The EPOS (Editing Pile of… we’ll say Stuff)

Let’s get one thing clear: I know nothing about editing a book.  I know a few things about editing short-form writing in general, but when it comes to making a 300-page behemoth readable for the masses, I’m a blind bull in a china shop.  Made of glass.  The shop, not the bull.

Apparently there are lots of ways to do it.  Some read through the thing in record pace to get a sense of the story as a whole then begin fixing bits in the order of direness.  Some slog their way from front to back, chipping away at the glacier as they go.  Others, I dunno, tear the manuscript to pieces and burn it in effigy, inhaling the vapors to enter a trance state that allows them to craft the distilled story.  I’ve never been much of a planner, so as is my wont, I’m sort of making it up as I go.  Regardless of approach, I feel like there’s one thing most authors have in common as they edit.


Educational Platitudes of Smartness?

Entropic Poignard of Sagacity?

Electrified Prod of Smackface?

As awesome as those sound, for me, it’s the Editing Pile of Sharknado.

Let me reiterate.  I can speak for myself, but I have a feeling this struggle is universal among writerly types.  Here’s how it works for me:

I read the draft.  As I read, I try to read the text with an impartial mind, assessing the elements on their intrinsic value rather than on my own sentimental attachment to them.  As I read, things jump out at me.  Unclear character development.  Missing plot points.  References to things I forgot to include the first time around.  Some mistakes can be fixed on the spot: typos, obviously awkward prose, egregious instances of wheelieing.  Everything else gets a note and goes on the Pile.

At the beginning, the pile was just a few comments, a couple of harmless observations about the dubious state of the draft, a few gentle admonitions to a Future Me about some bits of the draft that need rewriting.  But like all monstrous things, what started off small and innocuous began an exponential growth curve and now seems to be doubling in size every couple of days.  The more errors I spot within the draft, the easier it becomes to spot errors within the draft.  The more I identify elements which need fixing, the more readily I seem to find elements to fix.  As a result, I’ve been working on the edit for about, oh, a month or so now, I’m about 130 pages in, and the pile has grown into a heap and a tower and now seems as immense as Babel stretching toward the heavens.

The EPOS looms and sways; it reaches skyward and some days seems to eclipse the sun.  It’s full of all sorts of advice and admonition: “present this bit earlier”, “expand upon this moment”, “is this necessary?”, “rewrite this whole f&*(!)#$ passage”.  Some can be fixed in a matter of minutes, some will take hours.  It grows by the day, and it seems as if it’s approaching a critical mass, whereupon it will begin to attract further Stuff to itself and begin sucking up random bits of prose from entirely other parts of the story, perhaps from the blarg here, maybe from textbooks in the area… it may eventually start swallowing the pets as they wander too close.

Some days it feels as if the EPOS is growing faster than I even wrote the novel in the first place, like it’s got a mind of its own and seeks to destroy me through the sheer accumulation of my seemingly endless string of inadequacies.  I feel myself working in its shadow, the cool embrace of its inevitability clammy and close around my shoulders as I work at the imperfect mass of my draft with the panic of a surgeon whose patient is dying of a sucking chest wound.  It’s overwhelming and terrifying and oppressive and it’s getting bigger every day.  In fact, the other day the thought flitted through my mind that the EPOS was so big, so insurmountable, that I might never get around to addressing everything I put into it.  That the work that needs to be done for this draft to be decent is work that’s beyond my capability.  That perhaps, as I’ve thought so many times as I’ve walked this path to writerdom, the prudent thing is to face the facts, accept that the time I’ve put in is time wasted, cut my losses and go home with my tail between my legs.

But then I stop, because I recognize that voice.  It’s not my voice, it’s the Howler Monkey of Doubt.  And the Howler has some fancy new digs: a tower of Sharknado hundreds of feet high, which affords him a crazy vantage point on the depth of my plight and gives him lots of ammunition for taking potshots at my self-esteem and my sense of accomplishment.  But he’s terrified, as well he should be, because he’s only hoping that I’ll forget something crucial.  The tower isn’t built on the ground.  The foundation of the EPOS isn’t the level of the earth, it didn’t start from ground zero.  No, the tower’s roots are gnarled and knotted at the summit of the once-insurmountable mountain that I climbed in the first place to even get the draft written.  Of course it blocks out the sun — I’m basically soaring at the level of the sun in the first place, just by virtue of how far I’ve come.  The tower is high, but next to the mountain I’ve already climbed, it’s an out-of-order escalator leading to the second story at the mall, and if I let that stop me, then I’m no better than those poor lost souls chubbing it up at the food court.

I feel as if I may have mixed my metaphors again.

