Friday, March 16, 2012

Editing Doesn’t Have to be a Soul-Killing Existential Horror by Jeff Somers

Nobody knows anybody. Not that well.

Writing a book is sort of like going out on a three-day bender1. At first it seems like a good idea, then gets out of hand quickly, ending in tears, nausea, and lost time. Sometimes arrest. In extreme cases, loss of pants. Then, after you’ve sobered up, paid your fines2, and begged your loved ones for forgiveness, you look back on what you have created and frown in puzzlement, because you don’t remember most of it.

Novels are always surprises. Characters that by end of story are essential players are transparent ciphers for the first twenty thousand words. Plot twists that seemed brilliant on page 231 are rendered totally nonsensical by events on page 45. You forgot your own rules in the universe, you discover an inserted comment that reads “DON’T FORGET TO WRITE THIS SCENE LATER” on page 105, and you changed tense from third-person omniscient to second-person past perfect on page 145. You become convinced you are suffering from multiple personalities, because you don’t even remember writing most of it.

Don’t despair! This just means you are ready to embark on the most satisfying and amazing part of writing a novel: Editing3!

The trick to editing is to appreciate editing for what it is: The ability to fix your mistakes. The ability to improve, the ability to time-travel back to the day you drank an entire bottle of cough syrup and decided that Chapter 4 should be told from the dog’s POV, and change history4. Editing is not drudgery, or failure. Editing is a super power.

Every manuscript I write is a mess in draft one5. Usually literally, covered in coffee spills, tear stains, and sticky fingerprints, but also metaphorically. Some authors meticulously plan their novels, using software or flash cards or spreadsheets to plan out plots and keep track of characters6. My technique differs: I get really drunk and just start writing, using a strong visual image as a jumping off point. I just write; I am what scientists call a Pantser7. So my first drafts are messy, filled with digressions and false starts, characters and subplots that fade away and are never resolved or utilized, and new ideas introduced midway that change the entire scope and feel of the book. First drafts are sometimes difficult for this reason, as I get a little lost in the details8.

Details are not my strong suit; I am a man who often leaves the house forgetting to wear pants, after all.

As a result, editing is my favorite part of writing9. Because the heavy lifting is done – the plot has been mapped out, the characters defined, the whole point discovered and dusted off, marveled over. Editing is where I can clean everything up and make it resemble a novel instead of a Diary of the Insane10. Editing is also where I re-read my own creation with an almost childlike amazement that I created it, and in doing so I can riff on my own ideas the same way I get inspired by someone else’s work – I start thinking, well, this is okay, but what if this and that and before you know it, the book is eleventy billion times better11.

1    I say this largely because I usually wake up after Lost Weekends with epic hangovers and completed novels.
2    Possibly: Fled the country.
3    Stay with me, here.
4    You have to think of this imaginary chapter 4 as Adolf Hitler. You’d kill Hitler, wouldn’t you? Of course you would.
5    My agent and editors would probably edit that sentence to include most, if not all, subsequent revisions. They are mean.
6    Some authors also pay their taxes, obey the orders of peace officers, and never leave the house without pants. Pffft.
7    Ironically, I hate wearing pants. I’m not wearing any right now.
8    Plus, it’s difficult to work on a novel when you keep waking up in Mexican jails, pantsless, and everyone refers to you as Muchacho blanco estúpido.
9    Especially if I have convinced someone else to actually write the first draft as an unpaid ghostwriter.
10 Unless the title of the novel is, in fact, Diary of the Insane.
11 Approximate number.


  1. Absolutely love this. Also, I want "Editing is a Super Power" on a coffee mug.

    1. Me too. I already have too many mugs, but this would rule.

  2. Wait, you mean this stuff you sent me ISN"T the first draft??

    (See footnote 5 above, and believe it)

  3. I believe I am a Pantser, too (but I am currently wearing pants, if pajama pants count). To me, the first draft is equivalent to writing an outline. I love editing. Maybe that's why I refuse to write an actual outline before I start writing?

  4. Wow, I absolutely have to have an outline. I guess I am one of those boring, never get arrested pre-planners. The hardest part of editing for me is when I have written a scene I love or have some great dialog that absolutely does not fit in the arc of the story and needs to be cut. I always end with a story that is "eleventy billion times better" but some times it is hard to let go of that pet scene. For me it is not like killing Hitler it is like having your aged dogs, who is suffering from cancer, put to sleep. You move on and keep improving your life, or story as the case may be, but you never forget or totally get over your pets.

  5. Re: footnote #7, I discovered last weekend that my mother refers to diapers as "pantsers", making all writing discussions instantly 300% more funny.

  6. I found out the hard way about the joy of revising (and actually, just blogged about it from the writer's POV). But what a rare joy it is. Thank you for this hilarious, and very true, post.