Tag Archives: editing

Analysis and Surgery

5 Mar
Stories within stories, wheels within wheels

Stories within stories, wheels within wheels

I just finished editing a neat little short story. The setting is pretty bizarre (shocking, right?), but the underlying emotional content is supposed to be real. It is an element of craft that I find very attractive. How would real characters react when faced with the unusual, fantastic, or supernatural? And more importantly, how can I convey their very real inner lives? It’s the kind of thing I’ve been working on/with since before I ever heard the words ‘slipstream’ or ‘magical realism.’

The first (revised) draft weighed in at just under 3,000 words. Not bad. I was worried about how the story was balanced and paced, so I did something I almost never do: I analyzed my work. Determined to chop it apart – to vivisect, if you will – I broke out the excel spreadsheet. I hacked the text into bits and made notes on what happened in each scene, how many words were in that scene, and where in the story it took place. Then I rendered two graphs, which looked like this:

 

the progression of the word count

the progression of the word count

the word count in each scene

the word count in each scene

It’s not terribly instructive, really, but it gives me a rough idea of structure. And the visualization makes me happy. I can see pretty clearly how the story builds, and what I placed the most emphasis on. If there is too much in one scene/section, but another seems slight, maybe I ought to dive in and carve it up.

Then I had a thought: What if I excised ALL of the fantastical elements? So I did. The work was simple, but time-consuming. Every sentence (or part of thereof) that referred to or described something out of the ordinary fell under my cruel editor’s knife. Here is an example, from early in the story. This scene:

            Five days before, just after midnight, he and Heather had stood in a crowd next to those swings as the giant alien spaceship had moved towards the city. The disk had slid into view from the south, having just destroyed Los Angeles. A million tiny, yellow and white lights illuminated its hull, and it filled the sky like some kind of imported constellation. Pete had wrapped his arm around Heather’s shoulders. Her skin was cold, even though the warm night air felt humid and still. She had pulled away from him, and they watched as the enormous starship stopped in the sky. It shook, fell apart, and the pieces began to rain down to the earth below. None of them knew why or how it had been destroyed, but any relief they felt turned sour as hundreds of tiny fireballs began to hit the ground.

After chopping out any references, it became this scene:

            Five days before, just after midnight, he and Heather had stood next to those swings. A million tiny, yellow and white lights filled the sky. Pete had wrapped his arm around Heather’s shoulders. Her skin was cold, even though the warm night air felt humid and still. She had pulled away from him and the stars stopped in the sky.

The story is essentially about a guy who gets dumped by his girlfriend, because he’s been an ass. The setting happens to be during some strange, alien invasion, apocalyptic events. By chopping out the ‘weird’ stuff, I was able to look at the meat of the story, without any fancy bits – sometimes in the middle of a sentence. In all, I only put in two new words, and I cut out a thousand. That told me that only a third of my story was about crazy stuff. I dug into it again.

This time, I took on Pete’s smoking. Cigarettes are fucking terrible, but they can be very useful props for characters to interact with. After cutting out the cigarettes and all references to them, I had ditched another three hundred words. I was pleased. My story was lean and smooth, but I didn’t enjoy it so much.

I put the crazy/end of the world/alien invasion business right back where it belonged. And then I reworked the start of the tale. Like I said, it’s not hard work, but it does eat up a lot of time. My final draft, after one more edit is right about 2,700 words. It’s not perfect, maybe, but it might be as good as it gets.

What have I learned? That is a damn good question. I think I need to take a more critical look at my assumptions about my work. I will definitely use this graph/analysis technique again. And if I have the time, I will absolutely rip apart my living story and perform home surgery on whatever seems out of place. It makes me feel a bit like a mad scientist, to be honest. I’m building these little monsters, and I want to do my best. I am sure I’m not the first or last to tread this path, but it seems like a good direction to go.

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Transitions and Scenes

27 Jan
The plot thickens, every day...

The plot thickens, every day…

So many times in my life, I’ve wondered, ‘What the hell is wrong with me?’ Granted, sometimes there is something wrong with me. I forgot to sleep, or eat, or put on pants – whatever. One of the amazing things about living on this crazy planet for a few years is that you notice the patterns and cycles. The ones that happen slow make us feel all warm and fuzzy. Springtime is when the earth wakes up from the slumber of winter. Aw. Nice. But paying attention to the shifting patterns inside our own minds and bodies is a different matter.

What the hell is wrong with me? Nothing. It’s just the middle of winter, and this time around, I’ve got vitamin D. And energy. And I’ve been kicking out stories every week, like a lean, mean, writing machine. It’s a good feeling. However… it’s all part of the cycle, man. This is the time of year for me to kick my butt into high gear and actually do things. I’ve started a lot of little projects, and I’m balancing a huge amount of logistics over my head. Part of me is just waiting for it to come crashing down.

