My Twisted Baby: editing a first draft (part 1)

I have a draft before me. It is my 2016 NaNoWriMo novel, Sin Eater. I have printed it out, and it lies on my desk like a mewling, half-formed monstrosity.

The task is clear: I must take a hatchet and a scalpel, and with these tools must cut away the mutant flesh, and sculpt its form anew. It is a painful process, but it must be done.

It’s been a long time since I edited a manuscript. My last one – a MS from many years past that I hold dear to my heart and am too terrified to send to an agent – didn’t need nearly so many changes from draft one to draft two. I just sat down and went through the MS in my word processor, making changes as I went. It was, effectively, mostly cosmetic, although some scenes did get a thorough change and some new ones were added.

Cosmetic surgery will not suffice this time. Sin Eater has some glaring problems. The setting itself needs some work, and some scenes will need a complete, top-to-bottom rewrite. The task is completely overwhelming. I have no idea what I’m doing, so of course as in all things I turned to the internet for help. I saw that a few people print out their MSs and work through with a red pen, which seems terrifying, so instead of printing out the whole beast I am taking it ten or so pages at a time. So far, it seems to be working well; I am getting through it at a fairly good pace. On the other hand, I feel like I am pushing the work of actually making the changes down the river a ways. For Sin Eater, this method is still better than my last one, because one can take a look at the novel as a whole, as an entire beast, and make note of what needs to be done before one rolls up one’s sleeves and starts getting into the blood and bone of the thing.

Editing is difficult. Is there anyone who enjoys this task? Is there a writer out there who, when considering the very notion of editing, does not let out a whine? And this is just the note-taking stage. I’m not even into the terrors of it all yet, and still it is a painful process. I need to take periodic breaks to walk around the house in a malaise, like that fellow in The Unstrung Harp.

I’ve taken to just surrounding sentences I don’t like with square brackets for future-me to deal with, and there are many of these. Amongst the scribblings of things that need to go in or bits that can come out are sentiments such as “WAT” and “Oh god, why??”. This is a monstrosity. This is a novel I wrote in 30 days, and by its very nature it contains passages that exist just to move the story forward. With no time to pause when I might otherwise have paused, to made things pretty, I have a large number of sentences or whole paragraphs that are awkward and ugly. Sometimes a page just has enough on it to get me through what happens to the next part of the story. Other pages are spent on flights of fancy, because sometimes it doesn’t matter as long as there are words. Bad writing days – days when the words come like pulling teeth and the very act of writing feels like running up a mountain –  are very apparent, and reading through these passages is physically painful. And yet, there are moments with imagery that delights me. Even a bad passage might hold the germ of something great. At this point I don’t even need to worry about changing it into what it needs to be. I just write “nice image, reword” and move on. There’s a freedom to that.

It will get better. I know that in a few months, in a year, this novel will be a better novel. Though the process is painful now, and will get even more difficult when I sit down to write Draft Two, this novel deserves it. It deserves to be better. I was clumsy with it before, because I needed to be. Now there is time enough for finesse.


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