Someone posed a question on Twitter a few weeks ago asking about the next steps after finishing the first draft of a novel. Mainly, the question was should we jump right into editing the work or should we give those freshly-written words and our brains a break? My response came as a kneejerk reaction: wait; wait at least a month and longer before doing any editing.
Anyone who has written much has probably read the advice of putting away the manuscript and forgetting about it for a while. This gives our brains time to move on and conjure up other fictional worlds and people. By the time we pull that first draft out of the drawer we shoved it in months ago the newness has worn off. And those sentences written a half a year ago don’t sound so musical anymore because we’re looking at it with fresh eyes, and hopefully, a more mature brain. And while we’re going about our other daily chores, we might get struck with an idea that will improve our plot or characters.
Not long after I read the question on Twitter, I was in the yard tending to a huge pile of leaves that I collected and chopped up in the late fall. Damp leaves left alone will begin to grow mold and eventually the leaves will break down into one of the best natural fertilizers and mulches we can use in our gardens and flowerbeds. But the heap of leaves must be left alone—with the exception of being kept damp—before they become a useful product. The result is simply called leaf mold, and it takes at least a year for the process to work but sometimes longer depending on the kind of leaves used and whether or not they were chopped up or left whole.
It occurred to me that day as I drove my hand down into my heap of chopped leaves and tested the moisture content that editing a manuscript was just like making leaf mold. Now, looking at the two separately, manuscripts and leaves, they have nothing in common. However, if we think of both as a process, it makes more sense that they can be related to one another. Admittedly, I hope our fictional worlds don’t turn into mold, but something magical does happen when we ignore a first draft for a while. The matter has a chance to breathe for itself without our interference, and in reality, it’s not the words on our paper that’s changing; it’s our way of looking at it once we pull it out of the drawer or bring it up from a computer file that changes. Did we leave our leaves whole and chunky for a rough layer of mulch that will benefit from further breakdown or did we grind each character down to the bones and create an atmosphere for organic life to grow?
Once we can answer that question, we’ll know how much editing our manuscripts need.