On Editing


Also me. I have returned from the warm, sunny beaches of Thailand to the cold, sad, wet city streets of Hong Kong. (Can you tell I enjoyed my vacation? 'Cause I really enjoyed my vacation. I will blog about it soon.) 

Awkward segue into today's actual post: editing. 

So. I often envision writing a book in terms of constructing a human body, like that scene from The Fifth Element where they rebuild Leeloo out of some leftover bits of DNA. 

You have to start with a skeleton, something strong and solid to hang the meat of the story off. The bones are generally made up of your characters, your voice and the plot.

A lot of the small stuff is missing, sure. You won’t have any metatarsals at this stage, and at least a dozen ribs will be missing, but you’ll have a spine (albeit wonky) and a skull and at least one femur. It’s a start. 

Then you go in and add the meat and the guts. This is known as the first draft. It’s not easy. In fact, this is what it feels like every morning when you reopen the Word document: 

Usually I’m making the skeleton and the muscle tissue at the same time, madly trying to lay down bone before the meat arrives to cover it. You question everything you do. Every decision you make. One day you love every word you write. The next day when you read over it you consider never writing anything ever again because you’re so heinously untalented that your access to a laptop should literally be a crime. 

Regardless, this is my favourite stage. Sure, you might end up with some monstrous creature with an arm growing out of its forehead, but here you can do no wrong. You are Victor Frankenstein, creating grisly, sloppy life. 

The last step before anyone else gets involved in the process is your self edit, aka adding some skin. This is v. frustrating and often requires you to try and squish your gigantic, misshapen monstrosity of a story inside of a human-shaped skin bag.

By now it’s vaguely human, right? It’s got a skeleton (well, most of a skeleton), it’s got bits on the inside, it’s got skin. It possibly has six limbs, a tail and some scales, but hey, that’s what editing is for.  

First of all, you’ll get together with your beta readers and/or your agent and/or your editor and try and make this creepy, naked, hairless, bloated thing look more lifelike. You’ll give it eyelashes. Fingernails. You’ll lop off the extra limbs and stitch up the holes they leave behind seamlessly, so even though it hurts you, no one will be the wiser (this is called “killing your darlings” – you’ll be able to see the scars, but your readers won't). 

By this stage it’s very nearly almost human, but many things about it are still unsettling, and if you saw it on the street, you’d know right away that it wasn’t real. It’s still on the wrong side of the uncanny valley.

Enter line edits and copyedits. This is where the magic happens. This is where your creation begins to breathe. 

Each pore has to be added individually. Each freckle. Each fleck of colour in each iris. Each tiny groove on the palms and fingertips and soles of the feet. It’s painstaking, minute work, but it’s absolutely necessary. 

I like this metaphor, because it shows how important it is to have a strong premise, a strong voice and strong characters right from the outset. I mean, sure, you can make the skin of the story first if you really want to, but you’re gonna have a hell of a hard time stuffing all the bones in there later. 

It also shows you that you shouldn’t fuss over the pores or the fingerprints too early. Don’t get bogged down in over-editing – you might end up amputating that limb, and then all that obsessive work is for nothing. 

I should probably mention here that I dislike editing. I know a lot of writers love it (and for good reason – it leaves your work sparkly and shiny and so much more alive than before), but I haven’t yet learned to enjoy it. It feels like being locked in a room with your ex for a month and forced to go over every minute detail of how your relationship could’ve been better. 

At the end you’re left with something much more beautiful than when you started, but damn, wouldn’t it have been nice to get it right the first time around? 

(At this point, you can probably tell I’m something of a perfectionist.) 

I may dislike editing, but God do I love editors. In particular, I love my editor Stacey Barney, because she loves OUR CHEMICAL HEARTS even more than I do. She loves its birthmarks and its mismatched eyes. She loves it in a way that I can't, because I was there for its whole gory birthing process. Seriously, if I could forgo a book cover in favour of printing some quotes Stacey has said about the story on the front, I would, because holy shit she’s said some crazy nice stuff. 

Stuff that would totally go to my head if it wasn’t balanced out nicely with chronic self-doubt! 

That’s what you’ve got to remember when you’re doing your edits: the person making comments about your writing paid you for it. They handed you actual money for your writing because they like it so very much. They want other people to love it as much as they do. So when they say something along the lines of “A mite clunky. Tighten” they’re not, in actual fact, subtly implying that you’re THE WORST WRITER EVER as your brain might want you to believe. 

Luckily for me and my aversion to editing, OUR CHEMICAL HEARTS required only one round of structural edits before it went to copyediting. 

The tighter the rounds of edits go, the more personal they feel. For instance, my agent and I did one rather large structural edit before we went on submission to publishers. I cut close to 20,000 words, wrote 15,000 new ones, restructured the timeline of the plot, deleted characters, developed some new ones, and actually enjoyed the process. When it gets down to the nitty gritty - your copyeditor querying about some stray hairs on the left palm, for instance - that self-doubt starts creeping back in. 

To which, I've realised, you just gotta be like:

OUR CHEMICAL HEARTS has been through one round of line edits now, and is looking all the more beautiful for it (no more hairy palms!).

As far as I’m concerned, it could still use some touch ups – maybe I could whiten its teeth, trim its nails, pluck a few wayward hairs here and there – but (as with people) there is beauty to be found even in its imperfections, and I must learn to love these too.