I’ve recently finished the first draft of the sequel to my novel, “The Watch,” and I’ve begun that first, all important, substantive edit. As I go through my own work, the phrases that are repeated in my head are “What was I thinking?” and “Remind me again why I thought I was a writer.”
When you first start out writing, you think telling the story is the hard part. If you mention this idea to anyone who has been working at the craft for a while, you’re likely to get stabbed with a fountain pen. Any veteran storyteller will, quite vehemently, inform you that telling the story is only the beginning; once it’s down you have to make it good.
Every new writer, me included (hell…me especially), thinks their first draft is spectacular. It is an organic, dynamic storytelling experience where sheer brilliance pours onto the page like the tears of the muse. “I don’t need to edit this stuff,” a fledging storyteller will say to himself. “This shit is gold!” But after that first telling is through, you begin to separate the real writers from those who will never get published.
After I’d finished my first book I received some good advice: “Let it season a while, then go and look at it again.” While I have been hit in the head a lot, I was smart enough to listen to that wisdom, and I left my story alone for six weeks while I went and pounded away at something else that probably sucked. When I came back, and started to re-read the story, it quickly became apparent that I had a lot of work to do.
Editing your own work is difficult because you’re always very close to the story. You really have to separate yourself from the love of your own voice and examine the story with a critical eye; I had a hard time with this then, and still struggle with it, although now that I’m aware of my own idiocy it has become a little easier. Once you can achieve that, you can start really making improvements to your work.
A dear friend of mine, Kathy Chung (whose blog you can find here) is a damned fine writer, and through her skill realized that she needed to make significant changes to her current manuscript. Through the editing process she cut 21,000 (yes, that is twenty-one thousand) words from her story. If you’ve never tried to do that to a novel length work, believe-you-me that is a fuck-load of work. Many beginning writers, even if that necessity became clear to them, would not put in that kind of effort.
And that is why they fail.
Bearing Kathy’s example in mind, I’m currently going through my manuscript, red pen in hand, chopping shit down like it’s going out of style. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, put in a lot of needless words, rambled on when I shouldn’t ought be rambling, but none of it is fatal to the story. It can all be fixed. It is simply a matter of being willing to do the work to fix it.
Once you’ve finished your story make sure you allow it to season a while. Then, when you look at it again, ensure you’re doing so with an honest, critical eye. Then, when you show it to people and solicit feedback, actually try and listen to what they say and use it to effectively edit your work. You cannot show your stuff to people with the expectation that they are only going to tell you that you’re awesome. Constructive criticism is an important part of the writing process, and you must, MUST, be willing to accept it.
If you believe your story is good, then someone else will believe that as well. But you have to be honest with yourself and put together the best story you possibly can. If you’re not willing to work at the story, make changes, make cuts, and slap around your inner diva, then maybe the writing life isn’t for you.
If I learned to get over myself and write a better story, then you can too.
It’s a long road, but we do not walk it alone. Tag along if you’re inclined.