I’m sure most people think authors are a calm and level-headed breed. Our bio and PR pictures depict us as well groomed and smiling, and we try to be witty and intellectual at dinner parties. Ours is one of the few professions where glasses and gray hair can actually improve our standing and charisma.
It’s all true (not), but you should sit with me when I’m editing or polishing, like I have been this past week. It’s true that I rarely need haircuts as the final draft takes shape – I’m too busy tearing out my hair. My expense sheets tend to fill up with purchases of coffee and whisky. There is a very good reason why authors have had a reputation of being manics or drunks, or just plain neurotic.
Editing is a love-hate relationship with my book. I’ve already lived with it for over a year and the honeymoon period is over. As I work my way through the manuscript, page by page, line by line, I suffer radical mood swings from “this scene totally rocks, this is NYT bestseller material”, to “what a pile of ****, I’m a terrible writer.” As the saying goes: Feel the fear and do it anyway, right?
Some of the things rattling around my head include: Plot arcs: Is this tense and dramatic enough, does it flow properly, is it exciting and believable? Characters: Will the reader fall in love with them, hate the bad guys, laugh with them, cry with them, dream about them? Structure: Are my paragraphs of varying length, am I overusing adjectives, or adverbs, are all my sentences “he did this, he did that”? Word choice: Should he scowl or frown, chuckle or giggle, is it a chill wind or an icy wind? And my own pet bugbear: Does she look, see, gaze, study, glance, peer, gawk, goggle… or a hundred other words that just mean “she saw something, dammit”?
You might not think that every word matters but it does. So does sentence length, and knowing when to interject a feeling, knowing when not to state the obvious because the reader will get it, when to foreshadow, when to trick the reader, when to layer in backstory… The irony of writing is that if an author does pay attention to all these things, the reader will never know because they will be swept along by the story without the mechanics of the written word getting in the way. Next time you are yanked out of a book because of how a sentence was worded, stop and think about it for a moment and you’ll probably understand what the writer missed. We’re human, mess up we sometimes do. (See what I did there?)
At the editing stage it is so hard to remain objective. I can agonize over a word choice or the form of a sentence only to come back ten minutes later and put it back the way it was. I’ve been known to kill masterful art because it is too verbose or intrusive at that point. On the flip side, I’ve added in horrible and clumsy explanations because I’ve convinced myself that the reader won’t understand without it. There comes a point at which I no longer trust what I’m doing – I’m fiddling with the manuscript because I’m afraid to let it go, let it fly the nest. This is where the beta readers and professional editor save my bacon by bringing fresh objectivity.
Thankfully, I’m a harsher critic of myself than others are. I’ll beat myself up mercilessly, but if my editor or readers give me constructive criticism I will hang on their every word and happily consider their changes. I’m quite harmless in that regard. I might be neurotic but I’m not an axe-murderer, so sleep well at night.
So if you ever consider me neurotic and overly-sensitive, with a tendency to flip-flop and waffle, then you know you’ve caught me editing and polishing. Just smile, back away, and when you turn the corner, run like hell.
Oh, did I say how much I love writing? Yes, even editing. Love-hate, remember?