Friday, March 25, 2011

The Lust of the Mohicans...and other scribblings on editing

First of all, a disclaimer that I mean no disrespect to James Fenimore Cooper’s classic. The Last of the Mohicans was one my favourite novels when I first read it more than 20 years ago, and even today, that same well worn copy occupies pride of place on my bookshelf. However, as I was drudging through editing my latest book, my mind wandered and I reminded myself to pay attention and thank God for what I have today- spell checks, auto-corrections and Find & Replace. Mr. Cooper had none of those, and a single substituted letter could have given a whole new dimension to his novel. To be honest, it may have made it even more likely for me as a fourteen year old boy to pick it up, but I doubt it would have enjoyed the stature it enjoys today (then again, you never know!).

Back to the point- editing.

When non-writers think of writing, they think it’s a lot of creative joy and then the glory of seeing books in print and on bookshelves. They totally miss a critical, and at least for me, not a very fun part of it- editing. That’s when you re-read every single word a few times over, discover all the places you screwed up, learn that you somehow changed a character’s name mid-way through the creative haze (am being charitable- I just couldn’t make head or tale of my handwritten notes), and realize that when you thought you were on a roll, your grammar was worse than a Grade 1 dropout. Okay, am being harsh, but for someone who loves the creative part of writing, and like any other writer, loves enjoying the end result, the editing process is a bit of drudge. Having worked in the corporate sector for over 15 years, I keep reminding myself that I don’t have to enjoy something to have to do it well. A poorly edited book, no matter how brilliant the idea is a bit like producing a shampoo bottle with a brilliant product inside but a cap that falls off the moment you touch it and the brand name spelt wrongly. If that’s a bizarre analogy, cut me some slack- I worked on Hair Care for 13 years! So it has to be done, and this is how I have learnt over the years to make peace with the editing process:

Make it real

The first thing I do when I finish a draft of a book is to print it out, staple the pages together and slap a cover on it. Usually a horrible hand drawn cover (and believe me, I can’t draw). What that does is that at one stroke it transforms a correction process on a laptop screen to the first time I hold `my book’ in my hand. That works wonders for motivation.

Get a trusted second opinion

I don’t know about other writers, but I love what I write. My reasoning is simple, if I don’t believe in and love what I do, why should even a single reader believe in me enough to pay good money to read my work? But what that means is that I may be blind to all the times I do screw up, and again, like all writers and their first drafts, those exist galore. So what I do when I finish my first draft is that I run it by my wife. She’s not a writer or an editor, but a voracious reader, and someone I can trust totally to be both brutally honest and amazingly supportive all at the same time. So that becomes not just an editing exercise, but a cross between editing and market research. It helps me uncover misses, and also sometimes points me in directions I may not have thought of. Most of all, it makes editing fun- since I am sharing my labour of love with the person I trust most.

Put some distance between us

I do get so immersed in my books sometimes that I dream of plot lines and twists and wake up itching to write it down. The downside of being so immersed in something is that you lose objectivity and find it hard to look at your work dispassionately. So after the first edit, I take a break of a couple of weeks. I read a lot of classics in the genre I’m writing, I start scribbling ideas for my next book, and only then do I get back to a second round of editing with a fresh mind.

I was about to press `Post’ and then I stopped myself and edited what I’d written once before posting it. You know what they say about old habits….

Keep reading, and I’ll keep writing.


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