Editing has always held me back as a writer. Not that I don't know how to do it. It's that for a long time, I didn't know when to stop.
I would often take ages just to get one story's plot to the point where I could write it down. Sometimes even after I did, I'd rewrite it again and again, rearranging plot points and reinventing characters. I've rewritten "Perdition Lost" so many times since the first draft in... what, 2001? 2002? I almost got tired of looking at it. Several plot points are still there, especially the ending, but things have changed from the original draft. The main character was originally Malphas. At one point I tried writing it from the point of view of a pretentious theologian, like C.S. Lewis without the personality. I finally settled on Samhail as the viewpoint character. Even my religious beliefs changed since the original draft, from vague agnosticism to proudly Episcopalian. If I were to write an afterlife story now, from scratch (which I might), it would be completely different.
Then there's "The Tether." I found the first seed of that story in high school. I've changed the setting--from one end of the tether to another, to the colony on the top, to the city on the bottom. I've changed Nick from regular kid to runaway and back again. Michael used to be Michelle. And then there was the problem of figuring out where the tension would come from. The earliest drafts had a forced terrorism subplot. I tried to pull off an awkward teenage romance. It really only came together when I decided to make Michael a boy. I figured out that the story was about friendship, more than romance.
And then there's the novel I've been working on. One rewrite was absolutely necessary: the first draft, back in 2002, was a mere germ of an idea, and it reads like I made it up on the fly. The second revision was also necessary: I found a children's book with almost the exact same idea, and changed everything appropriately. I think it's had the rough plot for 7 years now. I'm only now nailing it down, because I kept chiseling away at it when what I really needed was a careful (but not too careful) blueprint.
Three things helped in recent months. They not only helped me get my ideas into a readable form, they helped me get my ideas from the idea stage to posting on this blog in a relatively short time.
One was my writer's group. I read most of these stories to that group, and thanks to their response, I became more confident in my work. They not only gave constructive advice, they helped me lighten up so I could appreciate what works, and not just obsess over what doesn't. It also gave me the confidence to share my work with the world.
Second was a book I only discovered a few weeks ago, at a used bookstore. I think it was Write Faster, Write Better. I didn't find it in my next visit. I only flipped through it, but it gave one useful hint: plan ahead. It's no different from sketching before a painting, or storyboarding before a movie. I'd resisted it after reading other writing books, but I realized I'd been doing it all along. It was just between drafts. With a character sketch, and some plot sketches before I get started, I can get the story rolling right away, instead of doing it all as I go. At the same time, I still leave room for improvisation.
Based on this advice, I wrote one complete story with only a few pages of notes telling me who the characters were. The writing group gave me a very positive response, and I really only need to fine-tune it a bit before it's ready. I have enough notes now for two other stories. One of 'em's about werewolves.
Third was reading about editing. For this, I need to talk about two books.
First is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I got this years ago, when I worked at a bookstore. It goes into a lot of the nuts and bolts of correcting your own work. It's useful for tips on how to make the story clearer and know when to show and tell. More recently, though, I read The Artful Edit, which covers some of the same material as Self-Editing, but goes deeper into the whole philosophy and mindset of editing. Editing is really all just about reading. The earliest editors, after all, were scribes, who would insert their opinions and interpretations into texts they copied. So to a large extent, self-editing is when you read your work the way someone else would, and note what works and what doesn't.
I especially found its discussion of the Macro Edit and the Micro Edit useful. For both, it used The Great Gatsby as an example, noting how Fitzgerald fine-tuned it so skillfully with the help of his editor. The Macro edit is revision of the structure of the story, the flow of the plot, progression of themes, etc.; and it showed how Fitzgerald used this to spread out hints about Gatsby's character. The Micro edit is the actual correction of the style; the book points to where Fitzgerald cleaned things up from his original draft. I'd always mixed Macro and Micro together before. I'd just start revising and correct both style and structure at once, often leading to a complete rewrite when all I wanted was to spruce up the text.
Lately I've been promising a story called "Rina," and I'm still working on it. In fact, I'm getting closer every day, and that separation of Macro and Micro editing is helping me do it. In the past few days, I read through the draft as it was, and made notes on what to change about the plot. Now, all my effort in editing is going into making those specific changes, without worrying about how the words sound. I'm not using so much time rearranging and redoing the pieces.
The book also had some good hints on Micro editing, with the general idea of saying what you mean, without too much embellishment.
If nothing else, it made me want to read The Great Gatsby again.
I'm pretty happy and excited about my work. I hope to post it very soon. I even plan on submitting to some actual editors before too long. For the longest time, all I had to submit was "Perdition Lost." Now I've got all this. Woo.