Writing Wednesday: Guerrilla Editing
I’ve had my nose in a bunch of books lately in regards to novel structure and the nit-grit oft-ignored parts of creating a polished story. All of that used to seem about as romantic and creative as scraping the walls of a septic tank, so back when I finished my first novel, I just ignored it. Much like I would ignore anyone who told me to scrape the walls of a septic tank.
My approach to editing used to be something like this:
(Brian Regan had it right when he asked why we think it’s a good idea to hand a kid something sharp, spin them around till they almost puke, and then turn them loose in a crowd of children.)
The point is, I had a goal, but I was so spun around I wouldn’t have been able to tell you if I was headed toward it or the mountains of Nepal. My first revision consisted of not much more than retyping my first draft with some minor edits. And everyone’s neck got several puncture wounds.
In case you’re wondering, that’s not how you edit a manuscript. My problem was that no one told me how to go about editing a manuscript. I’d never heard the word “structure” in regards to stories in my life. In fact, I was at the point where I still kept a handy list of synonyms for said.
My third and fourth revisions weren’t much better. I gleaned a little bit from contact with other writes in the interim, but my draft remained relatively unchanged. I got some advice from other unpublished writers, and it took me several years to understand that most of that advice was about as effective as flinging septic tank scrapings at a nuclear bomb.
I made a blood oath to myself that this time would be different. No more blindfolded neck puncturing. No more wandering around hoping my tail would miraculously wind up on the donkey.
I needed direction. I needed a plan. I needed a hug.
The lovely Kourtney Heintz introduced me to Margie Lawson’s lecture packets, and I’ve spent this month going through the Deep Self-Editing packet, which includes her EDITS system (a sparkling color-coded process to see what your novel needs), rhetorical devices, and chock full of relevant information. I’m also going through Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, which is pretty much analogous to slashing at the flanks of all the shite in a first draft with a machete.
I’ve doffed my blindfold for something much more important, much more diabolical.
Part of the problem with self editing is that it’s damn nigh impossible to be objective about your work. And you can’t edit well if you can’t manage to finagle a bit of objectivity. Objectivity in self editing is like searching for the Hope Diamond in a minefield.
The only way to disable those mines and get the Hope Diamond AND mold a mess of a first draft into a stellar example of writing is to have a plan. Essentially, you have to know what the fuck you’re doing when you wade into the combat zone.
I know, I know, all plans can vanish when there are bullets, tear gas, and explosions. But you still need one. Or five.
The plan is threefold.
Behold the plan.
Phase One: Acquire Intelligence
This is the stage where you go strictly for reconnaissance. Scope out the situation, gather tools, create maps, gather weapons. And if you believe there’s nothing to fix in your opus (*cough* — Emmie five years ago — *cough*), go look up the definitions of “intelligence” and set your manuscript on fire.
Don’t write a new one until you have realized that you probably suck and need help. No one writes a perfect first draft. No one. In other words, guerrilla editing isn’t about a full frontal assault — it’s about careful, strategic tactics.
This is the phase that requires patience and the humility to learn about the coming obstacles. If you don’t want to have manuscript brulee, this stage is necessary. The good news is, once you cover this terrain it becomes familiar, and the intelligence acquisition will take much less time next time you give it a go.
- A mission statement or logline (if you don’t have one of these already, see above re: setting your manuscript on fire and starting over)
- An outline of the novel
- A generic structure map that plots requisite rendezvous points
- Any device that allows you to see dangerous holes, speedbumps, and one-dimensional characters
- A target
- Descriptions of enemy infiltrators (adverbs; cliches; “darlings”; and any known trip lines of your own making, like a propensity for the word rather or other such frivolities)
Phase 2: Plan of Attack
Once you know what the fuck you’re doing (official military terminology), you have to figure out your strategy. How you’re going to attack. How you’re going to approach your Goliath. Without a plan, you’ll get decimated.
The first part of your plan should be the following mantra:
It will take more than one assault. It will take more than one assault.
Repeat that over and over again until you have disabused yourself of the notion that editing is as simple as a single volley.
You can’t just aim yourself at your manuscript and scream “FREEEEEDOOOOOM!”
Not only does it not work that way, but you’ll look like a raging buffoon.
The next part of your plan is figuring out how to start slashing away at your manuscript’s flanks. That’s how guerrilla fighters work — you don’t meet the opponent head on, or it will bury you in an avalanche.
And then it will smugly smoke a cigar.
Your job is to find the weak spots and eliminate them. You’ll want to start big and hone in. First a once over for the basics. Get noticed, get out. Second a thorough tour in the bush. What works, what doesn’t. What holes exist and where is cluttered with enemy. Need a checklist?
Vital Attack Points
- Passive voice
- Structural flaws
- Balance of elements (setting, internalizations, dialogue, tension, reaction)
- Cuts (what is weak, pointless, superfluous)
- Power points (what can be amplified, strengthened, empowered)
Tools to Carry into Battle:
- Margie Lawson’s Deep Self Editing techniques (this is the bloody laser beam of tools here)
- SmartEdit (this free software will run a quick check on adverbs, cliches, and overused words)
- Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (this will teach you to throw a punch without breaking your knuckles)
Stage Three: Execution
This is where you put your plan into action. This is where you take your recon and your strategy and stake out a bush. At this stage you will implement the tasks above, slash at the flanks, and make adjustments. You will adapt. You will push forward. You will conquer.
Your first attack will show you the enemies’ weakness. It will expose the soft underbelly of a hard shell. It will show you where you should aim your subsequent missiles.
Your second attack will separate the useless from the booty. It will leave the inner core of the enemy intact and leave it open.
Your third attack will subvert this inner core. It will brainwash it, regulate it, and turn it to your own desires. It will shape the remainder into a weapon for your own use.
Any subsequent attacks will only hone your powers into a deadly, delicious product.
And that, fellow warriors, is the goal of editing.
Now. Get your binoculars and hand grenades. Go forth into the jungle.
Posted on July 11, 2012, in writing process and tagged business, Deep Self-Editing, Donald Maass, editing, emmie mears, fiction, Hope Diamond, Manuscript, Margie Lawson, novels, Septic tank, writing, Writing and Editing, Writing the Breakout Novel. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.