Thursday, January 19, 2006

Editing: How I do it

Believe it or not, one of y'all emailed me questions about writing. Me. The guy who has only published stories in e-zines and one, ONE, print mag, Continuum. I felt flattered, and more than a little like a charlatan, but then I remembered how many books I have picked up and put down because of inferior writing. Why should I have to be a published author to pontificate, when so many published authors so clearly suck at their craft? And I mean suck. Not naming any names, mind you. Then I realized: in surgery, we do this all the time. Folks with no academic experience whatsoever publish "How I Do It" articles, because the rest of us enjoy reading about a different perspective. You don't have to be Josef McBlough, III, PhD, MD from Haaaahvaaaahd to write one of these articles, and in fact, none of us private practice guys would listen to Joe McBlough because we all know he has residents to Do It. He couldn't take a tonsil out to save his soul. Before I launch into the How I Do It portion of our program, don't forget to check out PBW's Ten Things for Editing Novels, which includes links to Holly Lisle's articles, and PBW's article, too (her method is close to mine, with a few neurotic quirks on my part . . . more below). I haven't read all of those articles, by the way, and I'm not sure I will. (Frankly, Elizabeth Lyon's Can Your Novel Pass this Test? made me want to scream by question #2.) But, at least now you have a quickie link to other resources. By the way, don't forget to buy Renni Browne and Dave King's Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. This is one of my most-thumbed resource books. But back to my favorite subject (as Maureen likes to point out), me. How am I editing a 306,000 word manuscript? I never meant it to be that big. Really. I blocked it out on three-by-five cards, wrote out a modestly detailed outline (by chapters, not by scene), began writing, and promptly strayed from the outline. Halfway through the novel, I felt like Wile E. Coyote did when he raced out past the cliff's edge, paused, and realized gravity had something to say about all of this. With my ending riveted in my brain -- without that, I would have gotten lost -- I plunged on, trusting my muse, and she didn't fail me.
Edit as you go
I'll never be able to write a "fast and dirty" rough draft. Misspellings, grammatical errors, tortured sentences, and even repeated words caused me physical pain. Once I noticed them, they HAD to be fixed. I reread every chapter after it was written, but by the time I'd finished the chapter, most of the basic errors were gone. Most of 'em never found their way onto the page in the first place.
Notes, notes, notes
As I wrote the first draft, problems surfaced which I knew had to be corrected. For the most part, I kept a To Do list for these items. In some cases, however, the problems were so irritating I had to go back and fix them NOW, DAMN IT! because the muse insisted. Lots of folks will tell you this is bad, that you must work through until you are done and then go back to the earlier material. I'm telling you different: it's far worse to piss off the muse.
Write for an audience
This may have nothing to do with editing, but it has everything to do with my method. I had a real, live audience for this novel, folks who stayed with me to the very end. Knowing that I had to keep them interested forced me to focus on narrative drive and a steady increase in tension. My audience kept me writing through the dark times. If I failed, I'd be disappointing more than just me. Jona, for one, would fly across the pond and do unspeakable things to me.
Before the first read-through
Working from my notes, I fixed what I thought were all of the major problems. Done, right? Hah!
The first read-through
I got twelve different-colored highlighters . . . Just kidding. I worked from a hard copy and corrected as I read, circling problems, writing notes here, there, and everywhere. I kept a new log of Major Problems (65 of 'em, at last count*) which I did not try to fix right away. I tried to identify consistency issues, which scenes I would slash, which scenes were missing, what didn't work, and what could work better.
The second read-through
That's where I am right now. Simultaneously, I work from the edited hard copy, and I read/edit on the computer. I call this a read-through because yes, I really do read everything (I'm not just skipping down to the next circled word or underlined sentence). I correct the 65 Major Problems as I go, but I also keep my eyes open for new problems I may have missed the first time through. Yes, I realize I could edit this to death, but I promise you: this is the last read-through. Ach, I'm tired. I'd tell you what comes next, but I haven't made it there yet. Wish me luck. D. *These vary from the trivial to the complex. For example: 39. Naka hunt: keep all the numbers straight! 44. Think about where to break into separate novels. 45. Change Mora's name at the end (the janitor). That #44, man. It's a bitch.


