I’d like to start by telling you about my one of my favorite film edits of all time. Top five, easy. It’s a single, straight cut between one scene and the next and it’s beyond brilliant. There’s a simply unbelievable amount of character and plot development in it. No joke, it’s a level of storytelling that most filmmakers and authors (self included) don’t have a prayer of ever achieving. I say this with complete and utter sincerity.

And Sam Raimi did it in a Spider-Man movie.

You probably know the moment. Struggling student/ photographer/ superhero (shhhhh) Peter Parker has just been introduced to physicist/ genius/ role model Otto Octavius. Otto takes a moment to criticize Peter for his laziness, but they warm up to each other as Peter makes some insightful observations about Otto’s new fusion reactor. Then Peter asks a question and Otto answers it as they finish off dinner at Otto and Rosie’s apartment later that night.

D’you know that moment? Seriously, go watch it if you don’t. Alfred Molina’s freakin’ amazing as Doctor Octopus.

Anyway, point is, we instantly know what happened during that cut. All of it. We understand how the discussion went. How they ended up back here. How their views of each other have changed over the past few hours. Yeah, it’s clearly been hours and we all know exactly what happened during them.

And just to be clear for those of you who might like to look down on superhero movies, none of this is because of pre-existing knowledge. Raimi and screenwriter Alvin Sargent were going in an all-new direction with Otto’s backstory and how it overlapped with Peter’s. They’d never been seen in this way before.

How many pages of storytelling did they fit into that cut?

Maybe a better way to look at it is, how many script pages did the movie not need because of that cut?

Truth is, most of us are pretty smart. We can figure out what goes between A and C. And between X and Z. As writers, we don’t always need to fill in every detail. Especially all the boring details. There’s lots of stuff we can skip over without hurting our story in the slightest. In a lot of cases, it’ll even make our story better.

I think this works on both a micro and a macro level. On the micro level, I’m talking about clauses and sentences and maybe paragraphs. I’ve talked in the past once or thrice about trimming away excess details. Steps in the process. Parts of the routine. Things the majority of readers will figure out happened. To put it another way, the thing that happens between A and B.

On the macro level, I’m talking about scenes or story beats or maybe even whole chapters. It’s the same idea as the micro, except we (the writers) have taken it even further, adding more details and nuance to what was already… well, unnecessary details. I’ve cut multiple pages and even whole chapters out of manuscripts once I realized the whole thing was a beautifully rendered and detailed scene that ultimately just wasn’t necessary.

And I’m sure someone just read that and said “whoa whoa WHOA! What about the art?! If that chapter’s beautifully written, isn’t that reason enough for it to be in the book?”

Well… no, to be honest. Don’t get me wrong. I love a beautiful turn of phrase or exquisite prose as much as the next guy. Probably more. I’ve read some things where other writers choose the absolutely perfect word or come up with a beautiful description and all I can say is “goddamn.” And sometimes “I’m jealous as all hell.”

The catch, of course, is those words are all describing something that needs to be in the story. It’s an aspect of writing I’ve mentioned once or thrice before. Just because something’s good doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for my book. Something can be fantastic and still just not belong in there. For any number of reasons.

F’r example, one or two of you may have read a book called Paradox Bound. And you may have heard that, in the first draft my editor saw, I had a full chapter describing Eli’s bus trip across America after he flees the Faceless Men. It was about seven or eight single-spaced pages. And it was about Eli seeing the bigger world for the first time. The assorted people on the bus. The places they briefly stopped. The food he ate for a three day bus-ride, Sleeping sitting up. Wearing the same clothes for three days. And some clever observations about life and humanity and mass transit scattered in there too.

But ultimately, when viewed as part of the whole story, absolutely none of this mattered. It was about Eli getting on a bus in Boston and getting off a bus in Pasadena. All that quiet stuff in between… well, you would’ve just assumed most of that happened. Seriously. What else would he do on a bus for three days? How much of it would’ve been painfully obvious once he stepped off the bus?

Here are three general rules of thumb I’ve developed for myself when it comes to such things. I generally cut something if…

1) The average person would know, or logically assume, B had to happen between A and C. If my character leaves work and the next time we see her she’s arriving home with a Jack in the Box takeout bag, do you immediately assume I made a big continuity error? “She didn’t have that bag when she left work!!!” Or do you just assume she stopped at Jack in the Box on the way home? We make these kind of cuts all the time. We don’t show people traveling between two points. They go to the gym and suddenly they’re in workout clothes. We see two folks sneak upstairs at the house party and then suddenly they’re in bed– flopped on their backs, breathless, and (hopefully) looking kind of happy. None of us have any confusion about what we “missed” in any of these examples.