The point is, the EPOS is massive.  It’s daunting.  But not nearly so daunting as the original idea of writing ninety thousand words from scratch, not nearly so daunting as weaving this story, flawed as it may be, from the raw silk threads spiraling around in my cortex.  Sure, it’ll get worse before it gets better.  I think it was JFK that said something about doing hard things because they’re hard.  Maybe there’s wisdom in that.  Maybe, with that in mind, I’ll feel a little less bad about all the sharknado I add to the pile tomorrow.

Editing, Day Whatever

The edit rolls on.

I feel like I’m in an episode of the Twilight Zone, editing this novel.  You know, one of those really creepy ones where there’s nothing overtly terrifying going on, but there’s a subtle horror creeping in at the edges of your vision, lurking behind you in the dark, an intrinsic strangeness to every piece of furniture, every passing stranger, every blade of grass.  I recognize this text.  I’ve walked its halls — hell, I created its halls — and I have a reasonably good memory of doing so.  I remember building this character to do this thing, and developing this relationship so that x can help y do things later in the story.  Nothing wrong there.

But as I read, there are oddities presenting themselves.  Little misplaced things.  Glitches in the matrix.  Loose ends of code.  I see a misspelled word here, a character referring to an event that never happened there, a magically-appeared whatchamacallit over there.  Who left these things strewn about, like so many of my toddler’s toys in the abandoned toy chest which is this monolithic block of text in my word processor?  They’re familiar, yet they’re not.  Strange.

Then, there are the bits of prose which I do not recognize, and those are even creepier.  They fit the tale, they advance the action, they’re even often funny and clever, but they, too, are wrong somehow.  Like an alternate me wrote them.  A me that wasn’t nearly so concerned with plot or character development or narrative unity, but rather focused on witticisms and playful digression and intermittent drizzling dazzlings of poesy.

Like so many other things in the novel, these interludes fit, but they don’t match.  They’re definitely part of the same story and spun by the same hands, but maybe not crafted by the same mind, or at least not the same mind thinking on the same frequency as it was when it wrote the bulk of the story.  So here, the usual quandary: is the rest of the novel — the bulk of the novel — written properly, while these flashes of poetics and digressive humor are out of place and merely distracting?  Or are these misty patches the real essence of my story peeking through, and the rest of the novel is obscuring the heart of the tale with its drudgelike march through the necessary rigidity of the plot?

Thus the ever-growing EPOS (Editing Pile of Sharknado) grows ever larger.  I knew that the first editing pass was going to be harsh times, but that pile is growing exponentially every time I process a few pages.  I know it has to be done — I’ve got to process the whole thing and then I can break out the tools and start putting the monster back together right-side up — but the whole thing feels like one tremendous exercise in procrastination.  I’m working, sure, but I’m not actually repairing the damage.  Semantics, perhaps, but it’s just one more way I’m working against myself on this project.

Of course all this makes it sound like I’m slogging through swamps of sadness and misery working on this thing.  Not the case.  Re-reading my creations, being surprised by the little things I’d forgotten about, rediscovering the little quirks and eccentricities that burrowed their way in, is noting short of delightful, no matter how tedious and daunting the task at hand may be.  I’m a little over a third of the way in.  Keep the head down and keep pushing.

Toddler Life, Chapter 117 – Parenting Win

Parenting is a zero-sum game, most of the time.  I mean, it’s an upward trend, but that trend is only measurable if you zoom in real close and look at it over a scale of several months.  On the day-to-day stuff, you’re lucky to break even.  To be more specific:

One day you’re up because the kid takes his first step.  Next day you’re down because he blows out a diaper and floods his bed with liquid poop.  One day you’re up because the kid says “bye, daddy, I love you”, and the next day you’re down because you’re trying to put the kid to bed and he says “I don’t want daddy, want mommy to read.”  One day you’re up because you manage to put the infant to bed by yourself without the help of her mom for the first time literally ever, and then three hours later you’re down again because you’re up (awake) with the infant screaming because you screwed up putting her to bed.

Point is, parenting is hard work: thankless and grueling and pushing you to the limits of your sanity and patience just about every day, and somehow — somehow — you learn to temper the good with the bad.  You learn to rein in your elation at a breakthrough because you know the monsters will cut you off at the knees when you least expect it.  You learn never to sink into the depths of despair because the little blessings will be lighting up your life again with some adorable bit of cuteness or some flash of brilliance you could never anticipate.  In other words, you become very, very adept at taking what you can get when the good stuff rolls along.  You become an optimist out of necessity.  The alternative is too horrible to ponder.

