO exciting when you’ve finished your first book). This time round I left it for a month – and took that time to put my mind to something completely different – mostly watching crap reality TV and napping, whatever took my mind off it. It helped SO much. By the time I got back to it, I really did feel like I had had a proper break, like I was ready to dive back in to it and like I was coming to it with the ever-illusive ‘fresh eyes’.
2. I read through the whole manuscript as little as possible.
With now-drawered MS, I felt like whenever I’d made any remotely big changes, I needed to read it through from the beginning – to get the ‘feel’ of it, to try and read it as a reader, to get a sense of the impact the changes had made.
NO. There is no need for this. This is not a thing.
This is probably what caused me the biggest head-bends. By the time I got to editing three quarters of the way through I was sick to death of the beginning and was skim reading it anyway, therefore getting no value from the process whatsoever.
With the latest one, I only read through the whole MS twice – once when I came back to it after my initial month away, and once when I thought (ha!) I had finished a full edit, and it worked so much better for me.
3. I was systematic about my edits.
This time round, I made myself take a much more systematic and disciplined approach to editing. First off, I effectively took a very large step back from it and viewed it as a piece of work rather than my beloved, much angsted-over, heart-poured-into baby. I marked the document with little things as I went along – typos, scenes that weren’t quite working, bits that felt boring etc. and I made a note of bigger, whole book things that needed looking at. I wrote the big changes on a piece of flipchart paper that I stuck on the wall and I worked my way through them one by one. There ended up being 5 main areas that needed a significant amount of work – and it was a significant amount – but when there were just 5 one sentence headlines for those areas on the wall it felt much more manageable. I worked my through, not letting myself stress about the next thing, only concentrating on one at a time. Baby steps, keep on swimming etc etc. Chipping away at it bit by bit and not letting myself think bigger picture worked. I left the smaller manuscript changes until the end, when my brain was too tired from the deeper thinking, but I had a sense of achievement at completing the big edits – I powered through these notes as they felt so gloriously easy to fix.
4. I used index cards (finally)!
I have, over-enthusiastically, had a few packs of multi-coloured index cards in my drawer since about the time I first started writing seriously. I’d never used them. I wanted to, how I wanted to, but I could never work out what I would need them for. Until this edit.
On each card I wrote the chapter number, the location, the characters featured and the main action. I know other people would include other aspects like emotional impact but I didn’t feel I needed that. I was working with a split time frame so I colour coded them according to if they were in the present or the future, organised them into 5 acts and stuck those suckers on my wall. I found this so useful for lots of reasons – it helped me to see if acts were too short or long, to see if there were too many chapters set in the present/future in a row, to see if characters didn’t get a look in for a while and to see the arc of the action. It helped me to realise that the shape of the story needed to change, that there needed to be more build up in a certain section, that my second act was flat as a pancake. And, as stupid as it sounds, the physical act of writing out the cards, sticking them on the wall and re-organising where needed helped me to feel like I was actually DOING something. In the general fug of editing it sometimes feels like all you do is stare at a screen and silently scream, so the actual doing was amazingly motivational.
5. I used my utterly wonderful crit group - sparingly.
A good crit group is a thing of beauty and probably the single best thing you can do to improve your writing – and keep you writing in the first place. I met mine at a SCBWI retreat and completely lucked out. They motivate me, inspire me, support me and are extremely patient with me. Last time round, I sent them about 52 drafts of my MS. Uncomplaining, they read the 52 drafts and gave me brilliant notes, but ultimately, as I did, they reached their saturation point. It was hard for anyone to remember which thread I’d kept in/taken out, which character I’d changed in which draft and generally what any of the words meant anymore.
This time round, I waited until I’d done my first edit of the whole MS before I sent it to them and then only sent it to them one other time (twice more to one of them, but she’s an actual editor so she’s well able to handle it). It meant they really were coming to it as a reader and were able to pick up on things I no longer could and, perhaps more importantly, could tell whether or not the changes I’d made had improved it.
So that’s that. An edit complete, the first of many more to come, I’m sure. Luckily, I’ll feel more prepared for the next one and less like I want to lock myself in dark cupboard and poke darts in my eyes rather than get on with it.