Editing a novel, or screenplay, or even short story, hypothetically, should be easy.
I mean, most of the hard work is already done. You’ve created the world of the story. The main characters. The central conflict. The secondary threads. The theme. And likely had a hell of a time writing out some of the best scenes in the story.
But why is it that editing a story, trying to get it to the “next level,” can sometimes be so hard?
This is something I noticed when editing my “first” novel Nemesis.
Nemesis was not my first novel. Way back in 2007 I wrote a lengthy door stop of a novel. A thriller, of sorts. A kind of Chuck Pahlniuk-inspired messy tome about an office worker fed up with his bosses, who discovers he’s a part of a secretive organization that runs the world. Kind of like a half-assed Matrix. Or like a less sexy, less exciting version of the graphic novel Wanted.
It was a disaster, this first novel of mine. And not just because of a problematic narrative and witheringly boring characters. But because after I’d finished writing it, I sat back, and realized all I had on my hands was a giant compost heap of words with little connective tissue binding the Frankenstein thing together.
It demoralized me. So, I stuffed this embryonic mess into a plastic Kroger’s bag, all 500+ double-spaced pages of it, threw it into a big plastic bin, where it remains to this day. Sometimes I pull it out. Blow off the dust and cobwebs. Glance through the hastily typed sentences, only to stuff it back into its sarcophagus once my eyes begin to glaze over.
If your writing bores even yourself, you’re really in trouble. I mean, how the hell are you ever going to convince a random stranger to buy your book if you can’t even motivate yourself to read it?
My first novel was a failed experiment. But not a wasteful one. It taught me a lot about writing. About the importance of having a good outline (either written down or kept in your head). About staying focused. About keeping a steady pace, rather than trying to smash everything out in frenzied all-nighters. It was strange how obsessed I became writing it out. Imposing a completely unnecessary deadline for myself, as if believing I had to finish it before dropping dead.
I’m proud that I finished it. I suppose that was the real goal all along. Just write out something long and detailed. Like straining to lift a heavy weight at the gym to impress no one in particular. Maybe you throw your back out lifting it. But so what? You lifted a giant weight you never thought you could. That’s got to count for something, right?
Years later, having self-published my first “real” novel. At least, my first fully completed one. And now editing my “second,” I’ve found the rewriting/redrafting process slightly easier. At the least, I’ve gotten over the self-doubt and emotional immaturity that plagued me in my first attempt. I’m convinced all the struggles associated with writing are psychological, and can be mitigated by discipline and form. It’s a craft, after all. Not alchemy. Not magic. Though it feels like it is sometimes.
I think editing a novel can be a struggle for several reasons.
The first has to do with the quality of the manuscript you’re working on. How much precision and clarity you’ve built into it from the beginning. The more knots you leave behind in the first draft, the harder it is to untangle them in subsequent drafts. It’s easy to be clipping along, and think, “I’ll deal with that incongruity later.” But what happens when the potholes become gaping sinkholes? Have you ever seen a construction crew just randomly throwing bricks together into a pile, with the intention to fix it later once the structure is complete? Ridiculous. They operate based on a blueprint. A set of plans. Even a committed Anti-Outliner has at least some kind of vision for his story.
This is where discipline comes in. It’s better to spend time getting 500 words mostly right then banging out 1,500 words of utter gibberish. Dean Koontz writes this way. He doesn’t move on until he gets a passage right, rewriting as he goes. Considering that he puts out about three to four (or more) books a year, that strategy must work pretty well. He’s a machine. Danielle Steele likely has a similar method, as she pumps out 7-8 books a year these days. You write until it’s right, then move onto the next passage.
Secondly, rewriting, or editing, is more a passive experience than the actual writing is itself. When I write, I feel like I’m in the driver’s seat. I’m in control. I’m the ringleader directing the various acts in the circus. But when I edit, it almost feels like I’m just watching TV. Even though I’m reading, because it’s my writing, it’s like a switch gets turned in my head. Sit back. Take it easy. Go with the flow. It’s a conscious effort to break this urge, and tweak stuff on the page. Making matters worse, ironically, is spell check and grammar check. It can make the whole editing process feel rote and mechanical. Just click “fix” on each error. Then onto the next.
Thirdly, the work feels “written in stone.” It’s not always easy to determine whether a passage is where it needs to be. That takes a neutral third party. Someone not afraid to tell you, “Hey, this actually kind of sucks.” It’s much easier to just glide on by, assured in a chapter’s “greatness.” Is rewriting this scene really going to make much of a difference? Is it really worth my time to dig deeper into this character interaction? Nah. Besides, I cleaned up the grammar and misspellings. Good enough for government work.
Fourth, as hinted at above, you simply don’t know how something comes across to a reader other than yourself. A passage may feel perfectly logical to you, but is unintelligible to someone else. You simply don’t know what you don’t know. Or maybe a certain scene felt inspired and necessary to you, but confusing and boring to another reader.
Fifth, and by no means final, is perfectionism. You start rewriting one passage, which only leads to having to rewrite another one. And then maybe you realize it’d be really cool if you just added a little something here. A line of dialogue there. Before you know it, you’re taking the whole scene in another direction that will force you to rewrite everything else to fit this new “vision” you’ve just had.
So, what is a solution to avoiding some of these editing pitfalls? I’d say the best thing is to follow the Koontz-Steele Method: Put as much effort into the first draft to avoid complicated editing maneuvers later. This may require constructing a better outline.
But what if you don’t outline? Or what if you use a light outline, letting yourself freestyle as needed? Then understand the genre you’re writing in well enough to know the kinds of conventions and expectations. I think this is the secret to Koontz and Steele’s longevity and prodigious output. Koontz mostly writes thrillers, dovetailing into other sub-genres as he chooses. Steele has cornered the market on romance for decades now. Both writers know their genres inside and out, and know their audience. And because of that, it wouldn’t surprise me if when they write, a lot of the plot is already mapped out in their heads. I mean, in a romance, at some point the two lovers are going to meet, they’re going to break up, and they’re going to get back together. Not necessarily in that order. But the Love Triangle is almost certainly going to make its presence known. For thrillers, you generally open up with a crime, especially a murder. And it’s a given that someone close to the hero will betray him. There’s a high probability of a final showdown involving guns, or threats of death. The hero wins by the skin of his teeth. You get the idea here.
Does that make all writing just a structured process? For the most part, yes.
“But that doesn’t sound creative. That doesn’t sound fun.”
Actually, I disagree. It gives you a set of rules to play by. But that doesn’t mean it has to be boring. Ever sat down to play Monopoly with three good friends or family members? How often does that become a boring event? Almost never. And Monopoly has plenty of rules.
Think about the book The Shining by Stephen King. It’s basically a haunted house story. Nothing new there. Richard Matheson did his own haunted house story with Hell House, another horror classic. The difference is that King took a familiar blueprint, and applied his own voice and style. As did Matheson. Editing should be less about the mechanics of writing itself. It should be more about making sure your voice is on the page. Your uniqueness.