Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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December 17, 2018

NaNoWriMo Was the Easy Part: How to See Your Story Across the Finish Line

by Tiffany Yates Martin

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?

  • Try to enjoy the process: I recently started doing yoga again, and even when I am holding a pose that’s making one group of muscles scream in agony, I like the mindfulness part of practice that also lets me notice the pleasure of a gorgeous stretch across others; or enjoy the newfound ease of a posture that was impossible for me to sustain when I started; or even relish the effort I’m putting forth into holding a side plank and the way it works underemployed muscles (and the ache the next day that makes me feel like a workout badass). Even in the midst of a hard revision, there’s pleasure to be found in working parts of your craft and your mind that you may not use in first-drafting.
  • Find the “workout” that works for you: A few weeks ago I accompanied my husband to his gym on a guest pass, and realized why I joined a yoga studio—I’m not comfortable in a gym atmosphere; it makes me feel inadequate, self-judgy, and overwhelmed in a way yoga never does. Gyms are not for me—but I’ve found a way to achieve my fitness goals that does work for me. There are lots of approaches to editing—find the one that resonates with you.
  • Use the pain: Liz Fenton also told me that the worst of the edit process for Girls Night Out, when she lost faith in her own ability to get her story where it needed to go, wound up informing and deepening the main characters’ struggles, bringing them more fully to life in a way readers and reviewers have called out as among the most impactful and authentic parts of the book.
  • Explore the unexpected: Despite the lack of coordination that’s been a hallmark of my six-foot-tall existence, it turns out I love balancing poses. I would never have thought, but I’ve found that tree pose or eagle or warrior three sharpen my focus and make me feel more centered, and lately I notice I am developing an equilibrium and grace I never thought I’d lay claim to. I’ve worked with countless authors who discover unexpected storylines, character arcs, and plot developments in editing that wind up forming the heart of their story.
  • Revel in your progress: I’ve been at this yoga thing now for about six months—time enough to notice that I have much greater flexibility and strength, more energy and balance, and I love the way I look. I also know that it’s a process: I’ll continue to reap these benefits—but only if I stick with my practice. Mastering edits and revisions for one manuscript doesn’t necessarily guarantee the next ones will spring from your mind fully formed and beautifully polished. You will likely always have to plow through edits and revisions—but like working out, the more you do it the stronger you become—and the easier it gets. And just like working out, with each edit you push yourself a little further, making yourself capable of more with every subsequent story you write.

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 TimesUSA 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.

27 comments on “NaNoWriMo Was the Easy Part: How to See Your Story Across the Finish Line”

  1. You caught me in edits! My "favorite" part is the first pass, when I'm doing major surgery. The story, especially the first half, is fresh since it's been a long time since I've seen it. That's where I excise huge hunks of "this does nothing to advance the plot" prose. (I'm a "plantser" but not all plans turn out as expected). The most tedious part is where I am now. Using the SmartEdit app to flag all the words I've used to excess, finding better words, rewording the sentence, or -- often enough--deleting the word, sentence, or paragraph. The wip started at 100,062 words and is now 87,525.

    And I'm off to my yoga practice this morning !

    (PS - the link to FoxPrint Editorial in your bio isn't working)

    1. This is the most fun part of the process to me, Terry--figuring out what serves the story and what doesn't, and then even more fine-tuning: streamlining the prose itself. It always feels so rewarding...like losing weight when you've been dieting. 🙂 Good luck!

    1. Good luck, Julie--I often think editing is where authors really get to learn and develop their stories. That's a mixed blessing--it's often harder than drafting--but it's so rewarding.

  2. I feel like you wrote this post just for me, Tiffany. Thank you! Like, Terry, I'm off to the perennial 10,000 step trail walk. I never thought I'd enjoy it, when I started years ago and could barely get a quarter of a mile. Now, I enjoy it.

  3. I'm officially doing edits on my first book this DEC 2018. I finished rough draft last DEC 2017 then wrote on two other books/outlines over the year. I shared my book chapter by chapter over the last 2 years with my critique group so its not really rough, rough draft. However, editing feels like I'm in one of the wagons in a circle and the Indians just keep coming. I want the beginning to draw in the reader so I keep rewriting it. The suggestions by the critique group do improve the work but I am not sure when to stop and let it go. I'm not ready for Beta reader for a while if I keep going at this rate. I am using ProWritingAid to catch all the echos,

    1. This can be really tough, Jeanne--when you're standing at the foot of Revision Mountain looking up and thinking you have no idea how to get to the peak. Take it bite by bite, if you can: Start with the big foundational stuff--character, plot, stakes. Then move to the "microedit" areas like tension and suspense, voice, point of view, etc. Then circle in on the prose itself. Editor Sol Stein has a great technique he calls "triage" for tackling an edit--check out his books. They may help. And try to avoid too many cooks in the kitchen till you have a really solid idea of how to move forward with the revision; input is great for figuring that out, but at a certain point I think it's best to sequester the work (and yourself) from other eyes while you get it where you want it; then you can go back to your betas for more insight. Good luck!

