Dante’s Tenth Circle

There are two kinds of editing: the easy kind, and the hard kind.

The easy kind involves all the things most people expect editing to involve: grammar, punctuation, word choice — the kind of details English majors attack with gusto. They’re also the details the copy editor takes care of after the manuscript gets to the publisher, but I take a lot of pride in trying to turn in a really clean manuscript. I guess I’m a perfectionist; I hate it when people find my mistakes.

The hard kind of editing involves bigger, more general issues concerning the story itself. Is the conflict strong enough? Are the characters likable? Does the trajectory of the romance make sense? These are the things my editor will eventually help me with, but again, I like to do my best from the start. I figure the better the book is when the editor gets it, the deeper into the story she’ll have to go to make improvements – and the result will be a better book.

I have to admit that I fantasize about turning in a book that’s so brilliantly written that my editor will breathlessly inform me that it’s perfect as is. “Don’t change a thing!” I imagine her saying.

Yeah, right.

There’s always something that I miss. When you’ve spent six months or more with your characters, it’s easy to forget that the reader doesn’t love them like you do, and might not forgive them for flaws that seem endearing to their creator. It’s hard to remember that your reader doesn’t know why the hero’s suddenly naked, because oops! you cut the scene where he moved from the kitchen to the bedroom. And sometimes you’re so intent on making your plot work that you can’t see that you’ve tossed in a few too many coincidences to be believable.

It’s also hard to do this kind of editing yourself because, depending on your mood, you’re either too critical or you give yourself a pass for problems that really do need to be resolved.

This is where you call in your reinforcements. I’m lucky enough to have friends who are wonderful beta readers–one who’s great for catching problems with the story, one who really focuses on the characters, and another who’s wonderfully detail-oriented, catching timeline slip-ups and other inconsitencies. I also have an agent who has an eagle eye for plotting problems and a brilliant mind for finding solutions. Once these people make their suggestions, I can see the book more clearly.

Obviously, this process isn’t easy. It’s tough to take a labor of love and look over it with an analytical eye, second-guessing all the decisions that seemed so brilliant during the happy, frenzied creative stage. There are times I swear that Dante’s Hell should have a tenth circle where the damned are forced to edit a single manuscript for all eternity.

A recent article in RWA’s Romance Writer’s Report  (I wish I could cite the author, but I’ve misplaced my copy) related Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief to the editing process. It’s an apt comparison; I can honestly say that in the past two weeks, I’ve suffered through all five: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.

But there’s one essential difference between the stages of grief and the stages of editing: when you finish the stages of editing, your novel isn’t dead; it’s more alive and vital than it was to start with. And that makes it all worthwhile.