So you chart your victories and you squeeze all the enjoyment out of them because you know that that joy can be snatched away from you at any moment.  The big stuff, you don’t have to worry about.  The light goes on for the kid and suddenly he wants to use the potty fifteen times in an hour — you don’t have to milk that victory, that one’s going to burn bright for a while.  He suddenly makes the connection that you’re not leaving forever when you leave for work and begins happily waving good-bye in the morning and giving you big squeezing bear hugs when you return… that’s not going anywhere.  No, to stay ahead of the curve of frustration because he still wants to grab the dog and yank its fur out, or because he still wants to stack a roomful of toys on top of the sleeping cat, or because he still wants to wake up at 5 AM for some goldfingered reason despite the fact that he gets frustrated that there’s nothing to do at that hour, you have to grab hold of the little victories and suck them dry like a wanderer in the desert sucking the sweat out of his headband.

There are little victories everywhere, if you know where to look for them.  But the ones worth the most points are the ones disguised as failures.  Case in point: Sprout #1 loves the movie Cars.  Loves it so much it’s wrong.  He’ll watch it twice in a day if we’re not careful.  As a result, he’s memorized bits and pieces of it, and he peppers his primeval dialogue with it, sometimes in an appropriate way, sometimes not so much.  There’s one line that he loves toward the beginning of the film:  “Lightning’s not going into the pits!” which basically never makes sense outside of the context of the movie, and which I only grasp at vaguely even during the film.  That one, then, is essentially harmless.  Then, toward the middle of the film, Lightning, voiced by Owen Wilson, is driving on a dirt road, trying to absorb a bit of driving wisdom from another talking car (what else would cars talk about, anyway?), when he realizes that the advice he’s received makes no sense, and he discounts it at once with a brilliantly-inflected “What an idiot!” which the sprout can recreate perfectly, right down to the intonation and the roll of the eyes.

So we’re driving.  And it’s Sunday in Greater Atlanta, which to be brief means that the rules of the road are out the window and the only thing you can count on other drivers to do is anything they’re not meant to do (U-turns in the middle of a road, suddenly slipping into reverse at a stop light, stopping on a green light and putting a blinker on to try to cross three lanes of traffic to make the right turn they didn’t realize was coming up, burning the tires out to zoom past you in the turn lane while you’re stopped at a red light) and the tension is mounting in the car and in a moment of great frustration, I finally let fly with an epithet.  Now, because I know the sponge is in the backseat soaking up everything I say, I quickly start babbling a lot of nonsense in the hopes that the floodwater of extra information will wash away the profanity like a rushing river.  But the boy cuts me off, shouting, a la Owen Wilson, “What an idiot!”

And it’s brilliant and funny and appropriate and all of those things but my wife and I share a mortified look because as brilliant and funny and appropriate as it is, we know that if he can let fly with it in the car, he can let fly with it when he gets to preschool, or he can let fly when he’s playing with some kid on the playground, and that’s a situation none of us want to deal with.  So we start to correct him, but then we realize that he’s certainly heard worse, and in fact just heard worse, and my wife whispers to me, “at least he didn’t say ‘fargoing idiot’.”  And in my mind, I think, or a goldfingered ratbastard, or a motherless piece of sharknado, or afargoing psychopath, or any of a number of other things I may or may not have said in his presence when I forget for an instant that the kid is there and the real world breaks through and you just have to swear.

I nod.  We shrug at each other.  It’s a little victory.  High-fives all around.  “He was an idiot, sprout.”  And life is good.

Then we get home and he pours apple juice on the dog.

Picture taken moments before he faceplants and tears his lip open, leaving him with a scar on his face for weeks.
Picture taken moments before he faceplants and tears his lip open, leaving him with a scar on his face for weeks.

A Problem with Profanity

So there’s another problem with the draft.

Maaaybe less of a problem and more of a quandary, if the difference is anything more than semantic.

It’s a problem with language.  A quandary of character.

See, I created this antagonist to be a real bastard.  And to be fair, I think I’ve been successful.  He’s a total jerkface.  A real knee-biter.  Virtually unlikable to everybody in the book except for one, and that one only tolerates him out of some twisted past business relationship… the details don’t matter.  He’s a doodie head.

And I absolutely, 100% believe that each character an author creates is, in some small way or another, an aspect of the author himself (or herself).  I just don’t think there’s any getting around that — pour your heart and soul into the work and, well, you end up with a work that’s full of your heart and your soul, perhaps more literally than you planned.  And this guy is probably me on a morning when the alarm failed to go off and the car door handle broke and the traffic is outrageous and I forgot my badge for work and then I get to work and it turns out to be Saturday.  He’s a grouch and a grump and he snaps at the word go and a big part of what makes him so nasty is that he’s as foul-mouthed as a dog that’s been flossing with roadkill.

