Edit Your Shit, Part Three: The Contextual Edit

Writing Advice

If you were to print out your manuscript, it would seem that your story was neatly bordered by the pages in frame it — like an apparition trapped in a box by intrepid ghostbusters, it feels contained.

Bzzt. Wrongo.

Your manuscript is like a cell phone. It emits invisible voodoo. Wonder why you have some kind of testicular buboes? Why your infant was born with a lashing leathery tail? Why the African violet sitting on your desk is suddenly able to catch flies in mid-flight? Because your cell phone exudes electromagnetic whooziwhatsit. The device is not contained by the electronics in your hand; it goes well-beyond that.

And so does your manuscript.

I don’t mean to suggest that your novel will mysteriously give you butt cancer or something (though at times the edit might make you feel that way, am I right?); I only mean that you’re wrong if you think your manuscript isn’t surrounded by a hazy invisible cloud if context and possibility.

Some of this, you can’t control. When I first bought Tenacious D’s first album, I listened to that album in the middle of autumn just as the air turned crisp and the leaves lost their green, and I most frequently listened to it in my car on the way to a job I hated. So, whenever I listen to that album, that context is there for me — I can almost smell the burning leaves, I can feel the nippy chill, I can sense in my gut that feeling of middle-finger-flavored defiance born of having to travel daily to a job you despise. Tenacious D did not intend for that to be the context, just as Lloyd Alexander probably never figured that I’d associate all of the Prydain Chronicles with the beach because, hey, that’s where I read each and every one of those books.

Ah-ha, but some elements of context, you do control.

Now, normally I’d go on at pretentious length about theme and mood and arcs and story versus plot and *wank snaaarrrgh spitfroth.* But let’s just jettison that nonsense right now and zero in on three questions you should ask yourself at this point. Ready?

#1: What The Hell Am I Trying To Do?

You gotta have goals.

Maybe you had some goals in mind when you sat down at the desk with the intention of writing this book. Maybe you did and they changed, or maybe you didn’t and you went ahead and wrote anyway. Whatever — too late to worry about where your head was at before you began, but now? The chickens have come home to roost. And these chickens are very annoying. They will peck your shit. They will make that irritating brrawww brrraw brraaaaaw noise as they follow you around hoping you’ll throw them some meager seed. They will defecate on your car until you attend to them. (Translation: until you shoot them.)

It is time to determine your goals for this book.

What are you hoping to accomplish? Okay, yes, you want to tell a good story. Fine. We already know that. You want more than that. Even if you don’t know that you want more, trust me: you do.

“I want to tell a raucous adventure story but with literary trappings.”

“I want to entertain without being preachy — straight-up pulp genre awesome.”

“I want to write a radical environmentalist screed cloaked in the garb of a mystery novel.”

“I want to make the words CYBORG ESKIMO EROTICA a household fixture.”

Fine. Yes. Whatever.

But you need to identify your purpose. One or several. So, do so now.

Write that shit down.

#2: What The Crap Am I Trying To Say?

What is your novel about?

No, no, stop right there. I hear what you’re about to say. “It’s about a girl who meets a boy and they’re both from separate warring ninja clans and,” fwappity-fwappity-fwappity. No! No. That’s not what I asked you. I didn’t ask you to recite the plot to me. I don’t want the pitch.

Imagine we’re both blitzed out of our gourds on high-grade hallucinogens. Imagine that I’m nose-to-nose with you, wreathed in bad-ass spectral visions of dragons and UFC fighters and rose petals and shit, and I breathily ask you, “No, man, what is your novel about?”

I want you to dig deep. I don’t want a recitation of plot. I want an examination of meaning, of message, of intent. For God’s sakes, man, what are you trying to say?

The Hunger Games might be “about” Katniss the girl from District 12, but it’s about the effects of war on children. It’s about envisioning a ruined world. It’s about the corruption of wealth and power held in the hands of a callous minority. Suzanne Colling is saying something with those books.

Most authors are. Not all of them. But most. And I’d encourage you to be one of the ones who is.

Identify it. Ask yourself what you’re really trying to say through this story.

Write that shit down.

#3: How The Fuck Are People Supposed To Feel?