2) If B is completely irrelevant to A and C. We can safely assume it happened during the timeline of the story (see above rule), but it has no effect whatsoever on the tale I’m telling. Perfect example of this– how many books have you read that take place over three or four or more days? Probably a lot of them, yes? If anything, a story taking place entirely in one day is a bit of a rarity.

How many times have you read about someone using the bathroom? It’s something we all inherently know happens, but we also know it’s just not that important to most stories. So we don’t question when it’s not there. Same with eating. Did these people really go for a week without eating? Or did the author just not bother showing it and save a page or two?

3) If it just works better without it. Because sometimes it does. The paragraph reads better, the action flows better, the horror has a little more punch. Sometimes I don’t want to get bogged down in the details, and neither does my reader. And as I’ve been saying above, if people are probably going to figure it out anyway, why bog things down? To paraphrase a famous lawyer, we could skip all that and just, well… get to the good stuff.

And to repeat, all three of these are just rules of thumb. It’s not hard to find examples of some beautiful writing that contributes absolutely nothing to the plot or story. But I feel safe saying it’s also not all that common.

Y’see, Timmy, if I trust my audience to figure this stuff out on their own, they’ll appreciate that trust. They’ll know I trusted them to fill in the blanks. And when they figure something out on their own, even a little thing, they’ll love what they’re reading even more.

So look back over your manuscript, go over some of those beats… and maybe give your readers the benefit of the doubt.

Next time, unless anyone’s got a better idea, I’d like to talk about this personal teleporter I invented.

Until then, go write.

July 30, 2020

Time To Reduce

As we come out of an SDCC@Home weekend where I probably ate about as healthy as I would at an actual con (I was going for the full experience) I thought it’d be a great time to talk about reducing things.

He said, in a blog post he skipped getting on the treadmill to write….

Anyway, back when I was doing the A2Q we broke down different types of editing, and one of them I touched on was reductive editing. This is when I start cutting and trimming to make my story lean and tight. Figuring out what needs to be there as opposed to all the stuff I threw down while I was working on the first draft.

And since I just finished doing this with my new book last week, I thought I’d talk about some of the cuts I made and explain why I made them.

The first cut was easy. I had a section where two chapters overlapped. I liked the overlap at first. It was an action scene with multiple characters, and I thought it kept things moving to show all of his fight and then all of her fight, even though they happened at the same time.

But when I looked at it again during my editing pass it just felt… slow. Also kinda repetitive, since I kept referring to the other fight in both versions to show how they overlapped. Also, it created an odd problem with ending the chapters—either one had to end flat or I had to repeat the cool end-beat and weaken it. So I cherry picked a bit, leaned more into his than hers (for a couple of reasons, but I feel pretty good about it for the moment) and then cut 750 words of overlap.

The next one was rough. Throughout the book I had a few chapters where we switched POV and checked in with the main antagonist—the big bad in charge. Essentially, that big voice going “Meanwhile, at the mad scientist’s lair…” Thing is, these chapters never sat right at any point in the process. Not in my first draft. Not in my second, “cleaning up” draft. I didn’t want to give away too much in these chapters (since my villain was much more in the know than my protagonist), but it was hard not to mention some things without feeling like characters were deliberately not talking about things.

I’m not sure exactly what did it, but I know during my second draft I had the realization that I could probably cut one of these POV chapters altogether. There wasn’t a lot of necessary information in it, and I realized what there was I could shift to other chapters and characters without any real trouble. And that made me suddenly wonder… wait, do I actually need any of these chapters? I mean, a big chunk of the first one was just backstory justifying the antagonist and their behavior… while not talking about anything that would give things away. Another one introduced a character I’d only created to make some exposition read better. The more I looked at it… yeah, I’d definitely have to rework some things, but for the story I was telling these chapters were really distracting and didn’t add anything. Heck—two of them I still hadn’t even fleshed out, even though they’d been through two drafts.

So that was another six thousand words gone. A little over six thousand, really. Only a few pounding heartbeats for that one. And now the knives come out. Time for the death of a thousand cuts.

I’ve talked before about looking out for overused words. So I did a couple passes looking for that, adverbs, a lot of the “somewhat” words and phrases I can’t help but use in train-of-thought mode. We all have them, and you might already be aware of yours. If not, feel free to borrow mine for now and see where they get you.
I also had some other things that I was worried about—words that might be showing up a lot by nature of this specific story and how it was being told. That was another pass or three through the manuscript. I was kinda surprised that one or two didn’t get used as much as I thought they would, but… one I included as an afterthought showed up way more than I expected. Think I deleted eighty-something uses of that one.

