To those of you who have just started NaNoWriMo: Yay for you! Kudos for every word! If you have questions as you chug along, please post them here. I probably won’t get to them quickly, but other writers likely will. Break a leg—but no fingers or hands!
On October 27, 2020, Katie W. wrote, How do you get better at editing? I ask because one of my WIP’s is my late grandmother’s novel (I mentioned this back in June, asking how to blend our styles), and I really, really, really want to do a good job on it. My grandfather is so proud of what she did (some of her shorter stories won awards) and I want to make him proud, too. But while some of the work that needs to be done is fixing consistencies in POV and deleting infodumping and such, it’s around 175,000 words, so it really needs some major shortening. The problem is, when I’ve tried to do things like that on my own work, I mangled it until it only made sense to people who already knew the characters, and I can’t afford to do that here. Any advice?
A short back-and-forth followed.
Christie V Powell: Using beta readers should help with taking out relevant information, especially if you can find new ones each time who haven’t read the story before.
Have you considered splitting the story into two or three books? You’d be able to keep more of your grandmother’s work and still have a good-sized book. Would the structure allow for that?
Katie W.: Beta readers would definitely help, but I’m not sure I could find enough of them willing to take on the whole thing. And I don’t think I can split it. It’s long, but it’s all one story, if that makes sense. There’s a side plot about the MC’s parents that I might be able to take out, but I haven’t actually finished transcribing the story from my grandmother’s notebooks, so it could be absolutely vital to the climax or something like that. I have about three-fifths of the story, but I haven’t been able to go back and transcribe the rest of it. Not like that absolutely has to keep me from working on it. By this point, I’m starting to think it’s just a convenient excuse.
I’m very aware that Katie W.’s question came in a year ago and she may have completed the revision. If so, how did it go? How much did you cut? What strategies worked for you?
Before starting the editing, we might revisit the short stories the writer (Katie W.’s grandmother) completed. How long are they, for one thing? Do they tend to be almost novellas? How resolved are the endings? What did she seem to delight in writing? And any other questions that suggest themselves. We should write down our questions and the answers we come up with.
We can also think about what she said about her writing. We might ask other people as well as consulting our own memory. What seems to have been most important to her? Character? Plot? Setting? Theme? We write this down too.
When we go into her manuscript, we can keep these matters in mind.
As important as everything else, we have to remember that we have our own esthetic. We can’t become the original writer because that simply isn’t possible. We need to respect the artistic choices we make that arise out of what we like, what we think is interesting, exciting, and pleasing. We aren’t destroying. We’re respectfully shaping and adapting the manuscript. Later, someone else (your granddaughter, Katie W.?) may want to take the work in another direction.
Next, we might start on the manuscript itself, but before we do, this is important: Unlike almost everything else on the blog, we’re not editing our own work. The process is different. If we’re editing a living writer, we don’t want to be mean, but we owe it to that person to be honest and follow our truest ideas in the changes we make, even if we suspect they may not be welcomed. If the writer is absent from the process, there may be other people who are emotionally invested, but we still can’t let things stand that don’t serve the story.
Our first step can be to create a few new documents:
- A chapter-by-chapter synopsis.
- A list of characters with a brief description of each one and their role in the plot.
- A timeline.
More are possible:
- A paragraph or two about the themes as we understand them.
- A plot summary in a paragraph or two.
Once we have these, we linger over them. We ask questions—and write them down along with possible answers: Do we need every chapter? Can some be combined? Do some plot or character developments repeat unnecessarily? Do we need every character? Can a few be combined? If the plot can’t be summarized in two paragraphs it may be overcomplicated. Can we simplify it to give it more force? Is the timeline stretched out? Can we compress to provide more urgency?
On a more general level: What did we admire? What did we not like? Were there places where our attention wandered? Was there too much telling? Not enough showing? Or were there spots where the showing could be summarized by telling? Does some description go on too long? Dialogue too?
However, even in a manuscript that’s too long, there may be places that we need to expand. If the story demands it, we have to do it. Take a deep breath.
My most helpful teacher when I was starting out, Margaret (Bunny) Gabel (who retired long ago), used to say that a book should be is long as it needs to be. Some are very long—David Copperfield, Moby Dick, The Da Vinci Code—to name just three.
Here are three Bible-based prompts:
- Put the Bible story of the plagues on Pharoah into your own tale. Choose an Egyptian character for your MC, who could be someone in Pharoah’s family or a farmer or a servant—or someone else. God sends ten plagues. Meaning no disrespect, three of them involve insects. That’s a lot of bugs! Use as few or many plagues as you like to tell the story and keep it tight.
- Noah is supervising the entry of animals to his ark. There are many more than he expected. He had no idea there were so many species. Rain is falling in fat droplets and the line stretches farther than he can see. What’s more, three people appeal to him to let them on, enumerating their blameless lives. Write the story.
- Back to Noah for a contemporary version, which may involve a bit of research. The ark is moored in the port of Los Angeles, fully loaded with people and other animals but stuck in a supply-chain mess. Two hundred cargo ships are lined up ahead of them to leave the port. Rain is falling. Write the story.
Have fun, and save what you write!