It’s been quiet here lately. I’ve been up to my neck in editing Book One, in between tinkering with other writing projects and sleeping off a persistent case of walking pneumonia (not recommended).
In editing Book One, I set out with the conflicting ambitions of cutting 34,000 words (85 single-spaced pages), while at the same time fleshing out certain characters and themes. As it happens, I’ve cut quite a lot of words, but I’ve also added quite a lot of words, so it might just end up still being a Large One.
That’s a problem for future me, though.
For now, I’m interested in what it means to be “editing,” anyway. This process turns the book into a Ship of Theseus. If not a single word remains the same from draft one to draft two-point-five or three or wherever we are, is it the same book?
When I started draft two, I set out only to edit draft one, not to rewrite it. I was using software that color-coded new words green, contrasting with the black text of draft one. By the end of draft two, virtually the whole thing was green. So did I write a new book? Or edit an existing one? I think the answer is “yes.”
And now I’m editing again. It’s somewhere on the spectrum between a thorough rewrite and a check for typos. There’s quite a lot of new text, quite a bit of cut text, changed names and revised dates, but the basic book is more or less the same.
If you listen to writing advice, which I often do, you’ll hear that you can never ever do anything with a first draft. Anne Lamott specifically calls first drafts “shitty,” which is liberating, because then you can just write the thing with the knowledge that it absolutely will not be perfect. But my overthinking mind then wonders: if I realized after my first draft that I needed a new section, and then I wrote that section, is that section a first draft of that section? Does it needs its own second draft? Is each new paragraph a mini-first draft, even if the surrounding text is on draft three or four?
Then even every word becomes suspect: let’s say I initially wrote that “Joe smiled,” and then in draft two I struck “smiled” and said instead that “Joe beamed.” The phrase “Joe beamed” is now in draft two, but the word “beamed” is brand-new. Does it need a second draft of its own?
Obviously not. But this is where the mind loves to go.
It turns out that editing is not the process of replacing every word with a different word. It does mean “killing your darlings,” an overused and misunderstood bit of advice that you often have to delete the little phrases and moments that you absolutely love but which are not serving the story or the characters. You might need to get rid of that long, beautiful meditation on the sunset when there’s a car chase going on. For me, this often entails wiping out sentences and phrases that have been echoing in my head for three years but just do not belong in my book.
Editing means writing the book as a reader, and reading it as a writer. Someone in my writing group shared an idea that helped her in moments of overwhelm, when she wasn’t sure she knew how to create the book she had in mind: she looked at a picture of a potter throwing a pot, to remind her that the potter is always bigger than the pot, just as the writer is bigger than the book. It can feel sometimes that the work is far larger than the worker, that it can’t be tamed, let alone perfected. But at the end of the day I’m like that potter at the wheel, shaping bit by bit until the whole is some compromise between what I wanted the book to be, and what it wanted to be.
But at some point, the potter has to fire the clay. Stop shaping it and commit. Likewise, the writer at some point has to stop editing, stop tweaking words and shifting dialogue, and decide that the thing is done.