Monday, January 7, 2013

The finishing touches

The fine art of editing.

This week’s subject is near and dear to my heart. Well, no, not really, but it’s one I deal with regularly. The idea here is to go over what each of us does with a manuscript before sending it out into the cold, harsh publishing world. Well, you do what you can to prepare a manuscript, don’t you? You warn them, tell them to stay away from strangers, not to sell themselves too short, not to expect the world to give them everything they deserve, because sometimes, most times, really, the world is cruel.

All kidding aside, there are several things that I feel must be done and that depends, in large part, on the individual project. Because for me at least they are all different. Sometimes I collaborate with other writers, and that means I have to work out a plan of attack with my partner in crime. I recently finished my second novel with co-author Charles R. Rutledge, and to be honest the only way I can describe our collaborative process is to compare it to juggling knives with someone you feel you can trust. Both of us are prolific, and we seem to work in very similar fashion. The books we’re writing together have short, fast chapters, and we will often exchange chapters on a daily basis. The first novel we worked on took us all of eight weeks to write on the first draft and the second novel took just at six weeks. Each book is a bit beyond 80,000 words.

See? Fast.

And the way we’ve worked it so far is he sends me a chapter, I do a line edit on what he wrote, cleaning up and obvious typographical errors, and then I write the next chapter and send it back. And then he does the exact same in return. And we continue the process, with occasional phone calls, emails or even lunches, until the novel is done. We normally meet once a week anyway, as part of a larger group, and we often discuss upcoming projects then as well. But by and large, we’re editing each other as we go; rereading what has already been written and then sending back at high speed. It’s fun, it’s frantic, and it’s decidedly enough to keep us on our toes. We are planning several collaborations.

That’s the first draft, of course. After that the real challenge comes around. We wait. We might discuss a few scenes, but mostly we wait for at least a month or two and then we edit the entire affair again. Why wait? Because you need to look at a manuscript with fresh eyes. The thing about writing something is you KNOW what you meant to say. And sometimes, annoyingly, your eyes will look at a mistake and ignore it because the words you meant to type are still too fresh in your brain and much like a computer, you might every well autocorrect the words on a mental level. That’s the way it’s always been for me, and so after a book is finished, I wait.

Now, that doesn’t mean not doing anything. It means not doing anything with the manuscript. In the meantime there are plotting sessions, outlines to contemplate, proposals to send out and negotiations to consider. All of that other stuff that is part of being a professional writer type. As a rule, with few exceptions, I finish a manuscript before I edit. I then go about the business part of the equation, selling,  working out the synopsis, outlines, and packaging the entire affair for sales. Yes, agents are supposed to do that too, but from time to time (okay, most of my career) I’ve been un-agented and that means handling the business aspects yourself.

Then it’s back to the editing. Each chapter of the collaborations gets edited by Charles and then by me and then we compare notes and make a few final adjustments.

Egos are always involved, by the way. And should be set aside whenever possible. Currently it’s my turn to do a first serious edit of our latest manuscript, and Charles pointed out a few spots where I might want to look at correcting potential plot holes. Let me clarify for you. He looked at the parts I wrote, noticed weaknesses, and suggested that I look them over and consider a change or two. He did not make the change himself. I have done the same for him. It’s one thing to correct a typo and another thing to rewrite each other’s work. The novel is collaborative, yes, but when it comes to characterization and motivation, we never assume to know exactly what the other is thinking. When I am done with the final tweaks, we’ll work on selling this one.

So, for the collaborative works, I establish rules with my co-author and then we write and edit as we go.

And you know what? I do almost the same thing on the solo work. Write it first, then edit it after waiting for a couple of months. Want to know something? The biggest difference is the editing is harder when you don’t have someone else’s words to play with. It’s that autocorrect I was speaking about before. Sometimes the mind plays tricks, but seldom when I’m reading someone else’s words.

I don’t outline. I don’t do details synopsis until the book is done. I don’t edit much until then, either. But when the first draft is finished, there are at least three edits left to do.

Mind you, I’ll contend that there is no right or wrong in this process. You need to do it the way that works best for you. Well, okay, with one proviso: you absolutely must edit. At least if you would like to sell the work you are producing somewhere along the way.

James A. Moore


  1. The collab thing is actually really interesting to me. The only times I've tried collabing with an actual story, I wrote some of the characters and the other writer wrote the others - so there was a lot more back and forth. (Probably one of the reasons it crashed and burned so hard, too.)

    The webcomic collab is different tho - since that's pretty much all me on the writing side. I just have to make sure it's detailed enough for the artist to interpret. :)

  2. I love comic scripts. One of these days I might even get a chance to work on some of them for pay again.

    The catch with collaborations is to lay out the rules in advance, I think. My first rule: The Ego can wait outside while the grown-ups talk. No word I write is pure magic, and that goes for my collaborator, too.