Monday, April 8, 2019

Another Pound of Flesh: a Second Post About Editing

In 2011, I wrote an extremely popular post about editing when I thought I was done editing the first Banneker Bones book. Ha, ha, ha, me from the past, you still had ahead of you three years of polishing and notes from multiple agents and editors, some of which were helpful, all of which resulted in rewrites. In that post, I discussed the basics of editing and the importance of using an outline to determine which scenes are essential and which can be cut. 

That's one of my better posts and I stand by it. I'm not going to reiterate, but expand in this second post about another issue: writers getting themselves out of their own way. Today I want to talk about cutting out a different piece of our writer's heart: our burning message, the thing we came here to say. I've also got some other tips I've learned in the intervening eight years, as well as some common issues I've come across leading fiction workshops and reading student work.

Gamora asked Thanos after he did some heavy duty editing of his own, "What did it cost?" His answer, of course, was an anguished, "Everything." I don't believe there's a better metaphor I can steal from popular culture to describe how I feel after undergoing many, many, MANY drafts to create my ideal universe.

I would've once said Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees was the hardest book I ever wrote (and my favorite), but I think its sequel was harder to write. Or at least as hard

On the one hand, Banneker's first adventure was published in 2014, and I've grown as a writer since then. On the other hand, Banneker's second adventure is longer and more ambitious than the first, and bears the additional responsibility of setting the table for Banneker's third adventure (let us hope that one doesn't finally kill me). Life circumstances change and there are many other factors so that I cannot definitively say which book of mine was hardest to write and edit, but without a doubt, it was one of the Bannekers.

Why so hard, you ask? A number of reasons, among them the fact that I try to push myself toward a more ambitious project with each novel; otherwise, what's the point? Like a video game character, I level up my skills, but I choose projects that are a greater challenge. Paradoxically, though I'm improving at writing and editing, it doesn't seem to be getting much easier. I've just grown used to the processthough I am trying to speed it up.

The other issue, of course, is that I'm always me (have been all my life). I have consistent weaknesses in my writing as well as consistent strengths. I save my critiques for all my manuscripts and I record my critique group's discussions of my work and there are some similar criticisms that come up around every first or second draft. I usually nail plot beats and have to rethink character motivations. Other writers have different issues.

Knowing my weaknesses that seem to show up in nearly every first draft, no matter how hard I try to avoid them, hasn't lead me to a "how-terrible-is-wisdom" Oedipus Rex state in which I blind myself in despair... so far. Rather, it enables me to strategize ways in which I can save me from myself, with the help of my critique partners and beta readers.

So let's do some quick tips and then I'll share my biggest problem during my latest revision. My first tip is always to seek out a critique group and a professional editor who is not you. I'm just going to skip ahead to some tips for you to do once you've either secured editors or signed up for one of my fiction workshops.

Tip #1: Make a plan of attack. Gather all the feedback you've received on your draft, even if you're starting with just your own feedback, and break it down into individual steps. I like to use a list so I can cross off things such as:

Cut or shorten scooter scene.

Get rid of Reggie’s sketch pad. Replace it with a 3D holographic drawing tool, because of course. Or explain that he prefers paper.

Banneker needs to have a reaction to pug since he’s allergic to dogs.

Check how many times the word “crap” appears. Don’t overdo it. Same with “roar”

You can use a vision board or a multimedia presentation if you like just so long as you know how to achieve your goals for any one revision. A rewrite can be daunting, but if broken down to even 100 individual revisions that need to be made, there's a clear path for how to proceed, allowing you to put your anxiety aside and start knocking out tasks toward completion.

Tip #2: Invest in The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Publisi. I keep The Chicago Manual of Style at my writing desk and I find myself reaching for this book as frequently. I don't know the authors, I'm not getting a cut, I'm just a fan of the book. I don't use it when I'm drafting, but it's invaluable when I'm editing. Any time I find myself flatly stating the character's emotional state, I can search for a list of ways to SHOW that state. I don't always use what I find, but often looking at a list of possible physical expressions will trigger my mind to think up a way for me to SHOW rather than TELL.

Tip #3: Contractions are your friend. Unless you're writing dialogue for a character who wouldn't use a contraction or you have a sentence that genuinely sounds better with "would not" over "wouldn't," as in I would not have guessed 'wouldn't' wasn't a better word choice:) I like stories that can be read faster, which is why I'm always shortening anyplace I can. Contractions are an easy way to cut word count and to pick up the pace of your prose.

Tip #4: Keep a list of your known problem words and phrases. I keep a list of words I over use so I can search for and eliminate them before I turn in my final draft. 'That' is a word that can usually be cut. Some other offenders are 'just,' 'so,' 'quickly,' and 'frowning.' I also have to watch for characters doing too much smiling, nodding, eye rolling, or sighing. Some of these instances are allowed, but I space them out and cut unnecessary sighs, etc.

Tip #5: Save the sections you cut. This was a tip from my friend Laura Martin, who stuck with me through multiple revisions of Banneker Bones 2. At one point, that manuscript was over 130,000 words. The final version is just over 75,000. Banneker had some adventures that didn't make the final cut. Knowing they're safe in a file I can access any time to use in future books or blog posts (probably won't, but maybe) made cutting them out easier to take. I once used the discarded sections of one novel to make two entirely new novels.

