The NaNoWriMo Dialogues: “What An Excellent Day For An Exorcism”

Me: The time has come.

Me: Hello?

Me: Oh, Cripes.

*looks around the room*

*searches house*

*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?

Me: NaEscYoManMo.

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 –

*eats pie*

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.

You: Jerk.

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 Weaselthere’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?

You: No.

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.

You: Mommy?

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.

Me: Thanks.

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.

Me: Excellent.

You: Fine. You’ve convinced me. I’ll take some time off. Then I’ll go edit.

Me: Stellar.

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.

*vomits hell-barf*

22 comments

  • I’m just tying the last of my story together, hoping to be finished on Friday. And then I’m going to spend the entirety of December sleeping.

    Actually, that is a lie. Apparently I’m now a professional writer and I get to spend December on other projects. Which is kind of cool.

    NaNo nearly got me this year, but I fought back! I FOUGHT BACK. Writing with a 16mth old in the house is not my idea of fun.

  • There can never be too vulgar a display of power, nor indeed can there ever be too many Pantera references.

    Find me a Stallone!

  • Rather than reading something myself, I’ve on occasion had a text to speech reader do it. Depending on the voice you select, it’s kind of like robot NPR.

    I’m at 44,000 words and it’s been a total slog for about 14k of them, for reasons unknown. But I’ll do it. Oh, I’ll do it.

  • Chuck, you’ve made the process of editing sound at least twice as hard and twice as long as the process of writing that first draft.

    *Pause for thought.*

    YAAAAAAAYYYY!!! *does happy dance round the computer.*

    Thank you times a million. I feel so much better now. IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE THIS HARD – I can totally live with that if it’s not just weird freaky mojo that’s only happening to me because I’m a crap writer, etc etc. I will issue myself with a prescription for bad-ass chocolate and put rear to chair straight away.

    Thanks for the pep talk!

  • I love the edit phase – or in my case, the “throw out 90% because it doesn’t quite work and rewrite the book around the remaining 10%” phase, as it tends to be with new projects. Editing/rewriting appeals to the left-brain me, though I do let my right-brain throw in suggestions from time to time, as long as they don’t derail the new plot.

  • Passed the NaNo winning post this morning for, I think, the 4th, mebbe 5th time.
    However I’ve never yet gotten a 2nd draft completed.

    I think I probably need to buy your books,BUT there’s a big problem here……I live in the UK and I don’t own a Kindle…….sorry just a neanderthal I guess.

  • Fadedglories, you can also buy Chuck’s The Kick-Ass Writer, now available in paperback. Buy, read, enjoy, be edified. Which Autocorrect wanted to change to “deified.” OK. Go forth and be that too.

  • Hi, editor here. Chuck was super kind enough to let me add some more things to the “things to look at while you edit your own thing” list, so here you go:

    1. The word “that” – Chances are, you can trim many of these occurrences out. It’s a staging word, a setup that can easily stall you out because the payoff is never as big as you thing it is. Just get to the verb.

    2. In two-verb construction (had walked, was chilling, etc) do not be afraid to axe that first verb, reconjugate the second and make the idea of doing something a little less delayed.

    3. Stop italicizing a character’s thoughts. Especially in first person, where the narration IS what the character is thinking. If you’re rocking the third person, there should be enough context to distinguish thought or enough description in-scene so that you don’t always need to precede what-would-be-italicized with “[character name] spent time thinking.”

    4. How many “and”s are in your sentences? Unless it’s dialogue or a grocery list, you probably don’t need that many.

    5. What about “he” or “she”? If you’ve got multiple same-gendered characters interacting, is someone who doesn’t know your work going to be able to figure out who’s doing what?

    6. Is your plot a challenge to the character, or are they just breezing right on through it like it’s another Tuesday?

    7. Most of the time, you can get rid of the word “Just” when it’s not spoken.

    8. People (even Aaron Sorkin) don’t have conversations that last for pages. You wouldn’t by any chance just have a conversation going on and on, right? Shorten it if there’s doubt.

    9. And on the topic of conversation, they don’t occur in a vacuum. What else is going on while these people chat it up? I mean more than person X moved their hand and person Y swallowed hard. If this were a film, what’s the stuff occurring in the background that’s slightly out of focus?

    10. The characters are IN the book. They’re not going to see that you’ve made a few words bold or underlined or changed their font for emphasis. Unless you’re writing something super meta and aware. If you’re not, that neat font trick isn’t doing what you think it does. Again, context should help a character figure out how to respond/deal/interact with the world around them.

    Okay, I’ve droned on sufficiently. Thanks ever so much for reading this. Go write more and rock on.

    • Like all of these, but might take exception to:

      ‘3. Stop italicizing a character’s thoughts. Especially in first person, where the narration IS what the character is thinking. If you’re rocking the third person, there should be enough context to distinguish thought or enough description in-scene so that you don’t always need to precede what-would-be-italicized with “[character name] spent time thinking.”’

      I do this, and I know other authors who do, and I know editors who are both a) cool with this and b) suggest italicizing thoughts in edits.

      As long as you’re consistent about it, it shouldn’t be a problem.

      — c.

  • I’ve actually started to grow more excited about the edit phase. Having now written a few flash fiction pieces – which I actually edited – I can see how my word barf changes a ton with editing. Previous to this I had the “I must do it perfectly the first time so why edit” mentality. So. Wrong.

    My writing definitely can use more work, but I feel about 42% more creative already and excited to edit to see how much better I can make my NaNo piece.

  • Chuck, what if you’re not ‘consistent’ with italicizing thoughts? I tend to use them like thought quotation marks: non-italicized if I’m just narrating their thoughts, italics if I’m quoting them. E.g., “He looked around the room, wondering what the hell was going on” vs. “He looked around the room. What in the dingo-loving-monkey fight club is going on here?

  • Tia et al, thoughts should be italicized (or in quotes, depending on your, your editor’s and your publisher’s preferences) if they’re a direct quote of a thought. If they’re just a paraphrase, or even if they tense-shift to bring them up to the time of the narration (e.g., What the ham sandwich was I supposed to do with that? as opposed to “What the ham sandwich am I supposed to do with this?” if it’s a first-person narration of the narrator’s thoughts in reaction to something that had just happened in the narrative), no need for italics or quotation marks. In short, it’s just like dealing with speech: if it’s a direct, non-paraphrased, non-modified quote, it’s… well, a quote.

    Usually easiest to handle this way, Iv’e found. Of course, house/writer preference still rules.

  • I just wanted to say, seriously, thank you so much for all of these dialogues. I just finished my first novel two days ago, and this is exactly what I needed to read. I knew pretty much everything you wrote here already, but I really needed a profanity-filled verbal lashing about it because I keep trying to go back to my draft now like a junkie on detox jumping for a used needle someone left the palliative care ward because HEROIN BITCH.

    One problem I’m encountering is that since the whole book is in my head almost verbatim at this point, I’m editing it in my brain all the goddamn time, sometimes without realizing it. Like, my girlfriend’s telling me about my day and it’s like
    “Were you listening?”
    “Uh, what? Sorry, I was thinking about my book.”
    “Oh? Well then, DOUBLE-FUCK YOU!”

    What should I do to keep that in check for December? Embrace alcoholism as my new hobby? Try and beat Dark Souls repeatedly to the 7th new game+? Write something else of a radically different genre?

  • If i’m only a third done my novel after 50000 words, would December and January both be ‘NaKeWriYoNovMo’ for ‘National Keep Writing Your Novel Month/s’? Then February being NaEscYoManMo, and March being the time i actually edit?

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