Simple enough: how do you want people to feel when they’re reading your book? Excited? Comforted? Enraged? Bored? (Hopefully not that one.)

Doesn’t have to be a single word. Write down as many as you see fit. I’d stop at, say, five, just to keep your sanity at an even level — we’re trying to make this a manageable process, not rouse some many-headed hydra from slumber. As the saying goes, don’t let more snakes out of the bag than you’re able to kill.

Identify the feelings and moods you want to prevail.

You know the drill: write that shit down.

Now? Chart That Shit

You might be saying, “Well, now what? I wrote this stuff down. I took your damnable test, Wendig. What in the Jiminy Jack Jesus do I do with this information?”

You need to chart it out.

Open your manuscript and with it, a notebook. Or a spreadsheet. Or a notes app on your iPad.

Now, give your Work In Process a good solid read-through with an eye toward those three questions (and their accordant answers) above. Whenever you find a piece of the story that is relevant to your answers — highlight it and mark down the page and any comments.

When you’re tracking your goals, look for those places where you feel the manuscript really nails the goal. “This spot right here? It totally fulfills my goal of being an exciting book that challenges expectations surrounding leprechaun pornography.”

Ah-ha. But you also want to look for places that defy your goals — any time you discover a paragraph (or a character, or a whole chapter) that seems at cross-purposes, note it. Maybe that’s a piece you’ll have to lose — or, maybe, if you find too many of these, you might want to readjust your goals and modify your thinking. Maybe the book is good the way it is, and your intentions were askew.

When you’re tracking what the book is about, go chapter by chapter and highlight those places that reinforce what you’re trying to say (which, let’s be honest, is really your theme). Also write down those instances when you seem to be saying something else — or when a different character offers a variant perspective. This is okay; nothing to worry about. A novel probably shouldn’t be a hammer when it comes to message or theme because then it ends up as one of “those” books. In fact, charting this stuff is one good way to discover if a) you’re not hitting on it enough or b) if you’re hitting on it too damn hard.

(Usually the ending is where you’ll want to reinforce what the whole thing is about — either by confirming what you’ve been saying all along or by subverting it and changing the message. But the ending is where the reader expects you to, with some authority, draw both narrative and thematic conclusions.)

In terms of tracking mood, just go chapter by chapter and identify the prevailing mood of the chapter. Don’t anticipate how you want people to feel — try to identify how you feel as you read it. (If the answer is always, “I have to pee,” then you should probably pee. And you should probably reevaluate your fluid intake and the excitement level of your book.) If the truth of the mood doesn’t line up with how you really wanted people to feel, then, uhhh… oops. It’s either time to go back and fix that, or deal with the book that you wrote. (I say fix: make it the book you want rather than the book it became. Get control of your text.)

Believe it or not, you can even graph this stuff if you want. Simply by charting on a line graph the pages where these elements come into play, you can see if the story has any gaps — maybe the first and third act are heavy on your message, but in the second it gets a little ehhh, wifty. It wavers and wobbles, or the message just plain goes dark. That’s telling, isn’t it? Doesn’t it tell you that the second act is a little weak in that department and that maybe it operates as a thematic island, disconnected from the larger meaning?

Further, when you have readers attending to the work, see if they’d be willing to check on these three questions for you, too. It’ll help you see what goals, messages and moods they got from the work.

How Much Does Any Of This Matter?

It only matters as much as you want it to. This third tier of editing — editing for context — is a bit more advanced, and some writers don’t believe they should be the arbiters of such information. They’re content to let it grow into the work organically without any overt work on their behalf.

I will say that I understand if you don’t want to put this kind of work in before you write. But even if you ascribe to the “organic” theory, then it should be safe to assume that now that the story is written those components should have “organically” grown the fuck into your work already — thus, now is a good goddamn time to rub your eyes and take a long hard look at the work you put forth.

Failing to do that, well… I’d argue that this is a bit limp in terms of confidence and authority, and personally I’d suggest that if you’re not doing any “blue-sky big thinking” in terms of your novel than you’re probably lazy, unassertive, or both. Then again, I’m also a raging control freak with a heart like a blackened walnut, so you should probably take all the nonsense I spew with not just a grain of salt but an entire salt lick.