Blogger Kate R said...

whatever works is GOOD. I just want to lock away people who believe there's only one correct system for writing/editing/reading/breathing and all others are bogus. Of course I'm married to one of those, but he's different.

Stephen King's like that too. He's a pantzer and refuses to believe that anyone who uses charts and plotting sheets can write as well as a pantzer. I forgive Stephen too because he is richer than God and therefore must be right. Is he richer than Mel Gibson? Hmmm.

I keep posting to your booger blog (my brain has been replaced by boogers so it's my current obsession)

1/20/2006 06:52:00 AM  
Blogger Robyn said...

Glad to see I'm not the only one who edits as you write. If I wait until the end to edit I will go insane. And curse myself as I do it.

1/20/2006 07:28:00 AM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

Yup, Robyn, you're not alone. Kate, I'll go check out boogerz ASAP.

What's a pantzer? A cross between a Nazi tank and a high school kid who runs around the locker room pulling people's gym shorts down?

If you mean tyro, I thought the spelling was patzer, but then, my Mom and Dad pronounced their Yiddish with a distinctly Bostonian accent.

1/20/2006 08:10:00 AM  
Blogger Kate R said...

pantser (maybe with an s and not z?)--seat of the pants writer. Story in brain, dumped on paper, edited whenever.

1/20/2006 08:38:00 AM  
Blogger Stephen said...

I'm definitely of the quick and dirty draft persuasion, then I return and scrub through, but almost certainly with insufficient vigour (so I have to do it all over again now). On plotting I am a thorough-going pantser. The second half of my novel, where I was driven by the need to sort out everything that I had chucked into the first half, is the flatter, duller, more lifeless part. I hope that I can invigorate it in the rewrite stage by having confidence that the story works.

Like Kate I reckon that there is no single right way - your muse is not the boss of me or my muse.

1/20/2006 09:59:00 AM  
Blogger Pat Kirby said...

I've got a half written post about trying to do it the way "someone else does." (Outlining ahead of time. I. Cannot. Do. It.)

I'm a pantzer.

Everyone has their own method for editing too. I rarely edit as I write except to correct typos. I do ignore the thing for a month or two before starting any revision. Then I read it over from start to finish, and write a synopsis. The synopsis exposes all the ugly plot holes that I leaped over when writing.

I also make use of good, trusted readers. I used to belong to Critters, but found that while the experience improved my writing, eventually I needed more than the random critiquer. (Not all critiques are worth a hill of beans.)

Then the hacking and slashing begins.

1/20/2006 10:59:00 AM  
Blogger Kris Starr said...

I'm joining the "edit-as-you-go" club, too. It really, truly wounds my sensibilities to NOT go back IMMEDIATELY and fix things that aren't working.

It's no wonder that, while I did enjoy the experience in a somewhat self-flagellistic way, I don't think I can attempt NaNoWriMo again. I did manage 21K before my muse abruptly screamed mutiny and threatened to wander off in search of Cap'n Jack Sparrow. Naturally, I averted this crisis. (What else was I supposed to do?? You tell me.) :)

1/20/2006 11:57:00 AM  
Blogger Shelbi said...

I'm not exactly sure whether I'm a pantser or a plotter yet. I've tried it both ways, and hit a brick wall each time.

I seemed to get farther with the plotting [about half way through] than with pantsing [I got 8,000 words on one and just over 2,000 on the second... your 300,000 words, well, I'm in awe, honestly.]

With the current NIP, I've tried something that may prove to be completely stupid, but I'm blogging the rough draft, and refusing to edit it [although that first scene started replaying itself today, and I may have to go back and re-write it]

This time, my method seems to be a weird hybrid version of both methods. I know where it's going to end, and I have an idea of the next few scenes, but I'm writing them fast and hairy as I go, and trusting my muse to supply the middle.

Whether it works or not remains to be seen.

word verification: offzaxjr
Off Zax Jr. Sounds like a fantasy character's name, don't you think?

1/20/2006 12:33:00 PM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

To be a pantzer or not to be . . .

I like a stable skeleton of a plot. I'll flesh it out along the way. With TBC, I left out a few cervical vertebrae, but I still managed to put a head on it in the end.

1/20/2006 08:05:00 PM  

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