Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Pound of Flesh, No More, No Less: A Post About Editing

Note 4/8/19: A second post about editing with information not covered in this first post is now available.

Hey there, Esteemed Reader! Are you missing me? I am missing you. Not to worry, though. My sabbatical is only temporary. I shall return on July 5th with all new Book of the Week reviews as well as interviews with writers and literary agents. I've got some wonderful folks lined up and I can’t wait to share their interviews with you.

Until then, I’m afraid I need just a little more me time. I’m doing some heavy duty revisions on a novel I thought was revised (but then, I always think that, from the second draft on). I’m afraid I don’t have time to keep up with my posting until the final (please, God) draft is finished, but I wanted to drop in and say hello with a post about editing.

And I have been editing, Esteemed Reader. Oh, how I've been editing. I know that some of you may have worried I would lose my entire sabbatical to playing video games, and it’s true, I did lose some time. But I continue to support X-Box breaks for writers everywhere. There’s only so much writing and reading a person can do before he needs a time out. Hemmingway drank. I murder pixels. And I hope that stark contrast won’t tempt some of you to drink in hopes of being a better writer:)

It’s a tough job, Esteemed Reader, being a writer—but most of you already know that. There’s a reason so many lawyers drink, and there’s a reason so many of us writers lose our marbles and engage in all manner of unwholesome, destructive behavior. It’s a rough ride sometimes from inception to the feverishly jotted first draft to the barely corrected second draft to the okay-I’ll-make-some-of-the-changes-you've-suggested-even-though-my-book-was-perfect-already third draft to the-no-one-understands-the-brilliance-of-this-novel-but-me forth draft to the will-you-please-just-publish-this-already fifth draft to the I-hate-this-stupid-unpublished-book sixth draft to the this-wasn't-so-bad-after-all seventh draft to the oh-my-God-I-think-this-might-be-it eighth draft to the detached polish of a writer assured he’s done everything he can to prepare his baby for the world and then it's time to say goodbye.

But oh, Esteemed Reader, in some ways that’s the hardest part. We've been through so much, Beloved Manuscript. You've taught me so many things and in some ways I could go on editing you forever. There’s a comma out of place somewhere in your pages, I can feel it. Maybe we should do just one more polish for old time’s sake, what do you say? I’m not completely convinced about the description of the sky in chapter 8. No, I fixed that description already, but perhaps I should reconsider—oh who are we kidding, Beloved Manuscript? We both knew this day would come, I just didn't think it would be so soon. But you have readers to reach (God willing) and I have other projects to write. Ouch, you say, and ouch, Beloved Manuscript says, and that John Williams music soars and Beloved Manuscript gets into the spaceship and the pod bay doors close around his glowing, beating heart.

But before that heartwarming moment, there’s a lot of work to be done. There’s the basic stuff: grammar, punctuation, syntax, etc. I recommend taking a college course on editing if you haven’t done it already (spend the six-hundred bucks, you cheapskate, it’s an investment in your career). True, you can buy a copy of The Elements of Style, but hopefully you've already done that. Some things are best taught by instruction and supervision. Ever work a job where there wasn't someone there to train you your first few days? You want to be a professional writer? Get some professional training and experience.

I realize this advice might seem a little odd coming from me, given the alarming number of errors that have shown up in my posts over the run of this blog (please don’t let there be any in this post about editing). But we’re talking about your manuscript here, the book you want agents to represent and editors to publish and readers to buy, not the free blog you run to get to meet writers (if I ever make any money from this blog, perhaps I’ll invest in an editor). An unprofessional manuscript signals an unprofessional writer and kills your credibility. Would you expect to get a job if you showed up to the interview with your shirt un-tucked, your fly down, your face unshaven, and your hair looking like you just got out of bed? No? Then zip up your manuscript’s fly and comb its hair.

It’s true, a great candidate can still get a job if they are at least presentable but their fly is unfortunately down. I can’t imagine the agent or editor saying “this manuscript is a majestic and breathtaking work I’m certain will sell a zillion copies, but there’s a period on page 47 when there should be a question mark, so I’ll have to put it in the incinerator.” But if there are too many errors in the first 46 pages, agents and editors are far less likely to get to page 47. In the same vein, I can’t imagine one of those folks saying “this manuscript is dry and monotonous and I turned the television on while I was reading it to at least enjoy a good story, but it is one-hundred percent error free, so fire up the presses.”