I’m trying not to panic though. Just because things don’t go the way I want the first time, I can still back up and try again. There’s always the next time around, on this big ol’ wheel, right? Because as much as there is sometimes something ‘wrong’ with me, a lot of the time there isn’t. As a writer/editor/artist/whatever you have to be ready for the cycle to come around again. I’m trying to pay attention. I don’t wanna miss my shot, and end up waiting again. Let’s hope I don’t bollocks it up, eh?

Cheers!

Pictures and Words 02: Beautiful Tools

22 Oct
Yes, the 'new' is fully ironic - sorry.

Yes, the ‘new’ is fully ironic – sorry.


This is my favorite writing instrument and it is responsible for hundreds of thousands of words – and some of them are good, I swear! In fact, I just finished up a draft of my newest novel on this machine. My guess is about 85% of the final pages came through the typewriter before I put them on the computer. It might seem like a time-consuming process, but I am actually lazy and super efficient. This type-first method gives me a chance to edit on-the-fly, as I retype it into a Word document. As a bonus, there is a stack of raw pages for me to look at – complete with all my spellcheck-free errors and grammatical gaffes.

Note to self: burn all original pages; the embarrassment would kill me; there may be collateral shame-deaths.

Now, it does have a few temperamental issues. The ink ribbon doesn’t auto-return. So I have to open the top and push a little lever to change the direction it advances. And, regardless of how much I use it, a couple of the keys stick – for no good, goddamn reason. The ‘m’ and the ‘j’ keys are the worst offenders, but some of the other keys like to get on the action too. There is very little to match the frustration of having to stop every time I use those letters.

But it has a solidity – a real, tangible quality – that is perfect for my work. The sound of the keys hitting the paper is like music to my ears. The feel of the impact in my fingers makes me feel like I’m actually making something. There is an uncanny rhythm and sensibility to the action of typing. The keys slap, I move the carriage back, I mark the page number when I pull out the paper, and I carefully insert another, and roll the wheel to line it up.

Now and then I forget what I’m doing and I reach for my wireless mouse. You take for granted how easy it is to distract yourself from writing. I can’t check my email, or look something up “really quick” on Wikipedia. Those short moments when my mind is idle don’t lead to a destructive cycle of procrastination. Instead, I just plow on, until I get done. Yes, it’s ‘just’ a machine. And yes, I am totally in love with it. No, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Edits Most Cruel

1 Jul
Spoor of the elusive 'wild editor'

Spoor of the elusive ‘wild editor’

Since it is July, I find myself taking on a new project. Is it because of some crazy, NaNoWriMo thing? Is it peer pressure? Is it the fact that my life is spiraling out of control and the one measurable thing I can cling to in this life is my work? A little of all of that, I guess. Like many writers, I do this because I cannot stop doing it. Neither words of advice nor reproachful looks can keep me away. Something, something, a fool to his folly…

I read. A lot, but in fits and starts. It is as if I forget that I’m addicted to words and fall into healthful habits, only to fall off the wagon and hang out with the wrong crowd again. And again. I’m omnivorous when it comes to my written media. I won’t turn my nose up at comic books, graphic novels, magazines, or even those free local papers. Fiction, non-fiction, anti-fiction, weird religious tracts – I’ll check it out, thanks. It is supposed to make you a better writer, after all. Even if you’re like me and write like your brain is on fire. Yeah, other people’s words are like fuel into the furnace.

I was reading through Donald Westlake’s ‘Thieve’s Dozen‘ – a lighthearted collection of short stories, all about his hapless thief, Dortmunder. I love Westlake’s work – especially his more hard-edged Parker books – and these stories make me happy. But my pleasant foray into the humorous criminal underbelly of NYC was sabotaged by the evidence of a previous reader. Take a look at the embedded picture, above. I highlighted the areas in red, but the marks should be clear: EDITS.

What kind of maniacal, workaholic editor would do such a thing? The chutzpah! The brass! The unmitigated, tenacious gall! You can add your own outraged comments below, if you like. I just can’t understand this. Now, I’ve seen lots of marks in books before. People make notes in the margins, or highlight a passage, and it never bothers me. But THIS? This is the literary equivalent to shouting warnings at the screen during a movie. (TIP: the people in the movie can’t hear you) And this wasn’t a galley copy or advanced proof. It was just a run of the mill used book. I want to track down this wild editor and shake ’em by their lapels. I want to roar at them, berate, and belittle them. “It’s too late to edit it now! The ship has sailed, my friend! It is in the hands of the public now! Let it go! Let. It. Go.”

But I know I will never find them. Even if I could, my words would not win them over. That editor is on a dark, dangerous path – mark my words. When you run out of your own material to work on – when you lack the common sense of restraint to stay your hand – the work of others is not safe. It gives me chills, just thinking about it.

