Editing a Novel and Impermanence

Editing a novel is a source of immeasurable suffering for writers around the world. And I totally get it.

When the Buddha set out to understand why we suffer, he began by examining our common conception of phenomena in the world. By peering deeply into them, he understood their nature. And their nature, he said, reflected the three marks of existence—qualities that define every object, sensation, and experience we will ever encounter in the conventional world.

One of these marks is anicca, or impermanence. Nothing will ever stay the same, even if we sincerely wish it might. Our bodies decay, the stars gradually burn up their fuel, and day invariably cycles between light and dark. Even on the smallest levels, quantum particles are in constant flux. Sounds, too, are created through oscillation. Without movement and change, our world would not function as we know it.    

Editing a novel is every writer's worst nightmare, but it doesn't need to be!

By living in ignorance or defiance of impermanence, however, we invite untold amounts of suffering into our lives. This is because we cling to things that will not provide us with lasting satisfaction. Much like children laying their bodies down in front of sand castles and weeping when they’re swept away, we become so lost in the narratives, dramas, and games of our existence that we forget the temporary nature of our possessions, and subsequently make ourselves unhappy when we lose them.

When closely examined, we will find that there is nothing to which we can cling that will bring us permanent happiness. Our bodies, pastimes, memories, familiar places, and friends will all perish or be irreparably changed by the passage of time. One might say that enlightenment is nothing more than internalizing this reality and living in harmony with it.

Notice that in this context, suffering does not equate pain. There will always be a degree of pain associated with living. Even if we are unattached to our possessions, we will grieve over the death of loved ones. We will be disheartened when tragedy strikes our community. The Buddha described this situation with the analogy of a man who has been struck with two arrows. One arrow, suffering, can be pulled out of the wound. It represents the mental reaction to the first arrow, which is pain. The arrow of pain cannot be extracted. We must learn to make peace with pain. If we can make peace with it, we will have dissolved the arrow of suffering.

What does this have to do with editing a novel? It’s to remind us that there is bound to be a degree of unease, sadness, or frustration in this stage, if it’s done properly. The act of editing is akin to hanging your creation up by its feet in a slaughterhouse, then using a sharp knife to carve away the fat and leave behind something clean and presentable.

As with the process of butchery, if you see the book as a living thing, it will make it unbearably difficult to make your cuts. You must see it impassively, as merely a project rather than your project. And yet no matter how distant you feel in relation to the novel, all acts of cutting produce some pain. You, the author, will be the one who feels this pain.

If you’ve never had an editor from a publishing house take a whack at your work and then pass it back to you, this may seem absurd. You may be your own editor, treating your work with a gentle hand that comes with neither pain nor suffering. But understand that there will come a time when you will feel this pain, even if it arrives because of your own recognition.

You will be asked to “kill your darlings,” as the famous phrase goes, and transmute or outright destroy work that represents countless hours of your life.

As I mentioned earlier in this book, writing involves the core of somebody’s being. Writing a novel or short story is an emotional, demanding process that often leaves a piece of ego firmly entrenched between the lines. And when we kill our darlings, we are not only killing the words, but ourselves, the being that produced those words and clung to them so fiercely all this time.

 Therefore, I encourage you to develop equanimity toward the editing process long before the draft returns with red ink. To do this, we should understand both why is editing is beneficial as well as how to mentally frame our approach to editing a novel.

My frame has always been centered around impermanence. To understand why, we need only look as far as the phrase “writing is rewriting.” It has been put forth by numerous writers, and represents a critical realization we would do well to keep in our minds while we edit.

Because of its all-encompassing nature, we should first address our approach rather than the benefits of editing. If we go into the editing cycle with gritted teeth and our hackles raised, we will get nothing done. This passive hostility toward changes in the manuscript is almost always driven by an egoic attachment to the writing.

Due to the time and energy placed in our words, we are either offended or disturbed when somebody suggests altering our work. In many cases, we are utterly convinced that our writing is flawless as-is, and that any exterior influence or major story revisions will destroy the creative fruits of our labor. I call this the “bruising hand” argument. Only you and you alone have the tender skill necessary to pluck your fruit—anybody else will destroy it. You would be best-served by abandoning this argument from the start.

At this point, you may be wondering how I can advocate being so open to sweeping changes and allowing others to collaborate on your project. After all, writing is about the exploratory, free nature of expression, which should be uncontrived and built upon organic tensions. Why would we need to restructure a plot, or deepen themes, or consider trimming a character? Wouldn’t this undermine the entire ethos of being a discovery-based writer?

Not quite. An analogy to use here is one of gardening. When we want to grow things, we often provide them with sufficient time and space to blossom on their own accord. But to create a stunning landscape or prevent weeds from dominating a yard, we need to use careful, methodical interventions that create order out of the chaos.