One thing that did strike me with this is I didn’t find a lot of my usual padding. The adverbs and the “somewhat” phrases. It was still there, yeah, but not as thick as I’ve piled it on at times in the past. After twelve full books, I’m finally improving. Maybe.

In the end not quite a death of a thousand cuts. With additions and rewrites as I went, it worked out to a little over 300 words less. A full page gone.

That’s how this part of editing goes. Word by word. Sometimes chapter by chapter. All of this added up about 7,250 words gone out of what began as a 124K manuscript. And I still may trim a little more when I get notes back from my beta readers.

Next time, if you’re up for it, I’d like to play doctor for a little bit. No, not like that. Get your minds out of the gutter!

Until then, go write…

April 9, 2020

A2Q Part Nine—Editing

Well, if all goes well, we’re making a big time jump here. All the past things I’ve been blathering on about—plot, characters, story, theme—these are all elements that we can spend a day or three on. Maybe even less, if they’ve been fermenting in my head.

But between last week and this week, well… hypothetically a lot of time has passed. I’m really, really hoping you didn’t write an entire first draft in a week. If you did… well, that’s another issue we need to discuss. I’m hoping you took your time, within reason, and we are—hypothetically—a month or two or maybe even six later.

You have a first draft now. And it’s a beautiful thing. Maybe the file is so big it’s an entire meg on your computer. An entire megabyte of your words. I know that might sound laughable or dismissive, but seriously—you need a lot to hit a one megabyte Word file.

But…

(yeah, here comes the but)

…it needs editing. No probably. There’s a chance you wrote a perfect, flawless first draft, but more than likely… you didn’t. I haven’t yet and I’ve been doing this for a while.

It’s okay, though. Everybody needs to edit. Everyone. Anyone who says they don’t is either A) lying to you or 2) delusional. Our work needs editing and revising. If you remember waaaay back at the beginning of the A2Q, I talked about how ideas need to be cut and polished like diamonds? Well, that’s what we’re doing now. Figuring out what needs to be cut and then giving it all a good polish.

Again… this is okay. Don’t worry. Every book you’ve ever loved has gone through this process. And we’re going to go through it so this book can be one other people can love.

Ready?

First up, the easy part. This is a 100% complete draft, right? Beginning, middle, and end? I’m not going to get a hundred pages in and find blank space or notes to myself like [FIND WHAT THESE ARE REALLY CALLED] or [ASK ELLEN HOW TO DO THIS]. There’s nothing wrong with doing that on a first pass—I do it all the time—but before I start editing I need to fill in those spaces in my book with actual, y’know, book.

So, again… this is a 100% complete draft, right?

Fantastic.

Before diving in, may I suggest taking some time away from your book. You don’t want to finish a draft, then turn right around and start the next one. We want to get a little space, and let things fade in our mind a bit. I don’t want to be looking at the manuscript in my head, I want to be seeing the one in front of me—the one everybody else is going to see. We’re going to need some stark honestly for this, so I want to be clear what’s really there.

One tip for this—I’d suggest switching the font. Go from Times Roman to Courier. If you’re one of those folks who likes to write in Comic Sans, switch it back to Times. A different font is going to make everything sit differently on the page and it’ll make you actually read what’s on the page. You’ll become very aware of what is and isn’t there, and catch a lot of stuff that’s been sliding past you.

Once you’ve taken some time away, changed the format… read it. Just read through this new manuscript with those fresh eyes. Maybe make some quick notes, but for now just read it. Again—don’t remember it, read it. Try to see what’s really there on the page.

Now, I’ve talked about editing a bunch of times. It’s a big umbrella that a lot of things fall under, many of which I think can get broken down into three categories or types. It is my humble opinion that one of the big reasons people have issues with editing is they get these different types confused because they never get more specific than “editing.” I want to talk about each of these three types of editing and maybe give a few examples of each. You may have heard of one or two of them.

First up is story editing. This is when we try to improve the plot and story by reorganizing different elements, clarifying them, maybe even adding to them. Sometimes we might even add all-new elements.

Second is what I’m going to call reductive editing. This is when we’re cutting things, usually to tighten up dialogue, descriptions, and maybe even to simplify larger elements a bit. Sometimes, in all honesty, we’re just cutting to get closer to a certain word count.

Third is copyediting. This is when we’re correcting things throughout the manuscript. Formatting. Spelling. Grammar. The nuts and bolts things that are still important because they’re holding things together.