And of course it’s made worse because those edits don’t make any sense! You fool! Westlake knew what the hell he was doing! Argh! The temerity! The jejune impudence! (did I use impudence yet?) The meretricious and sloppy patchwork of artless nudges! BAH! I say again, BAH.

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Have you ever encountered this kind of thing? A sort of unsolicited, ‘wild edit’ in the real world? My curiosity is piqued – almost as much as my ire is raised.

Novel Mistakes

5 May

 

WritingComputer

Despite being paid to be an editor for other people in my professional life, I’m horrible at editing my own stuff. Everyone is; as a rule, you are always blind to your own stupid mistakes, especially in writing. So in order to rework some of my older stuff into passable novels, about a week ago I downloaded a writing program called Scrivener. It’s great so far. It allows me to make every chapter a separate entry, write up note card synopses for each one, and even color code them to mark where I need to edit. By dividing the novels into outline form, I can clearly see where I should rearrange and cut things.

But this post is not really about how great Scrivener is. It’s about how silly I am.

While working on a YA novel I wrote a number of years ago, I discovered a huge error: when I reached chapter 37, for some unknown reason, I went back to chapter 30 in the headers. In other words, I wrote a book that had chapters numbered 1-37, and then 30-45 all over again. This is a book that’s been read by people I respect and edited many times over.

Sigh.

Granted, this was the book I wrote during my only successful NaNoWriMo, so it was produced in a fever of not caring about mistakes until later. A few glaring errors were to be expected. When my wonderful critique group read it, oh-so-long-ago, they caught (almost) all of the worst writing flummoxes. For example, in a tense section towards the end, my MC is on her balcony, looking out into the back yard, trying to see what’s lurking out there in the dark. It’s supposed to be a slightly scary scene. This is what I wrote:

“Katie leaned over the railing and peed into the night. “

Um…yeah.

When I brought  in my synopsis letter, my critique group, thank god, caught another obvious mistake before I started mailing it off. In this book, one of the characters has a guide animal who’s missing a leg. In the synopsis, I repeatedly referred to him as the “one-legged dog.” Picture that for just a moment. Yup. I should’ve just named him Pogo and gotten it over with.

This is just one novel. I shudder to think what I’ll find in the next one. And I refuse to put my already published books in Scrivener to look at. I just flat out don’t want to know.

What writing mistakes have you made that you couldn’t  believe when you found them? Please, leave them in the comments to make me feel better about this embarrassing post. It would help, really. Thanks! 

I Accidentally A Word

21 Apr
blind spot

blind spot

 

Why does this happen to me? I’m good to my loved ones. I brush my teeth before I go to bed, every night. I even eat my vegetables. What did I do to earn this terrible curse? “What curse?” you ask? Well, let me tell ya… it’s the second worst affliction that you can suffer as a writer: the blind spot. (I don’t wanna talk about the worst affliction right now; it’s a sore subject)

At least, that’s what I call it. It’s an error so glaringly obvious that you’d have to be blind to miss it. And yet, that’s exactly what happens. I’ll be in the middle of a story and write something like:

“Jerry walked up to window,” he said.

Which should have read:

“Jerry walked up to the window,” he said.

I do this kind of thing all the time and it drives me insane. The real horrible part is that I’ll miss it on my first read-through. Hell, I might end up missing it every time. I once left this kind of error in, only to find it after the work had gone to press.

It’s embarrassing enough, even when no one else will read it. Imagine how terrible it feels when you include in something that is for sale. “Yes, please, pay me money for my idiotic typos.” I’m sure it is understandable – forgivable even – but it feels SO very bad to do.

At least some of the time, these blind spots will be caught by the grammar check in your word processor. But there have been plenty of times that I have blown right by the squiggly green lines under my words. I’m sure we’ve all had that kind of arrogant reaction, “Oh, Word – you just don’t understand my cool, hip grasp of the English language.” Well, maybe it’s just me. I do spend an awful lot of time talking at my computer…

The blind spot will happen to me, over and over. I’ll find one, squash it, only to find another in my next read-through. It gets so bad in longer manuscripts that I want to break down and cry. I get paranoid too, which only magnifies the problem. In fact, I’m pretty certain there a few hiding in this rant I’ve written. I have to force myself to go on, to ignore the impulse to review and edit right this minute. It’s tough.

I’m sure it’s all due to pattern recognition. The act of mental closure helps our minds fill in those gaps. It’s why you can read those stupid chain emails from your grandma. You know, the ones that go: “If yuo cna raed tshi yuo aer srmat.” Yeah. You feel pretty clever when you plow through that. It’s not so nice when you send the protagonist of your novel says, “What is problem man?” Grr.

If you’re like me, and you’ve carried out this kind of self-diagnosis, what can you do? How does a writer recover from – or compensate for – this kind of weird ailment? I have found only two things that help.

