Editing: Taunting cursors, hunting ducks


My brain is locked on a passage, incapable of moving forward without some kind of noticeable improvement. Something's wrong. The wording? Maybe. Is it the cadence? Possibly. Should I just delete it and rewrite the sentence altogether? Who the fuck knows. It's not even a critical passage, just transitory work to tie two concepts together. But I can't get rid of it without decimating the flow and structure. I read it aloud, trying on different hats and patterns to see if it's just my brain feeling fuzzy. Nothing seems to work. I stare at the screen, the cursor taunting me while Charles Mingus plays joyously in the background. But I love the taunting, I welcome its persistent challenge, and I chase that damn cursor deeper and deeper inside the story, knowing that I'll soon conquer this passage, and, more importantly, every passage after it, until the story is finally done.

Editing is hard work.

After completing the first (very) rough draft of my manuscript, I'm slopping through a thick swamp right now, refining and rewriting to nail down any plot-holes (you're welcome, Batman fans) and ensure consistency throughout the narrative. The first draft is always going to be messy, I've made my peace with that long ago -- I learn so much about my world and characters by putting them through my narrative that evolution is unavoidable once I start editing -- but the process itself can be a grueling, often overwhelming task. That being said, I do love to edit. My background in journalism/copy editing makes the process strangely familiar and friendly, like drinking hot cider in the winter and thinking, "Fuck, why don't we drink this year round?!"

I've seen it all editing other people's work (and my own earlier garbage), so editing a manuscript now is actually quite calming. Just put on some good music, hop in the cockpit, and find some Russian planes to shoot down. There's a certain Zen quality to editing (and shooting down Russian planes), and I thought it might be helpful/interesting/whatever to share some of that weird, grueling peace with you on A, ROBOT. I'm not sure if this is advice or if I'm just decompressing my brain, either way, I hope it's not a waste of time.

Duck hunting

Some writers take meticulous notes for years before they jump into a story, planning out every single aspect of every page before ever writing a single meaningful word. I am not one of those people. I collect notes as I go, finding things from every medium to add to a collection of "incubation notes." My incubation notes are the core concepts that originally fire me up for a story, and once I'm fired up, I have to start working right away. I can figure out the details as I go, but I want to retain that boiling momentum at the onset of creation.

Because of that process, I collect more notes after I've already started writing than I could ever capture before. The characters become more solid as I shove them through the meat grinder, the world becomes more real as I put people in it, and, as such, I find inspiration everywhere around me; I see my world and my people on television, in books, in movies, everywhere. And that means notes, notes, and notes.

I used to struggle a lot with having more notes than I could handle. All these great ideas, no concept of how to piece them together into an already-baked story. It's hard to uncook a pizza, and it can be daunting to search through a collection of unfiltered, disorganized notes and try to implement them. Organization is the key. Once the first draft is done, I go through my notes (phone, notebook, e-mail, etc.) and bring them together and then start to delete ones that have been usurped by the plot or are stupid. The ones that I retain go into buckets for characters, for plot points, etc., and as I go through editing, I keep my notes at the ready to ensure I'm prepared to insert those new/updated elements into the story at the right moment. I constantly read and re-read my notes, too: Winding down in bed, first thing after I wake up, when I'm bored or procrastinating (shhh, don't tell). There's nothing worse than having a key element to add to your story, but to lose it to your notebook because you're unprepared/disorganized. It's a bit like Duck Hunt. When a duck pops up, you better shoot it quickly or lose it to the sky.

Disassociation

This is the hardest thing for most writers to do. People fall in love with their work; treat their stories like children. And they are our children. Each story is a piece of the author, made from DNA and fleshy brain wrinkles and all sorts of other goodies, and it's all right to feel that way (most of the time). The only time it's not okay to turn your words into offspring is when you're editing. During that process, I think of my manuscript as an ugly throwaway baby, one that the Spartans would've chucked into the dead baby pit. I have one chance before the baby-chuckers show up to put some rouge on its cheeks and hide it's malformed head with a colorful wrap. Editing should be brutal and merciless, and all the love and compassion that you put into the conceptual story has to go right out the window during this phase (and into the baby pit, obviously). Those words aren't really you, they aren't a real representation of you as an author, they're masking themselves as "you," but they're not. They are ideas, some good, some bad, but they're unfinished, and it's your responsibility as the writer to take those ideas and truly make them your own. Time gives you perspective and clarity. Give them the eyes of an outsider, give them context and conscience, and then treat them boldly.

Cut the shit

Fluff comes out of frustration. I rarely run into writer's block, but when I am frustrated with a narrative or passage I tend to put on my bull horns and try to power through. While it's a beneficial skill for maintaining momentum, it also produces a fecal matter I like to call 'fluff.' But that's what makes editing so great. I get to go back into that wreckage and remove all the unnecessary shit (no pun intended), without the rage-inducing bull horns distracting my prose. Editing should be fun and easy; the hard work of getting your core narrative built is done, now you just get to hone it and make it what you meant it to be all along. The best way to make that happen? CUT THE SHIT. It's that easy. If it's unnecessary, if it's a distraction from your plot, if it doesn't add to your characters, or if it's just overly-wordy, cut it. Grind the stone until it is polished, don't just tell yourself it's polished.

Stay on target 

Just leaving a quick reminder for myself before I close this post and get back to editing like a good boy: "Hey, asshole. Stick to your schedule, you're still writing!" All right, that's all. Have a good day.