Monday, April 7, 2014

The Joys and Pain of the Edit-Revise

Hi folks, Mark here with a few thoughts on my current experience: the joy-pain of the edit revise.

I've read The Lord of the Rings off and on since I was twelve. In many ways it has been the book of my life, and I don't mean that as an admission of nerdi-geek-ocd. It is a good friend, a teacher, source of solace when all other forms stale; Tolkien just works for me, and I am unapologetic about it. Deal with it. I hope my heaven has Rivendell and the Shire in it.

But the reason why I tag the Professor today is not for what he did in his novels. Whenever I read the volume, I always find myself dwelling on what he had to say in his forward about the drafting and editing process. He bemoaned his own lazy ways and poor typing skills, and then he said this: "and the whole story had to be revised, and indeed largely rewritten backwards."  The term 'backwards' which I italicized always gets me, and I spend wonderful minutes imagining how that process went for him. And then I tally up how much there had to have been that he had to account for, and I shudder as if someone had just told me a story about the Nazgul and I turn the page and immediately sink into the story.

Now, I realize the Professor's son lays out whole wonderful edit-revise story in his multivolume study. I have to confess I have not read them all. I just haven't found the will to purchase all of them in hardback, and for some reason I have yet to see the whole set presented in paper back. I may be cheap, or perhaps I prefer my visceral reaction and shudder too much to want to ruin it with terminal knowledge. There is just something magical in that term 'backwards' that gets me every time.

I am now going through the revision process for my third novel, Path of the Poet King, and I finally think I am at least getting closer to what the Professor had to go through. I find myself constantly thumbing through the earlier volumes to check names, dates, tone--all that cool writerly stuff that comes when you breach the 300,000 word barrier wandering around in a world you've created.  CJ Cherryh has been quite candid on her blog about the challenges she faces with her long running Foreigner series. She has even gone so far as to ask her readers to help her fill in blank spots from lost files.

I'm lucky in that I have a colleague and friend as my editor. Terri-Lynne DeFino's kindness and honesty makes it an easy process for us, or at least I like to think so. For Path of the Poet King, I've been working off some detailed edit notes she sent me, as well as insights I've gleaned from our periodic phone conversations, and I think I have begun to frame my own method for the joy/pain of the revise/edit. I used to quail when Terri would tell me to "kill a few of your darlings."  Agony, pure, simple, wretched agony.  But with this latest novel the delete key seems to work just fine. "Whoduthunkit"?

In the end I think I revise forward rather than backward. Most of my issues fall into the too much tell and not enough show variety. I had to admit to myself the finished first draft of Path was more of an ultra-shiny plot outline than a fully formed story. I went through once trying to tame point of view, and then again removing a preponderance of passive voice. And now, going through it a third time with Defino's notes I find that in removing all the introspection, circular thinking, and wheel spinning that suggests writing around a story as opposed to actually writing the story, I've rediscovered voices in characters I didn't expect, I've added flesh in dialog, and recovered some of the magic that was Pevana for me when I first started putting The Poets of Pevana together as a unified tale. The effect is altogether exhilarating as I inch towards the end of this pass. Despite the joy/pain of the experience, I know that Path is a better book than it was going to be at first, and I'm sure DeFino will put it and me through the pasta stretcher again to squeeze out more or our imperfections. And by 'our' I mean myself and the novel. In the end I believe the edit-revision process gives life to the story and also serves as an instructional tool for the author. And when you've done a good job of it, well, it makes that first pint at The Green Dragon taste that much better.

So, do you have a particular method you resort to during the dreaded edit-revise phase?

Mark Nelson


Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hi Mark! Thanks for another great post.

I actually really enjoy the edit-revise phrase. Maybe that's perverse or masochistic or whatever, but for me the rewrite is where I get to go back and add all the rich color to my pencil sketch. The sense of inspiration in that first draft is a nice high, but I find the experience of discovery and rediscovery in the subsequent drafts to be much more rewarding.

I tend to write forwards, backwards, in circles, and in multiple places at once as I get through my various revisions. Right now, I'm in the middle of revising the first 70K of Daughter of Aithne. The 70K checkpoint seems to be an important one for me; same thing happened in the writing of High Maga. I simply had to go back and firm up the first part of the book before I could continue with the second.

I am so looking forward to reading your third novel. I'm sure it's going to be wonderful. :)

Terri-Lynne said...

This just makes me so proud. And happy. And a little teary-eyed. You've always been a great writer, from the first lines of that novel I pulled out of the slush, but it's astounding to watch you grow in your process, to BE part of that process. I love you infinity!

Unknown said...

I've grown to love the editing stage, I must admit. I see it like producing a bonsai. First of all you have to grown the tree - sometimes my first stage is little more than a pot, some compost and a tiny plant. Which then grows, and grows, and grows some more. So much so that the time comes for much pruning. Sometimes this takes the form of hacking with garden loppers, other times it's neat tidying with the aid of secateurs.

And THEN I invariably find I've hacked too much, which I find A Good Thing, because it means that enough darlings have been slain.

I only know it's done when I take a deep breath and a few steps back, and I take a cursory glance, then a long hard look, and I find myself confronting something beautiful (flawless is too strong a word). It's then, and only then, that I'm confident to let it loose upon the outside world, whether it's beta-readers, editors or whatever. Only my local writers' group ever gets to see the raw stuff of the early stages...