Monday, April 19, 2010

Why you should not fear editing

Occasionally I admit to people I know that I am a writer. Generally this is either because I can sort of tell they must be kindred writers, or because I need to explain just exactly what I do all day. Most of the people I tell this to don't have a clear understanding of how publishing works, however. Some of them think that the writer is supposed to pay for all this. Some have maybe forked over cash to a vanity publisher. Some have maybe done some self-publishing (not the same thing, although self-publishing is NOT traditional publishing, either). Some are beyond me and have maybe just gotten pages and pages of editorial notes and are wondering if the editor who bought the story really wanted that one at all? The thing that many of the self-published writers I know are most worried about is that some editor is going to go in and change their stuff, tell them what's wrong, and the work will no longer be wholly theirs.

I can sort of understand this fear. I am reasonably skilled at drawing (by "reasonably skilled," I mean I have won art contests that funded some of my college education, sold illustrations, and was even a studio art major for about a year and a half, until I realized that words were more my thing). Something I learned early on is not to draw on other people's art. Let them do their page, and you do yours. Book illustration, of course, is subject to editing just as writing is. But painting is more of an individual event where you channel your glorious muse into your own personal creation.

Well, publishing isn't like that. Publishing is more like building a house. The design is still yours, but there are other people involved to double-check and make sure your house doesn’t fall down. If the paint job is great but your house is built on land that won’t drain, it will soon flood and rot away. You need that percolation test first. Editors (and critiquers) are people who test your idea along the way to make sure that your idea won't fall down at the first stress it meets. They're there to let you know where it's confusing, where Suzie's eyes turned from brown to green, to let you know what is physically or logically possible/impossible for her to do, according to the rules you've laid out in your story. They are not madmen swinging axes at your dream house. They want your house to not only look nice, but to survive a hurricane of readers all coming from different places. They want to help you so that the message you are sending is by and large the one that readers are getting. They let you know of possible problems. Then it's your job to figure out how to fix them. "But!" you cry. "They think I should put George on a motorcycle and give him piercings, and he isn't like that! He'd rather sit on the porch, listening to opera." Well, maybe the suggested solution is way off, in your mind, from what's really going on. But the suggestion is still helpful because it lets you know that your idea isn't getting across yet. That's when you go in and rev up the opera aspect, making it clear to the reader what's really going on in your book.

Recently I used Word 2007's combine document feature to compare my latest draft of a book with my very earliest. I knew it had changed (it's nearly 30,000 words shorter, for one thing), but I was amazed at just how different it had become when I saw pages and pages and pages go by before finding, here and there, an original word left. And yet--after all those critiques and drafts and suggestions, I feel like it's the version most representative of my original idea.

So don't be afraid of editing. When you're done, you'll see that your story will be yours more than ever. Really!