The NaNoWriMo Dialogues: “What An Excellent Day For An Exorcism”
Me: The time has come.
Me: Oh, Cripes.
*looks around the room*
*sends sentient drone flights*
You: HEY ALL RIGHT GET THESE TERMINATOR PLANES OUT OF MY ASS
Me: They’re not really in your ass. That’s a metaphor.
You: Well, one of them gave me a hemmorhoid. “Metaphorically.”
Me: Whatever. It’s time to come out of hiding. You don’t have to be scared.
You: Listen, we’re done. For me and soon everybody else, NaNoWriMo is NEARLY over, dude. That’s it. You can go. Your job here? Completed. Well-done. Round of applause. Now go away. Jerk.
Me: Captain Howdy, that isn’t very nice!
You: Ugh, blergh. Whaddya want?
Me: I want to talk next steps.
You: We talked next steps yesterday.
Me: No, there I threatened to kick your face into various shapes if you carpet bombed the publishing industry with your explosively-unfinished prose. Today I want to talk about the real next steps. I want to talk about editing. After all, January is NaEdYoShiMo.
You: Is that Japanese?
Me: No. It means: National Edit Your Shit Month.
You: OH YOU AND YOUR PERSISTENT VULGARITY.
Me: It’s in my genes, man. Get up close and personal with my DNA you see fuck and bastard and cockwaffle etched upon the helical chains, carved into the hydrogen bonds.
You: Okay, wait, so, if January is NaEdYoShiMo month, what is December?
You: National… Escargot Yo-Yo… Mantis Month?
Me: That makes so little sense it might be a heretical utterance used to summon a Great Old One. Nay, December is National Escape Your Manuscript Month.
You: It’s not chasing me. It’s not a swamp monster.
Me: Well, herein lies my first piece of advice: do not jump right from writing a book to editing a book if you can help it. We writers are the worst judges of our own work, particularly when we’re very close to it. Think about it. You’ve just gone ten rounds in the ring with this pugilist and while you won the fight, you’re beat to hell. Your head’s swollen like a cantaloupe. Your nose is streaming blood. The piss, shit, hell and fuck have all been knocked out of you. Now isn’t the time for a cold and clinical examination of how the fight went. Now’s time to sit down. Ice your big melon head. Pinch your nose to stop the bleeding. Step out of the ring and stay out of the ring.
You: While I admit I’m kinda afraid to edit, I’m also afraid to wait. It’s a scab I wanna pick. A broken tooth I wanna wiggle. IT’S A BEAR I GOTTA POKE.
Me: Right now, though, your creative wires are all crossed. You’ll hate stuff unfairly. You’ll love other passages unreasonably. You’ll despise stuff that works and adore things that don’t. Your brain’s gone all wibbly-wobbly lovey-hatey. Look, when you read a book written by Some Other Asshole, you can usually get pretty clear pretty quick on what you liked and didn’t like. What worked and didn’t work. Because, who cares. Not your book. You need to get to that phase with your manuscript. You need to get to the stage where it reads like Some Other Asshole wrote it. So: take the month of December off. Besides: December is crazytown with the holidays. Christmas isn’t just one day anymore, it’s a whole month of shopping and songs and pie and –
You: Did you just eat a whole pie while I’m sitting here?
Me: MMGPH– no.
You: I feel like I just watched a snake eat a cat. You have a gift, my friend. So, what else?
Me: Editing tips?
You: Lay ‘em on me. I’m getting ready.
Me: Have a plan.
You: Like a Cylon?
Me: Yep. Like a Cylon. We like to imagine we edit a book the same way we write, but that’s not really true. Writing is lining up the pieces but editing is what we do to those pieces: we rearrange some, we throw a few away, we add a couple more, we destroy a few with a hammer, we cry on a few, we eat one, and we keep doing it until the arrangement is right. We also like to imagine that we’re going to tackle the whole thing in one go, but in my experience that’s rarely been the case. You can’t eat an elephant in one bite. Unless you’re Cthulhu.
You: Maybe I am Cthulhu.
Me: I know Cthulhu and you are no Cthulhu.
Me: Guilty. Anyway — to determine how you’re going to begin, it pays to get a sense first of what’s wrong. Which means reading the whole damn thing again. Just read it. Think about it. Take notes if you want to. What works? What doesn’t? Then, for me, I like to chart the book. I want to see its shape. Maybe that means re-outlining the book. Maybe that means taking new notes on the characters — identify their arcs in three or more beats. It could even mean literally drawing the shape of your story — is it really a simple Freytag’s triangle? Is it really three acts? Maybe it’s five. Or seven. Note the rise and fall of tension. Find the anagnorisis and peripeteia and the catastrophe that results. A lot of it is asking yourself questions.
You: Like, with what manner of fire should I burn this manuscript to ash?
Me: Ease off the mopey stick. No, I mean questions like, does the story move along fast enough? Do you get to the inciting incident quickly? Does the middle drag? Are all mysteries properly answers? Where are the plotholes and what will it take to spackle them over? Do the characters act believably, or do they feel enslaved to the plot? Does it all make sense? Writing the book, all you get is forest. Now you’re trying to see all the trees.
You: That’s a lot of questions.
