The Irony of Editing

Before I get into the meat of this post, I’d like to point out that I have removed my novel, Of Fish and Swimming Swords, from B&N and Smashwords (and all of the markets fed by Smashwords) so that I can participate in Amazon’s KDP Select program for the next three months. I didn’t have any significant sales through those channels, so I’m not losing much by doing this. I’ll make it available for free on the Kindle every once in a while, including all day tomorrow, Monday, 5 March (Pacific time). Take a chance on it when it’s free and, if you feel like it, write a review or tell a friend. You don’t have to own a Kindle to buy a book for Kindle, especially if the book is free!

A couple weeks ago, I was on a first anniversary cruise through the Caribbean with my husband. We had taken the same cruise last year for our honeymoon, and I loved getting away from the Internet and having time to relax and read while watching the water churn up behind the ship. This year wasn’t quite as relaxing because I had just recovered from a flu and had an awful sounding cough that ended up being bronchitis, but we were able to relax and get some reading done.

I loaded my Kindle with several Stephen King novels from his Dark Tower series. I had read the first in the series years ago when I was a kid and enjoyed it. I’m now on book four, Wizard and Glass. I also read his book, On Writing. I highly recommend it. If I teach a straight creative writing course again, I’m tempted to assign parts of it.

When I wrote Of Fish and Swimming Swords, I worked from a rough outline. It was my masters thesis, so it didn’t need to be over a hundred thousand words. I aimed for sixty thousand. Respectable, but a bit short for the commercial market. Everything I had written before had been short stories for workshops. The first few chapters of Of Fish and Swimming Swords that concern Barbara grew from such a short story.

I wanted some way of unifying the book. I already had decided to make it revolve around fours. There were four cardinalities and four Muses. Four colors and four symbols. My writing notebook had a lot more groupings of four than made it into the novel (fodder for a future novel, perhaps), but I tried to put fours in as many places as I could. There were four family members who worked in a single job as a detective.

I ended up dividing the sixty thousand words into eighteen chapters (roughly 3,333 words per chapter). I assigned each chapter to a member of the family while making sure no two chapters next to each other were assigned to the same member. I started with Barbara and Charles and then moved on to other members as the plot dictated before returning to Barbara in the last chapter.

The other organizing principle I used was that the action should take place in a single day. I timed everything so that it could happen in twenty-four hours. This was before I wrote more than a few chapters.

I ended up using something like the snowflake method without realizing. I plotted out where I wanted to go and then forced the characters to follow. The result is not bad at all, but it could have been better. One person who read it said she enjoyed it more than some of the traditionally published books she was reading at the time.

The main criticism seemed to be that the first few chapters needed some editing.The irony is that those were the chapters that received the most editing. The first few chapters with Barbara had been through a workshop already. I had cut the story up into a few chapters and removed much of the text to make it fit a novel. I liked the feeling of Barbara as she descended into a fugue state. 

The later chapters were each written in a weekend or two camped out in a coffee shop. I edited them lightly, letting the words just flow as they needed to. Those ended up appearing to have been edited more than the first few.

The lesson is that too much editing can be worse than no editing once you find your voice. That’s the irony of editing: too much will make it look like too little. Editing masks our voice. We need to edit a little, but only to strengthen what we’ve written, not to rewrite it.

This experience reinforces for me what Stephen King said in On Writing and in his introduction to the rewrite of the first Dark Tower book. His first Dark Tower novel was the product of too many creative writing workshops. It was years later that he had enough confidence in his own voice to return to the first novel. In the process, he gave up outlining or planning ahead and just let the words flow as the characters required.

Creative writing workshops are still useful. They teach you how to accept criticism. If that’s all you ever learn from a workshop, you will have your money’s worth. The second most valuable thing is to be objective about criticism and judge it, figuring out which criticisms to accept and which to throw out. The third most valuable thing is how to give useful criticism. At that point, you are on the road to providing yourself with self-criticism. How to write a sentence or how to use similes and metaphors are the last things that you should be getting out of a workshop.

I started discovering this half way through Of Fish and Swimming Swords. The first half is influenced by the workshops. The last half is much more me writing for my advisor. At one point, he said that he put my chapters at the end of the pile of stories he was grading because he knew he’d enjoy my chapter. He could end grading on a high note. That was when I knew I was getting something right.

I didn’t go back and rewrite the first half because I needed to move on. We all get to that point in our work. We need to wrap it up, put a bow on it, call it done. Submitting my thesis was one step in that process. I went back afterwards and cut about five thousand words. I also added another five thousand, so the length of the novel didn’t really change. After a bit more tweaking here and there, I finally decided that if I was ever going to start another project, I’d have to publish Of Fish and Swimming Swords.

Someday I will go back and rewrite the first few chapters, I’m sure. I want to find out what happens to Adam, Barbara, Charles, and Dora. There are some things Adam is going to do that tear at me because they are so wrong yet honorable. I want to write a few more novels first. I want to make sure I have my voice. In some ways, the Muses and the family of four are my Dark Tower and Roland.

My current project is a horror novel. I’m aiming for 150,000 words before I start cutting. Stephen King recommends flat out writing about two thousand words a day until the novel is written and then going back and cutting ten percent.

We’ll see if I can make a more modest nine thousand words in a week while working a full time job. If I can write a 1,400 word blog post in an hour, I should be able to get at least that much in an evening. I’ll post here with updates on progress and perhaps some teasers on plot and characters. I’ve also put a progress meter in the sidebar. There will be a young man or boy and his dog. He started out around twelve, but I may need to make him a bit older since he’s figuring out a lot of things that might not make sense for someone so young.

If I can keep pace, then the 150,000 words should be done by mid-June. Then I’ll go back and edit in fifteen or thirty thousand word chunks, but not edit too much. I can do that on the bus to/from work. Much easier than trying to write on the bus.

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James

James is a software developer and self-published author. He received his B.S. in Math and Physics and his M.A. in English from Texas A&M University. After spending almost two decades in academia, he now works in the Washington, DC, start up world.