The Joys of Editing

I’ve spent the last couple three weeks editing Pipeline, and I have to admit I’ve enjoyed it. I remember reading in On Writing where Stephen King said he loves the editing process because he gets to take what’s good and make it better. I kind of smirked when I read that and thought he must be some kind of anal retentive idiot or a glutton for punishment, because I’ve never liked editing. In some ways, it feels like I’m taking away from what I’ve done. It’s a natural feeling. Isaac Asimov refused to edit, outside of fixing typos. He said that it took away from the spontaneity. I can see that.

But I didn’t know as much about editing back when I read Stephen King’s words. I was looking at the glass as half empty, never realizing that, by taking away from it, I was filling it up.

Sounds awfully Zen, doesn’t it? But it’s true: besides getting rid of those embarrassing typos (for some reason I always want to spell the word gauge g-u-a-g-e. I’m not sure if I just get in a hurry or what), but you get to clear up things a reader might misunderstand. Or not understand at all. In going over my manuscript, I came across sentences that I can clearly remember had meaning when I wrote them, but now they just make me shake my head. I read them and think, I knew what that meant back then, but what the hell was I trying to say?

It also gives you an opportunity to clear up things that are worded silly. The things that make you go, Why did I word it that way? They’re like the embarrassing typos: you’re glad you get a chance to catch them. Unintentional comedy isn’t much fun. You end up not so much asking yourself what you were thinking when you wrote that as were you thinking at all.

But another problem I was able to take care of was getting the ms down to a manageable size. In this case, because the story is so long, I broke it down into two book, tentatively titled Pipeline: Startup and Pipeline: Franchise (I’ve always been horrible at titles). It helped that there are two story arcs within the overall plotline, and that shows in how I broke them up. I took the first book to the point where he’s about to take over his own territory as a distributor, and the second book details what happened after he moved up. Hence, the titles.

Doing that made me feel better. I’d spent a lot of time wondering how to pitch the book. Should I leave it as one story? Or break it into two or more books? It was a tough decision. I like long books and, as a reader, I’d enjoy losing myself in something that would come out to around 700 pages (at a guess), as long as it was good.

But that’s the catch: it has to be good. So far, it looks like it is. The people in my writer’s group all like it very much. It’s flattering to know there’s something of a Lyle Villines fan club there. Since I’m not completely convinced I’m a good writer on some levels, at least, having something like that happen is pretty neat.

With all due respect to those in my group, though, the question remains: is it good enough to sell that way?

Answer: probably not.

Some first-time authors can get away with that kind of thing. Look at Gone With the Wind. Or don’t. It’s an old novel, and the standards were different back then. Most of the ones who can get away with it, though, are writing in the literary genre (whatever that is). They’re writing introspective books, where the characters take long passages of staring at their navels.

Crime readers aren’t fans of navel lint.

They like the smell of cordite in the air and the ring of gunshots. They want action, man.

Pipeline has action, but it’s a big chunk. It needed broken down into something manageable. Editing it gave me a chance to do that.

Of course, I talked to Duke Pennell, whose opinion I highly respect, and he’s the one who stressed to me that no one would entertain buying a first-time novel of that length. I was halfway there already and, to be honest, was looking for help. I felt too close to the story to break it down to one book. Duke suggested making it two, and I guess that liberated me somehow, because I started it the next day. I’ve gone from one novel that (with a second edit unfinished) clocked in at 207,126 (these numbers include chapter headings, which won’t amount to much) to two novels with 95,995 words for Startup and, in the middle of the second edit, 90,003 words for Franchise. Both are just a little over the 90,000-word recommendation, but far below the upper limit of 109,000 that pushes the envelope.

Duke, by the way (shameless plug alert), offers editing services and also publishes the ezine Frontier Tales.

Editing also gave the chance to cull out unnecessary scenes. Yes, you read right: scenes. Not just words or even full sentences/paragraphs, but whole scenes. I doubt I’m the only one, but it’s bound to happen to me more often because I write seat-of-the-pants. Because I do, I often take off following paths that dead-end in one way or another. I had scenes that I used to impart some knowledge about the drug trade without using the infamous info-dump but, in the end, they were scenes that served no purpose, other than to impart that knowledge. There were better ways to do it, and the information could be summed up in a few sentences, if I decided it was absolutely important.

That’s why there’s a disparity between the old word count and adding up the two novels. Some scenes just didn’t make the cut. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched the extras on a DVD and the director and/or producer relates that, while he may have loved a certain scene, it got cut from the final edit because it was redundant or didn’t forward the story. These were the two things I tried to keep in mind when evaluating scenes. Because of this, I cut a scene where Lyle meets with his Smurf early in the novel and we learn about Lori Arnold, the sister of actor Tom Arnold, who was one of the first major meth dealers in America. I didn’t need to use 2,000+ words to do that. Sure, you got to meet the Smurf, but he never reappears, who why bother? In the same vein, a scene where Lyle consults with a guy whose an expert on smuggling didn’t make the grade, and for the same reasons, if not more so. Both of these scenes were good scenes, and I don’t regret writing them because there’s no such thing as wasted writing. I won’t toss them. When I edit, I make a copy of the original file and edit that. And even that is a copy of a file where I’ve gone through and made notes. I need that because I don’t do chapter breaks or any of that on first draft. I just write. Only section breaks are there. I don’t want to have to worry about where to end a chapter while I’m writing. That’s a technicality I can save for later.

In the end, editing is like taking an old car that’s been sitting in the garage too long out to wash and polish it. You want to make it shine. And, just like waxing a car, it’s hard work, but it’s all worth it when you get to stand back and look at it gleaming in the sun. Makes you want to take it out for a drive, let other people see it.

That’s what I’m going to do next.

Later,

Gil

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