We all had fun watching Christine O’Donnell’s failed bid for the Senate. I particularly enjoyed her comments on evolution stated during one of her appearances on Bill Maher’s show. She wanted to know why we aren’t seeing monkeys evolving today. Maher makes the observation that she really thinks evolution is something we can observe happening right before our eyes. It made me think of one of those flip books I had as a kid. Turn the pages, and something morphs into something else.
In any case, this post is not about politics. It’s about editing, the kind of editing that has been consuming my brain for, oh, about two years now. My folks were visiting recently, right as I was sending off my most recent revised manuscript to the agent I’ve been working with. My Dad asked innocently, “Why does it take you so long to edit? Aren’t you just finding the typos?”
It’s true that statements like these make me want to jump from the nearest balcony, but my Dad didn’t mean anything by it. He’s not cruel, just unaware of how a writer works. He’s mystified, really, by the whole process, and I think he genuinely wanted me to explain. Problem is, he asked the question as he was loading suitcase into car, ready to depart. I couldn't help but think of the O'Donnell clip I'd seen the night before. Did my Dad really think a book could get written before his very eyes? He did. Pour out the thoughts onto the page. One draft, fully formed. Find the typos. Done.
So, let me try to de-mystify. I'll give you an example of how I edited one particular paragraph, keeping in mind that every other writer would edit it differently. Here’s the last paragraph from my prologue, with my thought process in italics. Incidentally, my prologue used to be eight pages and is now two. I cut a lot of extraneous information, which gets the reader to the present-time action of the book sooner.
Here’s the second draft (the first is completely different and gives too much of the plot away):
I no longer believe that it’s possible to accept anything, or anyone, at face value and maybe that makes me more cynical, less naïve, but that’s all in all for the good, I think.
(This is my protagonist, Louisa, talking. She has just finished summing up some of the things she believes, so this paragraph is a counterpoint to that. It’s fine, but I knew when I wrote it that it sounded a bit clunky and would also need expansion.)
I made some minor changes on the next draft:
I no longer believe that it is possible to accept anything, or anyone, at face value and maybe that makes me more cynical, less naïve, but that’s all in all for the good, I believe.
(I changed “it’s” to "it is" simply because I liked the rhythm better. Yes, rhythm is important in prose, too, not just in poetry. I changed the last clause from “I think” to “I believe” to create a sense of parallelism with the “I believe” clauses in the lines, and paragraph, preceding it. I’m liking it better now, but it still needs expansion.)
This is a late draft:
I no longer believe that it is possible to accept anything, or anyone, at face value. I no longer believe that it is enough just to pray for something to happen instead of going out and making it happen. I no longer believe that only the good girls, the ones who don’t make waves, will get to heaven. The old me might say I’ve become too cynical and too pushy and, well, I’d probably agree, but that’s all in all for the good, I believe.
(You can see I’ve expanded it quite a bit here. This expansion is possible because, after five drafts, I now have a better sense of what Louisa believes and what she doesn’t believe. This also creates a nice rhythm with the paragraph preceding it, which lists several things Louisa believes. I wanted to even out the number of beliefs with disbeliefs. I’m also clearly working with a prayer-like rhythm here, and the repetition helps that along. The prayer structure evolved by accident, but I like it a lot, and it fits very well with the themes of the book. There’s also been an adjective change, from “too cynical and less naïve” to “too cynical and too pushy.” Lou has evolved in these drafts to someone who is no longer afraid to take chances, when an extreme situation calls for it. I needed an adjective to reflect this, and "pushy" sounds like a word she would use.)
And this is where I’m at right now:
I no longer believe that a person’s worldview is fixed by the time she reaches adulthood. I no longer believe it’s enough just to pray for something to happen, instead of going out and making it happen. I no longer believe the good girls are the accommodating ones, the ones who don’t make waves. Old Me might say I’ve become too cynical, too pushy, and, well, I’d probably agree. But that’s all in all for the good, I believe.
(I’ve changed that first line as a result of understanding my character better. She’s come to realize that beliefs can change over time, so I wanted to reflect that. Little edits, such as changing “The old me…” to “Old Me…” reflect more of Lou’s conversational style. When you spend years with a character, you get a better sense of how she speaks!)
If your eyes glazed over after the first paragraph, I completely understand. This probably isn’t very interesting to anyone who isn’t a writer. I mean, I wondered how the repairman would fix my leaking kitchen faucet, but not enough to ask for details. In fact, when he started explaining about washers and whatnot, I slipped right into a waking coma.
So, when people want to know what I’ve been doing with my grueling, 10-hr work week, I can show them this. Then, imagine 300 pages of it. And this example is actually pretty tame. I’ve worked over single sentences 30 times or more. But, my point is that it would be hard for you to sit down next to me and watch me edit this book (you really need to be in my brain, and nobody wants to be there…). It’s almost as hard as it is for Christine O’Donnell to sit down and watch some stinky monkey turn into a God-fearing Christian.
p.s. It feels like it took billions of years to edit this book, but in evolutionary time, that's just a blip!