Edit, Edit, Edit
Writing Reflections from Mary Hotvedt
Happy to say I’m down to the last ten chapters on the second edit of a novel. I finished the first draft many months ago. I worked in a writers’ group—very helpful. But the thought of editing paralyzed me. I edited the first chapters four or five times but could never get further.. I dithered, told myself the whole novel was hopeless, took up innumerable distractions. I even started another novel to avoid the necessary work on the first.
It’s not that I thought that first draft was deathless prose. I could see plenty of flaws-redundancies, awkwardness, dead spaces. And I had chopped up and refined professional writing for decades, always coming out with a better document for a ruthless revision. So why did editing fiction flummox me?
I met Mary Sojourner at the Gila River Festival and we made a good connection. Mary has published two novels, creative nonfiction, and a number of essays. She offered to read those first beaten-up chapters. Any dream I had (and all writers so dream) that she would be blown away by my manuscript was quickly dismissed.
“Hmm,” she said. “Hmmmm. You have a few things to learn.”
I accepted that and decided she would be my teacher.
“First thing,” The wise one said, “Is you have to decide: Do you want to make the plot simpler and keep the language complex? Or Vice versa? Can’t do both with this novel.”
Not a tough choice. After writing academic and professional stuff, who doesn’t need to clean up their act? I decided on learning to write cleanly and simply. So we began, getting together every few months. I learned to write to a beat, to eliminate unnecessary qualifiers and descriptions, beef up dialogue, and kill the back story whenever possible.
Editing got to be fun. I think of it as sculpting—shaping a novel out of that first draft. The manuscript was a hunk of good stone and I had to cleave and plane it to what it really contains.
Ten chapters to go. Then a copy edit…and the dreaded query letters.