Tuesday, 10 November 2009

KILLING YOUR DARLINGS - SELF-EDITING FOR SOFTIES

One of my favourite writerly activities is editing my own work. Which is lucky, because it's also the most useful. It's also the skill that I know I've developed considerably since becoming published  -  I am much better at knowing much earlier what needs to go and how to rearrange what's left. I am becoming rather embarrassingly good at killing my babies. When they're misbehaving, anyway: obviously, sometimes my babies deserve to live. Then I dress them up and coo over them proudly (in private).

I suspect that this self-editing skill is very hard to acquire before you've been taken on by an agent or publisher, and before you're published. And thereby hangs the horrible Catch-22 situation: you can't fully learn the art of self-editing until you've been edited, and yet you won't ever be edited until you've self-edited your own work sufficiently to be taken on by an editor.

Don't get me wrong  -  I'm not for a moment saying I now don't need to be edited. Gosh, ask my editor if you're not sure about that. I still fail to spot things and I still need that expert outside eye. I plan to need an editor all my writing life  -  the day I think I don't need an editor is the day I become too arrogant to deserve publication.

Perhaps at this point you are thinking, "Never mind: I've heard that the editor will do it all for me so it doesn't matter if my work's not good enough when I first send it." If so, please a) stop right there and b) read this blog post about that.)

Perhaps at this point you are also thinking, "Pah, editing! Editing is censorship. Editing destroys the cathartic process of writing. Editing destroys the soul of my master-piece." If so, a) prepare to remain unpublished and un-read for a very long time and b) read this blog rant here.

Somehow, if you want to be published (or to self-publish successfully) you have to learn to look hyper-critically at your own work. You have to learn to see it through your readers' eyes (if you want any readers, that is). You have to learn what they will be thinking and which aspects of that you care about. You have to learn to spot, in your own work, the moment at which you risk losing a reader. And that's the baby you have to kill.

Luckily, instead of listening to me become crabbit on this subject, you can read this excellent post here from Editorial Ass. Please do read it because it really is excellent and there's no point in my repeating the advice. And do read the many useful comments below it. Lots of different ways to edit and some inevitable areas of disagreement -  this is not science, but art, remember. But lots of sense and practical advice. Work out what works for you, matched to your genre, as there are different requirements for each.

Edited to add: have just seen this great post from BubbleCow: Tips on Writing a Great Second Draft.

There's a reason why I think self-editing is so hard before you're taken on by agent or publisher: until that moment, you have to think that any negative comment is wrong. It's called cognitive dissonance: the inability to believe something that conflicts with an entrenched belief. Your entrenched belief is that your book is publishable, NOW. If an agent says, "Yes, I'll represent you because I think your book is publishable, but you'll need to change this, this and this," you think, "Hooray! they're right!" and you willingly change this, this and this. But when an agent says, "Sorry, I like lots of things about your book but it's not strong enough because of this, this and this, so I can't represent you," your inclination is to think, "Nah, just an opinion," and send it off to another agent.

Similarly, once you're taken on, you happily allow yourself to be guided because you trust this person. You trust this person because they agree with you: that your book is publishable. So editing becomes easier, you become open-minded instead of stubborn and blind, scales fall from eyes: suddenly you can see into your work like a reader, not just a writer. And self-editing becomes easier.

Trouble is, the actual writing doesn't...

www.pen2publication.co.uk
This may be the time to tell you that Pen2Publication is almost ready to go. I'm going to do a "soft launch" in a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, you, my lovely blog-readers, are welcome to visit the website at www.pen2publication.co.uk and have a little look. I've got some great people interested in working alongside me, too, so we'll be able to cover more genres than I could manage on my own. You can email me if you like but I'm not taking clients quite yet.

Off to do some editing of my own work. Hooray!

17 comments:

Anna Bowles said...