That's it for the general stuff, which brings us to the somewhat more personal issues I encountered on my recent novel's journey. First off, I had to retrain myself to write middle grade after writing six books for adults since the first Banneker. Writing for children is much harder in many ways, among them that word counts are far more rigid. Prose for adults can allow for longer scenes and less economical word usage.

The first revisions I made to Banneker 2 were solely about sharpening my prose to a fine edge and cutting out most pretensionthough some pretension is, for better or worse, a part of my author's voice. I kept most of the jokes that worked, scratched the ones that didn't, but the highfalutin sentences that were fancy for the sake of being fancy had to be broken up and reassembled into sentences that were easier to read (unlike this absurdly long sentence that could not be allowed to stand in a MG novel; in fact, this entire paragraph is too long).

Next came refining character motivations and strengthening their relationships to one another. This is something I struggle with in second and third drafts as my first draft is all about establishing the full plot and all the twists and turns and surprises that result in a satisfying ending without cheating to result in the novel I want. A critique partner refers to my early drafts as plot puzzles.

Before I build the full body of the car with the leather seats and all the fancy accouterments meant to comfort the passengers, I first make sure the engine is finely tuned. If the story doesn't work, all the beautifully written prose and well-defined characters in the world won't save a novel anymore than incredible special effects save a bad movie, though each can make a mediocre story more pleasant to endure. Even the angriest Phantom Menace detractors have to admit the Duel of the Fates lightsaber fight is cool, and I'll admit that the writing in Ulysses is interesting in its own (mostly obnoxious) way.

I enjoyed doing revisions and I didn't mind spending as much time as was necessary to get it right. Banneker Bones is my favorite of all my characters and this is the sequel to my favorite of my books. Banneker's story is the reason I call myself the Middle Grade Ninja instead of some other kind of ninja. My unwillingness to compromise Banneker's integrity is the reason I chose indie publishing over traditional. The  primary reason I do all the marketing I do is in the hope of getting Banneker's story into the hands of as many readers as I can.

I believe in Banneker Bones. His is the story I've most wanted to tell you. There are passages I can't read aloud without crying. When Esteemed Reader holds a Banneker book, they're holding my beating heart. And I sliced away whole chunks of it to ensure Esteemed Reader is holding the best possible version of my heart.

What did this book cost me to create? Everything.

Except, not quite. Not yet.  Thankfully, my critique partners kept me honest.

When a book is big and important to its author, its author likely wants to say something really important, or several things. All stories convey a message of some kind because the triumph or failure of the protagonist is accomplished with a value(s).

For example, Batman=really smart, really strong, and really brave (also a little nuts)=he wins (and so does justice!)=it is a winning strategy to be really smart, really strong, and really brave (also a little nuts), so come on, let's get nuts.

A problem arises when an author blatantly states his message, which I often do in my first and second drafts. This is useful to me as it keeps me mindful of why I'm writing what I'm writing, but these sections have to go before Esteemed Reader picks up the book. Even if the author stated just the right political sentiment in just the perfect way and it was totally awesome and now no one's going to read it because he had to cut it from the final draft. Save it for your blog, buddy:)

My friend Shannon Alexander, summarizing another author's adviceI think it might've been John Green, but I don't remember and most author advice is the passing on of knowledge learned from other authorsassured me that I'd already made my point through the actions of the story without needing to also bluntly state it. If a point is 'A+B=C,' then an author should state 'A+B' and allow the reader to discover on their own that 'C' is equaled.

This was difficult advice for me to follow, but I knew she was right (Shannon usually is). Some readers won't figure out 'C' if I don't tell them, I pointed out. But most readers are pretty smart (that's why they're reading). 

I think it's important to emphasize for younger readers that extremely wealthy people are not admirable as I want future generations to avoid this social pitfall. When three people own more wealth than the bottom half of our entire country combined, as is currently the case, it is not because those three people are better than half the country. Billionaires don't happen through sheer willpower and determination (that's capitalism's huckster sales pitch). American CEOs don't work 361 times harder than their employees and the myth that they do is harming all of us as it allows them to buy our politicians and rig the country in their favor until desperate peasants revolt and the whole thing falls apart.

I believe all of that and perhaps in another post I'll go on about how there's a middle ground between a failed socialist state and the ruthless and cold country we currently live in, but this post isn't the place for it. And a fun middle grade adventure book with a focus on evading alligator people whilst quipping and riding jet packs is also not the place for it.

So I went back through my book and cut any characters giving long lectures about things that weren't their motivations leading to fun action and adventure. The Banneker Bones books have many goalsamong them is making fun of Ayn Rand and her silly ideas as much as possiblebut the number one goal has always been a fun story well told. Economics lectures aren't fun.

So, if some Esteemed Readers don't pick up on my hidden manifesto within the text, but instead JUST have a good time laughing at Banneker's newest antics and worrying that they might get him eaten, that is a successful reading experience. Should they, after being fully entertained, have a thought that "extremely wealthy people can really be jerks and it's not fair," well, that's a bonus. I've provided 'A+B.' The 'C' is up to the reader, and that's as it should be.

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