Edit Your Shit, Part Two: Editing For Content
See that pocketwatch up there? Thing about a pocketwatch — or any watch, really — is that it has lots and lots of fiddly bits. Gears and rivets and flywheels and fan belts and pulleys and ferrets and flux capacitors.
Think of your novel like that pocketwatch. It contains an infinity of such fiddly bits, and were you to try to diagnose the problems with your text in one fell swoop, you’d end up like me, right now, staring into the bowels of a pocketwatch with a slack-jawed look. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. You could only ask, “How does it all work?” moments before urinating yourself and falling down some stairs.
Today, it’s time to talk about editing your novel for content. Last time, we talked about how to copy-edit your shit, but now it’s time to focus on the meatier, chunkier bits. (“Chunkier Bits” was my nickname amongst the Freemasons, by the way. You can’t call me that, though, because you’re not a Level 32 Masonic Windwalker.) Copy-editing is something you can do in a single pass. But were you to ask me, I’d suggest that a content edit requires a lot more time and perspective. Below, I’ll talk about the areas of content you’ll want to address, and it might be of value to you to address each area in its own pass. Read and edit for character, then read and edit for plot, then read and edit for sex scenes and secret codes and McDonald’s menus and whatever else it is you shoved into your manuscript.
You try to do it all at once, you’re going to end up staring into the guts of a pocketwatch.
Hypnotized by all that damn ticking.
Writers love to describe shit. Some writers — like, say, HP Lovecraft — could spend three pages talking about the insane geometry of a fucking Sports Illustrated football phone.
Description is good. Description is necessary. But when you’re editing for descriptive content, you’ll want to keep a handful of things in mind.
First, some things don’t need description. You don’t need to describe everything. When I say “Sports Illustrated football phone,” that’s it. I just described it. If you spend a paragraph describing its texture, its ring, its smell (Cheetos and stale beer and flopsweat), you’ve probably gone too far. Description is like a strong spice — a little goes a long way. A pinch here, a dusting there.
Second, the reader likes to do some work. Reading is about imagination: about filling in blanks. You don’t need to spell everything out. Find a few significant descriptors, and let the audience do the rest.
Third, show, don’t tell. This little nugget of advice is actually a lot harder to get your hands around than it initially seems — along with “Write What You Know,” you can get a lot of mileage just trying to figure out what the fuck it means. For now, assume this: “Bob was angry,” is telling us. Instead, show us he’s angry: “Bob’s hands balled up into fists, and a trio of veins popped out on his forehead.”
My opinion? In terms of flow, dialogue is the most important part of your book. I don’t know if it’s because of the Internet or because of the way readers have always read, but have you ever seen the little Internet acronym tl;dr? It stands for “Too Long, Didn’t Read.”
Here, then, is what readers will do: when they see dialogue on the page, their eyes will gravitate — roaming like drunken hobos — toward the dialogue. If the dialogue is separated by big blocks of text, you can bet that readers won’t even look at those blocks. They’ll skip it (tl;dr) and head straight for the dialogue.
Hence, dialogue requires — in terms of keeping people reading — major attention.
Some things to keep in mind about dialogue:
First, beware of dialogue that is “on the nose.” Characters don’t say exactly what they’re thinking or feeling, and further don’t say exactly those things that the author needs to communicate — a character who spills out major plot exposition (the dreaded info-dump) or soliloquizes about what he’s feeling is no good. Pull back on that. Don’t let subtext become text.
Second, watch for dialogue that just plain isn’t necessary. I’ve read advice that exhorts the writer to go listen to how people speak, and there’s absolutely value in that. But don’t mimic real dialogue exactly — the way people talk in real life versus the way they speak in novels is a thousand miles apart. Most conversations between actual humans? Incredibly boring to all but those participating. “How are you?” “Fine.” “How’s Bob?” “He’s good. He set up our pool for the season.” “Oh, great. You guys have such great pool parties.” “I know, right?” OH MY GOD GUN IN MY MOUTH SHUT UP. Plus, the mechanics of actual IRL dialogue are clumsy and clunky: like, um, fine, malaprop, like, um, you know, dude, like, um, yeah. Wrap your brain around this: Good dialogue in a novel is a perfectly imperfect simulation of the real thing. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: in all parts of your novel you’re seeking truth over fact. You want authenticity, not reality. Two very different things.
Third, watch for dialogue that goes on too long. Dialogue should snap, crackle, pop, and kick you in the junk drawer with its snappy hop-to kick-ass awesomeness. Dialogue should earn a lot of tweaking.
I could do a thousand posts on character alone. I could become lost in a labyrinth of such posts, feeling along the walls, fighting minotaurs, searching for treasure.
