Today’s post comes from author, blogger, programmer, gentleman, scholar, professional fractalist, amateur Twitterer, coffee-drinker, book collector, Trekkie, canine enthusiast, graphic novel connoisseur, co-conspirator, and very good friend Ben Trube. His latest work is the mystery novel Surreality, which he was brave enough to offer to me in my very first attempt at copyediting.
Writing a rough draft is actually pretty easy. It basically involves typing until you hit a certain word count. But revising and editing that draft into something that won’t make someone’s eyes bleed, that’s the tricky part.
During the many revisions of Surreality I tried just about every editing technique I could think of, and enlisted the help of two invaluable compatriots, my wife and my copy-editor, Brian. I think he writes a blog or something.
I had an algebra teacher who believed in something he called “Calculator Dependency Syndrome”. Basically, he thought that you needed to be able to work out a reasonable answer in your head or on paper before you should rely on technology. I think the same is true for revising your first novel, sometimes you have to go back to the basics of pen and paper. My first year of revising Surreality involved taking a double-spaced, 40 page section of my book out with me to Barnes and Noble, buying a cup of coffee, and marking those pages up with pen. This creates a very satisfying artifact, and actually meant that I revised my work at least twice, since I had to type all my changes back in. It was also very slow, since once again I’d had the brilliant idea of writing the first draft without chapters. Never again.
My wife and I collaborated on the second edit, a process that taught me how much an author can miss even when they’re trying to slow down and see everything. She questioned details I thought were well presented, and often employed the word “constipated” to certain sentences (in part because she knew of my fondness for the movie Finding Forrester, one of the few decent writing movies that actually has something to teach about writing). She was and is a real partner in the planning of the book, later being largely responsible for the cover design and a lot of the advertising. And, as I’ve written before, she’s the one who suggested the book be moved to Columbus, a city I actually know a little better than a place I’ve visited only once.
This kicked off the third and final edit. Well, that’s almost right, since there were actually two more after it. A year of writing a new draft with the original sitting on a Kindle beside me, or side by side on the computer. Now I had something I actually thought was worth sharing with people, after a vigorous copy edit from the aforementioned Brian.
After a few months of writing blog posts, ideas for other stories, and serial novellas about gravity behaving in completely illogical ways I got Brian’s edits back. Brian and I have a great friendship, meaning that he can tell me if something is working or not without much worry of my getting upset about it. And when he mentioned that he wanted to set one of my characters on fire, a character the reader is supposed to like and who had been one of my favorites to write, I knew there was still some work to be done. After all, Brian isn’t a man who tends to set many people on fire. Well … that one time, but that was years ago. [Ed. note: We said we weren’t going to talk about that!]
Revision at this stage involved me evaluating Brian’s comments, committing his changes and writing new material, then sending those sections back off for comments and final edits. Most chapters went through at least one cycle of back and forth, sometimes more. Working with Brian is probably the closest I’ll come to collaborating on writing. I’m not sure how two authors can get together and write a novel together, but the back and forth of discussing all of the little minutiae, the techniques and plot points, was probably the most fun I’ve had working as a writer, period. We traded comments, bad jokes, puns, and links to YouTube videos of auto-tuned Jon Hamm (there was a legitimate point we were discussing). We discussed whether a brothel or a bordello were actually different things (they aren’t). And it was especially gratifying when Brian said he now liked the character he was supposed to like and didn’t want to set her on fire even a little bit.
Writing a book is not a solitary activity, and revision is one of those things that feels really good when you’re doing it, until you realize you need to do it again. But that doesn’t mean that the next draft you write won’t be the best one yet. Writing is a process, one that takes time, collaboration, and honesty from others and with yourself.
Also: arson is a felony in the state of Ohio, and, I suspect, a lot of other places too. Just FYI.