Delia C. Pitts
The last scene is typed: the novel is written.
The final morsel of advice is baked: the self-help manual is done.
This should be a moment of high celebration. And for many writers it is. The slog has been long, whether measured in months, semesters, or years. Break out the Champagne or Nehi Orange soda. Pop open the Campari or Corona. Relish that three-course celebratory dinner prepared for you by somebody else. And you don’t even have to wash the dishes afterwards!
Your baby deserves -- no demands! -- to be shared with the world. But how to make that happen?
When the writing’s done, the tough part begins: the editing, the waiting, the doubt, the nagging hesitation, the angst, the revision. And the editing. Oh, the horror.
Recently a friend -- the Kind Lady of my previous blog essay -- asked about my editing process. Did I have one or several beta readers? How did I wax and buff my writing to prepare it for publication? Did I have an agent? An editor? Did I really have a publisher if I was an indie? She was generous enough to say my finished product was “so gorgeously polished.” (I did say she was Kind, didn’t I?) But her question prompted me to examine the internal voices that aid my editing process.
These internal voices aren’t spooky sounds gargling from disembodied monsters. They aren’t the voices of the fiction’s characters either. The editing voices are the two sides of more or less rational inquiry that focus my revision process. For simplicity, I’ll call the voices, “Internal Agent” and “Internal Editor.” They serve different functions and push at my writing in complementary ways.
Internal Agent (Ag for short) has a simple motto: Dazzle Me! This is the demand that every chapter of the novel deliver a moment of transporting wonder, a descriptive paragraph or a bit of dialogue that surprises or confounds or challenges the reader. “Wow!” is the response Ag seeks. The moment can be small; in Lost and Found in Harlem’s first chapter, Rook describes the flames devouring his apartment building: “Against the dark sky, the frantic display looked like a flapping Halloween advertisement billowing out of season.”
A bigger scene evokes eerie sensations of mythology and voyeurism in Practice the Jealous Arts: hidden on a wooded cliff, Rook watches three sisters dance naked in a stream. Are they sirens, sorceresses, water nymphs, murderers? Internal Ag wants more razzmatazz, more suspense, more intensity, more humor in every chapter. If it’s not present, she nags for a rewrite.
As I revise my writing, I’m always looking for places in each chapter where I can satisfy Internal Agent’s demand for sparkle and wonder. I don’t always succeed, but the command to Dazzle Me! keeps creative juices flowing through the polishing process.
Then there is Internal Editor. Is it Ed or Edi? I’m not sure. But for certain, Ed has a grim tone. His motto is: Earn This. The tolling voice sounds like doom, with the dark urgency used by Tom Hanks at the end of “Saving Private Ryan.” Earn This. Earn It.
Internal Ed demands that each word carry its weight in the final cut. No strays, no sloppy seconds, no winks, or special pleading. According to Ed, I must pare each sentence until the meaning is as clear as I can make it. I rake the manuscript many times, excising “that,” “just,” “really,” “pretty,” “even,” and “back.” I disappeared “said” from my fiction long ago. If the dialogue doesn’t make clear who is speaking, then I scrub it until the character’s individuality shines and doubt is removed. With Ed in my ear, each adverb is examined. Closely. And removed when I find a muscular verb to take its place.
I don’t always get it right, of course. Mistakes abound. My revision technique involves lots of re-reading, tons of polishing. Then I let the text stew untouched for several months. The book ferments on its own and I dig into another one. I have completed four novels in the Ross Agency mystery series beyond the two published ones and the third sitting in the publisher’s hands now. With these latest four, I bounce between them, changing and rubbing until the sentences feel right, taste right. At the moment, I’m restructuring a novel I finished last January. Satisfying the demands of Internal Agent and Internal Editor.
Revision is a multi-step process using tools of increasing refinement and exactness: chisel, rasp, file, sandpaper, emery board, and chamois cloth. At the chisel stage, the blows may be brutal as I flip chapters around, delete and insert scenes, terminate characters who fail to serve a purpose. As I proceed, the steps grow gentler, the honing finer. I scrape lazy words from dialogue or I rub an image until the haze is gone. Tightening tenses, highlighting clues and red herrings, maintaining continuity of tone and timeline. Buffing until the polish shines.
Thanks to Internal Agent and Internal Editor, I’m a good writer. But I’m not a perfect one. Far from it. So, I also use professional editors to review my manuscripts for content, grammar, punctuation, spelling, and stylistic conventions. Just as I wouldn’t draw my own cover art or create my own font or glue my own binding or design my own website, I would never publish without a professional editing eye on every novel.
Having so many stories in the same series means I can concentrate on the long character arcs. Of course, development for Rook, the narrator and central character, is paramount. But also for Brina and his detective pal Archie. Lots of moving parts must be herded in new directions. But they also must be supported by what comes before. And reflected in what comes later in the series. For example, I introduced a minor character in one story, then had him solve a dangerous problem – in the story before! Oops! So, I reworked passages in both books to make the timeline work and the character flourish. Side actors in one novel roar to center stage in later books as the plots thicken around them. I have to keep these minor characters consistent in style, appearance, motivation, and tone when they pop up to challenge Rook again. Fun mind puzzles like these are tougher than anything the detectives of the Ross Agency tackle!
I’m not unique. All writers go through a process similar to the one I’ve outlined here. Getting it into words has helped me sharpen my methods and understand my own technique. Perhaps it has helped you too.