Let’s get one thing clear: I know nothing about editing a book. I know a few things about editing short-form writing in general, but when it comes to making a 300-page behemoth readable for the masses, I’m a blind bull in a china shop. Made of glass. The shop, not the bull.
Apparently there are lots of ways to do it. Some read through the thing in record pace to get a sense of the story as a whole then begin fixing bits in the order of direness. Some slog their way from front to back, chipping away at the glacier as they go. Others, I dunno, tear the manuscript to pieces and burn it in effigy, inhaling the vapors to enter a trance state that allows them to craft the distilled story. I’ve never been much of a planner, so as is my wont, I’m sort of making it up as I go. Regardless of approach, I feel like there’s one thing most authors have in common as they edit.
Educational Platitudes of Smartness?
Entropic Poignard of Sagacity?
Electrified Prod of Smackface?
As awesome as those sound, for me, it’s the Editing Pile of Sharknado.
Let me reiterate. I can speak for myself, but I have a feeling this struggle is universal among writerly types. Here’s how it works for me:
I read the draft. As I read, I try to read the text with an impartial mind, assessing the elements on their intrinsic value rather than on my own sentimental attachment to them. As I read, things jump out at me. Unclear character development. Missing plot points. References to things I forgot to include the first time around. Some mistakes can be fixed on the spot: typos, obviously awkward prose, egregious instances of wheelieing. Everything else gets a note and goes on the Pile.
At the beginning, the pile was just a few comments, a couple of harmless observations about the dubious state of the draft, a few gentle admonitions to a Future Me about some bits of the draft that need rewriting. But like all monstrous things, what started off small and innocuous began an exponential growth curve and now seems to be doubling in size every couple of days. The more errors I spot within the draft, the easier it becomes to spot errors within the draft. The more I identify elements which need fixing, the more readily I seem to find elements to fix. As a result, I’ve been working on the edit for about, oh, a month or so now, I’m about 130 pages in, and the pile has grown into a heap and a tower and now seems as immense as Babel stretching toward the heavens.
The EPOS looms and sways; it reaches skyward and some days seems to eclipse the sun. It’s full of all sorts of advice and admonition: “present this bit earlier”, “expand upon this moment”, “is this necessary?”, “rewrite this whole f&*(!)#$ passage”. Some can be fixed in a matter of minutes, some will take hours. It grows by the day, and it seems as if it’s approaching a critical mass, whereupon it will begin to attract further Stuff to itself and begin sucking up random bits of prose from entirely other parts of the story, perhaps from the blarg here, maybe from textbooks in the area… it may eventually start swallowing the pets as they wander too close.
Some days it feels as if the EPOS is growing faster than I even wrote the novel in the first place, like it’s got a mind of its own and seeks to destroy me through the sheer accumulation of my seemingly endless string of inadequacies. I feel myself working in its shadow, the cool embrace of its inevitability clammy and close around my shoulders as I work at the imperfect mass of my draft with the panic of a surgeon whose patient is dying of a sucking chest wound. It’s overwhelming and terrifying and oppressive and it’s getting bigger every day. In fact, the other day the thought flitted through my mind that the EPOS was so big, so insurmountable, that I might never get around to addressing everything I put into it. That the work that needs to be done for this draft to be decent is work that’s beyond my capability. That perhaps, as I’ve thought so many times as I’ve walked this path to writerdom, the prudent thing is to face the facts, accept that the time I’ve put in is time wasted, cut my losses and go home with my tail between my legs.
But then I stop, because I recognize that voice. It’s not my voice, it’s the Howler Monkey of Doubt. And the Howler has some fancy new digs: a tower of Sharknado hundreds of feet high, which affords him a crazy vantage point on the depth of my plight and gives him lots of ammunition for taking potshots at my self-esteem and my sense of accomplishment. But he’s terrified, as well he should be, because he’s only hoping that I’ll forget something crucial. The tower isn’t built on the ground. The foundation of the EPOS isn’t the level of the earth, it didn’t start from ground zero. No, the tower’s roots are gnarled and knotted at the summit of the once-insurmountable mountain that I climbed in the first place to even get the draft written. Of course it blocks out the sun — I’m basically soaring at the level of the sun in the first place, just by virtue of how far I’ve come. The tower is high, but next to the mountain I’ve already climbed, it’s an out-of-order escalator leading to the second story at the mall, and if I let that stop me, then I’m no better than those poor lost souls chubbing it up at the food court.
I feel as if I may have mixed my metaphors again.
The point is, the EPOS is massive. It’s daunting. But not nearly so daunting as the original idea of writing ninety thousand words from scratch, not nearly so daunting as weaving this story, flawed as it may be, from the raw silk threads spiraling around in my cortex. Sure, it’ll get worse before it gets better. I think it was JFK that said something about doing hard things because they’re hard. Maybe there’s wisdom in that. Maybe, with that in mind, I’ll feel a little less bad about all the sharknado I add to the pile tomorrow.