Finishing a first draft of a novel is immensely satisfying. Getting all of those thoughts connected in a meaningful way and then getting them down on paper, or more likely in some sort of electronic document format, is like coming out into the light at the end of a long, arduous tunnel. Besides the emotional benefit of finishing, there’s the added benefit of being in a productive groove, of being accustomed to spending many hours each day working exclusively on writing. The habits that take me to the end of the first draft process are vital for the next steps, proofreading and editing.
Of the two, proofreading is the less demanding and at times the most infuriating. Spotting the typos, the inconsistent format, the botched capitalization, the incorrect punctuation, the repeated or misplaced word, and all the rest of it, is purely mechanical. It’s not a creative process, and that’s actually a good thing. I can take a break from the art side of writing and focus on mechanics. So, in that sense it is definitely less demanding than editing. However, my brain seems to have this built-in autocorrect that supplies a letter here, a comma there, changes “there” to “their,” or “no” to “know,” without any of that actually happening on paper. As many times as I read a manuscript, as carefully as I review it, as slowly as I examine every line on every page, I never catch every mechanical error in a 300+ page manuscript. I learned a few things about proofreading when I was an editor on the U.C. Davis Law Review. That was a long time ago, but some of those habits stuck. But, the reality is, no matter how careful I am, I am destined to always miss something, and it’s often something I see moments after I submit a final manuscript.
Editing is far more challenging than proofreading. It is not mechanical. Instead it goes to the heart of so many crucial elements of a book. How is the pacing? The characterization? Is the dialog convincing? Is anything too “on the nose”? Is there too much exposition? Too little exposition? Have I made assumptions that the reader can’t possibly know? Is the plot credible? Have I followed my own rules for the book? And on and on and on. Some of the answers are a matter of artistic preference. Some of the answers depend on what I’m trying to achieve in a particular book. For instance, the pacing and exposition of my novella, Judging Paradise, is not suited to a Nick Temple File. The dialog and narration of my coming of age novel, Let Me Explain, is unique given that the central character is 17 years old, and he tells his story in the first person. Likewise, I made a decision a long time ago to write the Nick Temple Files in the present tense, although they are set more than half a century ago. The thought was the present tense would help the reader experience a Cold War thriller as it was happening, not as a report of something that occurred long ago. What all of this means is that as I’m going through editing process, I have to keep in mind what I’m trying to achieve with this book much more than keeping in mind what I’m trying to do as a writer in general.
So while finishing a first draft is a great feeling, there’s plenty of work ahead, work that continues to require self-discipline, reflection, insight, and perseverance. Big time.