I think I’m starting to better understand why editing a novel can feel so amorphous and overwhelming to me.
When I’m drafting, I write straight through the narrative. I start at page one and simply add on my word count, building scene by scene consecutively. It’s not all perfect, and I know I’ll have to rearrange the scenes later, change the characters, or cut or add entire conversations. But as long as I stick to it and keep writing in one direction, eventually I have a full manuscript.
Editing, I’m realizing, is actually a bunch of distinct writing processes housed under the same label. In one “editing” session, I may breeze through whole paragraphs that are already pretty much how I want them, lightly touching up the sentences to help them read better. But I may also have to stop and pull apart a few paragraphs, deleting plot points or foreshadowing that no longer make sense with the revised manuscript. Or maybe I need to add a whole new scene, or delete repetition between multiple scenes, or thread in a character who appeared late in the first draft but needs to be integrated throughout the whole manuscript. Somehow these are all “editing,” but they can demand very different questions and decisions: How do I make this prose stronger and clearer? Or, what can I delete from this scene without compromising the characterization or necessary plot beats? Or, where and when and how strongly should I foreshadow this new late-stage plot twist in the first act of the book?
Where I’m editing in my current manuscript, I find myself stitching together a number of descriptions, facts, and snippets of dialogue that are all essential for the book, but they didn’t land in the right order the first time around. They’re all jumbled, and I’m trying to put them together in a way that’s both cohesive and satisfying. Basically I’m building connective tissue, figuring out how to get from one bit of dialogue to the next bit of characterization in a way that makes narrative sense but doesn’t slow down readers too much. I find myself juggling the need for realism—or at least a novelistic illusion of “realism” in the characters’ motivations, actions, and words—with a desire to communicate the plot and character beats in a fast-moving, engaging way.
This “stitching” together takes a different part of my brain than adding or deleting scenes, or copyediting sentences, or differentiating characters’ desires and values and voices from one another. The main questions I’m asking when I’m stitching together material are different: How would a conversation naturally move from topic X to topic Y, both of which need to be covered in this scene? How much description do I have to give of the place or happenings surrounding plot point Z to not make the scene feel rushed or thin for readers? Do I want this line of internal dialogue first or that one?
Editing seems messier than my usual drafting process. But I guess the good news is that even when I’m switching between a number of different kinds of editing experiences, when I put in the time on my manuscript, I still slowly but consistently make forward progress.