Tuesday, March 17, 2015
Hank Speaks: How I Edit
A fellow writer asked, via Instagram, how I go about editing as a writer who generally doesn’t outline at all. Generally speaking, my Inner Editor acts in different ways at different points in the process. Because I don’t feel like writing the phrase “Inner Editor” a whole lot of times, so he has a new name: Hank. Yeah, my Inner Editor sounds like a Hank. He’s an annoying and insistent fellow who is nevertheless always, always right. Seriously, Hank is always right. And even when I think I have him dead to rights, and I've caught him in a blatant error...he's still right.
During the actual writing of the first draft, Hank is required to sit down and shut up, except for instances of the story going in the wrong direction. One of those happened just this morning! I was starting a scene, and for some reason I was badly stalling on it. Sometimes when this happens it’s just my mood, but other times it’s an indicator of something worse going on, and that was the case this time. I put Hank in the corner with a six-pack of beer and some DVDs of 1970s sitcoms, and he was happy for a while, only occasionally looking up to see what I was doing. But as I sat and sat, staring at the screen and then writing a few sentences and then staring some more and scrawling a few more sentences and just a-struggling along, Hank finally let out a giant belch, which is his usual signal that I need to listen to him.
“They’re in the wrong place,” he said.
“Who?” I asked.
“Your characters. They’re in the wrong place. They can’t be there.”
At this he rolled his eyes, because they answer should have been as clear as day...and it was. There’s a very prime reason why my characters could not be in that location at that time, without something else very inconvenient happening by virtue of one of them being there. The characters in question are looking for a third character who may or may not be a villain and who has certainly gone to ground. So they’re looking for this guy. Problem is, there is a very noticeable physical characteristic about one of these characters that can’t be disguised away, so it follows that they cannot be in this location.
That kind of thing is all that Hank is allowed to talk about when I’m writing a first draft. He’s allowed to notice when I’ve taken wrong turns, and he nags louder and louder and louder until I listen. One time, when writing Stardancer, it took me three chapters before I realized that he was right and that I was ignoring him at my book’s peril. Hank’s sense, in moments like these, is for the storytelling. Hank is not allowed, at this point, to bring up anything about grammar or word choice or characterization or scenes that should not be.
When I’m done drafting, into the desk goes the draft (or onto a bunch of electronic storage media), for several months. Then, and only then, do I let Hank have a look.
That’s when he gets out his tools: scissors, hacksaws, chainsaws, butcher knives, meat cleavers, and a fifty-five gallon drum of White-Out.
Yup, Hank’s second trip through the manuscript is a brutal one. That’s when he gets to complain about anything and everything. That paragraph is too long. That paragraph is too short. Using an awful lot of words to say something simple here; but here, what’s the big damn rush? You can get poetic there. Is there a need for that adjective? How the hell did that disgusting adverb get in there? Does this conversation really need to go on this long? You do realize that this character is acting like an idiot here, don’t you?
Those are all very essential things for Hank to spot, but what I like even more are the bits where he says things like: “Hey, this scene here? You don’t set this up very well.” Also, I dig things like when he points out things I hadn’t properly considered, such as random plot elements that don’t end up going anywhere. I tend to have a lot of these as a pantser, as a lot of times I’m writing along and I think, “Maybe this character ends up being important somehow, so lets draw him forth a bit,” and then he disappears completely; then, months later, Hank reads that passage and says, “Yeah, cut this fellow. You don’t do anything with him.” A good example of this is in the early going of Princesses In SPACE!!! Book II: Even Princessier (not the actual title), when I have a character show up who basically does nothing but glower at Princess Tariana. She wonders what his deal is, but he glowers at her a few more times, exits stage left, and...that’s it. Never went anywhere, so out he went when Hank got there.
Hank is also ruthless when he sniffs out passages that were obviously written when I wasn’t quite sure what was supposed to happen next, and thus was basically riffing to fill the day’s word quota. Hank ends up getting quite the workout on that second trip through the book...and then he gets another workout at proofreading time, when he’s even more ruthlessly seeking out typos and errors of that sort. Even then, he can’t stop entirely, and he ends up cutting even more useless, needless words along the way. Hank is very good at this, and he’s saved me a lot of grief. Sometimes, once in a great while, Hank will deign to drop me a compliment here or there. Hank is a pretty crusty guy, after all.
Hank is most ruthless, however, during dialogue passages. Boy Howdy, is he ever. He'll gleefully cut a ten page conversation down to three pages, if he can -- and sometimes indeed he can, because I've seen him do it. He'll delete many words from characters' mouths; he'll strike down entire speeches. Long talking scenes frustrate Hank, which is probably good because I actually enjoy writing them -- maybe a little too much, so it's useful for Hank to come along and say, "Talk talk talk, that's all your characters do." Hank likes action.
Hank also likes clarity. He hates it when I'm vague and when he can't picture something in his head as I'm describing it. He'll drill the hell out of me if he's having a hard time figuring out what I'm describing.
Yeah, I’d be lost without Hank.
What ultimately makes Hank – and therefore my own editing – successful, in my view, is how ruthless I can be when reading my own writing. I’m not sure where this “gift” comes from, but I’ve long had an ability to be very hard on myself, and I think this is essential in appraising one’s own writing. True story: a number of times in my professional career I’ve had a boss come to me, at Performance Review time, and give me a blank form with the instructions that I was to appraise my own performance and then we’d compare notes. Every single time I’ve done this, I’ve painted a much bleaker picture of my own performance than my bosses. Maybe that’s a self-esteem thing, or maybe it’s a perverse sense that if I can be harder on myself than they are, the actual discussion will go better. (Which is, I must admit, what generally happens.)
I don’t approach my manuscripts with the sense that I’m actually not good and that the books are terrible, because I simply don’t think that’s the case. I’ll likely carry to my grave my conviction that with Stardancer I wrote a good book. But I’ll never believe that it can’t be better, and to this day, whenever I peruse that book to look things up, I’ll hear a voice in the background, saying, “Dammit! I shoulda caught that.” It’s Hank, of course. He’s ever trying to improve, which he’ll need to do, assuming that I keep getting better at this for a while.
Whether that’s a good assumption or not, of course, is a matter for time to tell.