Last week, I talked about the futility of pursuing perfect writing. In that case, the difficult part was knowing when to stop. This week, I’d like to talk about the benefits of editing your book and what your work can tell you about itself. Like any advice however, even the best can prove useless if you don’t first learn to listen.
Painful Editing is a symptom
Last week, I mentioned the many incarnations that the Gemsong Saga series has been through over the years. While much of this is due to my pursuit of perfection, that pursuit stemmed largely from an inability to hear what the book was trying to tell me. Had I learned to listen earlier, I would’ve saved myself years of effort.
The first incarnation of the series weighed in at a hefty thousand or so pages. It was my first attempt at writing a book, and writing it had taken a lot of time. Months after I had finished the first draft however, I realized I had a problem: I had made next to no progress in editing.
I would start, and then I would find myself looking for something else to do. I would try and buckle down, and find myself distracted. Schedules and progress goals did little, and I would find myself calculating a completion percentage just to try and feel like I had made a positive step forward. Editing a book is never going to be fun, but this was an unassailable peak. Editing your book should never feel impossible, and editing this one did.
In comparison, an edit to the most recent version of A Boy Named Zephyr took an average of one or two days from start to finish. While the differences in the length between the two books is considerable, it doesn’t explain the huge divide in difficulty. At four to five times the length, the original version should have only taken four to ten days. Thinking back though, I’m not sure I ever even finished a single pass. Why? The painful editing was a symptom of a much deeper problem I didn’t want to face: My book was boring.
If editing your book is boring, your book might be too.
The length of a novel can certainly affect how difficult editing it will be, but length is only one part of the equation – How engaging the book is has a far greater effect. A riveting thousand page read will pass more painlessly than an utterly boring hundred page book for one simple reason: It’s enjoyable to read. If editing your book is boring, there is a good chance reading your book won’t be much better.
So many times I would hit a point while editing and think “I just need to get through this part, and then it gets good again.”. My drive would usually fizzle out shortly after. My progress was poor because I was easily distracted from editing. I was easily distracted from editing, because I hated doing it. My book was trying to tell me it wasn’t very good, but rather than listen, I kept trying to push through.
A boring book is boring to read. Though this may seem like common sense, ego and pride make it difficult to accept. Deep down, I knew why I was finding it so impossible to edit, but after so much time and effort, it was hard to hear. I was cleaning the windshield of a car with a broken engine, hoping it would magically start running again.
Learn To Listen
On your first editing pass, pay close attention to how quickly you move through your work. If you tear through the pages without a lull or lag, your readers probably will too. If you find yourself waiting for a good part, or are easily distracted at certain points, make a note of them. The same goes for the reworking of paragraphs. If something requires rework after rework, chances are, it doesn’t need to be there.
While much of the plot has changed, my latest version reads better because it is much leaner. Nearly 700 pages were cut from the original manuscript, and each took time and effort to create. After months and years of polishing and reworking while desperately clinging to the time I had invested, I finally learned to listen.
Though what my work told me was not what I wanted to hear, an end result nearly 700 pages lighter is what I needed to make.