Me: A book is a big thing. It’s not a concrete block. It’s a Rube Goldberg machine. Lots of moving parts big and small. Dongles and flywheels. Toothy gears turning larger gears turning larger gears still. A floppy dildo on a zipline strikes a boiling teapot which tips and brews a cup of tea whose weight disturbs the wolverine on which the teacup is perched and then the wolverine runs into the nearest Wal-Mart and — well, you see what I’m saying. Lots of mechanisms strung together. Character, plot, theme, tension, mystery, mood, emotional throughline, each piece affecting the other. You pick a part and then you wade into the fray with an axe for chopping, a scalpel for finer cutting, a paintbrush for erasing and flourishing, a pen to rewrite what you’ve lost — to fix what you’ve broken. And that doesn’t even account for the writing itself.
You: Oh, fuck me sideways with a Garden Weasel, there’s more –?!
Me: You bet your sweet baboons. Once you’ve actually gotten the story sussed out, then it’s time to attack the language. It’s time for the copy-edit. And there, again, language is a great big wacky machine and you’ll find yourself doing a lot of trimming, tightening, rewriting, firebombing. Lots of little things to look for, too.
You: Do I want to know?
Me: You do. Damn right you do. Here’ s a by-no-means-exhaustive list of stuff to look for. Ready?
Me: Too bad. In no particular order, be on the hunt for: typos, misspellings, poor word choice, incorrect word choice, repeated words, awkward phrasing, run-on sentences, comma overuse, missing punctuation, repeated words, unnecessary adverbs, egregious dialogue tags, unnecessary adverbs connected to egregious dialogue tags, passive voice, lazy overuse of the verb ‘to be,’ junk words, trailing modifiers, broken subject-verb agreement, lack of parallel structure, busted-ass metaphors, broken rhythm, inconsistent word tense, inconsistent POV, fragments, shit that just doesn’t make sense, and so on, and so forth.
You: You said ‘repeated words’ twi — oh.
Me: Just making sure you’re listening.
You: That’s a lot of stuff. My head hurts.
Me: I can offer a few Stupid Writer Tricks to make it easier.
You: Lay it on me, Daddy.
Me: Don’t call me Daddy.
Me: Moving on. Tips: first, read your work aloud.
You: Like, theatrically?
Me: Mutter it for all I care. But speaking the story aloud allows you to catch things you might not “hear” while reading — after all, words on a page are simply proxy representations for the words we speak with our monkey mouths and also inside our own cave-like minds. Vocalizing your tale lets you listen for rhythm and flow. For speedbumps. For a loss of clarity. For redundancies.
You: What else?
Me: Look at the shape of the prose on the page. Uniformity is not your friend. If you turn the manuscript 90 degrees counter-clockwise, the prose should form mountains and valleys — peaks made of short, terse sentences coupled with hills of thicker, more robust text. Long sentences and short sentences make rhythm. And the way you format your page matters, too.
You: I don’t follow.
Me: If you wrote the book in, say, 14-point Courier, change it to 12-point Times New Roman for the edit. Or print it out. Or adjust the margins. Shifting the physical parameters of your manuscript goes a good way toward making it feel like Some Other Asshole wrote it instead of you.
You: That’s genius.
You: No, not you, I mean this funny list on Buzzfeed: “37 Shiba Inu That Look Like Tom Hiddleston Eating Bacon.” But your thing is genius too I guess.
Me: Uh. Th… thanks.
You: One more question. I’m told I should “kill my darlings.”
Me: That’s true.
You: My spouse and children and pets? I know a writing career takes sacrifices, but wow.
Me: What? No! No. Darlings inside the text. Which are sometimes erroneously described as parts of the work that you love unconditionally, which is really very bad advice. “Destroy what you love” is not good advice for storytelling. The darlings of your fiction are those things — be they passages, chapters, characters, whatever — that exist in the story only because you love them, not because they serve any purpose. They are precious. They are a bunch of peacocks whose only purpose is to preen and poop up your manuscript. Pretty. And shallow. Here’s an example of darling-murder from my own dubious writing career.
You: That helps.
You: Fine. You’ve convinced me. I’ll take some time off. Then I’ll go edit.
You: So, I guess we’re done here.
Me: Yeah. I guess we are. Tomorrow is Gorge Yourself On Big Dumb Birdmeat Day. NaNoWrimo crawls to a close over the weekend. So that’s it. That’s all she wrote. Congrats on finishing.
You: It wasn’t hard. I just wrote “poop” 50,000 times.
Me: That counts. It’s better than some novels I’ve read.
You: So, I won?
Me: Sure. Winning is kinda subjective, here. You might want to read this other thing I wrote about the idea of “winning and losing” when it comes to NaNoWriMo.
You: Yeah, no. I think I’m gonna go take a nap, instead.
Me: Fair enough.
You: Thanks for your help.
Me: Happy to oblige, Captain Howdy.
You: That’s that, then.
Me: It will be when the exorcist arrives.
You: A young priest and an old priest?
Me: Sounds like the start of a joke.
You: Yeah, well. What an excellent day for an exorcism, am I right? Now why don’t you come on over here and loosen these straps?
Me: Why don’t you make the straps disappear?
You: That’s much too vulgar a display of power, Wendig.