There comes a point all things significant in my life wherein I find myself thinking way too much. I thought too much about marrying my wife, about buying our first house, about having kids… and I am definitely thinking too much about the edit of my novel.
I started out, if anything, not thinking enough. Not really wanting to tackle the tough choices, not really wanting to rejigger the narrative, not really willing to tear out the skeleton of the thing to make the changes that are necessary. But it grew on me, and I started to realize that not only are there tough choices to make, but that I often needed to take the harder of the two paths for fixing the problems in the story. And I started hunting down the problems in the narrative like Indiana Jones seeking golden idols in the depths of Mayan temples. Each new problem solved gave rise to another, bigger conflict I could fix. Each prospective fix, not necessarily right for this situation, took on new significance, grew wings and started looking for problems to apply itself to. And then, a little stymied after a hectic work week, I threw myself at the edit again yesterday and spotted a white whale just lazing about below the surface of the waves on the horizon. A prize so massive, catching her and bringing her in could alter the trajectory of the narrative like a moonshot. It was a job too big for a single day, so I put it on the EPOS and marinated on it overnight.
And I realized something. Drafts of a story are like prototypes before a product launch. None of them is perfect, but each one gets polished to a point where it at least looks and functions more or less as intended. There may still be bugs on the inside, but to an outside observer, it looks like a complete thing. And my edit of this story resembles not so much a prototype as a cluttered workshop after a hurricane and a flash flood. The narrative is in pieces. Loose ends like frayed wires are protruding out of the armholes, eye sockets, fingertips. Entire limbs of the story are disjointedly stuck on with duct tape while other vestigial bits are still cluttering the margins like piles of unswept sawdust.
I’ve been so focused on fixing every little problem along the way that I never bothered to stop, clean up, and see if the thing as a whole is still working as intended. There’s been so much thought about making this little thing fit into its niche that I’m not paying attention to the fact that I’ve stitched an alligator arm onto a panda bear torso. I fear that there’s been so little big picture focus that I’ve created a Frankenstein’s Monster doomed to self-destruct in a boiling froth of unresolved plots and half-baked new characters. In short: I fear that I’ve somehow managed to make this second draft worse than the first.
But you know what? Maybe it is, and maybe that’s okay. If nothing else, it’s time to stop making huge conceptual changes, clean up the dust and debris, and see if this thing can even stand on its own two feet. The first draft did. It was shaky, but it stood up. This second draft? I honestly have no idea. I think it will, but I haven’t tested it properly with a read-through to see.
So it’s time to stop thinking so much. Time to stop trying to fix everything and start making sure that the fixes I’ve made already actually work. Which means no more breaking the story into pieces. No more new characters. No DELETING existing characters. No more rearranging story elements. I need less chainsaw, more chisel. Less dynamite, more sander. Time to sweep up the workshop, put the tools away, and just sit and have another good look at this thing I’ve built. Get a second opinion. Take a bird’s-eye view of the whole scenario.
And then, you know, with fresh perspective, maybe it’ll be time to lop its arms off.