Tag Archives: editing a novel

Scrub Up and Slice In


The revision process for a novel has a series of steps associated with it, much like the stages of grief.

First, you’re kind of enchanted with this thing you wrote, and you spend a lot of time patting yourself on the back: hey look at that neat character I wrote back then, boy that twist was kind of clever, and wow this might not actually be that bad to edit. (See also: my posts from about six weeks ago when I started the current edit.)

Then you begin to hate the thing you wrote, because the more flaws you come across, the more glaring they become and the more likely you are to see more flaws. A snowball rolling downhill, collecting more snow and branches and dead moose until it flattens a town.

Then, resignation: the thing is what it is, and no amount of unicorn-chasing denial or grizzly-bear-wrestling self-hate is going to change it, so with steely resolve, you go to work on it. Narrative Surgery. With no training, no qualifications, and no idea what you’re even supposed to be doing, you scrub up and dive in.

The problem is, like an insane spider’s web, every part of the thing is interconnected. There is no such thing as a “minor correction.” The hip-bone is connected to the leg-bone, but in this metaphor, it’s also connected to the patellar tendon, the lower intestines, one and a half lungs and the eye on the non-heart side (which — surprise! — is not the side you thought it was).

You go to make your incision, to correct that one little nagging issue in the third chapter, and blood starts leaking out of the character resolution in chapter eighteen. You try to tamp that down with a little narrative pressure, but that causes a backup in the side conflict while also necessitating the introduction of brand-new tissue in the opening chapters. You set to work rectifying all this, but because you also have a full-time job and for god’s sake you’re only human, your rectifications themselves are flawed and not as focused as they maybe should be because oh my god there’s inkblood everywhere.

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Did I drop my keys in there? I think I dropped my keys in there.

Now you’ve got internal bleeding and contusions popping up under the skin all over the place, and you’re not actually any closer to fixing the problem you set out to fix in the first place, you’re just playing Whack-a-Mole with the fallout from your “fixes.” Worse still, you’re starting to see that the big problem you ignored in the first draft — the one you just stuck a post-it note to your future self on that read YOU DEAL WITH THIS ONE, GOOD LUCK (an actual comment I left for myself around the 1/3 mark of this particular draft) — has metastasized out of control. A broken bone repaired by interweaving itself with all the surrounding tissue. The hive in Aliens that has swollen and spilled over, and now threatens to consume the entire ship. Every blood vessel, every nerve ending, every plot line, every narrative thread seems to run through this one spot, this one tangle of viscera and scar tissue.

And you don’t want to do it. To go to work on this thing will throw the entire project into limbo. The bleeding will be massive, the repair work intensive, the recovery extensive. But that angry little knot, interspersing its evil tentacles through the heart and every extremity of your story, pulses defiantly. Taunting you. And that’s when you realize that you do want to do it, that despite the trauma and triage, despite the emotional and psychological fallout that will surely result, this thing can be saved. It can be made clean again.

So you slice into it.

And as the first gout of narrative blood stain your scrubs, you glance just a little bit further down the chest cavity… and you see another tumor.

Ahem.

So, you know. The edit’s going fine … just fine.

*screams internally*

*dies inside*

*animates self with a straight shot of caffeine to the pleasure center and sheer force of will*

*zombie self continues writing*

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


The Authorial Short Leash


What happens when you bring your new canine companion home from the pound and take him on his first walk?

That furry little bastard gets the scent of nature in his nostrils and goes wild, that’s what. He feels the breeze of the great outdoors across his fur and he bolts. He tugs you this way and that. Darts into flower beds. Takes off after squirrels and rabbits (man, my neighborhood is lousy with rabbits right now — it’s like Watership Down in suburbia). Scrambles into the weeds to poop. Runs off into more weeds to sniff at some other dog’s poop.

You’re trying to have a nice, leisurely stroll with your own personal man’s best friend, but you’ve got a hellhound yanking your arm this way and that, tangling your legs in the leash, and, depending on the size of the animal, threatening to pull your shoulder right out of its socket. And suddenly, your nice, relaxing walk is nothing like nice and a rough shot away from relaxing.

The only way to reclaim your walk — to get the critter under control and take back the calm you set out for — is to break out the short leash. You take all the slack out of the rope and keep him locked in step right there at your heel. He tries to get ahead of you by a step? You tug him back. He veers off course? Yank. He so much as lifts his head to sniff after a squirrel? Doublebig yank.

