The Editing Game – Guest Post by Kaci Hill

Kaci

From a discussion about Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman came a brief discussion on how much drafts change from start to finish. Ask Bryan, and he’ll tell you that the original version of Raising Dragons did not include Bonnie. For me, the earliest conceptualization of my story Sins of the Son was rooted in sci-fi, and there were neither supernatural nor fantastical elements. I changed it to a fantasy setting because it was more challenging to work out the science behind key elements that way.

For these sorts of reasons, I am more baffled that anyone would want to publish someone’s old draft than upset by any actual content. This is not a post about the politics surrounding Lee’s book, but rather a discussion of the editing process itself. And I speak not as someone who’s mastered it, but as someone in the process of learning how to revise a novel properly.  Full disclosure: Until college, I had never touched a draft once it was completed.  My first impulse is to finish the draft, catch my breath, and jump into the next project.

The sci-fi novel a friend and I wrote from the summer of our junior year to the summer of our college sophomore year was enormous, insane, and more than 600,000 words. I’m sure it’s horrible. I’m also pretty sure technological advances have rendered anything between my sophomore (when I began using a computer to write) and senior years unreadable. My senior year I started a new fantasy project that is likely also gone and was the first thing I tried to revise. I have no idea, between typed and handwritten scenes and tidbits, how much was actually written. It was a good amount, though not as long as the other because I didn’t technically finish it (I did know the ending).

I had three problems that I’ll go into more detail about in a minute: From the time I finished high school to my late 20s (I’m 31) my writing changed exponentially. This meant that I could not simply edit what existed; the styles were incompatible. Second, a well-meaning person tried to “help,” and their way of “helping” was to try to rewrite my book their way. This too was incompatible. (The person comes back to haunt in a minute.) The third, you’ve noticed, is that I had no idea how to edit a novel. An essay, yes, but keep in mind I always had someone else edit my school essays and then I would make the revisions. I did not do it solo.

Thus came Sins of the Son, my very first “serious” project (meaning, the first I actually wanted to seek publication for, though I knew even then it shouldn’t be the first thing I tried to publish, and it hasn’t been).  Even with a full college load, I think I planned (which, that was a new process to me as well, and might be grounds for another post) and wrote it pretty quickly. The sci-fi angle didn’t survivethe storyboarding phase, so at least I didn’t have to change that.  I knew it had a few problems: characters and story elements needed fleshing out, plot points needed tightening, and my writing style and quality was still shifting around. (Also, I started actually reading fantasy during this period, which in part accounted for the shift.)  And that well-meaning person was back. Their advice was helpful in some ways, but it was mostly disastrous, once again trying to turn it into their creation, not mine. (They neither understood the story nor the characters, and that will break the entire thing.)

Somewhere in draft seven I had opportunity to co-write some books, so I put mine away to focus on those. Older, more experienced writers and peer-writers with a good eye for editing have been fundamental in helping a girl figure this out, but it’s still a process.  The two co-written books went through no fewer than five sets of hands multiple times. My two successive projects I’ve not yet edited (it’s another ground-up rewriting process), but I decided to move on and try a new story world.  Oh, and along the way I had part in two screen-plays and wrote another short story. My current “in-revision” project is a ghost story (is it urban fantasy if it’s in the country?), and, I’ll admit, I’m’ still in the learning curve. But I think I’m better – and a little more confident in what I’m doing.

An author whose work I appreciate once said that, early on, someone told him his first five books would be terrible.  His reply was, “Great! That means I don’t have to be good until the sixth book.” I think of that every time I get frustrated, especially when the personal story of a very, very good SFF author sounds a little like my own: degree in English Lit and working a job not related to writing, especially in the beginning. (Yes, I have a little note card reminding me of that on my desk.)

Most professional writers will say the bulk of writing is in the revision process.  They’ll tell you to start with the large-scale problems and work your way in (you don’t worry about sentences and wording until you’ve fixed major plot errors; otherwise you might wind up wasting time on a scene you’ve now deleted).  They’ll tell you not to edit until you have a full draft.

For my part, I say to decide when you’re done. Ghostlight, for instance, is getting a draft 2 (which is essentially a total rewrite of the book) and a polishing pass. That’s it until a professional looks at it, and I’ve set that limit so I won’t just keep rewriting it like I did with Sins of the Son (which is getting an eighth and final draft before attempting to send it off).  Use Track Changes, make yourself a note, and move on for the time being. Accept help, but don’t critically change the book unless multiple people point out the same problem.  If the story is doing everything you set out to accomplish, be pleased.

And, most importantly, don’t give up.

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Author Bio: Kaci Hill

Kaci has always been a storyteller and student in search of a teacher. Alongside writing fiction, she is a substitute teacher, tutor, freelance editor, and volunteer in the church bookstore and youth group. Though she has always told stories and writing, as a child she learned by imitation, and her true pursuit of writing as a career was not until after high school. She grew up reading Christian supernatural fiction, mysteries, and suspense, and in college was introduced to the world of sci-fi and fantasy.

During her secondary education, she has had the pleasure of befriending fellow authors who both taught and encouraged her no matter what stage of the writing process she was in. She has written multiple books, two of which are co-written and published, co-written two screenplays, and had the privilege of editing for several authors, both published and unpublished.

Online, she can be found on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and Life in the Veil.

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4 replies

  1. Awesome article, Kaci.

    I think I start my editing when the draft is mostly complete or I know the story’s pretty much set. Most of the time I actually don’t use my computer for the actual editing. I’ll print out pages of the story and go over it with a pen. It’s actually a bit of a shock how much of the page gets marked up! Sentences get rewritten, sometimes rearranged, and sometimes I’ll end up with new paragraphs written in the margins.

    It works wonders, mostly because I suspect staring at a computer screen for too long can dull the senses and dull creativity, mostly when it’s a story you’ve already been working on for a long time.

    As far as revising drafts, I used to do that a lot, but since I’ve relied more on outlines and lists and jotting down thoughts before doing scenes, many problems get worked out beforehand, so I usually don’t turn out whole drafts that need to be revised any more.

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