Vision and Revision

Not sure where I’m going with this — it’s just something I’m noticing. Twice in the past few weeks I’ve been approached by writers about editing their novels. That’s not a lot of potential clients, but I don’t promote my editing services, because I don’t really need or want a lot of clients.

In both instances, after I took a look at the opening chapters and offered some basic comments (for free — that’s so a writer can evaluate my services), the writer retreated rather than hire me.

Both manuscripts were weak, in various ways. Now, I’m not an abusive editor. I don’t tell people, “This is awful!” But I don’t pull any punches either. I might say something like, “You need to visualize your scenes more concretely. The details in this scene are confused.” Or, “Your hero has it too easy dealing with the vampires in your opening scene. This robs the story of urgency.”

I suspect that quite a lot of aspiring writers have no idea at all how weak their work is. They may sense vaguely the need for improvements, but having a pro point out some basic flaws is not just painful — they’re not ready to deal with it.

None of us is as good as we would prefer to think we are, and that includes me! I’m not as good as I think I am. But when someone points out deep problems in your novel, you have to make a choice: Are you going to roll up your sleeves, attack your precious manuscript with hammer and tongs, and become a better writer? Or are you going to hug the manuscript protectively to your chest and back away whimpering?

There are no rules for how to write a good novel, but there are certainly best practices. Most of the problems that I see in manuscripts are due to a failure to understand or apply best practices. Describing a scene physically is important. Understanding and controlling point of view — important. Creating believable characters — vital. Knowing how to insert background information without bogging down the narrative — important. Plausibility of plot — incredibly important. Conflict and rising action — important. A broad familiarity with your chosen genre — essential. Having a reasonably fresh idea for a story — vital. Doing your research in science, history, and culture — essential.

And then there’s knowing the mechanics of prose. Yes, an editor can tidy up the grammar and punctuation for you, but if the material in the scene is incoherent, the editor will be at a loss how to fix problematical sentences. And why haven’t you mastered the mechanics of prose before you let anyone see your manuscript? Let’s face it: A sloppy writer is a sloppy thinker. And sloppy thinkers don’t write good novels.

Capturing your initial glorious vision on the page is only the start of the process. After vision comes revision. If you’re not willing to revise extensively when an editor points out problems, you don’t want an editor, you want a hug from a friend. Your editor is not your friend, and if you have any sense or any hope of becoming a good writer, you don’t want your editor to be your friend.

An editor is not always right. My own experience on the other end of the stick — I hired a developmental editor to read my four-novel fantasy series. I paid her more than $5,000 for the work. And some of her comments were just annoyingly wrong, okay? She was always keen, for example, to know more about the female characters’ emotions, but she never once noticed whether I was showing the male characters’ emotions.

Along the way, she also pointed out some important plot points that I had missed. I have now spent more than a year revising the series using her comments as a springboard.

As a writer, you always have to make your own decisions. You can’t blindly follow an editor’s advice! But in each instance, you need to be willing to weigh the editor’s comment carefully, without getting defensive. Even if you decide, in the end, not to change what you’ve written, you will have learned something.

There’s always more to learn.

Here’s the sad ending, though: Some people are not cut out to be novelists. Some people just plain don’t have what it takes. And they write full-length manuscripts (having perhaps been urged on by NaNoWriMo, a dreadful fad through the heart of which some kind and compassionate person should drive a wooden stake). And then they’re baffled by the response. A few friends may congratulate them and tell them it’s wonderful, and they don’t realize that their friends are being polite, or have no notion of what goes into making a good novel good, or both.

Sensing vaguely that perhaps it could be tidied up a bit, they approach an editor. And the editor takes a look at the opening chapters and thinks, “Oh, dear. There are so very many problems! This is like shooting fish in a barrel. Well, I’ll try to be both honest and polite. Maybe there’s hope for this writer. I doubt it, but you never know.” The editor would like to think that, despite the preponderance of evidence to the contrary, the writer may be a hidden talent, a lovely bud waiting to blossom. The editor does not want to say, “Look — this is hopeless. Take up quilting or bicycle repair. You’ll never be a writer.” So the editor tries to be constructive. Painful feelings ensue.

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