This is my fourth year of participating in the Clarion West Write-a-thon. (It also marks the fourth anniversary of this website, since being able to post weekly updates, as well as having a complete professional profile for the Write-a-thon, was an added incentive for setting up my own author site.) As mentioned in the goals section of my Write-a-thon page, I would have preferred to be drafting something new during the next six weeks, since it’s easier to get a real sense of accomplishment when you can count words or chapters written, but finishing the final edits for She-Wolf has to be my priority this summer.
I’ve often talked about finding the editing phase very enjoyable (and even downright addictive!), especially the fine tweaking and polishing that goes into getting the language just right. But one difficulty with this stage of the writing process (for me, in any case) is that it can be very hard to accurately estimate how long those kinds of edits will take. When you carefully work through a chapter and think you’re happy with it, only to spot a number of additional things you want to change when you come back to it a week later, it makes it hard to set deadlines.
No doubt part of that is due to being afflicted with chronic perfectionism, but I can’t discount the fact that being in a slightly different frame of mind when you pick something up can help you to see it in a different light. For instance, I’ve found that looking at a manuscript not only in print, but in actual book form, helps even more with shifting fully into ‘reader mode’.
Some of the authors who like to share their progress on my favorite writers’ forum seem to have little trouble with both predicting how long the final edits of a project will take, and moving quite quickly and systematically through the process. However, it’s usually apparent that the editing they’re talking about involves making everything clear and error free, not slaving over the nuances of the language.
I saw an interview with David Joy, the author of Where all Light Tends to Go, in which he talked about how many hours he’d spent on the very end of that book — I think just the last page or two — because the ending was so crucial to the impact of the entire novel. It was refreshing to hear that, but I don’t think it’s uncommon for writers of literary fiction to put that kind of work into sculpting every line in one passage, just as a poet would do, since in literary prose both the meaning (sometimes multiple layers of meaning) and the sound and rhythm of the language are of paramount importance.
My sister, who’s a poet and playwright, was just telling me how long she’s been working on one little poem in which she’s experimenting with using a strict form. (I think all poets should try that now and then, both to challenge themselves and to explore the rich culture of their art.) I can spend an outrageous amount of time playing with query letters — sometimes repeatedly switching words or parts of lines back and forth as I keep changing my mind about which order sounds better — and I also find doing critiques quite time consuming, because it’s so important to be thorough enough to ensure that the critique is both truly constructive and encouraging. Last week I spent an entire day writing an email to a fellow author to give her feedback on her book. And while I’m sure we’d all like others to think we’re so clever and articulate that we can just toss out well-crafted, thoughtful critiques — off the tops of our heads, as it were — in my experience that simply isn’t realistic.
The principle behind the often-repeated quote ‘I would have written you a shorter letter if I had more time’ certainly comes into play with things like poems, queries, critiques, and anything else that’s meant to be concise; when you can only use a limited number of words, it becomes all the more important to choose the right ones. (This is also one reason that writing short stories can be good for improving a novelist’s skills.) But whether the work in question is short or long, doing a truly good job of editing takes time.
And in the end I feel the same way about novels as I do about short stories: that the Holy Grail would be to have every paragraph read like an exquisite poem, and although that may be impossible to achieve, there’s no reason not to strive toward that ideal. The obvious difficulty is finding the right balance between aspiring to near perfection and completing a story in a realistic time frame. Consequently, I find that when it comes to fitting an editing project into six weeks, the most reasonable goal is to aim for getting in a number of productive hours each week.