The point is not to be cruel, the point is to demonstrate to the animal — which is only operating on the same basic evolutionary programming that’s served its species well for eons (chase, hunt, kill, survive) — that there’s a new game in town. That there is a new master. No longer does he answer the beckoning call of nature, now he answers to the man on the other end of the rope. It is only by the grace of “I” that he’s even outside to begin with.

And slowly, slowly, with the patience of the glacier, the dog begins to learn. The instincts, the darting this way and that, the bolting — they curb and decline. Then you can let the slack out a bit. Allow him to sniff at the root of that tree. Let him lock in on that bunny scampering across the neighbor’s yard. Only now, he’s not just doing it — he’s checking with you first. He knows where his food comes from. He knows that the walk through nature is conducted on your terms.

You break him on the short leash so you can break out the long leash again later.

That guy (or gal!) who wrote the first draft of your novel? He’s the rescue dog that’s never breathed the free air. Writing the draft was his fly-the-coop moment: he got into the neighbor’s rose bushes with his deviation into needless character development. He chased squirrels into trees with those bizarre plot turns. He went shoving his nose up another dog’s butt with that trope he borrowed from that wicked sci-fi novel he was reading at the time. He shat on the sidewalk when he just stopped writing that one character two-thirds of the way into the story.

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Editing time is time to break out the short leash. Correct those errors your drafting self makes the moment he starts to make them. Can’t let these things fester, or they’ll keep pulling your arm out of the socket. Nip it in the bud now and he’ll get the message quicker.

Of course, we can’t cut out all of that bad behavior — after all, it’s when the story does unexpected things, when it goes off into the weeds and comes back with a dead rabbit in its jaws, that we enjoy story the most. But our story can’t be one long, unleashed romp through the neighborhood. Much as we love the unbridled id that our authorial selves bring to the table, we also need the structure that only the editorial self can provide.

So by all means, take your inner author out for a walk. But keep that thing leashed up. That way, when you finally do let him loose, he’ll know it matters.

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And here’s one more dog meme, just because they’re awesome.

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This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results. This week? Maybe not so productive.


Project Projections: 80% Chance of Bloodbath


My current project may kill me.

Not because it’s awful, like my protagonist’s assignment in Accidentally Inspired. Not because it’s just too much work, either, like that pile of stuff in your garage that you keep meaning to sort through and clean out.

It’s going to kill me because much like the weather here in Georgia, it’s alternately the best thing ever and the worst thing imaginable, and I don’t know how many fluctuations I can take before my lungs fill up with phlegm and my sinuses explode in protest.

The good:

While I was writing it, I had the feeling that it was terrible. I kept changing things in the middle of the narrative, the plot and characters congealing like a quivering pile of multicolored unidentifiable mystery meat in a school cafeteria. But reading through the story again this week, I’m pleasantly surprised. The plot needs work, to be sure, but it’s more multi-knotted rescue rope with the odd loose end than formless hairball of half-digested tail fur.

Also, there are some lovely turns of language in it — especially toward the beginning. I love a good simile or metaphor like I love a third slice of cake — but like the third slice of cake, I have to wonder if I’m not overdoing it. Trying too hard, indulging in fripperies because they feel good right now, rather than because they’re what I need. Not so much in this book. The language is playful and sometimes poetic, though always a little off-the-wall — kinda like me.

I found a note that Past Me left for Future Me (now Present Me) to “have fun with this story” — my previous story’s protagonist spent most of his time in a smothering haze of self-doubt — and I seem to have followed that advice pretty well. In this story, there’s adventure! Robots! Murder plots! Secret agendas! Double agents! Explosions! It’s not clicking like a finely-oiled machine, yet, but the pieces are there for the clicking, and it was actually already fun for me to read even in its first form — AND YOU HAVEN’T SEEN ITS FINAL FORM YET.

In short, there’s already a lot of good going for it. Of course, that brings me to the flip side of the coin —

The Bad:

A lot of the language that I so enjoyed at the outset dries up like a California reservoir after the first third of the book. Not coincidentally, that’s about where I started making major changes to characters and plots and had to spend all of my fargoes keeping those balls in the air. But that now means I’ll either have to trim it back in the first third or surgically implant it into the latter parts, neither of which is likely to feel natural.

Some of the rewrites on order are massive. I’d guess offhand that maybe a third of the book needs a ground-up rewrite and another third needs a heavy dose of some terrifying, unnameable, especially pointy and sharp editing tools. I know, I know. The editing is supposed to be the hard part. But this particular EPOS feels like it may be bigger than the last one I climbed. Daunting.

