The Cold Reptilian Eye

Jodi over at My Literary Quest has made a shocking discovery. In her latest post she describes her discovery that the first draft of her novel will need a lot more work before it is presentable to an agent or editor. And that discovery is unnerving her.

Take heart, Jodi. That’s a good sign. It tells me that you can look at your manuscript with a cold reptilian eye and see that there are miles to go before you sleep. You’d be surprised at how many people can’t do that.

Once upon a time, I used to visit schools and talk to students about writing. Many times, at the request of the teachers, I was asked to stress the importance of editing one’s work. “You’d be surprised,” they would tell me, “how many of then think that once they write ‘The End’ on a piece, they think it is done. They need to see it’s only the beginning.”

That was always an easy thing for me to do. I would lug along a giant box containing the various drafts that just one novel went through. I would pull out a 500+ page mass and let them look at it, at the trails of red and blue ink across the print that made each page look like a road map. I’d watch their eyes go big and smile.

After it was over, I’d hear from the teacher: “That was great! I had a bunch of different colored pens on my desk and they all came up and got one so they could work on their papers like a Real Writer.”

Why do so many new writers think they’re done when the last page of the first draft rolls out of their printer? Simple ignorance, I suspect. They may not have researched the issue, and simply have no idea of the amount of work it takes to get a novel written.1 I’m sure a lot of these well-intentioned folk think that Stephen King ripped the final page of Carrie out of his typewriter, stuffed it in an envelope, and the money began to roll in weeks later.2

Don’t think so. When the first draft is done, that is when the fun begins. The Editing.

I learned how to edit when I was made Associate Editor of the college paper. Part of my duty was to clean up other people’s writing to make it suitable for inclusion. It was an odd thing. When I looked at someone else’s work, I could instantly assess what was wrong with it. There wasn’t that closeness, that attachment. I had that cold reptilian eye. I was a predator, and as an efficient predator, I had to look for the weakest prey. It wasn’t long before, knowing what to look for in the work of others, I could turn the same cold eye on my own stuff.

But I have to get a little distance first. When you’re done with a book, there’s that moment of euphoria that you went the distance, you finished the race. If you were coming off of a marathon, you’d be filled with endorphins.3. And those little feel-good thingies are going to predispose you to feel toward your manuscript as a mother bear feels toward her cub: Ain’t nothin’ gettin’ near this young’un!

And this is just what I do to my outlines...

That’s why I let the manuscript sit for at least a month. This is a good thing for me. It gives me a chance to catch up on the stuff that I’ve let go during the writing of the first draft – taking out the garbage, talking to the wife and kids, whatever. That’s when I pick up my editing pen (the one with the red ink) and go after it.

And yes, I edit the book in print form. It started as a holdover from my typewriter days, but I like the tactileness of having the whole manuscript right in front of me, not having to scroll, and turning the whole thing into a red-blotched mess. Besides, the jump from computer screen to printed page is one more degree of separation.

Occasionally something goes wrong. I’ve got at least one manuscript that got through the first draft when I discovered that there was going to be a fat lot of work involved in rehabilitating it into some semblance of commerciality. I thought a longer break was in order, so I moved on to something else… and then something else… and you get the idea. I might go back and fix it someday, but for now I’m considering it another chapter in the saga of me becoming a great writer.

If you’re in the same situation, don’t worry. All those chapters eventually add up. But you have to go the distance in order for it to pay off.

The other distance, that is.

  1. Click this link. It’s the best video I’ve ever seen about the writing process. I mean it.
  2. Oh, and that’s another blog entry…
  3. And I probably literally am, too, after finishing a novel since I usually write the endings in a massive (50 pages or more in a sitting) marathon.

4 responses to “The Cold Reptilian Eye

  1. Aaagh. This is frustrating. I’ve got the opposite problem: unable to complete a chapter because of the incessant need to edit. Every single line (sometimes).

    Of course I can blog like nobody’s business, and leave all kinds of grammatical errors behind. (Usually found and fixed within a day or two of publishing).

    There’s a writers’ thing happening in November, where participants are encouraged to write, write, write without editing for the entire month. After that, we are allowed to edit to our hearts’ content. I’m hoping that will serve as salvation for me.

    We’ll see.

    • Why wait until November and NaNoWriMo? Try giving yourself permission not to edit right now – and withhold it until you’re done with the first draft. That’s how I work.

      • I’ve tried, believe me I’ve tried. The problem isn’t the process so much as it is me: big projects of any kind are a problem. It has to do with what is for me a typical problem with being able to focus. Sometimes though, if there’s a hard deadline approaching, there’s an ability to hyperfocus. That’s what I’m counting on for NaNoWriMo. I think I need that month-end deadline for motivation.

        I suspect that by the time it’s done, a hard-won habit will have formed.

        That’s the hope anyway.

      • NaNoWriMo isn’t for me, but there’s some wisdom to someone in your position trying it out because it generally takes a month for something new to become a habit. Good luck. Let me know how it turns out.

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