On editing and archaeology

I was thinking today that editing a book is a bit like doing archaeology.

It is painstakingly slow, requires patience and attention to detail, and you have to take care not to break the things you might wish to preserve.

When I edit, I’m sifting through layers of text that are formed from my own history of writing and thinking about the story. I’m often not certain exactly what I’m looking for,  but I hope to hell I’ll know it when I find it.

Here’s the thing, and I’m sure this isn’t news to most of you: you don’t just write a book once. You write it over, and over, and over again. Civilizations rise and fall and crumble into dust. The wreckage is scattered for miles.

I try to plot. I start out with an idea about a character, or about how particular events should unfold. Then as I go along, it doesn’t work. The character decides to be somebody else, or the direction I envisaged just doesn’t sit right, and so it changes.

The story morphs, sometimes gradually, sometimes all at once.

But in my mind, I still have the memory of what I intended.

And what I intended of my story is not just in my mind. There are remnants in the text itself: fragments of characters being who I thought they would be before they asserted themselves, shards of events that now don’t happen. These are things that trip a reader up, that break the flow. This is what, in archaeologist/editor mode, you need to dig up, examine, and set aside.

The thing is, as the writer who created them, you often don’t notice them at all, because you’re too close to your own history of writing – somewhere in your mind it’s kind of like those things did happen.

The tricky bit in editing your own work is coming to the page with fresh eyes. Seeing just what is actually there. Seeing the words separately from your intentions.

This is why beta readers, people who have never ever read your words before, are amazing and life-saving and should be rewarded with chocolate and puppies. (Presumably professional editors even more so, though I’ve not yet had the opportunity to work with one.)

When you can see clearly what is on the page, the editorial choices you need to make become simpler. It is not such a giant leap from seeing what is actually there to seeing what needs to be there.

So tell me, how’s your editing going?

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