  4. Tiffany, I owe you for more than the editing advice - After reading this, I didn't weasel out of my workout this morning! And likening editing to a workout is apt for me - hate 'em both. BUT they're critical. I don't care what your job is - even being a mom - there are parts you're not going to like,

    Doing those parts is the difference between an amateur and a professional. I have to remind myself to suck it up and eat my peas.

    1. LOLOL...eat your peas. Ha! My least favorite part of being a mom (besides going back to school via homework) is when she is sick. There is nothing worse than having someone throw up on you and then having to clean it up.

      See? Doesn't that make you feel better about your edits?

    2. This right here, Laura Drake--this is gold: "Doing those parts is the difference between an amateur and a professional." Editing is often the line that separates the hobbyists from the career writers. First-drafting is the sexy part of courtship. Editing is the marriage. The first one is easy; the second one takes more work, but is SO rewarding. (Congrats on the workout too....) 🙂

  5. Excellent, as always, Tiffany. I generally enjoy editing, filling in the blanks and fleshing out the story, taking the characters to a deeper place. i do hate restructuring a story, even when that is called for (I'm looking at you), but sometimes it's a necessary evil.

    1. Densie, everyone hates restructuring. 😀 It's no fun to rip your baby apart and Frankenstein it back together...but sometimes doing so can really elevates your story. Thanks for the comment!

  6. Excellent and invaluable post that I am saving.

    My first drafts are 'almost a glorified outline' but my subsequent drafts are a mix of pain and discovery. In fact, the novel that I just 'first-drafted' in NaNoWriMo arose out of my exploration for what was meant to be Book 1 of a series. After five drafts, I delved even deeper into the main protagonist's backstory, having 'discovered' that she had queer/lesbian tendencies. What initially were characters studies, became a series of shorts and then a novel to framework the 'flashbacks/memories'. Whether it works will emerge in the revision/rewrite stages that lie ahead, next year.

    1. "A mix of pain and discovery" made me laugh. It really is like good pain sometimes--I know how hard it can be to tackle a revision, especially a substantial one, but MAN, it feels great to get that story into fighting shape, doesn't it? Good luck with yours, Roland--it sounds intriguing.

  7. Tiffany, I like your example at the top as I detest working out. I like having worked out the same way I like having written. 🙂 This also really speaks to why novels are so challenging for me. I like the immediate feedback of a short story. With a novel, you are chiseling and then chiseling some more. Yes, the book that emerges is (hopefully) wonderful, but the process is arduous as hell.

    1. It can be arduous, yes. I know so many writers who say they "find" the heart of the story in edits, though. I really do think it's the most rewarding work in writing. But it's also often the most demanding. It really is the demarcation between an avocational writer and a pro, in my experience--I always ask writers whether they'd expect to pick up a violin and play a perfect solo, or if they realize it takes hours of practice and honing, doing it over and over and over till you get it right. Like any creative pursuit, it takes work and discipline, but when you see your story come to its fullest potential, there's nothing like it. Hang in there, Jenny! 🙂

  8. You gave me a new perspective on both editing and working out, Tiffany. Thank you. Finding the fun... that "badass the next day" reminder is so perfect. I love seeing a well-edited chapter, and I love it when I feel like I "did something", even when the muscles are griping.

    Heck, then I KNOW I did something.

    1. Yeah...it's the great "having worked out" feeling. Makes the workout agony worthwhile. 🙂 Hope you find the fun--though I know how hard it can be, I adore editing and I think it's the most enjoyable part of the process.

  9. I'm also deep in the revision process of my novel and I'd rather go through a root canal. If you knew how much I hate the dentist, you'd appreciate how excruciating revising is for me. But, I'm persevering. Will try to attain a better attitude. Must make exercising, another dreaded process, one of my priorities. Thanks for posting!

    1. Ha! I think it helps if you take it bite by bite (how do you climb Revision Mountain? One step at a time...), and to look for the parts you can enjoy. If you break it down into little areas you work on, focusing only on that when you are working on it, then often you can get lost in the joy of editing and revising the same way you do first-drafting. At least, that's my biased belief. 😉 Good luck, Barb!

  10. edits are invaluable, necessary, and help one to have a better book. know when to accept a change and when one is worth fighting for keeping--it must be relevant and move the story forward--but change is good... I always try to have a positive attitude about them.

    once, an editor accused me of making up a word. I copy/pasted the definition from the Oxford dictionary. that's the little stuff I hate. she could have looked it up instead of an accusation.


  11. One reason that editing can take forever and in some cases result in a project being abandoned is when you don't have a plan. But even having a plan can fail if you lack the kind perspective that can come from your work being read by trusted readers and/or a professional editor. Don't be too proud to ask for help before you start editing or if the editing process isn't going well. P.S.: I've been doing yoga for nearly 50 years.

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