If you NaNo’d and are now in a post-NaNo writing coma, you may not be ready to face the harsh realities of the raw novel landscape. The world changed while you slept. You grew a beard. Sandra Bullock visited you and told your parents you were engaged to be married with hilariously unexpected results.
When you finally wake up, you’re going to have to edit. A lot. And not like, fix a couple grammatical mistakes or missed commas, but full-blown, angry, word-drunk edit in which you destroy your own art without impunity, in some weird backwards attempt to build it back up again, better, stronger.
I took a cursory glance at my “manuscript” and before I processed what I was doing, I had deleted massive swaths of content, rewritten several sections almost entirely, and realized that I still didn’t have enough distance from my writing to objectively make any meaningful comments. 4 hours later, I stopped.
Just kidding. I didn’t really stop, I just ran out of “being awake.”
Editing is when you move your armies in to occupy the territory you won during your word conquests. It’s where you can use your left brain to clear the battlefield of all the dead metaphors and corpses of analogies that your right brain abandoned to rot. It’s your chance to hone your paragraphs to razor-perfection like blades on a whetstone. A chance to make those descriptions shine like a suit of full plate mail.
I love editing. It’s fun to find things that you just nailed the first time around, and equal amounts of fun to beat yourself up over the border-line brain damage you had when you wrote that scene about the army of ninja wolves who could fly (because they had jetpacks).
But you need to be careful when you edit; it’s too big a time investment with too much on the line to undertake unprepared. To see you through this harrowing journey, I offer the following boon(s):
1. Train yourself to be offended by mistakes
This ties loosely into proofreading, but involves a lot more than just looking for passive constructs or dangling modifiers. This is about really noticing when something is wrong, and being actively disgusted by it. You need to learn the difference between “less” and “fewer” and have a visceral gut reaction when you see something like, “he needed less calories, due to his access to the liquid chocolate larder.”
Learn what pisses you off about bad writing and internalize it. Swallow it, eat it, live off of it as your only means of sustenance until those mistakes burn inside your body like the sputtering carbon of a dying star. If you’re emotionally connected to the writing (especially to the negative) you’re more likely to catch and correct errors that a less invested editor might overlook.
Get mad at your writing. Demand more of it and more of yourself.
2. Remove context
Your mind naturally fills in blanks and establishes patterns of things it thinks it already knows. If you read your own work, in order, knowing exactly who does/says/kills what next, you’re likely to gloss over weak writing and glaring mistakes. To avoid this, pull the context blanket off of your scene. He’s been too warm and cozy, snuggled up in your plot line like a lazy teenager. Make him get up and go outside, look at him in other context, and see that he’s been under that blanket for so long that he’s thin and pasty and probably smells pretty bad.
Objectivity regarding your own work is really challenging, but viewing your work outside of itself can help you get that much needed distance. It’s easier to break apart a single scene or exchange and edit that, than it is to try and edit the entire work at once.
This has the added bonus of allowing you to analyze your tone and voice to see if it is strong enough to stand alone in a short example. If it is, chances are you’ve got a pretty decent manuscript on your hands. If it’s not, keep on editin’.
3. Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em
This is a personal editing weakness of mine. My editing kryptonite, if you’ll allow the cliche. Sometimes, you’re really, really, really committed to that scene where your protagonist has a steamy threesome with a sexy anthropomorphized grasshopper and a giant jar of honey, but it just doesn’t seem to fit in with your realistic romantic comedy set in modern day Chicago. You can’t find the resolve to delete the scene, because you put a lot of thought and craft into it, and it seems wrong to just delete it.
I used to say, “Suck it up, cowboy. It’s for the sake of the story! Delete that shit!”
Now I say, “Hey, that could work with other context, or if you made the grasshopper into an actual woman. Save that shit!”
When I edit, I leave a second document open. If I find a scene or piece of dialogue that I really like but just doesn’t seem to fit the theme or plot, I cut and paste it into this “holding document.” The writing isn’t lost, but it’s not cluttering up the main story, either. It’s a way to psychologically distance yourself from what you’ve fallen in love with.
After a while, you can go back and read the stuff you cut out. Out of context, you might hate it and realize that it really wasn’t very good in the first place. Or you might find inspiration in some random aside to start a whole new story. You can’t lose!
4. Alpha and Omega
Writers spend a lot of creative energy on beginnings and endings. The middle seems inconsequential; just a means to get from origin to exit. It makes sense to really make sure your beginnings and endings work, as they are the delicious 9-grain bread to your literature sammich.
Pay attention to how you start things. Is the beginning of each section engaging? Does it transition well from the previous section? Is your reader going to want to keep reading, or did you leave them alone in the West-Virginian woods with nothing more than a pointed stick to fend for themselves? As you begin a section, be sure to set the hook in your readers mind, don’t just dangle it out there hoping they’ll nibble at it.
As you near the end (or an end) make sure things seem to be organically coming together. Make your endings have meaning, insight, purpose. Readers tend to like resolution to conflict, when and where possible, even if it isn’t a happy resolution.
Don’t pull a Lost. Don’t leave me wanting to kill you after I’ve invested SIX FREAKING SEASONS of time by writing some cop-out, bull-shit, “they were dead the whole time but don’t worry because they’re in pseudo-heaven now, and please forget about all those other loose ends to really intriguing shit we left out” ending.
That shit is weak.
But whatever you do, make sure you actually get back to your manuscript and edit it. It’s great practice that will ultimately improve your writing, and there’s always the possibility that you can (after many hours of revision) turn it into something that a publisher may want to read without barfing! We can all dream, right?