One last bit of advice on the basics and then we’ll move on to the tough stuff. I have at long last learned that I cannot be trusted to edit my own work. Oh, I catch the most glaring errors, but there are always a few that slip by me. I think I've made this particular point here before, but love is blind. I’m not ashamed that I love my writing. If I didn't love it, I wouldn't do it. I’m no literary master and I concede that the greatness of a Richard Adams is likely beyond my grasp, but I love my little stories, warts and all. Most writers do. That love is essential to the craft of creation and if I don’t get caught up in my stories, I can’t rightly expect readers to.

But that same love becomes an issue in the editing stage. I may be thrilled to no end by own brilliance, but that doesn't mean Esteemed Reader is. The only way to know for sure is to ask Esteemed Reader. Get some critique partners. Get some objective readers. Get a couple good editors (another benefit to seeking out professional editing training is now you know where to find some) and get their help before you seek out an overworked editor at a publishing house.

Error correction is something you will do through every revision of Beloved Manuscript, but it’s not the most difficult part of the process. The next step is rewriting descriptions and dialogue; flushing out scenes with too little description and scaling back scenes with too much. Read your writing aloud or better yet, let someone read it to you. This too, you will be doing until the final draft and you will write “the dragon had fierce eyes and fiery breath,” then later, “the fierce-eyed dragon breathed fire,” then later, “fire curled about the dragon’s nostrils and its fierce yellow eyes gleamed,” and later still, “fire curled about the dragon’s nostrils. Its yellow eyes narrowed on the protagonist.” Finally, you’ll realize the dragon is out of place in your World War II memoir and cut the scene altogether:)

There is reworking and restructuring to be done. There are sometimes new chapters to be added. More often, there are chapters to be cut. And then there are the darlings to be killed. And I’m not talking about the stuff you cut in the third draft—the dream sequence to nowhere and the scene where two animals observe your characters only to never be revisited again. I’m not talking about the stuff you cut in draft four that you miss, but understand had to go. No. I’m talking about your heart. I’m talking about cutting out slivers of your heart and banishing them to the shelf of previous drafts never to be read for the good of the book as a whole; an amputation to save the body.

And it seems like that stuff always clings to your manuscript to the last draft. Because we play bargaining games don’t we? All right, we say, I’ll cut this scene so I can keep this one, when we know they both have to go. One darling, we plea. I’ll kill all the others, just let me keep the one. Oh Esteemed Reader, how I wish it could be so. But highlight that darling, close your eyes, and hit the delete button. It still exists in the previous draft and you can go back and read it anytime you want. If any editor or agent ever asks you to put it back in, go right ahead, but we both know they won’t. It takes courage to kill that last darling, but kill it you must. And in time, perhaps years, I promise, you’ll read your manuscript and you won’t miss the darling.

Ninja, I hear you saying, how can I hope to one day be as ruthless as you and murder every darling like Anakin Skywalker wiping out the padawans? Actually, given that I routinely post five and six page reviews of books intended for children, perhaps I’m not the person to ask. But I’ll tell you what I do anyway and maybe it will help.

I only just recently cut a scene where my protagonist wishes at a fountain. It was a beautifully described fountain and a way—however cliché—to show my protagonist’s nervousness at embarking on an adventure. The fountain even comes into play later in the story in a small way, but I raised my light saber high and showed both scenes the true power of the dark side (on a related note, I also recently watched Star Wars). Why did I do it? Did I not mention this fountain was beautifully described and that this scene came at a pivotal moment? Did I not mention that this scene was one of my most favorite scenes in the book and has survived every draft up to this moment? Did I not mention that this scene was a piece of my heart that is now incomplete?

I killed the scene because it had to die. I told it about how one day we would get our own place with rabbits and I put it down while its head was turned so an editor won’t have to do it. An editor ought not to kill my darling. It’s my darling, so I’ll do it. I killed it because when I consulted my outline and highlighted the weak points, it clearly showed me the truth of the scene’s weakness.

And that’s my advice to you, Esteemed Reader: Keep an outline. I don’t recommend outlining your story before you write it as outlining is not writing and the one book I wrote a full outline for ahead of time never got written. I’d already written a bang up outline and I knew for sure how the book ended, so there was no interest for me to write the story out in long form. I typically update my outline after I write a chapter and keep notes about where I’m planning to go and change them as necessary. My outline typically looks like this:

Chapter One: Destiny Shines a Light in the Sky

Bruce Wayne is chatting up Vickie Vale at a fundraiser at Wayne Manner. Just as Vickie convinces him to join her for a romantic evening, Bruce sees the bat signal shining in the sky. Bruce excuses himself from the party and sneaks into the batcave, where he becomes Batman. Alfred Pennyworth is furious and yells at Batman for abandoning their guests. Batman promises to make it up to him, and then drives away in his batmobile.