The last one, I don’t even want to say. It almost hurts too much. But I can’t avoid it.

I lost the ending of the book, back when I lost the flash drive that had my most recent first draft on it. Only the last 5000 words or so, but still — that one bit of stupidity continues to haunt me, like I went and built a house on an old Indian burial ground. Now, the ending needs — as all endings need — some serious tweaking and tuning, so the loss itself isn’t that bad. But the fact of the loss is pretty damn demoralizing, and leaves me with a grungy feeling as I get ready to step into my rubber gloves and galoshes and slice into this thing.

But the slicing is inevitable anyway. Just means I go into the work with a little bit of gudge already on me.

So. Kill me?

On second thought, I don’t think so.

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results. This week? Maybe not so productive.

 


The Weekly Re-Motivator: Panning for Gold


I remember, when I was in school, learning about how during the gold rush — you know, old west, Manifest Destiny times — people would pan for gold. Scoop some water out of the river, sift through it, see if any nuggets were floating in the runoff. Or they’d just take big handfuls of dirt, toss them on these screens, and slowly sift away the big rocks, then the little ones, and so on, in hopes of separating out something priceless from the junk.

And I always thought that was kind of BS. You dunk your little pan into the river, hoping to get rich off some crumbs floating downstream? You dig up your backyard, hoping that in there among the rocks and the sand, there’s a gold nugget, just waiting to be discovered?

It’s the sort of ridiculous hope that keeps people buying lottery tickets. The overwhelming odds are that not only will you not find gold, but you will have wasted hours — if not days or weeks or worse — of time which you could have used for, you know, useful things otherwise.

Not incidentally, one of my favorite snippets from Sam Harris (a prominent atheist/philosopher/neurologist and pretty smart guy) has to do with a guy who spends his weekends digging in his backyard for an enormous diamond. “It gives me great pleasure, seeking this diamond,” the guy claims, though there’s no evidence that the diamond exists, nor is there any good reason to believe that it might. And regardless of whether this diamond does exist, the believer “wouldn’t want to live in a world where there wasn’t an enormous diamond buried in my backyard.”

Panning for gold in that way takes something maybe even stronger than an act of faith.

But lately, that metaphor strikes me in another way.

If the first draft is the rushing mountain stream, then there are definitely some gold flakes floating in it, lost amid the smashing rapids and festering cesspools of word vomit. (This is, incidentally, why I’m not totally soul-crushed after losing about twenty thousand words of my latest project; because I know that most of it is crap.) Problem is, there’s no knowing where they are ahead of time. And there’s no guarantee that, if I dive into that stream of bland, meandering word salad, I’ll come away with anything approaching usefulness.

But I keep doing it. Every day I wade into the waters and pan for gold, screening the water and the dust and the lumps of calcified cow crap in hopes that somewhere among the detritus is a nugget that I might one day parlay into a car payment.

You know. The sort of blind, hopeless faith that I usually rail against.

But with one key difference.

The poor saps panning and sifting for gold or digging for diamonds in their backyards are putting their faith in things they can’t see or touch or know in any way. The gold is either flowing in the river, or it’s not. It’s either mixed in the dirt, or it isn’t. The diamond is either buried in the earth to be found, or there is no such diamond. But the words I churn out every day? It may not be much, but at least I’m in control of those words. And I know that, even though most of them may be crap, the potential is there, hiding behind fossilized feces or drifting downstream.

The faith a writer has to have is a faith in himself (or herself!). Some would argue that it takes a hell of a lot of faith to return to the blank page, day after day, to deface it with your imperfection. There’s certainly something of the devotional in it.

But I don’t think it actually takes much faith at all. The stories we’re sifting for are there, hiding just below the surface, winking at us from behind the river of crap.

We just have to have the patience to screen out the garbage.

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


Zeno’s Literary Paradox


(Allow me to disclaim that I’m not particularly educated or bothered with the differences between turtles, tortoises, terrapins, and the like. I am sure they are all different and not interchangeable. I will nonetheless be interchanging them today. I have at least one friend who will be very upset by this.)

What is it with me and thought experiments? Last week, the Prisoner’s Dilemma. This week, Zeno’s Paradox. Maybe it’ll be my next “regular feature” that burns out after a month or so.

Zeno’s Paradox is one of my favorites, in that it seems to defy all common sense, yet when you look at the premises of the argument, it is inescapably logical.

We imagine a footrace between Achilles and a tortoise.

Since Achilles is a sporting chap, and clearly runs faster than the tortoise, he spots the tortoise a significant head start. This is only fair.

