April 17th, 2009

woods, Elizabeth, camera, April

A day off, sortakinda

I have dealt with all my editor's requests (I hope, in the way she wants) and have cut as much as I can without a break from the book,and redone the chapter breaks & numbers.

I was at the point of taking individual words out, turning them over in my mental hands, looking back at the page, and saying "Nope...I really do need a noun in this sentence..."  I can't see the work clearly right now, so it's time to back off, give it 24 hours, and the take another look.

I'd like to shrink it another 750 words--that would put it just under 170,000.   That's less than one word per page to come out...but we're down to the meat...and I've been slicing off individual muscle fibers already.

It's a big story.   And it all wants in.   The characters (the POV characters, of course, but also the first-line non-POVs) are clamoring at me.  So are trees, horses, and landscapes.  ("You don't understand...in the book you don't even have a contract for yet, I'll be VERY important...")

But I've closed the file, saved it to external storage as well as on the disk, and am refusing to look at it.  (Its next volume has brightly announced that if I'm not going to work on revisions, surely I can do some first-drafting over there...)



woods, Elizabeth, camera, April

Editing: Why slice & dice?

When readers question why a book has been cut,  they may think it's a simple question...but it's not.  There are both story reasons, and production/marketing reasons, to cut.   Stories are rarely hurt by thoughtful, skillful cutting.  (They may be hurt by ignorant hacking by incompetent editors, but this is rarer than lack of editing.  Most of us have encountered books with large leaden lumps that slow down a  story and make it hard or tedious to read.) 
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Let's talk production/marketing first.    Consider a magazine.  It has the same number of pages every month for a reason (an economic reason) and everything in it must fit on those pages--ads, nonfiction, fiction.  The nonfiction writers have strict word limits.  The fiction writers' work must be shoehorned in--and let's say there's space for 40,000 words of fiction.   That's eight 5000 word stories, or four 5000 word stories and two 10,000 word stories, or four 10,000 word stories...etc.   When that editor says "I can use your 6000 word story only if you can cut it to 5200 words..." he means exactly that.   My first fiction sale came after four rejections from an anthology editor who said "At this point, I have room for only a 1500 word humorous story."   I wrote a 2300 word humorous story and--understanding the editor was serious--cut it to 1497.  

Books come in certain standard sizes (thicknesses, when you look at mass-market.)   Publishers know exactly how many books of a given thickness will fit on a grocery-store/airport wire rack.   Fewer fat books fit there than skinny ones.  Fewer books on the rack means fewer sales, because those racks aren't restocked several times a day.   The fatter the book the more paper (and larger cover) it needs; if 24 of a given length fit in a standard box size, fewer of the thicker books fit--and they leave gaps that need to be stuffed.   It takes the editor and copy-editor and production staff more time to wade through that longer book. 
There's a sound economic reason to limit the size of these books.   Yes, some readers like fat books.  And a good fat book is better than a good skinny book because you get more goodness.  But it's a risk....in a business already very risky.  So editors may insist on length limits (top and bottom) as a way of controlling publication and distribution costs.

Story reasons also operate.  Good writers, when editing their work, cut constantly.    You know the traditional story of Michelangelo and carving statues--it's easy, he said:  just cut away everything that isn't the statue.  Well, it's that way with words, too, but somewhat harder to see.   We are not gods, with perfect creative powers.  We leave bits of wordage on our work that isn't the work...not the work we want it to be.   Especially when first-drafting (sometimes even later) and especially  (for me) when writing fast,  what comes off my fingers is not pure gold--there's a lot of gunk in it.   I don't much care, first-drafting--that's the stage at which the whole story comes out...what I hope is a lump of diamond or gold, whatever it looks like right then.   

What kinds of things do we cut to improve the story?   Obvious extraneous chunks...notes to the writer, trial runs at a difficult scene,  blind alleys of plot that ended up going nowhere.  For instance, in my first novel, there was a long passage in which my protag had an adventure that not only led nowhere but conflicted with another adventure later on, one that had strong resonance and was tightly bound to the whole story arc. 
I found that one.  My editor found another--a beautiful chapter that, nonetheless, could be cut in its entirety without affecting plot or characterization at all.   The structure of the story needs to be cleaned of all the clutter that first-drafting produces, so readers can enjoy the shape.  When you run into "infodump" in someone's book...when you suffer because of the writer's personal passions or research...when a mystery or adventure story is interrupted with a lecture on psychology or politics or history...it should have been cut.

