I'm about 8 weeks into my Thursday Night book writing class and I've learned a number of things about the whole writing process as a result. I look at this as my third run-through of the book I've been working on for the past 3 1/2 years or so. Each of the edits has revealed different things and it is interesting to see how I've matured as a writer through the process. It's far from a "finished" process, but I feel like I've got a much better understanding of how to take a story and, depending on the day either pound it or mold it into submission. Below is a description of what each edit was like.
Edit #1. (3 years ago)
This first run through of all of my stories that make up the book was more an public airing of my writing shortcomings than an actual edit. True, you have to start somewhere, but when I look back on some of my first pieces, they were pretty rough. My instructor said they were like me telling her the story from a bar stool. That is, they didn't have much in the way of description, dialog, character sketching, etc. In short, they got the story across, but they weren't much fun from a reader's perspective. What I thought was "pretty good" was just OK.
At the same time, the class critiques all said that the storyline and the humor and the voice were really pretty good. This was incredibly encouraging because I knew that I could work on those other things, (although they're not always easy). If they had told me my voice or style sucked, well, that's a tougher thing to correct. Sometimes even a bad singing voice can't be helped, and I think the same goes for writing.
The important thing about that first time through the stories was that I got the stories down. Again, my writing instructor said, don't focus on chapters or chronology or even topics, just get the story down on paper. Write like a maniac. Get the rough draft down then bring it in so it can be beaten into submission by your peers. In an encouraging way, they'll point out your story's zits, moles, warts and wandering eye. Sometimes they'll laugh at some of it's inconsistencies or shortcomings, but it's only because you laugh at theirs at times as well. It's like any messed up family, you pick on one another, but only because you care about them and want them to be better.
Edit #2 (1.5 years ago to Feb. 2013)
The second edit was a bit like the teenage years in a person's life. You're finding your way, making some of the same mistakes of your youth, yet you're gaining confidence and feeling like a real-live adult. It was here that I focused on chapter structure, chronology and story line a little more. I also worked on adding character development, setting depth and more dialogue to the book. I tried to turn it from a bar stool story into one worthy of immersing the reader into a world outside of their own. It was in working through my dialogue that I learned that dialogue in memoir needn't be word for word of what was said, but rather a reflection or recollection of approximately what was said.
A few of my peers had heard the stories once before, so were helpful and supportive in telling what was better about the revisions. At the same time, they began to grow more comfortable with me (and vice verse) and so we could be even more honest and critical with our comments. I think this second edit is perhaps the most critical (and difficult) of all of them. This is because Edit #1 was kind of an "I don't know what the hell I'm doing, but I'm just doing it" run through of my stories. Edit # 3 is the fine tuning, which wouldn't be happening if I had cashed it in after Edit #1 and said I can't do this. So whatever you do, be sure you do a hearty second edit.
Edit #3 (Feb. to present)
The biggest change in the editing process has been my move to the "book writing class" as opposed to the "writing workshop class". This shift has been to an environment where everyone is focusing on the same thing; finishing their book. This is not a knock at all on the other classes I was in (writing workshops), but really this group is geared to a different audience of students. Because the class is smaller, we can bite off bigger chunks of writing and everyone gets feedback every week. That was not a the case before.
This final edit of my manuscript has been unique in a number of good ways. It has shown me things I never saw in the first two. This includes some timing/chronology things. When you're looking at the "whole story" for the third time, the little stories within the story are given individualized focused treatment. Edits #1 and #2 were like hacking at things with a chainsaw and a hatchet. Edit 3 is using a scalpel and, oh, I don't know, a box cutter.
One of the more interesting things it has enabled is to see where I repeat myself. In the other class, I usually worked in 5-7 page increments, so I could say something in one story and then, without realizing it, reiterate it in another different story. When you're looking down from 10,000 feet, the story is a whole lot different than from ground level.
The other cool thing that it has done is allowed me to make some really, really good edits to things that sounded funny or good when I wrote them, but didn't now. Using my scalpel, I either cut them out altogether, or reworked them to a much better version. (IMHO). In some cases, my colleagues pointed out some things that were missed the first two times, or gave me a concept to run with to make the story much better.
As one who has always looked at second and third edits as a pain, I now know why it is essential. It gives the story layering, and depth, and feeling. I can see where authors might get caught in edit-addiction, where they never feel things are quite right. At the same time I see where they could do 5 or 6 edits and come out with a masterpiece, as I'm guessing the greats do.
Mine may never be great, but it's a whole lot better than it was.