Join Prism Book Alliance® as Edmond Manning goes Outside the Margins today.
Here I sit, revising sentences I once believed to be brilliant conveyors of rich, luscious meaning, and instead, I discover they are wet cheeseburgers from McDonalds, rotting in a church parking lot nibbled by rats missing fur.
Happens every time I edit.
Backing up, who can describe the thrill in finishing a first draft? Unparalleled. Shocking revelations, and majestic insights into the human condition! Descriptions designed to elicit readers’ gasp, rediscovering the ordinary through refreshed eyes. The magnificence of a story never told!
If you’re smarter than the average bear, you walk away from your alleged brilliance for a few weeks (or ten years) while you anticipate the accolades, wondering if Barak Obama will personally call about an on-my-way-out-of-office Achievement Award for your advancements to global literature.
“Oh, no, Mr. President, I couldn’t accept—oh, well, okay. Sure, I can call you Barak if you like.”
Strolling with the aplomb of a man who shook hands with a great leader, you return to your writing haven and begin editing.
A few pages in, and the realization dawns that Barak Obama won’t be calling.
To throw your pile of words into the big, big world, you have to believe your story is worth sharing. Doesn’t matter if you’re writing about shape-shifting octopuses or a prequel to War and Peace. A writer must possess this quality, a voice that says, “I believe in my writing. Maybe I have my doubts, but I believe in it enough.”
Editing hurts when you find evidence you maybe should have stuck to something you’re good at, like lying on the couch watching Netflix.
I recently finished writing King Daniel, the sixth and final tale in the first story arc of my series, The Lost and Founds. The first draft clocked in at 118,300 words. I had expected a 90K novel, which felt right in my gut. 118K is quite a distance from that projected end number. I don’t mind being wrong about such things, but, wow, how had I estimated so wrong? Maybe years writing and publishing novels hasn’t refined my abilities as much as I thought.
My first edit is a read through. I determine if there are massive plot holes, inconsistencies in character, easier explanations, etc. I try to catch waste (whatever that means—I recognize it when I see it). A few years ago, when editing King Mai, I slashed roughly forty pages of the two main characters running through corn fields. Forty pages! Clearly, I had a lot more to say than was necessary. The first draft is useful for such catches.
During my second edit, I use a spreadsheet. I have 84 overused phrases and words I search for in the manuscript. I do a search and replace, finding the offending word, like “pretty,” and changing the font color and underline.
Then, I reread the entire manuscript again, rewriting every sentence, determining ways to avoid my overused words. Not every instance of these pink underlined words get deleted. I need the word “that” sometimes. It’s a useful word. However, this search and replace revealed how much I think I need it:
that = 976 instances
was = 820 instances
damn = 121 instances
look = 320 instances
really = 102 instances
And (capitalized) = 160 instances
Who can justify beginning 160 sentences with the word And? These meager examples are the proverbial tip of the way-too-many-shit-words iceberg.
While editing, I noticed a life pattern.
When I get upset about the quality of my writing, I clean the basement. As I stood in the basement a few weeks ago, gazing with dismay at all the junk everywhere, I made the connection.
Twelve bags of comics I intended to donate, 40 cardboard boxes waiting to be flattened and recycled (but I might need them, so maybe I should hoard them a little longer). Books I’ll never read, open holiday storage bins from three recent holidays, rags and bags of clothes that could go to Salvation Army or garbage, either way, all of this paralyzing my decision-making. After summer’s exhausting gardening adventure, all equipment was flung into a basement corner with a, “let future Edmond worry about it.”
Future Edmond is not pleased with Past Edmond’s procrastination.
I tackled the gardening nightmare first. I remembered why I tossed everything in one corner, because it required extensive decision-making on which plastic crap to keep, what could be reused, repurposed, might have a potential future use, etc. So much analysis around one plastic pot! Gah!
Meanwhile, upstairs, I agonized over sentences, trying to discover if there was anything to reuse, what could be repurposed, might have potential future use.
When I’d get paralyzed by paragraphs and sentence editing, I’d head to the basement. It’s easier to break down boxes than reduce duplicate sentences. Whenever I’d confront too many “basement decisions,” I’d escape upstairs where life was easier, editing sentences about imaginary people.
I discovered something about the character, Daniel, while editing. I did not know him as well as I had assumed. Sure, I knew his story, but I didn’t know his character, his every thought, how he processed surprise and grief, and double-surprise. My experience is, when I don’t know a character well, I over-write. I share five details revealing one facet of his personality, when only two details are necessary. (Maybe only one detail is necessary, but in my fiction as in my basement, I am a hoarder.) I’m not surprised I didn’t know the character; I wrote King Daniel in a strange way. I wrote three chapters in 2012, four more in 2013, another three in 2014, and one more chapter in 2015.
As my basement gets cleaner, I begin to understand Daniel. How he thinks. How he hurts. His deepest, saddest “ow’s.” I like how the reduced manuscript clutter reveals more of his broken heart.
After my third book (The Butterfly King), my friend Joe created gorgeous art to celebrate me. He took an exquisitely-shaped birch branch and attached two dozen red, orange, and yellow, paper-thin butterflies. After several attacks by my cat, I realized the only way to appreciate this art (intact) was to store it in a tall cabinet in my basement. I appreciate it every time I get the fabric softener sheets from that cabinet.
Some of my sentences are rusty pipes and garbage piles, requiring deletion. The remainder, I hope, are useful. Functional. Some of those remaining sentences contain hidden beauty, like a glorious art project secreted away, waiting to delight an unsuspecting reader.
At the time of this writing, I’m almost done with the second edit. The document is now 89K, right where I had expected to land.
Maybe I do know what I’m doing after all.
About Edmond ManningEdmond Manning is the author of King Perry, King Mai, The Butterfly King andFilthy Acquisitions. He spends a great deal of time standing in front of the fridge with the door open, wondering why it’s not stocked with more luncheon meats and cheese.
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