Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Ode to Editing

I don't know what my inseam is. Well, I know what it measures but I don't know the length of my particular legs. All I know is that I love when I find a pair of pants that fit, pants that seem tailored to my body.

It's kind of funny that sewing eludes me as a skill because tailoring is the very best analogy I can think of for what I do when I edit.

A year or so ago, I got a contract where not only was there a word count, but a character count. I had to say everything the client wanted -- in 31 characters including spaces. It was such a fun challenge.

I love editing other people's words, to make them sound more themselves. Their best selves. In my mind, editing someone else's words is quite a bit like making a bespoke jacket. There's the same walking around the person, judging what will fit, measuring and sorting, taking in and letting out. I like being invisible in this, so that one client's words don't sound like another's - or worse, like mine.

I enjoy the process of editing my own work. I haul it all out on the table, the bits and pieces I've worked on, and I make it fit. When it's my work, though, it's a bit different. I can't walk all around myself, for instance, so there are blind spots. That's why I need an editor myself.

It's also a slightly different process with my writing, because what I have to do is listen very deeply to the story and to my own intuition, to see what rings true and what is false.

The image that comes to mind for editing my own work is carding wool. Have you ever done this? Basically, you take a clump of shorn sheep's wool, all tangled and fluffy, and put it on a wide wire brush. You take a second brush and drag it across the first. There is huge resistance between the two brushes and the knots and whorls of wool, but pull through it you must. Then, you do it again. And again. The goal is for all the fibers to line up in one direction, so they can be spun and woven.

When I edit, I go over and over the same bits many times. It all has to line up and make sense, go in one direction. It's intense work. Some days, I think, "Oh, it's good enough" or that I've done my best, and then, the next day, I tinker and pull, stretch and erase, amazed that I ever thought it was even close to done before.

Just as carding takes more muscle than you would think, editing a novel requires my whole brain. I have to keep both the whole story, the chapter, the line and the word in mind, pretty much simultaneously.

There's an old joke that it takes two people to write a novel - one to do the writing and one to shoot her when it's done. Because it's never categorically done. I know the truth of this joke, but this process is different. Like a well-tailored jacket or pants that fit just right, or wool ready to be used, there is something extremely satisfying about this. And it's satisfying along the way, every time I hit on the exact word I want or figure out what the trouble is with a scene.