The Brand New Scrutiny: How Chuck Edits

Off With Their Heads Sometime over the last two years, I’ve changed as a writer. I stopped with all the drinking and drugs and hooker-strangling, and I got clean and went straight and found myself nestled in the warm embrace of Kali-Yuga’s blood-caked arms and —

Uhhh. Wait, this is a public blog, isn’t it? Like, you can all see this? And read this?

Oooh. Uh. Never mind that. Let’s talk about something else.

Let’s talk about how I edit.

That’s one thing that’s changed. In fact, it changed as recently as two days ago.

Used to be, editing was a painful thing. No, that’s not accurate. It was boring. Like with outlining, I felt that the act of editing was stealing away the mystery, that it was holding my story’s head under the water until it stopped kicking. Not sure what changed. I got older. I got more practiced. Could be that I became more mature, and stopped thinking that “poop-chute” was the funniest word in the English language (shut up, it’s still top 10) (that one’s for you, David Hill, high-five). Heck, maybe I just got boring, and so boring things became natural.

Now, I like editing. The act of writing no longer feels like the complete process. The act of writing is now just one stage of many.

I’ve regaled you all with the Oh-So-Thrilling Tales of How Chuck Does Shit, so I figure since I recently made a change in my editing process, you all might like to hear about it.

Distilled down, here’s what I do:

We have a new-ish desktop PC that I was using for design purposes (Photoshop lumbers about like a drunken three-legged bear on my laptop, but on the new machine, it clips along like a jackrabbit with his ass-hairs on fire), and the real nice thing about that PC is that it has a mega-big monitor. Like, 24 inches of full widescreen goodness. (Such monitors are surprisingly cheap these days, and I was able to get this for a song separate from the PC package.) Then it struck me: why wasn’t I using that computer for editing? Lots of pretty white real estate on that monitor. Big sky country.

I still prefer the laptop for writing, mind. It’s got a too-small keyboard, sure, but my fingers are used to it, and I like the intimacy.

Editing, though, I like it all hanging out. If I could edit in a phone booth whose four walls were peppered with my edits, I would. I could call it “Chuck’s Crazy Booth.”

Ahh, but big monitor make for big edit. (I like me some of them French-fried potaters, mm-hmmm.) With but a clicky-click, I can slap up two pages at once in Word, or I can zoom in nice and big.

That’s change number one.

Change number two — I used to do my edits on paper. Printed paper. I’d print the whole fackin’ thing out, and I’d go to town on that stack of paper with one colored pen and one colored highlighter. I enjoyed, and still enjoy, the tactile sensation, the thrill of having The Beast in my hands and forcing it to heel. But it’s just not practical. You need paper. Ink. Pens. I need to go somewhere where I can edit the cinder block of a manuscript (my desk isn’t the right place). Plus, my handwriting’s for shit, and then if I lose any or all of that manuscrupt, it’s gone.

I’ve gone all digital, instead. I bring up the page. I turn on Track Changes in Word. I view the Final draft, but not Final with Markup (meaning, I don’t see all the red lines and change bubbles, but I can see them with but a click); that way, I’m editing it without distraction, but I also have the proper legacy of changes in case I need to back and see the wording I once used, or whether or not I just want that crap for posterity. (Plus, the red, the red, how I love the red.)

That’s a new satisfaction, now — the amount of red on the page. I’m actually thrilled when I see more red, not less.

This calls to mind Don DeLillo. I wish to fuck I could find it, but back in college my Favorite Professor gave us a handout with a draft manuscript page from DeLillo’s White Noise (a book I adore). It was like a murder scene. Circles and scratch-outs and margin notes and arrows. At the time, I thought it was kind of crazy, and never suspected I’d come that close. I do, now. Lots of markup. Lots of red.

Actually, this is a good quote from DeLillo on the process:

Q: Do your typed drafts just pile up and sit around?

A: That’s right. I want those pages nearby because there’s always a chance I’ll have to refer to something that’s scrawled at the bottom of a sheet of paper somewhere. Discarded pages mark the physical dimensions of a writer’s labor — you know, how many shots it took to get a certain paragraph right. Or the awesome accumulation, the gross tonnage, of first draft pages. The first draft of Libra sits in ten manuscript boxes. I like knowing it’s in the house. I feel connected to it. It’s the complete book, the full experience containable on paper. I find I’m more ready to discard pages than I used to be. I used to look for things to keep. I used to find ways to save a paragraph of sentence, maybe by relocating it. Now I look for ways to discard things. If I discard a sentence I like, it’s almost as satisfying as keeping a sentence I like. I don’t think I’ve become ruthless or perverse–just a bit more willing to believe that nature will restore itself. The instinct to discard is finally a kind of faith. It tells me there’s a better way to do this page even though the evidence is not accessible at the present time.

(This calls to mind a different-but-related idea put forth by Will Hindmarch — “I should be making stuff, not keeping stuff.”)

All these details interest me. Process, and the adaptation of process. I don’t know when I turned into such a process monkey. I guess I’m more confident in my craft? Might be that I used to hate process because I used to hate my work. Even when I thought it was good, I loathed it for not being good enough. That way, dragons lie. Could be that confidence has allowed me to see not just the end product, but all the little gears and levers that comprise the work.

The project that I’m editing, by the way, is the fifth draft of Blackbirds, a novel. Maybe you saw the “redlines” that I posted. I’ve got a new WordPress installation set up, and as I edit pages, I’m putting them up on that installation. I’ll start releasing chapters at some point, and I’m going to put the whole damn thing up online. Meanwhile, I’m also banging out a query letter for it, and am ready to punt this sumbitch through the goal posts.

In the meantime, though, I edit.

Scalpel and hatchet, scalpel and hatchet.

The page runs red.