I love this part. I’m in the middle of editing a book, and the themes are coming out of the woodwork.
I hate starting the editing process, but once I’m in the thick of it, it’s good. Starting is hard because when I come back to something I’ve written, it’s usually after letting it sit for a while and that unfamiliarity with my own story gives me perspective, but it also comes with a heap of trepidation. What if it really sucks and I just didn’t see it until now? What if it needs a ton of work? For a full-length novel, the urge to avoid finding that out can be a big hurdle. Deadlines help me to get over it and dive in, even if they’re just my own incremental deadlines, like: I will polish and tighten the first five chapters by next Friday. Having a set number of pages to edit each day also helps, just like a daily word count target helps while writing. And once I’m in the thick of it, going through a book with a fine-toothed comb and reshaping it—trimming it here, expanding it there, finding connective threads and braiding them together… I absolutely love it.
I’m going to reveal what a big geek I am, as if you hadn’t already guessed.
When I was like fourteen, I used to play D&D, and I remember there were these pewter figurines of the monsters and characters that you could buy at the game shop where they sold the books and dice. My geek friends and I would paint these figures with model paints. When the colors were dry, the last step was to dilute some black paint in water and do a blackwash that would get into all of the crevices to bring out the details.
A good rewrite is like a blackwash on a piece of fiction. It enhances things that were always there, but that couldn’t be seen clearly before. This isn’t adding detail (which can bloat a manuscript), it’s making particular details more prominent to tease thematic elements out of the background.
Or, a different analogy for the editing process that will kick my freaky geekdom up another notch–Tarot cards. Around the same time I was rocking the 20-sided die, I also learned how to read Tarot cards. Yep, those paranoid evangelicals were right… D&D leads to witchcraft!
Here’s the thing about divination: I don’t believe it really predicts the future. I did find out pretty quickly though, that if you take a person who is anxious for answers and present them with a set of information rich symbols, and then open up a dialog about those symbols, the subject will readily extract meaning from random chaos, and you can then help them to make up a story and find a path forward, answer the question, or solve the problem. I noticed that most of the people who look back later and say a card reading was accurate are the ones who found a meaningful story about their situation in the cards and then made a decision based on that to create a particular future. People, after all, are meaning makers, and we all tell ourselves stories about our lives (we all edit them, too).
A good oracle is a form of psychotherapy, like staring at an inkblot. A good novel is a kind of oracle. Readers are seeking meaning and answers. A writer who can experience her story as a reader is also able to divine hidden meaning, make subtle symbolic connections, and solve problems.
The first draft of a book usually contains a fair amount of random chaos. There are ideas that don’t pan out, roads that lead nowhere. When I’m writing, I’m shuffling the deck, and I need to throw all kinds of things down to see where they lead. When I’m editing, I’m cutting a lot of that stuff. But sometimes what I thought was an insignificant detail, an unessential line of dialog, is actually a doorway to a deeper level of meaning in the story, a door that connects one chapter or character to another in a way that can surprise and exhilarate me, and hopefully do the same for a reader.
I’ll try to give one example from my current book. In the first draft there were origami cranes that appeared at pivotal moments. Of course I knew they were important to the plot, but was it important that they were cranes? In the third draft I changed one into an origami dog and suddenly it related to another dog in the story. And then what if I change this other crane into a butterfly? Now it’s a reference to the butterfly effect, and hurricanes, and karma, and the Japanese symbol for the soul… Suddenly the story starts to feel like it’s firing on all cylinders.
I love spotting those symbolic symmetries in my story’s cards. I love this part.