Wednesday, June 07, 2006

When to stop editing

Inspired by the news that the original Star Wars movies on DVD, to be released this fall (packaged with the newer edits, apparently), will be not from the original prints but from the laserdisc transfer (why would they do that? --scroll down to the May 19 entry), and by my own current issues in working with various pieces of fiction, I wanted to take a look at editing.

Most aspiring authors I know have one of two issues with editing: either they don't do enough, or they do too much. The don't-do-enough crowd tend to be the people who are less passionate about writing, who get their idea down on paper and then think the fun part is over. I'll save that for another time. The do-too-much crowd are often those who are either perfectionists or unsure of their ability or both. And the thing is, it's likely that at one time or another, or from one project to another, everyone who writes will be part of one crowd or another. I certainly have been.

But: editing too much. There's always going to be something you can improve in your story. Read through any published book you like, and chances are you'll find a sentence that could have been tightened, a description that's a little too vague, a piece of dialogue that rings just a little artificial. If you keep going through the edit -> give to friends -> incorporate comments cycle, you'll never be finished, and the goal of writing is to produce something that people can read. So get it 95% there. Get it 98% there. Get it 99% there. Whenever you're seeing that the edits you're making are too minor to matter, declare it done and stop messing with it.

Of course, it's not done, unless you're publishing it yourself or sending it to your website. If you're sending it around for consideration, and you get some suggestions back that the publisher says would improve your manuscript's chances, go ahead and make some tweaks. This is toward a specific goal of getting it published.

And then, when you're world-famous and everyone is clamoring for you to reprint your work, what do you do? Do you take out the publisher's suggestions? Edit your work to fit your current sensibilities?

That will (hopefully) be your decision. My thinking right now is that your readers know and love your stories based on what they read. A story is a discussion between the writer and the reader, and to edit your work after your reader has engaged in the discussion devalues their participation in the process. You're the writer. If your old stories bother you, write new ones.

Are you listening, Mr. Lucas?


NedSanyour said...

Interesting comments. Took me until the end to see that you meant what I would define as "re-writing" and not "editing."
I think you make great points, and would add a couple. First, though, a disclaimer: You have read and written far more than I have.
Now, my ranting.
Sometimes, someone re-writes and self-edits or amateur-edits until the excitement is pounded clean out of the thing. I don't know how to put it except that. There is clearly a nugget of story the writer liked, but now there are so many words-- and such precisely chosen ones!-- between the reader and the story that you can't get to the pith of it.
I think quality editing really helps the story in 99% of the cases. You mentioned a story where some author commented that when she sent you a story, it was weird because you thought more about the story in reading it than she had writing it. And that is true, in some ways. In the *writing* of it, the author has a point to make and sometimes "little" things like motivation and plot get lost.
I think of editing as the point when you send it to the guy who might publish it and that person makes recommendations. I think that, unedited, authors are almost universally inferior to the edited version. Grossly overlong, unwieldy novels that teeter on the line of self indulgence are fairly common, especially in SF/FN genre.
I was talking to someone about Robert Jordan and he commented that the first few novels really booked along and then the last 4 have ground to a halt and nothing is happening. I have read none of them, but the 'sequelitis' so common in this genre gives us a chance to compare multiple related works by an author written along the continuum of a career. Sometimes it seems the writer no longer is telling a story, but doesn't have the chops to be an "author." That is a little twee of a description, but I will leave it at that.

Your comment that a book is a dialogue between an author and a reader is an interesting one. I suspect you are right, and that is what it becomes. But I wonder if that is what it begins as. I leave that open.

Tim said...

I totally agree with your point that quality editing is almost always a good thing (I would go higher than 99% of the time, even--probably 99.9% or 99.99%). The phenomenon you refer to with Robert Jordan I call the "Stephen King" phenomenon, where (I imagine) an author becomes so popular that the balance of power between author and editor shifts, so that the editor, instead of saying, "Cut this part," must instead make suggestions or recommendations; or else the editor's suggestions are more easily discounted by the Famous Author the publishing house doesn't want to alienate. This is nearly always a shame. I felt that many of King's later sprawling books could have (and still could) use a good edit.