1. Readers: Whether it’s your significant other, or your mom, or your writing group, you need people to read your stuff. If you can arrange it so your proof-readers are helpful to your editing process, you are living a charmed life.

2. Inertia: You have to keep on, keeping on – as they say. Do NOT stop writing, even when you see these terrible… ‘goggins’ rear their ugly heads. Shut that internal editor up and keep writing. Tell yourself that you can fix it later.

I know that not all writers have this problem, but I bet all of us have similar issues. Some of my best friends can’t spell correctly to save their lives. Hell, even I rely on spell-check more than I should. Others have bad habits with sentence structure, or the way characters speak. And the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad truth about all of it is this: We are probably stuck with these problems. We can tame them to a certain extent, but I fear these faults are just a part of us.

Well, they’re a part me, I should say. I assume that everyone struggles, because my fragile ego couldn’t handle the existence of a perfect author. And I’m neurotic/cynical enough to believe that I’ll never kick my problems entirely.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Because I don’t think we find meaning or purpose in ‘perfection’ but in the pursuit of perfection. It’s not the destination that’s important, it the journey.

φ

*Yes, I meant to do that.

Things That Work, Part 1

13 Apr

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Things That Work
Part 1

It was Monday morning and I was alone. I sat in front of the typewriter. My studio was quiet, with just a tiny level of traffic noise from the street. It was mid-spring, so the room was comfortable. Happy sunlight glowed through the old, stained skylight. Curls of steam rose like ethereal tendrils from my coffee cup next to my chair. I leaned forward quickly and typed as I nodded my head.

“Oh, that’s good,” I muttered as my fingers flew. Every time a digit struck my ears were rewarded with a satisfying clack. “Uh, ‘curls of steam… ethereal..’ yeah…”

I sat back and took a sip of the dark, earthy brew. It burned my lip and tongue, just on the edge of being too hot. The words floated through my mind and I returned to typing. When I got to the bottom of the page, I pulled the paper out and replaced it. The process was quick, now that I was used to it.

Another reflex took over and I tried to reach for my mouse. My hand paused in mid-air and I shook my head. My computer wasn’t even turned on. There was no way to check my email. If I wanted to look up how a word was spelled, or find out why shade-grown coffee was superior – or any other damned thing – it would have to wait. There was no internet in the studio, even if I was dying to distract myself. I adjusted my seat and got back to work.

Tuesday morning was rough. I was behind my normal schedule as I eased into the chair. My coffee was hot, even if my brain was only lukewarm. I turned on the laptop, opened up the file folder and selected the right document. As I sipped my coffee, my fingers flipped through the typewritten pages from yesterday. The feel of each raised letter on the paper was nice – a physical reminder of the work I had done.

I propped up the pages, in order, and began to type on the computer. The soft, super responsive keys barely made a sound. Fingers flew across the keyboard as my gaze scanned back and forth on the page. In the middle of the last paragraph I stopped and considered the wording. My mental dictionary picked out a better turn of phrase.

On page three, I took out a line of flat dialogue. The next paragraph was out of order. I highlighted the text and moved it to page one. Then I deleted two paragraphs that followed.

“Measure once, cut twice,” I murmured. I swallowed a long drink of coffee and laughed. “Or is it the other way around?”

When I got to the end, I spent a few minutes reading it all over. I scrolled down to the bottom and saved the whole thing. I dropped the typewritten pages on shelf next to my typewriter. After I downed the rest of my coffee, I decided to get a refill. My mind bounced around with words and descriptions. The sunlight was nice.

Back in the studio, I fed a new sheet of paper into the typewriter. I glanced at the last few paragraphs and started typing again. The air was filled with the crack and clatter of metal keys striking the blank slate. My words appeared, one letter at a time, imprinted into the paper itself with black ink. I fed page after page into the machine and page after page came out, covered with my words. It was a nice arrangement.

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And THAT is what works. For me. Sometimes. Except, ya know, when it doesn’t work. But I think that’s related to some other, even more serious problem.

Is it more convoluted? Does it make the whole process of writing longer, more complicated? Hell yes. But it also shuts up my internal editor. I think I may have mentioned this before: He is a world-class jerkface. Anything that shuts him up – so I can work – is a damned good thing.

Here’s why it works for me. I’m using a different physical device. The typewriter doesn’t have a backspace, or any way to delete what I’ve done. It is immediate and undoable. I made a deal with my internal editor. He can do whatever he wants when I transcribe it onto my laptop. It’s like an instant, on-the-fly editing job. But it allows me the freedom to get that first draft out of my system.

Do I feel funny, typing on a typewriter? Isn’t that what hipsters, or poseurs do? Honestly? Who gives a damn. I do what WORKS. And today, after all the pain and misery I’ve had to wade through, it was ME that worked. You do what you have to do. Whatever puts words on the page, my friend.

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