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L.T. Suzuki

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Adventures in Editing or... Is it Done Yet?
2/21/2011 10:40:44 PM    [ Flag as Inappropriate ]

Itís a well known fact writing can be fun. The same thing cannot always be said about the next stage of the writing process. Toiling over the draft of a new story to trim off the fat, expand on passages that can use more detail and the task of proofreading make up what I consider in my mind, Writerís Hell. Some say experiencing writerís block is hell, but to me, once the first draft of the story is finished and it must now be subjected to serious scrutiny, that is a hellish form of Hell if there ever was in.
Okay, so Iím exaggerating! Itís more like Writerís Purgatory where you can be imprisoned indefinitely, but in my humble opinion, itís the least pleasant, but a very necessary part of the writing process. (I highly recommend hiring a professional editor if itís within your budget, but I digress.)
Aside from attending writers conferences to hone my storytelling skills, there are also many useful workshops designed to help with the proofreading/editing process. One of the things I had noticed while attending my first writers conference was the number of authors who struggled with getting the first draft of their manuscript to the finished stage, all polished and ready to pitch to an agent or editor.
The vast majority complained that the process was slow and gruelling as they would write, write and rewrite to achieve this polished level of perfection. Even J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame said, during an interview, that she wrote the first chapter of her debut novel over ten times in her bid to get it just right. Iím not talking about scribbling out or adding in a paragraph or sentence here or there, and then rewriting it to fit seamlessly into the existing text; Iím speaking of crumpling up the pages and then starting over, and over, and over, again.
Because it was my very first conference and my first exposure to other writers, I was left rather baffled and wondering if I was going about this whole business of writing the wrong way.
One nice lady I met had her manuscript with her, safely tucked away in a manila envelope she kept under her arm. She explained to me that she had been coming to the Surrey International Writers Conference for ten years at this point, and she was still trying to perfect her story.
I had to give her credit for working so diligently on her novel, but for me? I certainly wouldnít be able to write and rewrite for a decade. Working on the same story all these years and never feeling it is good enough would drive me just a little more loopy than I already am. I know I would just abandon it to start fresh.
Not only would I lack the patience, but in my opinion, if I wrote something that required that much time and effort, there must be serious flaws with the story to begin with. Iíd lack the determination to flog a dead horse in a futile bid to resurrect it.
In my case, I write only one draft, thatís it.
From this one draft, I proofread, expand a little or cut back. That is the extent of my editing. From the other writers sharing their experiences, I was getting the distinct feeling I was approaching the whole writing process all wrong. How come everyone else seemed to be writing, rewriting, etc. and this seemed to be the norm for the Ďseriousí writers?
And there I was, one draft that Iíd tweak, proofread, and then share with my critique group and beta readers.
I attributed this to the fact that for me, I tend to write the opening scene and closing scene of the book first, plotting out the key points of the chapters, and then it becomes a simple matter of writing the scenes and dialogue of a movie as it plays out in my head. Itís a simple process and I like simple.
Iíve had some writers tell me that they donít plot their stories out. Instead, itís all very organic and they just write, allowing the characters to tell their story. They explained that if they plotted the story out, thereíd be no surprises. If it doesnít have elements that surprise them as the writer, then how would the readers be surprised?
One such writer told me that he equated plotting out events with being uninspired, telling me that writing must be organic, if itís to be Ďrealí. He also went on to tell me that to block off a specific time each day to write (treating it as a business) was as bad as plotting out a story; that writing is a creative process that cannot be forced by trying to meet daily word counts. He believed writing should only happen when the muse is inspired to allow such creativity. This writer was proud to tell me he had nine novels on the go, none of which were finished, but he planned to have them done one day and his organic way of writing could be forced. He just couldnít wrap his head around the fact that I worked on only one novel at a time until it was completed, stating that the boredom of working on just one story would be his creative demise. In fact, he was so bothered by my method of writing, he was not interested in reading any of my novels, even though some of his stories were of the same genre.
Well, sadly for him, he passed away. None of his stories were ever finished, and now, none will ever see the light of day.
For me, in my simplistic way of thinking, when I can create dialogue or scenes that Iíve plotted out, and the quality is such that Iím pleased and surprised by it, wouldnít it stand to reason that the readers would be just as surprised and pleased?
I think some writers who donít plot heavily assume that plotting out a story means being predictable. I think itís possible to plot out an entire story, or even a complete series, but throw in elements the readers never see coming. Whatever the case, for me, plotting out the major events in my stories had allowed me to create one draft. It has proven to be a time-saving measure and plotting out the story has kept me focused, writing to the end without straying off the storyline.
