It is often said in filmmaking that when making a film, you get to create the story three times. Once in preproduction, mostly through the creation of a script. Next during the shooting, through the direction, the acting and the happy accidents that come from organised chaos. And lastly in the editing – the sequencing of images together that yield unforeseen results and carve out the third incarnation of the story.
I have a fairly consistent approach to writing, and it’s one that sort of reflects this three-fold approach. Generally, I begin with lots and lots of handwritten notes, half-formed sentences and paragraphs, and snatches of conversation. I try to keep these in some sort of notebook but often they find their way onto receipts, newspapers and other scraps. Lately, these have also migrated into notes on my phone which, if I’m organised enough, I can sync to magically appear on my laptop whenever I get to sit down and sift through all the notes.
This is generally the fishing for ideas. Casting nets of imagination out, hoping to catch enough to begin to plan a story around. Planning is a process I’m trying to get better at, though I have it on good authority from a certain Nathan M Farrugia that Scapple is excellent for this, so I must endorse (though I’m terrible at mind-mapping and end up using pen and paper unfortunately – sorry).
The second stage is the writing. The writing writing. I won’t waffle on too much here, because that’s not the point of this post. But I do wholly approve of the door shut/door open method suggested by Stephen King in On Writing. In short, the first draft – sometimes even the first few drafts – are so raw that you really don’t want to mess with them too much. They’re so full of the initial enthusiasm for the story that you want to keep them in the dark, keep it untouched by anything but your imagination and your own critical eye. Keep the door shut. Then, when you can see the story for what it is, then open it up for a selected reader or two, let the outside world in a bit and see what happens. Open the door to the story, and see the effect it has on a reader. And choose your readers wisely.
But lastly, the real reason for this post, there’s the writing of the story through the editing. I really enjoy editing – even when I hate it and it doesn’t seem to end and I can’t see any way the story is getting better, I still appreciate that it’s a necessary part of the process.
In a recent interview between Donna Tartt and her editor Michael Pietsch on Slate, Tartt acknowledged trepidation she had when editing her first novel, The Secret History. The big fear was that it was so different to the trend of the time – in terms of style, narrative and point of view – that she felt it would be carved up into something far removed from her own work. Needless to say, that didn’t happen, but this is something I can imagine a lot of people must feel – and fear – when having the work scrutinised and edited by foreign eyes.
On the small handful of occasions that I’ve had a story edited by someone else, I’ve found it infinitely rewarding. I find collaboration of minds on a single project extremely fulfilling, and a better road towards a successful end to the story. I might’ve got there on my own, editing my own words, I might’ve achieved the same result, but it would have taken a lot longer. Collaboration is a quicker route even when it doesn’t seem so. And when there’s a detour, it’s much nicer to take the detour with someone else.
In the interview above, Piestch mentions how he sees the editor’s role as one working with disappearing ink:
‘If a writer takes a suggestion, it becomes part of her creation. If not, it never happened. The editor’s work is and always should be invisible.’
This is an idea I try to get across to my writing students. Help and advice and criticism is always just that. When they workshop, they can take or leave the suggestions they receive, but it’s still their story. It takes a while to get used to that idea, that including a suggestion from a different mind doesn’t compromise your story, just because it’s not your idea. In the end, the suggestion was created because of the story, so it all works out.
There was a rather interesting discussion that I witnessed yesterday about editing with track changes on Microsoft Word. The general assumption seems to be that track changes is the only positive aspect of an extremely unhelpful program. But nobody really teaches track changes. It is certainly a process I’m still learning to handle, and I’ve used it in different ways depending on what’s been asked of me. Sometimes it’s been to make the changes on the document and acknowledge them in the comments pane, other times it’s to write the change in the comments but leave the document untouched. I get the impression there’s a whole lot more that can be done with the process than what I’m aware, but I’m still stumbling blindly.
My preferred method of editing my own writing is to return to the beginning. Once the draft is typed, it’s printed. A good red pen is sourced. And I read the thing on physical paper. I find the distance from the screen helps my eyes and the words seem much more concrete, and therefore I can notice where they’re not structurally sound. I can see the cracks, the dodgy grouting, the bits where I’ve tried to pave over weaknesses and I’ve compromised the story. Essentially, returning to a physical hard copy allows me to see the story with different eyes.
But that’s what having someone edit your work is all about. I think it is a singular joy and privilege to have someone work on your story. To have more than one mind, working towards the same goal, it makes the story real. So I embrace the editing, killed darlings and all, because in the end, all things serve the story.