As I mentioned yesterday, I am within days of e-publishing a novel. It’s about the decline and fall of the Inca Empire from 1470 to 1540, told from the perspective of one of the last survivors of the Inca nobility. I’ll be blogging about this quite a bit for the foreseeable future, and today I thought I’d talk about what it’s like to edit something of the length and complexity of a novel-length manuscript.
There’s an excellent quote by James Michener that I came across the other day. “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.” For me, that’s the whole thing in a nutshell. People think finishing a manuscript means you have written a book, but nothing could be further from the truth. Completing a first draft is like having a baby, but you still need to bring that kid up right before you trust it to interact with the wider world outside of your supervision. If writing is procreation –with all the fun and pain that goes along with that– then editing is the long and tedious but ultimately rewarding process of parenting.
First, a Hard Truth
Let’s start with the complete first draft. You have hundreds of pages on a computer or on a stack on your desk, and there is a powerful temptation to call that ready to go. You are already so far ahead of the people who dabble and daydream about achieving what you have just accomplished. After all, it has characters, conflicts, memorable scenes of triumph and tragedy, and a satisfying heft to it. What more do you need? Well, for a start, I guarantee you it should be at least ten percent shorter. Twenty percent would be even better.
“Ouch!” I can hear you protest. “This is a finished work! Everything I’ve written is there for a reason, Geoff, and wait until you read this part about–”
Nonsense. The sooner you accept the fact that a first draft is an overwritten, meandering, amateurish piece of sputum –as Nabokov so graphically called it– the sooner you can roll up your sleeves and get ready to untangle the spaghetti-esque plotting and bleach out all that purple prose. You have to throw it into a pot and boil out all the sap. William Faulkner told you to, “Kill your darlings,” and it is going to be a long and bloody process. Somewhere buried under all that copy there is a story about people suffering, and it needs to be excavated out from under all that unnecessary dross you piled on top when you had to cover the blank page with all that ink so it would stop staring at you.
Okay, I’ll stop belabouring the point. Let’s get into specifics…