How to Love Editing Your Novel, Step One

Over ten years ago, a close friend died from cystic fibrosis. The courage with which he conducted his life, doing all the things he loved, touched me deeply. I wanted to honor his memory by writing him into my next novel. After I completed two drafts of this story (my writing group offering encouragement along the way), I showed it to my husband. Some writers would rather subject themselves to Charlie Sheen’s bayonet arms or eat a Madagascar hissing cockroach than share an early draft of their novel with their spouse. But I trust Hub’s instincts and he’s given me some very good feedback.

On this project, however, what he said stopped me cold. “You’re too close to the subject,” he said. He elaborated that because I had elevated our friend to hero status, I didn’t allow for the character to have any flaws, which made the story less realistic.

I haven’t touched it since.

I know someday I will get back to it. It’s a good story with fascinating characters. But as a younger writer, comments like this made me wish I’d gone to nursing school like my mother always wanted.

As the days following his critique stretched forward, and that manuscript composted in my closet, I kept wondering when I would attain enough emotional distance, not just to make this character multidimensional, but to start the revision process in general. A week? A month? A year?

The answer is, as with so many other things in life, it depends. Some people are ready to go into the next draft right after typing “the end” on the last one. Some people take longer. For me, it depends how excited I am about the story. The Joke’s on Me, which is coming out this summer, was one of those stories. I could hardly wait to start revising each time I neared the completion of a draft. But some stories have plodded on, and I put them aside to work on more exciting things.

You might find, though, setting your first draft aside for a short time (at least a couple of weeks to a month) to be helpful in gaining perspective. If you jump back into it right away, you run the risk of what I call “story saturation.” You will read this manuscript so many times during its lifespan that you may stop seeing the words. Even if you’ve gone through six, seven, eight drafts before you pronounce it ready to shop around, you will go through even more with your agent, your publisher and their editors. I lost track of how many times I’ve read The Joke’s on Me during its various iterations. Multiple readings without a break increases your risk of typos, grammatical errors, missing words, dangling plot lines, unnatural dialogue, and all of the other demons we massage out of our manuscripts.

So what’s your style? Plow ahead or let it compost?

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4 thoughts on “How to Love Editing Your Novel, Step One

  1. laurastanfill says:

    What a great post. Thanks for sharing! I do a lot of rounds of edits on each novel, and I find myself alternating between composting and plowing ahead. The manuscript I finished in August benefitted from a crazy-long 18-month hiatus (I had a baby and then couldn’t find my brain for a while). But when I came back to the pages, I could see everything so clearly–and more importantly–I was able to sift through the language and my “darlings” to discover what was missing in the plot.

  2. JenD says:

    I’m a chronic composter, but I’m slowly learning that I don’t need to let six or eight months go by for every project. Sometimes a week or two is all I need, which doesn’t work so great if I only have a week to write something. I’m still so wet behind the ears, I could drown. I learn every day how much I still don’t know.

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