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The Editorial Odyssey: Between First Drafts and Published Books

It took me a while to understand in my heart the difference between first drafts and published books. When I started writing, I was still under the impression, as I think many readers are, that writers simply sit down and tell a story on the page, and when they’re done, they publish it—a little like a blog post, really. I mean, a little tweak here and there, but basically, a story is a story.

Of course, I knew that wasn’t the case. I’ve written stuff. But the good books–not even the great books–make it look so easy. Think about any good book you read recently. Didn’t it feel like someone was just telling you a story, and you listened, and that was that? That’s the trick of craft. 

Last week, I got notes on the first draft of Heritage. I know many writers who prefer editing to writing. They don’t like a blank page. For me, the blank page is everything. I much prefer writing a first draft than editing. I think much of it is because a first draft is an instant bestseller, at least while I’m writing it. In my head, it’s perfect. I sit down and tell the story. When I finish, I’ll publish it, and that will be that. 

There’s a quote out there, attributed to Terry Pratchett: “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” It’s probably a misattribution, but it’s a good quote. I always felt that was how my first draft worked. I’m just telling myself the story. The tricky thing is that when I’m done, I know how the story ends. So, I find it difficult to muster enough energy to go through it again and make it prettier. I always had an issue with checking my work in maths, too. I just did this. I don’t want to do it again. 

Of course, editing is more than making the story prettier. It’s about making the story understandable for people who don’t live in my head. It’s about making sure the message I want to send comes across clearly without being preachy. It’s about making the characters consistent, the descriptions unique, the themes shine. It’s about making it look easy.

I wrote last week about the dishonesty of social media. There’s also a kind of dishonesty in rewriting. My readers don’t get to see the first draft, and I’m still not sure how I feel about that. On one hand, I really don’t want to see everyone’s first drafts. Like I said before, for a society to work, we need to do some of the work on our own. But the line between editing for clarity and editing for entertainment is thin and blurry. When does editing a story cross the line into putting on a fake veneer? And are we responsible, by polishing the writing, for making young writers feel like anything they write is worthless?

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