So, after Achilles runs for an indeterminate amount of time, he will have reached the point that the tortoise started from. However, in the same amount of time, the tortoise will have moved forward some smaller amount, so Achilles still has ground to make up. Again he moves forward, arriving rather quickly at the point the tortoise previously occupied, and again he finds that the turtle has crept a bit further ahead.

This process repeats for as long as you care to repeat it. Due to the fact that measurements are a human construct and therefore infinite, we will never reach a point whereat Achilles overcomes the tortoise.

It follows, then, that logically, Achilles can never overtake the tortoise.

In practice, of course, Achilles sprints right past the hapless terrapin.

 

I absolutely love this. It is simultaneously as self-evident as a stone and as incomprehensible as consciousness itself. Achilles, in the mind, seems paradoxically never to gain ground; in fact, the closer he comes to his goal, the farther he has to go.

I’ve noted previously around here (though I can’t be arsed to track down where at the moment) that Andre Agassi, one of my more favorite athletes (we bald guys have to stick together), has expressed a similar psychological phenomenon. He describes the end of a tennis match as a magnetic force: one that, the closer you get to it, catches you in its field and pulls you in. But like a reversed magnet, the closer you get, the harder it becomes to actually make contact.

You can get closer and closer, but you can never quite catch it.

And that’s kind of like writing, innit?

You begin with this vast tract of land in front of you: the blank page and the faraway goal of a completed story, be it 3000 words or 93000. You start to work. The finish line is way up there, but who cares? You’re making progress day by day, easily measurable progress, and you have the word counts to prove it. And you close and you close and you close and the turtle gets bigger and bigger in your vision, and one day: you finish! The story is written, the narrative arc resolved.

But the turtle has moved. You still have more work to do, in the form of re-reading, re-outlining, editing, proofreading. You’re closer than you were to start the exercise, but it took you a long time to cover all that distance, and the turtle isn’t holding still, either (and why would it, with an ink-stained, caffeine-addled word-herder on its tail?).

So you lower your head and off you go again. This time it’s not such a long road to catch the turtle — you’ve already written 90,000 words after all, what’s the big deal revising or re-ordering 30,000 of them — and before long, you’re there. A story edited, improved, fixed!

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LOL I’m still ahead.

But where’s the turtle? Sonofabitch, it’s another thirty turtle-miles up the road. (Which is, I dunno, five hundred feet? What’s the ground speed of a turtle anyway?) You’ve got some beta-reads to do, now, and the receiving of notes, and probably another read of the work yourself, and then a subsequent edit…

And just like Achilles, you keep chasing the turtle, and just like the turtle, your project creeps inexorably forward, staying ahead of you by distances which are too small to be properly measured, let alone explained to anybody who isn’t a writer.

“You’ve been working on it for how long?” your friends ask, with confusion and maybe a bit of pity in their voices. “I thought you finished the draft months ago.”

“Yes,” you explain, straining to keep the desperation from bleeding in, “but then I found a major problem with the protagonist’s backstory on page thirty, so I had to go back and fix it, and when I fixed that, I realized I had taken away the whole motivation for the antagonist to –”

And by this point, your friends are simply nodding and smiling and backing away, the way they might with a foamy-mouthed dog. (Little do they know you’ve been subsisting on nothing but Cool Whip for the past two days because you’re eyeballs-deep in edits and can’t bring yourself to leave the house.)

And despite all the progress you’ve made, that farkarkte turtle (and yeah, I had to look up how to spell “farkarkte,” and I don’t care what you think — it’s in my personal lexicon for some reason and it bubbled to the surface like a dead fish and I love it) is still bobbing along the road ahead of you, evading reach even though it looks like it’s right there.

The fact is, if you think of a novel as the sum of its requisite parts — the draft, the editing, the revising, the crying, the drinking, the smashing of computers with hammers, the dark nights of doubt, the … well, you get the idea — then the whole equation begins to look very much like the mathematical side of Zeno’s Paradox. No matter how close you might ultimately get, you will never actually get there.

Which is why it’s a good thing we writers don’t live in a mathematical world. (Most of us, anyway. Actually, who am I kidding, MATH IS EVERYWHERE.)

We live in the delightfully creative, whimsical world where expectations exist only to be reversed, where up can be down if we bloody well feel like it. We live in the world where, paradox or not, Achilles keeps on pounding away and leaves the tortoise in the dust.

We keep on writing and we (eventually, one day, maybe, please?) cross the finish line.

 


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