The prose itself may need (usually does need) tightening.  
Most of us are sloppy speakers and writers; we're surrounded by lazy, sloppy, wasteful language, language that does not say what it means the first time through, and thus takes more words to convey meaning--meaning that's obscured by the extra words.  Most of us learned to pad our writing in school, where teachers may have pushed us to use adjectives and adverbs to make our writing more colorful, or to reach a minimum word length.   Many of us depend on these words and never develop the vocabulary of nouns and verbs that enable vigorous writing.   Editing for clarity may require cutting, change, or addition.

So if I find that I've written "...walked slowly..."   I will consider which "walking slowly" verb might replace it
did my character saunter, stroll, or wander?  Or something else?   The right verb can suggest the character's mood and physical condition as well as the relative speed of the walk.   Confident, even over-confident, characters saunter.  Drunk ones stagger or stumble or weave.   Angry or slightly disabled ones may stump.   Most "--ly" adverbs suggest a weak, too-general verb.  

If I find stack of adjectives desperate to decorate too general a noun, the same fix applies.   That "very big, impressive house" may be a mansion--and if so, away go "very big, impressive."
    "She had shiny, long, straight black hair that hung down her back" could be "Her hair was a shining wave down her back."  (Don't get too creative with this: I once judged a writing contest in which someone's description went from lush to ridiculous with a woman's hair...) 

"There" often presages a sloppy, loose sentence, and always when treated as the subject, not the location: "There were five men in the room" says no more than "Five men were in the room," but adds a word.  "There, over the mountains, loomed a great cloud of smoke and ash" doesn't need "there"  for location--"Over the mountains loomed a great cloud..." or "A great cloud loomed over the mountains" gets rid of "there."

Complicated sentences are fine until they tangle--and most of us are not taught how to write untangled ones. (For a primer, read Ruskin.  Matthew Arnold isn't bad, but Ruskin was an artist with the long sentence that reads perfectly.)  Every long sentence should be read aloud, with extra attention given to any grammatical reversals, the antecedents of all pronouns, and the need for a) the length, b) the reversals, and c) phrases.   Almost every long sentence begs to be pruned of exuberance--not made short and choppy, but perfect in its own form of length.

So cleaning a stretch of story nearly always shortens the part already written, even if the writer finds gaps to fill (motivations unclear,  transitions too rough, etc.)
    This cleaning/cutting/editing improves the work, if the writer has some skill.   The ideal is to cut off all the fat, but leave all the flavor...to cut off the non-sparkly parts of the diamond but leave the best, unflawed sparkly bits in clean shiny facets...to polish away all the rough edges of the machine, so it operates flawlessly, smoothly, as it should. 

There are more scalpels in the writer's toolbox, more techniques for unobtrusive pruning-to-fit (some of them I've talked about recently in some posts on editing here. )   Learning to cut, and cut well, is one of the skills a writer--any writer--needs to develop.



woods, Elizabeth, camera, April

Editing: When and How to Add

Back in school, most of us learned the wrong ways to add wordage to a paper to reach the required pages/words.   Use more adverbs, more adjectives, description.  Say the same thing three ways.  I remember grading a student essay for a contest that had, for instance: "So, also, in conclusion, I would add that..."

But sometimes you need more words than your first draft produced.   You have a contract that demands a minimum of 75,000 or 90,000 or 100,000 words, and you're short, not by a few hundred, but by thousands.   Or your editor says the story is "thin" here, or needs "beefing up" there.    Sometimes a story is thin in one place, incident, character, or plot level, while being bloated somewhere else.  Recognizing the skimpy places and knowing how to fix them is a complementary skill to knowing when and how to wield the slice-and-dice tools.