Now I have to go plugging myself again. I did a post on how to self-edit here

I constantly nurture cognitive dissonance while writing. On the one hand what I'm doing is the best thing ever - otherwise I'd have done something different, clearly. On the other, I know I'm preparing it initially not for the public but for an editor, be it my revising self or some bod in-house.

Off to look at the P2P site now...

Sally Zigmond said...

Good post. I much prefer self-editing to mangling my brain to squeeze out a few words every day. Now that's the hard bit for me.

And if I can (stupidly) initially produce a novel of 250,000--and believed every one was relevant, then reduce it to 100,000 words and then fatten it to 125,000 (not by adding what I'd originally removed) because an editor asked me to--but still didn't buy it, then anyone can do it.

Donna Gambale said...

Thanks for the post. I'll be doing this soon enough, and I can use all the advice I can get!

Arabella said...

I get a whole editing day to myself tomorrow! A whole day--can you imagine?

catdownunder said...

Gah! Cat hair! I cannot proof read my own work let alone edit it! It is like being a kitten and learning to clean yourself. You miss bits. There are parts which sre (seemingly) impossible to reach! There are parts you think are pristine and your mother (or the editor) comes along and begins to give you a brisk licking. It is all terribly uncomfortable at the time. I think it might feel better afterwards - a bit like a trip to the dentist.

JaneF said...

Me too, Arabella! Good luck with yours. I'm still at the cutting stage but am looking forward to messing with the chapter breaks - one of my favourite bits.

Thanks for this timely post, Nicola. Lots of stuff to think about.

Oh, and congrats to the 'mother' of the blog baby.

David J Griffin said...

Very good post, Nicola!

Personally, I had got out of the habit of editing, seeing as I'm no where near editing my third; and hadn't edited either one of the other two for years.

Although once I got back into the swing of editing my second again, (just finished, apart from one final read-through) I was actually enjoying it. I agree totally that, apart from editing being a necessity, it can be enjoyable.

Harry Markov said...

From the amount of short story writing I have done I know it can be a pain to murder your babies in the right way. from the professional Dexter-esque murder master piece, I manage accidental manslaughter or something. I agree that to be able to learn such a skill there have to be a professional environment that can actively guide and push forward.

Brenda said...

I doubt anyone can be objective about their darlings.

I gave the second draft of my novel to a friend who reads extensively in the genre and asked her to highlight the passages she skimmed. ALL my babies came back with a severe case of jaundice, but she was right. The surgery was devastating, but the patient survived and thrived.

Karen Jones Gowen said...

Brenda--what a really good idea! First time I've heard of this, and it is one of the best ideas I've heard for peer review.

Nicola Morgan said...

Brenda - great idea if you choose your friend very carefully and both of you are very very strong and open. It can also destroy friendships! Well done that it worked for you both.

catdownunder - your crazy cat cleaning analogy works really well!

Harry - you said "I agree that to be able to learn such a skill there have to be a professional environment that can actively guide and push forward." Indeed and that's the motivation behind pen2publication, as it happens!

Thanks, all others, and good luck with your editing at its various stages.

Harry Markov said...

I'd employ you, if I was anywhere near that stage and if I wasn't barely sustaining myself as it is. I haven't read that many agencies that offer the same services, but from what I perceive it's all reasonable prices for the work you will supply.

Janine said...

For editing, I use the AutoCrit Editing Wizard. It finds the things I miss because my brain knows what SHOULD be there.

Nicola Morgan said...

Janine - presume you mean proof-reading, rather than actual editing? It would have to be a very very clever piece of software to do actual editing, which requires a) an overview of the whole book and b) a human soul (!)

Amanda Acton said...

I've nominated you for the Superior Scribbler Award. Please go here and see what it's all about. =>

http://alimbtobepublished.blogspot.com/2009/11/superior-scribbler-award.html

Bethany Wiggins said...

Thanks for another awesome post. It's funny how practice makes thing easier--in this case, editing.

Donna Gambale said...

We know you saw this already, but we figured we'd make it official: This post earned you the title Tough Love Queen on the First Novels Club blog!