And there’s the problem.

No, that’s not the problem.  The language works for the character.  It fits him like a tailored suit.  The problem is, I don’t know if the language fits the book.  And that brings me back to audience.

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m not sure I know who my audience is for this damn thing.  I mean, I do.  It’s people more or less like me, maybe a bit younger.  And as a reader, language doesn’t bother me.  A good profanity-laden rant is good for the soul, and let’s be honest, as much as it amuses me to toss around the sharknados and fargos on the blarg here, they’re no substitute for the real thing when real emotion is on the line.  But I’m probably not most readers.  Maybe it’s a bit cart-before-the-horse, but I’m really worried that the profanity, appropriate as it is for the character, and fun as it is for me to write (and read), is going to alienate potential readers.

So there’s the quandary.  There’s nothing wrong with the character as far as the narrative is concerned (at least, as far as I can tell at this point in the edit), and yet I feel like his harshness might be wrong for the story.  Which, then, is more important — an authentic character or a more widely-appealing story?  Do I scale back his jerk-facery in favor of making him a little bit less off-putting?  Do I think up alternate ways to make the character unlikable? Plant some puppies in his path for him to stomp on, send him to bars to abuse the waitstaff, have him drive really slow in the fast lane?  Or do I leave him just the way he is , potential offended readers be damned?

Nothing to do for the moment, I suppose, but throw it on the pile for Further Future Me to sort through and decide on later.


First Fall Run

It’s the first day of Autumn, and that’s awesome for a runner like me.

Let’s get one thing clear.  I’m not a fair-weather runner.  I say that with all respect and love for the fair-weathers out there — I was one, too, once.  I know that life.  You ponder running in the summer when it’s too darn hot and you say, “well, when the weather cools off a little bit and it doesn’t feel quite so much like my skin is actually boiling off of my body, maybe then I’ll get out and run.”  Or maybe you made the old standby resolution at New Year’s when it was colder than my black, black heart outside and realized that perhaps the forbidding temperatures in the single digits and teens weren’t quite your speed and that, perhaps, April was in fact a much better time to start the whole running thing.

I get it.  But I can’t live that way anymore.

Something happens when you push past the three mile mark in running.  Up until that point, you consider yourself a jogger, maybe, or a sprinter, or maybe somebody who does a little running on the weekends or as part of a bigger exercise regimen, but past 5k it becomes serious.  The training wheels come off.  The drudgery of your bi-daily run has been replaced by some snarling, feral need to run.  There’s no putting it off til April or October.

No, the all-weather, all-season runner knows that he (or she, obvs) will continue to run whether it’s hot enough to literally bake cookies in your buttcrack or cold enough to make buttcrack ice cream.  The first hot days arrive in May and I think, with all the grim inevitability of that deep-voiced guy from the movie previews, it begins.  The last balmy night in November passes and I know that Winter is coming.

The temperature in the daytime climbs steadily from seventy, to eighty, to ninety, and still we’re out there.  The clever ones run before dawn or after dusk, but the lunatics are out there in the full light of day, roasting alive, logging their miles and waiting for September.  But even the nightcrawlers begin to suffer in Summer.  The humidity dragon sneaks in through the door you left open and makes your seventy-degree morning feel like ninety, sees you back at the house following a quick three miles looking as if you’ve just swum the English Channel.  The washing machine gets a workout like it’s never known.  Your significant other turns up her nose when you come in for a post-run smooch.  (Okay, maybe she does that year round, but in the summer, you can identify.)  You start to hate running again.

But today it’s September 23rd, and that means Fall is here, and Winter is coming.  And here in Atlanta, boy, does it feel like it.  This morning it was a delightful 57 degrees, cool enough to put a chill in your fingertips before you get warm from the exertion, but not so cool you even have to think about long sleeves or gloves or any of the mess that comes when the temperature really starts to drop.  Cool enough to slip a windbreaker on the sprout as I strapped him into the stroller with me (yeah, he wakes up at 5:15 now to go run with me… it’s a problem).  Cool enough to make you feel alive with the touch of Autumn and pumpkins and all that other stuff that fills the roughly three weeks before Winter sets in.

If there’s a perfect temperature for running, it may well be 57 degrees.  After months and months of cooking inside my skin just from stepping out the door for a run, 57 degrees feels like an ice bath after a sunburn.  A cool drink of water after a mouthful of habanero salsa.

I only wish the fall weather would last longer, but as any Atlanta resident knows, we get maybe three weeks of it before the bottom drops out.  Time to suit up and get out there.