Monday, June 10, 2019

How I Edit

Another quality post brought to you by Steve!
Hey everybody!

I'm pleased to admit that I'm not struggling right now in the same fashion I was last year because that means that, amongst other things, a good friend of mine didn't set himself on fire.  But I am still a bit swamped with work, which I may just have to accept as the new normal.

That being said, I'm in the middle of a few projects right now.  And I thought to myself, "You know, you could just do some work, show your thought process, and call that a blogpost.  It's not even technically cheating!"

And since all of my work right now is editing existing pieces, how about a glimpse at how I go about editing?  Let's start with a few sentences from a novella I'm working on right now, THE THING UNDER YOUR BED.  This is pretty much a spoiler-free excerpt from the work.  You've probably intuited from the title that there's a monster under someone's bed, in this case, an unnamed little girl.  In this scene, the monster has been shouting to prove that her mother will not be coming to help her.

The Thing continued for a solid thirty seconds after she had already stopped. She hadn’t given up so much as simply let herself trail off.

“What…but what’s the matter?” the Thing asked, in mock concern. “She doesn’t seem to be coming. Do you think we should try calling for her a little more? Here, I’ll get you started…Mom!”

“Stop,” she said.

Her voice was back to normal. She was grateful for that, at least. Her pulse had stopped racing, the fear had all fled her in fact. It seemed that in their shouting match she had burned it all off. Her situation was no less precarious, but at least she was back to thinking like normal.

Okay, so many writers differ, but my methodology is to write out more or less the entire work, then go back and self-edit once before turning it in to my publisher for a professional edit.  I wrote this passage sometime in the last six weeks or so.  It's a good practice (if you write this way - again, some authors edit as they go) to let a work mellow for 4-6 weeks before attempting to self-edit.  Otherwise you're not really looking at it with fresh eyes; you're still trapped in the thought processes you were writing with.

First, the bird's-eye view.  Some of the things I'll ask myself while editing are:

1.)  Does this section need to exist?  

Whereas in life random shit happens all the time, in fiction every scene (every word, really) needs to have a purpose.  There are two fundamental purposes: advancing the plot or fleshing out a character.  If a section doesn't do one of those two things, cut it.  This process is sometimes referred to as "killing your darlings."  In other words, even if you find something beautiful or perfect, if it isn't functional, it needs to go.

In the section above, I'm doing two things.  First, the child is doing something that anyone would do in her situation: finding out that there's a real, flesh-and-blood monster under the bed, she calls for her mother.  If this section wasn't here, people would wonder why not.  If I left it out, that would've become a plot hole.  

You know how everyone always says, "Why didn't Frodo and Gandalf just fly to Mordor with the eagles?"  That's a classic example of a plot hole.  

It's important to avoid plot holes whenever possible by having the character attempt to solve the problem the way any normal person would.  This comes with a caveat: if the character does not do what a normal person would do, then you, as the author, need to establish why.  Perhaps the character is agoraphobic, which is why they don't just leave the haunted house, for example.  

When you're desperate, one final way of fixing a plot hole is to "lampshade" it - that is, call attention to the issue so that the reader is aware that you, the author, are also aware of the plot hole but you're just going to leave it in for entertainment's sake.  Lampshading is usually too cutesy for serious work, but you can get away with it sometimes in comedy.

So, I'm heading off a potential plot hole by having the little girl call for her mother.  I'm also establishing that the monster under the bed is a mean, sadistic creature.  He's taking pleasure in tormenting the little girl, even going so far as to shout for her mother along with her, to prove how hopeless her situation is.  This is an important character beat for the monster.

So, yes, this section is carrying weight.  It needs to stay.

2.)  Does this section belong here?

Assuming the section needs to stay, is it properly situated?  A good example is describing a person, setting, or object at the right juncture.  Now, normally the time to describe something is when it's first introduced.  However, you may be pulling a "Pulp Fiction" on us, and it's best to avoid describing something until it becomes pertinent.  

The important thing, though, is that you the author know why you're describing something and when.  Readers often complain, for example, that they have already visualized a character in chapter one, so if the author waits to describe them until chapter two, it's too late.  The reader's already visualized them with green eyes instead of blue, or whatever.

In this particular spot in my narrative, I'm trying to establish that the little girl has attempted to deal with the monster on her own, and is now truly freaked out and begins to call for help.  The sample section is properly situated for that.  And, you can also see how where I placed the section could be a character point.  My main character doesn't just roll over and call for help immediately.  She tries to deal with the problem on her own first.  This establishes that she's got a little backbone.  So, overall, it's best to keep this section where it is.

3.)  Is this section properly paced?




Yeah, annoying, huh?  All right, I'll stop it with the spacing games.  But bear in mind that when you write, words are not the only tool in your arsenal.  Punctuation, as much as we may hate it, is vital to understanding a work.  Are you speaking in a conversational, jovial tone (in other words, a spot where parentheses could be used?)  Is your character trailing off...?  An ellipsis might be perfect.  

Or you might be leaning on ellipses too much.  Or you might be using run-on sentences.