Collapse )Adding words competently means enriching the story, not padding it.   If it's skimpy, with its skeleton exposed, you want to add muscle, not fat.   So the first step is to look at your story's skeleton.  Is it all there?  Particularly in novels, one cause of insufficient length is a missing part of the story--an incomplete subplot,  a POV or secondary character without sufficient motivation, failure to connect the "head" to the "tail"  with enough "stuff", even in the skeleton stage, to support the size body you want.   Is it a big enough skeleton for the words you need?   A short-story plot-skeleton won't support a 100,000 word novel.   If you're dealing with a partial or stunted skeleton, you'll have to do serious surgery to give yourself the logical framework on which to hang more muscle-words.

But suppose you have the right size skeleton and all the parts are there....you're just short on words.   Look at your skeleton, and where the meat on the bones fits...do you have equal meat all over, or do you have a thin place?   Look at each important character--do you have the same levels of motivation for those at the same level of importance?   If you've established that Jim, Toni, and Meg (members of team of four) are all drawing motivation from (example) childhood events, innate talents, family relationships, and pressure from their bosses, but Rob is drawing motivation only from one childhood event--then you can add words and enrich the story by revealing Rob's other motivational sources.   In a novel, characters should be motivated by different things at different times (as we are)  and have conflicting motivations in various combinations.  

Suppose you've got the right size skeleton and you've developed characters at the same level about equally, but you still need more words.   Look at the conflicts.   Most scenes of conflict (arguments,  fights) can be enriched and lengthened by revealing more of the characters' internal conflicts during the external one...and (if you haven't) some of the internal history that leads to this conflict.   Most rows include both present and past causes, and those causes are both rational and irrational.   The argument over whether to buy the front-loading or top-loading washer isn't just about which is more "green" or whether "green" should trump convenience and back pain...it's also about the power balance between the people arguing, about the need to be heard, about old fights lost and won, and so on. 

Double-check your transitions.  Transitions come in many forms: temporal, spatial, cultural, emotional...each risking readers coming unglued from your story.   Readers must not be confused accidentally (mystery writers need to confuse readers but not by accident...)   Small additions to some transitions can add a few words (each) while enriching the reader's experience.   "Two weeks later, they reached the coast"  does keep readers oriented, but "Two weeks later, after delivering the children to camp, the dogs to the kennel, and a final exhausting three-day drive during which they barely spoke, Jim and Allison reached the coast and checked into the condo they'd rented" gives the reader quite a bit to chew on...preparation for the loud argument they have as soon as they lock the door behind them about the discovery, in the previous chapter, that Jim had seen Allison kissing their daughter's soccer coach and she said it was in revenge for him spending too much money "playing the market and then you lost it all!"  

Take a look at sensory balance.   Most of us have a preferred sense, and if we're not careful we write to that sense.  Visual writers give us vivid descriptions of sunsets, sunrises, mountains, waves on the shore, clothing...all with no tactile, auditory, or olfactory input.   Their books are like watching TV with subtitles for sounds.   Auditory writers are great with crash, bang, swish, plop...but may not include visual specifics...like navigating through fog.   And most of us have to be reminded that we feel with our skin, smell with our noses and mouths, taste with our mouths and noses.  We experience emotions viscerally--inside our bodies--and reveal them to others with visible changes, sounds we make, even smells.  If you're a one-sense writer, you can enrich the experience for readers by adding sensory detail in other senses...not all one other sense, and not all in one place or everything everywhere.

Also look at conversations.  Human communication is not just words--it includes behaviors that range from posture (and postural changes) to facial expressions, gestures, pitch/tone/prosody/rate of speech, and context (where and when the conversation occurs.)   Does every conversation have its behavioral component?  Even on the telephone, the POV speaker will lean into the phone, lean away, sit up or slump in the chair, walk faster or slower if on a cellphone.  Adding a little more to the setting of a conversation, a little more behavioral component, enriches at the same time that wordage grows.

Except for structural additions (when you've left part of the story skeleton out, or need a larger one) most additions can and should be "feathered" in here and there, where opportunities for enrichment occur or more muscle is needed on the bone.   Giving "skimpy" team member Rob more motivational levels, for instance, would be done bit by bit,  at the same rate you developed the others, revealing motivation as the character acts.   As long as you think of it as enrichment--as long as you add substance that enhances the story--adding isn't padding.