Monday, May 15, 2017

Editing and the Five Stages of Grief

Happy Mother’s Day! Hope everyone reading had a fun, relaxing day with the kids or hanging out with Mom.

Reflecting on Mother’s Day made me think of how the creative process is often compared to childbirth. Novel writing is no exception. It can easily take nine months (sometimes longer!) to finish a writing project, editing being the hardest, lengthiest part. Most writers will agree they love drafting but hate editing. Why is it so painful to go back and review your own words? I know for me it’s tough to reread what I’ve written because I’m either too critical where I shouldn’t be and not tough enough where it counts. It’s brutal to admit that a favorite scene, a beloved character, or even a gratuitous line may not work and should be cut to improve the overall pacing, plot, and/or cast. So, as with a death or loss, the editing process can be subject to the five stages of grief: 

First comes denial: So what the word count of my YA novel is 150K? Surely the right agent will see the necessity of every single word and will fall in love with the project anyway. Their enthusiasm will exude as they pitch the story, and it will sell, as is, even though it’s twice as long as average and it’s a debut. George RR Martin’s first book in A Song of Ice and Fire was 300K, after all!

Then comes anger and maybe a touch of righteous indignation: How dare they (critique partner, beta reader, friend, agent, editor) say that (scene, character, line) doesn’t work? They just don’t get the story!! How can they expect me to hack away at what was surely created through divine inspiration, not to mention my own blood, sweat, and tears??

Bargaining: Okay, well, maybe if I just cut a few extraneous words, I can keep this scene …

Then depression and reluctant acceptance sets in: This is when you begin to realize making tough changes is necessary and will strengthen the overall story.

This is the time to really take a critical eye to the pages. Even though all the characters are like your children, you may find one of them isn’t moving the story forward, may be detrimental to the pacing, and needs to go.
As hard as it is to cut characters, sometimes deleting scenes is even more difficult. One scene can often change the outcome of the story, and if that pivotal event could (or should) be cut, even if that means rewriting the last third of the novel, it has to be done.

But what about those instances where changes will make the story different, not necessarily better. Maybe the advice you received was simply a personal preference of the reader. How can you tell the difference?

If more than one person gives you similar feedback about a scene or a plot point or if you’re not getting the response to a certain character the way you intended, it’s time to reevaluate. The critique can sting at first, but it’s best to wait a few days, let the advice sink in, and then go back with the red pen and mark up your work. It’s like chipping away at a slab of marble-- most edits will streamline and polish the story and let the really important points shine through. And in the end, your work will be improved, your message will be clearer, and the overall story will be all the better for it.

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