I’m in the middle of polishing my latest novel, and because I find the process so onerous, I’ve decided to take a break from it and write about it instead.
Polishing should in no way be confused with editing. When you edit, in addition to moving passages around and trying different ways of saying the same line, what you’re really looking for are opportunities to cut words. Once you’re able to do what William Faulkner said (“kill your darlings”—those precious pet phrases that don’t add to your story), you begin to look forward to hacking out large chunks of material. Adjectives, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and sometimes whole chapters can be yanked and you don’t notice. In fact, the work gets better through omission. You’re chipping away everything that doesn’t resemble an elephant. That’s editing.
But polishing is different, and in many ways more difficult. A pain in the ass, actually. It reminds me of something the inimitable Oscar Wilde once said:
“I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”
I’m not a Yoda writer yet, but back when I was still a Padouin Learner, I thought the above quote was ridiculous. Someone couldn’t possibly have spent that much time debating the merits of inserting or omitting a piece of punctuation. Come on. The fact is, I didn’t know enough about writing yet to understand how true it was.
In the early stages of writing a book, like a burgeoning romance everything is beautiful and full of potential. You’re enraptured by the Idea. The characters pulsate with energy. The possibilities are endless. Then you write a draft. And another draft. And another draft. And each time you create a modified version of the Idea, you deface the Idea a little bit, until you reach a point where you realize your creation will never match up with the Idea, and that the best you can hope to do is present your sullied thing in the best light possible.
By the time you reach the polishing stage, you’re sick of the book. But you have to read it one more time—at least. You literally get nauseous. The process is made even more poignant because you know you’re going to have to face all of the imperfections and failures that, at your current state of writerly development, you are unable to fix. The feeling you get is, I imagine, a lot like the feeling a divorced person gets when forced to see his/her ex-spouse at child visitations.
“Hey, I’m sorry. I did the best I could. Why are you bringing that up again? We’ve gone over this. What do you want from me? I said I was sorry. Goodbye.”
If your story is tight and fairly well-told, by the time you get to polishing, you know you can’t radically improve it. You know that no matter how nicely you buff the sucker, it’s only going to gleam so much. And if it’s a turd, well, forget it. A turd polished is still a turd.
Here are some of the things I focus on during polishing. I call this my Hunting List:
- Removing every unnecessary adverb, which means
virtuallyall of them.
- Removing unnecessary commas to increase reading speed, or putting some in (see above) for clarity.
- Removing extraneous dashes and semicolons.
- Changing verbs from past progressives (e.g., “was running”) to simple past tense (e.g., “ran”).
- Eliminating small, extraneous “word packages,” which often start with prepositions.
- Eliminating as many attributions (i.e., he said.) as possible, but not to the point where it’s ever unclear who is speaking.
- Substituting more picturesque verbs and specific nouns for the lamer ones on the page.
- Clarifying anything confusing and “planting” information that becomes important later in the story.
I read somewhere that every book teaches the writer what he needs to learn to tell that story, but one thing I’ve found is that polishing never gets any easier.
Some of you may be reading this and saying, “Quit your whining. At least you’re working on a finished book.” And you’d be right.
But this still doesn’t change the fact that what I’d rather be doing is staring at a New Idea. A New Idea, standing on a hill in the spring sunshine, the sweet nectary breeze blowing her ginger hair around. She waves to me. The breeze flaps her sundress. She laughs, beckons me with a finger and departs over the hill. I’m about to run after her when I hear Old Idea, my battle axe of a book, screeching at me to come back down and clean the gutters.
I’m feeling ill again. Must be polishing time.