Week twelve: Look for the blank walls

It is week twelve of 2019. Spring has sprung, and the brain-wrecking jostle of the time jump in the US is behind us. How is the writing going? This new season is a good time to evaluate your writing routine and make changes if you are stuck or the words feel stale. If you’ve been writing inside, get yourself outside. If you’ve been writing on a computer, grab a notebook and pen. If you’ve been writing in the mornings, try writing at night. Run an experiment for a week and see what happens.

This week’s book, The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself by Susan Bell, is all about change – big change. If you’ve never substantially revised one of your drafts, or if you live in fear of being told (by an editor, a reader, or your own brain) that your manuscript needs substantial revision, this is the book to reach for.

The Artful Edit will not teach you the fundamentals of how to build a sound structure for your story (for that, turn back to Cron and Coyne). What this book will do is show you the next level of possibilities for your manuscript: how to turn a crude shelter into a warm and inviting home.

Bell’s most important point is that editing is a creative act, not a step in the publishing process that happens after a manuscript is mostly finished. If you approach your manuscript looking only for adverbs to slay, then that’s what you will find. But if you step back and take a broader view, then you will be able to see incidents that can be foreshadowed or characters that can be further developed or images that can be turned into leitmotivs. 

Editing provides the kind of psychological freedom that writing often cannot. In your first draft, you are still gathering your materials and creating your structure. When you are editing, you know what you are working with. As Bell puts it, “While we write into a void, we edit into a universe, however ravaged it may be. . . . So forget for a minute the intoxication of invention, and honor the cold splash relief of revision.”

The most important step in the revision process is to learn how to approach your book as a reader and editor, rather than as a writer and creator. To do this, Bell explains, you must get some distance from your manuscript, and she provides a number of specific strategies for achieving this: 

  • Don’t read and revise as you write your first draft so that you can come back to it with fresh eyes when you finish. Alternatively, put it in a drawer for some period of time after you finish and don’t look at it.

  • Read aloud. This is common advice, but Bell’s wording of it will stick with you: “Intoned, your text becomes dynamic, whereas inside your head it was still; the clunky or obtuse parts fall out like so many bolts that weren’t well fastened, and couldn’t be detected until you started to speak.” (I just had some bolts drop from my mouth as I read a draft of this newsletter aloud.)

  •  Alter the way you physically experience your draft. Change the font (especially from a serif to a sans serif or vice versa), or scale down the size of the text and lay a chapter or the entire draft across the floor or hang it on a wall.

  • Conjure up what W.H. Auden called the “Inner Censorate,” a group of specific readers whose reactions you value.

Bell also has excellent insights about how to achieve some of the subtler effects of fiction, especially foreshadowing and imagery. The editing process is where writers have the time and attention, after the initial intensity of creation, to add such niceties. As Bell puts it:

“It is said in feng shui, the ancient Chinese art of making space accommodate the spirit, that you should hang a picture or other tantalizing object on a wall at the end of a corridor that takes a turn. This is because the person walking down it should not face a blank space, but be pulled forth by an intriguing image; this way, she will make it to the end and turn. So it is with writing. Editing is the opportune time to get an overview of your story’s proportions, rhythm and tension. When you reread your draft, look for the walls still left blank at the end of turning corridors, where you may place an arrow, as it were, to get your reader to make the turn.” 

Bell provides an illuminating analysis of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s editing process for The Great Gatsby and also includes extended interviews with authors about the revision process. One of my favorites in the book is with Ann Patchett, who offers up a wonderful baking metaphor: “I think of writing and editing in terms of folding, like you would fold in egg whites. You’ve got your egg whites beaten and you take a third of them and you lighten the batter by folding it in, and then you take a little bit and you fold it in, you fold it in—I don’t feel like writing is linear as much as it is circular. There is this stirring movement of taking the story around in a circle, which means I am always writing back into it.”

I’ll leave you today with this bit of wisdom from Bell: “To edit is to listen, above all; to hear past the emotional filters that distort the sound of our all too human words; and to then make choices rather than judgments.” Choices rather than judgments. My role as an editor is to look for the missed opportunities – not in order to pass judgment on them, but in order to show a writer the choices open to them. You can do this for your work too. Approach your manuscript with an open mind and believe in its potential.

Here’s to decorating the blank walls, y’all,

PS: I was on the What Works podcast this week, talking about how I approach the business aspects of editing. If you are interested in a behind-the-scenes peek into the Blue Garret, you can listen here.

Next week: I’ll be bringing you a round-up of news and insights from the American Copy Editors Society conference in Providence. You can follow along on my Twitter feed or keep an eye on the #ACES2019 tag if you are interested.

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