Now, don't get me wrong.  A run-on sentence is perfectly fine in certain scenarios.  Any time you have a character who is trying, actively trying, to work something out, just bashing their head against the wall trying to work something out, either in the action or in their head, you can certainly get that point across by just running on and on and on.

However.  When it comes to action, short and to the point is key.  He opened the door.  A vampire stood on the other side.  The time for sizing one another up was over.  Now was the time for battle.  Short, declarative sentences keep the reader reading, and thus, keep the action flowing.

Spacing is key, too.  Is it time for a section break?  Chapter break?  New paragraph?

Is it because there's a new thought?  

Are you just trying to highlight something, is that why you're giving a single sentence its own paragraph?

Overall, the spacing in the sample section is how I want it.  I considered combining the last paragraph with the last dialogue tag, because I want to focus on the fact that the little girl lost her voice and now it's back.  But after closer review, I think it's better as-is.


All right, now that I've looked at the macro, let's look at the micro.  This is called line editing.  I'll highlight additions in red and deletions with a strikethrough, then go over each change in a bullet list.

The Thing continued shouting for a solid thirty solid seconds after she the little girl had already stopped fallen silent.  She hadn’t given up so much as simply let herself trail off. 

- Okay, so I know you blog readers can't see this, but it's been a paragraph or two since I mentioned the Thing Under the Bed was shouting.  So without an immediate antecedent, I inserted the verb "shouting" again.  
- I think "thirty solid seconds" sounds stronger here than "a solid thirty seconds."  
- It's also been a while since I referred to the nameless girl as anything other than "she."  (It's a tightrope walk referring to characters by name often enough to be make it clear who's taking action and by pronoun often enough to not seem like you're not just in love with the sound of their name.)  
- "Already stopped" is clearer now that I've inserted what she was doing ("shouting") but overall "falling silent" is clearer than "stopped shouting."  And clarity is king.

“What…but what’s the matter?” the Thing asked, in its voice dripping with mock concern. “She doesn’t seem to be coming. Do you think we should try calling for her a little moreagain? Here, I’ll get you us started.  Mom!” 

- I could have gone either way with "What...but what" versus "What."  The monster is trying to be a dick, after all.  But reading this sentence out loud (another useful trick for self-editing) I can picture him saying "What's the matter" sarcastically, but the stuttered version doesn't seem quite right.  
- In the dialogue tag, I want to get across that the Thing is faking it.  "Mock concern" is clear either way, but "dripping" adds a little extra layer that makes the sarcasm more obvious.
- Now that I've added "shouting" and "falling silent" back to the last paragraph, it's more clear what the monster is talking about.  So we can eliminate "calling for her" altogether.
- Since he said "we" in the last sentence, it's better to say "us" instead of "you."  I understand why I wrote it the first way initially, but this is stronger.  He's still being a dick, implying that they're in this boat together, when really he's the one who's causing all of the little girl's torment.
- Ellipses should really only be used when characters are trailing off.  I'm often guilty of misusing them.  Here I don't think it makes sense.  I could have used an em-dash instead, but I think a new sentence is the stronger choice.

“Stop,” she said. 

Her voice was back to normal. She was grateful for that, at least. Her pulse had stopped racing,.  All her the fear had all fled, her in fact. It seemed that in their shouting match sShe had burned it all off during their shouting match. Her situation was no less precarious, but at least she was back to thinking like normally.

- The third sentence ended up becoming a run-on, and there's no real reason for it, so I broke it up.
- In the new fourth sentence, this is a stronger construction.
- In the new fifth sentence, "it seemed" weakens the overall sentence, and with that gone, it seemed (ha!) stronger to move the first part to the end.
- In the final sentence, yes, I know, people hate adverbs, but I had initially said "like normal" to simulate a child's mode of speech, since we're in close third person here.  Upon re-reading it, though, I think the baby talk's too distracting in this case.  The adverbial construction is clearer, and clearer is always better. 


Well, that was probably immensely boring to everyone involved.  But what are your thoughts on editing?  What's your process?  Best practices?  Let me know in the comments below!


Matthew said...

Looks good, and I can't wait to read it. A question though - what's the purpose of "solid" in 30 solid seconds? It's a word I would have likely omitted were I editing this story. I may also have moved "in fact" to the beginning of the following sentence and reworded that one a bit, but I like the edits!

I don't think I have consciously thought about the way I edit, but it's more or less the same. Although I'll do line editing and the "bird's eye view" kinda simultaneously.

I do like these peeks behind the curtain though - seeing what other people do helps me in my practice.

Stephen Kozeniewski said...

Thanks much, Mike!

Here’s my thought process on “solid.” “Thirty seconds” sounds like a generic period of time, a la “a minute” or “a few days.” If somebody says “I’ll be there in a minute” they really won’t be. It’ll be some indeterminate period of time between a few seconds and a few minutes. My concern with this sentence was that “thirty seconds” sounded like an exaggeration meaning “The Thing continued for a little while.” I wanted it to be clear that The Thing shouted for an exorbitant amount of time – thirty actual seconds.

Anyway, the hell of it is that everything is so damned subjective. But that’s why Baskin Robbins has thirty-one flavors, right? :)

Matthew said...

Makes sense. Thanks!

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