Wednesday, June 06, 2012

From Head to Hand: Editing My 'Baby'

I've been in the editing process, off and on, for the better part of two years now.  I finished my fat novel in April 2010 and have since been hard at work trying to make it a skinnier novel.  After many smaller edits, I finished the first major edit early last year, and shipped it off to four people who had volunteered to be my editors.  Their job was to proofread as well as comment on the plot.  They were my 'guinea pigs.'  Now that most of the feedback has been collected, I am in the thick of doing the second major edit.  I've decided that I will NOT slack off any longer.  This is the time of my life to get this book completed so I've set myself a deadline - end of the year at the absolute latest.

This post is about my editing experiences.  I've learnt some hard lessons.  My lessons may well help someone else who is contemplating doing some writing.  This post is NOT meant to be a kind of Bible on the subject.

I've heard over and over again that artists of any kind shouldn't be too precious with their work.  The only way to improve is to let others see and critique your creation.  What is the point of writing something only to hide it away for fear of rejection?  I get it, I really do.  I WANT my book to be the best it can possibly be.  After all, if it does get published, it's going to be out there and criticised by everyone and anyone under the sun.  You can't stop criticism.

You see, while I do agree that I need to be less tight-fisted and defensive about my work, I also have some reservations with that kind of advice.  While your work is at the editing stage, you need to pick the RIGHT people to help you along the way.  I admit, sometimes it can be hard to know who the right people are.  Sometimes you just need to get out there and throw some mud and see what sticks.  At uni, I constantly heard the term 'constructive criticism'.  The point is that we are not just inviting others to criticise our work, we are inviting them to be constructive about it.  An editor's aim should be to help the writer be the best they can possibly be.  They should have the writer's best interest at heart.  My beef is that there are plenty of people out there who want to be editors because they love to criticise and tear down.  They do not choose their words carefully.  They forget that this is someone's creation.  While at uni, I had to edit fellow students' work.  Some of the things I read were downright awful.  But I tried to be constructive.  What have they done well?  What could they improve on?  Give them suggestions.  Be specific.  Don't just write 'good story' or 'crap'.  It's like marking an essay.  If you're an editor, you really need to be giving good direction.

As I look back over the past two years, what have I learnt?
  • If you can afford a professional editor, do it.  I calculated it would have cost about $2000 to get my book professionally edited (due to the length of it).  At the time I felt it wouldn't be a wise use of money, so I decided to go down the road of getting people I know to read it who weren't professionals.  Looking back, I really regret this decision.  Some of my editors were fantastic, but they took a long time to do it.  This is understandable as they have other jobs and families to consider, but if you're going to volunteer to do something, then you need to be realistic about whether you can commit the time to do it.  I've felt bad having to nag all the time.  Another reason is that a professional editor is...well....a professional.  They work to deadlines because it's their job.  They aren't your friend - that's the key point.  If an editor is harsh with my work, then I've lost nothing as far as relationships go.  They were never my friend so if they hurt my feelings, that's just too bad.  I feel like I'm not in a good relationship with one of my editors now because of some of the things she wrote about my book.  This person is a long time friend of my family so it does make things awkward.  It wasn't that I objected to what she said, it was how she said it (the whole constructive criticism thing again).  She wrote quite sarcastic comments and even said dramatic things like, "I hate this".  I think this person just has no idea about written etiquette because I've also had several run-ins on Facebook with her.  Be very careful when selecting friends as your editors.

  • If you really can't afford a professional editor, choose friends who are in the same demographic as your target audience.  This was my plan from the start, but it didn't quite work out.  The main target audience for my book is 20-50 year-old men.  I approached a number of male friends in this age bracket, but many of them said they weren't readers and wouldn't have the time to help me out (or they wanted copious amounts of beer).  At least they were honest, I guess.  However, I did have one male editor in his early 40s who was fantastically helpful.  He assisted me with my sentence structure, working on making the book shortier and punchier.  He gave lots of good feedback from a male perspective.  I was so encouraged when he told me that the main character was an accurate portrayal of a man.  He said he reckons many guys put on an act of bravado to hide their insecurities and cowardice.  The editor who was quite critical said the opposite.  She said she couldn't stand the main character because she thought he was a wimp.  This lady is in her mid 60s and I got the feeling from her comments that she was looking for a James Bond/Indiana Jones hero-type character.  In hindsight, I accepted her offer to be an editor because I was desperate when she really isn't the target audience for the book.  I kind of knew the book wouldn't really appeal to her (she doesn't watch much football for a start).

  • Don't have too many editors.  If you're using friends, don't have any more than a handful.  I really do believe too many cooks spoil the broth.  Three of my editors were largely in agreement with each other (they found some parts confusing and wanted more clarification), while the more critical person said the opposite (she reckoned I wrote in a way that treated her like an idiot).  If you have too many editors, it can be hard to know who to listen to. I had soooo many women wanting to help out as editors, I had to say, "Thanks, but no thanks," to a lot of them.  They weren't really my target audience and if it waited around for them all to finish reading it, I'd never get it done.

  • Choose people who can actually edit.  This can be hard if you're not using professionals.  Basically you want people who can spell properly and are good with sentence structure.  One of my editors is a high school English teacher and gave me lots of constructive feedback with my essays in high school.  Therefore, I knew she'd be good.

  • Be as ruthless as you can with your own work.  Now I'm doing the second major edit, I'm finding that I'm chopping more stuff out than my editors did.  If it doesn't need to be there, it has to go.  If I have a niggling doubt about something, it probably needs to be re-written.

I think it's ok to see your work as your 'baby'.  It is a labour of love.  To those people who think I'm being too precious, try thinking about how you'd feel if someone insulted your friends or your kids.  Even if it was the truth, if it's said harshly, it can be hard to take.  Most artists I've spoken to have said it's not WHAT was said, but HOW it was said, that deflated their spirits.

But then there also comes a time when you just have to be brave and put yourself and your work out there.  If you want it to be the best it can be, this step is vitally important.

1 comment:

Iris Flavia said...

It´s totally ok to call your work your "Baby", that´s what we did, too and it made up for some funnies, having had a male colleague ;-)
I will have to let go of mine soon and it feels kinda sad.
Will I follow it´s way? I dunno...
I wish you all the luck and success with yours!