Thursday, January 7, 2010

Edit, Edit, Who's Got an Edit?

By Kelli

At last! We get our DVD extras in the form of this week's question. :)

Though actually, I am very, very lucky in that neither of my books had extensive edits. I've actually been kind of hard pressed to come up with some lost footage for y'all.

I'm usually an overwriter, though I try to temper that tendency with a chapter page limit and writing in alternating-length scenes, mixing action and dialog with more prose heavy pieces, and generally keeping in mind pace, pace, pace. As Chandler said, "When in doubt, have a man come through with a gun." :)

I'm also basically a first draft writer. By first draft, I mean I usually go over a section or a chapter two or three times, sometimes just once, tweaking lines or deleting things, and sometimes fleshing something out--particularly if I was writing beyond my tired limit and had to rush to finish the scene. Once I start a scene, I need to finish it ... one reason I break up chapters. And I've got to feel the pace, get the rhythm, and I write from front to back. This means that my first chapter is always the place that needs the most work.

So what I'm going to share with you is a scene from the pre-publication Chapter One of City of Dragons. This was the version that colleagues and friends read for pre-publication blurbs (including our own Miss Cantrell) ... to my ever-lasting gratitude!

Once we sold the book, my wonderful editor--who is also one of the wisest people in this or any other business--told me we were going to have to lose some good prose, but that she wanted the first chapter shorter. She gave me an idea of what she wanted with a sample edit, and then left me to it. I proceeded to tweak and sometimes slice Part One of the book (there are five parts), and spent a long time on figuring out how to heal the cuts--how to make the prose blemish or scar-free.

The result was a much faster-moving Chapter One, a chance to get the reader immediately immersed, and a streamlined first fifty pages--all thanks to my fabulous editor.

After this, the rest of the book--almost 300 pages, the bulk of the manuscript--we kept as is, except for some song lyric permissions issues that were not writing-oriented. My only real disappointment was in not getting to use this quote from Cornell Woolrich, which was to open the book in Part One:

Every night he walked along the river, going home. Every night, about one. You do that when you’re young; walk along beside the river, looking at the water, looking at the stars. Sometimes you do that even when you’re a detective, and strictly speaking, have nothing to do with stars.
Night has a Thousand Eyes,
Cornell Woolrich

The scene below establishes some things about Miranda immediately--how, as an attractive woman, she's constantly harassed and objectified--and how, as a fiercely independent woman, she won't put up with it. It also foreshadows some of the themes and events in the later parts of the book. Warning: Miranda uses profanity and uses it well ... she taught English at one time, and her father is an English professor.

She looked down at her new brown leather pumps. Goddamn greasy chicken bone smeared fat all over the right uppers. So much for the fucking shortcut from the Hall of Justice.

The firecrackers finally blew themselves up, void filled by the trumpet blares of the Sousa band on Stockton and the rasp of barkers setting up in Waverly Alley. Someone fell against her, making her stumble against a fat man with a bowler. The fat man caught himself and looked backward with a slow glare, breathing cigar ash. “Watch it, sister. This ain’t Noo York.”

He carefully brushed his faded blue suit, rubbing more ash into yesterday’s ketchup.
She turned around.

A sailor, still at sea on the Sacramento grade.
Grinning Swede in a Cracker Jack suit, all dimples and blonde stubble, tight pants askew from too many hasty pull-offs. He clutched a Chinese girl under each arm, aiming for their small breasts but too drunk to find them, the girls giggling like professionals, eyes old and shrewd and experienced.

Miranda faced Grant again, lit up a Chesterfield. The Chinese girls reminded her of Dianne, and she’d been reminded enough at the Hall of Justice. Sure, you’re a private dick now … ain’t that a laugh, Charlie, Miranda Corbie’s a private dick. Winks and smiles, or burn at the fucking stake. Once an escort, always an escort, especially if you remembered which sergeants liked which rooms.

She squeezed out of her bolero jacket, the air warm for February. Froze when she felt the sailor’s fingers on her bra strap. Reached behind without turning around and grabbed his forearm, pulling it away and pivoting to face him. “You son-of-a-bitch—”

The Swede took a step backward, almost knocking over an old Irish lady in gingham. “Don’ get so sore, lady—I thought you was somebody else.” He pulled the still-giggling girls toward the sidewalk, shoved his way through the crowd.

