Notes on editing a book

‘Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power?’ ~ Annie Dillard

In the days leading up to the Great Opening of the Document I was scared. Three months had passed since I’d sent the finished manuscript to Mary, my editor — long enough to have forgotten what I’d written and become convinced it was no good.  The initial read through of Mary’s notes — both handwritten on the manuscript and typed in an email — felt for a moment like getting a graded essay back from a teacher. But, interestingly, that sensation didn’t last for long. As soon as I started reading the introduction I got pulled back in.

With my trusty red pen in my hand I read a chapter at a time, making notes and deletions and reading Mary’s suggestions before returning to the laptop to update the document. Some chapters were a breeze to edit — minimal cuts, a few sentences tightened, some clarifying and honing, but mostly just polishing. Two chapters, on the other hand, needed some serious triage, and took a couple of days each.

“There is no great writing, only great rewriting” ~ Justice Louis Brandeis

On the whole I really enjoyed the editing process, much more than the initial writing. And there’s nothing surprising in that — writing is so much more fun when there are already words on the page, when you don’t have to wring your brain out to make something out of nothing. I found myself staring into space for great swathes of time as I tried to find alternative words — it was like wrangling a 50,000 piece jigsaw wearing boxing gloves. But I learned so much about how to improve a piece of work and make it shine, and gained greater insight into my own writing habits: the repeated phrases that started to irritate. My obsessive use of semi-colons. My tendency to tell and not show (something I’d never realised I did until it was pointed out to me).

Having time away from the book gave me enough breathing space to return to the words with a fresh perspective. I’d known the original version was on the flabby side, so it felt so good to be able to go back in and cut away the dead wood. The combination of Mary’s suggestions and my own edits has resulted in a leaner, tighter, more coherant book that’s so much closer to my original vision. In total 5,000 words were cut from the 50,000 word manuscript, and rather than add more words as filler, we’re including a few more Polaroids instead. This feels good too.

Today I miss my book. After the first deadline in April I was feeling traumatised, uncertain if I’d created something of any value, or just plain embarrassed myself. After meeting this second deadline I feel much calmer, reassured that at least parts of the book are decent. This entire process continues to be a lesson in letting go of my usual perfectionism and learning to accept that what is created is good enough. That it will never be perfect, and that has to be okay.

I feel confident that the photographs I’ve selected work well together, but it’s the words that make me nervous. The words and ideas are channeled from the tenderest part of me, and because this is qute a personal book, some vulnerability is coming up. Last weekend, on the eve of my deadline, I sent out a panicked message on Facebook, which was met with such kindness from everyone. One reply came from Patti Digh (Mary is also her editor):

“say what you long to say. and then move on to your next book. a book is never finished, just published.”

This really helped me get back some perspective. I’m so used to writing for newspapers and magazines that are recycled before you know it — and, worse, a blog that can be edited whenever I fancy — that the thought of creating something that can’t be changed makes me sweat. So I’ve had to get a grip and look at it this way: what I’m sending out into the world is what I know right now. In ten years I’ll no doubt be writing something very different, but this is my first book baby, and I’ve just gotta trust that she’ll reach the people that are meant to read her.

My stomach just flipped over as I wrote that. :)

So, next up: the manuscript goes to the copy editor for grammar checks and British English/American English spelling changes. Then I get it back one last time with any new queries from Mary. Design will begin soon, if it hasn’t already, and we’ve just spoken about the cover.

The book is now scheduled to be pubished in June 2012, and I’ll be coming to the USA to do a mini book tour (and I’d love to get your help organising it — more on that next year :)

So….. that’s where we’re at!

Right this moment

ps. what are you doing on September 18th? Would you like to spend the day with me in Berkeley, CA? I’m heading back to the Bay Area and will be teaching a one-day workshop at the lovely Teahouse Studios! The workshop is called Photo Meditations: Infusing Your Images with Depth & Soul:

In this peaceful and nurturing one-day workshop we’ll explore how we can infuse greater depth and soul into our photographs by using our camera as a meditative tool. To do this we’ll practice the art of paying attention, starting with a series of exercises in the studio before we head out on a photo safari after lunch. Photography has a wonderful way of bringing our focus back into the present moment and we’ll be exploring this as we literally focus our lenses on the world around us.

pps. A little birdie tells me that Ms Hula herself, Andrea Jenkins, will be teaching a Polaroid workshop the day before, so if you sign up for both it’ll be a photography weekend bonanza — keep an eye on the Teahouse website for more details… x


Under the cover of darkness

‘I procrastinate worse than anybody. Writing is so hard. I need eight hours to get maybe 20 minutes of work done. I had one of those yesterday: seven hours of self-loathing.’ Dave Eggers, interviewed in the Guardian.


Okay, i need to do this. I need to wrap a cosy blanket around my shoulders (it’s cold and grey here today… what summer?), make a big pot of coffee, light some incense, make a pact with myself in my diary (signed in blood, natch) and sit my arse down in the chair and JUST DO IT.

The editing, that is.

If you read this post you’ll recall that I made a big song and dance about the writing of my book. Well, the time has come to climb back up the tower and do a naked bungee jump back into the manuscript, the manuscript I haven’t touched since I sent it to my editor on April 1st.

In the two+ months that have passed I’ve gone from fearing the worst to wondering if i even wrote it. Now I get to read it back, cringe at some bits, marvel at others (I hope), and stitch it all back together in a hopefully improved state.

So for the next couple of weeks i’ll be a bit absent from this space — i have a killer SFTW post lined up for Friday, and there might be a Creative Life interview coming too. I’m also wanting to tell you more about the Instant Love Polaroid retreat we’re planning for February (in Marrakesh!), and I’m definitely going to be doing the August Break again if you’d like to join me…. more on all of that soon.

First, I’ve got some editing to do.