Editing: The Cut the Dead Wood Out Edition

Anyone who knows me (and probably a lot of people who don’t) and who has been listening to me bitch over the last month and a half has probably known that I’ve been armpit deep into a major edit.

Writers, here is the down lo: Editing a manuscript is not easy. Editing a first manuscript is enough to make you tear your eyeballs out with your jaggedly fingernailed hands (jagged because who has time for a manicure when there’s so much to do?) and throw said peepers across the kitchen and into the compost bowl. Your eyes will belong with the slugs and the fruit flies after a gazillion hours of cut and paste, semi-and-major plot shifts, and more cut, cut, cutting.

Obviously, it’s my feeling that my story is good. This story is my life, on more than one level. If I’d thought it was a stupid story, a horrible story, or a meager attempt, I would have cut my losses and erased all 175K words from my hard drive the weekend after attending my first writers conference. (In San Francisco. In 2009.) That weekend was an eyeball-opener, when I learned that what I thought was complete was so far from it, I might well have started from scratch. But you know me, hard-headed. I have a burning need to complete this novel to my satisfaction. And I would not have invested in critique groups, in associations, in conference fees, in online classes, in reference books, in following authors or studying (stalking) agents, or in editing services if I thought the book wasn’t worth it. (Let’s not add all those boxes of hair color to that fire. I have children I can blame my gray hair on.) No, I would have given up on fiction and continued my path as a wag and food snob and travel reviewer, with occasional forays into opinion pieces.

I still love food and travel, and I have plenty of opinions, but I made the choice to write a N-O-V-E-L. Writing fiction is an awesome choice, one fraught with pitfalls, one full of responsibility, and certainly not one taken lightly.

Editing is like trimming a tree. I personally subscribe to the Sukiya  or Japanese style of pruning. I try to get as close to the tree trunk as possible. I might sit under it or inside. I study whether the branches cross. I snip away anything that does, or any growth that might point down. Unlike Western gardeners, who whip out their electric trimmers and hack from the outside, I trim from within.

You know what they say, cut the dead wood out, new growth will take off.

Now that the major plot shift hurdle has been achieved, I’m back on the path of not-so-major editing. You know, tightening up my sentences, Things have been going swimmingly, at least the last few days. But in case you don’t get enough advice as to how to edit, here are a few tips that have worked for me.

1. Back story – do you need it? I thought I needed mine. After the twenty-fifth edit (or thereabouts), I realized why I wrote it in. Back story is comforting to a writer. It supports the reason for the character’s being in the writer’s mind. Other that that, you really don’t need it. The reader doesn’t need it. The reader first wants to be let in on your world. Your character must be sympathetic enough for the reader to want read on. Later on you can explain your character’s motivation by using the back story. LATER ON. I’m now in the process of eliminating all references to back story in the first part of my book. I plan on introducing some of it in the second and third parts. Where it belongs.

2. Passive verbs. Was, is, weak verbs, take them out. Change the sentence structure so that your verbs are meaty. You’re not going to eliminate all of those passive verbs, but you can definitely remove a ton.

3. Adverbs, adjectives – No, no, and no. In this current run through, I can see – clearly – too many descriptors. I’m taking out all that are unnecessary.

and finally…

4. Dialogue. It’s a good idea to read OUT LOUD your dialogue. I’ve done it several times already, but this last trip down the editing lane, I realized the speech of the son was rather stilted. Excellent grammar and good English, but not how a 20-year-old would speak. Even the socialite wouldn’t quite speak the way I had her speaking.

Keep in mind that I’m no expert and am only a student of the written word. And while the book’s not perfect – yet – I think I’ll still bask in the glow of my modest achievements.