Remember where you are. This is Thunderdome, and death is listening, and will take the first man that screams. —Aunty Entity, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
I can smell the burning on the wind. Embers and cinders whirling this way and that.
I can smell the blood in the water. Like a shark, its bloom draws me ever closer.
I can smell the fear on your skin. It smells like pee. Piquant and not unlike a musky polecat.
That novel of yours? Right now, it’s just a dead beast. With your mighty sword you slayed it, indeed — but that was only the beginning. Now the beast must be drained of blood. Its hide must be ripped off. You must carve steaks from its cooling flesh. You must hollow it out so all the village children may play inside the wonderland that is its fly-specked carcass.
It’s time to edit that novel. Nay, it’s time to edit the unmerciful shit out of that novel. You’re going to cut it. You’re going to gut it. You’re going to make tools from its bones and a lovely hat from its skull. You might even get to craft a darling tea cozy out of its gnarled, furry hide.
You want tips on editing that novel of yours?
Worry not, intrepid hunters. I got you covered.
Your Novel Is Like A Fine Cut Of Meat: It Is Best When Rested
You grill a steak, the first thing you don’t do is whip it off the grates and start hacking into it. You do that, all the juices will flow out and, Wham Bam Thankya Spanky the meat has gone dry.
That meat? It needs to rest. And your novel is no different.
If you write THE END on that manuscript and, ten minutes later start tearing into it, you’re likely to experience one of two reactions: a) “I love this so much, I cannot injure it. It is like a baby deer and my red pen is like a hammer poised above its head. It’s so cute!” or b) “I hate everything about this, I just want to punch it and kick it and pee on it and rub it with garbage and cook it over a barrel fire until it’s just a charred angry nugget deserving only ridicule and scorn from the community.”
In the first situation, you’re too afraid to harm it. In the second, all you want to do is punish it.
Neither is particularly effective in terms of getting the best draft possible out of this iterative process. And that is the point, remember: to refine, to improve, to cut away the fat and find the best end result.
Walk away from your project. Wipe your hands, pull up your pants, and saunter off. Work on another project for a little while. Do something, anything, else. Take as much time away as you can stomach. For a short story, I like to have at least a week. For a novel, I aim for the bare minimum of a month. You need emotional distance and you need perspective. You need to walk back to the novel as if it isn’t your novel at all, but the novel of a stranger who asked you to edit his work.
Don’t Be Surprised That It Sucks
Of course parts of it suck. That’s the point. If it didn’t suck and we all just magically pooped out completely brilliant novels on the first go-round we wouldn’t even be discussing the editing process, would we? Being somehow shocked that the novel needs work is like walking into work and being all like, OH MY GOD THERE’S WORK TO BE DONE. THE HUMANITY! and then eating a shotgun for lunch. Editing is part of the gig, and the reason you edit is because, a-duh, it ain’t perfect from the get-go. Calm yourself. Expect this. Prepare for the worst.
Don’t Try To Do It All At Once: The Layer Cake
Look at your dinner plate. See all that food? You can’t eat it all at once. Go on, try it. I’ll wait. And then I’ll send somebody over to kung fu kick you in the solar plexus so you cough up the giant wad of ill-chewed food you just tried to cram down your esophagus. (Jesus, is that somebody’s watch? And a wad of hair? You know what? I don’t want to know.)
You can’t edit everything in the book at one time.
Again: iterative process.
I’ll talk about this at length next week in another post, but for now, just remember the Layer Cake theory of editing. Ready? Here it is.
First layer: the icing. Attack the surface elements. Edit for spelling, grammar, punctuation.
Second layer: the cake. Time to start attacking the content. The plot, the pacing, the characters, the dialogue. The cake itself has lots of sub-icing layers, so address each in turn.
Third layer: the context. Hey, food is about place and time just as much as it is about recipe. Eating a slice of wedding cake on someone’s lovely wedding day is going to feel a lot different than wedding cake eaten on Death Row in a Maximum Security Prison. And that’s what we’re talking about — feel. It’s time to do a pass to see how it feels. How do the themes stack up? The motifs? The mood?
