William A. Hainline: Reality Engineer

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I Edit My Novels In Sweeps And Passes; Here's Why

Going through my manuscript looking for occurrences of "passive voice" led me to a bit of a revelation about how I edit my work. I don't do it the usual way. The normal way that you're supposed to edit a work is by going in "drafts" — that is, you finish a version of your work (like, say, the "first draft" of the whole thing), and then you go back to the beginning and you read it all the way through (some people prefer to read it backwards, paragraph by paragraph, as that helps you divorce it from story structure and just see the prose), and find your mistakes, one by one, and fix them. And then you do that again, only with maybe an eye toward fixing different things. And, I've found that I can do that; I can . . . and it works. But, that's not the way I usually start out doing it. No, the way that I begin editing is a bit different. Here's how I do it.

It starts when I begin writing on a project, not when I'm finished. I'll finish part of it — say, Chapter 1, maybe fifty or sixty pages — and then I'll go back and revise that fifty or sixty pages, looking for mistakes, errors, and so forth. Trying to make it the best it can be. But I don't fret over it or obsess over it, or try to make it perfect. Just try to get it in better shape. Then I write the next Chapter. Then I go back — to the beginning. And I revise from Page 1. Then I write Chapter 3. Then I go back —  to the beginning. And I revise from Page 1. This is a lot less efficient than going by Draft, as you can imagine. If the book has, say, 30 Chapters, I can wind up revising Chapter 1 over 30 times. (But, dammit, you can bet that Chapter 1 will be fucking perfect!)  Then, once that is done, I let my beta-readers have it. My friends Greg and Ken, Ana, and others who've volunteered to subject themselves to my tormented variations on the English language. Once they're done pointing out everything that is wrong, I go back and try to fix what they've pointed out without damaging too much of the overall vision. Then, when all of that is said and done, I go back over the whole thing and do the normal "3 drafts" thing: First draft — story structure, plot, character, dialogue, theme, overall ideas and concepts, "what am I trying to say with this book," things like that, the big picture stuff. Second draft, copy editing — nuts and bolts stuff, things like passive voice, punctuation, spelling, grammar, and sentence structure, and so forth. Third draft — polish and spit-shine, final coat of paint, minor details, final grammar and spelling check, "is this what I really want here," etcetera. Then, I let my editor have it. Once she's done with it, and has made her suggested changes — 90% of which will, likely, be adopted and incorporated — I go back and revise the sucker one more time, just to make sure everything jibes and that everything is copacetic. If it is, then congratulations, Mr. Hainline, it's a bouncing baby book. If it's not, well, I hammer and wail on it until everything is copacetic, and until everything does work. If it doesn't, it's my fault anyway, so I'd better fix it. 

I find that doing it this way works well for me because when I edit in passes, it allows me to go back and change things to better fit the new material that I've just added, adding an extra layer of continuity-protection to the work. That way, what I've "already" written will match closer with what I've just added . . . the "new" material will always jibe with what I've put down before, and all the edges will line up perfectly. After all, if i go back and revise from Page 1 each time I add something new, then everything I've written up to the new material will all fall in line each time. Also, each new addition gives me the chance to see what I've already done in a brand new context. I can go back and look at what I've done and see it in a new light, see it as it builds to the new material and not just as it is, isolated in the vacuum of its own independent existence. It's one thing to look at a piece of writing as a chunk extrapolated from a piece of an outline. It's another to see it as a living, breathing piece of a finished work that has context, shape, and definition given to it by other living, breathing pieces. That, and also, if I can see how the edges of the pieces all fit together, it informs how I approach writing the next piece, as well, and how I approach the rest of the outline. Which piece I write next. Because I don't always write my books in sequential order. Sometimes I write scenes that go later on in the book, and sometimes I write what comes next in sequence. I do it this way because sometimes, I'll get inspired by an idea, or an image, which fits better with a scene I know is coming — or that I have outlined and so that I know will be coming eventually — and that I know I will eventually revise to fit better with what comes right before it and right after it, so it doesn't hurt to have a rough draft of it lying around, waiting for that eventual revision to come. In this way, my editing process and my creative process tend to bleed into one another. I will admit, I tend to create when I edit, and I tend to edit as I create. It's not always a clear-cut line of division between the two things. Sometimes, when I'm editing the "big picture" stuff — stuff like plot, story, character, theme — I'll get an entirely new idea for the entire book, and will go back to Page 1, sigh, and dig in, and start hacking it into the overall framework, plugging in the new concept or idea where it will fit, and massaging the newly-inspired into the old. This process isn't always pretty, and sometimes I make a lot of work for myself. But it almost always yields something that, in the end, I like or am proud of. It's also a slow process. It's why The Technowizard Guardians has taken well over nine years to write and perfect.

But, the cool thing is, when I'm done, I'm fucking done. It's finished. When I type "The End" at the end of this long, drawn out process, I'm really and truly finished. There is no going back yet again and starting over once more. I know that when I finally type those fateful words, I am absolutely, positively turning in the best possible work that I can do. I've hacked it to a dozen pieces and then Frankensteined it back together again a million different times by that point, and that's when I pronounce it as perfect as it can be. Because we all have to have that point — that point when he say, "Okay, you know what? No, it isn't absolutely perfect. But it is good. It is the best I can make it. It will do." And that's that point for me. At the moment when I've taken it apart and put it back together a hundred thousand times, and have revised from page 1 a zillion times since starting — and then I do one more spelling and grammar check with MS Word just to be safe — I pronounce the patient "alive and kicking," and then I send it out the door of the hospital in a wheelchair and wish it a good long life and many happy returns. The Technowizard Guardians, when I finish it (which should be in July of this year), will be going out the door just like that in a few more months, and when it does, I know it will not be perfect, but it will be as good as I can make it.

And so that's my editing-slash-creative process. That's how I work. The Technowizard Guardians is gonna be tough because it's such a big book. 450K is not a word count to sneeze at when it comes to getting everything right. But, I'm confident I can pull it off. Trust me. I'm a professional. Well. Not really. But trust me anyway.

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