Writing Life #6: Self-Editing

Today I’m going to blather a little bit about editing. Not the sort of editing that comes when your editor says, “Hey! Fix this!” but rather the kind that comes when you look at your own work and say, “Hey! Fix this!”

A few months ago, I was on a five-author panel at Books, Inc. in San Francisco as part of Not Your Mother’s Book Club. Someone from the audience asked a question about what percentage of our first drafts actually ended up getting published. Most people gave very low numbers, but I blurted out “97%,” receiving a stinging high-five from Andrew Smith and angry glares from everyone else on the panel.

That 97% was an off-the-cuff answer and more than a little hyperbolic, in retrospect. My point was that a hell of a lot of what I put into my first drafts ends up in print. Is it always as high as 97%? Well, no. Of course not. In my first book, I added a little and took out a little on the advice of my editor and agent. In Boy Toy, of course, I cut a lot of material, but of what remained, I didn’t change a whole heck of a lot. Hero-Type changed the most from first draft to publication, but you know what? I think every word of that first draft ended up in print. The liminal (interstitial, if you prefer) drafts were almost all additions to what already existed, doubling the size of the original manuscript. But nothing really came out of it.

Wolverine: Worst Day Ever and Goth Girl Rising are the two ringers here. In both cases, that 97% figure holds up pretty well.

Why am I talking about this? Well, because I recently had an epiphany: The two projects currently occupying most of my time are going to need heavy, extensive self-editing.

There are a couple of reasons for all of the heavy lifting that I anticipate. For “The Monster,” well…it’s a monster! It’s a big, strange, ugly, unwieldy, complicated beast of a book (wow, you really want to read it now, don’t you? </sarcasm>), so it’s going to need a lot of going-over and fixing. There are whole stretches in the yet-to-be-finished first draft where I just wrote something like “GO ON FOR A LITTLE WHILE ABOUT [REDACTED] HERE.” I wasn’t ready to write that bit yet, so I put it off. Plus there are all kinds of strange little niggling textual bits that aren’t just right yet, things I need to have line up between the beginning and end of the book, but I won’t know how to line them up until I get to the end. So once I finish the first draft, I have to go back and re-jigger the beginning to get everything in place.

In terms of I Hunt Killers: Hey, this is my first book with a plot! Well, I’m joking, of course — all of my books have had plots, but they haven’t been terribly complicated. They haven’t had crazy twists and turns that keep you guessing. The characterization was where I put my twists and turns. In I Hunt Killers, the characterization is just as important, but since it’s a thriller, I’m going to have to go back through the book very carefully and remove anything that obstructs or obfuscates the plot.

I guess I should make sure I add here that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with all that self-editing, and I don’t have any sort of complex about it. I’ve just been fortunate that — so far — I haven’t published books wherein I’ve needed to use that particular tool to a great degree. Now I have two of them. That’s all. There’s no value judgment being made here.

I am also not saying editors aren’t important, either. Some people might be thinking, “If you have books where so much of the first draft goes through unchanged, what’s the point of an editor?” Well, let me tell you something: Even if every book of mine had a 97% through-rate, I would still say that that 3% is incredibly important. One thing I’ve learned is that changing a paragraph here or a sentence there is a small bit of labor over the course of a novel, but it can — and usually does — have an enormous and disproportionate impact on the story as a whole.

Of course, the magic lies in knowing WHICH paragraph or sentence to change, doesn’t it? And that’s where self-editing and a good editor are worth more than diamonds.

See y’all next week!

The comment form says, “Feed me, Seymour!” Don’t let it starve…

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