Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Department of Redundancy Department – Self Editing for Fiction Writers

Ah, the two faces of the beloved first draft. For most writers its a love/hate relationship. It's love because it is your first crack at a story. You pour in all your ideas, weave your spells of characterization, detail, plot, theme, mood and swirl it into a climax that would blow away the reader. It's a passionate first kiss, one that reaches into your soul and touches you. Ahhhh, sweet bliss.

But most of us know the truth. Once all the kissing, groping and tumbling have been done, you move on from your first draft. You let it sit for a while, to mellow with age and to allow you a little perspective on your beautiful opus. You return (sometimes a month or two later - maybe only a couple weeks) and you see what you were so enamored of - and its' horrifying! This little misshapen goblin was the one you were swooning over? Why, it would be perfect to play an grotesque imp in some low budget Roger Corman film - not the beautiful epic you were hoping. The horror breaks you down, you cry, and then curl up in a sock drawer and sleep for days.

At least that's how I feel.

But then you come back to your little misshapen critter and start to work with it. You realize it's not so bad, just a little bit awkward. With some proper training and fine tuning you'll have something presentable, maybe even something that is as epic as you were hoping for. The trick is to use your editing skills to make this story work as a whole. And that is where a book liked "Self Editing for Publication" can come in so handy.

The book goes through and guides the writer down paths of looking at their work in a new light, pointing out common mistakes and issues that writers make and offering suggestions on making the most of your story. And all this advice coming from two professional editors - well it's very helpful. The issue that I'm very guilty of in all my first drafts is repeating the same basic point in a few different ways. It could be as simple as having two sentences say the same thing, with slight differences. Or it could be the fact that I'll take what I think is a clever and interesting element and slam the reader over the head with it. The end result is useless exposition that causes the reader to feel bogged down.

Here's a nice example:

Karen shifted in her seat again. The light from between the blinds was angling in, right into her eyes, causing her to blink. She couldn't see the television screen at all. The blazing light was blinding her. She slid to the other end of the couch. It didn't do any good, because now a wall of dust was filtering into the shaft of sunlight. Barry looked at her with a slight frown on his face, "Don't you like the movie?"

As you can see, there's lots of description going on here. It's nice and all, but most you probably got the point after first couple sentences. So does this new version read any better?

Karen shifted in her seat again. The light from between the blinds was angling right into her eyes. The blazing light completely blinded her view of the television. She slid to the other end of the couch. No good. Now a wall of dust was filtering into the shaft of sunlight and obscured the TV completely. Barry looked at her with a slight frown, "Don't you like the movie?"

See, it's a bit more honed and the same idea get's across with less words. Of course you could just say:

Karen couldn't see the television because of the light. Barry asked her, "Don't you like the movie?"

But now we just got into - show, don't tell. The previous two sentences just tell the reader what's going on, and my the middle paragraph shows the action and Barry's reaction to the reader. So, the middle one wins! Yay!

Not that it's perfect. I'm still working on this kind of thing all the time, but now I can recognize my issues, especially with repetition. I just have to get over all the red ink on my document. It hurts to cut, but with some skill you can take fragments of the cuts and craft something new. The important thing to keep in mind is your target audience. You don't want the reader bored to tears because you beat something to death with over- explanation. You make your point and finish.

That's what I'll do now with this blog. :-)

What are issues you face during your editing of a draft? Do you struggle with editing or do you look forward to it? As a reader, do you find long passages of exposition a real chore to read or do you get pulled in (and why does a passage of exposition work for you)? Do you think Karen should try sitting on top of Barry (evidentially he can see fine)?


Anonymous said...

I always find the first draft of anything the hardest...there's nothing more intimdating than the blank page!

Roman J. Martel said...

I agree. It's always a struggle to get into the first portion of the story. And when I go back to review that section in my editing process, it's always the roughest part. I can almost read the gears turning on the page. :-)