So we lost the sailor, but he'll probably find a way back into another book or story. Sailors have a way of doing that. And the book is better for it, because Miranda is able to get straight to Eddie Takahashi, the teenaged numbers runner who's gunned down at the Rice Bowl Party, whose death is the catalyst for the entire novel.

Thank God for editors!!

Thanks for reading and letting me share my "director's cut" ... and I can't believe City of Dragons will be out in less than a month!!


Jen Forbus said...

That was great, Kel! I always enjoy the special features sections of DVDs. It's so fascinating to see how things start out and evolve and choices that are made. Fun stuff....and the fun is just beginning for you! :)

Sophie Littlefield said...

oh, i can't wait to read this book....

cutting's tough, but i often find myself needing to do seemingly impossible amounts. This week i trimmed a 1900 word story and turned it into an 800 word noir flash. I also recently took a 3500 word story (that I could never sell) and lopped over a thousand words out of it. it was a much better story and it found a home.

my brother says that any finished work (meaning that the author thinks it's finished) can lose 30%. I think that's probably true.

Kelli Stanley said...

Thanks, Jen!! :) I love the special features on DVDS, too, though what drives me crazy is when they keep releasing special editions for the same movie and trickle one little extra at a time: "the Super-Duper-Duper Edition" vs. only the "Super-Duper"--you know what I mean! ;)

Choices are what revision is about--what to keep, what to leave behind, how to rework what's left so that it still satisfies your ear ... and we'll be tackling that question--thanks to you--in March!! :)

Thanks, doll!!


Kelli Stanley said...

Thanks a million, Soph. :) And inspirational words from your brother--and inspirational news about your trimmed stories--congratulations!! :)

We should do a question one of these days about our approaches to novel vs. short story writing ... short stories are painful for me to write, though I still enjoy doing it, and love the form.


Rebecca Cantrell said...

No drunken Swedish sailor? So it goes. I'm sure he'll find another book in his next port.

Fun post, Kelli! I can't wait to see the whole newly edited CITY OF DRAGONS in my local bookstore in Feburary. I'm going to lean next to it and casually say, "I know that author. She's amazing."

Then I'll buy one and you'll have to sign it the next time I'm in CA before we start any kind of absinthe shenanigans.

Kelli Stanley said...

Thanks, Beckster!! :) And you are coming to LCC, aren't you?? I was hoping we could all dive into an absinthe (or bourbon) extravaganza together after my Book Soup signing.

Besides, I want to be around to help you up when you faint--least I could do. ;)


Unknown said...

LCC! I'm trying to drag some folks to Musso & Frank's during LCC, everyone here should consider themselves invited!

Will make sure it's not your Book Soup night. L.A. should LOVE Miranda!!!


Shane Gericke said...

The very word "Chesterfields" evokes a whole smoky era, doesn't it? Does to me, anyway. Very nice prose, Kel, lovely indeed. But it does take a good editor to save us from too many pages of it ... more on that tomorrow.

Shane Gericke said...

Sophie, I think your brother's right. My work's always better when I cut it ... whether I want to or not.

Kelli Stanley said...

Wonderful idea, Myst!! I'd love to go to Musso's!!! :) My Book Soup night is Thursday.

And thanks--I hope LA embraces Miranda--I'd love to see her on the big screen. :)


Kelli Stanley said...

You're so right, Shane darlin'--saved from drowning in our own words!! :)

Looking forward to what treats you have in store for us tomorrow ...


Michael Wiley said...

I love the passage, Kelli. I often think I would be happy staying down on the cutting-room floor.

Kelli Stanley said...

Thanks, Michael!! :) I'm with you-- I always wonder about lost footage ... watched The Lady from Shanghai again the other day, and was visualizing someone rediscovering Welles' missing pieces.

The Hall of Mirrors scene is so virtuoso ... and I love the shots from Chinatown. LiPo bar is still there!! :)


Joshua Corin said...

1. Lovelovelove Woolrich.

2. Just pre-ordered your book at

3. I'm a first draft writer too. I think we first draft writers are kind of like sharks. If we don't keep the narrative moving, it dies.

Kelli Stanley said...

Thanks a million, Josh!! :)

I love Woolrich, too. Vast output of material = uneven quality sometimes, but he wrote lots and lots of great stuff, and I mean great! He's under-appreciated these days, methinks.

And I like the shark metaphor ... I admit, I always kind of root for Jaws in the movies. ;)