For now, I’ll say these things:
First, don’t be afraid to a) add characters and b) subtract characters in a draft. You will find that some characters are just a drag on the story and have no place. “This character, Morty Sprinkles, is here just because I like jaunty showtune-singing fishermen, but as it turns out he does not belong in this dark science-fiction melodrama set on the dark side of the moon.” (Another good metric for determining a character’s usefulness is asking, “Do I care about this character?” If the answer is no, then behead him and kick the poor bastard into a drainage ditch.) Alternately you may discover the need for a Ninja Manicurist, a Space-Time Consultant, a Hooker-With-A-Heart-Of-Chrome — so, do that. Inject them in. Be flexible.
Second, repeat after me: consistency, consistency, consistency. Characters should remain consistent both in action and in detail. A morally-ambiguous self-centered bureaucrat should not suddenly spend a chapter feeding orphans — yes, such turns of character are sometimes critical, but they shouldn’t be sharp turns, and such contrasts should be believable and serve a purpose. Further, make sure basic details remain consistent: if Bobo talks about not knowing how to use a gun on p. 35 but on page 167 is a crack-shot sharpshooter who can fire a bullet up the urethra of a pelican, well, oops.
Finally, take a piece of notebook paper, a spreadsheet, an iPad notes app, or a swatch of skin filleted from that neighbor you totally fucking axe-murdered and start identifying certain elements of your characters: identify their wants, needs and fears. Identify their character arcs (bare minimum a description of A -> B, where “A” might be “Addicted to huffing freon” and “B” might be “Saves self from freon addiction but at the cost of losing his freon-addicted pain-slut, Jenny“). Note too a few things you think are important about the character — what do you like about them? What do you think readers will like? Now, once you have all your notes, go back through the draft. Make sure the story reflects your desires for the character. Look for conflicts (and, duh, fix ’em). If you edit on the screen, frequent use of highlighting, text color and comment bubbles go a long way toward helping you chart the course of your characters.
Novelists tend to fall into two camps: pantsers and plotters. I am a pantser at heart because I am a lazy asshole, but I am now a plotter in reality because I am also a raging control freak. I know the power that a good outline brings to the table (and I also know that for a novelist they are sometimes necessary — Abaddon required an outline for my upcoming novel Double Dead even before I wrote the thing).
No right or wrong way on this — some novelists have a great instinct with the pantsing where others don’t. (Stephen King is a pantser, and it shows: half his books culminate in ludicrous, deux-ex-type conclusions because he didn’t know where the hell he was going; the man got lost in the woods.) Some novelists can’t make hay out of an outline, and that’s okay.
Where am I going with this, exactly?
Okay, fine, you didn’t write an outline before you penned the novel. No problem. My suggestion is, however, to do one now. After the fact. Should be a lot easier, right? You’ve already written the thing, so it’s just a matter of transcription. While you’re jotting it down, take a little time to separate out the sub-plots and any relevant details. (If you’ve not seen JK Rowling’s Harry Potter plot spreadsheet, do so now.)
Why are we doing this? Because now that it’s on paper, you can see if it makes sense. If it feels satisfying. Do all the mechanical bits work? Does the plot hopefully not rely on giant plotholes, deux ex machinas, or utter inconsistencies? You’ll know. Once you strip it down like that you’ll see the bullshit — and, if you’re a good enough writer, you’ll be able to call yourself on your own bullshit.
Seriously: if you don’t outline before you write the book, outline it after. You’ll thank me.
This is married to plot, but I feel like it bears a mention: I once wrote a post called “The House That Structure Built,” and if you click it you’ll see that it’s all about identifying the structural components of your story — beats, scenes, sequences, acts, beginning/middle/end, and so forth. Now that you’ve gone back and done an outline of your work after the fact, you might find value in highlighting those structural bits — the act turns, the cumulative sequences, and so forth.
To Sum Up
Obviously, this post only scrapes the surface of what you can (and should) do in a content edit. So, to sum up, let me suggest that you should attend to these five areas when drafting any part of your story:
Consistency: Easy enough. Does everything remain consistent?
Believability: Will the reader believe what she’s reading?
Authenticity: Does the story stay true to itself (if not exactly to reality)?
Expendability: Can this get cut? Is it boring? Not awesome enough? Redundant? Then kill it.
General Awesomeness: Readers want to be satisfied. Actually, they want more than satisfaction — they want transcendent moments, they want kick-ass protagonists and diabolical antagonists and powerful twists and tortuous plots and… well, they want general awesomeness. Any time you can punch this up, looking for ways to kick the story into high gear — do so.