I’m stealing a line from Sharon Creech because it’s so good and so apt: Love may not last, but tinkering goes on forever.
There’s a point when a manuscript is done—or at least when the story is all there, and the characters are worked out, and there are no more sleepless nights ahead where you’re wondering how you’re going to resolve a certain tricky plot point—but you know in your heart that it isn’t done at all, not in the least; the real fun is about to begin. There many words to describe what follows: revising, editing, polishing, tightening. And it’s by far my favorite part of writing.
You start over from the beginning and read, and make little changes, and take out huge swaths of text you once thought were brilliant, only now you see they aren’t. You find you didn’t really understand a scene here or a character there—and now that you think about it, you know exactly what needs to be done. You stop and sneer at a sloppy metaphor, a rough transition. Sometimes you spend hours, even a whole day, wrestling with a problematic chapter. And bit by bit, day by day, you move through the book to the end. Then you start over again.
This time, you find fewer problems. And you start coming across paragraphs, pages, whole chapters where the work really shows: it’s tight, clean, well-thought out. Bravo, you say to yourself—until you come upon some dreadful cliché (how had you missed that one?), followed by a repeated word, then a loosey-goosey paragraph. You keep working, feeling warm and fuzzy about this thing you wrote, wanting it to look its best, like your child going off to a party—all scrubbed and shiny.
At some point you wonder if you might just keep on doing this for the rest of your life: reading the same book over and over, making it a little bit better each time. Like Dorothy in the field of poppies, you are helplessly drawn into it—until at some point your editor says, enough already! And you know you have to let it go.
Even then you know in the back of your mind that, like our grown children, manuscripts come back to visit—bearing editor’s notes, copy editor’s queries, and one final time as galley proofs. Each of these visits brings an opportunity. While you’re addressing your editor’s concerns, you can always get in there and change a few other things.
Having just sent The Raven of Harrowsgode off to Wonderful Editor, I am feeling a sort of empty nest, a sense of incompletion, and a deep longing to get that baby back into my hands, to begin again that wonderful dance of words and ideas, to tinker to my heart’s content—or until Wonderful Editor says, enough!