Author Liz Fenton—half of the writing team, with Lisa Steinke, behind bestselling novels like The Good Widow—recently told me about her fitness regimen at Orange Theory.
“I hate working out!” she said. She dreads it every time she goes, and doesn’t enjoy it while she’s there. “But I love the way my shoulders look, and my arms. That’s what editing is like.”
Liz and Lisa’s latest book, Girls Night Out was released earlier this year after a more than usually grueling edit process. Despite their author’s note in the book that the revisions for this one nearly broke them, “It’s a much better book,” Liz says simply—just the way she loves her body as a result of the workouts she hates.
Genius may not be quite "one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” as Edison famously said—but it’s at least a solid fifty-fifty, and after the thrill of creating your manuscript (especially in the breakneck rush of NaNo), much of the “perspiration” part comes in the editing process.
Editing is where the magic of a story really comes to life—but it’s often a lot of work—and not in the immediately satisfying way of first-drafting.
I liken it to sculpting: A first draft is when the figure is roughed out, and form begins to emerge from a meaningless chunk of stone. This is the thrilling, godlike process of creation in its purest form, when the artist’s imagination literally creates something from nothing, and it can be intoxicating, seductive, even deliciously reckless as the artist follows the Muse wherever she dances.
But then the detail work begins—the amorphous shape of a face must be chiseled and polished again and again and again in ever finer adjustments to create and define precise features, details, proportions. Pull up a picture of Michelangelo’s David and imagine the dedication, work, and patience that went into creating such a detailed, luminous work of art. Roughing out the initial form is merely the first step; the real work of sculpting—or of writing—often happens in the endless, minute, painstaking fine-tuning.
That’s not the romantic vision of being a writer that may have first lit the fire in us (although that glowing illusion is probably a long way in your rearview mirror if you’ve been at this for any time at all). It’s more the quotidian reality of a master craftsman. If you want to be a concert violinist, an opera singer, a ballerina, a brilliant actor, you practice over and over and over—often on the same piece of work. You are exploring, honing, fleshing out, developing your craft along with this particular piece of art.
What separates artists from hobbyists is the willingness to do that work, to persist in a project past the immediately gratifying part of inspiration and creation. It’s easy to head to the gym right after your New Year’s resolution, or at the beginning of your weight-loss program, or starting a fitness regimen with a group of friends. But the people who grow strong and healthy and fit are those who show up—day after day, lap after lap, lift after lift, till their muscles tremble and ache. They may hate working out—but they love the effects of having worked out.
I do think there’s joy in editing—and even a great deal of that same creative fire that draws most writers into the craft in the first place. I work with a number of authors who tell me that they are “editing” or “process” writers—the first draft is almost a glorified outline for them; the revision process is where they dive deep and immerse themselves in the story, and much of the delight they take in their craft comes from that in-depth exploration and figuring out all the options, like the thrill of those locked-room games where participants have to use their imaginations, determination, and resourcefulness to find the way out. (These may be the literary equivalent of those “feel the burn,” endorphin-high crazy people who actually love working out.)
But if you’re not one of those folks—if editing (or working out…) feels like the specter of Death before you, how can you find the positives in the necessary editing and revision process?
You may never be one of those authors who honestly loves editing—but you’ll appreciate the benefits when you parade your tight, lean, hot-body manuscript in front of agents, editors, and readers.
What is your favorite part of the editing process? Your least favorite?
Tiffany Yates Martin is privileged to help authors tell their stories as effectively, compellingly, and truthfully as possible. In more than 25 years in the publishing industry she’s worked both with major publishing houses and directly with authors (through her company FoxPrint Editorial), on titles by New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal bestsellers. She presents editing and writing workshops for writers’ groups, organizations, and conferences and writes for numerous writers’ sites and publications.
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