Editing makes me neurotic

StressI’m sure most people think authors are a calm and level-headed breed. Our bio and PR pictures depict us as well groomed and smiling, and we try to be witty and intellectual at dinner parties. Ours is one of the few professions where glasses and gray hair can actually improve our standing and charisma.

It’s all true (not), but you should sit with me when I’m editing or polishing, like I have been this past week. It’s true that I rarely need haircuts as the final draft takes shape – I’m too busy tearing out my hair. My expense sheets tend to fill up with purchases of coffee and whisky. There is a very good reason why authors have had a reputation of being manics or drunks, or just plain neurotic.

Editing is a love-hate relationship with my book. I’ve already lived with it for over a year and the honeymoon period is over. As I work my way through the manuscript, page by page, line by line, I suffer radical mood swings from “this scene totally rocks, this is NYT bestseller material”, to “what a pile of ****, I’m a terrible writer.” As the saying goes: Feel the fear and do it anyway, right?

Some of the things rattling around my head include: Plot arcs: Is this tense and dramatic enough, does it flow properly, is it exciting and believable? Characters: Will the reader fall in love with them, hate the bad guys, laugh with them, cry with them, dream about them? Structure: Are my paragraphs of varying length, am I overusing adjectives, or adverbs, are all my sentences “he did this, he did that”? Word choice: Should he scowl or frown, chuckle or giggle, is it a chill wind or an icy wind? And my own pet bugbear: Does she look, see, gaze, study, glance, peer, gawk, goggle… or a hundred other words that just mean “she saw something, dammit”?

You might not think that every word matters but it does. So does sentence length, and knowing when to interject a feeling, knowing when not to state the obvious because the reader will get it, when to foreshadow, when to trick the reader, when to layer in backstory… The irony of writing is that if an author does pay attention to all these things, the reader will never know because they will be swept along by the story without the mechanics of the written word getting in the way. Next time you are yanked out of a book because of how a sentence was worded, stop and think about it for a moment and you’ll probably understand what the writer missed. We’re human, mess up we sometimes do. (See what I did there?)

At the editing stage it is so hard to remain objective. I can agonize over a word choice or the form of a sentence only to come back ten minutes later and put it back the way it was. I’ve been known to kill masterful art because it is too verbose or intrusive at that point. On the flip side, I’ve added in horrible and clumsy explanations because I’ve convinced myself that the reader won’t understand without it. There comes a point at which I no longer trust what I’m doing – I’m fiddling with the manuscript because I’m afraid to let it go, let it fly the nest. This is where the beta readers and professional editor save my bacon by bringing fresh objectivity.

Thankfully, I’m a harsher critic of myself than others are. I’ll beat myself up mercilessly, but if my editor or readers give me constructive criticism I will hang on their every word and happily consider their changes. I’m quite harmless in that regard. I might be neurotic but I’m not an axe-murderer, so sleep well at night.

So if you ever consider me neurotic and overly-sensitive, with a tendency to flip-flop and waffle, then you know you’ve caught me editing and polishing. Just smile, back away, and when you turn the corner, run like hell.

Oh, did I say how much I love writing? Yes, even editing. Love-hate, remember?



First and final draft

EditingSomebody recently asked me how much the final draft differs from the first. Great question! Here is a snippet of the first and final drafts:


First Draft

She sat up, her head held high. Alice wasn’t going to win! She thought of Mampalo, and the physiker and the klynaks. They all believed in her, and there was one thing that she was determined to master. But first she had to prove Oban wrong. That wasn’t going to be easy, but she would start now!

When she emerged from the hatch onto the outside deck, there was a strong wind that blasted her with dust. She coughed and turned downwind. The crew worked furiously, reminding her of a nest of hive bugs. They had stowed the canvas awning that had shaded the deck, and men were aloft handing down globe lights, securing ropes, and lashing equipment to ladders and rails.

They seemed oblivious to the dust blowing around them, whipped up into eddies and finding its way into just about everything. Hazy circles, low in the sky, marked the position of both suns shining dimly through the overcast. Storm clouds threatened the aft starboard side of the ship, as if chasing them. Lightning crackled above her, arcing with a bright flash into the dust ocean. Her head began to throb once again.

She jumped in surprise, and then darted amongst the crew to the stairs. She ran up them two at a time, even though the ship pitched heavily. She turned her back on the flying dust, and knocked on Oban’s door.

Upon his command she marched boldly inside and shut the door behind her. The noise of the wind subsided immediately. The rear windows had been fastened shut and the drapes pulled closed, as if such an act could end the storm biting at the ship’s heels.

Oban looked up at her and scowled. “Are you going to annoy me every time you see me?” he said. His eyes flicked to her hands as if expecting a tray. “What do you want now?”

She took a deep breath, and dared look him in his black and purple-blotched eyes. “I want to fix your book, sir. It was my fault that it got wet, and I intend to repair it for you.” His glare and pursed lips drained her courage. Her shoulders dropped, and she almost ran from the room.


As Published

She bolted upright and blew all the air out of her lungs. Alice wasn’t going to win. Mampalo and the physiker believed in her, even the Klynaks did. The navigator didn’t, but she would prove him wrong.

She jumped up and headed topside. When she emerged from the hatch, a strong wind blasted her with dust. She coughed and turned downwind. The crew worked furiously like a nest of hive-bugs, as they took down globelights, secured ropes, and lashed equipment to ladders and rails. They wore bandanas against the swirling dust, but their skin was bright red. Sheets of the grey powder lashed over the ship and swept across the deck to pile up in the corners.

Hazy circles marked the position of both suns above the overcast. Inky clouds chased the ship, flickering white as lightning stabbed within them. Thunder crashed, rumbling across the sky like the Gods at war. Her head throbbed.

She clasped one hand across her nose and mouth and ran up the aft stairs two at a time, gripping the rail as the ship pitched. She knocked on the navigator’s door. Upon his command, she marched inside and the wind slammed the door behind her. The howling of the wind subsided. She brushed a thick layer of dust from her clothes. He had fastened the rear windows shut and pulled the drapes, as if doing so could deter the storm biting at the ship’s heels.

His head jerked up. “Are you determined to pester me at every opportunity?” His eyes flicked to her empty hands. “What do you want?”

She met his gaze. “I want to fix your book, sir. I allowed it to get wet, and I intend to make it good.”


Several things to notice here:

  • The final draft is less verbose, with much of the filler removed. I hope you’ll agree that it is easier to read
  • The verbs in the final draft are more active, more exciting, e.g. “bolted upright”, rather than “sat up”
  • ┬áThe final draft is more dramatic, with greater atmosphere
  • The dialog is snappier

I think this is a good example of how the first draft is meandering and definitely not polished enough for publication.


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