All Forest, No Trees
I have many faults. In writing, one of my more notorious shortcomings is this ongoing quirk - sometimes bordering on disease - to get balled up in the details, to not see the forest because of the trees. When I'm in the heat of writing, I have to fight against the urge to do serious edits even while I'm hammering out my original rough draft. I want to polish and repolish, tweak and reconfigure, massage and facelift every sentence and phrase ad nauseum. I'm one of those people who spun her wheels for five years in the first three chapters of her maiden manuscript, simply because I didn't think it was "just right". I didn't want to move on into the actual guts of my tale until those opening three chapters were exactly that - just right.
Of course I learned over time that spinning your wheels for years on what is roughly 30 pages of typed material is absolutely foolish. It's counterproductive, and it prohibits any real progress with the work at hand. But I am just defective like that. I tend to do it anyway.
Shoot the Engineer?
The last time I got stuck in "spinning my wheels" mode, however, my dad - who is a deep-thinking engineer, and usually very reserved with his opinions - actually ventured to give me a bit of blunt advice. "You know Angela," he said, "in engineering we have an old saying that a product can only undergo so many changes; at some point you have to shoot the engineer and put the item into production."
His advice was sound, of course. There is certainly room for tweaking and revamping, polishing and refiguring; but at some point you have to call a thing finished and put your Inner Engineer out of his misery. This is not to say that you should charge sloppily through any major project (let alone a manuscript) and try to put it out for public consumption when you haven't given it the due attention it really needs; but when you find yourself so hung up on details that you've lost sight of your vision, or - Heaven forbid! - the quality of your work actually begins to regress....that's when a wake-up call is in order.
What does that look like, exactly?
Perhaps this idea - of knowing when to step back and let your baby go - is not as easy as it sounds; but the advice itself is sound, especially if you've had clear-headed Beta readers abusing your manuscript on its shortcomings before now, and all those little quirks have been fixed. Having a couple of solid Beta Readers who are willing to stick it to you in the hurt-to-help-you way are invaluable, especially if you, the author, have the courage to accept such criticisms graciously.
The actual litmus test, I've realized, is when the author gets to the point where they want the criticism, no matter how harsh or pointed.
When you've got.....
* bluntly honest Betas
* you're begging for punches at your manuscript
* you have corrected the quirks as necessary without jeopardizing your original vision for the tale
.....THEN you're ready to shoot the engineer.
Even if you think the dialogue in chapter three needs a little more tweaking.....or the exposition in chapter nine needs a little more trimming.....or......
Don't do it. Just go ahead and shoot. :-)
Am I alone in this? What part of the editing process do you struggle with most?