Identify Your Darlings, Then Arrange Their Murders
A darling is any crutch on which you and your story relies. An overused word? A too-twee character? A piece of dialogue? A plot convention? It’s there because you love it, but that’s not enough reason for it to survive. (You want help identifying your darlings? “Strangling Your Darlings In A Clawfoot Bathtub.”) You need to start reading with an eye toward these skin tags, these hangnails, these swollen taste buds.
Once you identify, it’s time to terminate. With extreme prejudice.
Not A Solitary Affair
Writing is a solitary affair. Even when you’re part of a community, you still have to eventually go all creepy loner survivalist in the woods and write the novel your own damn self. But editing? Editing should not be solitary. At some point, you need to cede control and hand the book over to people you trust. These so-called “beta readers” (I hate that term, is that okay?) are your second line-of-defense against crap patches of an otherwise quality novel. The trick is in choosing the proper readers.
First? Avoid Yes-Men. Nobody who will, when handed a pile of your actual human waste, take a long and unctuous sniff and say, “Oh, this is the best thing you’ve ever made. It smells like lavender. And Jesus.”
Second? No Nagging Naysayer Nellies. Nobody who always wears a look on their face like someone rubbed a line of elk ejaculate on their upper lip. Did you write a science-fiction novel? Don’t hand it to someone who dislikes science-fiction. You want to give the book to people who represent your actual audience.
Keep in mind too that eventually (ideally) others will come to the table, too.
Agents? Editors? Yes. Both will want edits. And that’s a good thing.
Sometimes You Need A Scalpel, And Other Times You Need To Cut Off Your Hands And Replace Them With Diamond-Tooth Chainsaws
The word “editing” sounds so nice, so trim, so elegant. “Oh! I edited this sentence. I just rearranged the words a little bit and — voila! They sound so crisp! So delightful! Giggle tee-hee!”
That’s very nice.
Sometimes, though, you need to get your hands dirty.
I talked about this before but, we had someone living on a trailer on our property when I was growing up, and this woman — despite many warnings — flushed her tampons down the toilet. Which clogged and busted the pipes. We did not merely “edit” the pipes. We had to dig up the earth and rip those motherfuckers out and replace them with pipes that were not pre-clogged with used tampons.
That is sometimes your task. You must be prepared to rip your work apart — not just rearrange parts, but rewrite entire tracts of text. Cut out the cancer. Replace with healthy tissue.
It’s a mindset thing. Know going in that this is likely a necessity.
It makes getting sprayed with your novel’s viscera a little bit easier when you know it’s coming.
Indecision Is Your Enemy: Shit Or Get Off The Pot
If you were to ask me, the biggest thing preventing a writer from properly completing an edit is indecision. I know this intimately. You reach a spot you know doesn’t feel right, and you soon realize that you have two, three, or maybe three-hundred-seventy-seven options on the table. And this happens constantly. “Do I do this? Or do I do this? This? Or this? Fnuh? Or buh? I CANNOT FEEL MY LEGS WHY DOES MY MIND ITCH? Are there bugs in there? Ants? Termites? What?!”
No, there aren’t bugs. It’s just good old-fashioned indecision.
Decide something. No, no, I know, that sounds obvious. It’s like that quote from Yogi Berra — “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Now, unless he was talking about an actual piece of silverware laying there in the dirt, I assume he means you need to pick one path or the other. That’s it. Make a choice. Just fucking choose something, anything, even if it’s the wrong choice it’s progress just the same.
You can always say, “This didn’t work,” and then go back and fix it. Editing will take you down paths both weird and wonderful, both fulfilling and frustrating.
Hell, I’ve had drafts that were a step backward in some places.
You know what? That’s totally awesome. Because it’s progress.
For God’s Sake, Read Everything Aloud
Read your novel aloud.
I know. It’s irritating and weird. People will look at you and they’ll probably kick you out of the McDonald’s or off the preschool playground or wherever it is you’re standing. Fine. Go back to your office and do it alone where you don’t disturb the general populace.
But sweet sassy mo-lassy, read it aloud. You do that, you will hear all the fits and starts, all the awkward language, all the broken pauses, all the disturbed rhythms. Typing is not like speaking — we have the extra step of having our fingers do their little fingery dance. As such, you need to bridge that gap.
Read it aloud.
No, seriously, read it aloud.
Don’t make me slap you.
Are You A Combatant In Editordome?
So — comments? Questions? Complaints? Got more to add? Throw it in the comments below.
Otherwise, happy editing.