Writing is a process, regardless of whether you believe in the magic of imagination, the schizophrenic conversations, or the hours of meticulous planning. And for better or worse, these processes cannot be escaped, skipped or avoided. They can, however, be abused, victimised, manipulated and assaulted. On the flip side, these processes can do exactly that and more; they can devastate, occupy your mind and have been known to cause serve alcoholism. Ah, the joys of being a writer. To brighten the situation up a little we can take solace in the fact that each process affects each writer differently and we aren’t all destined to become depressed alcoholics.
There is one process that is perhaps worse than all the others. Killing your babies. Cutting, slicing, stitching and recreating. Sometimes limb from limb, other times, the re-colouring of an eye or the trading of a left hand for a right one. If it’s particularly bad the baby is hung upside down, turned inside out, and the core is rearranged until perfection shines through its pores. In a manner of speaking, editing, is very much like creating a master race by combining DNA in test tubes. If I dare so, perhaps it is even a little bit more painful.
I was once told that first drafts are simply a means of discovering a core idea and once said idea was discovered, the rest of the script needed to be tortured into submission. As I write this, I find I am less convinced than ever that a first manuscript of any length is merely the manifestation of a small grain of brilliance. While I don’t doubt that this is true in some cases, I find the idea that this is an unwritten rule in writing quite repulsive. Ian Fleming works brilliantly to illustrate my case, he’s said that a novel can be written in six weeks, at two thousand words a day and that one should never look back. “If you once look back, you are lost. How could you have written this drivel? How could you have used “terrible” six times on one page? And so forth. If you interrupt the writing of fast narrative with too much introspection and self-criticism, you will be lucky if you write 500 words a day…When my book is completed I spend about a week going through it and correcting the most glaring errors and rewriting passages.”
Clearly, the creator of James Bond, one of the most successful characters in history, doesn’t believe that the first draft supplants only the initial idea of the story. In fact, Fleming believed that one should not edit until one has written everything down. Which raises a critical question, that may seemingly have an obvious answer, is editing good for anything?
The dictionary definition is as follows “[to edit is to] Prepare (written material) for publication by correcting, condensing, or otherwise modifying it.” As I said, an obvious answer. But for writers, there is much more to editing than the correction of mistakes. Editing is more than a modification, it is the means by which a first draft transcends ‘draft’ status and becomes becomes something your proud of.
“Killing your babies” as an expression is the best example of this, a phrase coined to describe deleting the parts that a writer enjoys most in their manuscript. The idea is simple, if the narrative flow stops or becomes blocked, delete the parts you would hold onto the most. The intended effect, is that the narrative becomes unblocked and flows again, once the dearly beloved have been erased. Editing by this idea, seems to be more self inflicted torture than path to transcendence.
Deleting the parts of a manuscript one loves most, is the equivalent to using a razor blade to cut the face off the Mona Lisa. Where there is space, greatness can be created. Yet greatness can also be destroyed if the razor is takes to the wrong the section. And herein lies the greatest question, while editing is useful for the obvious, does it achieve anything other than the potential destruction of greatness?
As a writer I am usually focused on two things, writing and getting published. The road to publishing is paved with heartache (and cliches, apparently). The garden of this road has been planted with self helps and ‘how-to’s while some of them are useful, others are not. With the explosion of web fiction and the changing landscape of publishing, competition is greater than ever. This puts more stress on the ability to edit, and the chances of over editing. Possibly as useful as gutting yourself and using your entrails as a skipping rope – it may seem essential at the time to please the publisher you’re yet to meet but will be ultimately fatal.
My point here is this: while editing is important to remove the blunders, fix grammar and find the perfect word. Over editing can destroy the soul of a story, and serve no greater purpose than the bare essentials. It is one of writings processes that should be approached with caution, the immense pressure to deliver perfect commercial fiction to the agents, the publishers and the market.