Similarly, when we write our first draft of a book, we certainly need to rely on the inherent strength of our minds to capture reality and place it on the page. But after that, among the blood and sweat that accompany editing a novel, we must become engineers. We must be willing to rely on our logical thinking—and the thinking of others—to help us accentuate the particular feelings we are striving to evoke.

If you want to see a perfect example of the mindset you should carry into the editing process, take a look at a video of Tibetan monks constructing elaborate sand mandalas. These monks spend hundreds of hours clustered around wooden boxes, using a variety of tools to layer dyed sand in mesmerizing and vivid patterns. These works are so precise that one could mistake them for paintings, weavings, or 3D-printed artworks. But they are all done by hand, grain by grain. The monks work tirelessly with their brothers for days and weeks at a time, ensuring that their masterpiece is rendered as precisely as possible.

Then, they erase the entire mandala.

Editing a novel properly is a lot like being a sand mandala-maker.
Credit: Huffington Post

That’s right—they destroy it all, from top to bottom, often with little more than a few sweeps of their hands and some air blown across the mandala’s surface. We may watch a video of this happening and think it’s a tragic, perhaps barbaric, thing to do to such a majestic creation. But the monks do not see it this way. They create their mandalas knowing their fates well in advance. They create them without attachment, without fear, without the need for praise—they are created for the sake of creation, belonging to nothing and nobody.

If you start editing a novel with this idea at the forefront of your awareness, you’ll be better equipped to make the changes that service your manuscript, shrug off the extraneous suggestions, and tighten the focus on what your story is truly about, all without the suffering of a personal loss of control. Much like a child, your novel is only yours insofar as you allowed it to come into existence. At some point, the child develops its own agency.

Your goal as a parent is not to stifle the child, guiding it down each and every road you choose, but to support it in its natural phases of development.

A novel arrives at the editing stage with the core of its being already formed, and your role is to amplify its inherent strengths to the best of your ability. You do this by making choices that work in the interest of the story, not for your own gratification or the need to exercise artistic domination.

The last element of a constructive mindset in regards to editing is holding clear intentions. In the same way that we might set intentions prior to meditation or any sort of introspective work, it’s important that we understand why we’re editing. We should not go about our task blindly, hoping we might gain something from the benefits—we should actively pursue them with an express understanding of the desired outcome already in our awareness.

The benefits, in my eyes, are unparalleled opportunities to improve our prose, pacing, themes, and character arcs. More on this in future posts.

Every writer has a different timeline for editing a novel. Some writers begin combing through the manuscript and sharpening it up as soon as they finish writing, while authors such as Stephen King advocate sitting on your manuscript for several weeks or months, aging it like a fine wine, before returning to it.

The former method is understandable; we’re eager creatures, often too eager. We want to have our book done and out of our sight after spending so much energy on it. The latter method may come off as maddening, if not superstitious. It is, however, the route that I take for my own work.

Why?

It has everything to do with the magic of time. When we’ve completed a manuscript, we’re sitting on a raw, tender wound that is often birthed with substantial difficulty. We don’t want to prod it too much or dive into the open tissue. By allowing the manuscript to settle in the back of our minds, we can come at it with a new angle of attack, a fresh set of eyes. We are given the crucial distance that allows us to operate without the vexations of pride or haste.

Waiting in this fashion also allows the subconscious residue of the work to churn, over and over, until it processes into a distilled concept of what the book is trying to say. What you want others to gain from it, no less.

Detachment, not frustration, is key to editing a novel.

Putting off editing a novel also allows us to move on to a new project and cleanse our palates, so to speak. We can enjoy the cool, refreshing dive into another world—a dive that we probably enjoyed when we first began our earlier, now-completed novel.

This is often the time when our creativity is at an all-time peak, since it coincides with uninhibited freedom and a sense of direction. Use the elation of completing one novel to begin the next one. Do it as quickly as possible, as soon as an idea strikes your fancy. You can always travel down a new path if it doesn’t gel with you later on.

Once we actually dive into our edit-ready manuscript, we should be ready to address the areas I listed above. These are all supplementary “polishing” elements that separate your rough manuscript from the seemingly effortless masterpieces put out by writing masters.

The truth is, most first drafts—no matter who pens them—are full of errors and borderline nonsensical segments. A proper editing job smooths out the issues that would ordinarily kill our momentum if we paused to repair them all during the drafting phase. Some of these issues are minor, such as misspellings or swapping character names by accident, while others are akin to demolishing entire city blocks and building them from the ground up.

This, yet again, feeds into the “kill your darlings” mentality. Writing a manuscript is a gritty, raw process, but editing is where we’ll be called upon to utilize our reason, wisdom, and decisiveness to turn the book into something “readable,” for lack of a better term. Remember—writing is for the author, but editing helps to translate your artistic vision into something that serves the audience, too. After all, if nobody can understand what you’re trying to tell them, there’s a failure to communicate.

It’s a tragedy in a medium related to the joy of expression.

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