Thursday, November 5, 2009

Editing: A Report From the Trenches

So, I know there are probably loads of fantastic books out there about editing, but other than the basic grammar books already on my shelves, I haven't gone running out to buy anything else. This is partly because I am a cheapskate, and partly because I assumed I ought to just know this stuff, instinctually.
Yes, I actually thought that. Needless to say, when I finally took the time to read what editors and agents and writers with years of experience were saying, it was quite the eye-opener. Any of you new writers out there... I highly suggest a peek at blogs like super agent Nathan Bransford's blog , or writer Natalie Whipple's blog. Nathan has a number of older posts on the subject, and Natalie is currently discussing it.
That being said, I have come to a small epiphany of my own regarding editing and writing. There will be some who feel this is nothing new, but that is why it is my epiphany and not theirs.
If you are like me, you've spent weeks or months or years writing a book full of perfectly good scenes, and now that you are editing, you think all you need to do is get rid of adverbs and simplify your language.

But the single biggest thing you need to do is to ask yourself one question:
Does this scene move the story forward?

What do I mean by that? Well, does the scene show an important side of your character? I mean really important?
If your story is about a character with a fear of the dark, are you writing chapters and long drawn out scenes about how he plays the saxophone? Don't, unless he plays sax for a living and the lights keep going out in the concert hall, or unless the saxophone is going to be an integral part of some clever allegory about the whole thing. Otherwise, it doesn't make him interesting, it annoys everyone who wants to know what's going on with the actual story, and if through some miracle they continue reading your book, they will very likely roll their eyes and skip pages every time they see that damn sax brought up again.
I'm not saying that characters should be one-dimensional and without backstory. What I am saying is that not every scene and every drop of backstory that pops into the author's head need be in the book. This, in a nutshell has been my epiphany. I know all sorts of trivia about my characters, even the bit characters, but very little of it needs to be in the book. Certainly not as much as I had in the first draft!
I'm also not saying that you shouldn't write it down somewhere if you think your character would play the sax. I have a file on my computer of 'Extra Bits', where I categorize and stuff all these little details for now. That way, if one of them turns out to be important, I have it there, ready for me to use. If not, then I still know it, and it may influence the personality I ascribe to that character. As most people know, J.K. Rowling recently said that Dumbledore was gay, and all the fuss about that aside, this was a detail that didn't do anything to move the story forward, so she didn't put it in the book. It was just a small detail that she knew, which in some way probably helped her to write his character.

So don't cling to scenes and details simply because you wrote them! They can always live on in your 'Extra Bits' file where they won't clutter up your story.

For example, just this week I cut one entire chapter (it was mostly one scene) because it was, well, boring. It had action, it had emotion, but it did absolutely nothing to move the story forward. It didn't bring out the emotions my main character is struggling with, it was just something for him to do, and that was...boring. I cut it and instead wrote a new scene that tied into the chain of events catapulting my character to his 'destiny'.
I feel much better for it and so will you, so close your eyes, get out your scissors, and CUT! Wait, on second thought, you probably ought to do that with your eyes open...


Valerie Geary said...

Ran across your blog through Nathan's blog and though your blog is new, I already love what I've read! Plus, we're fellow Portlanders and congrats on winning the fellowship! Can't wait to see more! :)

ann foxlee said...

Thanks Valerie! GO Portland! It really is the best place on earth.

Locved your blog too, though my work computer isn't cooperating with the 'follow' function. Looks like I'll have to do it when I get home :-)