January 7, 2014
I’m about to edit a book. Seems like a straightforward mission statement, right? But for me, the prose editing process generates a special, singular kind of fear. I’ll get to that in a second.
When you’re launching an initial assault on the blank page, there’s a leap-into-the-void, roll-the-goddamn-dice, what’s-the-worst-that-can-happen? kinda quality to the whole thing. That’s why I actually enjoyed the NaNoWriMo exercise – you show up, put your head down, and commit to your daily word count. That’s it. So, if your outline was strong enough, and your characters were clearly defined, and you respected your narrative roadmap (no matter how many shortcuts or off-road excursions you indulged in along the way), you’re gonna end up with something. And, unless you’re a complete tool, said thing will resemble an actual ‘story’, with words and paragraphs and dialogue and chapters and a beginning, middle, and end. Groovy.
But then comes the hard part. You see, in keeping with my oft-stated transmedia philosophy, Storytelling (on singular or multiple platforms) is akin to the mining, cutting, and polishing of a precious gem. Writing in prose has only reaffirmed that for me. The story outline is where one surveys the land and takes soil samples. The first draft is digging and sifting until you find the raw stone. Which makes the hardest part – the detailed cutting and polishing phases, which give the stone its unique beauty and shine — the edit.
So, as a semi-pro ‘jeweler’ with a freshly-mined stone under his glass, I wanted to pass on five techniques — you might call them rituals — that have proven invaluable in focusing the eye, steadying the hand, and keeping the diamond drill stinkin’ sharp.
Every pro I respect suggests throwing a completed first draft ‘in a drawer’ (virtual, or otherwise) for a least a couple of weeks. This is an essential part of the process, allowing you to detach and switch gears to a more objective, left-brained perspective. If the draft process is about surrender/subconscious/right-brained/flow/yin energy, then the edit is the opposite. This is one of the few times in life when you should be encouraged to unleash your control-freak, hyper-critical, whip-wielding self, and that mindset takes a while to summon and adjust to operating. Allow for it. Release your inner vice-principal/dominatrix, so your agents and publishers won’t need to.
Do you cut diamonds in the same location you mine them? Rarely. Do you polish them on the same schedule as the miners dig on the other side of the world? Unlikely. To get your brain into the editing frame, it helps to create a little novelty – to acknowledge that you’re engaged in something different and new. Did you hammer out the draft in a coffee shop? Do this pass in the library. Were you writing from 9-3pm every day? Try editing in the evening, and not for more than 3-4 undisturbed hours at a stretch. Your first draft was likely created in a surreal, dreamy, frenzied blur. Try treating the edit as a Bizarro thing, or even a Costanza — do the opposite.
I may be a double-Gemini, but I suck at multi-tasking. I can ‘technically’ do more than one thing at a time, but I certainly don’t do said things well. Some would say this a shortcoming that one is saddled with as a card-carrying member of the weaker, hairier, mouth-breathing-ier sex. Perhaps. But from my admittedly X/Y perspective, editing seems to command a level of specific, granular concentration in order to be effective. Heck, I’ve tried to accomplish everything on my checklist in a single edit pass, and it only ever resulted in something ‘good’ (lower case G), never Great.
So, accepting that, you might want try and be a wacky reductionist with your next editing exercise. Focus on one chapter (or even a single scene) per editing day. Do a grammar and punctuation pass first. Then whip out a thesaurus for the next, plumping up those vocabulary neurons in the process. As you’re doing this, you can take notes on story and character tweaks or rewrites that need to be made on the final pass. To me, that’s the magic of narrowing your focus to laser-width – if something shakes your concentration when you’re perspective is so pinpointed, then chances are it’s an issue that needs addressing.
Do you find that it’s harder to spot mistakes in a document that you’ve crafted until you see it on a different screen, or as a hard copy? That’s because the brain is so good at skipping over flaws in what it already ‘knows’, and drawing efficient conclusions versus accurate ones. As a personal example, I did the first draft of ‘The Cat’s Maw’ in a program called Storyist. Quite often, I found myself returning to old chapters during the draft to reference, tweak, and even polish specific scenes with mythology and character links to later ones. The surprise came when I exported those chunks of the manuscript as document versions for formatting tests: mistakes galore. The ePub conversions were even worse, because those felt like real books; my brain had been conditioned to expect visual and grammatical perfection in that established format, so the flaws were glaringly obvious. And that, scribing friends, is a good problem to have during the editing phase.
This whole ‘career with words’ thing began with stuff that was written in order to be spoken. Speeches. Plays. Poetry. Screenplays. And, for every one I’ve done, I made a point of saying it aloud, especially when I was editing. Verbalizations need to have a rhythm, a flow, and a cadence — and nothing tells you whether you’re bumpin’ on dry land or sweeping down the Mississippi better than a voice does. You can hear it in the quality of the sound rippling through the air. Beautiful words well-spoken make us swoon to their musicality. And, if the work’s really good, you’ll start to feel it in waves of emotional crescendo and release in the body itself. Your face will contort, and your chest will tighten. Your muscles will flex, and your breathing will change. Your skin will flush, and erupt in gooseflesh. You’ll just know. And, with this tool in your kit, you’ll know to keep editing until you are awash in funky, funky flow.
I know that most of the above are obvious, King-endorsed, choir-preaching points about editing from the proverbial journals of Duh. But, as I shift between games and comics and screenplays and prose, it’s easy to forget any good habits I’ve engrained over the years, ya’ know? So, if just one of these points adds a sweet facet to your crown-worthy ruby? Then this wasn’t wasted space, fellow gem-hunters.
We’re all toiling in the mines together — might as well try to enjoy some shared breaths above ground, too. ~BB~