You may notice there seems to a bit of overlap here. I’d say it’s a little less “overlap” and a little more “weaving between lanes in high traffic,” as we’ll see. You may have also heard different names or definitions for these. Look, I never claimed to be an English major or anything. If you’ve heard it called something else, cool. I’m just trying to make this easy to distinguish.

Anyway… let’s go through these in a little more detail.

We’ve kind of talked about story editing already, in a sense. When we first had that pile of ideas and notes and we started sifting and arranging them into an outline—that was story editing. Trying to find the best order for things, the best way to introduce different elements, and so on. That’s what this is—taking what we’ve already got and figuring out if we can make it even better.

Yeah, we’ve already done that. But now we’ve written everything out. We’ve got a better sense of the characters and the size of the events and how they’re going to land with my audience. Maybe that needed a little more description than we thought and that bit needs a lot less. And maybe we’ve realized some of this… doesn’t really serve any purpose.

This is one of the reasons we want to look at this with fresh eyes. So I can see where problems have developed. Or maybe they were there all along, but I couldn’t recognize them until it was all here in front of me.

F’r example, now that I’ve looked at all of this again, does it have a good dramatic structure? Does the tension start low and rise throughout the book (maybe with a few dips and drops here and there for our heroes)? How’s the pacing? Does it feel like there are any slow parts that just stretch on a little too long with nothing actually happening?

That’s a good one right there? Are things happening? Are events pushing the plot and my characters’ stories along? Or are they stalling out in places. Are people talking or thinking about doing things more than they’re… y’know, doing things?

This is story editing. Taking an honest look and deciding what story elements do and don’t need to be there. Or maybe just need to shift to somewhere else.

Also—don’t get scared here if it looks like you need to make big changes. If it turns out my outline was wrong, then it was wrong. So what? The first draft’s done. Make a new outline if you want and then write to that one. I’ve written a complete first draft and then gone back and completely rewritten the ending, or ripped out whole chapters. It happens. Don’t worry if it does.

Next up is what I’m calling reductive editing. This is something I’ve talked about a lot here on the ranty blog. We all get a little wordy in our first drafts. We use a few too many adverbs. We describe things with a bit too much detail. We let conversations go on and on. And we also tend to…

Okay, a thought exercise for you. If I said you no-questions had to get rid of three characters in this book—three characters with names and/or dialogue, who would you pick? Why did they jump right to mind? Is it because you knew getting rid of Wakko wouldn’t mean too much rewriting? Or because Dot and Yakko could be merged into one character (Dakko? Yot?) pretty easily? Because really… they don’t do that much.

We all do this. We bulk up characters and their descriptions and subplots, letting them take up a lot more space on the page than their actual contributions might warrant. I’m not saying every single character has to be a vital linchpin to the plot, but… well, how fast did you come up with three characters you could cut?

And I’m sure some folks reading this are thinking “Ha ha, good thing there’s absolutely no literary fat in my manuscript. Every single element is perfectly balanced and artistically necessary.” Which, yeah, there’s a chance it is. Maybe.

But remember this. As a first time author—hell, even as a successful one—the odds of a sale are better with a smaller, tighter book. No one’s saying a publisher won’t look at something big, but if I can trim two or three thousand words off my manuscript it can make a difference. Even just a psychological difference, when they look at that cover page and see 98K words instead of 101K words.

Finally, there’s copyediting. The often long and painful process of going through a manuscript line by line, word by word, and making sure everything’s correct. I’m using the correct words, spelled the right way. I’ve got commas where I need them and all my dialogue’s got quotation marks at both ends. Indents and spacing and page numbers.

People get contentious about this for a few reasons. Some folks will declare writing doesn’t have rules and they can do whatever they want, however they want. Others say it’s irrelevant because the genius of their writing will shine past all that to illuminate the heart and soul of the reader. And still others say, well… I mean, isn’t that the publisher’s job? They’ve got people for that, and they know this isn’t going to be perfect.

There’s a bunch of problems with all these views, biggest among them… what if I plan on publishing it myself? If I’m the publisher I need to be able to do all of this. And if I want someone else to publish it… well, why would they bother to look at it if I can’t be bothered to give them my best work? I mean, if they get those first fifty pages and it’s clear I didn’t even bother to fix my spelling mistakes, what else didn’t I bother with?

And to be clear—there are times my story might require typos and odd grammar. I occasionally spell words in odd ways. I sometimes take certain stylistic liberties with commas when I write. So do a lot of writers I know. But it’s always very clear this is a deliberate thing—I know I’m doing it and why I’m doing it. But these are exceptions, and exceptions by their very nature are rare things.

