Wednesday, January 30, 2013

And Now Back to Our Show

Charon the Editor and his boat full of Writers

How many drafts is the right amount? How many helpless friends (victims) should read your unedited story before either they, or you, get tired of commenting? How much is too much and how much is just right? Do you need a story editor as well as a copy editor – and should you let them meet over dinner? Tough questions and all of them deal with the thorny issue of editing.

There are books on editing, there are histories on editing, there are memoirs by editors and even YouTube videos that droll or drool on and on about the craft. One could leave the room thinking the author had little to do with the work; it’s all about the editing and the editor.

Now, I’m not going to pick on these arcane practitioners and magicians, they have more than once turned lead into gold. Often a thankless job (but well paid for some), I can imagine them grinding through a manuscript wondering, “What the hell was he thinking?” while their red pen bled over the well-crafted lines of text.

So, how many drafts is the right number? My guess is that seven hundred and thirty-one seems right. By the hundredth you hate the thing, by the five hundredth, suicide is sitting in the next room sharping its quill, and at seven hundred you are now a confirmed alcoholic. So it only stands to reason that you are done by 731 (which is not a prime number).

Of course if this were true, no book would ever be printed or manuscript even finished. You can easily polish away the finish. Sadly, during editing, much of the soul in the first draft is lost or even worse, muddled. Crisp and sharp can easily be honed away. Yes, it can be added, but after a million words, often the first lines are better than the last.

For me the story is critical, get it down, tell it all, push it along. There is no waiting at the train station, get on and hang tight. Tell everyone, who will listen, that the first draft is done. Celebrate. They will look at you strangely (with justification) and smile. Your hope is they don’t ask, “And when can I read it?” because you haven’t a clue. Editing stands before you, like dark Charon, with his hand out asking for coins.

For me, I copy the manuscript (Version 1.0) and re-title it 2.0 for first edit, checking for the obvious spelling errors (the is not and isn’t phase), make notes about characters lost or rediscovered. I scan for flow and broad continuity. Then move on to Edit 2.1.

This is a printed version, large type (12 pt.), header and footers, page numbers and the like. It is simple amazing how differently the MS reads on paper. The eye and brain have been trained for years to see things in a better aspect than on a 21 inch monitor (Apple or Dell makes no difference). The errors just jump up, the sentences seem new, the story more real. And my pen gently bleeds across the page; I have blisters on my fingers.

Then back to technology Ver. 2.2, revise the MS, and let’s give it another try, Ver. 2.3. Here’s something important. When I give readings at book signings, I print out the pages in large type so these old eyes can better read the lines. When this is done, I find that, even a year or two later, the phrasing often needs changing and the story needs editing – but it’s too late. So I suggest, and this is very hard to do, that you read out-loud your story, as if there were an audience (sitting in rapped attention) before you. The changes you make as a result of this simple exercise will not only make the MS better, it will make it a hundred times better.

The second to last thing I do is send the MS to the copy editor, the last thing is to read it one more time, edit Version 2.732.

More later . . . . . . .

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