Chapter Two: Death Flips a Coin

Commissioner Gordan is waiting on the roof of the Gotham police station when Batman arrives. Gordan tells Batman that Two-Face has broken out of Arkham Asylum, again, and…

I won’t go on with that, but you get the idea. Each chapter may be 5 or 10 pages long, but I only need a few sentences on my outline describing the action. Having an outline like this and keeping it updated as you write is a great benefit when you write the first draft, because it provides you a road map of where you've been to get to the point in the story you’re writing now. My most recent manuscript is 315 pages long and the one before that was 867 pages. I can’t read it from the beginning every time I want to know something and even going back through it to find bits of story takes too long. But keeping a fairly detailed outline of fifteen or twenty pages allows me to view the book on the macro level.

So much of writing is done on the micro level as is editing. For this reason, I continue to update my outline as I make my revisions. And yes, I resent taking the time to do it when no one will ever read the outline but me. Yet it’s an essential tool. Because now when I look at the outline above I know that I need to cut chapter one. I could spend forever rewriting it on the micro level, but looking at the outline, it’s clear to me the story really starts in Chapter Two with Batman discovering the newest mystery. However much I may like Batman and Alfred fighting in chapter one, knowing that chapter three to chapter ten are about Batman fighting Two-Face, it’s clear I need to get to the real story sooner.

I've said it before and I’ll say it again: read Story by Robert McKee. Memorize it. And never mind that Marcus Sakey accused me of belonging to the cult of McKee. I have two copies and an audio version and I reread that book at least once a year. One of McKee’s main premises is that every scene in a story needs to change the value of the story from negative to positive, or vice versa. Therefore, when I have my outline in front of me I can evaluate the story scene by scene to see whether or not they impact the plot as a whole. If the scene doesn't do this, there’s a good chance it’s a darling that needs to be killed. Or there's information in the scene that would perhaps be better off in a better scene. Or it's time to summarize to quickly get to the next scene. You get the idea.

So when I looked at my current manuscript’s outline and I saw I had a scene where the protagonist discovers the possibility of adventure and sets off, a scene where the protagonists ponders the adventure at a fountain, and a scene where the adventure actually starts, I knew I had to cut the scene where the character does some serious sitting and thinking because it does not change the story value. On the micro level I was a fan, but on the macro level it added nothing no matter how beautifully described the fountain. Goodbye, my darling.

UPDATE: This is presently the most popular post in the history of this blog, so I hate to admit this, but the book I'm referring to above is Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees and a version of the fountain scene totally found its way back in during a subsequent revision. Do as I say, not as I do:) If you'd like more specifics on how I edit, you might dig this post about revision that includes a rough draft of a chapter and the revised version with commentary. 


  1. The info on how you outline chapters was helpful. As someone who has read a great deal of books that have not been sufficiently edited, I will tell you that I appreciate your hard work. It's not the spelling or grammar errors that bug me (Anakin SkywalkER, by the way), but books that are not concise and well-polished. Good luck with the writing!

  2. How embarassing:) I knew I'd make at least one error. But I've fixed it. Anakin Skywalk, indeed. I hang my nerdy head in shame.

  3. I can so relate to all you are saying about revising. I'm on about my 15th revision and giving it to beta readers hopefully in July. I can't objectively see my own errors either. I definitely need my critique partners.

    See you in July.

  4. How wonderful to see you again! I've been yearning for you too, Ninja. It's been too long.

    (All of the above, to soaring John Williams music.)

    This is a great post, full of your usual verve and wit. I LOVE the para where you talk about the various drafts.

    And yes, most of us are blind to our writing faults. Which is why God made editors.

    Looking forward to the July return.

  5. I've long told my CPs to kill their darlings. But you did a better job of it and now I feel like I know exactly which scenes need to go. The ones I love the most. Even if they do mostly have to do with mowing the lawn (a problem with writing a book in the summer for me!). Great post!


Thanks for stopping by, Esteemed Reader! And thanks for taking the time to comment. You are awesome.