On Edits & Rewrites

The edits for THE DIVINE MACHINE (or whatever book two will eventually be called – that’s another blog post for another day) have arrived. 680 manuscript pages, with one or two comments per page, plus an eight-page cover letter describing high-level problems with the story.

753px-Belshazzar_s_feast,_by_Rembrandt

My first piece of advice – take a day or two to read and absorb the edits before starting a rewrite.

(You are permitted to weep openly, tear at your beard, rend garments, and cry out to the uncaring sky as appropriate during this time, if that’s part of your process.)

I’ve given and received editorial feedback over the years, and it’s a tricky business. You need to be honest without being cruel, which is actually harder than it sounds. When you’ve been working through a manuscript for days, it’s very tempting to amuse yourself with a little sarcasm, but what’s funny when you’re editing can be cutting on the other side. Brutal honesty is fine, but it has to be leavened with praise. Not too much praise – the author has to be able to trust the editor’s honesty.

Most edits are easily dealt with. A lot of the DIVINE MACHINE comments, for example, fall into three categories: poor, confusing or repetitive phrasing; muddled or contradictory descriptions, or lack of emotional affect. Poor word choices can be corrected; muddled descriptions are usually just a question of choreography, of adding context and motion. Adding emotion means taking a moment to react – the author knows, or should know, how the character’s feeling in that instant, but needs to convey it to the reader.

Other problems – ones of structure, of pacing, of plot – can’t be solved so easily. A book is a complex, living thing, and you’re talking about invasive surgery here. Lop off that extraneous subplot, and the book might bleed out through unplugged plot holes. Changing a character’s plot arc in Chapter 1 might require rewrites in Chapter 30.

The answer to almost any plot problem, by the way, is “tie it back to the main arc”. When you’re writing the first draft, you often don’t know exactly how the book works. You only figure that out along the way, or in retrospect. Later drafts and editing are all about bringing that arc out; if something doesn’t fit or doesn’t work, it’s because it’s clashing with that central story.

I find that when I’m writing a book, it’s all in my head – the whole project, from beginning to end. I can hold all the plot threads in mind at once, but only when I’m actively working on it. The act of submitting clears my memory, so I use the time spent reading through and making those easy stylistic fixes to “reload” the book, so I contain the whole plot again and can make a plan to tackle those big structural issues.

THE DIVINE MACHINE needs a lot of work, but I can see the end from here.

 

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