When Iím ready to begin the proofreading/editing stage, I like to separate myself from the ms for at least two weeks before I tackle it. When I do, with my diminished memory, it is like reading someone elseís story. Of course, this means printing it out, because proofreading from a computer screen is totally different from reading off paper. It becomes a little easier finding typos, spelling mistakes, grammatically errors, etc.
Because my stories tend to average out 175k words, there is no way my critique group has the time to review the entire novel as there are other writersí works to consider as well. Instead, I select specific passages of complex action scenes or intense dialogue to make sure they understand what Iíve written and if Iíve conveyed these things in the context I meant for them to be read.
From here, others with sharp eyes and equally sharp pens will examine every page, looking for the typos, missing words, etc. that I missed, as well as those overlooked by members of my critique group.
Now, this leads me to one of the most frustrating things about the proofreading/editing process. It seems that no matter how many eyes I have perusing my works, even the eyes of professional editors, there were always the odd typo or a word that should have been pluralized, etc. In the big scheme of things, these were minor, but when you are striving to publish something that you want to be as perfect as possible, there is no such thing as perfect!
One of my favourite authors Iíve had the privilege of learning from, Mr. Terry Brooks, once said that even best-selling novels produced by mainstream publishing houses will have the odd mistakes. He attributed this to the fact that people do the proofreading and editing; therefore, one must make allowances for human error.
He also went on to say, ďPeople are far more forgiving if they read a story they love and it has a few typos, but what is unforgivable is for people to spend money on a book that is technically perfect, but the story falls flat.Ē
I took certain comfort in Mr. Brooksí words, for I was once one of those who went absolutely mental each time I believed we caught all the mistakes, and lo and behold, one jumps out after itís gone to print. But when I thought on these words, I recall how one of my proofreaders, a very smart, well-read high school English teacher, responded when I asked her if she found any mistakes after an hour of proofreading one of my manuscripts.
Her eyes grew wide in dismay and in a panic, she said, ďOh, no! I got so caught up in the story, I forgot to look for mistakes!Ē
Now, I can spend my days, years even, scrutinizing my works, searching for every little mistake that was missed in an attempt to produce that technically perfect book. It can also mean never publishing a book because Iíll always be wondering if itís done yet; if I had caught every little thing imaginable. Or I can learn not to sweat the small things and embrace what Mr. Brooks and the English teacher had said, and focus on creating an engaging story and charismatic characters that the readers will enjoy reading about so much, theyíll gloss over the minor mistakes.
Now, this brings me back to the nice lady with the 10+ year-old WIP she was still working on. When I mentioned to a fellow writer, who was a screenwriter and author himself, about this lady who so diligently kept reworking her story. He just chuckled. He said that in his long experience/career he had known some aspiring authors who would write and rewrite; reworking their stories to mold it into what they hoped would be the next great literary masterpiece. Each time they attend a writing workshop or read the latest best-seller, they take what theyíve learned in class or apply the elements they believed made a book into a best-seller, to work it into their writing. He warned against this, that after years of reworking a story and making it into what you believe others would consider to be worthy, that this lady no doubt had lost her own voice in the storytelling process.
He said, ďYou can rewrite the manuscript over and over again, never being satisfied because you donít think itíll live up to other peopleís expectations or you can learn the skills to write and apply these to your story. Follow your creative instincts to make something youíll be happy with, one that will tell your story in your own, unique voice, that is not forced or contrived.Ē
In many ways, he was right. I can either do the best I can and accept the fact that there is so such thing as Ďperfectí or I can wallow in despair for an eternity. I can subject myself to writerís Hell, editing and re-editing, proofreading over and over again until Iím blind, cross-eyed, or both, never realizing the joy of sharing a story because Iím so fixated on publishing a piece that is technically perfect.
I mean, who am I trying to fool anyway? Iím not perfect, far from it. So instead of searching for perfection in the literary world, I strive to tell a story as best as I can, for even though my personal best is not perfect, I still think it makes for a pretty entertaining read.
The bottom-line? Just as every writer has his or her own way of telling a story whether they are plotters or pantser, or something in between, neither is there one single way of getting that manuscript to that finished, polished stage.
Writing, and the entire process involved to get to that completed stage, is as individual as the person telling the story. For some, they might never feel their story is done or that it will be good enough to share, but for me, I think Iíve come up with a process that works. So when the fans ask if the next story is done yet, relying my creative instincts, I can answer with confidence, ďYes, to the best of my abilities, it is.Ē
So, what is the proofreading/editing process like for you? And how do you know when the manuscript is done? Why not share your thoughts on Twitter?


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The Return of the Ancient Ones by Gary Caplan

Second in The Chronicles of Illķmaril series, author Gary Caplan's The Return of the Ancient Ones is a distinct tale that illustrates how one's fiercest enemy can become one's most..  
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