A reader who also writes send me a question in email, and agreed to let me post it, as the answer might be helpful to other readers in similar situations. So: this is about writing and process. It’s not really about news about current writing.
I’ve been editing my first novel for several weeks now and I am finding that I am changing more than I expected. I guess I am concerned that I might be over editing and was wondering how much you change during the editing process? Is there a good way to know if you are going too far while editing?
This is one of those questions that is very hard to answer because it varies hugely by book and also by author and the author’s process.
I actually change very little during the editing process – unless the editor has concerns about clarity.
(Let me make one thing clear, though, because it occurs to me after re-reading this that I haven’t. Editing process, for me, involves 1. Finished *and submitted* book and 2. Editorial input. Even so, my first draft is remarkably similar to my final draft; it has a bit more stupid or flail in it, which I try to correct before I send it in.)
I’m one of those authors who is afraid to beat people over the head with the obvious because it’s one of the things that I, as a reader, find frustrating — but this causes me sometimes to be far too unclear. Also: sometimes I know something so well it *feels* viscerally obvious, when of course it isn’t. This would the failure of the: put what is in your head on the page, please, variety.
(An author who also worked at the bookstore used to bring me her books a chapter at a time. I had asked her how a particular magic system worked (sometimes I have an engineering brain), and she had explained it quite willingly, and in some detail. Fast forward to the author/editor discussion she had with our mutual editor about that book when it was finished and submitted, in which the editor asked her how the magic system worked. She said, but I explained all that! And she had. To me. But having explained it, having answered all the questions, she now viscerally felt that it had been made clear. And it had–to me. It had failed to make it onto the page. I winced when she told me about this because I have also made this mistake.)
In Hunter’s Death, I got the usual editorial requests. I had to add words. But my editor also said: “Gilliam doesn’t feel upset enough”. And I thought – that’s an easy one. Except that I already had a scene with Gilliam’s reaction in the book, and I certainly wasn’t going to extend it or add a second one. Which meant: a) something was missing and b) it wasn’t Gilliam’s reaction.
(Sometimes something is missing, but it isn’t what the editor/reader points out. This is something I’ve learned with time. Sometimes, when someone says that a specific scene doesn’t work, there’s nothing wrong with the scene itself. What’s missing is the framing or the structural support – the pages that should have been there earlier in the book in order to give the specific scene the right emotional weight.
If an editor tells you that the scene doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. There’s a problem. But the solution is often found in other scenes.)
All the rest of her edits – and it was about 50 pages of additions overall – took me 3 days. But the bit about Gilliam took me three weeks of spinning in place. I set it aside for a week, and woke up one morning and thought: oh, of course; I know what to do. And the scene that I did write (or scenes; I think it was more than one) is one of my favorites in that book. It involved the two Hunter Ladies, to whom readers had already been introduced. They visit the Terafin manse.
And it’s *their* reaction, which echoes and resonates with the Hunters, that provides the context for what Gilliam is feeling.
Which, as usual, is a digression. Or several.
When I say I change, I mean me. My tendency if a book needs too much work is to throw out the whole thing and start it again. (I did this with Sea of Sorrows. I did this multiple times with Touch and Grave.) I write toward an ending, but the ending has to resonate with the parts that lead into it, and if those parts don’t have the right tone, the right resonance, I’m either not going to reach the right ending, or the ending is going to feel flat.
I’ve spoken with professional writers who also teach creative writing who find my process … unteachable. One said that if all of his students claimed that my process was theirs, almost none would finish a book in his opinion as a teacher of creative writers.
Having said that?
Most of the writers I know edit extensively after they’ve finished the first draft. I know one writer whose first draft and whose final draft might only have the names of characters in common; first draft is her thinking-about-the-book phase. It’s how she discovers what the book is actually about. So her revisions? They’re huge. Because usually around the 3/4 mark, she suddenly hits the heart of the book, finds it, understands it, and sees the ways in which the first draft didn’t actually address it at all until that point.
Many, many writers say: when drafting, it’s important to get things down on the page. Once you have that, you have something to work with. And those writers clearly revise a lot later, because that’s their process.
Some of those writers write books I love.
There is no Right Way. I’ve said this before, and I really want to emphasize that: there’s no Right Way. It’s why, in the end, I don’t talk often about writing process on the web-site – I’m terrified that people who are just starting out and who love my books will believe that the Right Way to write is my process. It’s not – it’s only right for me. It might be diametrically opposed to what’s right for them. It’s not a moral or ethical value.
Process is what gets you from page one of a novel to the ending. If your process involves heavily detailed outlines and writing scenes out of order, then that’s what gets you to the end of a book. That’s your process. You can refine it, you can alter it in future, but that’s the basis you’re working with. For me, outlines etc. are book killers. But writing the way I write? It’s a book killer for a lot of writers who’ve tried it.
But even so, there’s a lot of doubt about doing it wrong, or about writing the wrong words, etc, no matter who the writer is. I have it constantly: fear of failing the story. Fear of failing the readers. It is, sadly, a normal part of the process, for me. And for most of the writers I know. Some have that fear at the start of a new book. Some have it in the middle (most that I know get middle-of-book-blues). Some reach that at the end (whereas I love endings).
The process is personal. It’s highly personal. No two writers work the same way. So it’s hard to give process advice because it’s so distinctly individual.
So at the end of all of this I don’t have a good answer to the question. But.
If you are making edits that are entirely motivated by fear, I’d suggest that you’re over-editing. I can move sentences around and change scenes when I’m in high anxiety mode – but I have no clear sense that doing this rearranging of furniture is actually making things better. I’m doing them because I’m in the middle of anxiety about whether or not it will work for my readers and I have to do something. What if it doesn’t work? OMG, it probably doesn’t. (This is always made worse when a book is late – because I swear I hear imaginary readers standing over my shoulder saying: I waited how long for THIS?. At that point, I can’t see the book clearly; I can’t see pass the growing anxiety.
If you are making edits that clearly improve the book or the clarity of the book – or if you’re making edits in which whole conversations and characters change or plot points become suddenly sharply clear to you, I’d actually suggest that you’re on the right path. The book isn’t finished yet, even if you’ve typed “THE END”. You are still in the process of writing the book.
Neither of these are definitive answers, though >..