The Pain and the Glory of Editing

pencilForgive me the melodramatic blog title. I’ve been editing the fourth Jessie Black legal thriller since December of 2016, when I finished the first draft. At this point, I’m a little punch-drunk.

Does over three months of editing seem like a long time to you? It feels like an eternity to me. I hate editing. But I would never consider shortchanging this critical part of the writing process.

The term “editing” can mean different things in different contexts to different people, so let me start off with some quick explanations. First, this isn’t one of those situations where an author has received comments from an editor. I don’t use a developmental editor. I self-edit. So I have no one to curse and complain about other than myself.

Second, I’m not talking about correcting typos (although that’s important, too). I’m talking about making substantive changes to the manuscript—reworking whole scenes, changing a character’s personality or motivation, putting events into a different order, changing the ending (and/or the beginning). These are large-scale, time-intensive edits, which often have effects that ripple backward and forward through the story, requiring even more edits. It’s a lot of work. At times, it feels overwhelming.

Writing a first draft can be fun—even exhilarating when I’m in the zone—with moments of spontaneous brilliance and the sheer joy of telling a story. Editing, on the other hand, is slower, often tedious, often excruciating work. But minute-for-minute, I’ve found that editing actually provides more value per time spent. At least for me, it’s in the editing phase when I see a story move from something I’m hopeful but not quite sure about, to something I can’t wait to show the world.

It’s during editing when I usually find the emotional heart of the story, the element that has the power, if fully developed, to elevate the book from a fun read to a fun and powerful read. I may sense the emotional heart of the story during the planning or initial drafting of the book, but it’s rare that I identify it with certainty until well into the editing stage.

I’ll give you a recent example. In Deadly Evidence, it took me a long time to realize that the emotional heart of that story isn’t the school shooting or the romance subplot, but the friendship between Jessie and Detective Emily Graham, which had not been emphasized in the book’s original outline or first draft. Once I realized the importance of that subplot, other elements of the book came to life in a way they had not before.

Other aspects of my books that seem to improve exponentially through editing are pacing, structure, time and chronology issues, characterization, and overall narrative voice. I use a software app called Scrivener, which makes it easy to move chapters and scenes around. It’s surprising how frequently moving a scene forward or backward in the story can dramatically enhance pacing, believability, or both, but I usually won’t think of these “big picture” changes until I’m editing.

Sometimes a character can go from a cardboard cutout to an interesting person in the editing phase. A setting may change from a dull, expected location to a fresh one. You get the idea.

No matter how vital a part of the process editing may be, at some point, it needs to end or the book will never be finished. How do I know when that point has been reached? I don’t, really. I rely on a gut instinct, a combination of pride in the work, the need to get the book into stores from a business perspective, and my own physical and mental exhaustion.

The fourth Jessie Black novel is just about at this point. I think it’s really good. I think I found and developed its emotional heart. And I’m really excited to publish it.

Just let me edit a little bit more….