So there’s a bunch of editing thoughts. Let’s apply some of them. Remember that first page and a half  of our werewolf novel I wrote last time…?

++++++++++
Chapter One
            “Luna!”
            Phoebe sifted through the laundry pile again, willing the black top to appear even though it hadn’t the last three times she’d looked. “Luna,” she bellowed again.
            Upstairs the sound of the shower finally stopped and she heard the thump of feet on the wooden floor. The bathroom door creaked open. “What?”
            “Where’s my black top? The one with the ribbing?”
            “I’m trying to get ready,” her little sister growled. “I’m going out!”
            “So am I! Where is it?”
            “How should I know?”
            “You borrowed it last night. You promised you’d wash it.”
            Silence. Then the bathroom door creaked again quietly.
            “Luna!”
            What?” Her voice echoed in the small house.
            “Where is it?”
            A sigh echoed down the stairs. “I’ll get you a new one.”
            “You’ll what?”
            “I kind of… misplaced it.”
            “You what?”
            “I lost it, okay. I said I’ll get you a new one.”
            “Goddammit. I wanted it tonight. It fits under my armor.” She looked at the leather sleeves, vest, and gorget piled on the bed. Her mom’s old hand-me-down armor. Stained dark brown with years of oil and sweat and blood that sank in before it could be cleaned off.
            “Wear the green one.”
            “It’s long-sleeved and I wore it last night. It stinks.”
            “It’s not like anyone’s going to complain.”
            Phoebe bit back a sigh of her own sigh and marched over to the hamper of dirty clothes. “How did you ‘misplace’ lose it?”
            “I was at a party.”
            “That’s not an answer.”
            “Yes it is,” Luna sang down the stairs. “I’m getting back in the shower now.”
            “We’re going to talk about this later.”
            “Whatever.” The bathroom door creaked shut and hot water started to gush flowed again.
            They’d have to talk about that too. The water bill and the gas bill had been high last month. Phoebe felt pretty sure Luna’s long showers were a major big part of that.
            She pulled the green top from the hamper. It had been warm last night, especially under all the leather, and she’d sweated a lot. The top was still damp, and it reeked. But it was that or she could try to find a Henley or turtleneck that wouldn’t bunch up under the armor and slow her down.
            She sure as hell wasn’t going to be some B-movie cliché, hunting werewolves with nothing on but a leather vest.
++++++++++

Let’s talk about some of the tweaks.

As far as story editing goes, you’ll notice I changed “mom’s old armor” to “hand-me-down armor.” Now it feels less sentimental and more a necessity from lack of funds—a subtle hint at their financial status.

For reductive editing, I snipped some adverbs and redundant words. Only seven altogether (when we count what I added in). Doesn’t seem like much, but this was only a page and a half. At that rate, we’re talking about 1,400 words cut out of a 300 page manuscript—closer to 294 pages at that point. And those were really minimal cuts, weren’t they?

There wasn’t a lot to copyedit because, well, I checked it all as a regular part of the blog post last time. But I remember there were two or three typos in it, because I scribbled that all out really fast. One of them was my thumb not hitting the space bar hard enough so two words ran together.

Also worth mentioning you don’t have to do all of this at once. Some people like to just work in a single document through the whole process. Others write, save it as a draft, do an editing pass, save it as a draft, do another editing pass, save a draft, and so on. I’ve talked about my own method before, but figure out what works for you.

Y’see Timmy, that’s one of the toughest thing about trying to explain editing—even just these small tweaks. A lot of it does just come down to figuring it out. Yeah, we can study grammar, but so much of the raw art of it is just experience. Being honest with myself about my own work. Writing a lot. Reading a lot. Making mistakes. Learning from them. It’s how we get a sense of which words fit and which ones don’t. And like so much of this, it’s a flexible thing. Just because it worked last time doesn’t mean it’ll work every time.

In the end, the goal is to make this the best I possibly can. Not the best first draft or the best it can before I get bored. Ugly truth is, it’s going to be work, it’s going to take time and there’ll be points when you go back and forth about cutting or keeping things. That’s just the way it goes. But it’ll get slightly easier every time. I promise.

…at least, until you try to write a more complex book.

But we’ll get to that another time.

I think I’ve still two or three post left in this whole big process thing. Hopefully you’re still interested to read them. But next time I may take a quick break from the A2Q to talk about some related ideas.

Until then, go write.

And edit.

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