Thursday, April 15, 2010
The Big Red One
Pencil, that is.
You know, for the stuff that has to go. No room, gotta keep word count down, paper and ink costs money. Plus, there's the small problem of boring readers.
Sound familiar? It's a refrain in the back of the mind of all writers, since we are, perforce, editors too. We've got to be! We make a million little decisions each day, and somehow muster the nerve not to think about them too much.
Self-doubt is the worst enemy a writer can have (as opposed to Scotch, which is too often blamed) ... it can cripple us, leave us for dead, and blow sand and dust over the bones of our dreamt-of careers with all the equanimity of Monument Valley.
In short, self-doubt sucks. When we write something, we've got to be able to trust our instincts. OURS. Not a reader's, a critique group, a parent, a spouse or the cat. That's the only way books get written ... by closing our eyes and taking a big giant leap of faith that we're not making complete fools of ourselves.
Now, that said ... once the book is finished, and we're reasonably pleased with it, perhaps having experienced a few of those moments of exhilaration you get when you feel both entertained by what you've written and proud that you wrote it ... once it's done, we need to put on the other hat.
The editor's, which can look remarkably like one of those undertaker hats from an old western.
For editors, my friends, come to bury words, not to praise them. And even through those moments of exhilaration will come passages that slow down the pace, that clog the action, that may be pretty sitting there, but will make a reader put down the book, yawn, and say she needs to start another one, this one's boring.
Hence, the red pencil.
And--if you're lucky--your editor's ear is perfectly tuned to what are pretty DVD extras and what is essential. And--if you're lucky--your ear can get tuned to the same frequency, so that there will be less and less revision required. You put on the undertaker's hat, and bury the rotten stuff (and sometimes good stuff to be recycled later) before anyone else gets wise.
Of course, if you're a writer who is told to "add more, develop this more, we need this fleshed out" ... well, then your editor is wearing a Frankenstein wig and asking you to resurrect thoughts and emotions that you were done with ages ago, in the interests of character development or tension building or beefing up page count. So you make like Marty Feldman, and you listen.
You always listen to editors. Except when you don't, though I haven't yet experienced that dilemma.
I'm one of the red pencil writers, and I'm lucky to have a wonderful, experienced and understanding editor. She let me wear the hat and trim the beginning of City of Dragons until I felt it was taught and tight enough to engage a reader who wouldn't necessarily care about the Chinese Telephone Exchange building on Washington Street. And she was happy, and I was happy. But I was prepared to advocate for some of my favorite bits later in the book; I was prepared with arguments. Fortunately for me, I didn't have to use them.
My rule is simple: I listen to suggestions (from my agent, say) and figure out what it is about the passage or the paragraph or the line that is bothersome. Then I try to rewrite it. And if it's truly a necessary bit that adds life or energy or suspense or characterization to the novel, I can rewrite it. If I have trouble with the rephrase ... I cut it out.
"When in doubt--cut it out." What you can't bear to cut you can rework. What you can't rework is absolutely essential, and what you fight to preserve.
And I have a funny feeling I'll be re-reading this post before I'm finished with my current deadline ...