Editing something novel length is different to editing something short.
At least, that’s what I’m finding.
My work on Silence Killed the Dinosaurs means I’m pretty familiar with editing shorts*. I like to think I’m good at it. I certainly enjoy it. Sorting through the mess of a first draft for potential and patterns and then pulling them out to make it good is just so deeply satisfying. It’s the feeling of finally getting a nasty splinter out**.
But my process has always been simply to read through and make it better.
That hasn’t been working for my novel. A novel is different. A novel is big. It just doesn’t fit in your head all at once. At least, it doesn’t fit in my head.
If I try the old ‘read through and make it better’ method, I get bogged down on the first thing I stop to tweak. Like wearing a scarf that gets caught under a lawn mower. I get dragged right in, my brain hyper-focuses***, and I’m lost to the wider world. I can spend hours like that without noticing. But then when I manage to pull back, to read through what I’ve done, I realise that while the new stuff might work well in that precise scene, it doesn’t work with the book as a whole. Maybe I’ve shifted a character’s arc so it no longer flows nicely into the next chapter. Maybe I’ve reused a clever description that has to sound fresh later. Maybe I’ve accidentally announced a bunch of stuff that’s supposed to happen in a different part of the book.
In short, I lose track of the big picture.
And it doesn’t seem to be optional. I don’t know how to mentally hold myself back, keep that distance, to not give 110% of my attention to whatever small thing is in front of me at any given moment.
This is just the way my brain is. Sometimes it’s helpful—e.g., I don’t get distracted easily, I am very thorough and detail-oriented, and I’m weirdly great at rote learning—but not always. I struggle to take breaks, routinely working well into headaches or backaches and almost never remembering to stop for lunch without someone to prompt me (and I’ve had people say they envy me this, but no, trust me, it really is a bad thing, particularly because I have a chronic illness and if I don’t look after myself in these small ways it flares up and destroys me completely for a week or more). I waste so much time on tasks that simply do not require it. I can’t multitask. Cannot talk to people while I work, not even slightly (my partner can confirm this—I just stare blankly for a moment, possibly grunt, and then return to what I was doing, immediately wiping the incident from my memory). If I hyper-focus on anything at all after about 7pm in the evening, I will not be able to shut my brain off in time to fall asleep before 5am.
And, apparently, I struggle to edit novels.
It’s no use trying to force my brain to be different. I’d probably break it trying. Instead, I’ve been finding ways to approach the problem that suit it better.
Between drafts, I found the trick was to make it visual. I got index cards, wrote key points on them, added sticky notes, colour coded various things, and then pegged them to a line and moved it all about until I was happy. I needed it set out like that, to see it all at once, all together, for my brain to grab on properly.
But I’m in a different place now. I’m polishing an existing draft, not totally re-writing it. I don’t need to majorly shift scenes around, just play with their colour, intensity and expression.
What seems to be working for me has been to start with a pdf copy. I read that, made as many notes as I wanted on it, but could not change the actual text. This let me keep moving, which in turn let me get the big picture. When I’d read through the whole thing (several times. There’s really no changing me), I made big picture edit plans to work with the book as a whole.
Then, when I had both a plan and a document covered in notes, I started using them as a map to edit the draft.
Which is what I’m currently doing. I’m still hyper-focusing and getting carried away by small-picture tweaking, but as long as I keep checking in with my map, it stays harmonious with the whole.
And it’s going much better.
(If you also have problems like this and know any tips for dealing with it, please let me know).
* Maybe this is news? The odd conversation has made me realise that some people assume I just type through something linearly, knock out a few comics in an hour or so, then immediately hit publish. This might well be how some blogs are written, but please do not confirm this for me as even the theoretical possibility of this creation method causes me mental anguish. (For context, I’m trying to be a bit looser on this blog, and I still re-wrote this from scratch three times, edited it for a whole afternoon and then put it aside for a day while I eyed it suspiciously in case it I changed my mind about anything [sentence written: 11/9/2020]. Scratch that, a whole weekend [14/9/2020 11:30am]. WAIT NOPE I’M GOING TO EDIT IT AGAIN [14/9/2020 11:50] … … … maybe I should talk about this whole other thing as well? NO. Jeez, Lucy, that would require a whole rewrite. Just do another post about that another time. [11:52]. Now I’m just googling stuff in case it’s relevant [12:16]. OH SHIT IT’S RELEVANT [12:21]***)
** I was actually going to say like popping a really big and awful pimple, but I thought it might be too gross, so only you footnote aficionados get that image. Enjoy.
*** Holy shit. I’ve always thought of this as ‘hyper-focus’ because that’s just what it feels like, and I just googled it there’s a legit psychological thing actually called ‘hyperfocus’ and from what I can see it is the exact thing I experience. I’m not just … weird? This is … actually a lot to process.