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Editing BluesWombat Droppings
by Ursula Vernon
As some of you know -- or most of you know, or a couple of you know, or anyway, I know -- in addition to being an artist, I'm a writer.
My writing career has basically been one long string of dumb luck and unbelievable coincidence, to the point where my own mother once told me that if my life was a book, she'd stop reading because it was too contrived. Nevertheless, here I am, a kid's book somewhere on the shelves at some of the major bookstores and another currently in progress. These things happen. Somehow.
It's the "in progress" bit I’m going to talk about today, because I've hit that dark and dreary part of the writing process known as "editing."
I hate it.
This is not the fault of my editor. I have lovely editors. I have been stupidly lucky with my editors, as with everything else, from my first small-press publications up through the nice people at Penguin who are working with me on the current book. My editors are awesome and fast and wonderful. My editors keep me from making a total jackass of myself in front of my readership, and I am terribly grateful for them.
But the fact is that the process of going through all the editing just plain sucks.
Writing is nice. Writing is fun, except when it isn't. Even when it isn't, even when it feels like you are scraping through a giant verbal litterbox, digging out cat turds and arranging them on the page, well, hey -- sometimes you get lucky and the cat poops a diamond. Writing is glorious.
Editing… not so much. Some days, when the red ink is flowing like wine, I think that becoming a writer because you love writing is like working in a slaughterhouse because you love animals.
Every word is scrutinized. The page fills up with scarlet. Chunks need to be rewritten. Chunks need to be written in. Big chunks, sometimes. Whole scenes. Whole subplots. Maybe other scenes have to go to make space. The righthand margin in Word starts to look like a tetris game gone horribly awry.
Sometimes it's easy. Most of the time it's tolerable. Sometimes it's downright embarrassing, like when you forget your own character's eye color -- AGAIN -- or you keep harping on a point fifty times because you forgot about the previous forty-nine, or you copy and pasted that one scene directly from that other chapter and forgot that you'd killed that one character during the interim, and gee, what's up with that?
There was a point in my life, once, when I was very young, when the notion that one could screw up things like that was completely laughable to me. Don't you just carry the whole book in your head, after all?
I will pause here so that writers in the audience can point and laugh, as this so richly deserves.
You don't hold it all in your head. You forget stuff. You forget a LOT of stuff. The editor's job is to remind you that the hero has brown eyes and that you already went over that bit and that if this is true, then this other thing probably shouldn't be, and you changed the weather three times in the last scene, and all the little bits that are really kinda important and which you forgot, or never did, or did too many times.
Hell, if there's a lot of rewriting to be done, I stop holding ANY of it in my head, and just start trusting that the editor's right about this scene having to go here. Chronology goes straight out the window. I no longer read my prose, I just blunder from edit to edit, trying to make the hurting stop, trying to close the gaping plot holes with a ragged fishnet of words. This is another reason why editors exist, to keep track of the story when the writer's brain has been reduced to a smoldering heap. (Disturbingly, being in this condition does not appear to affect the quality of my writing. This should probably worry me.)
There are writers who seem to feel that the editor is there to brutalize their deathless prose. Possibly they have different editors, or possibly (one hesitates to even think such things) they find the embarrassment of having forgotten their character's eye color on three separate occasions intolerable and are killing the messenger.
Or maybe they don't like the fact that editing makes them hate their characters. Maybe they loved being in love with them too much. I suppose I could understand that.
Truth is… truth is, generally about two days into this process, I hate my characters with a deep and undying passion.
Up until this point, I have loved them. I love my endearing little hero with his flaws and his odd quirks and his unexpected courage. I loved that other character with that one thing, and that one weird minor character that just came out of nowhere and dropped onto the page and almost stole the show in that one scene. I loved them dearly.
By the time editing is in full swing, I want to take my endearing little hero out behind the barn and fill him full of lead. His sidekick? Lead. Weird minor character? Eh, you can stay, but you better not tell anybody what you’ve seen, or it's lead for you too.
It's like some weird writer's version of Old Yeller -- "Get the shotgun, Timmy. He's got edits." "No, Ma, it's my manuscript. I'll do it." (insert sound of shotgun being cocked here.)
The thing is, it's not permanent. Not long after the edits are done, I love my characters again. I love my book again, which is to say that I am both terribly proud and desperately embarrassed by it, which I’m told is pretty normal.
Well, there it is. A bunch of words, and not much help, I suppose. Unfortunately, at the end of the day there's very little I can tell you that will help with the editing process, because each editing process is unique to the writer undergoing it. Possibly someday I will actually post something about the arcane process of copy-editing, with the weird mark-ups and the hieroglyphics, but not today. Today, all I can offer is sympathy and solidarity.
So. If you ever happen to find yourself in the position of getting your manuscript back from the editor, and you're looking at page after page of red ink -- well, don't despair. It's not as bad as all that. Or maybe it is that bad, but it happens to all of us, so you’re in good company.
Courage, brothers and sisters. This, too, shall pass. One day you'll love your characters again.
And if not, you can always shoot 'em.
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