Is Editing the “Great Filter” of Novel Creation?

I’m about a third of the way through editing my first novel and I definitely miss penning the first draft. Sure, maybe this is a case of the grass being greener on the other side, but I don’t think it’s just me.

When I was writing the first draft, I often went to YouTube for inspiration (and maybe some procrastination). There were a ton of options for the first draft author. Most videos were funny, encouraging, and insightful. After all, it’s the first draft that ushers an exciting new idea into the world. By contrast, YouTube’s video selection on editing and revising…eh…not so much. These videos often focus on the strict methodological processes necessary to transform an unruly new creation into something respectable. Entire videos were dedicated to giant lists of words that should not be used. Helpful, perhaps, but not terribly inspiring.

While the first draft stage of the novel creation process is challenging, it’s celebrated and adored by all. Bringing an original story to the world isn’t pretty, but no one expects it to be. Run on sentences? No problem! Use the same word four times in one paragraph? Perfectly fine! Does your main character change names every other page because you just can’t decide if they’re going to be the killer zombie or the alien love interest? Well…there are limits to…wait, this is the first draft? Then that’s fantastic! Just don’t stifle that creativity! Anything is permissible as long as it gets the story reduced to ink on a page.

But I found something mysterious happened soon after those hard-won words, “The End,” hit my final page. Once the jubilation quieted and the high-fives dwindled, I returned to my glorious first draft only to find that I had not been celebrating an angelic new novel at all, but a strange document with the temperament of an angry toddler. Still, I had high plans for this little guy. With its best interest in mind I tried to help it fulfill our lofty goals. But if you’ve ever written or parented then you know that’s not how terrible two’s or editing works. Pages of unbroken narration burped-up all over the place. Changing the story arc to conform to genre expectation resulted in a smelly mess across two chapters. The unsightly, unseemly struggle still continues.

Editing forces me to recognize that writing is more than what happens when reckless creativity has time to strike a keyboard.

And based on this observation, I’ve concocted a theory.

Editing is the “Great Filter” of novel creation.

For those unfamiliar with the term, the Great Filter is a cosmological theory that attempts to explain why, when we look up at the night sky, we don’t see an abundance of intelligent species running around the galaxy. The Great Filter posits that somewhere along the path to obtaining the super-intelligence necessary to conquer the stars there stands a tremendous evolutionary or social challenge blocking the way. Humanity may have already passed this obstacle if, for example, it was making the evolutionary leap from single to multi-cellular organisms. Or it may yet lie ahead of us if, for example, the Great Filter is contained in artificial intelligence, climate change, or resource scarcity that inevitably leads to a species self-annihilation.

But in the context of publishing a novel, I believe the Great Filter is editing. Because this is where the ambiguous art of the creative idea meets the mean streets of technique.

Fortunately, meeting these demands can take many forms depending on genre, style, and voice, which is why writing is as much an art as it is a science. But the point is these demands must be met. From what I can tell, a lot of first drafts don’t survive the editing process. This might happen because the author gives up and moves on to the next story. Or, perhaps, the author tries to short-cut this part of the process, in which case, it will likely never get published.

If editing is the Great Filter of novel creation, then my novel has yet to survive its most significant challenge. But this doesn’t discourage me and if you’re editing I hope it doesn’t discourage you either. In fact, being embroiled in a battle to overcome the greatest obstacle the writing/publishing universe can throw at me has the opposite effect. And it’s not just because I’m overly dramatic about writing (so what if I am?). If I can survive the Great Filter of novel creation then even though getting published may not be easy, I’ll know the journey that lies ahead of me won’t be as difficult as the one that lies behind. And I find that pretty encouraging. If you’re editing I hope you do too.

Writer. Doctoral student & wannabe Astronaut Theologian. My WIP is a SciFi Thriller. www.writesjosh.com & writesjosh@gmail.com

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