I recently discovered some writers enjoy editing. I’m sure there must be something wrong with them because editing essentially means fixing mistakes you’ve made. Do any of us like to be faced with their mistakes? Certainly not. So, enjoying editing must be a form of masochism. Or self-flagellation, perhaps. In any case, it is not supposed to be pleasant in the normal way. Unless you crack the code, that is.
Okay, I admit there’s no code as in “The Da Vinci Code” or the Enigma. But it sounds impressive so that’s how I called it. The truth is, I think I found a way to distance myself from my own writing when it’s time to start editing so that I can make editing a lot more productive and a lot less unpleasant.
Distance is key. Stephen King talks about it in “On Writing”, which I willingly admit is the only writing instruction manual I have ever read and will read because writing manuals are not how you do writing. Same with parenting. Have one book to help you with some general guidelines if you need them but don’t drown in child-rearing literature because, well, drowning is bad.
Anyway, so King advises that once you finish a draft, you should let it sit for a month at least before you start editing it. The reason? Perspective. It’s a common joke among the writers on Twitter — and I’m sure in real life — that at the writing stage you sometimes get mesmerised by the brilliance of your mastery of language and stylistics, and then, at the editing stage, you see it’s all a load of very smelly crap. This is why a draft needs to sit. So you can distance yourself from it and then look at it with (relatively) fresh eyes.
I’ve been doing this with all my books and, by the way, “all my books” is not supposed to sound impressive. It’s the key to the code cracking. I’ve found a month of sitting is often not enough but since our time on Earth is not indefinite and neither does it stretch for our convenience as I like to remind my daughter, a month is what I set myself as a target. That is, before it hit me. The code-cracker idea.
It’s not my idea, actually. I saw it somewhere on the net. The idea comes down to this: Keep busy. It was an advice given to writers on submission as a way of coping with the anxiety of anticipation. Keep busy, this writer said, so you don’t have time to think about rejections.
Right now, I’m working on my dreamer story (and I have yet to come up with a good enough title), while Second Skin sits and matures. But at one time, the two overlapped: I was proofing Second Skin and writing the dreamer story; writing in the mornings, proofing in the afternoons.
It was an interesting feeling. A split feeling, I might add. A bit like a gash in the brain but not as gruesome or painful. And, as it happens, it hit me. Most of my brain was so preoccupied with where things were going in the dreamer story, I didn’t care this much about Second Skin. Not as an author proofing her work. I cared about where the story was going and how it was getting there. I was reading my own book as if it was someone else’s.
This is the perspective I believe we should all strive for when editing. It’s always easier to pick out another author’s mistakes and appreciate their strong points than it is with your own book. I’ve proved this empirically, if only to myself but I’m sure there is research on that. The best way to gain this perspective is to let a manuscript sit for a year or more, until you forget about the story in it. But I don’t have years. I don’t believe in the “It’s never too late” adage and I will dedicate a separate blog to it. So I needed alternatives and I found one.
Now, the split approach as I will call it from now on because I like the sound of it does not eliminate the need for the “sitting” of the manuscript. I proofed Second Skin and now it is sitting for another month before I go through it in chase of bad language (I can’t focus on language if I keep running into logic lapses, continuity gaps and typos). At the time, the dreamer story will be sitting, too, hopefully, and I will have moved on to my plane story, which is a baby in its first draft. I will be writing the second draft in the mornings and editing Second Skin in the afternoons.
Then, when that’s done and ready for querying, it will be time to start editing the dreamer story while the plane story sits. Which means that I will need a new manuscript to start on, to keep the split open and working. Fortunately, I already have the idea and I’ve even written a paragraph. The best thing? That one will be a crime story. A completely different genre. Now that will give me some distance from the fantasy worlds I’ve been living in for the last I’ve-no-idea-how-many-exactly years. Talk about gaining perspective.
Never an empty hour is my motto. If I keep myself busy with one manuscript I simply won’t have the mental capacity to get preoccupied with another, at least not on a level that will interfere with my editing, such as, for example, getting bogged down into a bad phrase when I should be looking for plot gaps and vice versa. Editing takes place in stages. If I mix these, they all suffer and I suffer, too, because I will need to edit more than what I consider healthy.
So, the key to cracking the code of editing and taking the sting out of facing your mistakes is preoccupation. Preoccupation with one work only so you can switch on your reader brain for the other. The reader brain is the best editing brain. Unless you can afford a professional editing service, of course. Then you don’t need to worry about any of that.
Yet money concerns aside, I’ve found I actually almost like editing when I do it from the perspective of a reader. I can pretend I’m picking out and being outraged at the mistakes someone else made. For a while, at least. It’s good for the ego, even if it only works for a while.
P. S. I let this blog draft sit for two hours before I edited it. A lot of it sounds bonkers at the second reading. Or it would, if I didn’t know myself. Because I do, it’s not bonkers. It makes perfect sense. I’m sure it does.