Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Revision for the Rest of Us: Five Strategies for Writers

In prepping for a stint at the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference next month, I came across this from author Katherine Paterson: “I wish for every writer in the world an editor like Virginia Buckley.”

I was among the lucky ones; Virginia Buckley edited my first two novels. As Paterson notes, she had a gift for seeing beyond a messy draft to a real story. Guided by her gentle prodding, revision was easy. One of my deep regrets as a writer was letting an agent convince me that I needed to cast my nets beyond her shores. I would have learned much more, much quicker, had I stuck with Virginia.

These days, editors like Virginia Buckley and the venerable Maxwell Perkins (check out Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit to learn more about how he helped Fitzgerald shape The Great Gatsby) are hard to come by. Editors are busier than ever. So are agents.

If you have the money – a few thousand dollars or so - you can hire a freelance editor. If your concept of publishing is to throw your book at the wall and see if it sticks, you can forego editing altogether.

For the rest of us, here are five editing strategies:

·        As Bell explains in her book, there are two types of editing. She calls them macro and micro; micro is often called line editing. Once a draft is finished, it’s tempting to jump straight to micro-editing: clarifying sentences, correcting language, fixing discrepancies, adjusting the balance between showing and telling. But most drafts are best served if the writer first takes the macro-view, finding and fixing problems with intention, theme, structure, foreshadowing, character, and continuity of tone.
·        Editing is not mopping the corners. It’s probing the entire structure, from the ground up. Treat your book like a house constructed by a well-meaning faulty builder. Search from foundation to rafters to find the weaknesses. Trust me: they’re there.
·        Editing happens in rounds, each one circling closer to the book’s truest and finest form. Don’t think you can do it once and be done.
·        When editing, don’t be the writer. Be the reader. Get distance from your manuscript. Though you’ve worked hard on your draft and you’re dying to move forward, don’t do it. Wait. Wait several weeks if you can. Then come at the book in the most objective way you can find. For me, this entails uploading my manuscript on my e-reader. That way, it looks like a book. When the waiting is over, I read with pen in hand, jotting notes in a simple lined, spiral notebook. Because I can’t fix as I go, I avoid micro-editing too soon. I write in longhand so I can get wild and messy on the page, bracketing, drawing lines and arrows to connect ideas, circling important points, writing in the margins. When I’ve finished re-reading, I have several pages of notes to guide my revision.
·        Engage trusted readers. Not your family, not your friends. No one who’s worried about hurting your feelings. Your trusted readers should be smart and tough. They’ll be fallible – but so are you. Either address or dismiss each comment they make. For every comment you dismiss, you should be able to articulate why.