19 comments

  • Wow, it never crossed my mind to edit a novel this way. When looking at my current novel it looks like #1 and #2 collide. The only goal I’ve thought of is to get the theme of the novel across.

    I think I’m going to scrap my current project and start on my cyborg eskimo erotica. That’s a goal I can get behind.

  • Hunger Games is about bad reality television juxtaposed against coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It becomes a lot clearer in the next two books and is really hammered home (but not in a ham fisted kind of way) in Mockingjay. I know, I quibble. But really I’m just pushing you to continue the series (so that YA can continue to take over the world! Mwahahaha!)

  • Fascinating post.

    You know, although I’m not done with my current WIP (and so am squirreling away your pearls—or swine—of wisdom for later), and I certainly didn’t intentionally plan themes or subtext, I’m starting to recognize patterns.

    I thought (#1) that I was trying to write a snarky WTF mystery (not a legit subgenre, but it should be) about semi-reformed ex-cons pulling a series of fascinating and twisty short cons to save the life of their boss, while another group pulls a different series of cons to stop them. Turns out (#2), I may be saying something—God knows what at this point—about family.

    Interesting . . . at least to me.

  • Love it!!

    You are absolutely right. All the questions pertain to keeping to the theme and vision of your work. I like the charting idea while going through each chapter to make sure each scene, character, etc. all relay what you’re trying to say about the novel. That’s something I’m definitely going to do with my WIP!

    Awesome post!!

  • You obviously know chickens. The rest of the article looks like useful info too.

    I knew I needed to do this kind of thing – the characters in my head started pounding on the inside of my skull last year with “hey, this happened and that happened” and I’ve been trying to fit it all in some kind of plot – but theme and vision came later and there’s more than a little work to do. At least I now have an idea of how to proceed.

  • I didn’t really start out with a theme in mind, but then one started to muscle its way in and I was like, ‘what the hell. Let’s run with this.’

    So now I’ve gone from a fun deal-with-the-devil fantasy to a commentary on the morality of the religious right. Damn. I didn’t mean to get political, but there it is.

  • I like this. (That means it fits pretty well with what I already do.)

    I use Holly Lisle’s One-Pass Revision, though I don’t stop after one pass. HL directs that you start by writing down your themes, then a sentence of what the book is about, an arc for the main character, and a 250-word blurb. I’ve found if I can’t do those things fairly quickly (like, over two or three days), then the book has real problems I need to figure out. As long as two or three are strong, though, I can use them to fix the fourth, and all four to fix my MS.

    Thankfully I’ve yet to hit a book that didn’t have at least two strengths.

  • This is very interesting.

    Like all good advice, I’ve heard the tips you’ve given in your three posts on editing before. But the difference is the order. Usually the way I hear/read it, you ask these question first, then go through it with an eye on content, and then LAST (because you may have cut out a lot by this point) is the copy-editing.

    Hmmmm, interesting. I think I want to try it your way and see what happens.

  • “I want to write a radical environmentalist screed cloaked in the garb of a mystery novel.” So now you know a little more about me.

    Excellent advice again Chuck – and enjoyable reading to boot.

  • So helpful. Also? My favorite line is: If the answer is always, “I have to pee,” then you should probably pee. And you should probably reevaluate your fluid intake and the excitement level of your book.

    Thank you for teaching me AND not boring me.

  • I’m having trouble with getting the right message across. There seems to be so many points in my Novel where a character begins talking about something tangential and unimportant.

    While no one wants to make their themes too obvious I think most of us appreciate a novel with a good thematic back-bone.

    Wonderful post.

  • i’ve tried out the first three steps. always good to re-visit what you wanted to say in the first place.

    when i finally have the courage to ask people for a read-through, i will see if they can address those same three questions.

    nice post.

  • I love these articles. They inspire me, they motivate me, they make me think “Hell YEAH! Let’s DO this! I’m at my keyboard and I’m jumping right in RIGHT NOW!”

    …And at the same time a little voice in the back of my brain says “Oh shit – this is where I finally find out I’m actually the crappest writer in the history of the universe..”

    One day – when I finally complete this current w-i-p that is my first novel – I will find out the truth.

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