Anything that forces me to take a significant break from editing and revising, whether it’s burnout or simply getting distracted by too many temptations, usually sends me back to the first chapter. It’s the fault of my lousy memory. By the time I return to editing, I’ve lost the sense of continuity that I need. What did I change in those last few chapters? Where was I going? The flow is broken and the only way to get it going again is to go back to the beginning.
The downside, of course, is that it’s taking me forever to finish the novel I’m currently working on. The upside is that my obsessive search for perfection gets a good workout. And this, believe it or not, is really a good, good thing if you have no choice but to be your own editor. There will always be little things that you miss, no matter how many times you go over the same material. How in the world did I not notice, during the first six run-throughs, that I left off the opening quote mark? How did I manage to drop a word from the middle of that sentence? Every time you go through a chapter, you move just a tiny bit closer to the ideal of perfection that you’ll never actually reach.
We’re told, endlessly, to keep at it once the novel is written. One draft after another, until you have something fit to be seen by agents, publishers, readers. Publishing houses no longer have editors who will coddle you, who will slave with you through massive revisions. Editors these days depend on spelling and grammar checkers, just as you’re tempted to do. They won’t even notice if your vocabulary choices look as if you closed your eyes and poked a pin into a thesaurus entry. They’re not likely to see the the doubled words that slid by you because you decided two drafts was good enough.
It helps to be obsessive because that quirk will keep you working until you finally get it right, or at least as right as it’s humanly possible to achieve. Being obsessive keeps me at it even when my terrible memory sends me back to the beginning, with the whole glomming mess to do over again. But the bottom line is that, obsessive or not, bad memory or good, the world is trending toward author as editor, and two, or even three, drafts are just for starters.